Introducing the Colorado News Mapping Project

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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Over roughly the last decade, the ranks of professional journalists in Colorado have shrunk by nearly half and one in five community newspapers has closed. The consequences of these spreading news deserts aren’t pretty.

When local news organizations diminish, research shows citizens can become less engaged in their communities, municipal finances can suffer, and corruption can flourish.

Related: Reimagining the public square: What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now

With fewer outlets and fewer reporters, more Coloradans are looking to varied sources to fill the gap. In these turbulent times and amid a fractured media landscape, it’s important to try and understand where Coloradans are looking for local news and information. Getting a clearer picture of what exists and where the gaps lie can illuminate the degree to which a need exists for reliable, trustworthy sources of local news and information and the path to providing those sources. 

The Colorado News Mapping Project is a collaboration among the Colorado College Journalism Institute, the University of Denver, Colorado Media Project, the Colorado News Collaborative, and others. This work seeks to help Coloradans find and learn more about existing sources of local news and information.

It’s a challenging undertaking, but we have a starting point in a first-of-its-kind Colorado map.  We expect it will be a living, evolving thing. 

What you’ll find on the map

Our goal is to reflect the reality of the state’s local media ecosystem. The main criteria in deciding what to place on this map is that the source of news or information is locally owned or operated, has a large or significant audience of Coloradans, and demonstratively impacts the broader media ecosystem. For some communities that might be a traditional, credentialed news outlet staffed by trained journalists. For others, it might be a local Facebook page with thousands of members run by someone with clout over the way local information flows. Our intent is not to weigh the reliability or quality of the information disseminated, but to pinpoint for the first time what Coloradans themselves have told us are their local sources of community information. 

The map provides users with the location of these sources — both traditional outlets and nontraditional or emerging media on various platforms —  as well as background and context about who owns and runs them and, where available, their reach. It also shows whether these sources are affiliated with professional journalism organizations (such as Colorado Press Association and/or the Colorado News Collaborative) and, when possible, whether they are run by community members, local government bodies, or partisan political actors. An arrow next to the source means a click will take you to a broader description with context. (We hope to expand this feature to more outlets in the future.) 

News sources show up on the map according to their physical office address, which means some might not appear in counties they also serve. For instance, The Denver Post is not listed in Denver, but rather in Adams County. That’s a reflection of our changing media landscape, too; the paper’s hedge-fund owner in 2018 moved the newsroom to its printing plant across the county line and leased out office space in its former downtown Denver headquarters. 

If we missed something, or if anything is incorrect or out of date on the map, fill out this form to let us know, and we’ll update it. This project began as a collaboration and now that collaboration includes you.

How we’re doing it 

In the summer of 2021, University of Denver Professors Kareem Raouf El Damanhoury and David Coppini synthesized two public databases — Cision and ABYZ — to gather an initial list of some 400-plus local news publishers and broadcasters in Colorado. They also analyzed news coverage in each Colorado county on a single weekday in 2021 and used a rubric to gauge how many local and original stories that identified publications produced on that day. 

Next, COLab checked the professors’ master list against its membership list and the Colorado Press Association to add any missing outlets. (Outlets on the map with a green dot next to them indicate they are members of the Colorado Press Association, are a COLab partner, or both.) 

Corey Hutchins’ classroom at Colorado College (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Then work on the ground began. Colorado College students taking a class I taught called “The Future and Sustainability of Local News” spoke with residents in many counties about where they go for local news and information, regardless of how “traditional” it might be. I, too, contributed to the research. Hearken and Free Press helped us design the process and interview questions to ensure students were casting a wide net, specifically seeking out sources that underrepresented communities told students they considered trustworthy.  

In fall 2021, the first class of CC students interviewed more than 100 community members in 16 counties and identified at least 17 non-traditional information sources in 10 of them. These included Facebook groups, digital newsletter startups, schools, nonprofits, and more. In Colorado’s least populous county, San Juan, one student identified “various non-traditional information sources like an individual community member going door-to-door to tell people about certain events or occurrences.” 

In the spring of 2022, a second class of CC students studied about 30 counties. 

This map may differ from some other recent news mapping projects. For instance, on this recent map of U.S. newspapers from the Medill school at Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, Colorado’s Custer County shows only one newspaper: The Wet Mountain Tribune. The Medill methodology discounted The Sangre de Cristo Sentinel in part because the publication is partisan, calling itself “the voice of conservative Colorado.” 

We’ve included it (among other sources in Custer County) because doing so reflects the reality of where people are getting their news and information in the area. More so, earlier this year, the Custer County commission voted to award the Sentinel a coveted status as the “paper of record,” meaning it is where the county publishes legal and public notices. We’re not saying our map is better — only that it is different. 

What we’ve learned so far

According to the students’ research, residents notice when a news source has disappeared or when their newspaper cuts its print schedule to only a handful of days a week, which has happened in multiple regions from Greeley to Grand Junction, Durango to the Eastern Plains. And they don’t get their news and information the same ways they always have. 

In one rural county in the San Luis Valley, a student found online social networks “play a large part in sharing information, especially Facebook groups for towns and Facebook pages for local government organizations and nonprofits.” 

If you’re driving Highway 24 in Teller County one day and happen to stop in at the Thunderbird Inn, a resident might caution you to watch how fast you’re going on the way out of town because a local community Facebook page has warned residents of a speed trap. Posters are even sharing pictures of their tickets. 

Colorado College students view archived copies of old Saguache County newspapers at the local museum in Crestone in the fall of 2021. (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Some local Facebook groups in Colorado have more members than the number of residents in the cities or towns they serve. (Florissant, population 172. Florissant Community Page: 4,100 members.) The people who run these groups can wield real power in their communities because of their control over the flow of information. (We hope to profile some of these individuals in the future to get a sense of their mission and how they view their roles.) 

But access to the internet is far from widespread. In Saguache County, a student learned “word-of-mouth is still dominant.” In Dolores, a senior center publishes a four-page monthly newsletter for 350 people, plenty of whom rely on it because they are not online. 

Non-traditional regional news and information

News deserts are spreading across the American West, as High Country News reported in September. But, the magazine maintained, “civic engagement is taking other forms.” 

In just the past few years in Colorado, we’ve seen digital startups bloom — in places like Longmont and Broomfield, Alamosa, Pueblo, Greeley, and Estes Park. Boulder has two. Some are backed by funding from companies such as Google or Village Media. Others are one-person shops supported by locals who donate to keep them afloat. 

Elsewhere, non-traditional sources with varying missions, frequency, quality, and ownership are producing relevant regional news and information for audiences large and small — and on different platforms. 

In central Colorado, for example, some residents consult PineCam, an advertising-supported site based in Conifer with message-board forums operated by anonymous members of the community. Among other things, the site provides weather and emergency alerts for the Highway 285 corridor. PineCam volunteers also monitor scanner communications for the area, posting information about car accidents, traffic, smoke, and other emergency situations. In researching PineCam, a student learned some residents go to the site for information that might appear hours later on the Denver TV news or the limited bulletins from the social media feeds of local law enforcement. 

“In my opinion, websites are kind of dinosaurs”

Jerry Patterson

In northeastern Colorado, Jerry Patterson, who owns The Otis Telegraph newspaper in Washington County, also runs a Facebook page with more than 10,000 members called OTsportschek. Twenty contributing photographers fan out and shoot the games of 20 different school sports teams in an area from Wiggins to the Kansas border and I-70 to the Wyoming state line. 

“If you follow sports, we’re a mega news outlet,” Patterson says. “We report the scores, we report the schedules, we report who’s leading in what.” Local advertisers pay for exposure on the page and he says the enterprise is profitable. Other local newspapers with different owners sometimes run OTsportschek’s photos in print with credit because they can’t get to all the games. 

“In my opinion, websites are kind of dinosaurs,” Patterson says about why he chose Facebook as a publishing platform. “People have to go to a website, where with Facebook if they follow us they’re going to see it in their news feed.” The page elevates the accomplishments of local students, and the community goes to OTsportschek for information they can’t get anywhere else. 

Covering a niche beat of the East-West highway from the Front Range to the ski towns, the i70Things Instagram account has nearly a quarter of a million followers. Alejandro Brown, who has a background in marketing, created the account in 2019, and he told a CC student that a year later during a summer of wildfires he realized he was publicizing certain things on the highway that weren’t “public knowledge yet.” While some of the content can be humorous or quirky — he curates crowdsourced photos and videos — Brown insists the account offers “the most transparent way of showing and stating what’s happening, where and when, with proof.” Paid partnerships with brands help support his work. He says Colorado’s Department of Transportation even recognized his impact and reached out about providing updates to his followers when the agency was working on a highway project. 

“I really want I-70 Things to be seen as … a main news source for the I-70 mountain corridor,” Brown said. 

On the Western Slope, Grand Junction activist Anne Landman runs a lo-fi blog that offers “what’s really going on in western Colorado” from a progressive perspective. The site fills a void in a largely conservative part of the state that doesn’t have as robust a local media scene as the Front Range, she says. The New York Post has relied on items she published about her local congresswoman. A former respiratory therapist who fought Big Tobacco as a document researcher for the American Lung Association, she previously served as the managing editor of PRWatch and SourceWatch at the progressive group Center for Media and Democracy. Landman has said when acquaintances pulled public court records involving the husband of a congressional candidate in her district but couldn’t find traction in other media they gave a stack of documents to her. She does not claim “to do straight-up journalism” in her community. She has a perspective and a point of view and she shares it.

“There’s nothing really consistently giving a left-wing perspective on things around here,” she says. “So I just started doing that. … I see things differently and I just want to say something about the way I see it.”

In Southeastern Colorado, Adrian Hart launched SECO News where he is developing what he calls a Community Contributor News Network “to restore and modernize” media local to Southeast Colorado. “I built a news platform to fill the need for a marketing gap in my community,” says the former reporter who owns and operates a digital marketing agency and calls SECO News a “news outlet controlled by a marketing agency.”

‘Pink slime’ sites and others hard to identify

That Colorado’s news and information ecosystem is taking new shapes has not been lost on those who might take advantage of the situation and who understand that people tend to trust a local news outlet. 

Two years ago, The New York Times profiled a company called Metric Media — “a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country.” That network, which the Times said operated sites in all 50 states,“is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals.”

In Colorado, Metric Media runs 17 sites with names like Adams County Times, Boulder Leader, or Central Colorado Times. “It’s a phenomenon that has been dubbed ‘pink slime journalism,’ where the stories themselves are not blatantly false but slanted and often paid for by interested parties,” reported Denver7 about the sites. (These sites don’t appear on our map; they don’t have addresses in or around the counties they purport to serve.)

Meanwhile, “writers for a D.C.-based media operation run by prominent Democratic operatives are behind a sprawling network of ostensible local media outlets churning out Democrat-aligned news content in midterm battleground states,” Axios has reported

There are at least two of them operating in Colorado. They, too, are not on the map. 

Test yourself: how to identify a source of news or information you don’t recognize

If you want to vet a local news source in your own community, there are some easy things you can do. 

First, check the site’s “About Us” section, which any credible news organization should have. Does it say who runs it, describe its mission, or how long it has been around? Does it have an ethics policy, or explain who funds it? Does it say it’s a member of a state press association, a group like the Institute for Nonprofit News, or adhere to guidelines by the Society of Professional Journalists? (This should not be a dealbreaker, but is typically a good sign.) Does it list its staff and how to contact those who write for it beyond a form to fill out? Does it properly label whether something is news, opinion, or sponsored content? 

Dig even deeper if you’re still unsure. Search the web for what other trusted sources might have written about it. Search for the company name that owns the copyright or the name of an author on a particular story you’re reading. 
One frustrating aspect of putting together this map was that even some legitimate sources of local news in Colorado don’t always have robust ‘About’ sections on their websites. Some don’t even say on their sites who runs them. They might not be trying to hide something, but it doesn’t help build trust in the networked digital age. When we asked one rural newspaper and Colorado Press Association member why its website did not contain any identifiable contact information about its ownership or staff, the owner and co-founder said, “I can honestly say it never crossed my mind.”

Another small newspaper owner who listed only a phone number on the paper’s site said she didn’t feel the need to have much of an online presence because that’s not how locals get their news. Besides, she said, the information is in the printed paper. 

Looking ahead

We hope this map and project will be something upon which we can build. 

Our partners are examining specific regions of Colorado, studying the news and information landscapes to better understand what communities might need and how we might help. 

Researchers Coppini and El Damanhoury published a study in Journalism Practice where they compared the quality in journalism across four counties: Weld, Montezuma, La Plata, and Alamosa. 

Last year, Colorado Media Project released a report after it “assessed Colorado journalists’ views of their own news outlets and coverage, and of the state of the broader news ecosystem in Colorado,” based on surveys.  

Right now, a group of eight English-dominant news outlets convened by COLab is researching the degree to which the critical news and information needs of Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley are being met and how to improve their relationships and service to those communities. 

Looking ahead, we hope to provide more research and reporting about other platforms and networks the map does not mention. For instance, you won’t see NextDoor communities on the map because there are just so many — and not every one of them might be public to non-community members. We know some sub-Reddit communities are robust in Colorado and they are not yet on this map. Tik-Tok is represented in a limited capacity. 

What else would you like to see from us as we undertake this project? Get in touch and let us know. 

For frequent updates on what makes Colorado’s local news landscape unique, sign up for the free weekly newsletter “Inside the News in Colorado.” 

Contributing CC students included: Claire Barber, Sabrina Brewer, Miriam Brown, Gavin Cardamone, Sarina Chalmers, Ayden Cherry, Alexis Cornachio, Phoebe Dodge, Sean Dunbar, Kay Fizer, Will Foster, Mabel Gardner, Denise Geronimo, Chris Hampson, Eric Ingram, Eli Jaynes, Johnny Kellogg, Lucy Lyman, Katherine Moynihan, Nick Penzel, Daisy Gomez Rivera, Sierra Romero, Elizabeth Ruckelshaus, Liam Reynolds, Nicky Shapiro, Matthew Silverman, Haley Strom, Katherine Sweeney, Will Taylor, Peyton Wright, Olivia Xerras, Lorea Zabaleta.