It is one of the great paradoxes of our time. Never in the history of the world have people had more access to information. At the same time, never has there been more uncertainty and less trust in the information available. Yet in a sea of spin, misinformation and outright manipulation, people still seek trust and find empathy in their neighbors.
That is why local journalists – including those who work for Sentinel Colorado – matter now more than ever. Through the isolation of 2020, they have provided a vital service to Colorado communities by keeping us connected and informed. Local journalists are our neighbors who risked their own lives to put faces and voices and stories to the thousands of Coloradans lost to COVID. They have held a mirror to our communities through a new season of racial protest that has challenged powerful institutions – including the media itself – to address systemic racism. They have asked tough questions of those running for elected office. And they have helped us sort through difficult decisions at the ballot box that will have far-reaching impacts on the future of our state.
Our media landscape has transformed over the past decade in many ways. Young digital natives have very different sources and patterns of behavior from older adults who are used to consuming daily print newspapers, public radio in the car and the evening news on TV. Social media is king (at least for now) and algorithms that breed outrage and polarization manipulate our feeds. Facebook and Google also capture up to 70 percent of all digital advertising spending from local businesses, decimating revenue that previously went to local media.
As a result, nearly one in five Colorado newspapers has closed since 2004. The number of professional reporters covering critical information needs of Coloradans across all media formats declined by nearly 44% between 2010 and 2018, from 1,010 to 570 reporters statewide. But local newspapers still manage to produce the largest share of original, local stories covering critical issues. Meanwhile, public media models and digital startups are growing in number and hold promise for mission-driven journalism that covers critical information needs.
There is a great deal of work to do in fashioning a new way forward. Many Coloradans are no longer satisfied with the one-way conversation that old-school journalism provides. It is not enough to observe and then report or broadcast. The public expects a conversation, where journalists engage in multiple ways to establish trust. And in truth, we never built a local news and media world where all voices were represented, or where the media looked like all of us who are here now in Colorado.
Even with these giant challenges ahead, the crisis in local news may also be the best forced “do-over” ever. Through a new initiative called News Voices: Colorado, communities across Colorado are being invited to co-create a new, more equitable and inclusive future for local news. And where there was once only competition among newsrooms, there is now unprecedented cooperation. Journalists from nearly 100 local outlets – including Sentinel Colorado – are now part of the Colorado News Collaborative, a statewide resource hub and ideas lab where newsrooms work together on stories and big projects in public interest. One of their major projects together, “On Edge” available to you here. Sentinel Colorado provides a bevy of local coverage in the series.
Finally, this month the Colorado Media Project – a community-led initiative supported by both of our foundations – launched a statewide campaign to raise a quarter-million dollars for local journalism by matching individual contributions to 25 nonprofit and/or independently-owned local news outlets – including this Sentinel Colorado appeal for your support and donations. We invite you to check it out and join us at http://www.thisisnewsconeeds.org and to share your favorite Colorado journalism on social media with the campaign tag: This is #newsCOneeds.
In a nation of ideas, foundational truths are necessary for productive discourse. Accurate information is the bedrock for strategic action. That is why it is important for all of us to support the existing, evolving and emerging sources of trusted local information, independently reported by Colorado’s local journalists. By subscribing, becoming a member, or donating to your favorite local newsrooms, you help ensure that our state continues to have access to accurate, timely information on the issues you care about most. And as the past year of political turmoil and transition, a global health crisis, an economic downturn, a racial justice reckoning and massive climate events have shown us – trustworthy local news matters, more now than ever.
Tom Gougeon is president of the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation. Lindy Eichenbaum Lent is president and CEO of the Rose Community Foundation. Both are on the executive committee for the Colorado Media Project, a community-based initiative started in 2018 to navigate the future of local news in our state. This essay was first published in The Denver Post.