Future of Colorado Journalism Could Depend on Business Savvy
Local media professionals convene and reveal hope and caution for the future
About a decade ago, there were nearly 600 journalists in Denver. Now, there are probably 100. Nationally, the number of local reporters is at its lowest point since 1970. Amid the uncertainty gripping the profession, three editors from three local news startups joined Denver Startup Week, Wednesday, Sept. 27 to compare business models, examine how to keep local journalism sustainable and whose responsibility it is to fund the news, anyway.
Ashley Dean, assistant editor of Denverite, Tina Griego, managing editor of the Colorado Independent and Larry Ryckman, editor of the Colorado Sun, are involved in either relatively new media efforts (the Independent was re-established as a local paper in 2013) or newborn operations (the Sun was established a mere two weeks ago). New media efforts like theirs are complicated and expensive to run and the business seems to be somethings journalists have less confidence in than the production of news.
"What business plan?" asked Griego, sharing a story about when a grant officer from the Ford Foundation asked what hers was at this very conference last year. Perhaps, unsurprising then that Melissa Davis from the Gates Family Foundation recommends journalists invest in getting more help on the business side.
"That's a place where people hate to spend money, but you have to spend money to make money," Davis says. "You want to think about becoming sustainable through your base of support because that membership is really the most important part of the equation."
For Denverite, the membership, launched last February, is, indeed, the main source of revenue.
"Readers can give any amount they want at any interval they want, because we believe our news should be free to people who need it and can't afford it," Dean says. "We have a small number of ads, but that's the smallest tier of our business model. We also throw a lot of amazing events. But our goal is to eventually get 50 percent of our revenue from our memberships."
For the Colorado Independent, Griego says the main challenge is to find a model with a predictable revenue stream.
"It's a constant struggle to diversify, too, because if you don't, one thing goes down, and you're screwed," Griego says. “It’s a kind of constant balance between foundations, grants, individual donors and sponsorships; those are our four revenue tiers right now.”
Being so new, the Colorado Sun sent a note to readers and supporters late this summer asking the audience how it thinks the paper should operate – with free content or paid subscriptions?
“We got dozens of emails from readers saying ‘What are you, crazy? You can’t give away your content – anything worthwhile is worth paying for,’ so I was heartened to hear that,” Ryckman says.
Even so, the Sun went with a free content model – for the moment. According to Ryckman, even donations and future subscriptions probably won’t pay the bills for a full staff of 10, so they’re looking at a combination of subscriptions, foundation and grants.
“We also decided not to have advertisements because we felt that too often ads pop up and get in the way of the very people we need to support us,” Ryckman says.
Local news sources finding opportunities to support each other was also a theme of the conversation. Denverite keeps collaboration open by aggregating and re-publishing the work of other reporters prominently, both online and in the daily newsletter.
“One of the things we’re hoping for is a more formalized ability to partner and share resources and think about some of those business sustainability issues together,” Davis says. “We want to facilitate thinking of this as an ecosystem that is functioning, healthy and sustainable, and I feel like we can do that better together.”
Caroline Araiza is a student at Colorado State University, majoring in journalism. She participated in a partnership between the University and ColoradoBiz magazine that brought students from Fort Collins to Denver Startup Week 2018.