Celebrating Some Rare Good News in the News Biz

By Alan Gottlieb

Bad news in the journalism business seems to be an almost daily occurrence these days. So when a community bands together to make a substantial investment in local news, it’s only natural to feel hopeful. Finally, some good news!

That may explain the atmosphere in the Gates Family Foundation offices the evening of Jan. 31, when a group of about 40 journalists, philanthropists, and community members gathered to celebrate the announcement of a substantial three-year financial commitment from Gates aimed at strengthening the local news ecosystem.

The Colorado Media Project (CMP) was born out of urgency last spring and initially conceived as a short-term effort to study the local news conundrum and explore possible solutions. It will now, over the next three years, dig deep to help the state’s news entrepreneurs build sustainable, innovation organizations that fill Colorado’s substantial coverage gaps.

The goal is to raise $2.5 million to support the effort over the next three years, and thanks to Gates and Democracy Fund, the CMP is more than halfway there. This is new money being dedicated to local news. Gates and others will continue to support individual outlets as well.

“There is stuff to do that matters. There is a reason to stay engaged,” Gates Family Foundation President Tom Gougeon told the assembled group. “The (journalism) talent is here, but the world has changed a lot. What we used to know about how the world would look in the future has changed. We’re in the messy middle part and that’s hard. That’s why we concluded we should stay engaged.”

JB Holston, dean of the University of Denver’s Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, played a key role in launching the CMP, and in bringing DU into a key role: the university’s Project X-ITE will serve as the project’s nonprofit home.

“The focus has to be how to solve for this (local news) gap that is undermining democracy, as fast as possible — and at scale,” Holston said, adding that a civic-minded coalition of working journalists, philanthropy, businesses, and higher education leaders and institutions stand the best chance of making this happen. “This is a Colorado effort, not a Denver effort, and we are excited to get the rest of the state’s higher education establishment engaged as well.”

Nancy Watzman, newly named acting director for the project, said that in the coming months the CMP aims to convene “journalists and higher education folks from across the state; there is great, fun collaborative stuff to work on together.” Tying the CMP into the growing array of national advocacy efforts to tackle the local news challenge will also be a top priority.

“It’s a public good. We need it,” she said.

It’s also important to provide opportunities for journalists from different organizations to spend some time together, to exchange ideas and enjoy one another’s company. The CMP will host monthly happy hour get-togethers for journalists, Watzman said, “with the first drink on us.” Every other month, the gathering will feature a speaker. (There’s a lot more to come as well, she promised: stay tuned.)

Colorado is fortunate to have wide variety of local public-interest newsrooms, from digital startups run by gutsy entrepreneurs, to established organizations on ambitious growth trajectories. Many of these outlets were represented at the Jan. 31 event: Aspen Journalism and High Country News from the Western Slope, as well as the Colorado Independent, Denverite, Colorado Sun, Chalkbeat, Streetsblog Denver, Empowering Colorado, House of Pod, the Open Media Foundation, and Westword. Colorado Public Radio and Rocky Mountain Public Media executives attended as well, demonstrating the synergy between public media and digital startups in charting the future of local news in Colorado.

Here’s what some local news leaders who attended the event had to say about the potential significance of the Colorado Media Project:

“It’s great to see this kind of energy and commitment coming together around this issue.”

--Greg Moore, former editor, The Denver Post

“In these days when the increasingly challenging job of journalism gets slapped with the label "fake news," it's critical (not to mention comforting) that the fourth estate get some real community support.”

-- Patty Calhoun, Editor, Westword

““It’s incredibly encouraging to see this level of commitment by the foundation and its funding partners. And I think it will make a significant difference to the local news sector.”

-- Brent Gardner-Smith, Editor, Aspen Journalism

“This is one of the best things that has happened to local news in Colorado in the past 10 years. It's exciting and inspiring to work with people -- real people, not just journalists -- who are focused how to strengthen the journalism ecosystem.”

--Laura Frank, VP for journalism, Rocky Mountain Public Media.

Read more about the CMP’s mission and goals here.