New Deal: Colorado-national consortium buys community papers

DENVER — The Colorado Sun, a Denver-based online news operation created three years ago by journalists who left The Denver Post, has partnered with a national nonprofit to buy 24 community newspapers in a unique venture that seeks to preserve local journalism.

The arrangement adds to a growing number of newspapers receiving boosts from nonprofits that are devoted to protecting journalism in the United States where private equity or hedge funds buy up and consolidate financially struggling legacy newspapers.

The Sun and the National Trust for Local News announced the private purchase Monday of the family-owned Colorado Community Media, which operates the papers — some of which are more than a century old — and the websites and two shoppers. Colorado Community Media, with 330,00 readers, will be supported by the new Colorado News Conservancy, a public benefit corporation created by the Sun and the Trust.

It’s the first acquisition for the Trust, a new nonprofit established to provide funding and technical support to local news outlets in an era when community newspapers are fast disappearing. The Trust was developed under the Public Media Venture Group, a consortium of public media television and radio stations.

The project is an ambitious new chapter for The Sun, which was created in 2018 by journalists who left The Denver Post amid budget and staff cuts made by the newspaper’s New York-based hedge fund owners. The Sun’s newsroom has grown steadily ever since — and Larry Ryckman, its editor-in-chief, wants the nation to take note of the new venture.

“The fact is we all know who’s first in line to buy struggling newspapers: hedge funds and the occasional billionaire. But waiting for a billionaire to come to the rescue on a white horse isn’t much of a business plan. It’s not a business plan at all,” Ryckman said.

“That’s why we created The Colorado Sun. We felt there is a better way to produce quality journalism. It was up to us to save the day and provide a counternarrative to the expectation that it’s inevitable that hedge funds will win. I don’t accept that,” Ryckman said.

The new Sun-Trust pilot venture is “an opportunity to keep these local newspapers in local hands — their institutional knowledge of the towns they serve, their mission to keep their citizens informed, their commitment to democracy,” Ryckman added.

As newspapers deal with declines in advertising and circulation revenues, many have turned to new business models in an effort to find long-term viability.

The Salt Lake Tribune in Utah converted to a nonprofit two years ago and the Philadelphia Inquirer and Tampa Bay Times are among newspapers owned by nonprofit foundations. An organization called Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms, including The Associated Press, to report on undercovered issues.

”We at the Trust are investing in building sustainable local and community news organizations that are owned by entities in the communities they serve,” said Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, CEO of the Trust.

Jerry and Ann Healey, the owner-publishers of Colorado Community Media, are nearing retirement and wanted to preserve their papers’ service in eight counties in the Denver metro area. In a statement, they said they turned to the Colorado Media Project and the Colorado News Collaborative for assistance in finding news owners.

The newspapers, Jerry Healey said, “give their communities stories, information and government accountability they can’t get anywhere else — and connect business directly with readers.

“This exciting partnership allows Ann and I to step back with a sense of gratitude,” he said.

The grant-funded Colorado Media Projec t seeks to make local news operations more sustainable and accountable to the public. It helped launch the Colorado News Collaborative in 2020, a nonprofit coalition of journalists from more than 100 newsrooms across Colorado.

The purchase also is supported by the nonprofit lender FJC: A Foundation of Philanthropic Funds, the Gates Family Foundation, The Colorado Trust and the American Journalism Project, a venture philanthropy organization dedicated to local news. Other supporters include The Lenfest Institute, the Knight Foundation, the Google News Initiative and the Democracy Fund.

“It’s all about preserving these community voices. No one else is covering the local school board or the county commission,” Ryckman said. “We hope this partnership can serve as a model for other places around the country.”

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