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In Denver, Civic-Minded 'Colorado Sun' Acquires Suburban Newspaper Chain

A sign from a rally against the ownership of the <em>Denver Post</em>, Alden Global Capital, in May 2018. Former <em>Post </em>journalists created the <em>Colorado Sun </em>that year; now the <em>Sun</em> has acquired two dozen suburban Denver papers.
David Zalubowski
A sign from a rally against the ownership of the Denver Post, Alden Global Capital, in May 2018. Former Post journalists created the Colorado Sun that year; now the Sun has acquired two dozen suburban Denver papers.

Updated at 4:35 p.m. ET

A group of disheartened former Denver Post editors and reporters launched an upstart news site 2 1/2 years ago, called it The Colorado Sun, and hoped it could rescue local news coverage from the dictates of hedge fund owners and Wall Street investors.

On Monday morning, The Sun announced had acquired and would operate a family-owned chain of 24 suburban newspapers around Denver in partnership with a new foundation focused on local journalism.

"These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering," Larry Ryckman, the editor-in-chief of The Colorado Sun, tells NPR. "They provide unique local coverage. And we're doing this so that we can preserve those voices."

The idea of a new digital start-up acquiring old-fashioned print newspapers might seem illogical: Many launch precisely because they do not see a sustainable path in print.

The acquisition took place as part of a partnership with the National Trust for Local News, a new nonprofit based in Colorado. It's seeking new and financially sustainable models for outlets to provide hyperlocal news reporting as coverage of many communities withers or even disappears.

The trust has been working on the transaction since November. It brought in The Sun about a month ago, according to its founder and CEO, Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro. "This is a new experiment with a different kind of financing and a different kind of ownership," Shapiro says. The Colorado purchase represents the trust's first such initiative.

In Denver, the Post is the dominant paper. Its owner, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is known for buying newspaper properties in financial distress and then squeezing greater profits from them. Alden appears poised to take over the newspapers of Tribune Publishing, which includes the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun, among other major metro dailies, and the suburban papers in the regions that surround them. (The Maryland hotel magnate and philanthropist Stewart Bainum Jr. is seeking partners to outbid Alden.) Ryckman says his team was intent on preventing that from happening in Denver.

Some of these papers date back more than a century: Ryckman noted the Golden Transcript is 153 years old.

"All too often these days, we all know who is first in line to buy newspapers, and that's hedge funds or the occasional billionaire," Ryckman says. "We couldn't count on a benevolent billionaire galloping up on a white horse. And we were worried about a hedge fund coming in. And this seems an ideal way for us to ensure that these community voices can continue and thrive and operate under local ownership."

The Colorado Sun, which will drive the papers editorially, is a public benefit corporation, which means it is a for-profit outfit that promises to perform a civic good in a way that is responsible and sustainable. The papers will now be run under the banner of the Colorado News Conservancy, the joint venture of the trust and the Sun.

A welter of non-profits are involved. The local news trust is also receiving help from the Colorado Media Project, an initiative supported by the Gates Family Foundation. And it currently has a tax affiliation with the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. The institute was set up by the late Gerry Lenfest, an entrepreneur and philanthropist who bought the Philadelphia Inquirer and Daily News and transferred their ownership to a major local foundation.

The papers have been owned by Jerry and Ann Healey, the owners and publishers of Colorado Community Media.

"We've worked hard to preserve the local integrity of these newspapers. They give their communities stories, information and government accountability they can't get anywhere else — and connect businesses directly with readers," Jerry Healey said in a statement. "This exciting partnership allows Ann and I to step back with a sense of gratitude, knowing these local voices will continue to be heard and that these news sources will not only thrive, but also innovate as they move forward under new local leadership."

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David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.
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