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Here Comes The Sun: How a Cryptocurrency Company Plans to Save Local Journalism




By Labor Day, Denver’s latest online newspaper will be live, thanks in large part to funding from a blockchain company with its own cryptocurrency. With start-up costs covered, one big question remains: Will Coloradans rise to the challenge of supporting The Colorado Sun’s ad-free, independent journalism?
A journalist-run news site is gearing up to launch in Denver, at a time when local news is in crisis. The new Colorado Sun, founded by former employees of The Denver Post, hopes to be in business by Labor Day.

Less than a decade ago, during its peak, The Denver Post employed an estimated 250 to 300 journalists. The newsroom already had been slimmed down to ninety in March, when an editor announced layoffs of thirty more employees.

The staff reductions were ordered by a New York-based hedge fund (Alden Global Capital) that owns an estimated 100 daily and weekly newspapers nationwide. Since 2013, Alden Global Capital has owned The Denver Post through Digital First Media, a management firm formed with the merger of Denver-based MediaNews Group and the former Journal Register Co.

Seeing thirty pink slips handed out at The Post in a single day was “devastating,” says Larry Ryckman, co-founder and editor of The Colorado Sun, a news website created by eight of the newspaper’s former writers and editors.

“It was a very sad time, to realize we were under attack by our owners,” Ryckman said.

For journalists, and for journalism, and for journalists. “The old model of doing things just isn’t working,” Ryckman said.

What does he mean by the “old model?”

“Working for a hedge fund, trying to support a newsroom through digital advertising.”

In the last decade, hedge funds and other private equity firms have been targeting legacy media companies like The Denver Post, buying them up with the end-goal of cutting costs in order to sell at better multiples.

Civil CEO Matthew Iles and Colorado Sun Senior Editor Dana Coffield listen to a question during The Sun's staff meeting on June 18, 2018. (Eric J. Lubbers/The Colorado Sun)

Hedge funds care about profit, which, in all fairness, seems like an important thing to care about when you’re running a business.

“We’re not against free enterprise,” Ryckman clarifies, offering, “Dean Singleton [The Denver Post’s previous owner] was a tough businessman, but he also cared about the newsroom. That’s the difference.”

There’s a reason freedom of the press is mentioned in the First Amendment to the Constitution. “Journalists serve an important role in our democracy,” says Ryckman.

Fewer Colorado journalists means fewer local stories being reported. “Nobody knows the stories that won’t get written,” Ryckman says. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Here Comes The Sun

According to its Kickstarter page, “The Colorado Sun is a reader-supported, journalist-owned news outlet focused on investigative, explanatory and narrative journalism.”

The news site was co-created by Ryckman, formerly a senior editor for news at The Denver Post, and writer Jason Blevins, a premiere outdoor reporter, also previously employed at The Denver Post.

“Actually, Jason founded The Sun, and I approached him about it,” says Ryckman, who left The Denver Post earlier this year, after being told not to identify the paper’s hedge fund owner in a news story he was preparing.

Either way, The Colorado Sun will launch with — so far — an nine-person staff that includes Dana Coffield, Eric Lubbers, Jennifer Brown, Tamara Chuang, John Ingold, John Frank and Kevin Simpson, in addition to Ryckman and Blevins.

It’s a small newsroom, but Ryckman says, “We aim to grow.” He’s currently interviewing political writers, and is getting applications, “Not just from The Denver Post, but across the country,” he says.
 
Yes, The Colorado Sun will be an online-only newspaper. But it isn’t going to be one of those free “news” sites propounding false content that hasn’t been properly vetted.

“We are all folks who have done journalism for a long time,” Ryckman says — serious, award-winning journalists who are excited for an opportunity to report on local stories that aren’t being told.

Adds Ryckman, “We support the others in town who are doing great journalism as well. There’s isn’t enough great journalism, and there needs to be more.”

The Colorado Sun will publish fresh news stories Monday through Friday, focusing on “the kind of journalism it is increasingly difficult for others to do,” Ryckman says, pointing to watchdog journalism, investigative journalism, and long-form narrative feature writing.

Of course, it takes more than know-how and passion to run a newspaper that’s worth its weight.

Journalism’s New OS

Ad-free journalism sounds a little whimsical. After all, Ryckman says, “Advertising has supported journalism in our country for over a century.”

“Our feeling,” Ryckman continues, “is that online ads don’t provide the kind of money that a mature newsroom needs to support itself.”

So what does provide that kind of money?

Founded by CEO Matthew Iles in 2016, The Civil Media Company is a blockchain system approach to sustainable journalism.

“The Civil Media Company operates an underlying protocol called Civil,” explains Matt Coolidge, the company’s communications lead.

Civil (the protocol) is a shared set of accountability standards outlined in the Civil Constitution, to which newsrooms within the Civil Media Company network must adhere.

Put aside the distinction between the company and its protocol, and the idea is pretty straightforward: Civil is giving out sizeable grants to newsrooms deemed worthy (including The Colorado Sun) with the goal of becoming “a decentralized marketplace for sustainable journalism,” according to Civil’s website.

Staff of The Colorado Sun prepare for a press conference announcing the news publication at Civic Center Park on June 18, 2018. (Eric J. Lubbers/The Colorado Sun)

The Civil network currently hosts twelve domestic newsrooms, plus an international outlet in Bangkok.

What’s the difference between Civil and a hedge fund? “Each of the newsrooms, including The Colorado Sun, is fully independent,” Coolidge explains, reiterating, “We don’t have any equity in the companies.”

What Civil gets in return for its investment is a chance to build a big network of newsrooms, with the goal of developing a platform for discovery and sharing, a Facebookish user-economy of readers and journalists — without all the user-data harvesting, Coolidge quickly notes.

“We want to foster a massive developer community,” Coolidge explains, adding that Civil is predicated on “an app-store economy approach.”

Forget about Facebook now, and picture the Netflix homepage. Someday Civil hopes to achieve a similar outcome, customizing content for specific users, linking stories from various news outlets across the globe.

 Civil is preparing to release a CVL token, but Coolidge says, “For the majority of people experiencing Civil, cryptocurrency won’t be relevant.”

Civil pledged two years of funding to The Colorado Sun, and Ryckman notes that he and his colleagues aren’t being paid in cryptocurrency. “We’re being paid in U.S. dollars,” he says.

The Long Haul

Civil will help The Colorado Sun get off on its own two feet, but the long-term goal is to find a sustainable model of business.

Avoiding traditional funding mechanisms such as advertising, subscriptions, and paywalls, The Colorado Sun plans to rely on its readers to support it, similar to the Public Broadcasting Service model.

“If you like the content we provide, and you think it adds value to your life, then we hope you will consider supporting us,” Ryckman says.

While several similar newsroom concepts have failed since the closing of The Rocky Mountain News in 2009, Ryckman remains upbeat. Even in an era of unlimited free content, he thinks Coloradans still appreciate the value of quality journalism.

He might be on to something.

The Sun hopes to publish by Labor Day.

The Colorado Sun launched a Kickstarter campaign in June, with the goal of raising $75,000 in a month. With seven days to go, the newsroom had already fetched $133,218 dollars from 2,167 backers.

Money from the Kickstarter campaign will help The Colorado Sun fight for open records and expand its visual journalism presence. While the Kickstarter funds won’t pay the bills – “Our salaries and main expenses are being covered by Civil,” Ryckman says – the cash has provided something else valuable: hope.   

“We haven’t published a word yet, and so far the community has blown us away with their support,” Ryckman points out.

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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