Guns, pot, the Kochs and more: 5 memorable stories from 2016

From puncturing false narratives about Colorado to writing lengthy explainers that would never fit in a newspaper’s pages, from interviewing would-be revolutionaries to penning personal essays in reaction to national storylines, 2016 offered plenty of opportunities for a compulsive journalist at The Colorado Independent.

Here, in no particular order, are five memorable stories I enjoyed working on this year— and why.

1)  Sure, the ‘police force’ in Green Mountain Falls resigned. So what?

In April, a small Colorado mountain town learned what the increasing trend towards desk-bound, web traffic-driven journalism can mean for a local community.

The town was Green Mountain Falls, about 25 minutes from Colorado Springs. The news was that its “entire police force” had resigned, as reported by a local TV station. Within days the story went viral, racking up clicks and headlines around the world.

The headlines, from cable news to outlets in Washington D.C. and the United Kingdom, were nearly identical, based off of little or no original reporting. Here’s the thing, though: The “police force” in Green Mountain Falls had consisted of just one full-time officer and three volunteer deputies. They had resigned in the days following a closed-door meeting of the outgoing town board and mayor, just weeks after a somewhat contentious town election. And it apparently wasn’t even the first time something similar had happened.

A quick trip to town for some on-the-ground reporting revealed something else: It was not the end of the world for Green Mountain Falls, and some there were laughing at the national media for its breathless treatment.

“It’s kind of silly … We look at the headlines and we go, ‘Oh my goodness, come on, you guys,” one local told me.

For me, the piece was a fun way to show how news is shaped in the age of social media — and how much actually being there can mean. Too bad the overblown headlines didn’t end there.

2) Colorado is in Americans for Prosperity’s ‘persuasion universe’

Early on in the 2016 legislative session, it was clear the state chapter of the national Koch-backed group Americans for Prosperity was ramping up its energy  on influencing Colorado politics.

So in the spring, I spent some time shadowing the group in the field and looking at how AFP activists were interacting with everyday voters. The piece illuminated how much of an infrastructure the group has built in Colorado, and how it’s employing new strategies under the gold dome of the Capitol. It also showed how a pressure group actually goes about pressuring its targets into doing what it wants.

Consider: Up until the time I started reporting the story, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, who was running for re-election, had declined to take a public position on a universal healthcare ballot measure. But when his campaign found out AFP’s operatives were knocking on doors in the Denver suburbs and using his lack of a position to imply that he might be for it — or, in at least one instance I witnessed, telling voters he was for it — it pushed Bennet to take a public stance, which he did in my piece.

3) Philando Castile’s gun permit might have gotten him killed. I’m white. My own permit gets me out of traffic fines.

Noting this story on any list with “favorite” in it feels utterly wrong. But for me, it was an important piece to write, and one that I had put off writing for long enough. For too many years, as I wrote in the essay, it was just an anecdote I told at parties: Having a concealed weapons permit has meant, for me, anyway, no traffic tickets since I became a permit holder in 2009.

It’s the why part some might dispute. And they have— just read the comments. (Editor’s note: Don’t read the comments.)

4) Battle for the Capitol: What’s at stake if Colorado’s Legislature flips?

The biggest question facing Colorado in the 2016 elections wasn’t which presidential contender would win here (we knew Clinton would) or whether Michael Bennet would keep his U.S. Senate seat (we knew he would).

The big “if” was whether Democrats would take full control of the Capitol by winning just a few key state Senate races (or just one key race, actually), which would hand them a majority in both chambers.

No one knew, and if they said they knew at the time, no one would have have believed them anyway.

But if voters were looking for consistent coverage about the battle for the Capitol and larger sense-making stories about what that battle meant, they got pretty slim pickings, like they did two years ago.

After the 2014 midterms, a panel of Colorado political reporters gathered in Denver to talk about the highs and lows of covering the election. One thing that emerged was how media gave down-ballot races the shaft. The Denver Post’s politics editor at the time said if the paper had more resources, he would have liked the opportunity to dispatch reporters to better cover the battle over the state Senate, which flipped to the Republicans that year.

That was very much on my mind in October when I ventured into rural Colorado for a sense-making narrative feature for about what was at stake in those local elections. I chose to set the story in the heart of Senate District 35 in southeast Colorado, which featured a race between two politicians that did not fit the generic party politics mold or the view from the Front Range — a Republican who said he would vote to reclassify a nearly billion-dollar hospital program Democrats pushed for, and a Democrat who told me he would vote to repeal a 2013 gun-magazine law, which Republicans wanted to do. There was also some news in there about what a Senate controlled by Democrats might accomplish: Setting up a new committee on climate change, for example, repealing the death penalty, and shaping state spending with a new majority on the Joint Budget Committee.

Being an online outlet with no word-count cutoff, The Colorado Independent allowed me to write nearly 5,000 words about the fight for partisan control of the Statehouse and, more importantly, what it all meant for average citizens.

In case you hadn’t heard, the Republicans held the Senate, and Colorado will have another year of a split legislature.

5) Can you own a gun in Colorado if you smoke pot?

It’s a question that brings curious Googlers to The Colorado Independent almost every day, and for me, a fun one to try and answer. I say “try” because the answer really depends on whom you ask —  the difference between state and federal laws has led to some confusion that has plenty of gun enthusiasts frustrated. But perhaps most importantly, the answer depends on who catches you with a gun and marijuana.

As someone who only moved here a few years ago, it’s nice to be able to follow up on this issue every once in awhile and be able to remind friends back home that I’ve found a place where I can write about guns and pot every other month. So thanks, Colorado.

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