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Voices in Innovation: An interview with The Colorado Sun, Part 2 of 2

Journalism isn’t dying. It’s being reborn. Here’s how The Colorado Sun is leveraging technology, blockchain and collaboration to reclaim journalism from the fate of fake news.

In the first part of this interview, we left off talking about the importance of journalism and the need for a new model of journalism based on local reporting, how the company Civil is rising to the occasion by funding focused newsrooms around the country, and how the future of journalism could be secured with blockchain technology. Heather continues her conversation with Dana and Eric of The Colorado Sun.


Eric, what does a technology officer mean in a newspaper setting? I know what it means here, in a digital marketing setting, but what does it mean there?

Eric: Because we aren’t a print newspaper, it’s pretty important – we are fully digital and I’m responsible for trying to navigate the ways all the different tools we’re going to be using to not only get our news out there, but display the information the best, to manage our revenue and all that kind of stuff.

That sounds like a lot! As you guys know, I work at a digital ad agency and as a digital
ad agency, we’re always interested in how technology disrupts industry. That’s happening all the time on the business side. Eric, can you explain the technology behind The Colorado Sun? How technology is making this work?

Eric: There’s a lot of this blockchain stuff working in the background to really help keep the journalism protected or make it easier to fund. We’re using a lot of best-in-class tools that everybody already knows about. We’re on WordPress, you can support us with American dollars – it’s not like you have to have cryptocurrency to help support what we’re doing here. So a lot of it’s just taking the lessons that have been learned all around the rest of this industry and picking and choosing the best things to make us the most efficient and easiest to distribute.


Tell me about that blockchain aspect.

 

Eric: So the blockchain aspect is very exciting, but most readers probably won’t have any overlap with it. Basically, all of the stories and information that we publish is going to be backed up on the blockchain, which is sort of a distributed digital ledger that lives on thousands, if not millions, of computers around the world. Part of that is to make sure that there will always be a permanent archive of that content. That came about when you see what happened at Gothamist and DNAinfo. Some of these great publications that, through some business problems, suddenly had a bunch of their content just go away. It’s been painstakingly recovered through some actions by archive.org and things like that. But this way, from the very beginning, The Colorado Sun and the other Civil First Fleet Newsrooms are going to have a way to have everything that we do be verifiable and backed up everywhere.

 

The other aspect to it that’s important – especially now – is that this really helps us get around possible censorship. That includes in other countries, that includes here, that includes bad government actors, bad billionaire business people who don’t like what we’re reporting. This gives us ways around the usual techniques of censorship that are being deployed in countries around the world and just through sheer business might in a lot of places.

Can you give me an example of a business instance that might happen here and a bad government actor maybe in another country?


Eric: Yeah. One thing that happens a lot in places like Turkey and you’re seeing in places like Uganda, is where the government can basically just shut off access to a website or a service or a platform or something along those lines. One of the ways that having this blockchain backup helps is that it’s no longer just a single server out there that you can throw the switch on. It’s thousands that are in every part of the world that would be easy to then refocus and redistribute that content.

 

A bad business actor… I think the easiest one to come back to is Gothamist / DNAinfo, where 12ish years of good community news that had been happening in cities all around the country, through decisions that had nothing to do with actual reportings, ended up in the hands of a billionaire who, as soon as the staff voted to unionize, decided to pull all the content, shut down the websites, and fire everybody.

 

And so, even though we fully own ourselves, we want to make sure that even way down the line we’ve got a lot of future-proofing in place here so that nothing can happen to any of the news that we create and publish here at The Colorado Sun.

 

It’s interesting how Civil is kind of taking themselves out of the business equation, in a way, by making it secure with blockchain so that they can’t be accused later of manipulating that content too.


Eric: It’s even beyond just the blockchain part. They’ve gone out of their way to make sure that each of these organizations is either a nonprofit or an LLC fully owned by the journalists. They call themselves “the world’s worst venture capitalists” because they have no interest in it, they’re not trying to make profit off of it, they don’t have an exit strategy – they’re genuinely trying to prove the validity of this as a model for journalism so that it can spread around the world.

 

Dana: To further reiterate that part about the globalness and the ethics of journalism… Today, a lot of the narrative around Civil deals with that importance of journalism to the health and safety of democracy both in the United States and abroad. And I think one of the interesting little side projects that they’re working on, for example, is the ability to fund emerging journalism in countries where it’s very difficult. So, creating a system that just allows you and I to send 10 bucks to Juba to help journalists in South Sudan and put together their newspaper when they’re under threat by their government. So they’ve got a lot of those sort of do-gooder elements and I find that really attractive.

 

Vivian Schiller – who may be familiar to some of your readers from her work at Twitter and National Public Radio – is the CEO of the Civil Foundation and she’s working on a global Civil constitution that governs the way each of the newsrooms operate so as not to damage the integrity or the reputation of another newsroom in the group. So from the get-go, this sort of “good behavior” is being encouraged, and that to me is kind of exciting and interesting

Very exciting and interesting. Yeah. I wondered if there was some collaboration among the different Civil newsrooms. It could be on reporting, orbest business practices, or what’s working or tools that they’re finding are successful.

Eric: There’s a lot of that. So one of the best things about the way that the Civil Newsrooms are being organized is that exact issue. We’ve gotten a lot of feedback from Block Club on how we run our Kickstarter and everybody is sharing best practices on how to handle the kind of dirty parts of business – you know, the HR, the taxes – all those kinds of things that as journalists we usually haven’t dealt with. So it’s been a really nice community to be involved in. But as you mentioned, there definitely will be opportunities to collaborate on coverage, especially with places like Documented that are focused on immigration, and Sludge, which is focused on political money. That’s an easy thing to do, to find the Colorado angle of those two things.

Dana: And that’s kind of new for us, too. We’re not really accustomed to direct collaboration and I’m finding that to be a sort of exciting and interesting – being freed to look for expertise outside of our own newsroom.

What we seem to be doing, or at least trying to do, is taking it up another notch. Like, could we work with our colleagues in New York on a project about documenting the experience of immigrants and create something that’s bigger that could be run across many platforms? So it’s kind of cool.

That’s really cool. So Dana, I was wondering, you’ve been a journalist, you’ve been an editor, now you’re an entrepreneur – how do you think about that and what are you learning being in a startup mentality?

Dana: Well, this ain’t my first startup rodeo – I was part of the Northern Colorado Business Report startup back in the nineties – that’s now BizWest. But I wasn’t in it as intimately as I am now, and I am definitely coming across stuff where it was like, wow, I totally forgot that we have to come up with design guidelines for our online graphics. And you know, thinking about day rates for our photographers and freelance rates – those types of things had been handled by our bosses in the past. And so now we’re having the opportunity to create contracts that respect for example, the photo rights of our photographers. So we’ve been having some discussions with longtime, freelance colleagues of ours about how we can make that equitable for everybody. We are in a position where we can actually take action. And that’s, that’s new for me.

Eric: One of the biggest issues that has changed a lot of the way that we’ve had to think, just from a fundamental perspective, is that while The Colorado Sun is not a nonprofit, it’s technically for profit – that totally changes the whole calculus of the way that you go about doing business. It makes you, like Dana said, want to make sure that the photographers’ rights are respected in our contracts rather than just trying to get the lower grade. The stories we write don’t necessarily need to get a million page views. We need to find the couple of thousand people who care the most about this story and get it in front of them.
That’s interesting Eric, I think that’s more and more the theme that I hear in the business world, too – find who your really loyal customers are and go with them. It’s your best shot at really differentiating yourself and being your most successful. A small business is never going to outcompete Walmart and Amazon at their own game. You have to specialize.

Eric: Yeah, and the way that that crosses over with journalism is really interesting too. You know, when we were trying so hard to get the most number of page views ever, it didn’t really matter where those were coming from. You know, like, oh, we can put up a slideshow and get out-of-state traffic and all this stuff. But now, not only does that help us focus on making sure that we serve the reader the best, but we can also then go try to find the places that feel kind of underserved. Dana talked about this a little earlier. This is us going to the corners of the state that feel maybe like they aren’t seen very often by a statewide news organization. So we end up getting both good journalism, good business and good civic duty all kind of wrapped up – it’s all going in the same direction.

Dana: [Dana returns after a brief absence spurred by a dog barking in the background.] Sorry about that. Eighty-six year old cowboy neighbor “come over to talk a little bit.” That’s one of the things that’s different about our new jobs working at home. [Laughs.]

Eric, can you tell me where people can find you on social and do you know what your website will be or when it will launch?

Eric: The website is up, but it’s right now just kind of a letter introducing what the concept is, that’s at ColoradoSun.com. We’re also on Facebook and Twitter. Twitter is @ColoradoSun. On Facebook, just search for The Colorado Sun.

We are launching in late summer. We’re still in this building phase now, but we expect to be launched by late summer and to be hitting the ground fully running, so hope to be a force in the media.


If you want to, go ahead and sign up for our newsletter, which right now is mostly providing updates on the process of getting launched and introducing our colleagues, but eventually that newsletter is going to be a really robust analysis of the themes of news throughout the state. And I hope it’s going to be something that people really find as a valuable part of the way that they consume news in the state.

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