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Larry Ryckman: I’m a journalist and somehow still an optimist

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Journalism has always been a tough way to make a living. It’s generally offered low wages, the constant threat of layoffs and consolidations, and the opportunity on any given day to enrage just about everyone who might disagree with the facts and observations you share.

So why am I such an optimist about this business? It’s true that the facts about this essential branch of democracy are grim. Since 2004, about 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States. More than 100 local newsrooms closed just during the COVID pandemic. Hedge funds that buy publications have left a path of destruction in their wake, with furloughs, layoffs and cutbacks.

Many newspapers have become a shadow of their former selves. News deserts are spreading around the country, places where people have lost access to trusted local news sources, and where local coverage has disappeared.

But it isn’t journalism that’s failing. It’s the old business model that funded news outlets for more than a century by relying too heavily on paid advertising.

Four years ago, as a senior editor at the Denver Post, I was faced with a choice. I could accept the inevitability of that decline and help a hedge fund dismantle our Pulitzer prize-winning newsroom piece by piece, laying off friends and colleagues, while investors pocketed the profits. Or I could try something new.

I co-founded the digital-only Colorado Sun with nine Post colleagues and we launched in September 2018 with zero subscribers, zero members and a full-time staff of 10. But we also had plenty of determination and know-how.

Today, we have more than 200,000 subscribers, nearly 17,000 paying members, and a full-time staff of 25. We have been recognized as one of the best news outlets in our region for our public service and high-quality journalism.

We started with the premise that news matters, that readers — our democracy even — deserved more than the hedge funds were willing to provide. There’s a reason the Founding Fathers enshrined freedom of the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.

They knew that a healthy democracy depends on informed citizens, on journalists who ask uncomfortable questions and serve as a watchdog to those in power. Vladimir Putin understands the same thing all too well, which is why he has clamped down on and targeted the press in Russia.

The Colorado Sun developed a business model that is so simple it sounds naive: Give readers non-partisan journalism that is deeply reported, well-written and well-edited. Treat readers with respect. Don’t bombard them with pop-ups that get in the way of reading stories. Don’t lure them in with clickbait headlines or offer thinly rewritten press releases. Hold the powerful accountable. Celebrate the beauty around us and spotlight the people trying to make this a better world.

Our journalism is free to read for those who can’t afford to pay. We ask readers to support our work at whatever level they choose and to share our work with family, friends and colleagues. Our paying members provide most of our financial support, with the rest coming from philanthropy and sponsors.

I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished in four years, and I’m absolutely thrilled at the response not only from readers, but from journalists around the country who have been inspired in part by our success, just as we’ve been inspired by the Texas Tribune and others who came before us. Many have reached out seeking advice and tips as they contemplate creating their own news outlets. We’re happy to help.

The Poynter Institute, which studies, champions and supports journalism, says more than 70 local newsrooms launched in the United States in 2020 and 2021. More than 50 local newsletters started publishing in that time.

It’s difficult to see proud legacy newspapers in decline. But there is new energy and excitement all around us. Journalists, readers and philanthropists are talking about how news matters, how we all suffer when quality journalism goes away. I see growing support for new forms of journalism as we realize how important the profession is to our lives.

That’s cause for us all to be optimistic.

Larry Ryckman is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, an independent nonprofit dedicated to spurring conversation about the West. He is the editor and co-founder of the Colorado Sun in Denver.

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