Published: Sept. 5, 2019 By

The Colorado Sun is a new Colorado news organization seeking a business model that allows it to break free from the outside financial interests currently dominating the state’s news scene. Founded as an employee-owned company just last year, the Sun has incorporated as a Public Benefit Corporation—a categorization for companies that value social or environment impact alongside turning a profit. Maryland led the charge in PBC legislation in 2010 and since then, quite a few states have followed suit. While PBCs don’t receive specific tax benefits, their status illustrates a strong commitment to giving back to the public.

Different states require different actions on the part of a PBC to demonstrate its success in achieving the chosen benefits. In Colorado, PBCs are required to publish an annual report with a narrative description of their progress: What went well? What challenges hindered achievement of the benefit? The report is also supposed to include an evaluation by a third-party standard.

The Colorado Sun incorporated as a PBC in January. This August, then, was its first opportunity to complete the annual report. The Sun staff asked MEDLab to provide consultation on the reporting procedure. (There was no fee or other financial relationship associated with this arrangement; MEDLab has received a grant from the Brett Family Foundation to support work on Colorado journalism.)

Our process began with research about PBCs. In Colorado, annual reports are required to be published on a company’s website or available to anyone who for them; how hard could it be to find examples to draw on?

We found lots of example reports, but many were wholly irrelevant to the context of journalism or media production in the state. In-depth, beautiful reports from companies like Namasté Solar provided guidance for tone, format, and breadth, but the standards those companies used didn’t necessarily apply to the Sun. For instance, environmental impact may be easy to quantify for companies creating consumer goods (or, like Namasté, installing solar panels), but that task is harder for an online-only news platform. Standards like those used by the nonprofit certifier B-Lab can be useful, but questions about employee benefits and charitable giving don’t quite capture the community impact of a news organization.

How can one assess the impact of the news? Terms like “democracy” and “public knowledge” seemed too nebulous, too big to attach to tangible or measurable actions by the Sun. We had to improvise.

Our first step was creating a questionnaire of reflective questions for the Sun staff members. We wanted to hear from them about how they evaluate themselves, and we began with questions drawn from the Sun’s own purpose statement in its articles of incorporation. We also drew on the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics and the journalism ethics policy of Civil, the blockchain-based network of news organizations of which the Sun is a founding member.

The Sun responded with incredibly mindful, intentional responses that far exceeded our expectations. Staff members shared data sets illustrating not only audience reach and geographic coverage but also tangible examples of instances when the Sun’s reporting had clear impact. With these in hand, we undertook the next step of the process: MEDLab director Nathan Schneider interviewed Dana Coffield on our KGNU radio show Looks Like New. The conversation further illuminated the Sun’s purpose and impact, and it was broadcast across the Front Range.

Following the interview and the responses to our questionnaire, we created an evaluation, which in turn the Sun included in its first annual report.

The Sun’s achievement of its stated benefit purpose was remarkable. The shortcomings we identified are largely consequences of its early-stage limitations. Because of its small staff size, for instance, senior editors are currently involved in business and sponsorship decisions. Securing the sponsorships aspired to in the purpose statement has also been a challenge for the Sun, so grant funding and memberships have been the main sources of revenue. The Sun, like many news organizations, also struggles to reflect the diversity of the community in the diversity of its newsroom.

The standard we created to evaluate public benefit journalism was multifaceted, as it was based on “hard” numerical data as well as “soft” anecdotal evidence. The Sun’s mission is to provide accessible news for the entire state; we took a look at the kinds of coverage they provided for all parts of Colorado—including the areas that often go unacknowledged by larger, Denver-based publications. In the coming years, the Sun can analyze changes in this data to identify any gaps in both coverage and audience locations around the state. The other important aspect of our quantitative standards focused on the business model of the Sun through exploring the breakdown of funding sources and their relationship with the Sun’s purpose statement.

But numbers alone don’t give justice to the Sun’s impact. We identified standards to evaluate each clause of the Sun’s purpose statement and probed them with questions related to the tenets of journalism. These standards focus on ethics, accuracy, independence, truthfulness, and contributions to Colorado’s democracy. We asked process-oriented questions whose answers are hard to measure quantitatively: How does the Sun verify information and sources? Parse opinion and commentary from fact? Fairly represent sources and relevance of information? How does the Sun maintain independence? Avoid conflicts of interest? Interact with advertisers, donors, and sponsors?

Impact is no doubt difficult to measure, but this hybrid approach for understanding all parts of the Sun’s mission and fulfillment of it hopefully yields an accurate depiction of the publication’s first year. We also hope that what we have done will be useful to other news organizations seeking to evaluate their public benefit. In the long term, however, it is probably best that specific standards from journalism simply inform how journalism PBCs fill out a more standard, cross-industry instrument like the B Impact Assessment.

Public Benefit Corporation status is an emerging strategy for better reflecting the dual role of journalism as a public service and a business. It may help to protect local news from the profit-seeking, outside interests that have dominated newsrooms in Colorado and throughout the country. The Colorado Sun is a pioneer in this, and we have been grateful to help document its progress.