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Inside Colorado Public Radio's Purchase of Denverite

Denverite founder and editior Dave Burdick at work in a photo shared in a Colorado Media Project release announcing the deal.
Denverite founder and editior Dave Burdick at work in a photo shared in a Colorado Media Project release announcing the deal.
Courtesy of Denverite
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Colorado Public Radio's purchase of the online news site Denverite has the potential of reshaping the local media scene in ways big and small. But in discussing the deal, CPR president and CEO Stewart Vanderwilt accentuates the big.

One example involves a theory that's been espoused over the past year or so by Jon Caldara of the Independence Institute. Given the recent struggles experienced by the Denver Post , contrarian Caldara says that CPR has the potential to fill the coverage gap, in the process becoming the state's most prominent news organization.

Upon hearing Caldara's views, Vanderwilt embraces the notion. "I'm glad we're viewed in that fashion," he says. "The decline of a home institution for news is detrimental to the health of our community. And so we mourn that loss, and in the next moment, we double down on our commitment to ensure that Colorado has a Colorado-owned, Colorado-focused, Colorado-committed source of news for the long term. That's our mission — to continue to follow that virtuous cycle. And to the extent that we can continue to raise support, we will invest it in building Colorado Public Radio as a home institution for news in Colorado."

Denverite's roots stretch back to 2016, when, as documented by the Nieman Lab, it debuted as an email newsletter with a big agenda. A release at the time read: "In addition to breaking news and telling stories worth sharing, Denverite will create resources that help explain the sometimes hidden or confusing systems and rules of the Mile High City and the state of Colorado."

The effort was intended to be the first in a series of affiliated city news websites in cities across the country. But while subsequent projects were launched in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, Spirited Media, which acquired the offerings in 2017, struggled to spread the concept more widely, despite content that was typically solid and sometimes even inspired.

Jim Brady, Spirited Media's CEO, admitted as much in a series of tweets after news of the sale broke yesterday, March 6. After a message confirming that the Philly and Pittsburgh sites are also on the block, he wrote, "Local news is hard. Fundraising for local news is harder. But we've started making considerable $$$ helping others with digital strategy, editorial and product consulting, so we're focusing on that and looking to leave our sites in reliable hands."

In another message, he noted: "It's been a blast launching & growing brand-new local news brands, and quite satisfying to see the impact they've made. But the sites still need more support than we can provide right now, hence our decision to sell."

Indeed, rumors that Denverite was in imminent danger of collapse had been circulating since at least the start of the year. Enter CPR, which began conversations with the site "a month ago, or six weeks," Vanderwilt estimates. "It's been a pretty short time frame. Jim reached out to us through a mutual acquaintance to see if we might have interest similar to how Gothamist in New York has become a part of New York Public Radio."

A portrait of Stewart Vanderwilt.
A portrait of Stewart Vanderwilt.
Photo by Jorge A. Sanhueza-Lyon

Vanderwilt was intrigued for a variety of reasons. "Denverite has developed a voice, an authentic voice, in the way it approaches impactful journalism that is reaching an engaged audience," he explains. "So Denverite, in and of itself, is important for Denver. We believe the ecosystem is stronger with multiple and unique sources of journalism. And Denverite serves Colorado's largest city, and Colorado Public Radio serves Colorado — so we feel that having Denverite as part of the portfolio helps us superserve one part of our constituency in a very focused and unique way even as CPR News continues to speak with a statewide voice. One supports the other and vice versa."

As a bonus, he adds, "I would say Denverite generally has a younger and more diverse audience, but with sort of the same interests, attributes and values of the larger CPR audience: people who are civically engaged and culturally curious, but who are getting their news from a site that's exclusively digital. So we feel it's a combination of deepening and expanding our overall public service."

The financial particulars of the transaction are being kept under wraps for now, beyond the participation of granting organizations such as the Gates Family Foundation, the Bonfils-Stanton Foundation and the Ellenoff Family Fund, and the assistance of the Colorado Media Project.

When asked if CPR and its partners simply assumed the site's debt as opposed to offering a big chunk of cash, Vanderwilt responds: "Denverite was a well-run organization. So our acquisition is of the assets of Denverite: the intellectual property, the site, the content and the tools beyond that. We've offered positions to the entire editorial staff and are in the process of on-boarding. So there's no debt, just assets. The foundation and individual philanthropic investment is to help us operate it over three years, so that we're focused on supporting and building the journalism and using CPR's infrastructure to support the revenue-generation from memberships and sponsorships and events. That way, the talent can focus exclusively on journalism."

By the way, Vanderwilt stresses that his mention of the three-year time frame shouldn't be interpreted as an expiration date; he characterizes CPR's commitment to Denverite as open-ended and long-term.

Among the first changes to be instituted, Vanderwilt says, is "to strengthen the coverage of arts and culture and entertainment in a Denverite voice and a public-media manner. It's a hybrid of something we're going to work out." The amount of local news coverage will also be upped: "It's our intent to be a source of news throughout the day, on the radio, online, on mobile and on social — in all the channels in which we reach and serve people."

Although CPR launched a revised schedule with seventeen new shows less than two months ago, Vanderwilt doesn't shrug off the prospect of further tweaks to take advantage of the service's latest acquisition. He admits that he hadn't thought about a Denverite-centric standalone show along the lines of The Daily, from the New York Times, but adds that "we fully expect that there will be stories that Denverite covers that will be of interest to a statewide audience, and we'll find the best way to give those stories the CPR platform. It may be in reporter debriefs, it may be in co-reporting productions. The team is meeting each other this week, although journalists generally know each other already. But working together as a team is a new thing."

Concludes Vanderwilt: "I think we will do things we haven't yet imagined. But we're not doing this to do less. We're doing this to do more — do more for the audience of Denverite and more for the audience of Colorado Public Radio. And I think together, we're absolutely going to fulfill that goal."

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