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Producer and reporter Xandra McMahon. Photo by Hart Van Denburg/Courtesy of CPR News

Inside Colorado Public Radio’s Insane Year Of Growth

The station is becoming one of the state’s best sources for community news—with a little help from its friends.

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On a January afternoon, Colorado Public Radio (CPR) president Stewart Vanderwilt sweeps his hand apologetically toward the offices down a hallway. “We’re still getting settled,” he says of CPR’s new digs on East 17th Avenue. The 9,000-square-foot space, in which approximately 50 reporters, editors, and producers work, practically hums with something that’s grown rare in many newsrooms today: optimism.

In a state where nearly 20 percent of the newspapers that existed in 2004 have closed and where cuts reduced the Denver Post’s staff by a third in 2018, CPR has grown—fast. Last March, the station purchased local online news site Denverite; a month later, it announced an editor and three reporters focused on climate were coming on board. A dedicated Washington, D.C.–based correspondent was hired in May, and in August, former Denver Post editor Chuck Murphy was appointed to lead an investigative team. To finish off 2019, the news team moved its headquarters from Centennial to Denver, putting reporters closer to the policymaking action at the Capitol.

How has CPR managed to expand when so many others are shrinking? There’s no single answer. Unlike other media, which rely mainly on retail advertising sales, CPR has multiple income streams, including individual donations. It also strategically partners with other outlets, such as its January agreement with Colorado College to create a new public-media center in Colorado Springs. The move allows KRCC (NPR’s southern Colorado station), the Rocky Mountain PBS Regional Innovation Center, college journalism students, and CPR to collaborate on future projects. And the station just hired a collaborations editor to share stories with other local outlets. “In many ways, CPR is a model when we talk about what robust community journalism looks like,” says Lynn Schofield Clark, a professor of media, film, and journalism studies at the University of Denver.

Host and reporter Ann Marie Awad. Photo by Sarah Boyum

CPR also has benefited from increased support for news media during the #fakenews era. The desire to shore up local outlets bred the Colorado Media Project (CMP), a coalition of civic leaders, journalists, philanthropists, academics, and others that explores policy, collaborations, and funding sources. Launched in 2018, the CMP has received almost $2 million from grant-makers like the Democracy Fund; a portion of that money supported CPR’s acquisition of Denverite, which, Vanderwilt says, added talent, a platform, and an audience.

CMP isn’t the only thing bolstering CPR: Add in contributions from individuals and entities, like the Buell and Gates Family foundations, and the station brought in almost $3 million in donations in 2018. The infusion of cash is enabling CPR to create groundbreaking content, like podcasts from its new Audio Innovations Studio (Back From Broken, a series about recovery, debuted in February). “Public radio was built on bringing depth to daily news,” says Rachel Estabrook, CPR’s news director. She believes giving the audience more of that news, context, and creative storytelling will continue a cycle of support: “People do pay for what they value,” she says. “And the more we give them, the more they will pay for it, and then we’ll be able to do more for them.”

Editor’s note: This article appeared in the April issue of 5280, which went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory. As such, some events and dates listed may now be out of date. For more on how 5280 is shifting coverage during this time, read Editorial Director Geoff Van Dyke’s editor’s note.

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