Inside the News: NewsBreak Denver Is Shutting Down Its Original Local News Experiment

  • 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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Roughly 18 months after choosing Denver as the test market for an original local news experiment, the national app NewsBreak plans to pull the plug.

“While disappointed with this decision, I understand the changing media landscape,” said NewsBreak Denver’s editor, Sara Hansen.

For the near term it means two young dedicated full-time reporters — Natasha Lovato and Heather Willard — are now looking for employment elsewhere. For the long term the development, unreported publicly until now, offers another data point about just how hard it can be for a digital news startup to make a go of paying local reporters to produce local news.

Last year, the Mountain View, California-based NewsBreak, which said it is backed by more than $100 million in investor capital and calls itself “the nation’s leading local news app,” had quietly chosen Denver as the first place to try out something new. (This newsletter broke the story last February.)

At the time, the move was an indication that a national company saw a potential audience it could monetize by delivering more local news. Doing so in Denver once again made Colorado the test tube for a local journalism tryout.

To build an online audience, the company, which has boasted 45 million users and makes money through advertising and sponsored content, already had freelance contributors who were paid by the click. NewsBreak also inked paid deals in Denver with CBS4, KBCO radio, Axios Denver, and Sports Illustrated’s Mile High Huddle to re-publish their work. Because of its large user base, some news managers have acknowledged that the app can be among their largest web traffic referrers — and sometimes the largest.

But NewsBreak decided to go further last year by tapping Denver as the first city to pay full-time and part-time journalists along with a dedicated editor. News of that move was notable enough that Harvard’s Nieman Lab re-published this newsletter’s write-up about it.

A few months later, NewsBreak announced it would expand to fill gaps in “news deserts” in Colorado, Arizona, Georgia, and Florida with “plans to build the program to greater scale across the country in underrepresented … media coverage areas.” (About that, though: a press agent at the time said they’d facilitate an interview with a NewsBreak representative for details about the initiative, but then ghosted; I never heard or read anything else about that project.)

And now, just last week, NewsBreak’s senior content program manager, Gwen Aviles, sent an email to NewsBreak Denver’s editor, Sara Hansen, stating that after “careful consideration and evaluation,” the company made the “difficult decision” to terminate its Journalist Program in Denver effective Aug. 25. “This decision is exclusively a result of changing business needs and our company’s evolving direction,” Aviles wrote.

At its height, the NewsBreak Denver Journalist Program had 15 journalists working for it. Currently, until the Aug. 25 deadline, six of them and Hansen are working as part of the pilot. After the 25th, Aviles wrote that any of them will have the ability to stay on as contributors if they wish. Contributors paid by the click might not be trained journalists, and one NewsBreak Denver reporter worried the move signals a shift toward a business model that could be less about rigorous reporting. The company has lately been reaching out to journalists (I got an email last month) about building a new video creator program.

Hansen, NewsBreak Denver’s editor who formerly led the breaking news team at the Denver Post (where she still contributes alongside her freelance work with BusinessDen and her own online dog magazine), said she doesn’t plan to stay on with the company after next Friday.

She also said she wasn’t too surprised last week when she heard it was curtains for the program. The company had eliminated some positions and scaled back, she said, including, just last month, the position of her supervisor.

“You know how startups are,” Hansen said over the phone this week. “They’re great until they’re not. That’s the risk you take when you take on something new like this. You go in hoping for the best and you know that it just may not work out that way.”

Aviles said via email that NewsBreak doesn’t comment on internal business decisions.

For her part, Hansen said NewsBreak Denver journalists were meeting their metric goals, but she didn’t feel their stories were surfacing well in its algorithms and they weren’t making it into the app’s newsletters. Two Denver reporters on the team said they agreed with that assessment.

“We did the things that they asked us to do,” Hansen said. “From that standpoint it was successful, but I was always frustrated the articles didn’t reach as broad an audience as I thought they deserved to.”

For its wildfire coverage, Boulder Reporting Lab created a ‘pop-up’ newsroom

Boulder Reporting Lab founder Stacy Feldman wrote this week for the Reynolds Journalism Institute about how her local news startup tackled coverage of the devastating 2021 Marshall Fire.

From the piece:

At the time, BRL was three people, working hard to build a sustainable newsroom from scratch. Investigating a story of this magnitude demanded more reporting bandwidth than we had available. Realizing the scope, I reached out to my journalism colleagues at the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder. Collaborating seemed like the best approach. They agreed, and within a week, a plan was hatched.

Hillary Rosner, the center’s acting director and a journalism instructor, proposed turning our collaboration into a course involving graduate students from both journalism and sciences. Our vision was to delve deeply into the story for one semester, with a team of seven student reporters and two editors, myself and Rosner, working in tandem with our community.

Feldman goes on to explain the roots of pop-up newsrooms and how Boulder Reporting Lab fit in with that movement.

Another excerpt:

Boulder, like many other markets across the country, has seen the deterioration of its century-old-plus newspaper, especially a lack of investigative reporting. The outcomes of our initial pop-up newsroom far exceeded our expectations. We established publishing partnerships with The Conversation and KUNC public radio. The students, from various disciplines, gelled as an investigative news team, and their focus remained firmly on serving the community. Their efforts were recognized when they won the Public Service award at the SPJ regional journalism awards, and we were also named finalists for the INN innovator award and LION’s Collaboration of the Year award, among others.

The story also offers advice for others about how to replicate it. I particularly liked this part:

We can expand the definition of what it means to be a journalist. For instance, when your town faces a flood, you could create a pop-up community newsroom to cover the insurance issues together. Or, if local retirees are feeling neglected in the affordable housing conversation, let’s investigate the matter collaboratively. What about young people covering the local youth mental health crisis and lack of services? We could establish a micro newsroom where we teach reporting skills, and in return, the community helps us tell better stories that otherwise might not be told. The potential for collective action and impact is inspiring.

Read the whole thing at the link above.

A ‘Voice’ goes quiet in the Yampa Valley

This month’s edition of the Valley Voice magazine in Routt County will be the last, publisher Matt Scharf has told readers.

“It’s really hard to accept that most things come to an end,” he wrote in a goodbye column. “Nothing lasts forever. Life, friendships, housing, jobs. For me, the saddest of all is ending the Valley Voice.”

Scharf didn’t offer an explicit reason for the decision in the column; he just said it’s time. But he said via email that readers who pick up a physical copy of the magazine — it’s slogan: “For those who live here and those who wish they did” — will get the lowdown.

Speaking of newspaper closures, I’m currently working with David Coppini of the University of Denver on trying to figure out how many print newspapers in Colorado have closed since 2019. If you know of one that went out of business in your neck of the woods since then, would you get in touch and let me know?

More Colorado media odds & ends

😤 The National Freedom of Information Coalition, whose president, Jeff Roberts, is based in Denver, called on officials in Marion, Kansas “to immediately disclose why, and how they justify, the alarming seizure of computers, cellphones and other reporting materials from journalists at the Marion County Record.” The police raid had turned our neighboring state into a flashpoint over press freedom this week. (A local prosecutor has since determined the raid wasn’t supported by the evidence, the AP reported.)

🆕 Kristin Oh has joined Sentinel Colorado. Oh is from Colorado Springs and previously worked for the Reno Gazette-Journal.

🖨 Mark Caro of the Local News Initiative out of Northwestern reported how printing plant closures and consolidation are making for earlier newspaper deadlines, longer drives, and “higher costs as papers scramble to stay in print.” The reporting led with Gannett’s decision to mothball the Pueblo Chieftain’s plant in Colorado.

🙏 Thanks to Columbia Journalism Review for highlighting last week’s newsletter item about fake news obituaries. (For the record, Trevor Hughes is still not dead.)

❌ Last week’s newsletter referred to Craig Silverman as a former Denver district attorney. He is a former Denver chief deputy district attorney. I also twice referred — in a correction, no less —to the South Fork Tines (not a typo, it’s Tines) as the “North Fork” Tines.

🤫 When John Hickenlooper was mayor of Denver where he operated a brewery, he had “an agreement with Patricia Calhoun and the Westword folks who would come in: Beers on the table, off the record, allowing him to gossip to his heart’s content without fear of reading it in print,” said the now-U.S. senator’s spokesperson, Anthony Rivera-Rodriguez, this week. Because Hickenlooper “misses mixing it up with reporters in Colorado,” he showed up to The Denver Press Club this Thursday for an on-the-record gaggle, and then an off-the-record bull session.

💨 Luke Zarzecki is leaving Colorado Community Media for a job with Inside Health Policy in Washington, D.C.

💥 A major investigation this week by Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul into Home Owners Associations (an HOA exposé, if you will) had some serious impact when Democratic Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers immediately put out statements calling for action.

📺 Responding to a viewer who didn’t like hearing on the news that Donald Trump “falsely claimed” that the 2020 election was stolen, Denver’s KUSA 9News “Next” anchor Kyle Clark said in a broadcast: “The people who traffic in misinformation are counting on the cowardice of journalists to not call a lie a lie. All of us, journalists included, have no need to be impartial when faced with a falsehood. We should call it just that.”

🆕 Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore announced this week he has launched a new venture called KLOWTIFY. The “strategic media consulting company” states its mission is to “help growing firms prosper alongside their audiences by sharing valuable insights through an ethical journalistic approach.”

🇨🇦❓Amy Lovatt is now serving as a public information specialist at Metro Water Recovery. “I was lucky enough to find this opportunity after being laid off from the Longmont Leader last month,” Lovatt wrote. (That’s the Canadian-owned Village Media outlet that has a sister site in Broomfield. I’ve reached out twice now to Village’s CEO about what’s going on there and will write about it when I get the scoop.)

🏅 Colorado attorney Steve Zansberg said he is “honored to have been recognized by Best Lawyers® as the 2024 ‘Lawyer of the Year’ in the areas of First Amendment Law, and Litigation – First Amendment, in Denver.”

🖨 When Gannett shuttered the Pueblo Chieftain’s printing plant, Colorado Community Media “conducted a comprehensive analysis of options” for its two dozen papers, “aiming to keep costs down and changes as minimal as possible while understanding that Colorado’s Front Range has limited printing facilities available,” publisher Linda Shapley told readers this week. (They are going with the Denver Post and Prairie Mountain Media.)

☀️ Brian Eason said he is returning to Denver from Georgia to write for The Colorado Sun.

⚖️ Colorado’s “largest teachers union and its local affiliate have filed a federal lawsuit against the Woodland Park School District and the district’s board of education” arguing the district and its board “have ‘chilled’ teachers’ First Amendment rights to free speech and free association,” Jenny Brundin reported for Colorado Public Radio.

🍽 FOX21’s “Loving Living Local” segment took at a look at Colorado Springs food-and-drink Substacker Matthew Schniper who runs the local newsletter Side Dish with Schniper.

💰 Nonprofit Quarterly took a look at the way nonprofit trusts are helping save local news, and Colorado caught some shine for the unique way the Colorado News Conservancy helped keep Colorado Community Media’s newspapers in local hands.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project 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 weeklynewsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.