A global pandemic probably seems like a bad time to be building a new local news website.
Economies both global and local are in precarious positions, unemployment is soaring, advertising has disappeared and nobody is up for in-person events. And yet, the need and demand for local news and information has never been greater.
The circumstances call for some bold action in local news. If now isn’t the time to show up for our communities, then when?
This is why The Compass Experiment will soon be launching our second local news website in Longmont, Colorado. We hope to have this new publication, The Longmont Leader, ready to go by the end of May.
Our team learned a lot in launching our first Compass site, Mahoning Matters, last year. We had to rush to build and launch a new local news site in the wake of the closure of Youngstown’s local newspaper. We managed to get it up just 40 days later. To do that, we had to cut some corners and improvise a few things. For the second site, we had big plans to take our time and do everything just right.
Circumstances have changed, so we’re calling an audible. We’re launching The Leader as soon as we can and we’ll adapt as needed along the way. We can’t expect to know what will happen in Longmont in the next month, but do we know the public will need information more than ever as the city continues to deal with the fallout from COVID-19 and will start an eventual reopening and recovery. We believe that we can make an immediate impact in the area during this time of flux.
Why Longmont? Why now?
Longmont is a beautiful place that anyone would want to have an excuse to visit. Longmont has a small-town feel with some amazing views of the Rocky Mountains, including Long’s Peak, where the city got its name (and we derived our logo).
Longmont has seen a massive influx of new residents over the past decade, thanks in part to a tech industry boom in nearby Denver and Boulder. In fact, SmartAsset named Longmont the fastest-growing city in America, with a population that has increased by an estimated 12 percent in 10 years.
Building on a foundation of community-centric news
Amid this population growth, Longmont’s local media has consolidated and moved out of town.
It was in response to this slow-motion disappearance of local news that Scott Converse started the Longmont Observer back in 2017. The Observer is a non-profit, volunteer-run site for community news and information that features everything from the happenings on the city council to a very in-depth weather report and opinion pieces from locals.
I reached out to Scott last June, not long after starting at The Compass Experiment, to pick his brain about the Observer and a local campaign to establish public funding for journalism in Longmont. We stayed in touch and I’ve kept an eye on the news in Longmont.
I caught up with the Observer team while researching potential Compass cities last fall. Around that time, the Observer won a contract to run the city’s local public access television services. It spun off a new entity, Longmont Public Media, to take on those duties and operate a new makerspace for community members to create their own media. The Observer’s core leadership team of Converse, Editor Macie May and CTO Sergio Angeles were already stretched before adding on LPM. Something was going to have to give.
Long story short, we decided that Compass would open a new site in Longmont that could take over the daily news coverage that had once been done by the Observer, thus allowing Scott & Co. to focus their energy on Longmont Public Media.
While we have a shared mission and a strong partnership with LPM, we thought it was important to make it clear to the community that the new site would be a different entity from the Observer, with a different business model and new management. Thus, The Longmont Leader was born.
We at Compass seek to build on the Observer’s groundwork to help us get a foothold in the community’s consciousness during this critical time, so we acquired the site’s email list, URL and social media accounts. On launch day, the Longmont Observer site will point to The Longmont Leader and its social accounts will be renamed for the new brand. The Leader will host the Observer’s archives, ensuring they are still accessible and searchable.
We don’t expect it to be that easy to bring the Observer’s readers into the fold, we know we’ll have to earn their attention, and, eventually, their trust.
Building The Longmont Leader
The Longmont Leader will feature a comprehensive view of what is happening in the city, from government to schools, public safety, business, and local events. Building on the Observer’s work, we also want to make our site a home for the community’s stories in the form of photos, columns and other citizen media produced in partnership with Longmont Public Media.
We have no illusions that it is going to be easy to launch a new local news brand when we can’t get out into the community and properly introduce ourselves due to social distancing, but the mission is too important to wait until the pandemic has passed. So we have to find more ways to include the community as we build out what the Leader will be. We’ve started with an FAQ to help address questions as they arise. In the coming weeks, we will hold virtual events and employ other means of getting the community’s input on what they want from their local news.
Some of that local engagement has already begun. We’ve attended community events in Longmont, and talked with media, business and community leaders about the local news environment. Most everyone we have spoken to over the past several months is supportive of a new local news entity solely focused on Longmont.
During a visit in October, I attended a local news forum in Longmont organized by the Colorado Media Project and Free Press. It was there I heard from longtime residents who worry that Longmont could lose its identity as a feisty, independent-minded city by becoming a bedroom community to Boulder and Denver. They said they want to better incorporate the city’s newcomers to the community fabric without losing that which makes it special. Those newcomers wanted to know more about their new home and neighbors.
It is in that need for connection that we see the most opportunity to make an impact in Longmont.
A focus on underserved audiences
Those community conversations were key to our earliest decisions about what The Longmont Leader should be and what sort of team we would need to make this site a success.
We knew we’d need to hire a local editor who was familiar with the region and its ever-changing forces. We also learned early on that if we are to truly cover the city of Longmont, we would need to think beyond English-language reporting.
More than a quarter of Longmont’s population is Hispanic or Latino, and Spanish is spoken in many homes across Boulder County. There’s an active Latino Chamber of Commerce as well as several civic, cultural and social service groups aimed at improving the lives and well-being of the area’s Latinx residents.
If we want to reach this often-underserved group and help tell their stories, we will need a team that can communicate across language divides. This is why we are focused on hiring at least one bilingual reporter and why we will commit to a longer-term goal of developing a home for Spanish-language reporting on our site.
What comes next
Right now, we are building a local team of five to get the site off the ground: An editor, two reporters, an assistant editor to help run the site and a business development and community partnerships leader. The hiring process for the editor is already underway (we hope to share news about that soon), but the four other roles are publicly posted and accepting applications as of today.
What you see now on The Longmont Leader site is a preview of what we are building over the next few weeks.
As with our first site, Mahoning Matters, The Compass Experiment is teaming up again with Village Media, who is the platform provider and a close partner for The Longmont Leader. The local editorial and business teams will work closely with Village Media and borrow liberally from the playbook that has worked so well for their local news sites in Canada.
To keep tabs on our progress as we build the team and make plans for launch, sign up for The Leader’s email list and keep tabs on this site.
If you have questions, suggestions or are interested in joining us as a reader, partner or sponsor, please reach out to me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org, on LinkedIn or via Twitter (DMs are open).
The Longmont Leader is part of The Compass Experiment, a local news laboratory founded by McClatchy and Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project. This Medium site is set up to share news and learnings from The Compass Experiment’s local news websites.