The Colorado Sun made its official debut on Sept. 10, bringing to fruition plans former Denver Post Editors Larry Ryckman and Dana Coffield first announced in June. Ryckman and Coffield left The Post in March after owner Digital First Media’s hedge fund owner Alden Global Capital ordered the paper’s already decimated newsroom to cut one-third of its staff.
“Today is the day we’ve been working toward, fretting about and imagining,” Ryckman wrote in a welcome letter to readers. He concluded the letter with, “Here comes The Sun.”
The Sun marks the first success story of a news organization meant to fill a void in news coverage that the Mile High City has seen worsen over the past decade. That void began when the Rocky Mountain News published its final edition on February 27, 2009. While there were hopes of a Rocky revival, first in print and then online, neither came to fruition.
Denver eventually embraced being a one-newspaper city, however, The Post’s newsroom has faced substantial cuts year after year. The paper’s newsroom, which once employed close to 300 journalists, is now down to approximately 60, according to Ryckman. When the last cuts were handed down in March, the remaining staff wanted to take action. On April 6, Post Editor Chuck Plunkett published an editorial calling for Alden to sell the paper.
“If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will,” the editorial pleaded.
Alden subsequently issued orders that writers and editors were not to use the hedge fund’s name in copy about the layoffs, and Plunkett resigned in May. Ryckman followed.
Aiming for deeper coverage
The all-digital Sun, which has been publishing a newsletter dubbed The Sunriser in the months leading up to the launch, is dedicated to in-depth journalism that spans the state. “The Post was no longer able to do the deep reporting the community deserves,” Ryckman told News & Tech.
While Ryckman believes other Colorado journalists are doing a great job, he said cutbacks have made it impossible to achieve the level of reporting the state deserves.
“We are aimed at watchdog, investigative, deep-dive journalism — the type of journalism that promotes understanding in Colorado,” he said. “We aren’t covering the Broncos or basic crime news, but we might write about the intersecting of sports and society, or why the murder rate is increasing in Denver, for example.”
Not everything will be a 100-inch story, but everything will be written to have an impact, according to Ryckman.
“What we say is that we intend to break news, but not do breaking news.”
Case in point: The Sun in August broke a story about Colorado State University’s resignation from a controversial research project in partnership with the Bureau of Land Management. The project involved the sterilization of wild horses across the West in an effort to control their population. The story was subsequently picked up by The (Fort Collins) Coloradoan.
The business model
The Sun is journalist-owned — with Ryckman at its helm as editor — and community supported. Besides Ryckman and Coffield, The Sun has eight other former Post employees on staff full time and it also relies on freelance journalists. But Ryckman is quick to point out that the mission is not about the journalists.
“This isn’t about us providing jobs,” he said. “We created this to serve the community and I think people get that — and they are very enthusiastic.”
The Sun’s journalist owners know the risks of the startup, but early support has been a positive indication that the news site is poised for long-term success. A well-received Kickstarter campaign raised much more than expected — over $161,000 — proving to Ryckman and his team that the state is hungry for higher-quality journalism.
“We had one woman send us a check for $1,000 and in the memo she wrote, ‘Bless your hearts,’” he said. “Between the News and The Post, we once had 500-600 journalists in the state of Colorado and people are frustrated at the lack of news coverage.”
In late March, New York startup company Civil, approached Ryckman. The company uses blockchain and cryptocurrency technologies with a goal of launching more than 1,000 publications by the end of the year.
“They asked me if I would be interested in brainstorming what a new news organization might look like,” he said.
The Sun has found its footing, and thanks to Civil’s deep pockets, Ryckman feels confident the news organization has enough runway to make obvious its case with readers. The Sun will not accept advertising, but it is accepting sponsorships, similar to the model of a public radio station.
“For those that want to sponsor us, we accept that with the understanding that we will not write about, or avoid writing about you, based on that sponsorship,” Ryckman said. “We just don’t believe that advertising is the answer. Once upon a time it sustained newspapers and news organizations, but that is getting tougher and tougher every day.”
Furthermore, Ryckman said The Sun’s success depends on providing a positive reader experience.
“Ads divert attention and alienate the readers we are trying to attract,” he added. “We don’t want to throw obstacles in the way in order to make a few bucks.”
The Sun will also count on readers for financial support, but it first wants readers to get to know and trust its journalism. Initially, stories will be available without a subscription, and eventually Ryckman said The Sun will offer monthly subscription options ranging from $5-$30, with increasing levels of access and perks.
Although The Sun currently has no plans for a print product, Ryckman said the news outlet wouldn’t rule that out if it made economic sense.
“We will be whatever Colorado needs us to be,” he added. “We know how to put out a newspaper or magazine and we all have great experience in the publishing world.”
The staff is excited about the future, whatever it brings.
“It’s been a wild ride what’s happened to newspapers,” Ryckman said. “It’s risky to start something new, but it’s far less risky than it was to stay employed by Alden Capital. The future seemed pretty dark.”
Recently Ryckman had the opportunity to address The Denver Film Society at a showing of “All The President’s Men,” which famously chronicles the investigative reporting of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate scandal.
“We are in a time where people realize that independent journalism is important,” he said. “I am optimistic about the future — and this is the first time in a long time that I could say that about my business. I feel like we have a fighting chance; we are masters of our own destiny and can make our case to the people of Colorado.”