A paper in tiny Crestone, Colorado, is ‘on the leading edge’ of legacy newspapers going nonprofit

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Dan Boyce/CPR News
Crestone Eagle founder Kizzen Laki in her office on August 23rd, 2022. She recently stepped down as the newspaper’s publisher when it transitioned to a nonprofit business model.

A few years ago, the operators of The Crestone Eagle made an appeal to their readers and others who care about local news: We need $10,000 to survive the winter, can you help us?

Within two weeks, community members and others donated $15,000 and the paper lived to see another season.

Now, at the beginning of September this year, the 33-year-old monthly paper in this tiny San Luis Valley town has become a nonprofit. And they’re hoping it sustains them for the long term.

“This was our own community who came up and put their money on the table and said, ‘We want to keep our community newspaper alive. We want to do it,’” said the Eagle’s founder, Kizzen Laki. “And I thought, if they’re willing to do this when it’s not a tax deductible donation, then going as a nonprofit, it’s already been proven that this is going to work.”

Laki, 70, sold the paper to the nonprofit Crestone Eagle Community Media, and is now transitioning into retirement. The paper, however, has been given a new lease on life. 

It’s the latest positive sign for local news in Colorado, which until recently had been dominated by decades of steady decline. 

“I would say right now is one of the most optimistic times that I have seen in my career as a journalist,” said Laura Frank, who co-founded the Institute for Nonprofit News after losing her job during the closure of the Denver-based Rocky Mountain News in 2009. 

Dan Boyce/CPR News
More than 30 years of Crestone Eagle archives line shelves at the newspaper's headquarters on August 23rd, 2022.

Ten years later, in 2019, the Salt Lake Tribune made history as the first legacy paper in the U.S. to transition from a for-profit news organization to a 510(c) nonprofit. Others have followed in their footsteps: Chicago Public Media, a nonprofit which runs NPR-affiliate WBEZ, also recently acquired the Chicago Sun-Times. Frank says she and her INN colleagues are now fielding calls every month from other news sources of all sizes looking to do the same. 

“And Crestone — tiny Crestone, Colorado — has been at the forefront of that,” Frank said. “They are on the leading edge of a growing trend all across the country.”

Community identity

There’s only one road leading in and out of Crestone. The 2020 census recorded 141 inhabitants. Yet, the Crestone Eagle still boasts a circulation of about 2,500 paying readers across its print and digital products per month, and its pages are heavy with columns submitted by unpaid local writers on subjects ranging from stargazing tips to birdwatching reports. 

Mary Lowers writes a history column for the paper.

“I feel like the values that people had here, the old families from the mining and ranching days, the back-to-the-land hippies who came out here — the people who came out here, so the government would leave them alone,” Lowers said. “All of us support the Eagle and I think will support the Eagle through the transition.”

It’s not just the paper’s connection to the community that has helped it transition to nonprofit status, it’s also the other trailblazers in Colorado’s nonprofit journalism that have helped the Crestone organizers believe they can do it.

Dan Boyce/CPR News
Crestone Eagle founder Kizzen Laki, left, has been running the small community newspaper with her wife, Janet Woodman, for decades. The newspaper became a nonprofit on September 1.

The Eagle’s new editor, John Waters, said he is looking to take lessons from other outlets that have found success with unconventional business models, such as High Country News in Paonia and The Colorado Sun. He said his small staff has been busy applying for grants they’ve never been eligible for before, but now suddenly are because of their nonprofit status.

“That’s really key to our destiny,” Waters said. “Having that revenue stream … we can finance things like more of our website, more of our social media. We can fund podcasting.”

Other bright spots

The Crestone Eagle is now one of more than 170 news outlets across the state making up the Colorado News Collaborative, also overseen by Laura Frank. 

That collaborative is one of many initiatives and organizations that receive philanthropic dollars from the new Colorado Media Project. (Colorado Public Radio is also part of the Colorado News Collaborative.)

And late last month, CBS News Colorado announced it would be adding 10 additional hours of news coverage focused on local community news around the state, starting next week.