The Colorado Media Project turns toward what comes next
The closure of the Rocky Mountain News in 2009 was a high-profile moment in the decline of print newspapers. Its loss continues to be felt in Denver, as the remaining daily newspaper, The Denver Post, declines under hedge-fund ownership.
Yet Denver is a dynamic city, with new digital publications emerging and both public media and community-based media holding steady.
“In Denver, the mood was urgent. Everyone was jumping to find ‘a solution’ to the gap being left by the Post,” said Melissa Milios Davis, vice president for strategic communications at the Gates Family Foundation. “Tom [Gougeon], our president, felt we should explore this from the forward-looking, what’s-next perspective…
“How can we, as Coloradans with that can-do attitude, get together and figure this out?
The Gates Family Foundation in Denver has long supported local public media and a few other individual outlets, but as a place-based funder, it hadn’t been looped into national conversations about the future of news.
“We really didn’t know at a deep level what was going on in the sector,” Davis said.
The organization wanted to better understand the local news and information ecosystem, including “the monumental shift in news consumption patterns and how best to meet the information needs of Coloradans.”
In 2018, Gates drew on its relationship with JB Holston, dean of the University of Denver’s Daniel F. Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science. Holston’s team began by first looking at existing research, which fortunately included a relatively recent comprehensive study on Denver by the Pew Research Center. Holston also drew on a relationship with the Boston Consulting Group to look at business model concerns and the changing habits of Colorado news audiences, via a 2,000-person statewide survey.
A student group called Cultivo engaged community stakeholders in design-thinking workshops that involved “empathy interviews” with area residents.
“That process pushed our thinking and got us out of our journalistic bubbles,” Davis said.
The foundation also engaged researcher Michele McLellan to adapt questions the Institute for Nonprofit News uses to survey its members to develop a survey of digital outlets in Colorado.
McLellan’s survey helped document and quantify what Davis and her colleagues suspected.
“These are fragile businesses, and they’re started by people with a lot of talent on the editorial side, but not a lot of capacity on the business side,” Davis said. “We were able to quantify that with budget sizes and the percentage of spend on things like the business development and marketing, which is negligible. That’s a data point we carry forward as we’re talking to other funders, making the case for more investment and more support of those entities on the business side.”
Every step of the way, the foundation has shared its findings online and engaged stakeholders.
From the design-thinking workshops to sharing out the findings of McLellan’s survey to posting the results of a large-scale survey of Colorado residents about their news habits, they’ve shared it all. In-person events have sometimes included national experts in journalism and technology, and brought in many more resources and thinkers to contribute.
“We were trying to bring the community along and up to speed by bringing in other voices that could reflect back what national conversations were going on and kind of elevate our thinking,” Davis said. “We were building a constituency with at least some common understanding of what was going on.”
In February 2019, the Gates Family Foundation announced more than $1 million in new investments in the Colorado Media Project, plus support from Democracy Fund and Denver University, and a goal to raise to $2.5 million over three years.
The foundation hired its first project director to lead the collaboration and launched a monthly newsletter, Forward, to share learnings and takeaways in the spring of 2019.
In October 2019, they released a report “Local News is a Public Good: Public Pathways for Supporting Coloradans’ Civic News and Information Needs in the 21st Century,” that shared ways the public and policy could support local news in the state in the future.
Davis, who authored the paper, wrote: “Free and independent local news is a public good that is vital to democracy, and all Coloradans, including community leaders, should seriously consider public support as one of the necessary vehicles to sustain and evolve local public-service journalism.”