Journalism beyond competition

The story of contemporary Colorado journalism can be told in two acts. In the first, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post are locked in one of the late twentieth century’s wildest newspaper wars, which ended in 2009 with the Rocky’s demise. In the second, a fragmented media landscape of upstart publications is galvanized by the Denver Rebellion of 2018, when layoffs led the Post’s remaining journalists to rise up against their hedge fund owner in a protest that, by this year, had largely fizzled out. 

Now the Colorado News Collaborative, known as COLab, has opened a dramatic third act in the state—one that might see its disparate news media outlets bury old rivalries and unite, in order to hold off collapse. COLab—an “independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition”—brings together nearly a hundred journalists from more than sixty news organizations, a level of coordination that many of its participants might have found unthinkable just a decade ago. As a physical space and online resource hub, COLab oversees a clearinghouse for reporting to help journalists share work and ideas. The Associated Press is a member, and participants use the AP’s StoryShare tool in order to ensure more comprehensive coverage at a time of diminished resources. Participating journalists communicate via a sprawling Slack channel. Ten core COLab members, representing as many news outlets, will soon move their work into the third floor of a newly constructed public media building in Denver.

Enthusiasm for COLab has already driven two of the state’s journalism institutions to reform their missions. In May, Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, announced her organization would take a leadership role in COLab, to facilitate collaborative reporting and training events, as well as provide guidance on organizational restructuring and reader engagement, among other things. “While the Covid crisis is proving how critical local journalism is to our democracy,” Farschman wrote, “it also is magnifying cracks in our industry and highlighting years of decay that we can no longer ignore.”

THE KICKER: A New York City principal and the education beat 

The Colorado Independent, a statewide nonprofit digital newsroom, shed its small staff and has transitioned away from daily journalism; its two editors joined COLab, where they’ll work on investigative projects with the state’s small rural newspapers, in much the way ProPublica does with local partners. (Disclosure: I have worked with the Colorado Independent as an independent contractor since 2015.) Strategic support for COLab comes from the Colorado Media Project, whose funders include the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation, the Democracy Fund, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and others.

While the initiative is new, and kinks are still being worked out with regard to wrangling and organization, the fruits of such collaboration are becoming clear: in late June, the Valley Courier—a small-staff weekly paper in Alamosa, a city of roughly ten thousand—published a riveting, in-depth feature on a recent demonstration during which a protester shot a motorist in the head. The investigation, co-bylined by Valley Courier publisher Keith Cerny and Independent editor Susan Greene, also ran in the Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver’s Westword alt-weekly, Routt County’s Steamboat Pilot & Today, and elsewhere.

The depletion of local news scenes, exacerbated by the current pandemic, isn’t unique to Colorado, and similar models in other states are emerging to help mitigate the attendant problems. Collaborative efforts involving news organizations of various sizes and platforms are taking hold in different ways in states from New Hampshire and North Carolina to New Jersey and beyond. “We are seeing more statewide initiatives pop up that are both project-based and more permanent efforts,” says Stefanie Murray, who directs the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University. 

Laura Frank, a Rocky Mountain News veteran who recently stepped down as vice president of news for Rocky Mountain PBS to become COLab’s inaugural director, says such a model can work anywhere if it can work in Colorado.

“The amount of resources that we wasted in the competitive model was really kind of criminal,” she says. “And nobody has those resources now.”

 

“It was a way to say, ‘We’re part of this ecosystem,’ and to get a story that touched on something that we’d been talking about but weren’t able to do ourselves.”

 

THE FIRST MAJOR PROJECT to come out of COLab’s efforts was “COVID Diaries Colorado,” in which reporters fanned out across the state to cover the impacts of the virus on April 16, at the time the pandemic’s deadliest day to date. The effort stitched together vignettes from journalists who had once been adversaries: battle-scarred veterans of Denver’s bitter newspaper war, smaller public radio stations skeptical of larger ones, competing local TV networks, and digital news outlets that countered the state’s legacy print press. The cross-pollination made for near-saturated statewide coverage. 

While COLab was beginning to take shape before the pandemic hit, the virus pushed down the accelerator. “It heightened the feeling of the greater good, which made it all the easier to collaborate,” Frank says. 

Liam Adams, a twenty-five-year-old reporter who came from Washington, DC, two years ago and works for the Brighton Standard Blade, found in COLab a sense of community and mentorship beyond what his small newsroom in the Denver suburbs could offer. He has turned to the Slack channel for advice about obtaining local hospital data for a story showing disproportionate impacts of the virus on Latinos. Zooming with dozens of journalists, he says, has given him a sense of what it’s like to work in a larger newsroom. “I would say it’s just been encouraging and uplifting,” he tells CJR.

In a way, the covid-19 collaboration seemed well suited for smaller news organizations like the Colorado Sun, a digital newsroom launched two years ago by ten Post defectors who resigned from the paper in protest of the mass layoffs overseen by Alden Global Capital. The Sun has been expanding its own partnerships, including an arrangement with Colorado’s two largest Gannett papers, among roughly thirty other outlets. 

“To me, we’re all too small to go it alone anymore,” says Larry Ryckman, a former editor at the AP and the Denver Post who cofounded the Sun. “We are as competitive as any other newsroom when it makes sense, but these days, frankly, it’s about serving readers—it’s about serving Colorado—more than it is about competing with each other.” On the last weekend in April, the Post carried the covid diaries collaboration on its Sunday front page—the first time the state’s flagship newspaper ran content produced by its ex-staffers at the Sun.

The Post, which still accounts for the lion’s share of readership among newsrooms in the state, had largely remained on the sidelines of the COLab efforts, until the pandemic and its participation in the covid diaries. “It was a way to signal properly that the Denver Post wants to work with the other media organizations around the state—that we don’t imagine ourselves as the lone wolf,” Lee Ann Colacioppo, the paper’s top editor, says. “It was a way to say, ‘We’re part of this ecosystem,’ and to get a story that touched on something that we’d been talking about but weren’t able to do ourselves.”

Since the covid diaries, COLab has partnered with the Colorado Media Project to provide support to a range of ethnic media and Spanish-language publications. In June, as protests unfolded in response to the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, multiple COLab newsrooms issued public statements pledging to combat racism. The CMP and COLab facilitated “Real Talk” listening sessions around race and diversity within Colorado newsrooms.

“A lot of people really came together to make these conversations happen,” says Philip Clapham, a project manager for the Colorado Media Project, who referenced Rocky Mountain Public Media, Boulder radio station KGNU, the education-focused Chalkbeat Colorado, and hyperlocal digital site Denverite and its parent, Colorado Public Radio, specifically. 

A new move toward more collaboration won’t save everyone, of course. In Pueblo, an economically troubled city about two hours south of Denver and home to a shrinking Gannett newspaper, the once-vibrant independent Pulp newsmagazine is shutting down.

Former Pulp publisher John Rodriguez, who just took a communications job with the city, has been offered Pueblo-related stories to publish from Denver-based outlets, but he wonders how that might bring in revenue to keep local reporters on the beat in Pueblo. “What we’re doing is spreading content around, but there’s no solution to the money problems,” Rodriguez says. 

In the meantime, however, Frank is on the lookout for the next large statewide project—and beyond.

“I think it is the only way forward,” she says. “I think the writing is on the wall for every platform. It is just going to continue to become more and more difficult to try to be everything to everyone. It’s just not going to work. And no one has the capacity to cover everything that needs to be covered. And it’s not coming back.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at [email protected].