Why a new chapter for 24 community newspapers matters for Colorado — and the nation - Gates Family Foundation

As hedge funds and billionaires clash swords over control of big-city newsrooms nationwide, a quiet coalition of heavyweight collaborators has conspired to save a less prestigious — but just as vital — type of local news.

Community weekly and monthly newspapers don’t often break national news or win Pulitzers. The so-called “hyperlocal” coverage of these smaller newsrooms typically includes stories that larger statewide or regional outlets — their own staff capacity stretched thin — may deem unworthy of their attention.

Sadly, these perceptions and realities have left community newspapers especially vulnerable to consolidation, hollowing, and extinction. Nearly one in five Colorado newspapers has closed since 2004 — most of them weeklies, many in rural and suburban areas. Some survive only as “ghost papers” with more ads and filler than original reporting. The trend is mirrored nationwide.

But for the people who live in these communities, many of these newsrooms remain an essential information lifeline.

This became urgently clear in the early days of COVID, as hyperlocal information about the dual public health and economic crises swept unevenly through communities. And in “normal” times, these community newsrooms are often the only reliable, independent sources covering big issues in small towns: local politics, high school sports, small businesses, neighborhood events.

A major metro newspaper may be considered “too big to fail” but these sorts of small newspapers are disappearing all too frequently, often without even a proper obituary.

That’s why it’s so important that 24 Colorado weeklies and monthlies — the state’s largest family-owned chain, which has been operating under the Colorado Community Media banner — are transitioning to new, strong, local ownership with increased resources to build on their proud histories, some which date back as many as 150 years.

The deal is quite simply the first-of-its-kind in the nation. The newspapers and websites will continue on in public service to their communities through the Colorado News Conservancy, a new public benefit corporation jointly owned and operated by The National Trust for Local News and The Colorado Sun, and backed by a coalition of local and national impact investors. Colorado readers and the news outlets’ own staff members will also be invited to join in as investors in these valuable community assets.

Go deeper: Gates’ Sue Dorsey shares more on this impact investment

While each of these newspapers may be relatively small, together they have a huge reach, connecting with an audience of more than 330,000 residents, covering civic news in cities and towns throughout much of the Denver metro area.

With Colorado Community Media publisher-owners Jerry and Ann Healey ready to retire, it was easy to envision a familiarly grim storyline that’s been repeated around the nation: National hedge fund steps in, cuts newsrooms to bone, leaves the stripped-down newspapers as skeletons of their former selves.

Our coalition decided to write an alternative narrative.

Colorado Media Project was launched in 2018 to provide a center of gravity for moments like this, with a mission to draw in non-journalists, business and technology innovators, civic and higher education leaders, and mission-driven funders to help navigate a new future for local news in the digital age. A unique and less public role we’ve played has been to help catalyze some key media ownership transitions and growth opportunities — especially those that we believe can serve as models and have a great impact on the health of our public square and civic engagement.

In 2019 CMP helped facilitate Colorado Public Radio’s acquisition of the digital startup, Denverite, and in 2020 we helped launch the Colorado News Collaborative (or COLab), now an independent nonprofit resource hub uniting a coalition of journalists from more than 100 newsrooms statewide. CMP leaders also have come together to support innovative new ventures like The Colorado Sun and Rocky Mountain Public Media’s THE DROP.

The process of putting together the CCM deal was, frankly, complex and arduous and took a small village to pull off. But we now have the result we all worked towards: These 24 newspapers will stay in local hands with a strong future focused on expanding their journalistic legacy and service to local communities.

It says a lot that a long list of distinguished national partners chose to invest their resources, time and energy in Colorado. We are immensely grateful to our friends at these organizations:

These organizations know that this deal’s impacts will be felt far beyond the eight Colorado counties served by these two dozen newspapers. By being creative and entrepreneurial — and always putting quality local journalism first — we hope to demonstrate a replicable and scalable model for the rest of the nation.

We also have shown that local infrastructure, momentum, and funders are critical. National groups can’t be effective without mission-aligned local leadership, engagement and commitment. In this case, an important constellation of local collaborators was pivotal in bringing this deal together:

  • Gates Family Foundation and The Colorado Trust for leadership and impact investments that unlocked the potential of this project;

  • Rose Community Foundation, CMP’s fiscal sponsor, for enabling us to provide a grant toward The Trust’s legal costs to establish the Colorado News Conservancy;

  • The Colorado Sun, for seeing the promise of CCM and stepping up as local owner-operators in collaboration with The Trust;

  • The Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab, and the Colorado Press Association for drawing in resources and bolstering alliances that are strengthening the entire media ecosystem; and

  • Last but most certainly not least, CCM owner-publishers Jerry and Ann Healey, whose passion for public service built a profitable and award-winning network of community news outlets with both a strong legacy—and a bright future.

Of course, now the really hard work starts. Every day the team that is running these local news outlets will have to prove they’re both responsive and indispensable to the communities they serve, creating must-read journalism while growing their digital presence and developing and sustaining financial support from the community.

At least now they’ll be powered by something that has been in short supply recently in local journalism: hope.

Melissa Milios Davis is Director of the Colorado Media Project and Vice President for Strategic Communications and Informed Communities for Gates Family Foundation.