The Colorado Sun, one year after the ‘Denver rebellion’

The staff of The Colorado Sun at The Colorado Sun's First Anniversary celebration at Wynkoop Brewing Company in downtown Denver. From left: John Ingold, Tamara Chuang, Kevin Simpson, Jennifer Brown, Jesse Paul, Larry Ryckman, Dana Coffield, Jason Blevins, John Frank and Eric Lubbers. (Photo via Lindsay Pierce/The Colorado Sun)

On a Thursday evening last month, journalists from The Colorado Sun gathered with hundreds of supporters in a downtown Denver brewery to bask in the glow of a full year in business. A special craft beer on tap that night was named for the Sun, and the crowd of politicos, businesspeople, and the civic-minded set was upbeat about a local-journalism success story.

A little over a year ago, mass layoffs at the Denver Post led to a dramatic editorial rebellion against the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital. The broadsheet became the poster child for the perils of hedge-fund newspaper ownership. Last summer, 10 journalists defected from the Post to risk launching the Sun when a cryptocurrency and blockchain technology company offered them grant money to do so. 

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Since then, the Sun has proven itself a compelling and consistent digital outlet that reads sometimes like a daily magazine. Its stories—roughly five per day—cover a mix of deep and sophisticated politics and policy reporting, scoops, features, outdoor writing, culture and literature coverage. It includes accountability initiatives such as the Jared Polis Promise Tracker, which keeps a running tab on the new governor’s campaign pledges now that he’s in office. (There’s also an opinion section populated by contributions from a range of guest writers.) By its own count, the Sun published 970 original, staff-written stories, 180 freelance items, and 400 opinion columns and cartoons in its first year. Those stories generated around 6.2 million pageviews and 2.7 million unique visitors—a vastly smaller number than outlets such as the Post and Denver’s KUSA 9News, which get up to 20 million page views per month. 

“I’m OK with us being a tiny player when compared with 9News or The Denver Post in terms of those page views,” says Larry Ryckman, the Sun’s editor. Readers spend more than three minutes with each Sun story, on average, he says. “That is the one number I care about, and that is a reflection of what quality means to our readers. We have deeply engaged readers.”

A year ago, national attention on the Denver Post made Colorado seem like ground zero in the local news apocalypse. “We benefited from having good timing,” Ryckman says now. The Sun’s launch attracted national attention, owing to the Post’s rebellion as well the Sun’s funding source, Civil, a New York-based technology company that launched a fleet of local newsrooms across the country with seed grants. 

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Around that time, the Colorado Media Project—a consortium of media thinkers and civic do-gooders—polled roughly 2,000 residents about their media habits and found plenty of them were willing to financially support local journalism. When the Sun launched, the Colorado Media Project paid for consultants to help it develop a business plan. 

“I think they’ve set down really firm, deep roots and established themselves,” says Nancy Watzman, the Colorado Media Project’s director. “They’re flourishing. They’re still young and there’s a lot to do, but they’ve definitely proven they know how to produce a quality product; they’re gaining strides and gaining membership.” 

For Tamara Chuang, who covers technology and business for the Sun (she covered similar topics at the Post), the year has been a surreal experience. “I feel like I’m living in this bizarro world of journalism where pain and dread have vanished,” she says. 

John Frank, the Sun’s lead politics reporter (and craft-beer writer), left the Post for the Sun after it launched. He says the outlet is trying to focus on what matters most and discard the rest. “We’re not trying to be the paper of record, which allows us to look at stories in an entirely different way, much more with the reader in mind,” he says. “What do they need to know, and when do they need to know it? So we hit a story on the peak of its kind of narrative arc.” 

At the end of the day we either get support from Coloradans or we don’t.

Last September, the Sun launched The Unaffiliated, an exclusive weekly politics newsletter written by Frank and other reporters that costs subscribers $20 per month. Frank, who thought his newsletter might net 500 subscribers in the first year, says The Unaffiliated has “already doubled the numbers I expected.” 

Newspapers around Colorado have begun to rely on the new outlet’s work to fill local news holes from the southwest corner to the mountain ski towns. The Sun offers its journalism for free to build goodwill and essentially act as a new statewide wire service. It is also an associate member of The Associated Press, which means it publishes AP content, but also provides news to the AP. 

“The core question when you look at a new organization is always ‘Can they help the news cooperative? Can the other members of the cooperative benefit from having access to their news?’” says Jim Clarke, the AP’s director for the West. As for the Sun, he says, “They’re doing an excellent job in the spots they’ve chosen to pick.” 

Last month, the Sun tapped its network of collaborators for something bigger, a statewide effort  to localize a single topic: “PARKED: Half the American Dream,” a series of in-depth, accountability-driven stories about mobile-home parks around the state. Roughly a dozen news outlets—small newspapers, a public radio station, and a nonprofit digital news outlet were among them—contributed. 

Individual stories detailed how mobile-home parks have become a “home away from home” for immigrants, and how one corporate-owned park was squeezing out residents with rising rents. A newspaper found residents struggling with feelings of isolation, and a radio station learned some mobile-home dwellers felt “left behind” after floods. Statewide, the project found that 100,000 residents live in the state’s 900 parks and “ownership is consolidating as mom-and-pop operations sell out to large investors,” which can lead to displacement.

Erin McIntyre, a journalist in the Western part of Colorado who, along with her husband, co-publishes a small rural paper called The Ouray Plain Dealer, was initially skeptical of the Sun’s statewide ambitions. Now, her paper, with its staff of two full-time writers, runs Sun content about three times a month, and participated in the recent collaboration. 

“I do think that they’ve proven that they want to invest in statewide projects,” McIntyre says. “Through partnerships like ‘PARKED,’ I think they’ve proven that we could do something again in the future and I think it could be even bigger and better if we had more time.”

Not everything the Sun has done has been so brightly received. The outlet took heat for a lack of diversity among its staff when it launched, and six months later when it added another reporter. Ryckman, who hopes to expand staff next year, says he still expects the newsroom to become more diverse as it grows. “I acknowledge that it’s a challenge,” he says, “and we’re continuing to work on it.”

Since its inception, the Sun has distanced itself from Civil as a sustainable source of funding. Last year, an effort by the tech company to sell millions of dollars in digital tokens to create a local journalism cryptocurrency market sputtered. Sun leadership won’t say how much Civil gave them to start, though Ryckman says support from the Sun’s audience currently amounts to roughly 80 percent of that grant, which runs out in May. 

“At the end of the day we either get support from Coloradans or we don’t,” says Ryckman. “Civil is not going to pay the bills forever and we understood that from day one.” The Sun, which began as an LLC founded by its journalists, is now a public benefit corporation, a state-granted status that carries with it certain transparency requirements and a built-in review process. There’s no paywall for the site, but more than 6,300 members give between $5 and $100 or more via a tiered membership model. The Sun also takes corporate sponsorships and underwriting for some of its newsletters, which are free and sent out daily to 47,000 subscribers.

The year-old startup is also now courting large investors, says Ryckman, though he cautions against those who might hope to make a killing on an investment. Because the Sun doesn’t need money right now to stay afloat, he says, the journalists can be choosy about who they allow to buy in. “We don’t want to take money from just anyone.”

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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 coreyhutchins@gmail.com.