Guest commentary: Colorado journalism needs public support
There was a time, not so long ago, when the two of us were foes in a “newspaper war.”
We thought that the winner would be in a position to thrive as the sole surviving major newspaper in the Denver metropolitan area.
Were we ever wrong.
John’s Rocky Mountain News died 10 years ago.
Greg’s Denver Post lives on, with about 70 journalists in a newsroom that once had 275.
The journalism world in Colorado — and nationally — has been turned upside down in ways we never anticipated.
As a result, instead of going head to head every day, the two of us are putting our heads together working on the Colorado Media Project, a concerted effort to sound the alarm about the decline of journalism and how we might build a brighter, more sustainable future.
On Sunday, the project released a report we think deserves the attention of anyone who cares about the state’s future.
It starts with a premise we both share: that quality journalism is essential to our democracy, and that without it, the state and country risk not having vibrant, engaged and informed communities.
The report sounds many alarms. Since 2010, the number of reporters or correspondents working in all media in Colorado has plummeted from roughly 1,000 to fewer than 600, a trend that shows no sign of abating, even while the state’s population is booming.
Since 2004, the state has lost 21 newspapers — almost 1 out of every 5. And there’s good reason to think more will suffer the same fate. Television and radio news staffs have declined, as well. There is lots of blame to go around from declining advertising revenue, changing news consumption habits, a premium on profits and questionable responses to the emerging digital landscape.
But our goal is not to be defensive or to depress you. Trust us, though. Things are bad enough that it’s fair to ask: In the years to come, how are Coloradans going to learn about and understand the rapidly-changing cities and state we live in, know who’s using their power for good or ill and who’s being hurt or helped by the decisions of our elected officials?
At one time, we believed that competition was the key to the kind of reporting that answers those questions. After all, it was competition that pressured us to dig up original stories and invest in new coverage areas when we were competing newspaper editors.
Today, we realize collaboration may be even more important than competition.
We want to offer solutions about how the public interest can continue to be served. It is a moment for experimentation and creativity.
That is why we believe it’s critical that Coloradans now seriously consider the project’s fundamental recommendation that public support — yes, the use of tax dollars — be one of the steps the state takes to help sustain and develop local public-service journalism.
We accept that even raising the specter of public support, which is already being tried in Canada and New Jersey, is controversial.
But there’s one thing we think the people of Colorado can’t afford to accept: Doing nothing.
If Coloradans want a healthy democracy, journalism is going to need help.
We believe Colorado should explore joining the 35 other states that provide state funding to support independent public media. In Colorado, the money could also support new and existing ventures committed to public affairs journalism.
There are lots of ways the state could do this, as our report points out. One would be to levy the state’s sales tax on advertising directed at Coloradans on global tech platforms like Google, Facebook and Amazon. The state already charges sales tax on some services, why not on digital ads?
Another would be to give local communities the power to raise revenue to meet their information needs, just the way the Denver metro area has done for the arts with its Scientific and Cultural Facilities District.
The report contains a number of other proposals that we hope galvanize more people to become involved, to take action to address a crisis that threatens the very fabric of our communities. We hope concerned Coloradans will generate new ideas or better versions of the ones put forth in the report.
One thing that is clear from research for this project: Advertising and subscriptions alone will not be enough to support the kind of media we think this state deserves, the way they once supported the Rocky and still support the Post.
We wish things were different. We kind of enjoyed being competitors. And never really wanted it to end.
But end it has. Whatever the future holds, we believe journalism must survive to illuminate the state’s trials and triumphs, to reveal who we are and help us see who we can be. To do nothing is too high a price to pay.
John Temple was the editor of the Rocky Mountain News from 1998 to 2009. Greg Moore was the editor of The Denver Post from 2002 to 2016. Today they are members of the Public Policy Working Group of the Colorado Media Project.
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