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Feb. 10, 2022, 2:45 p.m.
Business Models

Boulder Reporting Lab, a new nonprofit newsroom, finds its footing in Colorado

Newsletter signups went up 60% following the news startup’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Marshall Fire. “We will not survive if we’re not meeting the information needs of our community. It’s not a side project we have. It’s just who we are.”

Launching Boulder Reporting Lab over Thanksgiving weekend in 2021 was not Stacy Feldman’s first time founding a news organization. In 2007, she co-founded Inside Climate News, an early single-subject nonprofit newsroom that went on to win a Pulitzer Prize. But that didn’t mean starting Boulder Reporting Lab felt routine.

“Round two cannot be more different, in some ways, than round one,” Feldman said. With Boulder Reporting Lab, she’s doing some on-the-job learning with fundraising and development. And then there’s the nature of the journalism itself:

“This is the first time in my career doing journalism in a place I live in — doing local journalism,” Feldman said. “It is rewarding in a way that I never would have, frankly, even imagined. The experience could not be more different. People email us and tell us their problems, and we drive over to go have conversations with them. I drop off my daughter at preschool in the city and a city council member’s dropping off his daughter and he says, ‘Hey, that was a great, important story.’”

“It’s a different kind of connection to your audience and it’s a different kind of responsibility,” she continued. “In journalism, we talk a lot about having to understand the needs of your audience. [At Boulder Reporting Lab,] we don’t really have a choice. We will not survive if we’re not meeting the information needs of our community. It’s not a side project we have. It’s just who we are.”

The leading news organization in Boulder for the past 130 years has been The Daily Camera, a newspaper controlled by Alden Global Capital. (Alden also owns the nearby Denver Post.) You are probably, depressingly, familiar with what has unfolded there. Staff and costs were cut and coverage, understandably, has suffered. Boulder Reporting Lab was launched “to fill a gap in Boulder-local, public interest daily journalism.”

“Like in many other places, this has opened up an opportunity for entrepreneurial efforts to step in and attempt to try to fill the gap,” Feldman said. “We’ve seen a lot of experimentation in our city; Boulder is a hub of research and innovation, and has a lot of creative people. But what we haven’t really seen is someone step in and really try to provide a daily source of news and information to the community.”

Looking for the gaps in existing coverage helped Boulder Reporting Lab stand out when a wildfire broke out in their community.

“It was a national story, a statewide story, and a regional story. It was crowded from a journalism perspective. We had to think very carefully about, how do we add value? We did not want to be redundant. We know that’s not how we’re going to succeed. It seemed to us there was a gap and an opportunity to help people navigate through some of the thorniest questions that they might have,” Feldman said. “If you lost your home, what do you need to do today?

A BRL story answering that last question published a day after the Marshall Fire destroyed 1,000 homes and businesses in Boulder County. Other coverage included filing for fire-related unemployment benefits, resources for displaced students, a guide to volunteering, and smoke mitigation in otherwise undamaged homes. During the wall-to-wall coverage, Boulder Reporting Lab grew its newsletter list by 60%.

Earlier in 2021, while Boulder Reporting Lab was still taking shape, Feldman interviewed Boulder residents to see what they felt was missing from the news ecosystem. What she heard was, on first glance, somewhat contradictory: They felt both under-informed (missing in-depth local reporting) and over-informed (feeling like they were drinking out of a firehouse of updates from the local government and social media sites including Facebook and NextDoor).

The Boulder Reporting Lab has just three editorial staffers. They’re hiring for another — a climate and environment reporter — now. Even with a small staff, they’re making in-depth journalism a priority. (“One thing we do not do is rewrite press releases,” Feldman said. “We do not spend our very scarce, valuable journalistic resources doing that.”)

The BRL Today newsletter, meanwhile, is one attempt to address the over-informed complaint.

Wednesday’s edition of BRL Today, for example, features a story about Boulder’s largest mental health provider cutting emergency services before moving on to sections that highlight the weather, a virtual town meeting about reconstructing after the Marshall Fire, an event for teachers of color, local Covid-19 data, links to other news outlets, including coverage of a proposed bill to offer free school meals throughout Colorado and a recent climate accountability lawsuit won by Boulder County, and more.

Currently, the newsletter goes out three times a week. The team published every day during its comprehensive Marshall Fire coverage but quickly found the pace wasn’t sustainable. Still, Boulder Reporting Lab hopes to make the newsletter daily once they have the staff to support it.

“One of the things we learned is that frequency matters,” Feldman said. “When we publish our newsletter, those are the days we get donations and those are the days we get subscribers. When we don’t, it falls off. So we are hoping to go back to daily.”

Feldman had set a goal of 10,000 newsletter subscribers by November 2022, when Boulder Reporting Lab will turn one year old. (Boulder has a little more than 100,000 residents, including plenty of University of Colorado students and employees of a number of scientific institutes.) The newsletter, just two and half months after launch, is already halfway to its goal with more than 5,000 newsletter subscribers.

Feldman chose the 1-in-10-residents goal, in part, to attract local sponsorships. The Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project is providing initial funding for Boulder Reporting Lab for “up to two years.” Feldman plans to grow the news startup into a sustainable business with a mixed revenue model:

“First is our sponsorship revenue. We’re launching a sponsorship program called Community Leaders. That’s number one,” she said. “Number two, of course, is reader revenue with a focus on building recurring donations. And number three is major donors and philanthropies.”

Feldman said she didn’t list those revenue streams in random order.

“We believe that sponsorship revenue, at this early stage, is where our largest potential lies at first,” she said. “That is why our North Star goal in this first year is building our audience and growing our list and reaching as many people as possible. We think if we do that, then we will be able to attract a lot more local business sponsors. That will unlock more revenue for us to be able to do more impactful journalism. And that, in turn, we think will unlock more reader revenue and, then, major donations and philanthropic giving.”

Boulder Reporting Lab is a nonprofit corporation that has filed for 501(c)3 tax exempt status. As part of their service-oriented tilt, Feldman is committed to keeping their journalism accessible and believes you don’t need — or even necessarily want — a paywall when building a local news business.

“I think the best opportunity for success for local news startups, particularly in small markets, is to be ‘free for all, paid for by some,’” Feldman said. “The paywall in a small market where you can’t scale is just a tough sell.”

Photo of Boulder, CO from Mt. Sanitas Trail by Keith Burton used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 10, 2022, 2:45 p.m.
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