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March 30, 2018, 11:02 a.m.
Reporting & Production

After big Denver Post layoffs, the Fort Collins Coloradoan thinks beyond local

A neighborhood watch Facebook group, reader chatbot, and a state-focused project: “We all serve the greater Coloradoan community and we each have parts to play in that.”

Local news in Colorado — and no, this isn’t about layoffs.

While some corporate-owned outlets like The Denver Post have been gutted and new ventures like Denverite have had to make cuts as well, about an hour’s drive north of Colorado’s capital city is the Fort Collins Coloradoan, which was named to Editor and Publisher’s 2018 list of top pioneering newsrooms.

The Coloradoan, with a newsroom of 20 people, has been mentioned in previous Nieman Lab coverage and recognized for its resourcefulness in digital experimentation. Owned by Gannett and witness to its own layoffs, the team has grown subscriptions, participated in Gannett pilots (comments-be-gone, for 90 days starting April 1) and experimented themselves with Facebook Groups, a chatbot, and local ticketed and free events. The Coloradoan has 22,000 print and/or digital subscriptions with a year-over-year paid subscription growth of 994 subscribers in early December 2017; Fort Collins, Colorado’s fourth most populous city, has a population of about 170,000.

“We want to just try everything and see what difference we can make. We want to see how we might be able to help shape the future of local news from our corner of the country,” said Jennifer Hefty, the Coloradoan’s content strategist.

“We don’t get too caught up in what we did yesterday or ten years ago. There are very few sacred cows in this room,” said Eric Larsen, the Coloradoan’s news director. “That’s really freed us up to — if I’m going to be cliché — experiment, fail fast, and really see where we can play with the levers and see what works and what doesn’t.”

In January, the Coloradoan launched a neighborhood watch Facebook group that included local police and fire spokespeople. The group now has more than 1,500 members and a surprisingly low level of drama: Hefty and other reporters post updates about local crime and mischief, and only one person has had to be removed for disobeying the rules. Two Coloradoan reporters, a Facebook page from the city, and the local fire authority are all admins on the page, which is billed as a collaboration (not a substitute for 911). While some members debated about the recommended speed in the left lane while driving and reminded others that it’s illegal to run over geese, Hefty and the other Coloradoan staffers shared posts answering questions about a bullet found in an elementary school classroom and a dead body on the side of the road. The fire authority also shared its post about how potting soil can catch on fire — all reminders that, from road-hogging geese to flammable dirt, local news matters to local people.

“We’re looking to create just that pipeline for their information that they’re providing to the public,” Larsen said, adding that the fire authority’s spokesperson is a former reporter, “so we have a good working relationship.”

And it’s made an impact on their Facebook traffic, especially as the algorithm shifts toward Groups and away from Pages. Hefty had noticed that other neighborhood watch groups had popped up, but none existed for Fort Collins yet — though when they would post a relevant Coloradoan story, readership on the page would spike immediately compared to a post from the general Coloradoan account. “We were sharing it with an audience that was super-invested instead of just everyone who follows us,” Hefty said. The trend has carried over with their own group, and Facebook’s News Feed changes “certainly validated my idea in that brands pushing out all of your stories en masse to your audience isn’t necessarily reaching the right people.”

That Facebook group joins the Coloradoan Influencers group in the organization’s Facebook strategy, though the latter is mostly used as an “expanded community editorial board,” Larsen said, to solicit reader feedback and ideas. As the group intro states: “The purpose of the group is to create a place for conversation about the issues facing Fort Collins and how the Coloradoan should cover them. It’s not just a two-way conversation between you and Coloradoan staff members; it’s also a multi-directional conversation with others who can help us unpack complex topics. You can ask questions about Coloradoan coverage choices and processes. You can contribute by sharing story ideas or questions you have.”

For more expedited reader interaction, Hefty also developed a Facebook Messenger chatbot for the Coloradoan. “That’s become part of our regular workflow now,” Larsen said. “The bot is used to answer some basic reader interaction questions: ‘How do I submit a press release?’ ‘How do I send my engagement announcement?’ ‘What’s going on on Mulberry Street? I just saw three cop cars race by me.'” The bot has a few predetermined answers but also gives the option to talk to a real human as soon as possible — a job that falls to the editor on rotation, Larsen said. “If someone’s got a question, we do our best to answer as quickly as we can.”

Hefty also devised an introductory guide for their audience to use the bot, buoyed by the principles of Trusting News, which the Coloradoan has participated in. “It was important to have a set goal [for the bot] at the outset,” she said. “Did we want it to act like a human or function as an alert [system]? How is this authentic in a way that builds trust? Instead of just pushing out stories, how do we make it feel as if we’re messaging with a friend?”

Hefty keeps a spreadsheet full of ideas to delve into next, from voice to drones. “We do podcasting so [voice] is an easy platform for that. But what does voice look like with our storytelling? What does local news look like with that technology?” she said. The Coloradoan has a flash briefing on Alexa already, but ultimately, Hefty hopes that users will be able to ask questions like “Hey Alexa, what’s the best brewery in Fort Collins?”

Larsen described the Coloradoan’s event strategy as vital to its community engagement trifecta. Ticket sales brought in more than $30,000 in 2017. The company also organizes free events like News and Brews, inviting audiences to chill sessions at a local brewery. The Storytellers project is a ticketed part of a Gannett initiative, though Larsen said they’re also looking to start one-time forums on a topic and are gearing up for the summer’s food truck rallies.

As other Colorado newsrooms get squeezed, Larsen, Hefty, and the Coloradoan are exploring options to strengthen their local reporting with regional projects or a content-sharing system with smaller outlets. The Coloradoan was also a major force behind a digital public records law passed by the state legislature last year.

“We’re Colorado’s northernmost outpost as far as our coverage area. But I think there is an opportunity to work from a broader perspective on Colorado issues,” Larsen said. For instance, the paper is doing a year-long project called “Sacrificing Our Schools” that investigates public education funding in the state.

“As Colorado wrangles with its budget and things like teacher retention and graduation rate, it affects our economy and the vibrancy of our culture. We want to continue to work on that from a statewide angle,” Larsen said. “Part of it, too, is looking at other places as partners in this greater news ecosystem. We all serve the greater Coloradoan community and we each have parts to play in that.”

Photo by Erika Moore/Fort Collins Coloradoan from the Coloradoan’s July Food Truck Festival last summer, used with permission.

POSTED     March 30, 2018, 11:02 a.m.
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