The rise of online media has been devastating for community newspapers — print publications that often serve as the only homegrown information source in small towns across the country, including many in Colorado. By one recent estimate, over 1,800 newspapers have closed across the United States since 2004, including about 1,700 weeklies.
The 24 newspapers and two advertising-based shoppers in the Colorado Community Media chain could have easily wound up suffering the same fate. For co-owners Jerry and Ann Healey, keeping the operation going has been a work-intensive labor of love for nearly a decade, but they've reached a stage in their lives when they want more free time. The odds of finding a buyer for CCM seemed small, and without one, operations such as the Golden Transcript, which was founded in 1866, seemed destined to wind up on Colorado media history's scrap heap.
Fortunately, this familiar story took an unexpected turn. On May 3, the Healeys announced that their company had been purchased by the Colorado Sun, an online news operation founded by former employees of the Denver Post that bowed in September 2018, and the National Trust for Local News, a recently formed nonprofit. And unlike vulture hedge fund owners such as Alden Global Media, which has drastically reduced the size of the Post in the years since acquiring it, the Sun-National Trust tandem is not only devoted to retaining all of CCM's current employees, but is hoping to beef up their staffs.
Sun editor Larry Ryckman knew that the 44 Colorado Community Media staffers called to an introductory get-together on May 3 would be nervous. "Nine times out of ten when there's an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the newsroom, it's bad news," he points out. "But that was not the case." When asked about job cuts, Ryckman says, "I told them, 'We're not coming in to lay people off. We're coming in to try to hire people. We're here to help.'"
And the Healeys were ready. "Ann and I were involved with some of these newspapers as early as 1990 through a company called Westward Communications," says Jerry Healey. "We sold that group off in 1997, and I was part of it off and on for about four years after that. Then there was a break where I ran a shop in Vail and Ann was doing some teaching. But in 2011, I was asked to come back and manage the north and west group for a different owner, Scott Perryman — and in 2012, we put together Colorado Community Media."
The CCM properties include publications old and new in the metro area (the venerable Golden Transcript, the Arvada Press, the Centennial Citizen), some that were farther afield (the Brighton Standard Blade, the Castle Pines News Press, the Elbert County News) and others that were added to the portfolio, including Life on Capitol Hill and the Washington Park Profile, and Ryckman stresses that they remain profitable. But with Jerry serving as publisher and Ann acting as executive editor (though she hasn't been involved in day-to-day operations for a while), the effort necessary to keep the publications afloat was challenging even before the pandemic, when revenues for every type of media business took a major hit.
So last November, Jerry reached out to Laura Frank, executive director of COLab, short for the Colorado News Collaborative, which describes itself as "a local media resource hub and ideas lab that serves all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability."
"I expressed to her the desire to find the right buyer for our newspapers, and she immediately got to work," says Jerry, who'll remain involved with the papers but is handing over the title of publisher; a search is ongoing for his successor. "She knew about the National Trust for Local News. I didn't know about them, but she made that introduction, and we started talking."
The timing was fortuitous, says Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the organization's co-founder and CEO. She and her partners "started a conversation together last September and October. We all had kind of similar ideas about creating an organization that could really help keep local news locally owned. It seemed that nobody was working on this problem, and with our skill sets, we felt we could make progress. We started reaching out to people in our networks, including at COLab and the Colorado Media Project, saying, 'Is this something you think is a need?' And [CMP director] Melissa Milios Davis and Laura Frank said, 'This is an amazing idea. We'll get back to you.' And sure enough, in November, we heard from them again. They said, 'We have an opportunity we think we could help with.'"
The prospect of acquiring Colorado Community Media immediately put the National Trust to the test. "We liked to joke during the deal-making process that we were building the plane and flying it at the same time," Shapiro allows. But the various partners took inspiration from such forerunners as the Denver-based Public Media Company to put together funding for the trust itself (seed money came from the Knight Foundation and the Google News Initiative) as well as the cost of purchasing CCM. And thanks to the largesse of the Gates Family Foundation, the Colorado Trust and the American Journalism Project, the buy was made.
The various parties aren't saying how much they spent to purchase Colorado Community Media, deeming the deal a private transaction. But Ann says the involvement of the Colorado Sun was key.
"They just get it," she says. "They get the importance of storytelling at a local level and the difference it can make in people's lives, whether it's a story about your neighborhood, your city council, your school board, your local businesses or the economic and social narratives that go on in a community. It's so important to have that voice for people on a local level. It connects people. It's the foundation of our democracy — and I think every time you lose a newspaper, you lose part of that foundation. That's why this is such an incredible thing, and I'm so grateful to be part of this transaction — and we hope this will be a new model for helping to preserve community newspapers."
Shapiro confirms that the National Trust plans to use lessons learned in Colorado to expand across the country. The organization is actively exploring some possibilities in Kentucky and will be looking out for more.
More immediately, Ryckman says the Colorado Sun team members will use their expertise to help boost CCM's digital footprint — but everyone is committed to making sure print versions of the papers continue to be produced.
"We will continue to do print as long as print is economically feasible," he stresses. "If people want their news in a printed form, that's great. I'm a proud subscriber to the Centennial Citizen, and we know how to produce print. I don't think print is doomed, either, but it's important for us to acknowledge reality. So one of our first challenges is to bring some of the experience and knowledge we've gained at the Sun to bear on the digital side of these 24 newspapers to help them up their game. And if some day print does go away, at the very least the digital side is going to be robust."
The Sun and the Colorado Community Media papers may seem very different, but Ryckman feels a kinship. "When we created the Colorado Sun, we did it because we were frustrated at the way things were going in our industry," he says. "It seemed inevitable that hedge funds would be the only ones buying newspapers, and they'd come in and lay off the staff and eventually close the papers. We felt there was a better way, and there is. We feel the community should hang on to these newspapers. These are valuable community voices, and we wanted to ensure that they would remain in local hands and keep doing the great work they've been doing."
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