Help! Or forever say goodbye to 30 years of independent journalism
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It was late September and I was driving in the dark to work from temporary quarters (we’d already sold our house) in Skiatook, Oklahoma, to my job as an assistant city editor at The Tulsa Tribune.

Listening to the radio at 4:30 a.m. — I had to be at my desk by 5 — the Carly Simon tune, “These are the good old days” came on. Good old days, indeed.

Those were the bad old days for me and residents of Tulsa, because with each setting sun the end of the Tribune grew nearer. An afternoon paper that put out two editions each day — before noon, no less — from Monday through Saturday, the Tribune published its final edition on Sept. 30, 1992.

At noon that day, we shut off our computers for the last time and adjourned to the press club where we mourned the passing of the scrappy daily that regularly drew the ire of elected officials and employed at least three journalists who later won Pulitzers.

I didn’t know then that 30 years later, I’d be writing about another newspaper that’s won its share of awards and is gasping for what could be its final breath.

Sixty35 news magazine, which until January was known as the Indy and Colorado Springs Business Journal and several other publications, converted to a nonprofit late last year. And while the first 10 issues of this year have delivered up to 80 pages per issue filled with robust coverage of the community, the paper you’re holding — a mere 32 pages — is a physical representation of the crisis we face.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of newspapers across the country have shuttered over the last three decades. Now, this newspaper could very well go the way of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Rocky Mountain News.

Unless something miraculous happens and readers decide, “Not this time. Not here.”

Last week, Sixty35’s NONPROFIT board made the agonizing but necessary decision to lay off half the staff. The reasons were many. The most shocking and urgent: The board discovered $300,000 in unaccounted-for debt. Sixty35 has also faced skyrocketing print costs, shrinking advertising dollars, and an increase in operational costs. (Learn more in the message from the Sixty35 Board of Directors, p. 2.)

The board could have closed the paper altogether but chose to make one last stand.

Part of that decision is rooted in a dedication to continue the paper’s longstanding contribution to dialogue in the community.

“The genuine experience I’m having in talking to people in the community about this paper is they can’t imagine Colorado Springs without it,” Board Chairperson  Ahriana Platten says.

“They can’t imagine what Colorado Springs would be like today if this independent journalism had not impacted the city the way it has over the last 30 years. The city is different because for the last three decades we’ve had this independent voice available — to bump up against other ideas, to give voice to people who need to be heard. All that has changed the city. Colorado Springs would be a different place without this paper. And we’re not willing to let that happen.”

That’s an oblique reference, in part, to the Indy’s opposition in the 1990s to Colorado’s Amendment 2, a voter-approved initiative that denied equal rights to LGBTQ+ people. The U.S. Supreme Court struck it down in 1996.

Platten says it’s not about exalting one newspaper over another, but that “It’s valuable to have two papers bumping up against each other, because they hold each other accountable. Competition is a good thing. It brings a better service to the community. We don’t want a one-paper town of any kind, but a city that’s well covered where all voices are heard.”

Addressing Sixty35’s dire financial condition, Platten says, “Like many businesses in the post-COVID economically changing world, we have experienced difficulty. We went nonprofit [in October] so we could do more, not less — so we could generate new revenue streams. In a newspaper industry that is struggling for ways to go forward, we took the bold step to go nonprofit.” 

The extensive layoffs — 11 people from reporting, photojournalism, design and staff support — will help return the publication to solvency, Platten says, along with working remotely after March 31, when the paper will vacate the building at 235 S. Nevada Ave.

“We essentially need to move forward now on the path and raise funds to create new revenue streams to support our growth and extension,” Platten says. “This is the community’s paper. And we’re asking the community to support it in a new nonprofit forum.”

Communities that have lost independent journalism have experienced negative outcomes, studies show.

The New York Times reported in June the findings of a study done by Northwestern University’s journalism school. It showed that hundreds of newspaper closures in the last few years “have perpetuated the problem of so-called news deserts — places with limited access to local news, the report said. Over one-fifth of Americans now live in such a place, or in a place that is at risk of becoming one.

“Overall, 2,500 newspapers in the United States — a quarter of them — have closed since 2005,” The Times article continued. “The country is set up to lose one-third of its newspapers by 2025. And in many places, the surviving local media outlets have made major cuts to staff and circulation.”

Cities that do lose their newspapers are worse off for it, Bloomberg reported in 2018, saying, “When local newspapers shut their doors, communities lose out. People and their stories can’t find coverage. Politicos take liberties when it’s nobody’s job to hold them accountable. What the public doesn’t know winds up hurting them. The city feels poorer, politically and culturally.”

A survey that covered 1,596 English-language newspapers serving 1,266 counties in the U.S. found 296 newspaper “exits” from 1996 to 2015 — a local paper closing down or being absorbed by another outlet, or publishing fewer than four days a week, or merging to form a new newspaper.

The working paper based on the survey concluded that “local news deserts lose out financially,” Bloomberg reported. “Cities where newspapers closed up shop saw increases in government costs as a result of the lack of scrutiny over local deals….

“Disruptions in local news coverage are soon followed by higher long-term borrowing costs for cities. Costs for bonds can rise as much as 11 basis points after the closure of a local newspaper — a finding that can’t be attributed to other underlying economic conditions, the authors say. Those civic watchdogs make a difference to the bottom line.”

So let’s take a look at just a few of the stories I’ve written since being on staff at the Indy and Sixty35 that either broke the story before others or stood alone in its reporting on the topic. In other words, the community wouldn’t have known about these things otherwise:

• The city’s problematic response to the Waldo Canyon fire, which destroyed 347 homes and killed two people. This story got some attention when published in December 2012 and in the long term became a reference for neighbors on the Westside in recent debates over evacuation procedures. The stories captured the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award and Bronze Medallion for public service in newspaper reporting, non-daily publication, a national award.

‘The city is different because of the last 30 years we’ve had this independent voice available....’
— Ahriana Platten

• The on-duty death of El Paso County Deputy Micah Flick in 2018. The arrest of a known felon had a tragic outcome due, at least in part, to lack of training and planning by law enforcement. The incident not only resulted in serious injuries to other officers but paralyzed an innocent bystander from the chest down.

• In-depth reporting on the overhaul of the Banning Lewis annexation agreement in 2018 that relaxed requirements for developers, notably the region’s biggest, Norwood Development Group, and hasn’t led to significant additions of affordable housing to the community.

• An investigation into Ithaka Land’s sales of property that housed the poor to a developer, who was a firefighter at the time, for less than market rates while also financing no-interest loans for those purchases. This led to an Attorney General’s Office review and triggered another Indy report about firefighters’ moonlighting that led the Fire Department to redouble efforts to track those activities. (The Indy had to pay $800 for those Fire Department records, by the way.)

• CONO, formerly the Council of Organizations and Neighbors, has transitioned from a loose-knit neighborhood-based group to a city-funded enterprise that “trains” citizens to navigate the development approval process but doesn’t advocate for them.

• Stories in 2017 that documented that food was so bad at the El Paso County jail that it led inmates to stage a riot. (The local daily stole this story a month later, without credit, basing its report on a records request to the Sheriff’s Office that asked for “All emails sent to Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent in response to her recent CORA request.”)

• Repeated stories over the last 14 years about the bias toward fundamental Christianity embedded at the Air Force Academy and the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s fight against it. After years of such coverage, last fall the Academy incredibly scheduled a mandatory training on Judaism’s holiest day, Yom Kippur.

• Police use of force: Over the years, I’ve produced numerous stories about local police operations and mis-operations, including one in which a man’s house was bombed, another in which a teen was slammed face-first onto a floor and a months-long project that documented that officer-involved shootings have become more deadly over the years with more bullets being fired per shooting. Meantime, another report revealed Springs police used city resources while moonlighting for the Teller County sheriff’s private business, including surveilling citizens. Neither they nor El Paso County deputies sought the required permission to do such work in advance, resulting in discipline and a refortification of internal policies.

I list these projects out of a desire to underscore the work our newspaper has produced on a limited budget, compared to other local news operations, that readers wouldn’t have otherwise been able to read.

Much of our reporting has given voice to marginalized communities, such as LGBTQ+ folks, people of color and others who feel their concerns are ignored. The Indy and now Sixty35 serves that purpose and provides balance to more traditional local news outlets.

When local newspapers shut their doors, communities lose out.
— Bloomberg

Whether it’s me or someone else representing the citizen-owners of their government, questions should be asked, must be asked and answered to maintain a free flow of ideas in a democracy that relies on citizen participation.

And let’s not forget the other impacts that were provided, though arts and entertainment coverage, food reviews, neighborhood reporting and thought-provoking editorials. Our “Your Turn” column has hosted commentary by people from all points of view along the spectrum.

Events sponsored by the Indy, the Colorado Springs Business Journal and other publications melded into Sixty35 have acted as a convener on important community issues and to honor worthy individuals, including Rising Stars, COS CEO Leadership Lessons, Music at the Indy, election forums and coverage, and many more.

In short, we’ve been an integral part of the local news and cultural scene for decades and, we believe, that’s been for the good of everyone.

So here we are. After nearly 30 years of publication, our news magazine is in crisis.

After 45 years in journalism, I could easily just fade away. (Many city officials would love to see that happen.)

But the newspaper must survive to enrich the community, engage the public, monitor elected officials, seek justice for the weak and, hopefully, illuminate the pathway to solutions.

Thirty years ago in Tulsa, I bid farewell to The Tribune. At the press club that day,  the paper’s cartoonist was selling his original artwork to staffers. I bought a cartoon depicting an ambulance patient on a stretcher looking stunned by his sky-high ambulance bill — a drawing inspired by my report that the ambulance authority director had spent $40,000 on furniture for his private office and $1,200 on an office lobby Christmas tree.

It was one of many accountability stories I researched and wrote. I hope there are many more in my future and that of our readers.

It was heartbreaking to see a copy of The Tribune’s final edition lying in a coffin at the press club that day.

Please help us avoid another funeral.

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