From our editor …
One year ago, 10 of Colorado’s most experienced journalists set out to create a news site that produces the kind of excellent journalism that our state needs and deserves. We developed a straightforward plan: Treat readers with respect and ask for their support. Now, we want to take this opportunity to thank readers and supporters for making all of this possible and to provide you with this, our first annual report.
Incorporating as a public benefit corporation, we declared our dedication to put community ahead of profit and “to produce high-quality, in-depth journalism that helps readers understand Colorado and their place in it, and to assure that this work is readily accessible to all potential readers in all parts of the state of Colorado.”
We believe we have delivered on that promise, and we have been incredibly gratified by the response from thousands of Coloradans who have become paying members of The Sun community and from the thousands of others who have subscribed to our newsletters. That support helps us produce photos and stories, by our staff and an amazing array of freelance journalists, that shed light on the people, places and issues that matter across our state.
We look forward to many more years of serving the people of Colorado.
What it means to be a public benefit corporation …
Under Colorado law, a public benefit corporation is a for-profit corporation “that is intended to produce a public benefit or public benefits and to operate in a responsible and sustainable manner.” Put more simply, it’s a company that cares as much or more about serving its community as it does about making money.
As a public benefit corporation, we receive no special tax breaks or other perks. It’s just about doing the right thing. And that includes being transparent with our community.
State law requires us to produce this annual report detailing the value we have brought to the community. It also requires us to conduct an assessment of how we’re doing against an independent standard. (More on that later.)
Our 2019 public benefit …
After our first year, we are proud to report that we have:
- Published more than 1,600 news articles, including more than 970 produced by our staff and an additional 180 pieces produced by a statewide network of correspondents. (All numbers presented here are current as of Sept. 1, 2019, so they may differ slightly from figures published elsewhere in this report or in our first anniversary magazine.)
- Told stories from every corner of the state — including more than 450 from locations other than Front Range.
- Had our work published in newspapers across the state as part of partnerships with more than 12 newsrooms. Our work also has been distributed nationally through our membership in The Associated Press.
- Published more than 400 opinion pieces and editorial cartoons offering perspective on Colorado issues and how life is lived in our state.
- Earned the support of nearly 6,000 paying members, as well as nearly 40,000 newsletter subscribers.
- Had more than 6.2 million pageviews from 2.7 million unique visitors, with each new month bringing our journalism to more Coloradans.
- Produced two major projects to help make government more transparent — our Polis Promise Tracker, which keeps tabs on whether the governor is living up to his campaign promises, and our Capitol Sunlight project, which educates readers on how to follow legislation at the state Capitol and how to get involved themselves.
- Had one of our stories quoted in a Colorado Supreme Court decision to explain concisely how the state’s famously complicated Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights works.
- Worked with journalism students at the University of Colorado to produce a project on the impacts of gentrification in Colorado.
- Given prominence to local authors by publishing more than 50 book excerpts, each with an author interview, as part of our SunLit collaboration with Colorado Humanities. Also helped sponsor that organization’s Colorado Book Awards.
- Won 16 awards in the Society of Professional Journalists’ regional Top of the Rockies competition and two awards in the 14-state Best of the West competition.
- Created a detailed ethics policy, based on input from our readers, that helps ensure our reporting is independent and free from outside influence.
- Hosted a forum at the University of Denver with the governor and top legislative leaders to allow readers to hear directly from policy makers about the just-completed legislative session.
- Participated in multiple panel and roundtable discussions about how to build sustainability for local news organizations and been deeply involved with the Colorado Media Project to work on solutions that all local newsrooms can use.
- Built a newsroom that is 100% owned and operated by local journalists.
- Helped launch Civil’s First Fleet of newsrooms, the beginning of what is now a global network of independent news organizations all working to build a sustainable future for journalism.
- Hosted international journalists from Costa Rica and Russia in an exchange designed to foster greater understanding of the challenges and various approaches to journalism worldwide.
An independent assessment …
For each annual report that we do, state law also requires us to evaluate ourselves against an independent, third-party standard. In other words, this report can’t just be an excuse for us to pat ourselves on the back. We have to hold ourselves accountable to a measurement of what it means to benefit the community.
While the standard has to be independent, the law allows us to do the actual measuring ourselves. But we are committed to asking hard questions of ourselves in order to improve as an organization and provide transparency to our readers, so we have done one better. We asked the folks at CU’s Media Enterprise Design Lab, which studies media ownership and governance, to evaluate us based on their measurements for what makes a successful, ethical news organization — no preconditions attached.
We chose this option for one big reason: It provides us with a standard that is specifically tailored to our work as journalists and was developed by people who have spent countless hours thinking about how to make journalism a more transparent and ethical business.What follows is their unedited report. We thank CU professor Nathan Schneider and research fellow Laura Daley for their time in evaluating us, and we look forward to working on the issues they have identified. A copy of this report can also be found on the Media Enterprise Design Lab’s website. Daley also wrote a blog post that is available here explaining more about how she and Schneider conducted the evaluation.
Colorado Sun Public Benefit Corporation Evaluation
Since its launch in September of 2018, The Colorado Sun has contributed in meaningful ways to communities across Colorado by producing local, ethical, well-researched journalism. Its success is illustrated not only by awards from outside organizations but also through tangible effects of public benefit through concrete action—from an investigation that led to the resignation of a doctor on the state Medicaid board to the use of an article in a state Supreme Court decision. In what follows, we offer an evaluation of The Sun in light of its stated purpose as a public benefit corporation and informed by third-party standards such as the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.
For an organization only one year into its life, we find that The Sun has carried out its public-benefit purpose to a remarkable extent, and it is on track to do so even further in the years to come.
Producing high-quality, in-depth journalism
In its first year as a publication, The Colorado Sun won multiple awards, including two from Best of the West and a Top of the Rockies award from the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Media Community Health Champion award from the Colorado Community Health Network. Readers regularly contact The Sun with praise and stories of how its reporting shifted their beliefs and perceptions. The journalists that comprise The Sun’s staff are experienced and credible, and their work has helped fill the gaps left by waves of layoffs among Colorado news organizations in recent years.
In partnership with the Civil network — and exceeding industry norms — The Sun uses “credibility indicators” to specify details about the sourcing of its original reporting.
Part of the public benefit offered by The Sun is its ambition for holistic coverage of all parts of the state. In many ways, The Sun met this goal, publishing stories from throughout Colorado, including a majority of region-specific coverage coming from outside the Front Range. Northern Colorado and the Eastern Plains have been comparatively under-covered, which the staff has identified as an area for improvement.
The newsroom of 10 includes 7 men and one person of color, which likely hinders The Sun’s efforts to represent the state’s full diversity. The staff recognizes this as a shortcoming to improve upon, and it is certainly not a unique circumstance in a news industry that presents systemic barriers to entry for members of marginalized communities. As a startup still working toward sustainability, The Sun is at a competitive disadvantage in recruitment, which compounds the challenge of fostering a more diverse newsroom.
The Colorado Sun website does not have a paywall, making it an accessible publication for anyone with internet access. A basic membership costs $5 per month, and the tiers progress gradually. Free email newsletters are also available to readers. The Sun’s funding model allows for a website free of advertising clutter and visual distractions, which also makes it congenial for screen readers.
Staff members report that membership and readership are relatively consistent with the population distribution of the state as a whole. Further efforts are being undertaken to increase The Sun’s brand recognition across Colorado and to ensure that what The Sun offers is more widely known.
Member support and sponsorships
With nearly 5,900 paying members, The Sun has secured substantial reader investment in the last year. This exceeded initial goals and provides 40% of revenue. Securing sponsorships, however, has been more difficult. Grants remain a major income source, although they are not part of the community-based revenue mix aspired to in the public-benefit statement.
A detailed ethics policy seeks to ensure that funders, donors and sponsors do not influence editorial matters. Yet as a fully journalist-run startup, the two editors have been heavily involved in managing sponsorships and other income. The separation between business and editorial decision-making thus remains incomplete.
The corporation itself
The Sun is currently owned by all of its 10 employees, which grants it unusual independence and local accountability in a region where many leading newspapers are owned by out-of-state entities. The ownership structure may change in the years to come, such as through new capital infusions, but the current owners have demonstrated a commitment to protect The Sun’s mission through its legal structure, such as with the public benefit corporation status that necessitates this report.
Measuring impact is difficult for any news organization, as journalism comes with distinct standards and responsibilities compared with other industries. This evaluation is an initial step toward developing a sustainable reporting process in keeping with the letter and spirit of Colorado’s statute for public benefit corporations. The Sun staff has been cooperative and forthright in this process, demonstrating an eagerness to learn from the evaluation. This is a company that, in its first year, appears to us to have lived by its commitment to provide public benefit to the state and the people of Colorado.
In conclusion …
It’s amazing to see how far we have come in this first year, building a newsroom and an audience from scratch. But we owe all of that progress to the support we have received from our readers. We cannot express enough our appreciation to everyone who has made The Colorado Sun possible, and we promise that we will have even more exciting accomplishments in the service of our state to share with you next year.
From all of us at The Colorado Sun, a heartfelt and grateful thank you.