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Feb. 18, 2014, 10 a.m.

After the demise of its network, The Colorado Independent is born again on its own

The Denver-based news site with a left-of-center history is staking its claim as a new iteration “run in Colorado by Coloradans.”

Susan Greene got the call about six weeks after she became editor of The Colorado Independent in early 2013: The American Independent News Network, which funded the nonprofit online news organization, was closing the site. At its peak, AINN had built a network of a half-dozen state-based sites to cover local government and politics from a left-leaning perspective. But over time, cutbacks trimmed their number until it was Colorado’s time to go too.

“It was disappointing, and a little confusing, and a little scary,” said Greene, a former Denver Post reporter and columnist.

But The Colorado Independent wasn’t willing to go quietly. Despite the impending closure, the Independent was able to stay afloat by wrangling funding from two local foundations, revamping its staff and updating its web presence — “Founded 2006. Born again, 2013,” the Independent’s homepage blares. And Greene says that, with a growing readership and plans to expand its staff, the Independent is primed to continue to grow.

One of the promises of digital media was that it would encourage a more networked kind of journalism — using the reduced cost of publishing to build news sites at multiple scales, benefiting from shared resources and the fact that any article is only a link away. But The Colorado Independent is an example of a news outlet moving in the opposite direction — from part of a network to a more focused solo player.

Since the Independent re-launched last year, Greene said the organization has been able to better focus its coverage on Colorado and not deal with management in Washington because “their mission, at AINN, was ever-changing, especially at the end…Essentially, there were some frustrations that there were generations of people coming and going in Washington. It wasn’t managed out of Colorado, and it needed to be managed in Colorado.”

But creating an independent Independent wasn’t a clean break. Though the Independent has since unveiled its own website and is editorially independent, AINN still serves as its fiscal agent as it waits for the IRS to grant it 501(c)3 status — a notoriously lengthy process for nonprofit journalism outfits.

“We feel really confident about our application because we don’t sell ads and we don’t sell subscriptions,” Greene said. “Those are the big red flags for the IRS. They don’t apply to us. Our relationship with AINN is that they are our fiscal sponsor. So, if people make donations to us, then they’re donating to AINN.”

(It’s a little unclear what AINN actually is these days. It hasn’t posted new content on its website since September, and judging by their Twitter and LinkedIn profiles, all the AINN staffers listed there now work elsewhere. When I asked Greene who I could talk to about AINN’s status, she directed me to David Brock, the conservative-turned-liberal who founded Media Matters for America and is listed as a member of AINN’s board of directors. Brock told me that AINN’s board has something in the works to revive the the organization’s remains, but he said it was too early to disclose the details of the plan.)

Most of The Colorado Independent’s funding since it relaunched has come from two local foundations — The Gill Foundation and the Bohemian Foundation — which had previously supported the Independent and AINN. It’s also more recently attracted what Greene called “sizable grants” from the Zell Family Foundation and the Douglas H. Phelps Foundation, in addition to “dozens of individual contributors, just people who read us and support us.”

She would not disclose how much the Independent has received in grants, but said the site is “within our budget, and we’re paying our bills, and we’re planning on growing actively.” Greene also said the Independent is in the process of attracting new donors to contribute.

But the Independent’s independence has come under scrutiny from some due to the site’s donor base. The Independent was denied credentials for its staffers to access the floor of the state Legislature during the 2014 session. A committee of five Colorado capitol correspondents reviews credential applications and then makes recommendations to legislative leaders on who should or should not be credentialed to get floor access.

The committee was created in 2008, and it has rejected requests from the Independent a number of times, said committee member Joe Hanel, a correspondent for the Durango Herald. He said the backers of the Gill and Bohemian foundations have been longtime Democratic supporters and are “credited widely with being indispensable in flipping the state House and flipping Colorado from a red state to a fairly blue state right now.” (The Washington Independent, which used to be AINN’s national news site, faced similar problems getting Congressional credentials a few years ago.)

“The [Colorado] Independent has been a vehicle to advance a partisan agenda for several years now,” Hanel told me. “It has a few different employees now, and they say they are very different, but the money remains the same.”

The Independent is still waiting on a final decision from the president of the state Senate and the speaker of the state House on whether it will be credentialed, but a lawyer representing the publication sent a letter earlier this month to the legislators calling the committee’s decision “counter-sensical.”

“The Colorado Independent, is, in fact, is a truly independent news organization, unbeholden to, and not operating under the auspices of, any political advocacy group,” attorney Steve Zansberg wrote.

Greene cites the site’s five-person staff, which includes former Denver Post and Rocky Mountain News staffers and is bolstered by a corps of freelancers, as a means of showing that the Independent is committed to nonpartisan journalism.

Only in late December did the Independent get the ability to track its own web analytics — AINN previously managed that — and in January it recorded 75,627 pageviews. Greene said she hopes to double or triple that this year, with plans in place to expand the staff and increase the amount of content it publishes.

POSTED     Feb. 18, 2014, 10 a.m.
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