The Colorado Sun pits Civil-backed startup against The Denver Post

Image of Colorados Gore Range, via Bryce Bradford/Flickr.

The politics desk at The Denver Post has imploded. Starting in April with voluntary exits that included Brian Eason, a Statehouse reporter, and climaxing this month with a new round of departures, four of the political writers and an editor have gone. John Frank and Jesse Paul, who also covered the Statehouse, resigned in recent weeks, along with other colleagues, in defiance of Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that owns the Post and other newsrooms—and has set about shrinking their ranks dramatically. But there is some hope for readers who still want to see the work of these journalists in Colorado: Frank and Paul are headed to The Colorado Sun—a Civil-backed platform staffed entirely, so far, by 10 former Post employees, who will be ready to cover the midterm elections in November. (Eason will also contribute to it.)

Larry Ryckman, an editor of the Sun, who left the Post as a senior editor in May, says he’s not in a position to recruit anyone, but receives calls “practically every other day from people at the Post who want to come work for me.” The Sun—which raised more than $160,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, doubling its goal—will be ad-free with no paywall, and reader-supported, and will focus on investigative, narrative, and explanatory journalism. Founding staff members own the company, an LLC, which also received enough startup funding from Civil to last at least the next two years.

ICYMI: “My heart dropped into my stomach… The managing editor grabbed a baseball bat”

Now the Sun, which hopes to start publishing around Labor Day, is poised to be a kind of post-Post supergroup. Paul, who is 25, began his career out of college, as a Post intern. He is known for his utility, speed and output, and balancing breaking news with enterprise. Yet he struggled with the dynamics of the Post office. “It was just a real emotional roller coaster for four years, watching your colleagues go and not knowing if you were going to be the next one to be tapped on the shoulder,” he says. He experienced the aftershocks of mass layoffs and voluntary departures, protests against Alden, a high-profile resignation, and accusations of censorship. Working in such an environment, Paul says, “was tormenting, to say the least.”

John Frank, who is 36 and often in a bowtie, arrived in Colorado four years ago from The Raleigh News & Observer where he viewed the Post as one of the best news operations in the country. “If you walk into that newsroom now, it’s not the feeling you get, because we don’t have the resources,” he says. Since he arrived, the paper has lost more than a third of its newsroom to buyouts, layoffs, and resignations. Morale is low. The company moved reporters from its longtime headquarters in downtown Denver into a printing plant in a neighboring county to save money. “I’m not trying to hurt the Post,” Frank says, adding that he’s rooting for the paper and keeping his subscription.

But with fewer people, Frank says, everyone at the Post has had to do more to fill the paper with less time to do it. At the Sun, he’ll no longer feel obligated to cover every bill in the legislature, and he expects to produce more in-depth magazine-style pieces, along with newsy explainers, listicles, and info-graphics. He’ll also see a modest pay increase. “What I have,” he says, “is an ability to focus on what matters and nothing else.”

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There are big-name newspaper reporters who understand right now that the opportunity created by these new organizations is pretty significant.

 

WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE when an ambitious online startup launches amid the long-dominant newsrooms of its state? When The Texas Tribune launched, in 2009, Evan Smith, its CEO and co-founder, drew up with a partner a fantasy baseball-style draft list of reporters in the state press corps they wanted to hire away. At the time, the Tribune had no business plan or site mockup, nor could it guarantee longevity. What the founders had was their credibility and backgrounds as well-known journalists in Texas.

A month before the Tribune went live, Smith and his co-founders invited editors of five of the state’s big-city newspapers to a powwow. Smith hoped to introduce his mission as a journalism collaborator and not an existential threat to legacy media. “I described this as the ‘Easter Island meeting,’ because all the editors of those papers sat across from us on the other side of the table like the statues from Easter Island,” Smith recalls. It turned out the newspapers didn’t feel threatened. In a few years, some editors told him, their papers would remain and the Tribune would blink out. In the nine years since, the Tribune has raised $55 million, racked up awards, and gained a reputation as a North Star for news startups looking to replicate its success. Some of those big-city papers now run its copy.

Related: Denver Post rebellion receives mixed response

More recently, in 2016, Mississippi Today launched with an 11-member staff and more than $1 million in funding as a nonprofit newsroom to fill gaps in politics coverage—the statehouse press corps in Mississippi was among the smallest in the nation. In hiring, its founders conceived of Mississippi Today as a training ground for reporters recently out of college. “We didn’t poach top talent—and we could have,” Ryan L. Nave, the editor, says. “The idea was we would train young journalists to either be the next generation of newsroom managers in Mississippi, be reporters in Mississippi, or prepare them for journalism careers elsewhere.” The site now employs 11 reporters, a columnist, three editors, and a director.

Just this week, The Daily Memphian, a pay-walled, subscription-based digital nonprofit in Tennessee, announced it will launch in the fall with a staff of around 25, and has raised a reported $6.5 million in funding. Reporters from the Memphis Daily News, The Commercial Appeal and The Memphis Journal have joined the staff of The Daily Memphian, according to executive editor Eric Barnes, who currently publishes the Daily News. He told his paper that The Daily Memphian will produce work “grounded in the tradition of printed journalism.”

A decade ago, the prospect of leaving a legacy newspaper on the dream of a sustainable career with a digital startup might have struck some print journalists as risky. These days? “There are big-name newspaper reporters who understand right now that the opportunity created by these new organizations is pretty significant,” says the Tribune’s Smith.

 

Our readers are going to get better news, more news, better-written stories than we ever had with the people who left.

 

LAST MONTH, THE POST had nearly 20 million page views and more than 6 million online readers, according to one reporter there. The Sun certainly won’t match the size of that audience, but its staffers say that’s not the ambition; quality is. Recently, the Post won eight Heartland Emmy awards—including one for Overall Excellence—yet some of those responsible for the paper’s success have left. “Alden is throwing people overboard through layoffs,” Ryckman says. “Others are seeing the writing on the wall and are deciding that they’re not going to wait.”

Noelle Phillips, a public safety reporter at the Post and its newsroom union vice chair, says while she’s “more than a little hurt” over the new startup staffed by her former colleagues, she doesn’t fault anyone for trying something new. She, too, says the paper’s owners are to blame, and someone has to figure out a new funding model for journalism.

“Maybe the combo of the Sun and Civil will be it,” she tells CJR. “In the meantime, those guys are now my journalistic competition, and I intend to scoop them as often I as I can. They probably wouldn’t be surprised to hear me say it because they know me well. I hope they respect that.”

The Post, despite its diminished staff, has continued to publish in-depth investigative and accountability reporting. Lee Ann Colacioppo, the paper’s top editor since 2016, says she’s had no trouble filling vacancies and anticipates finding a more committed staff of journalists who believe in the paper. She adds, “Our readers are going to get better news, more news, better-written stories than we ever had with the people who left.”

Lately, the Sun has faced scrutiny of its own: on social media and in person, at a Denver Press Club event, over the diversity of its hires. Colorado newspapers are overwhelmingly white and largely male; the team at the Sun, so far, looks no different. One staffer wrote on Twitter, “To put things in perspective, we had a job posting up for weeks and got a very small number of applications from POC and women,” which he attributed to a “whole ecosystem problem.” Ryckman acknowledges the criticism. “We live in a diverse state and it is something that is a priority for us,” he says. Through freelance arrangements, and by making strategic hires as the site grows, he hopes to increase diversity on his staff.

“Yeah, well, that’s how it always goes, right?” Rebekah Henderson, a Denver librarian and filmmaker who hosts a podcast about race called Off Color, says. “They hire freelancers and so people don’t get any kind of benefits and job security.”

There will be more opportunities to evaluate the Sun—against the Post, and against its own editorial aims—as it begins turning out stories. For now, it stands out for its ownership structure and migration of top talent from the state’s flagship newspaper. In Denver, Ryckman explains, “people aren’t leaving [the Post] to join The Colorado Sun. People are leaving The Denver Post because of what Alden Capital has done to the Post. That’s the reality.”

ICYMI: Meet the journalist tracking Alden Global Capital

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. 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 recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.