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Joining a growing segment of news organizations that have made the switch or launched under the nonprofit model, the Indy will convert from a for-profit enterprise to a nonprofit agency, effective in late October.

The change coincides with the exit of ownership by local entrepreneur and publisher John Weiss, who will remain with the organization as a nonvoting member of the new nonprofit’s board of directors.

The Indy, established by Weiss in September 1993, was created in large part to counter advocacy for Amendment 2, a voter-approved constitutional amendment that denied LGBTQ+ people equal rights under Colorado law. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the measure in 1996 in a 6-3 ruling that found the amendment violated the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

The newspaper, always free of charge, started in a tiny office Downtown with a handful of staffers and has since grown to reach more than 100,000 people with news, editorials, columns, food and entertainment and cannabis news created by a staff of more than 40.

Over its 29-year life, the Indy has remained an alternative to the conservative daily, The Gazette, and gives voice to the voiceless and tackles issues other news outlets shy away from. Among those: the influence on elected officials by the powerful, such as The Broadmoor resort, which is owned by Philip Anschutz who also owns The Gazette, and developers; police-involved shootings; questionable operations of nonprofit housing agencies; jail deaths and related issues; the city’s disorganized response to the Waldo Canyon Fire; controversial political figures and practices in local school districts; contentious issues involving Colorado Springs Utilities; and racial and gender inequity in business, education and other areas of community life.

Amy Gillentine, publisher and executive editor of the Indy, remains as CEO to steer the newspaper into a new era, “which will include a greater emphasis on digital news, although there still will be a weekly print edition supporting our continued commitment to holding government accountable while also providing the best food and entertainment coverage in the region,” she says.

The Indy’s new status, however, will prevent the weekly from endorsing political candidates, although the editorial board will continue to weigh in on matters of public concern.

“I really, really want to emphasize that the mission hasn’t changed,” Gillentine says. That includes “standing up for people who are marginalized. We won’t stop shining a light where it needs to be directed.”

Says Weiss, “The goal is to preserve the paper and move forward and to be excited about the future.” 

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Amy Gillentine, Publisher and Executive Editor 

Nonprofit status has proven to be an attractive alternative to for-profit entities in the news industry as advertising dollars have dried up with the advance of digital powerhouses such as Facebook, Google and Twitter.

The Pew Research Center reported a year ago that newsroom employment in the United States dropped by 26 percent from 2008 to 2020, based on pre-COVID numbers.

“In 2008, there were about 114,000 total newsroom employees — reporters, editors, photographers and videographers ­— in five industries that produce news: newspaper, radio, broadcast television, cable and ‘other information services’ (the best match for digital news publishers). By 2020, that number had declined to about 85,000, a loss of about 30,000 jobs,” Pew reported.

But while newspapers saw sharp job losses during that time, digital-native news organizations have seen gains, according to Pew’s analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Among other influences, the Indy has been affected by the initial surge in advertising from legalized marijuana and then its subsequent decline after local medical marijuana dispensaries found other avenues through which to reach patrons.

Even major metro dailies have suffered losses, and in response cut staff or reduced the number of days they publish. The Times-Picayune in New Orleans is one example. The paper transitioned from seven days a week to three in 2012.

The Washington Post reported in April that Gannett, the largest chain in the country, eliminated one day of print per week at 136 of its newspapers. “Another 50 were to make the change by June, with most losing Saturday print editions,” the Post reported. “Subscribers can download digital copies of the print paper, or e-editions, on those days. And the company touted online perks, saying it was ‘embracing our digital future with this evolved experience.’”

In Colorado, the Grand Junction Sentinel stopped publishing Mondays and Tuesdays, replacing those papers with digital editions a few years ago.

The loss of community newspapers has had a distinct impact on public life.

The Brookings Institution reported in 2019 that as fewer newspapers cover state legislatures and Congress, leaving public health and education under-covered, newspapers become “less valuable to news consumers.” In turn, “When important stories are not told, community members lack the information they need to participate in the political process and hold government and powerful private actors accountable,” Brookings said.

The result is more political polarization, lower voter turnout and disengagement from local democratic life, Brookings said.

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John Weiss

A study by Columbia Journalism Review, which looked at data from 1996 to 2015, found that “local government borrowing costs significantly increased for counties that have experienced a newspaper closure compared to geographically adjacent counties with similar demographic and economic characteristics without newspaper closures. Our evidence indicates that a lack of local newspaper coverage has serious financial consequences for local governments, and that alternative news sources are not necessarily filling the gaps.” 

But now, nonprofit news organizations are playing an increasingly important role in covering state capitols, according to an April 2022 report by the Pew Research Center.

The number of nonprofit news reporters covering state capitols has almost quadrupled since 2014 and accounts for 20 percent of the nation’s total statehouse press corps. It’s the second-largest group, behind for-profit newspapers, covering statehouses.

In Colorado, the nonprofit Coloradonewsline.com launched in 2020 and covers statewide issues, including the statehouse.

Even major metro dailies have leapt from for-profit status to operating under a nonprofit model.

In 2018, a third of the newsroom staff at The Salt Lake Tribune were laid off due to declining revenues, Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative reported in January. The next year, philanthropist Paul Huntsman, who had taken over the paper in 2016, laid out a pathway to nonprofit status.

Today, the Local News Initiative reports, “the 150-year-old newspaper is in better shape” and asserted in an editorial in November 2021 that it was sustainable as a nonprofit dedicated to public-service journalism. The newspaper, which has been seen as an alternative to the conservative Deseret News, has regained newsroom staff and — after previously cutting publication to one day a week — added another day’s edition.

Other newspapers have followed suit or are exploring doing so.

But the key is raising revenue. In The Salt Lake Tribune example, it received $302,000 in donations in its first nonprofit year of 2019. The next year, its first full year as a nonprofit, donations exceeded $3.5 million, comprising 61 percent of its revenue, the Local News Initiative report said.

Other dollars came from digital and print ad sales, subscriptions and renting office space. Still, the report said, “Despite the high level of contributions the newspaper received, it ended 2020 over $800,000 in the hole. A donor covered the loss.”

Jason Salzman, editor and founder of the Colorado Times Recorder, a progressive online news source started five years ago that operates as a nonprofit, says while his operation is healthy now, it might not last.

“I wouldn’t say we’re precarious at this moment, but sustainable over the long term? I don’t think so,” he says. “You look at Colorado Public Radio. They have hope of that model being sustainable — the model of subscriptions, nonprofit funding, donations. I think the jury’s out on that for sure.

“We know philanthropic funding is finicky,” he adds. 

Gillentine says the Indy and its sister publications will operate under a five- to seven-member board, some members of which have not yet been selected, and also rely on a larger advisory board composed of community members.

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Ralph Routon

Publications included in the nonprofit include the Indy; the Colorado Springs Business Journal, which Weiss purchased 10 years ago; the Southeast Express, which serves the city’s Southeast and started as a nonprofit operation two years ago; and the Pikes Peak Bulletin. The Bulletin, however, is in a holding pattern and available to a person or group that might be interested in acquiring it, Gillentine says. If there are no takers, it will continue under the new framework.

All of those publications had operated under the umbrella company Colorado Publishing House. They will now operate under a nonprofit, called Citizen-Powered Media, that was started 15 years ago by Dave Gardner, a videographer and podcaster who helps other nonprofits create podcasts, including the League of Women Voters.

The previous Citizen-Powered Media board has “stepped aside,” Gillentine says, to make way for the new board.

The papers will do business as Sixty35 Media, so dubbed for the altitude of Colorado Springs.

The Indy has constructed a podcast studio at its 235 S. Nevada Ave. location and has launched Indy 15, a news recap feature, and Hot Takes, a podcast about culture and community. Special podcasts will be produced, such as the State of Plate series featuring Food Editor Matthew Schniper’s interviews with local chefs and other restaurateurs (see p. 10).

The new nonprofit will work with the Colorado News Conservancy to collaborate on how best to serve the community through its informational channels, Gillentine says.

The conservancy was created in 2021 and then it acquired, with The Colorado Sun, 24 community newspapers and websites and two shoppers previously held by family-owned Colorado Community Media, in collaboration with the National Trust for Local News, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping local news in local hands.

“We launched it as a community-centered alternative to national consolidation of local and community media,” the conservancy said in a news release in May 2021. “News shouldn’t be owned by private equity firms and hedge funds that put profits before journalism.” 

Colorado Publishing House’s switch was precipitated by the desire of John Weiss, 67, to end his involvement in publishing, Gillentine says.

“He wanted to do it in a way that allowed the papers to continue,” she says. “He believes local journalism is vital to the strength of cities. When he decided to fully retire, we came up with this plan to create some things that will last beyond one person, or two people or a group of people.”

Weiss notes that local independent newspapers that contribute excellent reporting used to be profitable. He termed such papers “a community resource” deserving of support just like a library or KRCC public radio.

“It’s essential that Colorado Springs has two newspapers, and I’m confident this model — where we will supplement our income with community support — makes total sense, and I’m confident we have the team in place for success,” he says. “The timing is right for me because after three decades, I’m ready for new challenges.” Weiss says in the meantime, he’s “hanging out” with his mom, who’s 96, and dad, who marks his 104th birthday next month.

Gillentine and other decision-makers landed on the idea of a nonprofit based on successes other publications have experienced. “We’re confident we’re moving in the right direction and see a trend that more community newspapers will be following,” she says. “This gives individuals a way to become more involved in supporting the paper. Donations will be tax deductible for our readers. I think it will [lead to] a more robust reporting and news gathering operation.”

The membership structure is in the planning stages but will afford supporters opportunities to interface with staff and the nonprofit’s leaders, she says.

As for how nonprofit status will affect the publications, she says none will carry endorsements for candidates or ballot initiatives as in the past.

But, Gillentine adds, “We can endorse ideas and we can encourage people to vote. That’s probably the biggest difference that Indy readers will see. We can still hold town halls, and are planning some with Citizen’s Project, and we can still publish political advertising.”

One member of the new board is Ralph Routon, who retired in 2017 as executive editor of the Indy and Business Journal after a journalism career spanning more than 45 years that took him to jobs in Arkansas, Colorado, Florida and Texas. His current title is executive editor emeritus.

Routon notes the Indy offers perspectives not found anywhere else. For example, in an unusual turn on the news, the staff produced a column on the heels of KOAA-TV’s exclusive story about then-District Attorney John Newsome drinking alcohol at a local bar on work hours and then driving away.

The Indy staff, including Routon, gathered at Southside Johnny’s and consumed the same amount of alcohol as Newsome had, and then submitted to blood alcohol testing. “We showed he would have been impaired enough to where he shouldn’t have been driving,” Routon says.

Noting that other alternative weeklies have moved to digital-only, trimmed their size or gone out of business, Routon says he hopes readers will embrace new ways to support the Indy and Business Journal.

“The Indy has built deep relationships with readers, and there is the same kind of loyalty in the business community for the Business Journal, because they believe it’s important to have a business publication,” he says.

“Given the way the trends are going, it’s hard to see how papers will continue to exist as they have been,” he adds. “You just can’t plan on that. So this is a way to try to be ahead of that trend and come up with a new source of revenue but also just try to do business in a different way.”

Gillentine points to Weiss’ long-term investment in coverage that spoke truth to power and “created lasting change.”

“The city without John Weiss and the Indy would look vastly different,” she says. “We owe him a real thank you and sense of gratitude for what he’s done, as well as the staffers who have served for the last 30 years. We will honor that legacy as we bring new platforms to bear, not just print.” 

Senior Reporter

Pam Zubeck is a graduate from Emporia State University. She worked at the Tulsa Tribune before coming to Colorado Springs, where she spent 16 years at the Gazette and in 2009 joined Colorado Publishing House.