Should a Colorado library publish local news?

The public library in Longmont, Colorado. Photo by Corey Hutchins.

A late-night debate in a sparsely attended city council chamber in Colorado on Tuesday opened a new front in the national conversation about how to sustain local news.

Voters in Longmont—who previously approved a publicly owned fiber-optic broadband network, and now have some of the fastest internet speeds in the nation—could be asked to consider new taxes to fund a “library district,” a special governmental subdivision that would operate a community library. Roughly a dozen residents are pushing to explore the library district to include some form of community news component.

“A thing like a modern library can fund news,” says W. Vito Montone, who moved to Longmont from California two years ago and is helping organize the project. “It’s just a function that belongs in modern information.”

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What a tax-funded, library-governed local news operation would actually look like in practice is so far unclear—it’s early and the group is still hammering out ideas. Some proponents have talked about the possibilities of a newsroom, a print publication, and doing audio and video production. On his personal blog, Longmont resident Scott Converse, who runs the local nonprofit site Longmont Observer, recently suggested the community write editorial independence “into the library tax district bylaws…to ensure the newsroom focuses on the needs of the community and not any special interests.” Newspapers, he wrote, “are on that same continuum of knowledge sharing and learning that libraries have been brilliant at for centuries.”

The prospect has animated local government in Longmont, a rapidly growing former agricultural city with an artsy downtown, a burgeoning tech-startup scene, and a population of nearly 100,000. Mayor Brian Bagley, an attorney who has lived in the city for a decade, is pushing all involved to figure out whether a taxpayer-supported library district that runs a newsroom can do so without politics influencing coverage. “I am highly skeptical,” he tells CJR.

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The Longmont library, which is currently run by the city, lacks resources and hasn’t kept up with the city’s growth, according to its director. Many on the city council agreed it needs an update whether or not that update involves a local news component. If voters do use a ballot measure to spin it off and give it one, Bagley wants to be sure the city could resolve any concerns regarding “government-controlled” media.

If we’re going to go to the people and ask them to support local news, we need to just also be thinking about how to be just as thoughtful about the way we set up governance and policies and firewalls to ensure that freedom of the press is protected. But I think it’s a conversation worth having.

Longmont’s seven council members didn’t outright dismiss the idea, but instead debated about whether local news should be publicly financed. NPR gets some public support, one noted. “We live in a post-truth world today,” said another, Tim Waters, who nonetheless added, “Clearly if there’s one place to go to find balance in information it’s in a library,” and “We owe it to generations coming up to be able to make the distinctions between propaganda and fake news and the truth.”

Waters, who mentioned a recent trip to China, said he’d seen “what the worst example of government-funded media looks like.” But he cited federal government support of scientific breakthroughs as an encouraging example of how publicly financed institutions can set up ways to ward off political influence. Council member Aren Rodriguez said his support was contingent on effective compartmentalization of any news outlet. Council member Bonnie Finley said, “I personally don’t think we want it to have it be our news source. I think the fourth estate is best left to the fourth estate.”

Councilwoman Marcia Martin said she would be “deeply grieved” if the possibility of “a future news agency for Longmont gets kicked out because the city thinks it would need to control it or because we think it’s too hard.”

The city’s manager will now launch a feasibility study alongside the advocacy group, which will bring in experts and engage the broader community. If the City of Longmont establishes a special taxing library district with a news component, its council members would appoint a board overseeing it with a two-thirds vote and they could remove people for cause, a sticking point for some.

Longmont’s local newspaper, The Times-Call, has slimmed down over the years. It recently closed its newsroom; remaining editorial staffers work from its sister paper in Boulder, about 15 miles away. Both newspapers are owned by Media News Group, a company controlled by Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that also owns The Denver Post and is nationally known for gutting newsrooms.

“What’s left of our local newspapers are under attack by monied interests determined to squeeze out the last few cents of profit possible,” Converse wrote in his blog. The independently owned Boulder Weekly has newspaper boxes around town, a public access TV channel offers limited local programming, and Longmont Observer runs on a shoestring budget, with volunteers.  

Longmont resident and former journalist Melissa Davis suggests the current state of local news might make the publicly funded library-district model a viable one.

“Yes, local journalism has come to this,” Davis, a vice president at the Gates Family Foundation, says. “If we’re going to go to the people and ask them to support local news, we need to just also be thinking about how to be just as thoughtful about the way we set up governance and policies and firewalls to ensure that freedom of the press is protected. But I think it’s a conversation worth having.” (The Gates Family Foundation funds an initiative called The Colorado Media Project, dedicated to researching ways to strengthen the state’s media ecosystem. Davis stressed that her comments are from her vantage point as a local resident and private citizen.)

“This is an interesting twist on that idea of audience ownership that always sounds like a good idea but it’s never really taken off,” says Nate Schneider, who teaches media studies and researches cooperative business models and employee ownership in media at the University of Colorado in Boulder. “I think the idea of building on a really tried and true model of library districts is a really interesting innovation that combines, I think, a hunger that people have now for community accountable media with an established public mechanism.”

The library-district idea takes some inspiration from the community information district, a local news model proposed by the New Jersey-based Community Information Cooperative. Simon Galperin, who runs CIC and who outlined the model in a story for CJR, says his organization is trying to lean into the inevitable hard conversations around public funding and accountability.  “That’s what I think they’re doing in Longmont,” he says, “and I think that’s what is really commendable.”

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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.