While many small-town newspapers are vanishing, these Coloradans are working to keep local news alive

Janelle Dodd greets publisher Kevin Mahmalji as he delivers a copy of The Florence Reporter her home on Aug. 25, 2023. The Florence Reporter is a four-page newspaper spread and has been in circulation nearly one year. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

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Only hours after the news broke in June that the Pueblo printing plant she relied on would soon shut down, abandoning dozens of Colorado newspapers, Betsy Barnett, owner of the weekly Kiowa County Independent on the Eastern Plains, launched a search-and-rescue mission to save her newspaper.

What she’d planned as a leisurely road trip from her home in Eads to visit her son in Oklahoma City now urgently veered off the planned route to make a stop in Liberal, Kansas, a little more than three hours into the drive. The town of nearly 20,000 hugging the Oklahoma border has something that Barnett realized that she, and her roughly 900 print subscribers, desperately needed: a printing press that could produce the paper when the Pueblo facility ceased operations in August.

Rolling into Liberal, she met up with Earl Watt, who publishes the local, thrice-weekly Leader & Times, and toured the printing plant that already churns out small newspapers for publishers in four states — Texas, Oklahoma and Colorado in addition to Kansas, with the prospect of printing another in New Mexico.

Barnett reached for a lifeline.

In Watt, she found an ally who tends his publishing business with a sense of obligation to rural journalism writ large. Barnett secured her place in Watt’s printing schedule, but the logistics remained far from settled. For instance, would she be able to collaborate with other Colorado papers orphaned from the Pueblo press facility in the lower Arkansas Valley? She was already mulling ways that multiple papers might share delivery expenses.

“Me,” she said, “I’m thinking that I can make Liberal work.”

Earl Watt, who publishes the thrice-weekly Leader & Times in Liberal, Kansas, stands by the press that also prints papers for publishers in four states, including Colorado papers in Springfield and Eads. (Photo courtesy of Earl Watt)

Making small-town journalism work amid evolving technology and a stagnant business model has been a task beset by relentless headwinds and startling attrition. 

Newspapers are vanishing across the country, and Colorado is no exception. The number of newspapers nationwide dropped to 6,380 last year from 8,891 in 2004, according to a count by Northwestern University. The number of journalists, meanwhile, declined by almost 60%. 

In this state, membership in the Colorado Press Association has slipped to 133 newspapers, down by about 30 from a decade ago. Colorado has lost the Rocky Mountain News, The Grand Junction Free Press, The Broomfield Leader, and The El Paso County Advertiser and Fountain Valley News, to name a few. 

Corey Hutchins, who teaches journalism at Colorado College and writes a weekly newsletter on the state’s media landscape for the Colorado Media Project, chronicles the closure or downsizing of a newspaper “nearly every single week it seems.” He’s concerned that some small-town newspapers that were barely holding on before the closure of the Pueblo printing press “might just give up.” 

The ownership breakdown also inspires unease. An analysis done for the Colorado Media Project found that hedge funds now own 19 of Colorado’s biggest papers that account for almost one-fourth of the state’s 1.46 million print circulation, while national chains own 29 papers for 9% of the total. Reductions in the number of journalists have infringed on overall news coverage, the study said.

Final Edition:
Saving Local News

This story is the first in a three-part series from The Colorado Sun examining the state of local news and those working to keep their communities informed even after some long-time newspapers have vanished.

Coming Monday: How a rural Kansas weekly refreshed an outdated business model, helping create a guide for local news everywhere.

Coming Tuesday: While so many small towns are losing their newspapers, Westcliffe has two — both thriving, both making money, both all in on a newspaper war.

And while more than 70% of the state’s papers are locally owned or controlled (150 of 212), at least 52 papers have shut down over the past decade, and at an accelerated pace. Nineteen have closed since 2019.

But, at the same time, new outlets are stepping up to fill the gap. Colorado, compared with other states, has a robust media scene, where news agencies are winning competitive grants to keep operating, and there’s an infrastructure — the nonprofit Colorado News Collaborative — that leads joint reporting projects and advises startups on how to begin.

Colorado now has numerous online-only startups, including The Colorado Sun, as well as near-heroic tales of local people reviving their dying or dead newspapers. Some are producing traditional journalism, meaning vetted and reported stories by trained reporters, while others are run by citizen journalists. And as the number of traditional newspapers is shrinking, there’s been a burst in alternative sources for information — for better or worse. 

When Hutchins sent his journalism students to survey people about where they get their news, people named community bulletin boards, threads on Nextdoor and social media accounts, including the humorous I-70 Things newsletter and Instagram account.

In those terms, Colorado doesn’t actually have any “news deserts,” Hutchins said. 

Still, the hardest part of the research project, he said, was determining what counted as a legitimate source. In the end, the students counted it if people said they were relying on it for news. 

If a town loses its paper, it’s less of a town.

— Al Cross, Director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky

But many of the traditional outlets that comprise the backbone of rural Colorado’s information platforms still face an existential crisis. And while the alternative sources patch some of the holes, the risk of further erosion of public discourse — as well as a community’s identity — remains very real.

“A paper is what I like to call the central I-beam of the civic infrastructure,” said Al Cross, director emeritus of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. “And when you lose that common source of reliable information, it hurts the community. People don’t have any sort of academic or theoretical knowledge of that. But they’ve got good old-fashioned common sense and they know that if a town loses its paper, it’s less of a town.”

That common sense spurred some people to action.

A “Mighty Ducks” moment amid civil discontent

Kevin Mahmalji delivers copies of The Florence Reporter to residences in Florence on Aug. 25. The Reporter has around 170 total subscribers, including some in places outside of Fremont County and Colorado who receive the paper by mail. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Florence, a central Colorado town known for antique shops and prisons, was in the middle of civil unrest. 

The city manager had been fired after allegations of sexual misconduct. The entire city council abruptly quit, leaving the mayor to run the town but without much authority other than to sign checks. Citizens protested outside city hall. Once a new council was seated, citizens’ anger rose even higher when there was no virtual viewing at the first council meeting because the town without a functioning government, and with many of its contracts in disarray, no longer had a contract for streaming services.

In the midst of it all, the town’s already diminished 125-year-old newspaper, The Florence Citizen, had quietly closed up shop and its owners moved out of state. 

“Everything was happening in the cover of darkness, right?” local resident Kevin Mahmalji recalled. “Everyone was upset, because ‘Why are we not recording this? What’s happening?’”

Perhaps more than ever, the citizens of Florence wanted local news.

So one sunny morning in August 2022, Mahmalji invited anyone who was interested in talking about the lack of a local newspaper to meet him in a public park. About 30 people showed up, which in a town of 3,800, was not bad at all. 

They pulled a whiteboard out of one attendee’s car, and Mahmalji started scribbling as the crowd brainstormed. 

Did they want to try to reach the owners of The Florence Citizen to see if they could revive it? No, that option seemed too complicated. Everyone wanted a new newspaper. “It was like Robert’s Rules of Order came into play, organically,” Mahmalji said. “That’s the older population here in Florence; they’re all part of different Elks clubs. And so people made motions. People started voting naturally.”

The suggestions flowed. “The Florence Gazette!” “The Florence Times!” 

“The Florence Reporter!” someone shouted.

“Someone was like, ‘I love that!’ and so I was like, ‘All right,’ and I wrote it up on the whiteboard,” Mahmalji said. 

The Florence Reporter is currently a four-page newspaper spread and has been in circulation nearly one year. Kevin Mahmalji produces a majority of the paper’s reporting, editing, and social media, with the help of occasional contributing writers. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

“It sounds corny but I just so enjoyed how it unfolded. People are like, ‘I’m a writer’ and ‘I’m an editor.’ It was like a ‘Mighty Ducks’ moment, like people coming together with their own expertise and just wanted a newspaper.”

Their dream of a newspaper had a name. It had volunteer writers and editors, including author and long-time journalist Laura Van Dusen, who offered to cover local news. “But who is going to run the back-end and the day-to-day?” asked Mahmalji, who at the time was managing a four-county, grant-funded economic development project. “They were like, ‘We’re here because we thought you were going to run the newspaper.’”

Over the next six weeks, the group met multiple times, planning out story ideas on their whiteboard. Mahmalji filed articles of incorporation Aug. 30, 2022, and, charging it on his personal credit card, published the first edition of The Florence Reporter on Nov. 7, 2022. 

The newspaper now has 176 subscribers, who pay $32 per year to have it mailed to their homes or $21 to read it online. Mahmalji considers that excellent, since he started with zero. 

The four-page paper is printed in Chicago and shipped back to Florence by a company called MakeMyNewspaper. Mahmalji hopes to transition from monthly editions to twice-per-month this fall. About 25% of its revenue comes from subscriptions, while 75% is from advertising. 

Mahmalji does all the things: Selling the ads. Writing the stories. Running the website. Delivering the papers to people’s doorsteps.

When he’s delivering papers, Mahmalji offers free copies to neighbors of his subscribers. And when he meets with local businesses, his sales pitch includes a lesson in why local news matters. 

“There is a public education campaign that’s needed to remind folks what the purpose of a newspaper is,” he said. “When you advertise with your local newspaper, you’re giving us the ability to pay writers to go to city hall and report on what’s going on with land use, permitting, liquor licensing, all the things that you would be most concerned about or should be if you’re civically engaged.”

LEFT: In his car, Kevin Mahmalji sorts copies of The Florence Reporter to deliver to homes in Florence on. RIGHT: Mahmalji chats with resident Gail Nelson while delivering the paper. “What’s incredibly important with newspapers is providing that community service — like free obituaries, free announcements for nonprofit organizations, and being a part of the community — not nickel-and-diming nonprofits that don’t have an operating budget,” he said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

TOP: In his car, Kevin Mahmalji sorts copies of The Florence Reporter to deliver to residences in Florence on. BOTTOM: Mahmalji chats with resident Gail Nelson while delivering the paper. “What’s incredibly important with newspapers is providing that community service — like free obituaries, free announcements for nonprofit organizations, and being a part of the community — not nickel-and-diming nonprofits that don’t have an operating budget,” he said. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun via Report for America)

Daunting delivery 

Back in Eads, Betsy Barnett is still struggling to iron out the delivery logistics of her switch to printing in Kansas. She started having the Independent printed in Liberal with the Aug. 16 edition, after rearranging the paper’s publication schedule to jibe with press availability. The printing part of the equation has worked well enough.

But distribution has been another story.

She has been trying to work out a cost-sharing delivery arrangement with a couple other papers in southeastern Colorado, but the constant demands of producing their papers leaves little time to put their heads together to find a solution, she says. 

So some weeks Barnett has paid an extra $200 to have her print edition trucked in — an expense she really doesn’t want to continue. Sometimes her husband drives all the way to Liberal and back to retrieve the press run. She thought that having the papers mailed directly to her subscribers from Liberal might work, but that turned to disaster when one entire run got lost for two weeks.

“It’s just kind of a mess,” Barnett said. “That cost that I was paying in Pueblo got the papers to my door. And now that cost just gets them printed, and I’m struggling to find a way to get them either to my door or to my readers.

LEFT: Betsy Barnett works on putting an upcoming edition of the Kiowa County Independent newspaper to bed from the paper’s office in downtown Eads. The weekly paper has a circulation of just over 1,000. RIGHT: Back issues of the Kiowa County Independent are stored in the back room of the office. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

TOP: Betsy Barnett works on putting an upcoming edition of the Kiowa County Independent newspaper to bed from the paper’s office in downtown Eads. The weekly paper has a circulation of just over 1,000. BOTTOM: Back issues of the Kiowa County Independent are stored in the back room of the office. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Watt, the Liberal publisher, sympathizes. He identifies with the journalistic traditions of many rural papers struggling to make their operations work. He calls his own publications a multimedia “information warehouse,” and runs them with a practical business vision but also an altruistic approach when it comes to print.

“We all believe that every town needs to have a newspaper,” he said.

Watt initially worked part-time as a stringer covering sports while he was going to college. Although he’d aimed his education toward teaching and coaching, he fell in love with newspapers — a love that endures not only with his stewardship of the Leader & Times, which prints Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, but his efforts to provide a printing option for about 20 papers in the region, now including Colorado.

He says he’s mainly out to cover his expenses, but last year, for the first time in a decade, rising paper costs forced him to raise his rates. Still, he’s working to fit papers into his operation because the stakes are just too high to let papers vanish for lack of a press.

“What happens when towns lose their papers?” Watt said. “The taxes go up, fewer people run for office. It’s just not a good outcome. We’ve got to stay focused on making sure people are aware of how important that newspaper is in their town.”

A collective gut punch

Although the decline of print isn’t exactly breaking news, the Pueblo Chieftain’s announcement in June that it would be shutting down a printing operation that served more than 80 media outlets across Colorado still landed as a gut punch.

Colorado News
Mapping Project

Where do Coloradans find their local news and community information, and what do we know about these sources? This map contains credentialed sources of local journalism — including newspapers, TV and radio stations, and digital news sites — and other sources that share or produce civic information — including community groups, organizational pages, and individuals.

Gannett, which owns the Chieftain, laid off 51 employees in the printing operation in mid-August. The Chieftain and some other properties owned by the chain now are printed at The Denver Post. The company’s decision in part reflected the looming cost of capital improvements that would have been required to keep the presses running.

In July, it listed the commercial printing property for sale.

Just weeks before the announcement of the closure, the Pueblo Star Journal reported that the press operation produced five daily papers, 46 weeklies and 10 monthlies — including the Star Journal itself. It was particularly valuable to papers across the southern part of the state, from Trinidad to Walsenburg to Rocky Ford, Fowler and La Junta.

Last week, the Colorado Press Association, Colorado News Collaborative and the Colorado Media Project published the findings of a working group on the future of printing in Colorado that underscored the blow of the Pueblo closure and highlighted the nearly exhausted printing capacity statewide and “unsustainable” cost increases. The report voices concern that continuing those trajectories could lead to the demise of a “sizeable number” of publications.

Many communities — both readers and advertisers, and not just older readers — still prefer the print product, says Tim Regan-Porter, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. He believes print could have a much longer life if supply chain issues can be solved. But if they’re not, the potential revenue loss to these smaller papers won’t be replaced by digital.

“And so they will just be out of business,” he said. “And I think I think it’s the supply chain piece — that’s the biggest threat to them. Because they have the demand. It’s just paper prices have gone up, printing facilities have closed and part of it is just increased costs. We’re talking double- and triple-digit increases. And in some cases, they’re struggling to even get the paper printed and delivered in any kind of timely manner.”

And then there’s the declining production of newsprint. 

“Part of that at the paper level is that mills that used to make newsprint have converted to making cardboard boxes,” he said, “as we moved to buying everything from Amazon and other e-commerce sellers.”

Cross, of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, says the problem for a lot of small weeklies is that they’ve largely refused to charge enough for their product to cover the rising costs of printing and postage.

“They gotta make money on everything they do, including circulation,” he said. “And a lot of them have dug themselves a hole by not raising prices over the years, and now they’re faced with this need to really raise prices significantly. And it’s difficult for them to do it. Nobody wants to raise prices on their friends and neighbors.”

But if these papers don’t make up the loss of advertising revenue with audience revenue, he adds, “they are not going to survive.”

Cross says that for many years he’s been advancing the idea of newspapers moving to a monthly magazine format, capitalizing on the theory that there’s always going to be a demand for a printed product. And while the costs of printing a quality, full-color magazine may be as much as three times the cost of printing a weekly newspaper over the same period, consolidating content into a single issue still figures to be a money saver.

“The printing press is not going to go the way of the buggy whip,” he said. “People still want to pick up something and read a book or a magazine or a newspaper and we now have the technology and the plants that can produce fairly high quality magazines at low cost. I think going to a monthly magazine might be the next trend we see in the business, because you’re still able to satisfy the demand of readers and advertisers for print. But you’re able to reduce your printing costs substantially.”

After the announcement about the closure of the Pueblo press, Barnett, the Eads publisher, wrote a story and sounded an alarm that she’s not sure registered in Kiowa County. At least, she didn’t get a lot of immediate feedback.

We’ve got to stay focused on making sure people are aware of how important that newspaper is in their town.

— Earl Watt, Publisher of the Leader & Times in Liberal, Kansas

“A lot of them said that’s too bad, it’s a sign of the times and everything,” she said. “You know — complacency, basically. I don’t know that the general public really realizes just how important the paper is.”

They don’t, at least, until their own shuts down. Barnett recalls when nearby Cheyenne Wells lost its paper, the Range Ledger, and she scrambled to try to take up some of the slack in coverage with her own limited resources. Over the past year she has picked up quite a few new subscribers to the Independent, but she also realized there was no way to completely fill that void.

“We realize we’re a big geographical area and a very small population,” she said. “And we need to stick together or we’re going to fall.”

Keeping democracy alive, at city council

Manitou Springs, a small, artsy town in a box canyon up the road from Colorado Springs, felt ignored. 

The town’s beloved Pikes Peak Bulletin, which had been published weekly since at least 1918, was all but dead.

The trouble began in the final months of 2022, when the for-profit Colorado Publishing House announced it was closing and leaving its group of seven newspapers, which included the Colorado Springs Independent, Pikes Peak Bulletin and two military newspapers, to operate as a nonprofit. The initial plan was to consolidate all the papers into a weekly magazine called Sixty35, which is the elevation of Colorado Springs. The magazine would have a few pages each issue dedicated to Manitou and the other areas losing their own newspapers. 

LEFT TO RIGHT: Recently published front pages of Pikes Peak Bulletin, The Plainsman Herald and Kiowa County Independent.

But within a few months, Sixty35 dropped its new name and laid off half of its staff, including the one remaining employee, editor Rhonda Van Pelt, who was producing the scant news for the Pikes Peak Bulletin section of the magazine. 

Manitou was without local news, save for the occasional drop-by from a Colorado Springs or Denver reporter. 

It was, at least, until a group of local leaders started brainstorming around a table, their faces looking like “deer in the headlights” as they discussed how to bring back the Bulletin. It hadn’t completely died, yet, since the laid-off editor still had access to the Bulletin’s website and Facebook page and couldn’t resist posting important happenings around town. 

“You know, it’s a love affair with this town,” said Lyn Ettinger-Harwell, who had no experience running a newspaper but is now the publisher of the resurrected Bulletin. 

Ettinger-Harwell did, however, have experience running nonprofits. He helped start the now-closed pay-what-you-can Seeds Community Cafe, among others. Five of the 10 board members of the nonprofit newspaper had attended the original brainstorming session, and Ettinger-Harwell kicked it off by holding community meetings not just in Manitou, but up the road in Green Mountain Falls, and in Lower Ute Pass, which lost its newspaper about two years ago, and in Old Colorado City, another Colorado Springs suburb that lost its hyperlocal newspaper in 2019. 

The first edition hit mailboxes and newspaper stands in May and the second one in June. In July, the Bulletin began coming out every Friday. 

“Our issue of 24 pages came out again today, so that’s awesome,” Ettinger-Harwell said. “I’m still astounded.”

The paper is funded by a mix of philanthropy, including the Manitou Arts Center, and subscriptions. They started big, ramping up circulation to 4,000 copies instead of the previous 1,900. Board members pick up stacks of them on Friday mornings and hit 55 drop sites between Old Colorado City and Woodland Park. 

People won’t run for office if they don’t know what’s going on. I know we’re partly responsible.

— Lyn Ettinger-Harwell, Publisher of the Pikes Peak Bulletin

“I’ve retired a couple times and come back,” Ettinger-Harwell said. “When I do it this time, this paper needs to be sustainable. I’m committed to that.”

He’s out shaking hands and passing out papers every week, talking about “local journalism and our nonprofit model and trying to save democracy,” he said. Ettinger-Harwell is completely sincere about that last part, and he has the proof.

The last election cycle in Manitou, when there was no robust local news, three people ran unopposed for city council seats. This time, there are three people running for mayor and 10 people running for three open council seats. The Bulletin devoted space in its pages to writing about Manitou’s Citizens Academy, which was intended to inspire the next generation of city leaders.

“It’s because they’ve been reading about it in the paper,” he said. “People won’t run for office if they don’t know what’s going on. I know we’re partly responsible.”  

Leveraging technology — and family

A newspaper’s value to a rural community wasn’t lost on Kent Brooks.

The product of an agricultural lineage that goes back several generations, Brooks’ heart and soul reside in Colorado’s far-southeastern Baca County — even if his career in information technology took him to a job at Casper College in Wyoming.

The local Springfield-based weekly, the Plainsman Herald, had been on a downward spiral amid population decline and shifting demographics. After one effort to revive the paper lost steam and the paper appeared on the brink of closing, Brooks stepped in and purchased the weekly in October 2019. 

“It’s not perfect,” he said a few months after buying the paper, “but I’m better than one of the corporate entities that buy them, milk them and shut them down.”

The only paper in Baca County now counts a circulation of about 1,100 — a number nearly equal to the town’s population, though some of its subscribers have long since left the area but still like getting the Plainsman Herald in the mail to keep an eye on their hometown. 

“The community didn’t want to lose the paper,” Brooks said. “That’s been important to them, so people have supported it. So far, it’s paying for itself. I’m not sure that it’s making a whole lot. But you know, at this point, the community has been pretty supportive.”

He found a workable printing and delivery system by connecting with Watt in Liberal just two and a half hours down the road. A foundation grant helped Brooks and his son, Colin — also based in Wyoming but conversant in technology — launch an e-edition and gain enough valuable experience to continue it on their own once the grant expired. 

Hunter Babbitt sorts copies of the Sept. 26 edition of The Plainsman Herald for delivery to the post office at the paper’s headquarters in Springfield in the southeast corner of Colorado. (Photo courtesy of The Plainsman Herald)

Still, the circulation runs about 75% print, 25% digital, with print subscriptions including access to the e-edition. 

Not surprisingly, the announcement of the Pueblo press closure sent other Colorado publishers to check in with Brooks. Barnett in Eads, who had been a sounding board for him as he launched his ownership of the Plainsman Herald, was one of those he put in touch with Watt. 

In a newspaper industry that seems to be constantly shrinking in rural markets, Brooks figures, everyone’s always trying to stay one step ahead of the next calamity.

“I can’t help but think there’ll be a point when you go all digital or you shut down,” he said.

Like many rural papers, Kent Brooks has leveraged the assistance of family, including his daughter, 29-year-old Lexi Brooks. After earning her college degree in art and then, by training and certification, becoming a taxidermist and Forest Service chain sawyer, she made the transition to newspaper reporter.

It was not on her career to-do list. “Not even slightly,” she said. 

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As what she calls the paper’s “boots on the ground,” Lexi concentrates on the bread and butter of rural news — county commissioners, municipal board of trustees and groundwater commission board meetings, augmented by anything from school sports to community theater to local block parties. In Springfield, those governmental entities really hadn’t been getting a lot of attention until she took up the reporter’s role.

“There were things that did probably go uncovered for a while and it’s maybe been a little bit of an adjustment to have somebody there, looking over your shoulder,” she said. “But people are happy to see me out there.” 

Like many rural papers, the majority of the Plainsman-Herald’s readers prefer print — at least for now. The paper’s online-only subscriptions generally come from folks who have relocated and prefer not to rely on mail delivery.

But the Brooks family has a strong background in digital platforms to counterbalance an ingrained preference for print, as a predominantly older population in Baca County drives the current publishing arrangement.

But demographics change.

“We’re looking to navigate the generational shifts,” Lexi said. “That’s going to be important to develop our digital presence, to see if we can stay alive in the years ahead and keep doing community journalism. How do you stay civically engaged without that?”