Newspaper owner tells tale of survival

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The Littleton Business Coalition invited Jerry Healey, owner of Colorado Community Media, to its June 27 meeting to tell the tale of “Breathing New Life into a 125-Year-Old Publication: The Littleton Independent.”

Healey and the paper are like those celebrity couples who get married and divorced to each other over and over. But before his relationship with the Independent started, he had to divorce the Littleton Times, which he and his wife, Ann Macari Healey, bought upon moving to Littleton from the East Coast in the early 1990s.

But the Times was in a jealous battle with the Independent at the time, and they were leeching revenue from each other.

“I started to doubt what we were doing here,” he said, paying everyone in the company but themselves, with a baby on the way.

When the Independent went up for sale, along with the Englewood and Highlands Ranch papers, he took note. Despite being just 30 and somewhat intimidated by the idea, he put in a bid and won. He brought along some Times employees, and the Independent thrived. There was a controversial “back to basics” movement afoot in the school district, which helped drive readership up to more than 10,000 subscribers.

With the Independent in a comfortable spot, the Healeys felt they should get more familiar with the burgeoning Highlands Ranch, so they packed up their two kids and moved there.

“It broke a lot of people’s hearts who knew us well,” he said.

He eventually added the Lone Tree Voice and acquired the Castle Rock office that printed papers in Douglas and Elbert counties.

“Sometimes be careful what you wish for, because I got myself into a situation I really didn’t like,” he said. “We made it eight years, but I’d really attached myself to the Littleton Independent.”

When venture capitalists began poking around in 1997, Healey ended up selling. He branched out on his own ventures for a few years, but he remained on the company’s board and even ended up briefly back at the company as the publisher in the Littleton office.

By 2011, the economy had crashed, the bosses were making significant cuts to staff and resources, the Littleton office had moved to Interstate 25 and Lincoln Avenue, the Independent’s subscriber list was less than 2,000 and things were basically in chaos.

“Littleton was on the chopping block for the private equity firm,” he said. The investors approached him to buy it back, and he did in February 2012. He bought back 13 papers, managed another six and has added three since then; the Colorado Community Media operation has 18 websites and 63 full-time employees.

“But it still had this rich history,” said Healey. So he set out to set things right, increasing local news and sports coverage, hiring more people, finding creative ways to make advertising more advantageous for buyers and more. He also moved the company back into its coverage area, to Highlands Ranch.

“Littleton’s up about 500 subscribers, but it’s a tough battle,” he said. “The world has changed in the last 20 years. Used to be our best tool for increasing subscriptions was telemarketing, but most residents are now on the do-not-call list.”

Healey believes building successful community papers is a team project.

“The more you support us, the more relevant we become,” he wrote in a column last February. “And it is that relevance that will make us successful, no matter the medium, and help us remain the historical record for our communities and a force for improvement and progress.”