The city of Denver has seen an explosion of startup local news outlets over the last few years despite the headwinds facing the business model of local journalism.
That’s come amid downsizing at numerous local newspapers across the Front Range. In a study published last year, the Colorado Media Project found that the number of professional reporters declined by almost 44 percent between 2010 and 2018 — from 1,010 to 570 reporters statewide.
Will the gap in local journalistic coverage be instead filled by hyperlocal outlets? Or are they too small to be viable? That was the topic of discussion Thursday night during a panel at the Denver Press Club on the future of hyperlocal news.
“We know people want local news, but how do you pay for it?” said panelist Donna Bryson, the housing and hunger reporter at local digital news outlet Denverite.
Bryson was joined by panel moderator Vicky Collins, an Emmy-award winning TV producer who recently started a Facebook page called Bucket List Community Cafe Northside Denver, a news and information aggregator for local issues in the area; David Sabados and Sabrina Allie of The Denver North Star, Patty Calhoun, the longtime editor of Westword; David Sachs, another Denverite reporter; Christy Steadman of Colorado Community Media; and Cara DeGette, editor of Greater Park Hill News.
Steadman said that Colorado Community Media’s 18 newspapers gives readers a deep understanding of their neighborhoods. “All of them are very specific,” she said.
Allie and Sabados started publishing The Denver North Star in October 2019 to fill a gap in coverage of north Denver after another publication, the North Denver Tribune, went out of business in 2017.
“People really miss local journalism when they see it go away,” Allie said. “People feel more isolated than they ever have in some ways because of that disconnect from electronic media, and I think that people really want to feel like they know what’s happening with their neighbors and that they have that sense of connection that you get from community newspapers.”
Allie argued that the Rocky Mountain News’s shuttering in 2009 and ongoing declines in the number of local journalists throughout Colorado has made niche newspapers even more necessary.
“The papers that are left just have so much to cover,” Allie said. “To be able to cover things at that hyperlocal level you really do need your community newspapers” to, for example, clarify the difference between seven different City Council candidates.
Calhoun, the longtime editor and founder of Westword, felt similarly, saying papers serving specific areas “have a great niche” simply because consumers can’t find that news elsewhere.
“It’s not the rise of hyperlocalism so much as the disappearance of big city newspapers that actually covered things,” Calhoun said. “The (Denver) Post used to have a reporter assigned to every metro county. Now you’re lucky if you have one covering all the counties.”
DeGette, the Greater Park Hill News editor, agreed with other panelists that local papers were critical for maintaining a functional democracy.
“You’ve got broad swaths of communities that are no longer getting their news locally,” said DeGette, a longtime Press Club Club member. “They’re getting their news either from Fox or from MSNBC or CNN or they’re turning it off … What happens when you have massive numbers of Americans who don’t have access to local news? You do things like elect Donald Trump.”
For millions of others, social media has become a go-to source for news and information. Attendee Rick VanWie told the panelists that although he still read print news, regularly picking up print copies of The North Star and Westword, he had come to increasingly rely on Facebook for news.
Allie said she believed the future of her newspaper required a mixture of both digital and print distribution. Digital publishing allows the North Star to consistently deliver news between monthly issues and remind readers of its presence. But the print edition allows the publication to reach readers who won’t read its news in digital form.
“One of the reasons our predecessor, the North Tribune, did not survive, frankly, is because they didn’t know how to do digital at all,” Allie said.
Sabados added that print was important because roughly 1 in 20 people in Denver have no access to the internet. Print advertising, despite its steep declines over the last 20 years, still generally delivers far higher profit margins than digital advertising.
“They do rely on what information they can receive from a paper like ours,” Sabados said. “That’s not, certainly, a knock on digital … but frankly both are needed.”
All of the panelists recognized that in order to be successful, they needed their audiences to buy into the value of their papers.
Sachs, the Denverite reporter, noted that consumers are loyal to many kinds of products. Denverite has needed to convince the community that it’s producing a desirable product in order for the publication to be successful.
“We’re trying to earn people’s trust by providing information that’s important to them,” Sachs said.
Denverite launched in 2016 as an email newsletter and has produced nuanced coverage of the city of Denver while maintaining personality and voice in its reporting. It was acquired by Colorado Public Radio last year after its prior owner, Spirited Media, sold amid funding pressure. It marked the latest in a string of acquisitions that public media has made of local digital news startups across the country.
Many publishers have increasingly begun asking readers to pay for access to their digital content — part of an effort to shore up declines in advertising — dollars that now increasingly flow to Facebook and Google. eMarketer estimates that Google, Facebook and Amazon will receive nearly 70 percent of all U.S. digital ad dollars in 2020.
But Calhoun noted that while membership and subscription revenue is increasingly important, most local news organizations need to sell ads to be sustainable.
“Anyone who can subscribe to a paper online, do it,” Calhoun said. “Become a member. Subscribe to everything you can. But it’s not gonna sustain a lot of these [papers.]”
The North Star receives 70 percent of its revenue from advertising, 20 percent from membership and about 10 percent from grant funding, according to Sabados.
“There are a lot of people … that really missed having this community newspaper that would never pay for a subscription,” Allie said. “They just won’t. Even if it’s $30 a year.”
With so much time being spent trying to stem revenue declines, editors and publishers are spending more time on business and less time actually producing journalism, DeGette argues.
“It really cuts into your ability to cut loose and chase down stories if you’re also trying to figure out the business model that’s going to be able to keep you floating,” DeGette said.
Sachs implored the crowd to be ambassadors for local news, asking their friends and family to financially support news outlets. “Annoy people,” Sachs said. “Tell them how important it is if you believe it.”
“The more that we don’t see each other as competitors, but as sister organizations that are supporting one another, the better,” Allie said. “We all have those experiences that we can share with each other and learn from and grow from.”