A culture of innovation in news in Boulder, Colorado, is as old as the city itself.
At least 60 local news businesses have made their mark on Boulder’s journalistic landscape over the past 100-plus years.
That’s the rich tradition we’re stepping into with the launch of Boulder Reporting Lab.
One of our predecessors, the Boulder Planet, published from 1996 to 2000, laid out this history in a beautifully written essay in its premiere issue. (I encourage you to read it here.)
It starts with the creation in 1867 of the Boulder Valley News, the city’s first newspaper. The essay ends with a prediction that in some ways foreshadowed the Boulder Reporting Lab decades later: The “computer chip will augur a frontier spirit of journalism as new technology makes it easier and cheaper for new voices to launch new publications on the Internet.”
The Boulder Reporting Lab is digitally born, not-for-profit, non-partisan and free for all. Our mission is a public service one. We’re dedicated to two main goals: producing quality and timely original journalism and information on the issues of greatest community significance, and building a permanent, financially sustainable home for nonprofit news in Boulder.
Before the Boulder Planet, a news startup called the Boulder Courier entered the journalistic scene in 1987. On launch day, its editor asked a favor of residents: “We ask you to judge us by the service to you. Do you like what you see? Tell us about it. Are we missing something? Complain to us,” he wrote. “We are putting this newspaper out because we love Boulder, and we want to give it our very best.”
We too are here because we love Boulder. We’re also here to listen deeply to all. And we ask for — we require — honest feedback to ensure the needs, experiences and voices of Boulderites are at the center of our work.
We’re just getting started and we know there are questions. Below are five of the most asked by the community, during hundreds of interviews, informal chats, Zooms and occasional in-person meetings with residents over the past year and a half. We’re always happy to answer more.
What will you cover, and how will you cover it?
Our community conversations informed our editorial approach and initial core coverage areas: climate change, local economy, food and culture, health, housing and schools. We continue to listen and learn as we take these initial steps in building a reliable news outlet with the community and not just for it.
Our work will be service-oriented — Boulder’s information needs will determine our reporting priorities above all. It also will be solutions-focused. We’ll seek to explain our most complex challenges and spark new conversations about what is possible when it comes to solving them. We’ll also respond to the clamoring for stories about what’s good and already working well in our city, and who is making Boulder a better place.
Perhaps most importantly, our work will be rooted in collaboration with community organizations, leaders and newsrooms who have been here for years. Our city is simply better served by more local coverage. We aim for our approach to the news to strengthen what’s already working and filling information gaps in our local media.
We’ll carry out this work with a small but dedicated team to start — a staff of three, including two other professional journalists. They both cut their teeth in local journalism, covering their communities tirelessly.
I have spent most of my career in startup journalism. I previously co-founded a Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofit newsroom called Inside Climate News, where I worked for 13 years. The prospect of having an impact in the community in which I live has excited me the most about this new venture.
After moving here with my family in April 2020, I immersed myself in Boulder’s issues and people. As I dug into the city’s nuances, I learned about its rich journalistic tradition, too. I see the Boulder Reporting Lab as a continuation of a spirit of news experimentation here.
If you’re a news organization, why are you calling yourself a Lab?
Names are tricky. When the Lab concept came to me in September 2020, I urgently typed out the following notes:
“This is what I’ve started calling my project. I don’t know if this is the right name; it very well might not be. But here’s why I like it for now.”
- “Labs are part of the DNA of Boulder. The city is full of labs on the cutting-edge of experimentation to make society better for all.
- Labs are places of experimentation, investigation and discovery. The Boulder Reporting Lab is itself an experiment. But most importantly, it will carry out experiments that lead to new discoveries about our city and also new revenue streams for our business that ideally could be scalable and replicable.
- Labs are opportunities to put assumptions under the microscope in pursuit of the truth.
- Labs connote nimbleness, an ability to retool to address the needs of the moment.
- Labs (the best ones) seek to create transparency for the public.”
We’ve explored alternatives since then. They were almost all recycled newspaper names. Some had already existed in Boulder. We’re reimagining the local news experience here, not replicating it. No name matched our mission in the way the Lab does. It means a commitment to truth, science and fairness, to experimentation and collaboration, and to trying to crack the trickiest nut for local nonprofit news startups: financial sustainability.
How are you different from the news options that exist in Boulder?
The Boulder Reporting Lab is launching with a grounding in the needs of readers.
Through hundreds of conversations with people around Boulder, we found a sense of feeling under- and over-informed at the same time.
People described being under-informed when it comes to digging beneath the surface of issues of community significance and to good news and profiles that connect them to their neighbors. The city is also information-rich, though that information is dispersed. Many have described a need for an information curator.
Our flagship morning newsletter, BRL Today, aims to do both. It is grounded in original reporting that adds context, clarity, data, visuals and people to events happening around us. It curates and elevates community information in digestible ways. Overall, it is meant to inform, connect and engage readers quickly and enjoyably. Our website will house our original content for diving deeper and over time will see many new posts a day. As we grow, our target will be more in-depth reporting.
We recognize the standard for Boulder residents is high when it comes to journalism. Deep civic engagement means a deeply knowledgeable community with huge personal stakes in the outcome of policy debates.
Every issue of consequence in Boulder can feel like a landmine. Frankly, this is precisely what brings our team to life. How do we step into issues in ways that add value, not more polarization?
Policy conversations on our city’s challenges can feel as though they’re painted in black and white. Solutions, however, often exist along a spectrum of gray. That’s where our reporting aims to live — in the gray. In that space, we seek over time to understand and explain potential solutions, to spawn new conversations and advance stuck ones with evidence and insight.
Will you be running opinion articles?
Not yet. We want our news organization to be built upon a foundation of deep, insightful, useful and non-partisan reporting. We believe, based on our conversations with the community, that this is where we can add the most value in our local news today. When we are adequately staffed for it, we will explore building an editorial section that serves our public-interest mission and the needs of the community, and is also value-added.
How are you funded?
The Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project, which seeks to support innovative new models for journalism, provided our initial funding and is providing technical and product expertise. This support will last up to two years. GNI has zero involvement or influence in any of our editorial decisions. Neither will any of our funders. (Read more about our editorial and transparency policies.) We’re also part of Village Media’s Publisher Services Program.
For the long term, we are striving to build a community-driven funding model. We have launched a community sponsorship program, designed to be a partnership between local businesses and the Boulder Reporting Lab. In October 2021, we raised funding from community members and local foundations to help support the hiring of a climate change-dedicated reporter in early 2021. We intend to grow all sources of revenue over the next several years, including our reader membership program. Simply put, our journalism and our business will depend on our community’s participation — and support.