Independent Journalism in Colorado Takes Another Hit

After failing to find enough foundation money to save her nonprofit news organization, Health News Colorado, Diane Carman concluded that if she'd switched directions and begun practicing advocacy journalism, instead of continuing the independent reporting her project prided itself on, she could likely have raised enough money to keep going.

Instead, Health News Colorado folded last month, after five years of taking shots from both the left and right. But it was praised by the Columbia Journalism Review and others for its detailed reporting, often covering major health-policy developments that were completely overlooked by other Colorado news outlets.

"You step on everybody's toes when you are an objective journalism organization," said Carman, who was editor and founder of Health News Colorado. "Everybody got burned a little bit at some point, because we took the role of watchdog seriously. So, when you do that, it makes it really easy for people to say, 'I'm not so sure we have the money for that this year.' I never got the impression we were being censored. There was never an impression of that. But I do feel that if we had been willing to cross over into the advocacy world, that we would still be alive."

The beginning of the end for Health News Colorado came about a year and a half ago, when the Colorado Health Foundation, which covered 50 percent of Health News' operating budget, told Carman to expect to be cut loose in September of 2015, according to Carman.

Initially, it looked like things might work out, because Kaiser Health News, a national organization that funds local reporting on health issues, appeared serious about absorbing Colorado Health News, if it could show community commitment by securing two years of local funding in advance of Kaiser taking over.

Carman jumped into fundraising.

"We got support in small amounts from a whole lot of new funders, but two of our biggest funders, the Piton Foundation and the Colorado Health Foundation, said they wouldn't continue to support us. They both were moving in new directions and nonprofit journalism was not on their priority list anymore."

So Carman started looking for corporate donations, and believe it or not, after a summer of knocking on doors, she'd secured close to two years' worth of funding, she said.

But then a vice president of the Kaiser Family Foundation, who'd at first supported the corporate approach, delivered the crushing news that his board of directors was not comfortable with corporate funding for Health News Colorado. Only nonprofit foundations and donations were good enough. (This, from a foundation named Kaiser?)

"After really pouring it on for four months this summer, I just couldn't come up with the dough," said Carman. "So we shut it down."

"It was a disappointment, because after five years, we had a solid readership," said Carman, best known for 18 years as an editor and columnist at The Denver Post. "We had one story in July that got over a half million hits. We were routinely getting 20,000 or 25,000 hits on stories. We'd finally crossed into that area that nonprofit journalism wants to be in, where you have a strong following and people know where you are. It was kind of pathetic that when we were beginning to get some real traction, we couldn't get the money to continue."

If you follow health care coverage in Colorado, you can't help but wonder whether Health News Colorado's reporting, including its stories highlighting problems with Colorado's health exchange, might have pissed off the Colorado Health Foundation and moved it to dump the nonprofit news outfit from its portfolio.

Carman has nothing but good things to say about the Colorado's Health Foundation's multi-year support, and she believes they just moved in a different direction, as foundations are known to do. A few calls I made confirm this.

Laura Frank, President and General Manager of News for Rocky Mountain PBS, told me that a three-year Colorado Health Foundation grant her PBS nonprofit journalism project expired in July and was not renewed, due to the foundation's changed priorities.

"Foundations have what I call FADD, Foundation Attention Deficit Disorder," said Alan Gottlieb, founder of EdNews Colorado and Chalkbeat, two nonprofit news sites. "Foundations are constantly changing their strategic priorities. It's a never-ending process."

Gottlieb argues that nonprofit journalism entities, like Chalkbeat, should receive sustained funding and be seen as a "cultural benefit" like a museum. "But foundations don't see it that way and move on," says Gottlieb.

Locally, both the Piton Foundation and Daniels Fund have recently stopped funding journalism, he says.

"To sustain local journalism, we have to continually find new funders," he says. "We need to have many funders instead of relying on just one."

Frank, who's on the board of the Institute for Nonprofit News, agrees. And she shares Carman's view that advocacy journalism is easier to fund.

"In general, finding funding for fact-based, independent journalism is more difficult than for advocacy journalism," says Frank. "But our [Institute for Nonprofit News] members don't do advocacy journalism. They're more likely to get funding from smaller donors, people who give $100 to $200 a year, and that takes time to grow. And it's difficult for a small organization."

Frank's I-News is associated with Rocky Mountain PBS, so it's easier for her "backfill" the loss of grants  with membership funding, she says.

But that's not a luxury Health News Colorado had.

Carman, who's looking for an organization to house Health News Colorado's regularly-searched archives, has a few ideas on how her news site might have survived, had things been structured differently.

First, Colorado Health News was part of the University of Colorado Denver's School of Public Affairs, which was a key player in helping launch the project. But there were problems with this situation.

"As an employee of the University, I couldn't just go out and raise money anywhere I could find it within the foundation world," said Carman. "You don't want someone who's raising money for Health News Colorado to get the only grant from some big foundation and be getting a $50,ooo grant for a year and that precludes the university from getting a $2 million grant for the medical school. So you have to go through the process to decide who's going to get what money in which cycle. And we were such a small operation that we really couldn't wait two years."

Carman describes this as a "very reasonable and logical University policy," but it didn't help her sustain the news organization.

She said news sites can maintain their editorial independence, as hers did, and "survive and thrive" as part of universities, but some do training programs for journalism students or play other roles that give them an ongoing base of financial support from the university -- which Colorado Health News never got from CU Denver, outside of some office space, administrative support, and liability insurance. But no operating funds.

The association with the School of Public Affairs limited fundraising in other ways. "For all the obvious and good reasons, the university has strict policies about how you bring in money for projects," said Carman. "So we were never in a position to solicit sponsorships like public radio does."  Even the development of a job board wouldn't fly, she said.

Carman points out that journalism entities similar to Health News Colorado more often than not "live on the edge." So it's hard to say in hindsight what would have worked for sure.

It's easier to see what will be lost.

Carman says, and it makes total sense given the state of Colorado journalism, that Health News Colorado reporter Katie Kerwin McCrimmon was the only reporter to cover virtually every meeting of Connect for Colorado, the Colorado healthcare exchange.

"She studied that stuff," Carman said of McCrimmon, who's now doing public relations work. "It's complex. She spent lot of time on it. You can't pick it up by dropping in on every couple of months."

It's safe to say, in the coming years with Colorado Health News gone and funds flowing to advocacy journalism, you'll find a progressive journalist like me (or worse, a conservative one) at those obscure meetings -- instead of a real journalist like McCrimmon. If there's any journalist there at all. And I can assure you, we won't be better off.