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Better together: Colorado nonprofit news site I-News and Rocky Mountain PBS join forces

The three-year-old I-News leaves the ranks of small nonprofit news startups and finds a broader audience by merging with Colorado’s largest public TV station.

Nonprofit news sites have a knack for pairing up. It’s a birds-of-a-feather type of thing — or maybe just the ability to recognize how each other’s skills can be mutually beneficial.

In Colorado, several news outlets are making a partnership a little more permanent. I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, Rocky Mountain PBS, and radio station KUVO are merging to create a cross-platform news operation that can better cover the state. The newly combined newsroom will continue the investigative focus that has been the mission of I-News since it was founded in 2009, while also expanding day-to-day news reporting and arts coverage.

For Rocky Mountain PBS, the move helps strengthen their news division and allows the station to become more competitive. For I-News, the merger is a little bit like a startup finding the right exit: The work and mission will continue, while the funding questions get addressed with greater resources.

I-News and Rocky Mountain PBS have partnered on various stories and projects for years, said Laura Frank, executive director of I-News. Collaboration has always been a part of the work I-News has done, and the merger is a continuation of that. “I think what we’re able to do with both will be of tremendously greater value to the public than any of us are able to do alone,” she said. Doug Price, president and CEO of Rocky Mountain PBS, said audiences in Colorado will see the effects of the merger immediately, online, on TV and radio, and at live public events. “It’s audacious,” he said. “To our knowledge no one else is doing what we are in terms of levels of service.”

Joining forces means projects like I-News’ new investigation, “Losing Ground,” which looks at economic disparities between Colorado’s black and Latino residents and the rest of the population, will have broader reach across the state. But Frank said they’ll also continue their relationships with other partners like The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio, and KUSA, a Gannett-owned NBC-affiliate in Denver. “In the old model, this would have been the end, publication,” Frank said. “Now broadcast and publication are just the beginning.”

“Broadcasting now is like golf. You don’t get to pick the ball up and move it. You have to play the ball as it lays.”

Like many nonprofit news sites, I-News was born out of layoffs. But in this case, it wasn’t a workforce reduction — it was when Scripps closed The Rocky Mountain News in early 2009. Frank, a Denver native, was an investigative reporter at the Rocky when the paper was shuttered. Though she never planned on being an entrepreneur, Frank said she couldn’t look past the void left by the demise of the Rocky.

Quite a few other startups were spawned by the death of the Rocky, with names like The Rocky Mountain Independent, Inside the Rockies, and INDenverTimes, but most struggled to find a foothold. Now, almost three years into I-News’ life, Frank said the challenge for independent media is developing a stronger relationship between the public service aspects of journalism and public support for that work.

“What you have to do is get to the point not only where you have the capacity to do this kind of journalism that legacy media has difficulty doing, but also have the capacity to build sustainability,” Frank said.

I-News drew support from organizations like Knight Foundation, McCormick Foundation, and The Fund for Investigative Journalism among others. Frank told me I-News comes into the merger with its budget for the year funded. Finding a lasting business model has been tricky for nonprofit news sites, with many trying to find ways to become less reliant on foundation support. Rocky Mountain PBS provides a new measure of institutional stability. Price told me the station went from 47,000 supporting members to 63,000 over 18 months.

For the 2012 fiscal year, Rocky Mountain PBS had operating expenses of $10.9 million and brought in $11.6 million in revenue, through support from members, foundations, underwriters and others. With the increased operational costs from the merger, about $500,000 for I-News, the membership support will have to rise, he said. “We have a risk with what we’re doing,” he said. “We have to increase our membership between 7,000 and 8,000 people to put the foundational support under I-News.”

I-News will bring its five reporters, all veterans from the Rocky, into a newsroom that includes reporters for Rocky Mountain PBS as well as journalists from smaller public media or independent media outlets that use the station’s space. Price said the total reporting staff should be around 12.

Rocky Mountain PBS is Colorado’s largest public television operator. But as a legacy operation, the process of adapting to the changes in media, in particular how news is produced and distributed, has been slow, Price said. The merger isn’t a reset so much as a faster way to change direction. “Broadcasting now is like golf,” Price says, “you don’t get to pick the ball up and move it. You have to play the ball as it lays.”

Price expects the membership growth to come organically, thanks largely to the increased news coverage that will result from the merger. One component of that, he said, will include community events. For the “Losing Ground” series, for example, the station is holding community discussion events around the state. The merger allows them to invest in the new ways people consume news, but also transform the relationship the audience has with journalism. “Public media can tend to be nostalgic, old, or elite,” Price said. “And we don’t want to be that. We want to be adaptable.”

Image by Russ Glasson used under a Creative Commons license.

                                   
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