Nearly three years ago, after losing a city council race in Denver's District 1 in the northwest part of town, veteran Democratic political consultant David Sabados decided to shift gears. Joining with experienced journalist Sabrina Allie, he founded Denver North Star, a free monthly newspaper delivered to homes and businesses in the same neighborhoods where he had campaigned.
Until earlier this month, Sabados served as editor and publisher of the Denver North Star and a sister publication he launched last fall, the bilingual G.E.S. Gazette, covering the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods along Interstate 70 and the burgeoning River North art district. After taking a job handling communications for the metro-area Regional Air Quality Control Council, Sabados announced on April 15 that he's hired an editor and will continue as publisher of the hyper-local newspapers.
Born and raised in Colorado, Sabados, 39, grew up in Evergreen and graduated from Highlands Ranch High School and the University of Northern Colorado in Greeley. He'd planned to teach high school English but stumbled into politics and decided to make a career of it.
A former chair of the Colorado Young Democrats, Sabados was elected vice chair of the state Democratic Party — a position that came with a seat on the Democratic National Committee — by a single vote in 2017.
His consulting firm, Compass Strategy Group, ran numerous local and state-level races for a decade, counting among its wins the election of Arturo Jimenez to the Denver Public Schools board, Jovan Melton to the state legislature and Val Flores to the State Board of Education. Noting that his candidates often won despite being outspent by as much as 10-to-1, Sabados joked that he carved out "an interesting niche — underfunded candidates."
As executive director of Coloradans for Alternatives to the Death Penalty, Sabados helped steer the state's death penalty repeal, and he was one of the lead organizers behind Denver's public campaign financing system, which goes into effect with next year's municipal election.
Our interview with Sabados has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Colorado Politics: What prompted you to hang up your hat as political consultant and politician a few years back to start, of all things, a monthly, printed newspaper?
David Sabados: The first issue of the Denver North Star came out in October of 2019, but the idea originated that spring. I ran for Denver City Council — unsuccessfully, you may recall — and there just wasn't a lot of that kind of hyper-local press. There were folks who were covering the mayor's race, but there wasn't really anything that was talking about those district-level issues, about development in different parts of the city, and there was no source of local news for our community anymore. For decades, Northwest Denver used to have a paper, the North Denver Tribune, and I think our community really was worse off for it having closed. So, I reached out to Sabrina Allie, who also ran unsuccessfully for council and had a background in media, and I said, "Hey, why don't we start a paper in our community?"
I had a strong, 20-year-old experience from being the news editor of the UNC Mirror in college, but most of my press background was from the other side, talking with reporters for campaigns. I wrapped up my last client, which was the death penalty repeal — after we succeeded in repealing the death penalty — and I didn't go after more clients. I've always looked for different ways to serve the community where there's a need. Sometimes it was helping get folks elected, sometimes it was helping pass legislation, and sometimes it was creating a newspaper for our community. It's all some different sides of community service to me.
CP: What made you decide to go with a print publication, though? You have a website, but the North Star is primarily an old-fashioned newspaper.
Sabados: We wanted to print it to make it easily accessible. I love digital-only media, there’s several I read on a daily basis, but there is still something — what's the word I'm looking for — something important about being able to sit down and take an hour and read a physical publication about your community, a publication that's a self-contained document. You're not going down a rabbit hole of links, one to the next, like you can do online. Whether it's a weekly or a monthly, a reader can pick up a paper and say, "This is what's going on in my community this week or this month," and all that information is self-contained right there. There's something that a community still loves about that.
I actually get a lot of positive feedback about the fact that it's still print. And it also still make sense as a business model because we're a free publication delivering to homes across North Denver. The advertisers love it because they know that it's getting right to people, and they get to have an option that's not unlike direct mail for them, but it's also seen as more respected, because you can send someone a postcard about your pizza joint opening, or you can put an ad in your local paper, and people who are looking will look in the paper.
CP: Coming from a background in politics, were there things you wanted a newspaper to do that outlets you'd dealt with hadn't?
Sabados: I think it's more that we wanted to have a different focus. I don't expect the Denver Post or Colorado Politics or the Denver Gazette to be diving into a neighborhood zoning issue, because, for most of their readership, it's not relevant. If they're covering a city council vote, they're gonna say, "The council passed this 10-3, period," where a publication focused on just part of the community can go in-depth, city council member X voted Y, and then talking to them about why they voted that way, because that's the person who represents this community specifically.
We haven't had a city council election — that's just starting up now — but we have had a school board election, and I think we had some of the most comprehensive coverage of Denver School Board candidates. We could do full bios with Q and A's for candidates in a way that I wish we 'd had back in that 2019 election, not that I think it would have changed anything.
That's a reason we started our second paper last October, the G.E.S. Gazette, and we're working on issue number eight. It's a bilingual, English-Spanish publication focused on the Globeville, Elyria and Swansea neighborhoods and the RiNo art district.
CP: Now that you've covered politics and government, how has your perspective changed on being on the other side, trying to get across a message in the news? Are there things you would do differently, if you were back on the political side?
Sabados: I have a dramatically better view on how to pitch stories, to be honest. My inbox — like yours, like everyone's — just gets flooded with crap, and then even the more interesting pieces sometimes get lost, and sometimes you don't realize what is interesting or relevant because there's just so much going on. I think I have a significantly better sense of how to approach media outlets, to cut through that and say, "Hey, this is a piece that's actually relevant to your publication, to your audience. I'm not pitching it to 18,000 other outlets, because I think it's important for you."
CP: How has the media landscape changed since you launched the paper?
Sabados: I think it has improved — there's the second paper I started, there's a community paper for Five Points, there's the City Cast Denver podcast, and, of course, the Denver Gazette. There's more media now, ironically, than there was a couple of years ago, which is bucking a national trend, and it's all mostly hyper-local.
We started publishing only a few months before the pandemic hit. We received wonderful feedback from folks, saying, "Thank you for delivering a paper directly to me with information about my immediate community," and saying that it cuts through the noise. It was accessible at a time when people were home all the time. It was the exact opposite of that doomscrolling, right? It was the exact opposite of the Twitter holes that people were falling into. It was just different.
CP: You recently started work — your new day job — doing communications for the Regional Air Quality Council, which allowed you to hire Eric Heinz as a full-time editor at the papers. What will the new gig amount to?
Sabados It's a government adjacent nonprofit is how I've termed it, created by the state. The entity does everything from working on the state implementation plan for air quality that's tied to the EPA, to working with a lot of municipal governments on their efforts on everything from electrification to bike-ability and walk-ability, down to how to reduce your own pollution and take meaningful steps personally to improve air quality.
CP: Do you ever get an itch to get back into politics?
Sabados: It's a little early, but maybe I'll announce for mayor? (Laughs) The line you're supposed to give is never say never, but that's the honest answer. I have absolutely no plans to run for anything, but when I posted on Facebook that I was stepping back from from day-to-day at the paper, I immediately start getting questions about whether I was running for the council district or at-large, and the answer is, I am absolutely not. This isn't a stepping-stone. I ran because the time was right for me to run, and it was the race I wanted, but it didn't work out. And like I said, you find other ways to serve — you lose a municipal election, you started a municipal newspaper, talking about those same issues. It's all public service to me.