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March 13, 2024, 2:20 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The National Trust for Local News buys a “mission-driven” printing press in Colorado

“Demand has gone down for printed newspapers, but the supply chain for providing newspapers in a printed format is collapsing faster than the natural interest in a printed newspaper.”

Plenty of talk in newsrooms these days might be about how to navigate new technologies like artificial intelligence — but one string of Colorado newspapers is jazzed about a decidedly retro development.

The National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit that has been buying newspapers in multiple states and investing in their modernization, has gone a step further in its mission to help sustain local news.

The group recently purchased a used printing press from Canada, and is set to transport it in the coming weeks from the state of Washington to a rented facility in a warehouse district in Denver; a press operator recruited from New York will run it.

There, the four-tower Goss Community Press will handle printing for the Trust-owned Colorado Community Media and its two dozen hyperlocal newspapers in the Denver suburbs.

The move will allow CCM to cut its contract with The Denver Post and do its own print runs in-house. But a new printing machine rumbling away in Denver is also likely to benefit other Colorado papers that unexpectedly lost their printer last summer when Gannett abruptly mothballed its workhorse press at The Pueblo Chieftain to save money.

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That destabilizing event just six months ago had sent some 80 publications, including multiple Spanish-language papers, scrambling for a new printing press. The closure pushed several newsrooms to make deals with faraway printers in neighboring states, forced a resurrected Chicano newspaper to go online-only, and led one paper on Colorado’s rural Eastern Plains to close shop entirely.

What rattled Colorado might also serve as a warning for others elsewhere, says Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, the CEO and co-founder of the National Trust for Local News.

She noted that rising costs for raw materials, labor, and transportation are squeezing publishers. And she was well aware of a September 2023 study by a working group made up of multiple journalism advocacy nonprofits in Colorado that painted a dire picture of the future for the state’s newspaper printing industry.

“This is a problem in Colorado we’re trying to solve in Colorado, but I think this is going to be a problem that’s going to roll across the country,” Hansen Shapiro said.

“What’s really important and exciting about this development,” she added, “is that we’re basically showing how we can begin, from scratch, a right-sized, mission-driven commercial printing operation that, yes, serves the mission-driven papers that we own, but that can also serve small publishers in these ecosystems.”

The goal is for newspapers to begin rolling off the new Denver press in May.

“We acted very quickly on this”

That the National Trust is launching a printing experiment in Colorado might not come as the biggest surprise to media observers here. In 2021, the organization pioneered a unique-in-the-nation model for local newspaper ownership when it took over the Colorado Community Media papers from a couple who’d reached retirement age and wanted out of the business. Some worried the papers might wind up in the hands of a private equity group or other corporate chop shop — so the news was welcome in Colorado, which has seen the destruction caused by hedge-fund journalism.

The National Trust has since replicated that model in Georgia and Maine.

The money behind the National Trust’s first Colorado deal came from a coalition of local and national philanthropic investors including the Denver-based Gates Family Foundation and The Colorado Trust, a private foundation that focuses on making “positive changes for people and communities.” Lately, that organization has been financially supporting the state’s local news environment, as have others like the Colorado Health Foundation, which recently joined a cohort in Colorado as a state chapter of the Press Forward national fundraising campaign.

The Colorado Media Project, a nonprofit that formed in 2018 to research and help strengthen the local news ecosystem and now operates a funder coalition, helped facilitate the newspaper ownership deal; CMP was also integral in the printing press effort. (Colorado Media Project is an underwriter of my weekly newsletter about the Colorado media scene and I do some research for the group; I didn’t learn the details about the new printing press until recently.)

While the latest development in Colorado is notable because of the nature of it — National Nonprofit Newspaper Owner Buys Local Printing Press in 2024 — it also underscores the state’s unique orthodoxy of collaboration and how swiftly publishers, newsrooms, and others can swarm on solutions with an “ecosystem approach” to local news sustainability.

“We acted very quickly on this,” said Colorado Media project director Melissa Milios Davis, who helped wrangle financial support for the new press. “We were both in a position to know that this was an issue because of our close relationship with the Trust and our other grantees in the ecosystem, and we already had some research in place, which is something that funders really rely on.”

Multiple groups, she said, acted as a coalition.

“No one funder alone could have coughed up $900,000 in a couple weeks, which is really what we turned it around in,” Davis said.

Funders for the printing press included the Gates Family Foundation, the Bohemian Foundation, and The Colorado Trust.

In the past four years, The Colorado Trust, which focuses largely on health equity issues, has spent close to $3 million to support local news in Colorado because it wants to help ensure a healthy news and information ecosystem, said its program manager, Johanna Ulloa Girón.

When Gannett scrapped its regional press in southern Colorado in August, it affected some of The Colorado Trust’s own media grantees and threatened their viability.

“The way that [a lot of communities] relied on trusted information was printed,” Ulloa Girón said. As part of the coalition, she worked with a consulting firm that put together a proposal for buying a new press and did due diligence to make sure investors were comfortable enough with the business plan to pony up.

“As printing costs in Colorado began rising, effectively leading to the shut down of critical hyperlocal news sources, it became apparent that another gap in the health equity landscape required attention,” she said. “While we recognize that printing presses are no longer the sole means of providing trusted community information, for specific communities they remain the only trusted source of hyperlocal news.”

For an organization that focuses on health equity, supporting an ecosystem that allows local journalism to thrive fit with the foundation’s mission. And that included helping fund the purchase of a new printing press.

Ulloa Girón acknowledges that foundations elsewhere might be hesitant to financially support local media if doing so isn’t already a part of their mission.

“What I would like to say to a lot of those foundations is that there are people with the acumen, knowledge, and experience that can help you with this process,” she said. “And I think this is a perfect example of that. None of us knew how a printing press works. None of us knew how [to create] a business model for a business that some people think is a dying profession. But we found the people that were experts and we were able to find information. So, I think it’s an invitation for other foundations to think, even within their staff if they don’t have the acumen to make those decisions, there’s a lot of people in Colorado who do.”

Physical printing can still make sense

Linda Shapley, a former editor for large metro Colorado newspapers who now serves as publisher of Colorado Community Media and its scattered suburban newsrooms, said in the three years she’s been at the job printing costs have spiked by roughly half.

“I need to find a way to bring those back under control or else I have to keep doing what I’m doing — which is raising how much it costs for a subscription and figuring out all these other different revenue models that just don’t help us keep up,” she said.

To be sure, CCM is not all in on print; the newspaper group went through a recent website update, is partnering with the Newspack platform for its content management system, launched a suite of digital newsletters, and has drafted an AI policy.

Across the country, newspaper printing isn’t exactly a growth industry. The combined average circulation for the top 25 newspapers in the United States tumbled by 14% last year, according to the U.K. outlet Press Gazette, which tracks such trends. The Los Angeles Times just this week ran its last print run off of its “storied” press, choosing to outsource its production.

“Certainly, demand has gone down for printed newspapers — we all see the circulation — but the supply chain for providing newspapers in a printed format is collapsing faster than the natural interest in a printed newspaper,” said Amalie Nash, who lives in Colorado and heads transformation for the National Trust for Local News.

Indeed, Shapley and others say some of their readers are not willing to give it up and it still makes sense to print physical copies. She expects her 23 weekly newspapers will make up roughly 50% of the new printing press capacity and hopes CCM will be able to offer a local home to some of the papers pushed out of Colorado following the Gannett closure — or bring back some that went digital-only and had given up on print altogether.

She acknowledged that printing presses “are things that you use to make money,” but she and others said having a “mission-driven” new press facility would mean offering rates that could benefit smaller publications in the area while perhaps also bringing down costs throughout the region.

Jesús Luis Sánchez Meleán, who runs a Spanish-language newspaper in the Denver area called El Comercio de Colorado, is one of those Gannett shutdown casualties that now prints several thousand copies off of a Cherry Road Media press in Kansas twice a month.

While he said the National Trust’s purchase of its own press “is opening a new strategy for printing in Colorado,” he’s taking a wait-and-see approach. Switching printers once already required him to overhaul the format and design of El Comercio in order to save money.

“If this new technology helps us it would be great, but we need to wait until this is in operation,” he said. “The important point here is that this is an introduction of a new technology for helping small publications.”

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What the National Trust’s press won’t do, however, is bring back the Eastern Colorado Plainsman. The rural newspaper made the tough decision last summer to blink out after it lost its printer at the Gannett plant and found alternatives just too expensive. The paper’s owners folded its coverage into a sister paper, rebranded, and found a printer across the state line.

Business manager Catherine Thurston said if rates wind up lower at the new Colorado press she’d be interested in making a switch. “It’s all about the money for us right now,” she said.

While Colorado might be singular with its built-in support network for local media, Hansen Shapiro at the National Trust for Local News said she hopes others might look at the latest development for inspiration — or at least as a playbook if they run into a similar situation with a disruptive print closure.

“This is obviously a step forward for Colorado, but this is a kind of solution we think can take root in other places where printing options have become more limited,” she said. “Yes, circulation is dropping and that continues, but there is a very long tail of very devoted — particularly community — newspaper readers around the country.”

Corey Hutchins is the co-director of the Colorado College Journalism Institute. Each Friday, he publishes the weekly newsletter “Inside the News in Colorado,” which is underwritten by the Colorado Media Project and others.

Photo courtesy of the National Trust for Local News

POSTED     March 13, 2024, 2:20 p.m.
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