This article was originally published in CPA's quarterly magazine PressNext. Click here to subscribe and have your print copy delivered.
Susan Greene, The Colorado Independent’s editor and executive director, has the distinction of being the first online-only board member of the Colorado Press Association. In fact, she’s the first online-only board member of any state press association.
With a solid background in print journalism in this state, and now as head of a strong journalistic presence online, Greene is in a unique position to look at the practice of journalism today and the industry as a whole. Here’s what she has to say:
Q: Since 2013, you’ve been the editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site founded in 2006 as part of the Washington, D.C.-based American Independent News Network. Your website notes “the site was re-established in 2013 as a wholly independent entity run in Colorado by Coloradans.” What’s it like running a nonprofit funded by grants and tax-deductible donations?
A: Well, I never ran a traditional newspaper. I just worked for them. As a reporter and columnist, I wasn’t involved in the business side of journalism. So it’s all new to me. That said, I’ve seen the landscape shift in big ways in the past four years. Online, nonprofit news is a pretty nascent enterprise. Although some sites have been around longer, 2009 — after the economic crash, when so many newspapers went under — is generally recognized as the year this industry took off.
Our growth at The Indy comes from an appetite among readers for the kind of smart, insightful news and news commentary they used to get from big metro dailies before those dailies either folded or purged some of their best, highest-paid talent. Readers recognize the value of investigative and enterprise reporting and of journalists who have deep and lasting sources in Colorado and knowledge about our state. And so they’re giving – some with $10 donations, some with big checks, and some through volunteerism. There’s a remarkable amount of good will out there for what we’re building.
Foundations have been more reluctant to back nonprofit journalism, largely because many tried that about a decade ago and lots of sites failed. Understandably, foundations felt burned and chose to invest in their own, internal mini-newsrooms staffed by former reporters whose stories appear in foundation newsletters to a pretty limited audience. The trick for nonprofit sites is to create much more sophisticated business models and convince foundations that it’s worth investing not only in our reporting, but also in our back-office operations that ensure our sustainability and growth.
Q: You’re the first nonprofit and online board members of any state press association in the country after joining the Colorado Press Association board of directors this year. How would you measure the significance of that, and what do you hope to accomplish in being a voice for online press?
A: I find that factoid pretty stunning given how indispensible online and nonprofit journalism have become in the national media landscape. Aside from a few key big-city dailies, online and nonprofit sites are staffed with some of the nation’s best journalists who are making the most impact with news in the public interest.
That said, outlets like ours have felt underserved by press associations for a long time. In Colorado, it’s no secret that some members have over the years tried to elbow out online and nonprofit outlets in certain arenas, including credentialing at the Statehouse. It’s also no secret that members like The Indy haven’t benefitted from CPA’s contests, nor from the business-side services the organization provides. I kept up our membership only because I believe Colorado needs a strong press association. I expressed my frustrations to Jerry (Raehal, the CEO of the CPA) and, to his credit, he mentioned the idea of board membership. It was a smart move on his part. He obviously wants to keep CPA relevant.
As for my goals on CPA’s board, I’d first like to send the message that we online and nonprofit folks come in peace. We have no interest in grabbing newspaper advertisers or putting papers out of business. We’re journalists. Journalists want journalism to thrive. There’s no better example than the grief we at The Denver Post felt when The Rocky Mountain News went under in 2009. That was a terrible time for everyone. Journalistically, The Post was diminished by The Rocky’s demise. So was the whole state.
This is hands-down the most hostile time any of us, including the dinosaurs among us, have witnessed in American journalism. Reporters are getting banged up – in some cases quite literally. Access to public information is at risk. In too many cities, nobody’s watching city hall. It’s in all of our interests, regardless of business model, to stick together. I mean that mainly in terms of keeping a watchful eye on and a robust lobby at the Statehouse. But I also mean that in terms of partnerships and collaborations. These arrangements are saving news outlets throughout the country. They’re the future, for all of us. If you want to offer readers serious journalism, there’s simply not enough money — be it in print or online, for-profit or non-profit — to go it alone any more.
We’re going to have to work together in ways that are mutually beneficial. The Indy has had a policy of giving away our content for free, with credit. At last count, 21 papers in the state have been running our stuff pretty regularly. Our free-for-all can’t, of course, last forever. Nor will papers be able to compete for readership without some meaty reporting and news commentary. We’re all going to have to start talking about collaborating before we isolate ourselves into nonexistence.
Q: Your site’s Mission statement says, in part, that you “strive to report the news with context, social conscience and soul, and to give Coloradans the insight they need to promote conversation, understanding and progress…” What feedback do you get from your readers that tells you they “get you”?
A: The feedback we get is mostly gratitude. Readers thank us for covering issues that aren’t covered elsewhere, and with the depth and context they want. They’re also grateful for the ability to keep following the work of some of Colorado’s best talents, like Tina Griego, Mike Keefe and Mike Littwin. Any local or state news outlet in Colorado is competing with outlets like The New York Times, The Washington Post and others of that caliber for readers’ time. Colorado news, be it print or online, needs to be smart and strong to snag the 10 or 20 minutes a day people carve out for news. To ignore that basic fact is to bury your head in the sand and print your way into oblivion.
There is news — urgent, high stakes, critically relevant news — breaking all around us here in Colorado. People’s heads are spinning trying to understand all that’s happening in public policy, our environment, schools and political institutions. They want to keep up on what matters. Offering up soft news in times like these doesn’t scratch the readers’ itch. So the feedback we’re getting from readers is “Thank you for scratching our itch” and “How can I help you keep scratching it?” And that, of course, feels great.
Q: You’ve been working on what some would term an “all-star staff,” including Rocky Mountain News staffers and Denver Post co-workers Tina Griego (your managing editor) and columnist Mike Littwin, former Post editor/reporter Gary Clark, and former Post staffer and 2011 Pulitzer Prize editorial cartoon winner Mike Keefe. You have a veteran state Capitol reporter in Marianne Goodland, and a state and national reporter in Corey Hutchins. Your reporter Kelsey Ray and intern Allen Tian have lived and worked in and outside of the United States. You also have a board of directors and an advisory board, both full of accomplished people in journalism, government, business and their communities. How many of these journalists and board members were in place before you came on board, and how does each staff and board member contribute to the whole?
A: None of them were in place when I started. We’ve reinvented The Indy top to bottom. And we’re still reinventing it, constantly making changes. Our team is a mix of longtime newspaper veterans and smart, energetic, tech-savvy millennials. We all teach and learn from each other. Our younger colleagues, including the interns, remind us every day that our old newspaper conventions need to be questioned and sometimes turned on their heads, and that the old ways of telling stories aren’t necessarily the best ways.
They remind us not to fear technology, but to embrace it. Hopefully, we’re teaching them to work sources, develop contacts who’ll help not just with the story they’re working on right now, but stories they can’t even imagine that’ll break next month, next year, in 10 years. Hopefully, we’re also reminding them not to hide behind their laptops, and that they need to get out there and hear people. No app, no new technology will replace basic beat reporting.
Our board composition is constantly morphing as we grow and our needs change. I started with a board made up of my friends. Moral of that story is don’t rely on journalists to carry out a business model or help raise money. As we grow, we need more help with fundraising, tech, marketing, and basic business issues to professionalize our shop, so we’re always looking for members who are strong in those specific areas and have the time to help us sculpt and re-sculpt The Indy to keep us sustainable.
Q: This March, there appeared “An open letter from the women of The Indy,” telling your readers that the company is: “… a women-led and, largely, women-staffed newsroom. It makes us a rare bird.” What more does the industry need to do to ensure the success of women in newsrooms?
A: Pay women what men make, such as it is. Don’t treat them like stenographers. Value staff members of any gender who are great listeners and observers, and have emotional intelligence. Value above all else the connections they’ve built in their communities – especially if those connections are wide-ranging and diverse. Often, those connections are where the best stories come from.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring journalists tempted to advance their careers via online, nonprofit news sites?
A: First, I’d urge them to do a gut check and make sure they want to be journalists for reasons other than that they did well in English courses or loved “Spotlight.” The field is too hard these days not to be sure it’s right for you. I’d encourage them to work at a daily paper for a couple years and cover a beat or two closely and under a strong editor with high expectations. They should hone the basics of reporting, source-building and meeting deadlines. This is a process too many young online journalists think they can skip. You can’t pretend your way around solid, shoe-leather reporting experience. It’s a muscle, a craft you develop over time.
I’d suggest that during their years at a newspaper or newspapers, they always have at least one pet project in the works, some sort of deep investigative or narrative story that stretches them in ways their daily beat reporting doesn’t and helps them build a portfolio of great clips. I’d urge them to play with their writing, bend the genre, experiment with audio and video storytelling, try their hands at database reporting and read every piece of great writing – journalism, nonfiction, fiction and poetry – they can find. Then they can leave the womb of newspapers. I’d suggest to take a year or two simultaneously freelancing for online sites and working at a small business, any small business, learning how the real world works and what it takes to budget, meet payroll, deal with customers and keep a business afloat. They’ll need these skills in online journalism because we don’t have the support staff that newspapers, at least big ones, enjoy. This will also disabuse them of the notion held by too many journalists that money for their work falls from the sky.