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LONGMONT — Longmont residents will have a new media player this spring when the digital-only Longmont Leader launches.

The Leader is a product of McClatchy Newspapers Inc. (OTC-MNIQQ), a national news company based in California with 31 newspapers around the country. The Leader will be financed initially by the Google News Initiative’s Local Experiments Project, which has provided three-year financing to McClatchy for its Compass Experiment.

McClatchy has acquired the Longmont Observer, a community-operated, free, nonprofit local news website run by volunteers. The Observer began operations after the Longmont Times-Call, the community daily, was acquired by Media News Group division Prairie Mountain Publishing, which later closed the local office and moved staff to the Boulder Daily Camera office in Boulder.

The Leader, expected to begin operations in late May, will be the second of three community-centric digital publications around the country that are part of The Compass Experiment, which is described as a local news laboratory. The experiment will create three operations in small to mid-sized markets with two goals: To disseminate news and to make local operations financially sustainable.

“We were drawn to Longmont because we want to help bring together its residents around a shared passion for the city, its people and its local businesses,” said Mandy Jenkins, general manager of the Compass Experiment.  “But as the city has been growing, local news sources have been shrinking. We intend to build on the great work of the Longmont Observer with a news site that is hyper-focused on all things Longmont.”

“We’re excited to pass the torch to the Longmont Leader and look forward to collaborating with it to ensure that local news thrives in our community,” said Scott Converse, founder of the Longmont Observer and Longmont Public Media.

The Leader is hiring a local team that includes a business development leader as well as an editor, assistant editor and two reporters, at least one of whom will be a bilingual Spanish/English reporter.

“We’ll hire an editor first, and the editor will hire the rest of the team. One of the things we learned [in its initial startup] was how important it is to hire a team that knows the community and the area,” Jenkins told BizWest.

Articles will offer comprehensive coverage of local news and events. The publication will also be home to community columns and citizen journalism produced in partnership with Longmont Public Media.

The Compass Experiment’s first venture, Mahoning Matters, an Ohio-based digital-only news outlet, launched in October to serve residents of Youngstown and the Mahoning Valley.

Jenkins said in a column at the Mahoning Matters website that it continues to work on the financial model and this month launched a reader support program to help supplement advertising revenue.

In Longmont, the website will sell advertising and ad sponsorships in addition to seeking reader support. “We have had success with sponsorships in which businesses underwrite certain sections of the website. We’ll develop that program for Longmont. We will have built in tools on the site, such as a verified, brand-safe business directory, that we’ll provide access to for free to start to help businesses as they restart operations [after the coronavirus shutdowns.]”

Jenkins said the Ohio operation added the sponsored readership program on its six-month anniversary. “It gave us an opportunity to tell readers where news comes from and how it is supported. We’ll do that from the beginning at Longmont,” she said. Readers will be able to provide one-time gifts or ongoing support.

Jenkins said that adding the Observer to the Leader’s operation gives McClatchy’s effort in Longmont an advantage over a traditional startup because it will have market recognition.

McClatchy, like newspaper companies elsewhere in the country, has encountered headwinds from shifts in advertising revenue and readers to digital formats for news and information. The company filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy in February this year.

Longmont Public Media was created late last year after the city voted in September to award the Observer the city’s contract for providing public, educational and governmental television services in 2020. That agreement required the online news source, which the city expects to pay about $155,000 this year to perform those public broadcasting chores, to keep its role as a news agency separate from the services to be provided under its contract with the city.

After being contacted by the Times-Call when news emerged about the Leader’s acquisition of the Observer, Assistant City Manager Sandra Seader said in an email that “As far as I am concerned, this doesn’t change the contractual relationship with the Longmont Observer, doing business as Longmont Public Media, although we may look at changing their name in the contract.”

On Tuesday afternoon, Converse said in an email to City Council, city administrators and the heads of the Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce, the Longmont Downtown Development Authority, Visit Longmont and the Longmont Community Foundation that “for the record, the Longmont Leader is completely separate from and in no way controlled by, nor are they in any way controlling, Longmont Public Media. They are very much an independent for-profit entity that just happens to be smart about leveraging community assets to better serve the overall community.”

Converse wrote that the Leader plans to integrate into the community by becoming a corporate member of Longmont Public Media’s makerspace and using that space as a base of operations.

“We’re both excited and sad,” Converse wrote. “Sad to see the Longmont Observer go away after several years of hard work, but, happy to see that the work paid off in getting the attention of these much larger and better funded companies noticing Longmont and deciding to launch their experiment in creating a new kind of local for-profit newsroom in our community.”

© 2020 BizWest Media LLC

Times-Call staff writer John Fryar contributed to this report.

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