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March 1, 2022, 11:03 a.m.
Reporting & Production

Denver is NewsBreak’s “test market” for original local news on a national app

For the past few months, the Mountain View, Calif.–based NewsBreak has been paying full-time and part-time journalists in Denver, along with a dedicated editor, to publish local news on its platform.

NewsBreak, which calls itself “the nation’s leading local news app,” has been trying something new in Denver. The national company’s gambit is to see if the app can gain traffic, engagement, and downloads by providing — wait for it — original local news.

There was no big splash or news conference like we’ve seen from startups Denverite and The Colorado Sun. Not even a press release touting its hires like Axios Denver.

But for the past three months at least, the Mountain View, Calif.–based NewsBreak has been paying full-time and part-time journalists in Denver, along with a dedicated editor, to publish local news on its platform. NewsBreak, which claims 45 million users, has also inked deals with Denver’s CBS4, KBCO radio, Axios Denver, and Sports Illustrated’s Mile High Huddle.

The company pays those outlets to republish some of their content in full on its widely used app. (These deals aren’t unique to Denver; the app pays news outlets elsewhere, too.) Also on the NewsBreak Denver app, the platform publishes headlines and ledes of stories from other news sites it doesn’t partner with and sends readers directly to the outlet with a link. Because of its large user base, some news managers say the app can be among their largest web traffic referrers — and sometimes the largest.

“Because the app is pretty popular, it does two things,” said NewsBreak Denver’s editor, Sara Hansen, who was previously a breaking news editor at The Denver Post. “In some cases, it’s helping supplement the budgets of these news sources, and in other cases, it’s driving traffic to them.”

All of this is another indication that a national company sees a potential audience it can monetize with the help of (and by providing) local news. And the development once again makes Colorado the setting for a local journalism experiment.

“For a variety of reasons — largely because the app is very popular in Denver and they’ve got a pretty high engagement rate in Denver — they decided to use Denver as a test market,” said Hansen, who was recruited by NewsBreak via LinkedIn and started Dec. 1.

Denver, she said, is the only city where NewsBreak has a paid staff.

The local team includes full-time staffer Steven Bonifazi, who covers Covid-19, lifestyle, mental health, and more; Margaret Jackson, who reports on business; Matt Whitaker, who covers natural resources, energy, and climate; David Heitz, who reports on Denver City Hall and homelessness; and Brittany Anas who covers travel, restaurants, and lifestyle. They work remotely and stay connected over the web.

NewsBreak just hired Heather Willard as its public safety reporter and is hiring a part-time general assignment reporter this month. “And then we’re hoping to hire more,” Hansen said.

As for the tweet above, what makes Heitz different from those other 1,400 creators for the app, Hansen said, is that he’s a paid staffer and others are paid by the click.

In Denver, she says, NewsBreak content breaks into three categories: Denver news staff content, aggregated media content, and contributor network content. “In other markets,” Hansen says, “it’s just aggregated media and contributor network.”

The app, backed by more than $100 million of investor capital, also generates revenue from ads and sponsored content. Its push alerts are frequent. In February, the company hired veteran producer Jim Bell of the Today Show and Tonight Show to oversee strategy. “NewsBreak’s ambition is to re-invigorate local news using cutting edge AI technology and old-fashioned journalism,” he said in a statement.

As for the unique Denver team’s approach to reporting original local news, Hansen says she’s trying to do second-day, big-picture, and trend stories, and to put the news of the day into context. NewsBreak can aggregate breaking stories from elsewhere so its journalists don’t need to jump on everything. Hansen acknowledged some had criticized an earlier iteration of the app for promoting clickbait and is trying to mitigate that. (The site is still getting popped for it.)

While this particular experiment is specific to Denver, it’s not the first time the company has tried to move beyond derivative aggregation. Last fall, Digiday explored NewsBreak’s reinvention “after about a year of trying to get into the original content business.” From that piece:

In the fall of 2020, NewsBreak’s original content aspirations got off to a buzzy start among freelancers, thanks to an offer that few other platforms or outlets could top: Guaranteed minimum payments of $1,000 per month for those who qualified.

At the time, NewsBreak was asking for content that might complement the hard news it was aggregating from other outlets, and it had no problems taking content that had already been published elsewhere, a boon to writers who had been trying to eke out income using other platforms including Medium. Many quickly uploaded dozens of pieces that had already been published elsewhere on the internet. 

That quickly changed. By the spring of 2021, NewsBreak wanted news from writers’ local communities instead, which it would rate using a ten-point scale, called a CV score, with higher-rated content getting surfaced more and its writers getting paid more. The CV score took several things into account, including how localized, differentiated and well-written the content was. Before long, NewsBreak changed again, discarding the scoring system and asking for local features built using original reporting, which it would either accept or reject.

Now, it looks as if NewsBreak is trying out something else again. And “right now Denver is the test,” Hansen says.

Earlier this month, Sentinel Colorado managing editor Kara Mason, who’s based in Aurora, asked Twitter what the deal was with NewsBreak, wondering if it was “just another website ripping off local journalism again.” She says she posted that tweet because she felt that some original stories NewsBreak published about Aurora were fairly close to what her independently owned weekly newspaper had reported, like one about Aurora deciding not to reopen a decades-old adult daycare.

“If we’re covering the same things, I don’t know who’s benefiting from that,” Mason says. Sure, it’s “original,” she added, “but is it?” Mason thinks the Sentinel has City Council covered, for instance.

My own introduction to NewsBreak was interesting. About a year ago, someone from the company reached out on LinkedIn saying they’d stumbled across this newsletter, and asked if I wanted to talk about potentially joining the platform in some capacity. I downloaded the app, but it didn’t wind up becoming a go-to for my Colorado Springs news consumption. Over Zoom one day I chatted with one of NewsBreak’s representatives about this newsletter, and the person indicated the app wanted to get into local original content … somehow. They gave me an $80 Amazon gift card for my time.

I hadn’t thought about the app much since then until I saw Mason’s tweet. It was around the time that a story by NewsBreak Denver’s David Heitz, about his personal experience with homelessness, was bouncing around my social media feed.

The experience on the streets, he told me, was “pure hell,” when I reached out to him sometime after reading it to ask about his relationship with the app. “Writing for NewsBreak just makes me feel very alive again after such a dark period,” he said. “And it’s such a great fit. I sort of feel like I did when I worked for Los Angeles Times Community News as an editor in the 1990s. They were in a big expansion phase and the company culture was just so positive. NewsBreak is like that, too.”

Heitz said he’s been writing for the app for 16 months (his profile shows he has nearly 7,000 followers there) and the company has moved from pay-by-the-click to an hourly wage, at least in Denver. “You definitely feel very much a part of a community writing for NewsBreak, compared to other freelance gigs I’ve had,” he said.

Following HuffPo Denver in 2009, Denverite in 2016, The Colorado Sun in 2018, and Axios Denver in 2021, NewsBreak enters well-trodden ground in the local news game. It will be worth watching how it plays out and whether what it learns here will inform future markets.

“It’s early on, but the powers that be are happy with it,” Hansen says, adding, “They’re in the process of starting two more pilot projects in Pennsylvania and Arizona.”

Corey Hutchins is the interim director of the Journalism Institute at Colorado College. This piece is republished from his “Inside the News in Colorado” newsletter, which is underwritten by Colorado Media Project and Grasslands and comes out each Friday. Subscribe here.

POSTED     March 1, 2022, 11:03 a.m.
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