Colorado Public News project seeks a foothold
Channel 12 and ex-Rocky reporters launch investigative news venture
by Bob Wells
IT WAS AN auspicious night to discuss the future of Colorado
journalism: a year and a day after the Rocky Mountain News published
its final edition. Ann Imse, a former Rocky reporter, and Wick
Rowland, CEO of Denver-based public television station KBDI Channel
12, spoke to a small Boulder group about journalism’s shriveling
present, and their plan for corrective action.
As Imse and Rowlands sketched it out, the 200-year-old model of
journalism being paid for by advertising is near-dead — killed by the
Internet, Google, Craigslist and all the rest. A familiar litany.
Their plan: an alliance, perhaps unique in the nation, between a
public TV station and a group of skilled professional journalists to
produce hard-hitting, deep-digging reporting and pump it out via the
web and the TV station. They call their still-unfunded project
Colorado Public News.
Doubly auspicious was the coincidence that this Boulder talk came 30
years, almost to the day, since a visionary group of mostly-Boulder
people first put Channel 12 on the air.
Rowland, former dean of the CU School of Journalism, has helped
oversee Channel 12’s move into local reportage via a couple of weekly
programs. But when Imse came to him with a proposal to put a team of
crack journalists under Channel 12’s umbrella, Rowland was ripe for
Need grassroots show of support
Their business model foresees a $2.3 million annual budget, with 24
percent of that coming from KBDI, the rest from major donors and the
community. Right now, they’re on the road seeking small-donor funding
(a handy web page makes it easy), because the big would-be funders
want to see evidence of such support first before they’ll make bigger
grants to the project. As a first step, the project needs $400,000 to
get rolling for half a year with half their hoped-for eventual staff
The meeting at Silver Sage Cohousing in North Boulder was hosted by
Henry Kroll, himself a public broadcasting veteran, formerly with KQED
in San Francisco and now, from Boulder, heading up Rocky Mountain
regional activities for the nonprofit Action Coalition for Media
“What we’ve got here is a model that is relatively unique in the
country right now of a public broadcasting station and a group of
trained, merit-based reporters and editors who are ready to do some
hard-hitting jouralism,” Rowland declared.
Hand-wringing over journalism’s fate
Imse explained how she and a group of former Rocky journalists got
together shortly after the paper’s demise for some serious
hand-wringing about the fate of news reporting. Surveying web-based
startups nationally, all of them searching for a business model, they
seized on the idea of partnering with an established public-TV station
that already has nonprofit status, a building, libel insurance and
To demo the concept, they’ve produced a five-part series searching for
answers about how to fix our healthcare system and focusing,
surprisingly, on successes in Grand Junction, Colorado (who knew?).
That in-depth series is up on their website. Some of this reporting
was given visibility on existing Channel 12 programming. But the plan
is for Colorado Public News to eventually have its own TV show.
You’d think big foundations funding journalism — names like the Knight
Foundation and the Pew Charitable Trusts — would be excited. But so
far, Rowland noted, they do great work funding major national TV shows
like Frontline but “they haven’t yet got their minds around supporting
core journalistic activity at the operational level.”
Journalism reinventing itself
Funding for public media in the U.S. is, in a word, pathetic, the two
noted, totaling about $2 billion annually, about one-fourth of which
comes from governmental bodies (by comparision, the BBC in the UK gets
$6 billion in annnual public funding). In their recent new book The
Death and Life of American Journalism, Robert McChesney and John
Nichols argue for government funding as the solution. In fact, they
argue, the democracy envisioned in the writings of America’s Founders
really doesn’t work without a vibrant Fourth Estate. But government
funding? In these budget-busted times?
Absent government funding, a variety of models are being pursued.
Rowland and Imse are watching what happens with community-focused
websites like Voice of San Diego, but this and a handful of similar
websites seem to all have a multimillionaire funder lurking in the
background. The two are inspired by how Paonia, Colorado-based High
Country News has gained reader support for its investigative reporters
through its Research Fund.
But the quest for a model for Colorado Public News may be dicey. Jim
Leach, developer of Silver Sage Cohousing and a resident there,
listened sympathetically and made some constructive comments. But he
said he doubted that the theme of “saving journalism” was a strong
enough rallying cry to raise the needed money. Saving the world maybe,
he mused. But saving journalism? Hmmm…