AURORA | In an effort to move The Sentinel toward a unique model of local ownership, a consortium of journalism preservationists have created a temporary holding company to take control of the Aurora-focused media company.
“Local journalism needs to be rooted in the community, made by and for people who live there. As someone who was raised in a place that lost its hometown newspaper, I’m committed to providing a bridge for others to stand up for protecting access to a free press,” said Joaquin Alvarado, founder of the consultancy Studiotobe, who is helping shepherd The Sentinel’s transition.
Data from the University of North Carolina published in 2019 found that 1,400 towns and cities across the nation have lost a newspaper over the past 15 years, many of those communities are either rural, low-income or have an aging population. Among that statistic is Alvarado’s hometown paper in Oakland, California. It shuttered in 2016 with no input from the community or journalists at the organization.
“The Sentinel is a critical resource for Aurora, and we’re going to preserve local control and ownership for future generations,” said Alvarado, who has now been involved in several projects aimed at keeping local news as close to the community as possible.
Alvarado founded the Colorado Journalism Investment Group for the purpose of holding the company so that Sentinel Colorado and the community can plan the next steps for the outlet.
The holding company evolved from work Alvarado is doing with COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, said Laura Frank, the organization’s executive director. COLab is a statewide nonprofit focused on helping news outlets become stronger. COLab partners with more than 170 news outlets across Colorado, including The Sentinel. The paper is about to begin its 115th year of publication.
“Journalism leaders and community members in Colorado are finding ways to change the narrative and the trajectory of failing news outlets,” Frank said. “Together, we are making journalism stronger, which makes democracy stronger. I’m thrilled COLab can help support that work.”
The transition highlights a growing movement to save local journalism organizations — namely from being bought up by giant corporations, controlled by profit-driven hedge funds that are known for gutting newspapers in the process of slashing costs — and help them operate in a way that continues to benefit the community.
Such efforts of community funding have seen success across the country, including in Washington where Microsoft backed an effort to raise $1 million annually for the Yakima Free Press, owned by the Seattle Times, to support and grow the news organization.
Seattle Times President Alan Fisco is a firm believer in the community funding model after watching it play out in Yakima, where the organization plans to hire four reporters by the end of the year.
“The sky’s the limit,” he said, highlighting that there are numerous funding models that aren’t strictly reliant on advertising revenue. The Pew Research Center estimated in 2020 that newspapers saw a 25% drop in advertising from the previous year — making it the first year in the organization’s data that circulation revenue was higher than advertising revenue.
The Sentinel staff will remain intact through the transition, and Dave Perry, who’s been with the organization since 1993, will continue to serve as editor and publisher. The Sentinel’s online daily website, two daily email updates and the weekly print edition will continue to publish throughout the change.
“This is an inspiring change not just for The Sentinel, but for papers and news outlets like ours across the nation,” Perry said. “It allows us to remain focused on the news that matters most to our readers, and at the same time work to find sustainable financial models for us and others. This is a critical opportunity at a critical time for journalism.
“What’s not changing is The Sentinel’s commitment to our readers and the region’s advertisers for providing unblinking coverage of the news and features the community expects and needs,” he said.
Now-former Sentinel owner James Gold, who bought the publication in 2011, has launched BlueLena, a national business focused on news operation sustainability. Gold said he wanted to work with COLab to transfer ownership of The Sentinel so that it could be both locally controlled and serve as a “laboratory for best practices” for other Colorado newsrooms.
Details of the transition to a permanent Sentinel ownership structure will be forthcoming over the summer.