Colorado Media Project Examines Digital Journalism Opportunities

As most Coloradans realize, the depth and breadth of local news has declined dramatically in recent years. About 500 print journalists covered Denver in 2009, before the demise of the Rocky Mountain News and the hollowing of the Denver Post. Today, that number is down to less than 70. Throughout the state, other community papers have faced a similar decline, and many rural and mountain areas have become "local news deserts". At the same time, the state population has grown dramatically, and overall trust in media has taken a hit. The traditional role of the "Fourth Estate" as civic watchdog is evolving, and rapidly-changing technology is dramatically reshaping our public commons and civic dialogue.

As Colorado's media landscape has continued to evolve, the Gates Family Foundation has invested in a wide variety of high-quality local news outlets. We've supported public media for decades, helping to launch the PBSNewsHour on Rocky Mountain PBS back in 1983, and Colorado Public Radio's education desk in 2010. To boost quality coverage of rural issues, we've invested in outlets such as High Country News and KSJD community radio in Cortez. And as we've seen original reporting on specific issues decline in traditional outlets, we've supported start-up, independent, digital-only news outlets such as Chalkbeat (for education) and Streetsblog (for transit and mobility issues).

Underpinning all of the Foundation’s media investments is the belief that informed communities are vital to robust civic engagement that advances the quality of life for all Coloradans. Local news is a key component of healthy, thriving communities – and its absence is harbinger of diminished communities. (Read our recent essay for more on our belief in the importance of investing in quality local news.)

That's why, this summer, the Gates Family Foundation is helping to support the Colorado Media Project -- a project that aims to explore and accelerate scalable, sustainable, civic-minded solutions in Colorado’s digital media landscape.

To learn more -- including how to get involved -- read the following FAQs from the Colorado Media Project: 

What is the Colorado Media Project?

The Colorado Media Project is using a rapid “design thinking” process to research and test new approaches for increasing the audience, relevance, and financial sustainability of digital journalism that strengthens the civic fabric of Colorado. By September, the project aims to produce and publicize viable prototypes and business plans that reflect Colorado-specific market opportunities and community needs. The project builds on the learning and assets of Colorado’s existing digital news ecosystem, aiming to leverage cooperation instead of competition.

What is the problem – and the opportunity?

  • Disinterested media ownership in Colorado has led to a rapid decline in the amount of original daily reporting, deep coverage of important issues, and investigative journalism that is vital in driving civic awareness and engagement, particularly in local communities.

  • A variety of independent sources are attempting to fill the widening news gap with issue-specific coverage (eg: Chalkbeat, Streetsblog, Your Water Colorado), hyperlocal news (Denverite, BizDen), and investigative reporting (The Colorado Sun, The Colorado Independent). These outlets are experimenting in exciting ways and attracting specialized audiences, but have yet to achieve broad reach and financial sustainability.

  • Given the fractured media landscape, Coloradans – particularly younger audiences and the large influx of new residents to our state – lack a clear “home” or compelling pathway to access high-quality, reliable Colorado news and participate in important civic conversations.

What does the project aim to do?

The Colorado Media Project aims to accelerate scalable, sustainable, civic-minded solutions in Colorado’s digital media landscape, by:

  • Conducting research on new and existing Colorado markets and business models nationwide;
  • Rapidly prototyping and testing new ideas and digital tools;
  • Quickly considering the business implications of new opportunities;
  • Publicly sharing project research, learning, and viable opportunities.

What are the project objectives for various stakeholders?

For the public, the Colorado Media Project aims to:

  • Understand barriers to and opportunities for accessing high-quality, reliable local news in Colorado

  • Develop and test ideas for increasing the ease and experience of engaging with Colorado news

  • Uncover new opportunities for civic engagement and interaction

For Colorado’s existing news publishers, the Colorado Media Project aims to:

  • Understand current business models, successes, challenges, and opportunities

  • Share new research on digital market opportunities in Denver and Colorado

  • Prototype and market test new ideas for increasing audience size/engagement, sustainability, and collaboration

For investors and philanthropists, the Colorado Media Project aims to:

  • Address the growing news/audience opportunity gap in Colorado, as traditional media outlets decline and new models emerge

  • Provide research into sustainable digital media business models and tools or platforms that might achieve impact at scale

  • Prototype and test new ideas to increase reach, sustainability, and collaboration among outlets that serve the civic interest

Who is leading the project? What are their roles?

  • JB Holston is Dean of the Daniel Felix Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver, leads the Colorado Media Project’s Executive Committee. He has run a wide range of technology and media enterprises over the last two decades. As President of Ziff Davis International, a leading global digital-media company, Holston managed operations across more than 100 countries and launched Yahoo! Europe. Since selling his last technology start-up, Holston has helped create a wide range of for-profit and not-for-profit entities. His career has included senior posts with GE, NBC and the Boston Consulting Group. Holston leads the project’s Executive Committee, which also includes:

    • Roxane White (independent consultant with Strategy with Rox, Innovator in Residence with Aspen Institute, former CEO of Nurse-Family Partnership, former Chief of Staff for Gov. Hickenlooper), also serving as project co-director.

    • Tom Gougeon (President, Gates Family Foundation, former Principal and Chief Development Officer with Continuum Partners, former CEO of the Stapleton Redevelopment Foundation); and

    • John Huggins (Chairman and President, Notable Systems, angel/startup investor and civic philanthropist).

  • Project X-ITE is Denver University’s cross-discipline innovation hub for technology and entrepreneurship. Other DU experts involved in this project include: Lynn Schofield Clark, Chair of Media, Film and Journalism and a renowned expert on media transparency, digital humanities, and new technologies and youth; DU Trustee Greg Moore, former Editor in Chief of the Denver Post; and former DU trustee Tryg Myhren, a long-time multi-media executive in newspapers, cable, television and other media. In addition, DU students from Cultivo Media, a start-up design and development consultancy, will be involved in the project’s rapid prototyping process.

  • The Boston Consulting Group is a global management-consulting firm that works with clients from the private, public and not-for-profit sectors in all regions to identify their highest-value opportunities, address their most critical challenges and transform their enterprises. BCG’s Denver office is conducting market analyses and research for the Colorado Media Project.

What is the timeline?

  • Through June 29: Secondary research (interview national and local experts and practitioners, review existing market research, case studies, business plans, etc.)

  • July 2 – 13: Primary research (in-person interviews with various types of news consumers)

  • July 16 – 20: Synthesis (develop problem statement/s, based on research)

  • July 21: Community ideation session (design thinking/open innovation protocol around problem statement/s)

  • July 23 – Aug. 24: Rapid prototyping, testing and iteration (multiple solutions)

  • Week of July 23: Community conversation (national speaker, local issues)

  • Aug. 27 – 31: Synthesis and report development

  • Week of Aug. 27: Community conversation (national speaker, local issues)

  • Week of Sept. 10: Report to the community (time/date TBD)

How is this project different than others I’ve heard about?

  • Our primary focus is increasing the audience, relevance, and financial sustainability of digital journalism that strengthens the civic fabric of Colorado.

  • We’re looking for solutions that are: digital, scalable, sustainable, and civic-minded. All four.

  • We’re bringing a business/technology approach that starts with Colorado-specific audience research, market testing, and rapid prototyping. (Many ventures start with journalism goals first, and figure out business/marketing/audience later.)

  • We’re testing multiple ideas and business plans and making the best publicly available.

  • We’re taking the full, existing Colorado news ecosystem into account, aiming to leverage cooperation instead of competition.

Are you competing with The Sun, The Independent, Denverite, Chalkbeat, others?

No. Journalists from these and other existing outlets are participating in the project’s ‘open innovation’ process – providing insight on the successes, challenges, and opportunities of their own outlets, as well as ideas for ways the project could help their work reach more people. In addition, existing outlets (and the public) will have access to the research, prototypes, and business planning developed by the Project, which intends to serve as a rapid prototyping lab with deep capacity for business and strategy planning.

How can I participate in the effort?

Colorado Media Project