Inside the News: Denver is Newsbreak’s ‘Test Market’

Plus, 9News gets sold to a hedge fund, KUNC reflects on ‘the legacy of racist Colorado media coverage,’ Denver Gazette invests in arts coverage, and more
  • 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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‘Denver is the test’

If you’ve been scrolling headlines on a phone screen lately there’s a chance you’ve swiped a thumb across a new player on Denver’s local news scene.

NewsBreak, which calls itself “the nation’s leading local news app,” has been quietly trying something new in the Mile High City. The national company’s gambit is to see if the app can gain traffic, engagement, and downloads by providing — wait for it — original local news.

There was no big splash or news conference like we’ve seen from startups Denverite and The Colorado Sun. Not even a press release touting its hires like Axios Denver. But for the past three months at least, the Mountain View, California-based NewsBreak has been paying full-time and part-time journalists in Denver along with a dedicated editor to publish local news on its platform. NewsBreak, which claims 45 million users, has also inked deals with Denver’s CBS4, KBCO radio, Axios Denver, and Sports Illustrated’s Mile High Huddle.

The company pays those outlets to re-publish some of their content in full on its widely used app. (These deals aren’t unique to Denver; the app pays news outlets elsewhere.) Also on the NewsBreak Denver app, the platform publishes headlines and ledes of stories from other news sites it doesn’t partner with and sends readers directly to the outlet with a link. Because of its large user base, some news managers say the app can be among their largest web traffic referrers — and sometimes the largest.

“Because the app is pretty popular, it does two things,” says NewsBreak Denver’s editor, Sara Hansen, who is a former breaking news editor at The Denver Post. “In some cases, it’s helping supplement the budgets of these news sources and in other cases it’s driving traffic to them.”

All of this is another indication that a national company sees a potential audience it can monetize with the help of (and by providing) local news. And the development once again makes Colorado the setting for a local journalism experiment.

“For a variety of reasons — largely because the app is very popular in Denver and they’ve got a pretty high engagement rate in Denver — they decided to use Denver as a test market,” says Hansen who was recruited by NewsBreak via LinkedIn and started Dec. 1.

Denver, she says, is the only city where NewsBreak has a paid staff.

The local team includes full-time staffer Steven Bonifazi who covers COVID-19, lifestyle, mental health, and more, Margaret Jackson, who reports on business, Matt Whitaker who covers natural resources, energy, and climate, David Heitz who reports on Denver City Hall and homelessness, and Brittany Anas who covers travel, restaurants, and lifestyle. They each work remotely and stay connected over the web.

Hansen says NewsBreak has another full-time staffer coming on in March to cover public safety, and is hiring a part-time general assignment reporter next month. “And then we’re hoping to hire more,” she says. (UPDATE, Feb. 28: NewsBreak hired Heather Willard as its public safety reporter.)

As for the tweet above, what makes Heitz different from those other 1,400 creators for the app, Hanses says, is that he’s a paid staffer and others are paid by the click.

In Denver, she says, NewsBreak content breaks down like this: 1: Denver news staff content; 2: Aggregated media content; 3: Contributor network content. “In other markets,” Hansen says, “it’s just aggregated media and contributor network.” 

The app, backed by more than $100 million of investor capital, also generates revenue from ads and sponsored content. Its push alerts are frequent. Earlier this month the company hired veteran producer Jim Bell of the Today Show and Tonight Show to oversee strategy. “NewsBreak’s ambition is to re-invigorate local news using cutting edge AI technology and old-fashioned journalism,” he said in a statement.

As for the unique Denver team’s approach to reporting original local news, Hansen says she’s trying to do second-day, big-picture, and trend stories, and to put the news of the day into context. NewsBreak can aggregate breaking stories from elsewhere so their journalists don’t need to jump on everything. She acknowledged some had criticized an earlier iteration of the app for promoting clickbait and is trying to mitigate that. (The site is still getting popped for it.)

While this particular experiment is specific to Denver, it’s not the first time the company tried to move beyond derivative aggregation. Last fall, the publication DigiDay explored NewsBreak’s reinvention “after about a year of trying to get into the original content business.” From the piece:

In the fall of 2020, Newsbreak’s original content aspirations got off to a buzzy start among freelancers, thanks to an offer that few other platforms or outlets could top: Guaranteed minimum payments of $1,000 per month for those who qualified. 

At the time, Newsbreak was asking for content that might complement the hard news it was aggregating from other outlets, and it had no problems taking content that had already been published elsewhere, a boon to writers who had been trying to eke out income using other platforms including Medium. Many quickly uploaded dozens of pieces that had already been published elsewhere on the internet. 

That quickly changed. By the spring of 2021, Newsbreak wanted news from writers’ local communities instead, which it would rate using a ten-point scale, called a CV score, with higher-rated content getting surfaced more and its writers getting paid more. The CV score took several things into account, including how localized, differentiated and well-written the content was. Before long, Newsbreak changed again, discarding the scoring system and asking for local features built using original reporting, which it would either accept or reject.

Now, it looks like NewsBreak is trying out something else again. And “right now Denver is the test,” Hansen says.

Earlier this month, Sentinel Colorado Managing Editor Kara Mason, based in Aurora, asked Twitter what the deal was with NewsBreak, wondering if it was “just another website ripping off local journalism again.” She says she posted that tweet because she felt that at least some original stories NewsBreak published about Aurora were fairly close to what her independently owned weekly newspaper had reported, like one about Aurora deciding not to reopen a decades-old adult daycare.

“If we’re covering the same things, I don’t know who’s benefiting from that,” Mason says. Sure it’s “original,” she added, “but is it?” Mason thinks the Sentinel has city council covered, for instance.

My own introduction to NewsBreak was interesting. About a year ago, someone from the company reached out on LinkedIn saying they’d stumbled across this newsletter, and asked if I wanted to talk about potentially joining the platform in some capacity. I downloaded the app, but it didn’t wind up becoming a go-to for my Colorado Springs news consumption. Over Zoom one day I chatted with one of their representatives about this newsletter, and the person indicated the app wanted to get into local original content … somehow. They gave me an $80 Amazon gift card for my time.

I hadn’t thought about the app too much since then until I saw Mason’s tweet. It was around the time a story by NewsBreak Denver’s David Heitz about his personal experience being homeless was bouncing around my social media feed. The experience on the streets, he told me, was “pure hell,” when I reached out to him sometime after reading it to ask about his relationship with the app. “Writing for NewsBreak just makes me feel very alive again after such a dark period,” he said. “And it’s such a great fit. I sort of feel like I did when I worked for Los Angeles Times Community News as an editor in the 1990s. They were in a big expansion phase and the company culture was just so positive. NewsBreak is like that, too.”

Heitz said he’s been writing for the app for 16 months (his profile shows he has nearly 7,000 followers on it) and the company has moved from pay-by-the-click to an hourly wage, at least in Denver. “You definitely feel very much a part of a community writing for NewsBreak compared to other freelance gigs I’ve had,” he said.

Following HuffPo Denver in 2009, Denverite in 2016, The Colorado Sun in 2018, and Axios Denver in 2021, NewsBreak enters well-tread ground in the local news game. It will be worth watching how it plays out and whether what it learns here will inform future markets.

“It’s early on, but the powers that be are happy with it,” Hansen says, adding, “they’re in the process of starting two more pilot projects in Pennsylvania and Arizona.”

Hedge-fund TV news ownership coming for 9News in Denver

The only thing different from the headline above and a headline in this newsletter two weeks ago is there’s no longer a question mark at the end of it.

On Wednesday, Tegna, which owns KUSA 9News in Denver, announced it had sold to the private equity firms Standard General and Apollo Global Management.

Colorado is no stranger to what hedge-fund control of local newsrooms can mean: deep staff cuts, reduced print runs, sold or leased buildings, and less local news. I’d be pleasantly surprised if private equity ownership of a local TV station in Colorado flips that script. From Al Tompkins at Poynter on the deal:

For months, Standard General pounded away at Tegna’s performance compared to other broadcast groups in an attempt to unseat three Tegna board members and replace them with Standard’s picks. In April 2020, Standard General issued a detailed attack on Tegna’s profitability that included a reference that worried Tegna employees. It posted this graphic, in which it said Tegna stations have “2x the number of employees per station compared to peers” but lags behind its peers in profitability.” 

The attack did not say that Standard General believed Tegna should cut staff, but it has to be unsettling for employees to know that their new station owner once stated that Tegna stations had two times more employees than their peers and that might bear on their profitability. In every takeover, the first fear is that the new owner will come in and slash jobs.

Here in Denver, observers had takes.

“If I am the GM at CBS4, Fox31 or Denver7, I am preparing to open my wallet to poach as many of the 9News journalists as I can in an effort to end 9News’ ratings dominance,” said public relations professional Jeremy Story.

If that happens, viewers might have to wait some time to see 9News faces elsewhere. Recall when Marshall Zelinger left Denver7 to join 9News in 2017 and had to wait six months before he could appear on air or have a byline at the station because of a non-compete agreement.

KUNC segment: Reflecting on ‘the legacy of racist Colorado media coverage,’ and correcting it

“Media in Colorado and across the country has a long history of harming communities of color.”

So began a segment of KUNC’s Colorado Edition this week. “In the 19th and 20th centuries, newspaper reporters sometimes used racist language or reported crime stories in a way that assumed the guilt of people of color,” the radio story hosted by Erin O’Toole continued. From the accompanying digital story at KUNC:

A group of Colorado journalists and community members of color have been working to understand and correct systemic harm of traditional local media here. In 2019, a group of local organizations including Free Press, Colorado Media Project and the Colorado News Collaborative launched a project that is now known as The Voices Initiative. They’ve conducted separate gatherings between journalists and Black and Latinx community members to collect perspectives on racism in local media, and recommendations to better serve those communities going forward.

For roughly 30 minutes, O’Toole spoke about the findings of this initiative with Tina Griego, a reporter, editor, and coach at Colorado News Collaborative, and Tiya Trent, a program manager at Project VOYCE, a Denver-based organization that helps youths from low-income and underrepresented communities become transformational leaders. Tatyana Monnay, a reporter at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism who examined Associated Press coverage that, because of its distribution, helped reinforce anti-Black racism throughout the country, also joined the segment.

Some things that stood out to me from the conversation:

  • Trent said she feels like nine times out of 10 when she turns on the news and sees a story about a person of color “it’s something negative — and that’s usually just what it is.”
  • Asked what acknowledgment of past harm from media organizations might look like, Griego pointed to journalist Wesley Lowery’s recent exposé for The Philadelphia Inquirer about that newspaper’s history of being “complicit in systemic inequality” and whether it can meet its new pledge to be an anti-racist institution, which she called an “extraordinary piece of journalism.” Which Colorado news organization might take the lead on something like that “is a difficult question,” she said.
  • Monnay talked about the harmful coverage of Preston John Porter, a Black teenager lynched near Limon, Colorado in 1900.
  • Asked how she sees media in Colorado perpetuating racism, Griego said “What we have tended to see is caricature.”

Listen to the entire segment at the link above.

Denver Gazette invests in arts coverage with John Moore

Denver’s digital sister paper to The Gazette in Colorado Springs has hired veteran arts journalist John Moore to “write about trends and personalities in arts, entertainment and popular culture throughout the metro area,” its editor, Vince Bzdek, announced this week.

The job, Moore said in his own personal column about it, comes after two years of what he called “COVID-induced underemployment anxiety.”

In the column he talks about what it’s been like tightening his belt from discretionary spending. “For the first time in my adult life, I did not know where my next penny would come from. (And the privilege that has brought me to that epiphany was never more apparent.),” he wrote.

From the column:

Most journalism jobs don’t pay much, but they pay enough. I have had the good fortune to have had a lifetime of salaried positions, complete with vacation and retirement benefits. To this day, I have left only one job voluntarily — although in newspapers, jobs do tend to leave you. I have worked for three newspapers that have suddenly closed down, and whenever that happens, like Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof,” we simply move on. But pandemic unemployment has been different. This was happening all at once to far more people across far more industries, and there was no way of knowing how long it would last.

Now, he wrote, two years later, “I’ll soon be receiving a regular paycheck again, and I still don’t feel safe buying a movie ticket.”

Vail gets the lede in a New Yorker profile of Colorado’s ‘Cable Cowboy’

One of Colorado’s dozen or so billionaires, John Malone, earned himself a write-up this week in The New Yorker amid a leadership shakeup at CNN.

From the magazine’s opening lines:

In 1973, Tele-Communications Inc., a cable company headed by a thirty-two-year-old named John Malone, was having trouble getting the city of Vail, Colorado, to accept its rates. An engineer by training, Malone is possessed of what the media mogul Barry Diller once called “a frictionless mind.” He has been nicknamed the Cable Cowboy, Darth Vader, and Rupert Murdoch’s “frenemy.” Back then, he was just beginning to build what would become a sizable portion of the modern cable landscape. In Vail, his company took its programming off the air for a weekend, and instead broadcast the names and phone numbers of local officials who were standing in the way of a deal. In the end, Malone got what he wanted. As he later told Fortune, “We refuse to get raped by the programmers.”

Today, Malone … is one of the largest private landowners in the U.S., a libertarian who has profited immensely from the consolidation of the media market. He spent the eighties and nineties acquiring various financial stakes in cable providers; when The New Yorker profiled him in 1994, Malone controlled one out of every four cable boxes in the country. At one point, his stake in NewsCorp threatened the Murdoch family’s control. Malone is also one of the largest shareholders in Discovery, known for reality-show offerings such as “90 Day Fiancé” and “Fixer Upper.” Malone calls this kind of television programming “comfort food.” “I grew up in front of a TV,” he told the Los Angeles Times, in 1993. “I get lonesome if it isn’t turned on.”

The point of the piece is to explain Malone and his potential new influence on CNN and other media companies.

“Soon, WarnerMedia, which is currently owned by A.T. & T., will merge with Discovery and make David Zaslav, Discovery’s current C.E.O., the head of a new company, with properties that include Warner Bros., HBO, and CNN,” The New Yorker reports. “John Malone is David Zaslav’s mastermind,” one TV-industry insider told the author. “John Malone is the brains of the operation.”

Read the whole thing here.

More Colorado Media odds & ends

⚙️ Axios Denver, now 1 year old, is hiring a third reporter. “The salary range for this role is $60,000-$75,000,” the listing states. “This range is for potential hires in the state of Colorado.” (I’m told that salary is the floor not the ceiling.)

🚙 If you see this slick blue Audi on the road with Colorado Public Radio branding on the side, know it’s “an underwriting deal” and the car is “made available by the Audi dealership.” CPR’s Andrew Kenney says: “You’ll hear little radio spots about it on the station.”

⚙️ KOAA, the Scripps-owned NBC affiliate in Colorado Springs, is looking for “a newscast producer it will pay $40,000 to $45,000.

📸 After a man opened fire at a Boulder King Soopers last March leaving 10 dead, Ross Taylor, a professor of journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, turned to his camera “and documented the tragedy in an effort to honor and commemorate the lives lost, as well as the people who were left to pick up the pieces.”

⏭ “Cleaning out my desk on my last day at Sky-Hi and this March 11, 2020 issue makes me feel some sort of way,” Amy Golden said last week. She’s now at The Longmont Leader.

🥃 “I told him my name and said that I was a writer visiting town for an article about Hunter Thompson,” writes the latest writer who stopped by The Woody Creek Tavern to chat with locals.

📺 Learn why a nightly newscaster in Denver has decided to start carrying Narcan and is asking you “to consider it, too.”

🏔 “There’s sort of a trope in journalism that your first position out of college has to be in some undesirable place in the middle of nowhere,” wrote reporter Alison Berg in her goodbye column for The Steamboat Pilot. “You can imagine my excitement when I found out mine would be one of the most desirable cities in the country.”

💼 The Solutions Journalism Network is looking for a cohort manager for its Economic Mobility initiative it will pay $65,000 to $75,000 for the remote position. The initiative “supports journalists and newsrooms that are shifting how they cover poverty in order to more accurately reflect the lived experiences of economic hardship and elevate promising responses for increasing economic opportunity in communities.” 

⭐️ Work “is now underway on the Inaugural edition” of the nonprofit Pueblo Star Journal, so look out for that.

🎙 Betsy Marston appeared on KVNF community radio on the Western Slope to reflect on four decades at High Country News and touted her Writers on the Range column service.

💻 Daily Dose 719 is “a combination of getting information and opportunities in front of people,” its creator, Julie Ramireztold Kate Perdoni of Rocky Mountain PBS. “I’m trying to bring something different so that people are really interested in getting informed, and then hopefully inspired to take action.” 

📡 Colorado Public Radio is looking for a Morning Edition host in Colorado Springs it will pay $60,000 to $75,000.

📰 “I’ll never get over how cool but weird it is to go a grocery store and see your paper, your photo, your story, your byline… like, right there,” says Colorado Community Media reporter Corinne Westeman.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.