ASPEN, COLORADO — Aspen is one of the few small cities in America that has competing daily newspapers–the Aspen Daily News and The Aspen Times. But after the economic recession in 2008, both papers were forced to severely trim their staff and resources, leading one local journalist to question the future of journalism in the Colorado community of around 60,000 people.
Brent Gardner-Smith, a journalist in Aspen since 1983, has worked for every media outlet in town, “some twice.” In recent years, he witnessed firsthand the cutbacks in Aspen’s newsrooms. “Journalists in this town are underpaid and also under-resourced. If you need to spend $50 on a story, it’s not going to happen,” he says.
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Gardner-Smith studied media management and nonprofit online investigative news organizations at the University of Missouri, completing his master’s degree in journalism in 2011. As the cutbacks occurred in Aspen’s newsrooms, his interest in the nonprofit models of journalism became less academic and more imperative. He undertook a four-month internship at ProPublica with funding from the Manaus Fund. Throughout the internship, he spoke at length with ProPublica general manager Richard Tofel about how one could replicate their work on a local level. Tofel told Gardner-Smith he believed it would take ten people and $1-1.5 million a year in funding.
In January 2011, Gardner-Smith launched Aspen Journalism with $55,000 in funding from the Manaus Fund and a staff of one. An independent, nonprofit news organization, Aspen Journalism aims to report stories in the local public interest that other news organizations are overlooking due to resource constraints. In recent months, Aspen Journalism has produced investigative stories on a potential dam site and hydropower plant, the 2010 census, and the local ski industry, among others.
A core part of Aspen Journalism’s mission is to collaborate with the community’s existing news outlets. “We don’t view our site as a product,” says Gardner-Smith, adding that existing products, particularly local newspapers, are essential to his impact strategy. “In this community 90 percent of people are still getting information from newspapers,” he says. “They are the dominant source of information in this community.”
Aspen Journalism has collaborated on stories with the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times, as well as the nearby Glenwood Springs Post Independent. Recently, Gardner-Smith partnered with Aspen Public Radio, profiling six city council candidates over two months. “Rather than out of the gate start a new site and have [Aspen Journalism] be a competitor, the most important thing we can do is work with two papers, two local radio stations, and the local broadcasting station,” says Gardner-Smith. Because of the understaffed and under-resourced news outlets in Aspen, Gardner-Smith says the market is highly open to his model of collaboration.
Gardner-Smith is searching for other sources of funding for the site. He’s successfully raised $10,000 from The Thrift Store of Aspen, a well-known establishment that gives all of its proceeds to local nonprofits, and is currently working to meet a $50,000 challenge grant from the Sopris Foundation. He sees Aspen Journalism as surviving by mimicking a local public radio model and receiving funding through a mix of foundation grants, large donors, nonprofit donors, revenue from events, and underwriting.
Though Gardner-Smith is the only full time employee, he hires freelance photographers and reporters for specific stories. His goal is to make Aspen Journalism financially successful enough to hire ten employees. He hopes to “hire good journalists, pay them a living wage, give them the tools they need to do a good job-access to databases, travel, and time to do a good story–and have them do work that changes the world, or at least our little corner of it,” he says. “In five years, my success will depend on how many journalists I see when I look across the newsroom.”
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Name: Aspen Journalism