Economic Hardship Reporting Project to fund work by laid-off Denver Post staffers

A photograph by Michelle Frankfurter from an EHRP-funded story about the impacts of the opioid crisis on Portsmouth, Ohio. Courtesy of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

AFTER 21 YEARS at The Denver Post, Jason Blevins, the paper’s one-man mountain bureau, is now pitching stories as an independent journalist without the assurances of a full-time paycheck.

“In the past three weeks or a month I have been schooled in the realities of freelance, and it’s a hard gig,” says Blevins, who covered the outdoors for the Post. For Blevins—one of about 30 casualties in a recent wave of layoffs that crashed through the Post’s newsroom—there are health-insurance issues to navigate and a family to support. Blevins, sick of working for what he called the Post’s “black-souled owners,” volunteered to leave the paper:

It quickly became clear to him why some newly unemployed journalists might bolt the industry altogether for a more lucrative, stable job in content marketing or public relations.

The Post layoffs gave way to national coverage of that paper’s hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital—an effort encouraged by the Post’s own editorial pages. Less attention has been paid to the circumstances of individual journalists pushed out of the Post who hope to continue reporting.

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Now, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project—a journalism organization focused on income inequality housed at the Washington, DC-based Institute for Policy Studies—wants to help those journalists sustain their work. Alissa Quart, executive editor of the project, tells CJR that her organization is setting up a $10,000 fund specifically for ex-Denver Post journalists who recently lost their jobs.

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Founded by Barbara Ehrenreich, author of the 2001 book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, the project supports independent journalists whose livelihoods have been imperiled by an upended media industry. Since 2012, the nonprofit has commissioned stories about income inequality and helped financially troubled journalists place pieces in magazines or newspapers like The Guardian and The New York Times.

The latest fund dedicated to former Denver Post journalists is something of a public statement, according to Quart. “We’ve been sort of focused like a laser [on] supporting staff that are being laid off when there’s a bad actor involved like Alden Global Capital,” she says. Last fall, when billionaire Joe Ricketts shut down local news sites Gothamist and DNAinfo after staff voted to unionize, EHRP offered a $5,000 grant to writers displaced from the sites. 

I’m sticking with journalism. I’ve been piecing together stories here and there just trying to fill in the hole. But at the same time, it’s a real challenge.

Quart likens the EHRP effort to literary social work. The $10,000 will fund up to eight ex-Post journalists to produce feature-length stories about economic hardship and income inequality. Each writer will be paid by the nonprofit project and again by the publication that ultimately runs the resulting story. They can also suggest outlets that might be interested or help place them.

The reporting does not necessarily need to focus on Denver or Colorado, but the project is interested in parts of the country—rural Colorado, say—that aren’t frequently covered by reporters on the coasts. Journalists for EHRP’s “On the Ground” rural reporting project cover communities in Montana, Iowa, and Oklahoma, and their work is cross-published at The Guardian and in local news outlets. Work from the Denver Post fund could potentially be part of that.

Last year, EHRP writers placed a total 118 pieces—57 articles, eight films, 13 photo essays, and other multimedia reports—across a variety of publications. According to Quart, EHRP stories “tend to be kind of immersive features that are news centered, but they have strong characters and they’re very writerly and are 2,000 words.” She adds, “We like animations and cartoons, so we’re sort of open to other forms as well.” The group also tries to culture jam, attempting to place stories about inequality in food or real estate magazines whose readers might not typically encounter such reportage within their pages. Earlier this year, Curbed published a first-person reported piece by Joseph Williams, commissioned through EHRP, about being evicted.

Blevins’ decision to leave the Post, rather than being laid off, doesn’t interfere with his eligibility for support, says EHRP managing director David Wallis. “It’s not the letter of the law,” Wallis says about grant eligibility. “It’s the spirit of the law.”

Blevins hadn’t yet heard about the EHRP grant for Denver Post castaways when he spoke with CJR, but the idea is something he says he would consider. He’s still living in the mountains in Eagle County, Colorado, one of the most expensive places in the country for health insurance, hustling to find homes for his work. Blevins says he had “one of the best jobs in journalism” at the Post, and wouldn’t have quit if not for the Post’s owners.

“I’m sticking with journalism,” he says. “I’ve been piecing together stories here and there—columns, magazine articles—just trying to fill in the hole. But at the same time, it’s a real challenge.”

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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.