Don Knox, a well-known and respected past business editor at both the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post, described his entire experience applying for press credentials to cover the Colorado Legislature this year in one word. Then he repeated it. “It’s demeaning,” Knox said. “It’s just demeaning.”Demeaning, he said, because — purposely or not — the entire process forced this 20-year veteran to “prove” his journalism creds. Knox currently operates two online news organizations — Colorado Law Week Online and State Bill Colorado. When learning of the newly formed Colorado Capitol Press Association overseeing recommendations to House and Senate leaders about who should receive Capitol press credentials [see main story by clicking here], Knox decided to play by the rules.
He sent over his applications, was contacted by and subsequently met with just one of the five-member committee, Charles Ashby of The Pueblo Chieftain newspaper. Knox explained his online news ventures, and ultimately one of his news sites – Colorado Law Week Online — received a recommendation for approval from the leaders of the House and Senate.
However, Knox’s State Bill Colorado site was not similarly welcomed, since it has not been in operation for 52 consecutive weeks (which is one of the CCPA’s stated rules).
Similarly, two ColoradoConfidential.com representatives also applied for credentials — including this reporter and Managing Editor Wendy Norris. On Monday — hours after ColoradoConfidential.com representatives met with the CCPA to discuss its mission and organization — Knox said that Ashby had informed him that ColoradoConfidential.com was also likely to receive a thumbs-up recommendation.
On Tuesday, however, another member of the CCPA, Joe Hanel, notified ColoradoConfidential.com that the news group has been denied a recommendation.
In a situation that Knox describes as a “split the baby” decision similar to that of his own two online news organizations, the CCPA did recommend that this reporter – while denied for ColoradoConfidential.com — be approved for Capitol press credentials for The Colorado Springs Independent, an alternative newsweekly of which she is the former editor and current contributing editor and columnist.
In a subsequent interview, Hanel said that their decision came after a 20-minute conference call involving all five members of the CCPA — including two committee members, April Washington of The Rocky Mountain News and Adam Schrager of Denver’s 9News. Those two did not attend the meeting that the CCPA had requested the day before with ColoradoConfidential.com officials, yet were involved in determining whether to recommend the news group, Hanel confirmed.
Specifically a majority of the five CCPA members based their decision not on the site’s news content, but on some of the funding it receives from sponsors of its parent agency, the nonprofit, Washington-based Center for Independent Media.
Hanel specified several donors to the Center for Independent Media — including the Gill Foundation, the Service Employees International Union and the Open Society Institute, a private foundation — as troubling. And so, the advisory committee denied recommending its two applying reporters in Colorado, claiming they are too closely affiliated with a “political organization.”
“Not enough people on the committee were convinced that Colorado Confidential operates independently from Democratic groups,” Hanel said.
It is unclear whether the CCPA has required that other for-profit or nonprofit news organizations detail their advertisers or other sources of funding – and explain whether or how that impacts the news organization’s coverage. As with most other news organizations, ColoradoConfidential.com has a firewall of sorts to separate news coverage from donors and advertisers, noted David Bennahum, founder and CEO of the Center for Independent Media, ColoradoConfidential’s parent company.
“They can raise all these red herrings over funding — as a nonprofit we’re legally held to a much higher ethical standard than for-profit media,” Bennahum said. “We’re barred by law from lobbying, or from supporting candidates or parties for election.
“Newspapers can, and do, all those things on their editorial pages. So really what they are truly afraid of is the growing irrelevance of the old media and cooking up silly excuses to bar the new media from competing with the old.”
In his letter advising the CCPA’s decision, Hanel indicated the decision was “difficult” and encouraged ColoradoConfidential.com to “stay involved with us.”
“Your willingness to meet us the other day and explain your organization helped a lot for me personally,” Hanel wrote. “This is a new system, and we’re all open to finding a way to make it work for everyone. I’m eager to discuss this in more detail…
“And just to reiterate, the Speaker of the House and Senate President make all the decisions on who gets on the floor, and they are not bound to follow our recommendations.”
Asked how such split accreditations would be enforced — ensuring, for example, that a Colorado Springs Independent reporter or Law Week Colorado reporters wouldn’t also use information gleaned from the public chambers in their respective rejected news organization — Hanel said he didn’t know.
“I don’t plan to be a journalism cop and enforce that,” Hanel said. “This is something that is a very difficult situation.”
And Knox’s take? “I don’t really have concerns if the purpose is to distinguish between actual media people and people who are pretending,” he said. “I appreciate what they are trying to do. I just don’t know if it’s coming out the right way.”
Cara DeGette is a senior fellow at Colorado Confidential and a columnist and contributing editor at the Colorado Springs Independent. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org