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How the media scene has changed in Colorado since the Rocky Mountain News folded

The media landscape in Colorado has changed dramatically in the past five years.

In 2008, Colorado’s main content providers were the same traditional print and broadcast news organizations that had been providing the state with news for decades.

That all began to change when the Rocky Mountain News folded in February 2009 after publisher E.W. Scripps Co. failed to find a buyer for the paper. The Denver-based Rocky was Colorado’s oldest paper and had won four Pulitzer prizes in the decade before it folded.

Some Rocky Mountain News journalists who lost their jobs joined The Denver Post. Some left the field altogether. Others looked for ways to preserve what was lost — particularly investigative and enterprise reporting. They created sites such as The Rocky Mountain Independent, Inside the Rockies and In Denver Times, all of which struggled to find their footing. But there were some sites that did well and that have continued to grow in recent years, effectively changing the way that news is distributed and consumed throughout the state.

Startups helping traditional news outlets

Ann Imse, a former investigative reporter at the Rocky Mountain News, created Colorado Public News with Colorado Public TV in 2009. Around the same time, Laura Frank — also a former Rocky Mountain News investigative reporter — created the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, or I-News. Through partnerships, they’ve been able to expand their reach and provide traditional news outlets with content that deepens and diversifies their coverage.

Colorado Public News started out as a small investigative news site; now it distributes content to 44 news organizations throughout the state. The site publishes mostly in-depth pieces, many of which focus on health-related issues.

“We’re concentrating on the stories you can’t find anywhere else. We’re not doing very much breaking news, because we believe that is being covered by the traditional media. They want stories they can’t get to; the kind of thing you have to dig up,” Imse said by phone. “We’re also concentrating on providing stories the way they need them — state-wide interest stories, stories that can be localized, stories that can fit their broadcast times, or the size of their newspaper.”

The stories don’t completely fill the void that’s been left by the Rocky’s closure, and downsizing at other Colorado papers. But they help.

“I think it’s very clear that the public misses this kind of coverage and is very aware that what they’re seeing is very limited compared to what they used to get,” Imse said. “I think there are a lot of journalists who are aware that they would like to be getting more, but the question is how to pay for it.”

Colorado Public News, which has six staffers, offers its content for free and supports itself through foundations and grants. The site has asked the news outlets it works with for financial support, but to no avail. “We have asked and they say they don’t have any money,” Imse said.

 Smoke rises in the distance framing trees burned by a wildfire near Conifer, Colo., on Wednesday, March 28, 2012. (Ed Andrieski/AP)

Former Rocky Mountain News Editor and Publisher John Temple, who’s now a managing editor at The Washington Post, said via email that the Rocky had its own state wire service whereby it provided other Colorado news organizations with content.

The Durango Herald, which was part of that news service, now relies on Colorado Public News’ stories instead.

Amy Maestas, news editor of The Durango Herald, says the paper publishes just about every story Colorado Public News writes and shares. The stories offer coverage that the Herald wouldn’t otherwise be able to produce as a small local paper with limited resources.

“We are closer to Albuquerque than we are to Denver – our state capitol and our source for statewide news. On one hand, that makes us unique as a population and it underscores the value of a locally owned and operated newspaper. On the other hand, the distance often feels as if we are an entity unto ourselves,” Maestas told me.

“With the disappearance of the Rocky Mountain News and with the drastic changes at the Denver Post, news consumers in Southwest Colorado often feel detached from what is going on in the rest of the state – save for the Broncos.”

Compounding the issue, she said, is the fact that Durango doesn’t have a local news radio or TV station. Depending on which satellite TV provider residents use, they may get news stations in New Mexico and none from Colorado.

“The Herald has a one-person Denver bureau, but our reporter there focuses mostly on the Legislature. Given his workload, we don’t have the staff resources in Denver to chase down stories of the kind CPN does,” Maestas said.

“As the economy has affected our area, our news budget has shrunk and we don’t have the funds to have reporters travel too far in the state to write stories beyond our region. These belt-tightening measures have generally kept our reporters to coverage in La Plata County. CPN has helped fill those gaps with some of their coverage.”

The paper also relies on stories from the Associated Press, which has 15 reporters, editors and photographers in the state — six fewer staffers than it had in 2008.

“The AP is still one of the key pieces in Colorado’s media ecosystem. We’re one of the few organizations left that covers the legislature full-time, and we have the widest distribution across formats,” Jim Clarke, AP chief of bureau of Colorado, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, said via email. “We’re covering and filing breaking news at all hours, either off the desk in Denver or, overnight, from Phoenix.” Two of the 21 AP staffers who used to work in Colorado have since moved to Phoenix.

When the Aurora theater shooting happened just past midnight, Clarke said, “Phoenix started the filing, but by 4 a.m. [local time] Denver was staffed, AP reporters and photographers were at the scene and help was headed in from Cheyenne and Helena.”

Creating a multi-platform news organization to expand, diversify coverage

Similar to Colorado Public News, I-News has been distributing content to news outlets around the state. For years, I-News partnered with Rocky Mountain PBS on stories and projects.

It also collaborated with daily newspapers and public radio outlets, as well as Colorado Public Radio, PBS Channel 6 and NBC Denver affiliate Channel 9. Its “Losing Ground” project, a decades-long look at the social progress of Hispanics and blacks in Colorado, ran on front pages around the state.

Recently, I-News announced that it’s merging with Rocky Mountain PBS and radio station KUVO to create a multi-platform news operation. (Justin Ellis’ good Nieman Lab piece about the partnership inspired me to write this story.)

The new operation could potentially help all three media outlets reach a more ethnically and geographically diverse audience.

The setting sun reflects off of the Denver skyline in this photo taken Oct. 27, 2006. (David Zalubowski/AP)

“Rocky Mountain PBS is a unique partner, with broadcast outlets not only in Denver, but also Grand Junction, Pueblo and Colorado Springs, and Durango,” James Trotter, I-News’ managing editor, said via email. NPR affiliate KUVO, meanwhile, “has a rich and prominent voice in reaching out to a racially and ethnically diverse audience.” I-News brings longtime journalism and investigative reporting to the mix.

The partnership is different from many others because it involves a nonprofit newsroom joining forces with public media.

“Nonprofit investigative newsrooms have sprouted like wildflowers around the country in recent years,” said Trotter, who worked for the Associated Press in between his time at the Rocky and I-News. “It strikes me that sustainability is a key issue for many of these outlets, just as it is with many newspapers.”

Doug Price, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, explained that the partnership makes sense financially. It’ll “decrease core operating costs in order to increase content yields,” he said by email.

“The idea of ubiquitous content delivered by multiple partners through broadcast, print and intentional engagement promises to deliver important and impactful investigative and public affairs packages at far lower price points per media impression. It’s an audacious plan with plenty of risk but great potential for reward.”

Dealing with cutbacks, benefiting from partnerships

In the first six months after the Rocky Mountain News closed, The Denver Post retained 86 percent of the paper’s home-delivery customers. The Post is one of the largest U.S. papers, with a circulation of about 412,700 (including digital and branded editions).

The Post has let go of several staffers in recent years, including columnists Mike Littwin and Penny Parker, who the paper had hired from the Rocky. Last year, the paper announced that it had eliminated its copy desk.

Despite the cutbacks, investigative journalism continues to be a focus. Denver Post Editor Greg Moore told me the paper has six people on its investigative team — more than it had when the Rocky folded.

“I would say that we have tried to get deeper and be more responsive than ever. With the Rocky gone we assumed we would get more tips and that it was important to be aggressive and to turn those around as soon as possible. We are doing more enterprise than ever. We are not trying to do everything but the things we focus on we are trying to do better than ever such as education and government,” Moore said. “We really value investigative, in-depth journalism and were doing it long before the Rocky disappeared.”

To strengthen its coverage, the Post has been using content from I-News, Colorado Public News and ProPublica.

“If it is a good story and available to us, we try to give it to our readers,” Moore said.

The Denver Post has also published stories produced by the CU News Corps — a class that’s part of the University of Colorado Boulder’s Journalism and Mass Communication Program.

Students in the class — which originated last summer as an effort to teach students how to produce quality breaking news pieces — produce stories and then share them with media outlets throughout the state. So far, students in the class have produced stories about the Colorado wildfires, the Aurora theater shooting, campaign spending and more. Several news organizations — including The Denver Post, the Boulder Daily Camera, Fox 31 News and 9News — have picked up their stories.

Steve Outing,  founder and program director of UC’s Digital News Test Kitchen, said the goal of the CU News Corps is to provide news organizations with “alternative supplemental coverage,” including written stories, photography, video and data analysis. This semester, the CU News Corps has licensed the Homicide Watch platform to collect data and report on homicides in Colorado.

“The students,” Outing said by phone, “can do the kind of stuff that local media aren’t able to do because they don’t have the resources.”

The university, traditional media and startup sites are all realizing that partnerships are key to surviving and thriving. Together, they’re helping to shape the complex story of modern-day journalism in Colorado. Read more

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