An intriguing new approach to saving local newspapers is percolating in Aurora, Colorado.
The Sentinel, a strong weekly with daily email newsletters, was acquired this month by a holding company that’s pursuing a Green Bay Packers-style model of community ownership, with shares sold to residents and supporters.
The goal is to have local owners save an essential local news source, and perhaps create an approach other communities can use to save their newspapers.
Dave Perry, The Sentinel’s longtime editor, said the Packers model “is perfect for Aurora.”
“This is not a rich place by any means but people are incredibly generous and dedicated,” he said.
That showed when the paper, which has 12,000 subscribers and 480,000 monthly page views, sought additional support as its business struggled in recent years.
“Each time we’ve come forward and said we were there for you … people showed their appreciation with long-term donations as well as really substantial one-time donations,” Perry said. “I think that speaks to the probable success of asking the community to take ownership of the paper in some way.”
The Sentinel’s new approach is bold at a time when newspaper production costs are rising and the economy is likely to make it harder to generate support from individuals and charitable organizations.
Yet there’s something in the thin, mountain air that inspires entrepreneurial journalists. In recent years the Denver area emerged as a hub for experimenting with new approaches to saving local news coverage.
After a hedge fund acquired The Denver Post in 2010 and steadily gutted its newsroom, veterans and others launched local news outlets and organizations for them to collaborate and generate community support.
Notably, Post veterans started the online Colorado Sun in 2018, which grew from 10 to now 25 full-time staff. Last year it acquired a chain of 24 suburban papers, in partnership with the nonprofit National Trust for Local News.
That chain stayed out of Aurora because The Sentinel covered the area well, Mark Harden, former editor of the suburban chain, told me.
“They punch above their weight,” he said. “They traditionally have under the previous ownership, in terms of how well they cover Aurora.”
But The Sentinel took a financial beating during the pandemic, losing half its advertising. Its owner, James Gold, decided to focus more on his company providing technology to media companies.
Even as advertising dried up, The Sentinel’s importance shined during the pandemic, showing how much it needs to continue serving the diverse, fast-growing city of around 389,000 people.
Joaquin Alvarado, an Oakland, California-based consultant who has also worked with The Seattle Times, stepped in and led formation of a holding company to preserve the paper while the new ownership model is developed.
Alvarado also put up between $50,000 and $100,000 to continue running operations and paying the 11 employees, including a newsroom of seven.
Perry said that’s down from 40 people a decade ago. The infusion is also being used to hire more business-side workers “so we can pedal revenue back.”
Alvarado said The Sentinel “has enormous value but it’s been whittled down.”
To preserve local coverage that’s especially needed in places like Aurora, it makes more sense to save and grow existing outlets, rather than let them die and start all over, Alvarado said.
“The smartest money is protecting these ones that have the credibility. You’re not starting over … they’re already here,” he said.
Stabilizing the paper might cost a few hundred thousand dollars versus a few million to start one from scratch, he said.
The Sentinel is also an opportunity to try a Green Bay model of a for-profit local news outlet sustained by community ownership, tuned up business operations and philanthropic support.
Alvarado learned about the Sentinel situation while working with the Colorado News Collaborative, or COlab, an organization that’s helping 170 outlets across the state share resources and work together on stories.
Gold proposed giving the paper to COlab but it wasn’t set up to operate one, so the temporary holding company was created, COlab Executive Director Laura Frank said.
Although Aurora isn’t as wealthy as Denver, Frank believes the community has the resources to support the paper and hopes it has the resolve.
“I try to remain optimistic but there is no guarantee here,” she said. “It all comes down to whether the community will support their news source.”
Others are cheering on the effort, including Larry Ryckman, editor of the Sun.
“We need new ideas in our business, we need new ways of doing things,” he said. “I’ve said before journalism isn’t dying, it’s the old business models that are dying. We need fresh ideas.”