Good Journalism Equals Revenue — and Democracy

  • Laura pioneered collaborative journalism in Colorado as the founder of I-News, the nonprofit investigative news organization that merged with Rocky Mountain Public Media in 2013.

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The following is Laura Frank’s keynote address to the 2021 joint convention of the Kansas and Colorado Press Associations, delivered May 20, 2021.

Hello, Kansas and Colorado Press Association members. Thank you for having me. I’m Laura Frank, Executive Director of COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative. 

We’re going to have a conversation here. I’m going to share some information with you, tell you some stories, and give you a chance to ask some questions. Ultimately, this conversation should be worth your time. It should feel hopeful to you. It will definitely save you money and make your resources go further. It will help you endear yourself to your community…which may transform your news outlet…which may just save democracy itself.

But I want to make one thing clear, when we’re talking about success through collaboration — which is the theme of this year’s entire press association convention — we’re not talking about saving the news or saving your news outlet. We’re talking about transforming the news and transforming your news outlet.

Are you ready?

You’ve probably noticed that collaboration has become somewhat of a buzzword lately. Maybe you’ve heard the saying: “Collaboration is the new competition.” There are more than 300 collaborative journalism projects ongoing across the globe right now — almost ten times what it was about six years ago. That’s according to the Center for Cooperative Media. Folks, there’s a center for it! That’s how you know it’s a thing.

Now I know I’m talking to basically three separate groups of you right now. You can raise your hand when you hear yourself described. Some of you have been collaborating a long time. You get it. You want to know how to do more of it and get more out of it. Others are just getting started or really want to collaborate, but you’re feeling overwhelmed. And if we’re honest, there’s a third group of you who are just not sure about the benefits of collaboration — and may even be convinced it’s not worth the effort and you’d be better off going it alone. What you’ll hear during this conversation and this whole conference should disabuse you of that old-fashioned and, honestly, doomed notion. But first…

I’m going to ask you to come with me back in time. Slightly more than a decade ago — the spring of 2010. The scene: The Brown Palace Hotel in Denver. Very fancy. The Colorado Press Association was holding its annual convention. To help you imagine it, everyone was there in real life and no one was wearing a mask. But everyone was pretty shaken up. You’ll recall in 2010 the economy was in the tank. The Rocky Mountain News — where I had worked, and which was supposed to celebrate its 150th anniversary the year before that — had instead shut down. Just disappeared. And a lot of us in the business at the time were struggling mightily to survive.

I was at that convention. Pitching an idea. They’d given me a table in the corner — actually, it was in the hallway — and I had a sign, a handmade sign, taped to the front of my table that read “Free Content.” For some of you, that caught your attention. People came over to find out what I was talking about. And when I explained that I was starting a nonprofit news service called I-News and we’d collaborate on data-driven investigative stories, and we’d all have the same story at the same time — well, some people looked at me like I had two heads. But some people got the idea. They could see that collaborating with this thing I called I-News (short for investigative news) meant your news outlet would have stories that it otherwise wouldn’t have. And people collaborated not only with I-News, but with Ed News Colorado and Health News Colorado and other startups. And that is how Colorado became an epicenter for collaborative journalism in America. So while Colorado had been the poster child for failing news outlets — like the Rocky Mountain News, and the one in seven newspapers lost in the years since then, it has also become the story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes, with new journalism ventures — including the purchase of the 24 Colorado Community Media newspapers last month by a consortium of local funders and the National Trust for Local News. We’ll discuss more on that in a moment.

Just as the press association played a foundational role in 2010, you all are doing it again. The Colorado Press Association is one of the founders of COLab. The visionary former CPA leader, Jill Farschman, could see the writing on the wall — when some folks couldn’t even see there was a wall. The journalism business needed to transform. She, along with the community-driven Colorado Media Project and The Colorado Independent, a former CPA member, helped launch COLab just one year ago. And in that year, COLab has grown to include nearly 200 journalists from more than 130 partner news organizations. And now, Tim Regan-Porter, the new CEO, is continuing that transformational mission of strengthening the connection between quality journalism and revenue. And COLab is here to help.

So what does COLab do, exactly? Three things. Better News. More Trust. Faster Evolution.

We help the 130+ partners who’ve signed up produce better news — that is, higher quality news that makes an impact in their communities — through collaboration, coaching and training. We help partners build more trust through community engagement. And we help partners evolve faster through innovating new business models, products and practices. Let me give you some examples from our first year.

We’ll start with better news. We have seen multiple times this year that working with COLab helps partners deliver news that they couldn’t do alone. That happens through collaboration among the partners, one-on-one coaching with our expert staff, and free training for newsrooms on everything from the basics of investigative reporting to how newsrooms can support diversity and journalists’ safety. We lead multi-newsroom collaborative projects, but we also help individual partners dig into complex local stories that have statewide importance. 

How do we do this? COLab staff includes three of the most experienced and talented journalists ever to work in Colorado — or anywhere. Susan Greene is a Pulitzer finalist in investigative reporting. Tina Griego has been inducted into multiple journalism halls of fame. And John Ferrugia has twice won the duPont-Columbia Award, which is the Pulitzer of broadcast journalism. More importantly in my view, they each have decades of experience in reporting stories that make a difference in people’s lives. And they are each exceptional teachers of their craft. Their passion is contagious. And they can help you and your staff learn to do what they do.

When police shot an unarmed man in the back in rural Kiowa County last year, officials were staying silent and the newspaper there had no full time reporter to investigate. Other media around the state had no capacity to send anyone. But COLab did. And Susan Greene was able to help the Kiowa County Independent uncover a pattern of misconduct that spanned multiple areas. She worked with Priscilla Waggoner, who had been the Independent’s full-time editor-slash-reporter before taking a job at the Alamosa Valley Courier. The two worked together on and off for nearly a year.

Priscilla described working with Susan as “nothing short of transformational.” She said:

“I learned how to uncover a story. The importance of listening — really listening — and verifying what’s learned. To be aware of my own biases and preconceptions, even when — or especially when — I didn’t know I had them. I learned persistence was crucial in asking questions and, when no answers came, to find other ways to get information.” She also described the processes of writing the story with Susan and having it edited — line by line, word by word — by COLab’s Tina Griego. “I learned what it looks like to ‘sculpt’ a story and that each word matters. I learned to respect the skeptical reader, to anticipate their questions and doubts and make sure they’re addressed. I learned, whenever possible, to link to source material so that, whatever conclusions the reader ultimately draws, at least he or she had direct access to the facts.”

Now, in the future, whether Priscilla is reporting in Alamosa — or anywhere else in Colorado — she is a changed journalist. And the other journalists she works with will be changed, too. COLab is helping change the culture in newsrooms. But most importantly, we’re helping our partners change things for the better in their communities. That story, called “Three Bullets to the Back,” was really important to the people of Kiowa County. I want to tell you about one Kiowa County Independent reader who actually went to the trouble to track down Susan Greene and call her. He thanked her for helping the Independent tell the story of what actually happened. The story, he said, “put a mirror in front of us” by reporting on the case and getting the public talking. He thanked Susan for, as he put it: “whatever it is you all do there to… make things like (this) happen.” 

Now that story wasn’t just important for Kiowa County. Understanding the uncomfortable details of how a police shooting happened and what a town does about it is — especially in this time —important for all of us. Three Bullets to the Back was printed and broadcast by COLab partners all across the state. The county sheriff has now resigned and the deputy is facing criminal charges. And a wound that might have festered for years, maybe generations in Kiowa County can instead begin to heal. And the rest of Colorado has a model to consider for preventing a tragedy like that, or God forbid, dealing with one if it happens.

There are other kinds of stories that are hard for partners to tell by themselves. To help, COLab also has been focused on journalism innovation — new approaches to telling stories and engaging the public. Last September, COLab and more than two dozen partners published a collaborative report about U.S. Postal Service delivery in Colorado that debunked disinformation suggesting that voting-by-mail is flawed and ineffective. We did this by organizing mailings across the state, to and from urban, suburban and rural areas of Colorado. 

In October, COLab and partners launched a statewide voter guide that was “white label” for any partner media to use as if it were their own. With our partner Open Media Foundation, we created an interactive embeddable guide that tapped the reporting of dozens of partners. It is searchable by political race and ballot measure, and will be a prototype for the future.

And for the election, COLab launched a text hotline that allowed partners to reach out to voters and invite them to share their voting experiences — including sending videos and photos — and COLab shared those tips back out to the partners. One example, the day before the election, we got a tip that two men, one of them with a gun, were video-recording voters at an Arapahoe County ballot dropoff box. Several partners produced a story immediately.

We are not just working together on special projects. We hold a Zoom meeting every Thursday that dozens of partners attend. And they reach out during office hours — and sometimes evenings and weekends — asking for advice on tricky interviews, help in editing a story, ideas for sources. COLab is helping a wide swath of partners on a daily basis, and that is making news outlets stronger.

Let’s talk about More Trust. COLab builds more trust through community engagement. We know that newsrooms will not survive if they aren’t well-serving their communities — ALL of their communities — and they can’t do that without closely engaging. COLab is helping, for example, by launching statewide working groups with Black and Latinx journalists and community members to find ways news outlets can better serve them. We’re working with News Voices: Colorado to guide those conversations and the result will be recommendations for news media and communities across the state. Last month, more than 100 people joined a virtual engagement event we called Latinx Voices to talk about how media interact with their communities now and in the past, and how it could be better in the future. Polly Baca, whom Colorado folks may think of as a former politician, is actually also a former journalist and a COLab board member. She was able to share some history with participants about the movement to reform media portrayals of Latinos and the role Coloradans played. It was pretty inspiring and it is helping shape the conversation about making the future better. 

COLab’s third focus, Faster Evolution, comes through innovating business models and practices. You might have heard the recent news that Colorado Community Media, the state’s largest family-owned newspaper group, will stay under local control through a 1st-of-its-kind ownership model involving the new National Trust for Local News, with management to come from the Colorado Sun. COLab helped facilitate that — along with MANY other partners — and we’ll continue working with the Colorado News Conservancy, the resulting entity, to help those 24 newspapers evolve and grow. And we’re involved in several other projects with CPA members to help them evolve their business models. We will keep you posted as those move forward.

This year will see more innovation in engagement and business evolution. We have just hired Silvia Solis, a dynamo in community engagement, to help partners even more. And we will soon be hiring a business innovation director because that work is so in demand from our partners.

Speaking of partners, you’ve heard a lot from my vantage point. I want to share some of what our partners have experienced.

Liam Adams is a young reporter at the Brighton Standard Blade, where there are two other reporters, one of whom is also the editor. Liam, who has a great deal of insight, was working on a story about the Hispanic community in Brighton. He asked Tina Griego for help. With Tina and COLab contractor Burt Hubbard, Liam was able to tell a story even he wasn’t sure he could do. Liam called what he got from COLab “game-changing guidance.”

This past year, COLab has been working with partners on a project called On Edge. Those stories, from both COLab staff and our partner outlets, look at the impact of the pandemic, racial reckoning and political turmoil on everyday Coloradans. One part of the project was a series of profiles that showed how Coloradans were dealing with the stresses. The reaction communities had, and the reaction our partners had, highlight the way that COLab’s three areas of focus work together.

Lee Ann Colacioppo, editor of The Denver Post, saw On Edge driving subscriptions. She could tell from their metrics that people were pulling out their credit cards in the middle of the series to subscribe.

Dave Perry at Sentinel Colorado also saw the series driving subscriptions, and even driving donations. People were calling advertisers and saying “I saw it in the Sentinel.” I know you ad sellers love to hear comments like that. Both the Post and the Sentinel saw ad sales directly related to this project.

Blaine Howerton, publisher of the North Forty News in Fort Collins, sold a seven-week sponsorship around the On Edge project to an advertiser whose previous contract was about to expire. COLab provided partners with ready-to-go sales materials that helped seal their deals. 

Niki Turner, editor and publisher of the Rio Blanco Herald Times, said after working with Susan on a story about a police shooting there, her newspaper was changed. She said: “I think it helped the paper. It elevated the respect that the community had for us. We had never had a big news story like that and had never covered anything that way. People were like ‘Oh my goodness, this little paper is actually doing serious journalism.’ And we picked up subscribers one right after another, and that hasn’t really stopped.”

I’m going to let that sink in a moment. Good journalism equals revenue

So, I’ve shared some of the inspiring stories of how COLab has helped press association members make a difference in their communities. I’ve shared some testimonials of how CPA members feel about these opportunities. So those of you who relate best to the emotion of a thing are relating right now. Let me talk to those of you who discern less with your heart and more with your mind or even your pocketbook. I promised in the beginning of this that COLab could save you money…and change the course of your news outlet… and even democracy itself. What was I talking about?

The Colorado Press Association makes an investment in COLab of $120,000 a year. Now are any of you out there venture capitalists? If so, let’s talk after the convention! If you’re not a VC, just know that VCs think a return on investment of 5X is really good. If you invest $1, you get $5 back in return. You’ve quintupled your investment. If you can reach 10X, a 10-fold return, that is an amazing investment. The Press Association is this close to getting a 10X return on COLab. They put $120K in, COLab is raising this year another million dollars on top of that. And partners are reaping the benefits. Let me detail some of what you’re getting for that money.

COLab pays for the AP tool called Storyshare, which allows partners to — as the name suggests — share stories with each other. Really, they can share any kind of content: text, video, audio, graphics, photos. And fellow COLab partners are able to download and use that content for free. Many of you have been priced out of AP service. This is a way to get quality, vetted, Colorado-focused content for your outlet and COLab pays the cost. We’ll add the costs up in a second. But as they say on the late-night infomercials: “But wait, that’s not all!’

COLab also subscribes to the Lexis-Nexis service. If you’ve never used it, it’s a high-end service that collects public records from all levels of government across states and the nation. Lawyers and bill collectors and others use it for all kinds of things. Journalists use it to find people and their contacts, background businesses, verify facts. It has information from property records to criminal records to the names of people’s neighbors, whom you might want to interview. And we can help our partners find that information when they need it, while COLab foots the bill.

COLab also pays for the services of the News Revenue Hub, which helps us train partners to raise philanthropic donations. COLab’s close partner, the Colorado Media Project, offered matching grants to 25 news outlets at the end of last year if they could raise at least $5,000 each from their communities, and with our help, those outlets raised over half a million dollars for local news. And we weren’t just training and leading the #NewsCONeeds campaign, we also were helping partners who didn’t have the capability of taking donations online get that set up, and COLab managed the donations, created reports for our partners, and gave the partners all the contact information from donors, so they could continue the donor relationship, which we helped train them how to do.

COLab next month is launching the Hearken service for partners. If you’re not familiar with it, don’t worry, we’ve already done the research, and it’s a turnkey way for partners to have immediate engagement with their communities. Hearken is a tool that on the front end, puts basically a widget on your website and social media that allows the public to interact easily with you, and on the back end, it captures the interaction and allows you to manage it. So for example, with our ongoing On Edge project, partners could reach out to their communities asking for examples of how people are weathering the pandemic and what they’re doing to thrive again. The public would share their stories with you through Hearken, and you have immediate tips, sources, story ideas and engagement. 

Each of the services I’ve just described costs COLab between $10,000 and $30,000 apiece. So just those services return half of the CPA investment in cost savings alone. It would, of course, cost much, much more if each media partner had to buy those for themselves.

So, I’ve just outlined how COLab partners from the Herald Times and North Forty News to Sentinel Colorado and The Denver Post have more subscribers and advertisers because they partner with COLab. Meaning they’re making more money. And they’re also saving money. 

Before we open this for questions, let’s go back to the journalism for a moment. I have some data I want to share with you. The #1 reason people give money to a news outlet — whether it’s advertising, subscriptions or donations — is because that outlet excels at covering something that is important to them, that’s according to research from the American Press Institute. Also, new research from the CrossCheck project shows the public trusts collaborative journalism more than stories produced by just one outlet. Collaboration actually helps bridge political gaps and build trust, which is crucial for all of us going forward. We also know that nationally, 40% of people under 35 are willing to pay for news. Most don’t; but they are open to it. Let’s give them a reason. 

You know, when I was sitting in the hallway of the Press Association convention 11 years ago with my “Free Content” sign, some of the questions I got were about competition. A few people asked me: What would happen if my publication had the same story another publication had at the same time? That’s not the right question, I told them. What would happen if your publication didn’t have a story everyone else had? Because if you’re not involved in the collaboration, you’re letting your community down. Collaborating allows you to have stories you wouldn’t otherwise have, AND it allows you to use your resources on stories that ONLY you would have. COLab’s kind of collaboration — the kind that helps you do more with the stories, the engagement and the evolution of your business — gives you more resources. Imagine what you can do with that. So before you all start asking your questions, please let me ask one of you: Is your news operation excelling at stories that make a difference in your community? Collaboration can help you transform your operation, so that everyone can answer yes.