An early look at Colorado Public News, the latest online news experiment

After the closure of the Rocky Mountain News earlier this year, groups featuring former staffers launched not one but two high-profile online news projects, neither of which revolutionized the medium, or proved that the concept could be financially viable. INDenver Times is still publishing despite falling 47,000 people short of a 50,000 subscriber goal, but it's running on a skeleton crew, and last week, those on its e-mail list received a message seeking "non-tax-deductible donations" -- not exactly a positive sign. Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Independent, launched by renegade INDenver Times participants, quietly expired last month.

So why on earth is Ann Imse, another Rocky veteran, moving ahead with Colorado Public News, whose beta site features a wide-ranging and detailed look at people without healthcare? Because she's taking a different approach from the commercial model utilized by the crews behind INDenver Times and the Rocky Mountain Independent -- and, she hopes, a more viable one. The concept: Instead of going it alone, CPN has formed a nonprofit partnership with Channel 12, an adventurous public-television station.

Imse didn't wait for the Rocky's demise to leave the tabloid's headquarters building. She moved on in June 2008, due in part to her sense that trouble was on the horizon. "A couple of years ago, it became apparent that one of the newspapers in Denver was going to die, and the other one probably wouldn't be in very good shape after that," she says. Moreover, "all the newspapers in Colorado were shrinking, and I felt like we were losing the kind of journalism we need to maintain our democracy. So I began looking around the industry at what experiments were being attempted, and the main question was: Where are we going to get revenue? And over time, it became clear to me that advertising is no longer paying for the kind of investigative journalism we're losing."

The closest thing to a workable model, in her view, was the nonprofit Voice of San Diego. "I looked at their budget and realized we could get a substantial portion of that paid for if we were in alliance with a public broadcasting station -- and we found a perfect home with Channel 12."

Makes sense. Wick Rowland, Channel 12's general manager, is the former dean of the University of Colorado at Boulder's journalism school -- and according to Imse, he was "very enthusiastic about sponsoring this news project from the first day I called and suggested it."

Together, Imse and Rowland worked out a synchronous strategy intended to benefit both operations. Channel 12 would commit to providing approximately a quarter of CPN's annual budget, currently set at $2.2 million. "Much of that is in kind," Imse acknowledges, "but it's things we don't have to raise money for -- everything from libel insurance to forming our own 501(c)(3) nonprofit." Additionally, Channel 12's fundraising staff would be available to solicit on CPN's behalf, instantly solving a problem that bedeviled both INDenver Times and the Rocky Mountain Independent. The station would also broadcast a regular, thirty-minute CPN show that would both promote the website and presumably legitimize it in the minds of possible donor organizations and individuals.

Imse would love to line up $1.5 million-plus from assorted sources and launch with the twelve-person staff she feels is needed to make the operation journalistically credible over the long haul -- but she's got another option. "Our goal is $400,000 to get started," she says. "The idea is that we'd get going with a half-staff for six months, and hopefully once people see what we can do, they'll start supporting us regularly." At that stage, CPN would produce what Imse describes as "five-minute interludes in-between programming" on Channel 12 before building up to a weekly half-hour program.

Of course, raising even this much cash will be a challenge given current fiscal conditions, not to mention the dubious examples set by CPN's aforementioned web-news predecessors. So rather than burning through resources trying to put up regular posts and reports using unpaid volunteers, Imse came up with the beta-site notion, which she'll use as a prototype to pitch to investors. The site was launched with $10,000 seed money from investor Bob Lembke, "an individual who's concerned about the loss of watchdog journalism," as Imse describes him.

"There are a lot of people who really care about the loss of journalism, so I'm hoping they step forward," she allows. "We're going to start looking for donations from people in Colorado, and then start requesting foundation money. It helps to have local support when you go for that. And we'll also be asking people who are interested in reporting in a particular subject area to help, too. For example, if you're interested in science reporting or business reporting on a particular subject, you can contribute to the hiring of a business or science reporter."

This tack may raise objectivity questions among old-school journos, but it's in keeping with the PBS model Imse wants to emulate. "PBS is a very well-trusted name in news -- one with a lot of integrity," she says. Besides, the people who've committed to taking part in CPN have impressive reputations. They include Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Joe Mahoney, former Rocky videographer Sonya Doctorian and ex-Rocky medical reporter Bill Scanlon, who does much of the heavy lifting on the healthcare reporting currently online.

"We're asking people to get involved in the creation of this product -- to call us, e-mail us, comment on the stories," she says. "It's the first step in trying to use social media to develop the journalism that's on the site as well."

She'll use old-school technology to get the word out as well, beginning tonight: She's one of the guests on Studio 12, which airs on Channel 12 at 8 p.m. (I've also been asked to take part in the discussion.) "We don't have a specific deadline" to get Colorado Public News off the ground, she emphasizes. "There's no cutoff; we don't have to raise x-amount by x-time or else it dies. I'm hoping it won't take very long, but we'll just have to see where it goes."

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts