Who paid for ‘sponsored content’ and a ‘paid advertisement’ in Colorado’s weekly political newspaper?

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Who paid for ‘sponsored content’ and a ‘paid advertisement’ in Colorado’s weekly political newspaper?

This week, ColoradoPolitics.com, the state politics vertical of Clarity Media, which owns The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs, published on its homepage and in its print edition an item carrying this headline: “SPONSORED CONTENT: Studies and data confirm “no evidence” of health problems caused by oil and gas development.” The item, which carries the byline of Tim Peters without any identifying information about him, does not state who or what entity paid to sponsor the post.

That was the online version.

In the weekly print edition of ColoradoPolitics, a four-page insert called “Colorado Energy Today,” also bylined by Peters, took up one-fifth of the paper’s whole page count. In small font at the top of each page appeared the words “Paid Advertisement”— but nowhere did it say who paid for it. There is, however, a logo at the top left corner next to the “Colorado Energy Today” tag that looks just like the logo for a group called Coloradans for Responsible Energy Development, or CRED, which is backed by industry giants Anadarko Petroleum Corporation and Noble Energy and was “created to help educate Coloradans about fracking’s energy, economic and environmental benefits.”

Earlier this year, Clarity Media, owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, bought The Colorado Statesman newspaper and transformed it into the statewide print vehicle for ColoradoPolitics. Joey Bunch, the senior political correspondent for ColoradoPolitics, told me he had concerns about how the paid-for content was labeled. I reached out to Vince Bzdek, The Gazette’s top editor who also oversees editorial direction of ColoradoPolitics, to check his thoughts. He indicated he would have a response but later said the paper decided not to respond. ColoradoPolitics chairman Ryan McKibben didn’t respond to an email asking if Peters exists or who paid for the content.

Two years ago The Gazette came in for criticism for not labeling an opinion series about marijuana clearly enough, with one reporter who worked there at the time saying, “I thought that there was a lack of transparency with that element.”

In 2014, The Denver Post decided to “strengthen” how it designated sponsored content in an “energy and environment” section of the paper, which was sponsored by CRED. Following criticism from left-leaning blogs and an environmental group, Denver Post publisher Mac Tully told Poynter the paper’s “goal is to be just as clear online as we have been in the print editions by clearly designating the custom content as advertiser sponsored. We feel that’s the key to maintaining the separation of news and paid content.”

The American Press Institute states it’s “better to define sponsored content by what it does than by what it looks like,” saying it “takes the same form and qualities of a publisher’s original content” and “usually serves useful or entertaining information as a way of favorably influencing the perception of the sponsor brand.” But what if readers don’t even know what that brand is?

If you’re interested in more background in this area, here’s Columbia Journalism Review’s 2014 piece tackling whether journalism should worry about content marketing.

Meanwhile, here’s how a Colorado Independent banner appeared atop a progressive org’s daily email newsletter

This week I got an email from a newspaper reporter asking me the kind of question I would ask if it happened elsewhere. Why did something that looked like an ad for The Colorado Independent appear atop a daily email sent out by ProgressNow, a progressive organization? I didn’t know, so I did what I would do if it had happened at any news organization: I asked. “It was an honest mistake,” editor Susan Greene said. ProgressNow wanted to let its members know about The Indy’s Oct. 12 fundraiser featuring Clarence Moses-EL, whose story of wrongful imprisonment Greene dogged for years. ProgressNow had rallied behind Moses-EL, and did some organizing at the time of his exoneration. Greene says in a conversation with ProgressNow’s director about why instead The Indy itself was promoted in the group’s email, he told her he’d been out of town and there’d been a miscommunication with the staffer putting together the daily newsletter and “they got their lines crossed.”

The kids are and aren’t all right: The state of Colorado’s high school newspapers

This week, Boulder Daily Camera education reporter Amy Bounds ran an enterprise story about high school newspapers in Colorado, riffing off the demise of The Owl, Boulder High’s student rag, formed in 1920 and quietly folded in 2014.

From the story:

Long a staple for bigger high schools, student-run newspapers are struggling to survive thanks to some of the same pressures facing professional publications, from dwindling advertising revenue to diminishing interest in printed editions as a news source.​

“This school year, the Boulder Valley School District counts student news publications at just half of its comprehensive high schools — Broomfield High, Fairview  High  and Monarch High all are still publishing,” she wrote, localizing the trend. “Centaurus High’s newspaper class wasn’t offered for the first time this fall  because not enough students — the minimum was 20 — signed up.” Damn. But Bounds did find a bright spot— a quarterly magazine called Bleak Speak at Silver Creek High School, “plus the middle school at Lyons Middle/Senior all are starting student papers this school year. ” One high school newspaper, The Mav at Mead High, Bounds found, was even writing about “oil and gas company Anadarko Petroleum’s influence on the school.”

Meanwhile, The Colorado Student Media Association this month chose District 11 administrator Aurora Umana-Arko for its annual award “for her support of student media at Early College High School in Colorado Springs,” KOAA reported.

Why a Denverite reporter put herself in her story

Erica Meltzer of the hyperlocal online news site Denverite, appeared on 9News this week to talk about her much-trafficked story with the provocative headline “What’s so bad about gentrification anyway?” That’s an important topic for a fast-growing city like Denver where Meltzer said she wanted to “cast a really broad net with the reporting.” 9News host Jeremy Jojola found one particular aspect of her article noteworthy. “You were transparent and you admitted yourself that you’re a gentrifier if that’s the correct word I’m using.”

Here’s Metlzer on why she put herself in the piece:

I felt like it would be really disingenuous to write about this topic and not fess up to the role that I am playing. In my neighborhood I was not the pioneer or the block buster if we want to take this white flight reference and turn it back around. But I am a middle-class college-educated white person who moved to Denver as an adult from another place. And my neighborhood used to be majority Latino. It is no longer majority Latino. And I just feel like it would be really disingenuous to not place myself in this article.

“And be transparent, which, I think, added credibility to your piece, and a connection to your piece from your perspective,” Jojola said. He also indicated the story was “one of Denverite’s most read articles at this point,” which Meltzer didn’t dispute. “We got a really good reaction to it,” she said.

The not-so-secret lives of Colorado newspaper carriers

One memory I have of being a kid paperboy was when some people in a hot air balloon floated over the golf course and I thought about throwing them a newspaper but then didn’t actually do it. Yeah, dumb story, I know. But this paper carrier in Greeley who ended up in the local crime blotter has a hella better one.

From The Greeley Tribune:

Police received a call from the 100 block of 20th Street. The caller was “delivering papers” but was being chased by a naked man who was tall and thin.

At least it wasn’t a clown, right?

Colorado Public Radio’s chief steps down after 40 freakin’ years

Max Wycisk, the president of public radio powerhouse Colorado Public Radio will depart after four decades — he’s been there since the first Garfield comic strip debuted, through Reaganomics, since the fall of Communism— at the end of June. Included in the highlights of his career is growing the organization’s operating budget to $17 million, which comes from “various foundations, over 600 underwriters and more than 53,000 donors,” according to CPR. He also grew the CPR staff to its current ranks of 122.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune covered a new housing policy that could help addiction and homelessnessThe Longmont Times-Call reported how in an opioid crisis the image of an addict has changedThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel fronted a story on increasing direct primary care practices in the regionThe Steamboat Pilot profiled local women in the sport of Nordic CombinedThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered a ‘flash mob’ event for active shooter scenariosVail Daily reported on a helicopter program to remove trees for fire mitigationThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered how an opioid epidemic changed the local child welfare systemThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on a potential study for toxic water in a townThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on a potential local booze taxThe Durango Herald reported a potential city budget shortfallThe Denver Post’s ‘Colorado Divide’ series tackled water woes on the eastern plains.

The Steamboat Pilot still can’t confirm who wants to buy its building

Local newspapers tend to find a way to report things even when those with power or privilege don’t want something known. But as the local government in Steamboat Springs postures against an unnamed potential private sector buyer for the building that houses the local newspaper, The Steamboat Pilot, the paper can’t seem to figure out who that potential buyer is. (The newspaper leases its offices from a former owner and won’t benefit from a sale.) In May the paper reported the city council was “intrigued” about buying the building from the newspaper’s former owner for $5.5 million and moving in city offices. By late August a consultant was warning the city against it. A month later came an offer from a secret potential mystery buyer. Now the city is “interested” again. But, from The Pilot on the latest revelation: “Information about the other potential buyer of the newspaper building has not been disclosed.”

Colorado lawmakers accidentally passed a more transparent campaign finance law

Question: How do you get tighter, stricter, more transparent campaign finance disclosure laws in Colorado? Answer: By mistake, apparently. That’s according to Denver Post reporting machine Jesse Paul, who explained how a bill lawmakers passed that was only supposed to affect school board races accidentally ensnared candidates for statewide office. So now everyone running for governor and other big offices has to file daily reports of donations they get for more than $1,000. That’s until Nov. 7, anyway, then they can go back to having to report every three months. “More than 25 candidates across the 2018 races for governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer could be affected,” The Post reports. Sources quoted in the story framed the new landscape as a bad thing. “Kind of a pain,” said one. Those who track state campaign finance issues around the country have a different take. “Here’s to hoping for more mistakes,” said Pete Quist, research director of the National Institute on Money in State Politics, when I emailed him the story.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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