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Making the case for local journalism

Colorado news outlets face unprecedented challenges but press forward with innovative approaches.

November 12, 2018

By Cory Phare

Between the Urgent Alerts, lost-dog notices and heated disagreements over when to take down your holiday lights, you’ll recognize a certain citizen-journalist personality that has emerged on social media network Nextdoor.

Part scribe, part town crier and part rumormonger, these are the folks who relish City Council meetings and devour zoning codes. And at a time when city newsroom staffing is being slashed and community newspapers are shutting down, their vigilantism seems increasingly vindicated.

Despite their virtues, social media and its citizen journalists can’t replace the Fourth Estate, and strong local journalism remains vital to civic life, said a panel of Colorado journalists convened by the Southwest Education Council for Journalism and Mass Communication (SWECJMC).

“News matters; it matters to our communities,” said panel participant Dana Coffield, senior editor at the recently launched digital news outlet The Colorado Sun.

There’s a bottom-line impact on civic sustainability that comes from professional reporting, Coffield said, citing research that found the loss of a local newspaper can cause the cost of municipal bonds to rise by as much as 11 percent.

“You can’t build roads, because you have a bad news environment,” she said. “It’s our duty to protect the news to help our communities.”

The SWECJMC panel held Nov. 2 was dubbed “Swatting at Vultures: Lessons Learned From The Denver Post Staff Rebellion” and hosted by Metropolitan State University of Denver’s Department of Journalism and Technical Communication. It brought together three Colorado journalists who since last April have found themselves on the front line of the nation’s most visible battle for local news: Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor in chief of The Denver Post; Chuck Plunkett, former Post editorial-page editor and current director of CU News Corps; and Coffield, a former senior editor for news at the Post who helped found The Colorado Sun.

The vulture reference points to an April 6 editorial penned by Plunkett following the announcement of devastating budget cuts to the Post by its owner, Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund that has slashed staffing at the paper since purchasing it in 2010. The editorial called ownership “vulture capitalists” and demanded, “If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell the Post to owners who will.”

Those April cuts would see some 30 positions eliminated from the Post’s newsroom, but the cuts would gouge much deeper into the 126-year-old newspaper’s brain trust. Plunkett resigned soon after his editorial grabbed national headlines. Coffield, along with seven other Post staffers, resigned over the summer to launch The Colorado Sun.

Plunkett, who also contributes to the Sun, justified his blockbuster Post editorial during the panel, calling newspapers quasi-public institutions.

“They are part of the fabric of democracy,” he said, “and if you don’t have a strong paper of record, you are not living up to your responsibility as a newspaper owner.”

“When content is driving audience, how much is determined by editorial versus readers? How do you strike the balance to create the best product?” asked Laurel Lane, marketing lecturer at MSU Denver. Former Denver Post reporters and editors helped launch the all-digital Colorado Sun following layoffs at the Post in 2018. Photo by John Arnold
“When content is driving audience, how much is determined by editorial versus readers? How do you strike the balance to create the best product?” asked Laurel Lane, marketing lecturer at MSU Denver. Former Denver Post reporters and editors helped launch the all-digital Colorado Sun following layoffs at the Post in 2018. Photo by John Arnold

In the aftermath of the rebellion at the Post, Colorado has asserted a leadership role in the nation’s journalism laboratory, with multiple news outlets, new and old, vying to fill the void left by the diminished newspaper. Alt-weekly Westword has been covering Colorado since 1977, while digital startup Denverite launched in July 2016 with a laser focus on the Mile High City. Meanwhile, the nonprofit Colorado Independent, composed of an earlier wave of journalism refugees who had worked at the shuttered Rocky Mountain News, has covered state politics and policy since September 2013, and the aforementioned Sun published its first stories this past September, garnering national attention for its experimental blockchain-based business model.

And, through it all, the Post persists.

During the panel discussion, editor Colacioppo pointed out that following the high-profile departures, she was able to hire for some positions, and the Post’s website, Denverpost.com, continues to earn about 8 million unique monthly visitors.

While the staff cuts were hard, the reduction brought a greater focus, she said.

“(We) remembered we aren’t writing for ourselves. … We have an actual audience; we have people we’re serving,” she said. “It forces you to think about a mission, to write a mission down and to really consider what you can do and what you can’t do, what you should do and what you shouldn’t do, and direct your resources to that."

Colacioppo credited Plunkett’s editorial for shining a light on the Post’s plight. But the cuts the Post suffered last spring aren’t wildly different from those occurring at newspapers across the U.S., she said.

A common issue nearly all newspapers are dealing with in the 21st century is their collective failure to request payment for their journalism at the internet’s advent, she added.

Plunkett agreed that the news industry has been way too slow in its response to the internet and lamented that previous digital strategies employed by the industry had created an expectation among the public that quality reporting was free of charge.

“Good news is enormously expensive,” he said.

Given the economics of print, news may also have to go paperless, the Sun’s Coffield suggested.

While print allowed journalists to curate design elements that establish predictability and prominence while directing readers to salient news, “all bets are off” when it comes to delivering digital content.

“It just isn’t all going to be in the driveway when you get up in the morning anymore,” she said.

The Nov. 2 panel at MSU Denver included (L to R) Dana Coffield, senior editor at the Colorado Sun; Chuck Plunkett, former Post editorial-page editor and current director of CU News Corps; Laurel Lane, marketing lecturer with MSU Denver; Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor in chief of the Denver Post; and panel moderator Steve Krizman, MSU Denver assistant professor of public relations.
The Nov. 2 panel at MSU Denver included (L to R) Dana Coffield, senior editor at the Colorado Sun; Chuck Plunkett, former Post editorial-page editor and current director of CU News Corps; Laurel Lane, marketing lecturer with MSU Denver; Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor in chief of the Denver Post; and panel moderator Steve Krizman, MSU Denver assistant professor of public relations.

Technology has undeniably given rise to radical shifts in the way we access and process news, along with the business models to support it, the panel agreed.

The proliferation of social media continues to confound traditional media outlets. For instance, CNN was forced to shutter its iReport initiative because it couldn’t compete with the ever-evolving digital platforms on which news – good, bad and fake – is disseminated by everybody and anybody in real time.

Despite that high-profile failure, ongoing controversies over viral “fake news” and a rise in the manipulation of video and audio solidify the case for professional journalism – on every platform and at every level.

And in Colorado, there’s no shortage of ideas for reasserting the prominence – and sustainability – of journalism.

“Let’s make this a community enterprise,” Plunkett implored. “Let’s see if we can build the newsroom of the 21st century.”