Colorado Public News project seeks a foothold

Channel 12 and ex-Rocky reporters launch investigative news venture

| Mar 24, 2010


NEWSMAKERS: Envisioning a future for Channel 12’s Colorado Public News project were (l. to r.) Wick Rowland, Channel 12 KBDI CEO, Ann Imse, editor, Colorado Public News, and Henry Kroll, regional VP at Action Coalition for Media Education. (Reporter photo)
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 the idea.

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 size.

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 Education.

“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 more.

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…