Journalism has always been a difficult way to make a living. It’s typically offered low wages, the constant threat of layoffs and consolidations, and the potential every day to infuriate just about anyone who might disagree with the facts and observations you share.
So why am I so optimistic about this company? It is true that the facts about this essential branch of democracy are grim. Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers closed in the USA. Over 100 local newsrooms closed just during the COVID pandemic. Hedge funds that buy publications have left a path of destruction in their wake, with furloughs, layoffs and cuts.
Many newspapers have become a shadow of themselves. News deserts are spreading across the country, places where people have lost access to reliable local news sources and where local coverage has disappeared.
But it is not journalism that is lacking. It’s the old business model that has funded the media for over a century by relying too much on paid advertising.
Four years ago, as editor of the Denver Post, I was faced with a choice. I could accept the inevitability of this decline and help a hedge fund dismantle our Pulitzer Prize-winning newsroom piece by piece, laying off friends and colleagues, while investors pocketed the profits. Or I could try something new.
I co-founded the digital-only Colorado Sun with nine colleagues from Swiss Post and we launched in September 2018 with zero subscribers, zero members and a team of 10 full-time people. But we also had a lot of determination and know-how.
Today, we have over 200,000 subscribers, nearly 17,000 paying members and a full-time staff of 25. We have been recognized as one of the best media in our region for our public service and high quality journalism.
We worked on the principle that information matters, that readers – our very democracy – deserved more than the hedge funds were willing to provide. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
They knew that a healthy democracy depends on informed citizens, journalists who ask uncomfortable questions and act as watchdogs for those in power. Vladimir Putin understands the same all too well, which is why he cracked down on and targeted the press in Russia.
The Colorado Sun has developed a business model that is so simple it seems naïve: Provide readers with nonpartisan journalism that is deeply reported, well-written, and well-edited. Treat readers with respect. Don’t bombard them with pop-ups that get in the way of reading stories. Don’t entice them with clickbait headlines or offer lightly rewritten press releases. Hold the powerful accountable. Celebrate the beauty that surrounds us and shine a light on the people trying to make this world a better place.
Our journalism is free to read for those who cannot afford to pay. We ask readers to support our work at whatever level they choose and to share our work with family, friends and colleagues. Our paying members provide most of our financial support, with the rest coming from philanthropy and sponsors.
I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in four years, and I’m absolutely thrilled with the response not only from readers, but also from journalists across the country who have been inspired in part by our success, just as we have been inspired by the Texas Tribune and others that have come before us. Many have asked for advice and tips as they consider starting their own news outlets. We are happy to help you.
The Poynter Institute, which studies, advocates and supports journalism, says more than 70 local newsrooms launched in the United States in 2020 and 2021. More than 50 local newsletters began to be published at this time.
It’s hard to see the proud legacy newspapers declining. But there is new energy and excitement all around us. Journalists, readers and philanthropists talk about the importance of information, how we all suffer when quality journalism disappears. I see growing support for new forms of journalism as we realize how important the profession is to our lives.
This is a reason for all of us to be optimistic.
Larry Ryckman contributes to Writers on the range, an independent non-profit organization dedicated to stimulating conversation about the West. He is editor and co-founder of the Colorado Sun in Denver.