The National Trust for Local News’ Quest to “Replant” Local News in Colorado
By Sara Sheridan
Last week, the National Trust for Local News, in partnership with the Colorado Sun, announced their purchase of Colorado Community Media, a conglomerate of community newspapers and digital sites across the state. The National Trust for Local News, headed by Tow Center Fellow Elizabeth Hansen, is a new nonprofit with aims to create more sustainability in local media by providing funding and logistical support to local newspapers looking to sell to new ownership (and avoid the pitfalls of hedge fund acquisition). Colorado Community Media also runs the Colorado Sun, a digital news site created by former Denver Post staff who were laid off by the paper three years ago.
The Tow Center spoke with CEO Elizabeth Hansen and Colorado Sun managing editor, Larry Ryckman, about the transition from locally-owned to national trust operated--and how this deal could serve as a model to help the ailing local news media ecosystem. The two conversations have been combined and edited for clarity.
This is a pretty unique way of thinking about journalism sustainability, both from an audience and an editorial perspective. If you had to give the elevator pitch for the National Trust for Local News, what would it be?
Hansen: The National Trust for Local News keeps local news in local hands. We work with owners and funders and communities to figure out how to finance and support their papers. The owners of papers work with a coalition of local stakeholders so they remain within the community. It's not an Alden situation. We’re creating ownership groups and ownership structures that can be part of the fabric of the places these papers serve.
Ryckman: This was people in good faith and goodwill coming together to solve a common problem, sharing the same vision of keeping these newspapers afloat and keeping them in local hands. And [the Colorado Media Project] knows this community really well. But the National Trust brings a lot of other things to the table, a lot of expertise, particularly things on the business and legal sides of the operation.
How did the idea for the National Trust for Local News come to be generally, and how did those ideas come to fruition in Colorado?
Hansen: When we look at the newspaper landscape, we see lots of different types of services, business models, ownership structures--and problems. One important area that's obviously been getting a lot of coverage recently is the consolidated metro daily: your local daily paper is inside of a company, but community members want it to be locally owned. This is like the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. What we've done in Colorado is a separate but somewhat related version of replanting. This incredible couple [Ann Macari Healey and Jerry Healey] built this family business over the last twenty years and they're ready to retire, but they didn't want to be consolidated or bought by a national chain. They wanted to be bought by someone who shared their mission.
Ryckman: There's just a great crying need for mom and pop publishers out there looking to put their papers into someone else's hands. But often, it's hedge funds who are first in line to buy newspapers. And I've seen firsthand the devastation that hedge funds can bring when they get a hold of local newspapers. We’d like to be in a position where we could step forward and help. I think from the National Trust's perspective, this could be the first of many such acquisitions.
What have you noticed in the newsroom that needs the most support?
Ryckman: It was a little daunting to consider jumping back into print. The Colorado Sun is an all-digital news organization. But we had a lot to learn in terms of what was going on with these newspapers.
So far, my impression of the Colorado Community Media staff’s reception [of the deal] has been very positive. I’ve been in this business for forty years, and nine times out of ten, when you call an all-hands staff meeting, it’s to deliver very bad news. But this wasn’t us announcing layoffs and consolidations. This was, “Hey, we're here to help.” We're not going to come in here and tell you how to do things. We want to know the challenges and the opportunities.
Are there any other emerging policy ideas you think will help alleviate some of the pressures on local journalism?
Hansen: We're excited about the idea of bonds that could create a fund promising a certain return and impact. So you say to a financial institution, “Here's the kind of thing [newspaper replanting] we would want to do with this financing.” And if we get a call tomorrow that's like, “Oh my gosh, this amazing paper is up for sale,” then we have that funding to deploy quickly.
Ryckman: There’s a grassroots model for engaging with journalism that seems to be relatively new. But it makes sense. When you're talking about local news, who better knows than that community? It’s a confusing element of these hedge funds acquisitions. Obviously, from a business standpoint, it makes sense for their returns. But when you're trying to center the necessary work local journalism brings to communities, having a hedge fund with headquarters not even in the same state seems like a recipe for disaster (as we've seen).
There’s so much cynicism around print and local news generally--a sort of hopelessness, really. Why do you keep fighting for it?
Hansen: We see people who get their weekly paper delivered to their door who love it. They rely on it. These community-based media organizations really do fly under the radar. It's not the same national polarized terribleness of “the media,” but it's also not the “Patch.com, citizen blogger” model either.
Ryckman: I'm not as pessimistic as some about print. There will always be some kind of role for print. Does that mean people will still get daily newspapers? Not necessarily. But Colorado Community Media are weekly and monthly. In some of the communities that are served by these newspapers, WiFi and internet aren't that great.
We will do print as long as it's economically feasible. And if that's forever, that would be great. The Colorado Sun is very well positioned to bring our digital expertise to Colorado Community Media’s newspapers and digital sites. They do fantastic journalism, but their websites need an upgrade. And we're happy and excited to help with that process in addition to producing the best print products we can.
There’s been a lot of buzz about outlets converting to nonprofit models to aid sustainability. Is there a difference between what the Trust is doing versus the nonprofit model?
Hansen: We are agnostic about nonprofit conversions versus for-profit entities. It’s really about the tools in your toolbox and what fits best for the funders, the new owners, the publisher, and the business model. So in this case, it was [Colorado Public Media’s] public benefit corporation model that made the most sense. But in another location, it could be a nonprofit. Ultimately, we’re really working with communities to figure out what works best for them.
Ryckman: As far as I know, Colorado Public Media is the first news organization to be a public benefit corporation. But again, the Colorado Sun model isn't right for every community or every state. There isn't a one size or even two size fits all. We're having a greater conversation now about finding the right business model that applies in every community, in each case. In our case with the Colorado Sun, we opted for a hybrid model, which is a public benefit corporation and our joint venture with the National Trust. It provides the flexibility that you have with a for-profit entity, but the strands of public service are in the very DNA of the company. At the Sun, public service really is our number one focus.
In the initial report outlining the ideas and structures behind the National Trust for Local News, a big element to assuring “local news remains in local hands” was engaging with community stakeholders. How did you identify and include community stakeholders in Colorado?
Hansen: There were two phases to that. First was local funder mobilization. As part of our model, we have a few community affiliates and in Colorado, that was the Colorado Media Project. On the transaction and deal side, it was about giving them what they needed to go out and talk to their community and funder networks about how to support this. Now that we’re in the stage of creating ownership structures and figuring out new resources and stakeholders, it's really about identifying who wants to help fund this. Who can we bring into the ownership group that wants to be an investor and be a supporter? What are the other businesses and stakeholders that have a long term interest? What’s the sustainability of these papers, and what do they need from this new entity? It's about widening that base of community support on all fronts.
Could you speak a little bit about any of the drawbacks of this way of trying to help local journalism?
Hansen: This is incredibly labor intensive. And that's why we have to trust our nonprofit model. Some people in our early conversations asked why we weren’t just the investment vehicle or set up as a public benefit corporation. There are certainly funds out there that operate like that, but we think it's important that the deal structuring ultimately be about working with communities and mobilizing people. That's the foundation for sustainability. And we don't want market or profit logic to be part of that.
We also have huge legal bills from this transaction. It takes a lot of time, and it’s costly, which is why we're a nonprofit. And then it's really about assembling funding on the other side that can be directed to all of these local outlets.
What about this particular model’s application at the local level makes it more sustainable than others?
Hansen: When you’re a legacy, weekly print, there are many different business economics. It's a whole different animal than a daily paper, and we've been surprised by how little visibility these kinds of outlets have had in national funding conversations about sustainability. Many of these community media outlets serve communities of color, rural communities, ethnic communities. They've really flown under the radar, but they have brands, advertisers, subscribers, and people who love them. We think there's so much that can be strengthened and so much strength to build on.
Ryckman: One of the benefits of this cool national/local partnership is the National Trust (along with a national and local funders) has come in to bring the financing not only to readers, but also to the journalists and others in these newsrooms. I think there's a great deal of trust in that we care about them and we want to help them. We operate with a “do no harm” approach. Let's not break anything. Let's find out how we can help.
What do you envision is next?
Hansen: Continuing to support the development of Colorado Community Media. We don't have a publisher yet, so we're starting to think about who would be an amazing community-focused leader for this organization who can work with us and give the team what it needs.
But beyond that, we're really hoping to do two things. One is to sift through the incredible incoming interest for working with the Trust. Two, fundraising. There are a lot of compelling stories to tell. So to all of those impact investors out there who've been wondering how to get in, get into local news and support local news, we’re here and we’re excited.
We're also trying to get the word out among community development financial institutions and community foundations. We want to find out who on the ground we can work with to help us vet, assess, and assemble coalitions. That local piece is really critical. We don't want to just parachute into a community and be like, “We will save you.” It really has to be a grassroots, ground-up effort.
Ryckman: I'm incredibly optimistic about the prospects of the Colorado Sun. We are 100 percent journalist and locally-owned. We started out with ten full time journalists; today we have fifteen. By next month, we will have sixteen. We have two full-time people on the business side. And we're adding four more newsroom positions. By the end of summer, there will be twenty or more in the newsroom, plus a couple on the business side. So things are good. Our audience numbers continue to grow. We want to continue to grow the Sun as much as we can and ensure that it's a sustainable news organization that does what it does well: focus on quality while digging into meaty issues and providing a public benefit to Colorado.