The Gunnison Country Times is a local newspaper based in Gunnison, Colorado.

These Rural Entrepreneurs Are Redefining Local Journalism

By Elise Ertl

Local news—especially in rural communities—has been decimated. These entrepreneurs are fixing it in their hometowns.

“Everybody knows that journalism is in crisis. It’s particularly felt with rural journalism,” said Adam Giorgi, Director of Planning and Program Development at the Center of Rural Strategies, which produces The Daily Yonder. “That’s where a lot of the backsliding and the closures and the consolidation has happened.”

If this is true, then how do we fix it? It’s the million-dollar question that has been asked for decades. And as far as local, rural journalism goes, the question remains unanswered.

Traditionally, local news thrived off what was called the “bundle.” The bundle, according to Giorgi, included the reasons people subscribed to a newspaper: the weather, stock market, sports scores, or the news.

“We live in an information environment now, where the bundle has been totally broken. So, your app on your phone can give you the weather, you’ve got Robinhood for stocks, and you have the ESPN app for sports scores. And really, all that was left for traditional local news providers was the news.”

The loss of the bundle came with the introduction of the internet, which created a space for information to be globalized. With the bundle broken, local newspapers weren’t holding the same amount of readership and couldn’t make enough money to turn a profit. Since 2004, over 2,100 local newspapers in the United States have gone out of business. According the Giorgi, the downfall of local news has direct links to the downfall of communities as well.

“All the academic literature shows that that leads to worse civic outcomes— less voter turnout and ticket splitting and more partisanship and polarization and less accountability for public officials,” said Giorgi. “There’s just more and more research showing that it takes a toll on communities when your local news withers.”

It goes to show there are clear benefits to keeping news local, and it’s going to require an entrepreneurial spirit to make it work. We connected with three, Colorado local news outlets to understand how they’re redefining what it means to produce local, community-focused news.

Introducing a innovative broadcast news model in Durango

Laurie Sigillito founded the Local News Network in 2013, and ended up solving an issue one community had dealt with for years: Durango, Colorado was a broadcast news desert. Instead of Denver news, local viewers watch the latest from Albuquerque, NM. But it wasn’t just a matter of no news, it was also a matter of distribution. Their solution was to create a digital out-of-home (DOOH) network. 

A DOOH network brings news content and advertisements into places outside the home, such as the dentist’s office or your local pizzeria. This scenario works for both news outlets and advertisers as viewers can’t change the channel and have no option but to view the stories and the ads. Through this, The Local News Network has built what they call an “information economy,” spreading their network from Durango to Telluride, Montezuma County, and Farmington, NM already. 

“We want to revitalize, rebuild, close the gap in the information economy, in rural America, because it’s not just about the news,” said Sigillito. “You can write all the news stories you want, but if you don’t have some way of getting them out, and people reading it, and monetizing, how are you going to keep it going? You don’t have anything.” 

Being able to take this same business model to different cities with a click of the remote has made this business model efficient and cost effective. It also promotes community engagement with local businesses, which keeps businesses paying for local news advertisements. It’s a modern revamp of the traditional news business model.

"We want to revitalize, rebuild, close the gap in the information economy, in rural America, because it's not just about the news..."

Laurie Sigilito, Founder of the Local News Network in Durango

Kevin Mahmalji, the founder of The Florence Reporter, started The Florence Reporter on two ideals: highlighting the Florence community and holding their local officials accountable. With this, he addressed the long-neglected issue of government corruption in Florence that other newspapers at the time had failed to address.
But he says it isn’t necessarily the content of the paper itself where he’s found the most success in bringing back the newspaper, but rather through in-person engagement with the community. Once a month, and soon to be twice, he goes door to door delivering the news to every subscriber. In fact, he does it all.
“They’re like, so you’re like the paperboy too? You’re like the editor and managing editor and writer and owner and paperboy? I’m like, yep! And they get a kick out of it,” said Mahmalji. “There’s a lot of good that has come out of this doing door to door delivery.”

Not only does he do door-to-door delivery of the newspaper,  but he also goes door-to-door selling subscriptions, one of the core ways the newspaper makes a profit. While Florence is a small town of just 3,909 people, Mahmalji has worked to grow the number of newspaper subscribers. Over the course of the year, he has managed to go from 30 subscribers to 150. The newspaper also follows the traditional model of making profit from community ads. Mahmalji’s plan to increase revenue is to start producing a bi-weekly paper instead of the current monthly issue, which will allow more available ad spaces for businesses as well as spread out their high volume of content.

With a large number of other newspapers in the area, Mahmalji recognizes there has to be something that makes The Florence Reporter special. And for him, that’s creating quality content, going door-to-door, and engaging with his community.

“People like the PR, and I’m telling you, when I go out to these community events, the shaking hands and stuff and people even joke, they’re like, ‘running for office?’ No, but it’s the same, right,” said Mahmalji. “I have to be out there. And I have to be the face of the newspaper. That’s very much part of it.”

Continuing a community legacy in Gunnison

The Gunnison Country Times has found success by sticking to the traditional business model. This is partly due to the town’s geographic isolation, but an even larger part is the paper’s ability to hyperfocus on local needs.  
The Gunnison Country Times can be traced back 143 years. Alan Wartes, owner of the paper, had his first interaction with the newspaper in 1997 when he became a staff writer for the newspaper. When the paper went up for sale in 2021, Wartes decided then to make it his own.
“Most people said it was a really kind of a crazy time to do anything like that,” said Wartes. “Well, and a lot of people would say, buying into the newspaper industry is kind of crazy these days because a lot of what you hear and then in the news, and ironically, is that the news industry is failing.”
This purchase may have seemed crazy to some, but there’s a reason the paper has been running for so long. For 143 years, the Gunnison Country Times has maintained its original mission. 
“I personally think that the answer to that is a lot less about innovation, than it is about getting really good at the traditional mission of the newspaper. Being so good at reporting local news, and so reliable and so trustworthy, and doing our best to cover the broadest possible spectrum of that news is what people have always expected in the newspapers,” said Wartes. “And just because the world is changing around us doesn’t mean that that mission has fundamentally changed. And I think some publishers make a mistake by thinking that the answer is innovation, when really it is excellence, at what we already do.” 
Their mission, along with Gunnison’s isolated nature, allows them to hyper focus on the community. This can look like anything from covering local issues such as board meetings or events to bringing national issues on a local scale. 
“There’s a lot of big picture issues that come to bear on ranchers, developers, rec recreation, that’s policymakers,” said Wartes. “How do we handle that? If we didn’t have the Gunnison County Times here, no one else would be reporting on developments in that issue, but also sort of interpreting group community what it all means.
These outlets have not changed the news, but have found new approaches to distributing and engaging with their communities that rebuilds their vibrancy. The question of how to save local news might not have a single answer, but rather require a tailored approach that reevaluates a community’s needs and gauges how to reach an audience that is ever-changing with the times. 
“Complacency is a good way to lose it. So don’t do that. Support your paper,” said Wartes. “It is a community asset. If we went away today, the ramifications of that would be enormous for everyone who lives here… So get behind your papers. Do something to help.”