For this week’s column on Colorado media, I thought I’d take a look back at 2017 and all that happened in our little niche corner of the world. Or at least all that made its way across my keyboard for coverage in this space over the past 12 months. Below are some highlights picked out from the year, in chronological order.
In January, we encountered The Big Shift as 2017 ushered in high-level personnel changes. The Denver Post’s pioneering marijuana editor Ricardo Baca announced his exit, The AP’s Sadie Gruman left Colorado for D.C., and Marshall Zelinger of the ABC affiliate Denver7 bolted to join 9News. In Colorado’s ideologically oriented online news world, investigative scribe Todd Shepherd left Complete Colorado for a job at The Washington Examiner in D.C., and Arthur Kane, formerly of Colorado’s bureau of Watchdog.org, left the state for The Las Vegas Review-Journal. Meanwhile, Colorado Public Radio expanded across the state, a homeless newspaper launched in the Springs, and we also saw the hard launch of the ColoradoPolitics website, a product of Clarity Media’s Gazette newspaper. Also launched: Western Wire, a project of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based non-profit regional oil and natural gas association. In one newsletter, I asked if Colorado newspapers in trouble should report their own bad news, and reported how The Steamboat Pilot was calling out a local public official for manufactured quotes.
In February, then-editor Lauren Gustus of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins talked about her role in trying to help pass legislation at the Capitol, The Denver Post called Donald Trump a liar on its editorial page, Denver journalist David Sirota said he would lead (then backed out of leading) the left’s answer to Breitbart, and The Pueblo Chieftain got all up in a local cold case murder. The Denver Press Club had elections, a Gazette editorial had a glaring omission, and The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s publisher launched his aborted ‘fake news’ lawsuit threat. The Longmont Times-Call closed its office and moved staff to Boulder, The Colorado Independent published an interactive map about where sheriffs stand on ICE informing, and Colorado’s Republican legislative leaders tried to go all un-Trump with the press. The Boulder Daily Camera explained why it removed a story from the web and The Denver Post re-published a story about a campaign to buy an ad in The Denver Post.
In March, Grand Junction became ground zero for anti-press sentiment as newspapers around the state used Trump’s attacks on the press to show their value, The Durango Herald cut its print run, and The Gazette chose to name a minor who committed suicide. KUSA used its news drone (while Denver’s USA Today correspondent got his own drone license), we found out the patent attorney who made that viral news chart lives in Denver, and the FCC said people in Durango could watch in-state news on their TVs. The publisher of that new homeless newspaper died, The Gazette tweeted it was giving up The Denver Post for Lent then apologized, a mini-media scandal over jail food coverage erupted as a media shitstorm brewed in the Springs, and more than 200 people applied for the pot editor job at The Denver Post. Two Colorado TV reporters won Walter Cronkite awards.
In April, longtime Pueblo Chieftain editor and publisher Robert Rawlings died. We learned ex-Colorado radio reporter Kirk Ziegler started the urban-rural divide beat at NPR, a blogger for ColoradoPolitics got hauled on the witness stand about his previous political activity, and Ken Salazar scooped The Denver Post’s news section. Governor John Hickenlooper signed a law expanding free speech on college campuses (but wouldn’t let the press in to watch), The Denver Post sued a former senior ad exec, and Colorado cops still kept denying media access to internal affairs reports.
In May, we learned how journalists who aren’t registered with a political party could find their voting history becoming public if they choose to participate in this year’s primaries under the new Prop 108 law allowing it. I spoke with some reporters at the Capitol about how they planned to handle that. Boulder Weekly scooped the hell out of Politico, layoffs hit The Gazette, and The Denver Post announced it would move its newsroom out of Denver County. A Colorado university apologized for posting photos of local journalists it wanted to ban from meetings, the governor stood by a decision to keep inmate locations secret, and a Pueblo Chieftain reporter found criminal evidence in a landfill. Corporate conglomeration gobbled up KDVR in Denver, Denver City Council took a shot at The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner, John Oliver highlighted Colorado local media reports on his HBO show, and we learned about Public News Service, the Boulder-based national wire service that employs a journalist arrested for doing his job in West Virginia.
In June, we saw how differently Colorado newspapers covered the Comey-Russia-Trump story and watched as the new Phil Anschutz-owned ColoradoPolitics bought The Colorado Statesman. A Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly story triggered a $2 million property reassessment, The Denver Post implemented “Civil Comments” (but first had to denounce a reporter’s tweet), and a Colorado newspaper publisher called a body-slammed reporter a “little jerk.” A perennial credential war waged at the Capitol, The Denver Post changed a story on Cory Gardner (or was it just a write-through?), The Colorado Independent wrote about the case of a missing Taser in a jail death, and The Denver Post finally stopped drug testing employees.
In July, an ex-Colorado lawmaker joked about beheading journalists, and conservative broadcasting giant Sinclair moved to take over two Denver TV stations. The Denver Post put flat-earthers on the front page and actually ran a line in the story that read, “All scientists and educators consulted for this story rejected the idea of a flat earth.” A Colorado journalist explained why he skipped a Koch conference, The Denver Post launched its “Colorado Divide” series, and a 9News anchor fought with Frontier airlines. The Denver Press Club turned 150 years old, DU became home to the Center on American Politics, and a (different) lawmaker said a remark he made about disemboweling journalists was just figurative. We learned that because of a new law it is no longer a misdemeanor in Colorado to willfully violate the state’s open records laws.
In August, the legal marijuana industry smoked out two state Capitol reporters— Kristen Nichols, who left the AP to write for Marijuana Business Daily, and Peter Marcus who left ColoradoPolitics to become a spokesman for a cannabis company. The profile of 9News anchor Kyle Clark and his innovative “Next” show sharpened, The New Yorker’s Peter Hessler took a foreign correspondent’s approach to a long-form piece about Trump-country voters set in Grand Junction, and The Denver Post’s ex-top editor Greg Moore started work at a digital marketing company. The Colorado Statesman weekly insider politics newspaper, which has been around in one form or another for nearly 120 years, got rebranded as ColoradoPolitics. The Colorado Press Association made history by adding an editor of an online-only publication, The Colorado Independent, to its board and became the first state press association in the U.S. to do so. Peter Marcus said,”The cannabis industry is more lucrative and has more stability than journalism these days.”
In September, The Denver Post got national attention in CJR as a troll-slaying testing ground while some Colorado Springs TV stations got troll rolled. The Craig Daily Press showed what to do when a city stonewalls a newspaper, a Republican candidate for governor back-tracked on misleading remarks he made about The Denver Post after a tape leaked, and an F-bomb typo in The Telluride Daily Planet was “unfortunate.” Two local Colorado public radio stations joined four others across five western states to form the Mountain West Journalism Collaborative, and Denver’s alt-weekly Westword got some nice ink in The Washington Post. The editor of a student newspaper at CSU “threw a fit” over a closed-door meeting, the police PIO in Colorado Springs got swamped by crappy clickbait, and Colorado’s new digital records law helped inform a national investigation into lottery winners.
In October, The Greeley Tribune turned to anonymous sources on the front page when the local government stonewalled it— just around the time it was laying off staff. CU-Boulder got a $2.5 million gift for an investigative journalism course, The Durango Herald created a 12-step program for community engagement, and ColoradoPolitics published questionable sponsored content and wouldn’t talk about it. The Steamboat Pilot couldn’t find out who wanted to buy its building, a Colorado reporter talked about getting PTSD from reporting, and diversity in Colorado’s newsrooms was still not so good. The Denver Post turned 125 and celebrated with a big insert package about its history, Patch.com came back to Colorado, and The Colorado Press Association asked me 10 questions about journalism.
In November, layoffs hit the for-profit local news startup Denverite, KUNC and KRCC got national attention in CJR as part of a nationwide re-thinking about how public radio does journalism, and 5280 magazine bizarrely handicapped the governor’s race. Local elections took place across the state.
In December, layoffs lashed The Denver Post— this time without the option for buyouts. A sheriff held a showdown with an alt-weekly in the Springs, a Colorado whistleblower lawsuit used the term “fake news” to help make its argument, and Denver TV news ratings were down, down, down. Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition reporter Bente Birkeland exposed a culture of sexual harassment at the Colorado Capitol, and I talked with her about how she approached her scoops. Denver Post managing editor Linda Shapley left the paper and followed Greg Moore over to the Deke Digital content marketing firm. The Colorado Independent went to court to fight for records about prosecutorial misconduct in a death penalty case, a small nonprofit news blog sued Delta County over Sunshine Laws, some local Colorado papers were smart to localize net neutrality policy, and The Colorado Independent’s editor rallied against an FCC policy change. The North Denver Tribune announced it was closing, longtime Denver Post reporter Carlos Illescas died, and we learned Denver’s Kristen Nichols might be the only full-time hemp reporter in the world.
What a year.
Speaking of Remember When, here’s why that newspaper lawsuit over ‘fake news’ never happened
Over the past year as a correspondent for CJR’s United States Project, I reported “how a local news outlet was fighting to gain access to public text messages of rural sheriffs in North Carolina, and how a newspaper publisher here in Colorado pledged to sue a state senator for defamation when the politician called his local newspaper ‘fake news.’ During a year of bloodletting for alt-weeklies, I wondered whether the sale of one Montana alt meant it could no longer serve as a watchdog over its new corporate owner. On the press freedom front, a reporter for a then-obscure wire service was arrested for asking a Trump official questions in West Virginia, and, in South Carolina, a political blogger who was sued for libel nearly went to jail when he wouldn’t rat out confidential sources.”
For an end-of-the-year piece, I checked in on those stories to see where they landed. Here’s the excerpt from Colorado:
THAT LAWSUIT OVER “FAKE NEWS” NEVER HAPPENED IN COLORADO
In February, I interviewed Jay Seaton, publisher of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel in Colorado, about his plans to sue state Senator Ray Scott for libel after Scott called The Sentinel “fake news” on social media. The newspaper lost subscriptions, said Seaton, who is a former commercial litigator. “I’m accustomed to resolving business damage in the judicial system,” he told me at the time. “So I don’t view this really as any different.”
Seaton said newspapers have taken it on the chin for too long. “And now we get diminished as fake news, going to the core of what we do,” he added. “And we don’t push back. Well, I’ve had it. I’m not going to take it anymore.”
The potential for a judge to define “fake news” in a court case between a local newspaper and a lawmaker might have been consequential. It wasn’t to be: In April, the crusading publisher chose not to file suit after he learned Scott could ask for legislative immunity and tie up the courts for years while taxpayers picked up the tab. “I just wasn’t willing to do that,” Seaton says now.
He’s also somewhat relieved about his decision for another reason.
“If you can reflect back all the way to February of 2017, the words ‘fake news’ still carried their objective meaning—a deliberately fabricated news account for the purpose of deceiving the public,” he says. “Just 10 months later, that phrase is completely meaningless. The president has abused that term almost daily, so now it’s just an exclamation you use when you don’t like something. When I tell my kids they have to eat their green vegetables, I get ‘Fake news!’ I don’t think a jury today would find that phrase defamatory, even as applied to a responsible news organization.” Seaton says the dustup in Grand Junction had a silver lining: it sparked a local conversation about the role of a free press in society. “It got people reflecting on why the first thing the Framers did after assembling the apparatus of government was create the First Amendment,” he says. “Maybe we all appreciate the role of a free press more when it’s under siege.”
Cheers to that.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages
The Longmont Times-Call reported the ACLU might sue a local housing authority after warrantless searches of low-income residents. The Loveland Reporter-Herald fronted a Top Stories of the year item. So did The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel. The Pueblo Chieftain reported how family members of a bizarre local cold case victim still want answers from the local authorities about a missing former federal agent. The Steamboat Pilot ran a story about a family who rebuilt a home after a fire. The Boulder Daily Camera had a story on a day in the life of a sexual assault nurse examiner. Vail Daily ran this front-page headline: “Beer makes you happy.” Summit Daily ran the Best Photos of 2017. The Denver Post fronted a feature story about a family living off the grid in rural Colorado. The Gazette in Colorado put “Area’s notable deaths in 2017” on the front page, while The Durango Herald fronted “2018 Looking Ahead.”
A day in the life of a Colorado newspaper reporter
There are some interesting jobs in the Pueblo area. So interesting that the newspaper of record there, The Pueblo Chieftain, endeavored to produce a series of stories called “Do My Job,” that “features interesting jobs in Pueblo.” So far the series has included workers at a raptor center, a candymaker, a second-generation magician, a zookeeper, a steelworker, and a mall Santa, among others. You get the drift.
But clocking in this week as the 11th installment in the series was the job of a local newspaper reporter. So a Chieftain reporter Luke Lyons followed around Chieftain reporter Anthony Mestas and reported on it for The Chieftain. Meta.
From the story:
After more than 15 years of reporting, this is second nature to Mestas. But he still strives to be fair and accurate in his reporting. Mestas is careful to remove bias and report on what he’s heard and seen, careful not to write commentary or opinion. His objectivity and accuracy are something he values above all, and he shares that with his colleagues on the city desk at The Chieftain. It’s a job with highs and lows, but no two days ever mimic each other, and things can change in an instant.
The reporter also interviewed other reporters at the Chieftain about their work and the online piece comes with a video component. “It’s not a dying industry to me,” Mestas says in the clip. “I know things are going on where newspapers are kind of going through some changes, but you’ve got to fix that change and then you also have to just know that without you writing the story the story’s not there.” Another reporter in the video says he became a journalist because he’s selfish. “I just selfishly wanted an exciting job where I would not dread going to work every day,” he said.
*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.