By Kevin Dale and Dave Burdick
Putting two news organizations together is a methodical process. Editors take time to evaluate staff, measure strengths and weaknesses, evaluate coverage areas and missions. Then, after a comprehensive process, a strategy emerges, cultures come together and you begin to dig into the logistics, personnel policies and the day-to-day operations that result from months of deliberation.
Or, you could throw out that timeline and just ram them together in about three weeks.
That’s what the leadership of Colorado Public Radio and Denverite did when the possibility of an acquisition emerged early in 2019. Spirited Media, the owner of Denverite, had decided to sell its local news sites and contacted CPR to gauge interest. At CPR, it took us a few days to decide that the match made sense. While the business-side executives worked out the details of the acquisition, we began plotting how the two newsrooms would come together. Our goal was to strengthen and learn from each other — allowing us to better serve Coloradans.
Dave was the founding editor of Denverite when it launched in 2016. The team’s mission was to focus its coverage on Denver’s growth and development, arts and culture, government and politics, and events.
CPR News, the top-rated morning and afternoon drive-time radio station in Denver, has been on an aggressive expansion plan with a mission to become a primary news source in Colorado. The acquisition of Denverite would be beneficial for both organizations. As a baseline, CPR would provide stability, administrative and fund-raising infrastructure and a huge platform to elevate Denverite’s work. And Denverite would provide CPR with important, connected storytelling resources in the state’s population center, bring an entrepreneurial ethos and help accelerate our growth.
Because we had been colleagues at The Denver Post — and we were already talking about the possibility of Dave joining CPR — it was easier to think about how we would integrate the two newsrooms. The quote we kept using was “we want to let Denverite be Denverite.” We were not interested in changing the voice or hindering the connection that staff had built with its community. But, we knew there would be ways we could build on our strengths.
The first thing we did was to assure the Denverite team that CPR was committed to letting Denverite build on its ideas — not to turn it into a CPR local bureau. But, that did not mean we would isolate the teams. Denverite editor Ashley Dean joined the CPR daily news meeting and we began tapping reporters Esteban Hernandez, Donna Bryson, Dave Sachs and Kevin Beaty for CPR newscasts, segments on Colorado Matters and reporter-host debriefs. The merger took place in the heat of Denver’s municipal election and the addition of Denverite’s stellar reporting strengthened CPR’s coverage.
Denverite’s audience certainly expected that focus on the election, and rewarded the team with an increase in traffic. In addition, Denverite’s spring membership campaign resulted in record donations.
In addition, the Denverite reporters have been trained in writing for radio newscasts and have begun gathering audio, in addition to the material for their digital stories. As CPR strives to become a primary news source in the state, Denverite’s digital ethos, experience and execution is helping the entire newsroom evolve on digital platforms.
But all of this is from the CPR perspective. Let’s hear from Denverite editor Ashley Dean:
When CPR bought Denverite, there were three common questions from Denverite staff and Denverite readers: Would our jobs change? Would our style change? Would we have to start commuting to Centennial? The answers were no, no and no. It was pretty immediately clear CPR wanted to “let Denverite be Denverite,” as Stewart put it.
Our staff went through what felt like endless new employee training, certainly immediately forgetting things like the date CPR began broadcasting but retaining and regularly practicing things like writing for radio and collecting audio. And thanks to those new skills and the support of our CPR colleagues, Denverite is on the air weekly, telling our stories to audiences we weren’t reaching before. Simplest of all: our written stories are reaching new audiences via sharing on CPR.org.
The friction came where you might expect. Startups operate very differently than large, established news organizations. We’re really looking forward to being in the same office in a few months, which I’m sure will solve some communication problems. Probably the biggest challenge has been our decreased ability to, as I say, “just do the thing.” It’s harder to experiment or change the way you operate when there are entire teams of higher-ups who need to review and approve your ideas first.
But the other side of the big-organization coin is that we’re now on the same team as a few dozen reporters and editors with a wide range of expertise, not to mention experienced staff handling marketing and membership. Denverite is still Denverite. And now it’s Denverite with more support.
Beyond the work of merging newsrooms these past several months, we’re exploring future directions for coverage of arts and culture in the state. We’re working in partnership with Colorado Media Project to gather information from Coloradans on how they define arts and culture in the state and what they think is missing from coverage. With dwindling resources at state organizations devoted to covering and reviewing the art scene, we think there’s an important role we can play in this area.
Finally, we are building a new newsroom in downtown Denver that will house CPR News and the Denverite team. We have been communicating through Slack and phone calls. It will be great to get into the combined space. We expect the benefits for both teams will grow exponentially once we are working in the same room.
Kevin Dale is executive editor of Colorado Public Radio. Dave Burdick is managing editor for digital for Colorado Public Radio.