In the midst of a savage season of unrelenting newsroom layoffs around the country, including in Denver, one investigative journalist has found an unconventional outlet for focused reporting on the carnage. Julie Reynolds, a freelance reporter in the Monterey Bay area and a Center for Investigative Reporting alum, has been cranking out stories, not for a newspaper, but instead for the online site #NewsMatters— a project of the News Guild-Communications Workers of America labor union.
For months, her beat has been the financial dealings and impact of a secretive New York City hedge fund called Alden Global Capital that controls Digital First Media— nation’s second-largest newspaper chain. DFM has lately been responsible for a massive new hemorrhage of job cuts at its newspapers. In February, the Bay Area News Group saw two dozen journalists and support staff get the ax. Most recently, on March 14, The Denver Post announced layoffs totaling roughly a third of its newsroom that sent shockwaves through Colorado.
Who owns your local newspaper might have a lot to do with how well your community is— or isn’t— informed. And a big reason why some of these newspapers are being hollowed out is starting to take hold. “People are no longer buying the story that the Internet killed newspapers and that’s the only reason all this is happening,” Reynolds told me in an interview this week for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project. “I think they finally realize there’s something else at work, and that something is hedge funds.”
Reynolds has been “like a dog with a bone on Digital First,” says Penelope Muse Abernathy, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina who authored a groundbreaking report about the rise of hedge-fund newspaper owners in 2016.
Here’s an excerpt from my Q-and-A with Reynolds:
Say you lived in Denver. Would you pay for a new digital subscription to The Denver Post, knowing what you know about where the money might go?
I would tell people to definitely pay for that subscription because journalists need to be paid. But—but—I think the public needs to raise some hell. I think they need to let publishers, not editors, know that they’re upset with the state of their newspaper. They need to be very vocal about that, and let local officials and politicians know that this is a civic issue in their community. So, yes, pay the money, but raise some hell with the people who can get word up to Alden. We’re not talking about a place that sells plastic swimming pools. We’re talking about a company that provides information in communities. Without that company, the flow of information is going to be cut off and gone. It’s the only industry that has a constitutional amendment protecting it, so this is an important part of our society. Publishers are going to have to get so many calls they’re sick of hearing from people. It has to get to the point of discomfort. I’m not an organizer; this is me as a consumer and as someone who participates in society.
Good advice. Read the full, illuminating interview here.
Who is leaving The Denver Post?
Readers now have a better idea who is leaving or has left the paper, some voluntarily, others not. Jason Blevins, who writes about the outdoors, left on his own, saying he could no longer “work for black-souled owners.” Post sportswriters Nicki Jhabvala, Nick Kosmider and Nick Groke voluntarily jumped ship for a sports website called The Athletic. Statehouse reporter Brian Eason says he took a buyout and snagged a temp job at The Associated Press before he’ll move to Atlanta for personal reasons. Features content coordinator Jenn Fields says she took a buyout and will freelance.
Other writers who I’ve noticed publicly announcing their departure are music editor Dylan Owens, video journalist Lindsay Pierce, photographer John Lebya, editorial assistant Ian Gassman, digital video and photo editor Amy Brothers, community journalists Alex Scoville and Holly Graham, and director of digital news ops Kourtney Greers. On Twitter, Maureen Burnett calls herself a “former page designer” at the paper.
Something interesting: The bulk of those above aren’t daily news reporters, but rather editors, photogs, and content managers. “It looks like they’ve figured out a way not to reduce reporters,” says Tony Mulligan, the administrative officer of the Denver Newspaper Guild. “I don’t believe reporters will be affected in this reduction at all, other than volunteers.”
The Gazette editor’s take on #DenverPostDoomsday
As Colorado’s flagship newspaper is walked blindfolded down the plank toward an unknown abyss, close media watchers wonder who will take possession of the body when it washes ashore. Denver’s alt-weekly Westword took a stab at why The Gazette’s owner, conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz, might “rather watch The Denver Post die than try to save it.” In the story, a now-deceased former Anschutz right-hand-man is alleged to have said, years ago, that Anschutz doesn’t want to inherit certain contracts and would rather resurrect a new version of The Rocky Mountain News since he bought the name and web domain after that paper closed in 2009. In other words, the story goes, “closing the Post would end the union contracts there, after which Anschutz could launch the Rocky as a non-union shop, like the Gazette.”
An hour south of Denver, journalists at the Anschutz-owned Gazette sent a “We’re thinking of you” card to The Denver Post newsroom offering their support. Meanwhile, in the pages of The Gazette, editor Vince Bzdek penned his own column.
From the column:
Fortunately, Colorado Springs has a newspaper owned by someone with a stake in the future of the state and the city, someone who lives in Colorado and is wholly vested in its economic and civic vitality. Most of the newspapers that are surviving and thriving now adhere to a similar model: they are locally owned by someone who thinks newspapers have a higher mission that must be preserved. These owners believe that a city is only as good as its newspaper, and that covering local news, city council meetings, school board meetings, election campaigns, military-appreciation lunches, all those staples of civic life, are worth the investment because it is an investment in the civic fabric of the city. If a city is going to be truly good, someone has to shine a light on the bad guys, calling out corruption and incompetence. A healthy, prosperous newspaper is the watchdog, cheerleader and hearth of a healthy, prosperous city.
Bzdek predicts “a coming revenge of newspapers” or “the craft beering of newspapers” that will eventually bring them back to local roots.
But … the Springs alt-weekly popped The Gazette for an ownership omission
There can be issues with local billionaire newspaper owners, too, of course. They often own a lot more than just a newspaper, and often a newspaper they do own has to cover other similarly owned properties. I have written before about the humiliating ways in which this can go awry. Well, last week The Colorado Springs Independent, the locally owned alternative weekly, took The Gazette to task for not disclosing Gazette-owner Phil Anschutz’s ownership of the Broadmoor hotel and the Pikes Peak Cog Rail in a story about how the aging Cog Rail might go away for good, which could be a big hit to the local tourism trade.
“It’s not hazy; it’s not up for debate,” The Indy’s item reads. “Disclose. Always.”
That’s an easy thing to do. Speaking of disclosure, the item is bylined “Indy editorial board.” I wondered what that meant, who makes up the “board,” and who wrote the copy. An editor? The publisher? The owner? But I don’t see it explained on the site.
Want to learn more about newspaper ownership?
I’ll be moderating an open-to-the-public panel discussion about this at the Colorado Press Association’s annual convention on April 12 at the Antlers Hilton in Colorado Springs.
At a time when consumers are paying closer attention to who controls the news they read, Colorado provides a pretty good microcosm of America. We have elusive billionaire newspaper owners, secretive hedge-fund owners, reader-supported nonprofits and family owners. Panelists will discuss the advantages and disadvantages of such ownership and what readers should know and expect about who owns the publications they read. They’ll also discuss the difference between news and opinion in their product, and what readers should understand about how the endorsement process works.
The panelists include John Weiss, chairman of Colorado Publishing House, The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly and The Colorado Springs Business Journal; Laura Frank, president of Rocky Mountain PBS and formerly of The Rocky Mountain News, Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent; and Dave Krieger, editorial page editor of the Digital First/Alden Global-owned Boulder Daily Camera.
If you haven’t already heard, the 2018 schedule for the 140th Annual Colorado Press Association Convention “might blow your mind,” the association reports. “OK, so that is hyperbole, but the sessions are being led by some of the best national and local talent.” Check out the schedule here. And register for the rest of the conference here.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages
The Loveland Reporter-Herald fronted a story about a local childhood cancer event. The Longmont Times-Call reported on a new oil-and-gas bill passed by the legislature. The Pueblo Chieftain covered the toll deadly encounters take on cops. The Sterling Journal-Advocate fronted a piece about a manufacturing expo returning to town. The Greeley Tribune profiled a local child born with half a heart. The Steamboat Pilot looked back 20 years to a memorable girls soccer game. The Boulder Daily Camera looked into a candidate for CU regent’s financial ties to oil and gas. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported how conflicting tax issues burden rural taxpayers. The Durango Herald fronted a story about things locals should know about the opening of a lake. The Denver Post looked at issues facing 2,000 immigrants in Colorado who have temporary protected status after Trump eliminated the program. The Fort Morgan Times puts some old April Fool’s stories on the front page. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported how a cash-strapped state agency fears losing public access to leased land.
The broadcasting giant trying to buy two Denver TV stations has turned local journalists into Trump-rhetoric robots
Get out your copy of George Orwell’s 1984 and turn to the page that describes the “Two Minutes Hate.” That was my first impression after watching this mashup Deadspin published that shows local TV journalists from around the country reading an identical script about “the troubling trend of irresponsible, one-sided news stories plaguing our country,” which dovetails with the Trumpian ‘Fake News’ rhetoric coming from the White House. The top-down script comes from Sinclair Broadcasting, which owns a string of 200 local TV news stations across the nation. The clip, which has gone viral, is brutal, and if you haven’t seen it yet, please watch it here.
Sinclair is currently trying to gobble up The Tribune Media Company, which owns more than 40 local TV stations— including KDVR and KWGN in Denver. This merger, which still needs federal approval, would create the single largest holding of local TV stations in the nation. In July I wrote in this newsletter about how HBO’s John Oliver devoted a major segment of his “Last Week Tonight” show to Sinclair’s right-leaning bias and how it can seep into local newscasts and potentially beam into an average of 2.2 million households. Sinclair, Oliver said, is “injecting Fox-worthy content into the mouths of your local news anchors,” the people who you know and “who you trust.”
Hate to go all self-righteous here, but you can’t agree to read this propaganda and still call yourself a journalist. You have two choices: to refuse and likely be fired for doing the right thing or consent and understand you’ve sold your soul as you sell out your viewers. https://t.co/3gHPoGBUZ3
— Michael Littwin (@mike_littwin) April 1, 2018
Los Angeles Times reporter Matt Pearce explained the contracts journalists sign that make it “so hard for TV anchors to refuse the Sinclair’s editorial edicts.”
In July, Joanne Ostrow wrote for The Denver Post how there was an “undercurrent of anxiety” at KDVR and KWGN in Denver as the Sinclair deal looms, and quoted an anonymous KDVR insider saying “people in the newsroom are worried about the must-runs.”
On Monday, as Sinclair took on a barrage of negative attention about its Big Brother approach to the local news, Trump himself weighed in. “So funny to watch Fake News Networks, among the most dishonest groups of people I have ever dealt with, criticize Sinclair Broadcasting for being biased,” he said. “Sinclair is far superior to CNN and even more Fake NBC, which is a total joke.” That should help the situation in Denver.
Here’s a non-Sinclair Denver TV anchor’s
Maybe you've seen a video circulating that shows several anchors from stations owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group. They're reading a media-bashing indictment of fake news from the company. You may not always agree with what he says here, but Kyle's words are his own. pic.twitter.com/6ivIqiGOPW
— Next with Kyle Clark (@nexton9news) April 3, 2018
Speaking of the local TV news in Denver…
KUSA 9News politics reporter Brandon Rittiman is leaving Denver’s NBC affiliate TV station after more than six years. He’s moving to his home state of California for a job on the enterprise team at ABC10 KXTV in Sacramento.
“I knew Colorado would be interesting when I moved here in Fall of 2011,” Rittiman said when I asked if he had any departing words. “Here was this wacky purple state with a governor named ‘Hickenlooper’ (described as ‘kind of a Democrat’ by the driver who took me to the TV station for my job interview) and where you had hyper-local battle lines pre-drawn: the People’s Republic of Boulder and a mini Bible-belt in Colorado Springs. ‘Interesting’ was an understatement. The state became the first to legalize pot a year after I got here. Did not see that coming. We ended up at the epicenter of the national debate on guns in 2013. And then Donald Trump ran for President.”
In his time here, Rittiman covered the Aurora theater shooting, moderated big debates, got Gov. John Hickenlooper to promise he wouldn’t take new action on a death row inmate he’d given a reprieve, and got Trump to say he’d leave pot policy up to the states (not that it meant much). He shined a light on a broken system for helping voters decide whether to keep judges, helped uncover a glitch in the state health exchange and uncover a big failure in Denver’s affordable housing program. He says he’s sad to see the recent layoffs of The Denver Post, which mean fewer people will be around to hold the powerful accountable.
He leaves with these concerns for the business of the news business:
1. The captains of our industry have a lot to figure out to pay for that level of coverage going forward. Ad revenue is becoming increasingly tricky for news organizations to leverage. If smart people don’t figure this out and soon, the blow from the loss of newspapers will do permanent damage to how much public knowledge we have as a society. 2. We need more smart people to choose journalism as their life’s work. There’s enough passion in this work to make intelligent people choose it for lower pay than, say, practicing law… but only if folks can make a decent living doing it and expect to retire someday. 3. We need to help our audiences understand us and why we do the things we do. In an era when you can consume nothing but realistic-seeming fringe media that does little more than support your own worldview, it’s imperative that we as journalists share more. We need to more prominently explain our sources, the basis for the facts we report, and why we choose to do what we do. The people I know in this business are ethical and intelligent. They make good calls. We should help people see the benefits
His last day is June 29.
The Coloradoan newspaper got a big write-up in NiemanLab
“After big Denver Post layoffs, the Fort Collins Coloradoan thinks beyond local.” That was the headline of a story at Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab, an initiative that helps this whole journalism thing figure itself out in the internet age. The piece, which quotes content strategist Jennifer Hefty and editor Eric Larsen, takes a look at the paper’s digital subscription efforts, comment policy (the paper is scrapping them for 90 days) and collaboration with public officials in a Facebook group.
From the story (which very nicely links to this newsletter):
In January, the Coloradoan launched a neighborhood watch Facebook group that included local police and fire spokespeople. The group now has more than 1,500 members and a surprisingly low level of drama: Hefty and other reporters post updates about local crime and mischief, and only one person has had to be removed for disobeying the rules. Two Coloradoan reporters, a Facebook page from the city, and the local fire authority are all admins on the page, which is billed as a collaboration (not a substitute for 911). While some members debated about the recommended speed in the left lane while driving and reminded others that it’s illegal to run over geese, Hefty and the other Coloradoan staffers shared posts answering questions about a bullet found in an elementary school classroom and a dead body on the side of the road. The fire authority also shared its post about how potting soil can catch on fire — all reminders that, from road-hogging geese to flammable dirt, local news matters to local people. “We’re looking to create just that pipeline for their information that they’re providing to the public,” Larsen said, adding that the fire authority’s spokesperson is a former reporter, “so we have a good working relationship.”
“Hefty keeps a spreadsheet full of ideas to delve into next, from voice to drones,” the story notes. “We do podcasting so [voice] is an easy platform for that. But what does voice look like with our storytelling? What does local news look like with that technology?” she told NiemanLab. “The Coloradoan has a flash briefing on Alexa already, but ultimately, Hefty hopes that users will be able to ask questions like ‘Hey Alexa, what’s the best brewery in Fort Collins?'”
Welcome to the future— where your government collaborates with reporters on Facebook and Amazon tells you where to drink beer. Bring on the drones— lest we’ve already become them.
UNC prof to Parkland teen: apply to the J-school
You might have heard how David Hogg, one of the Stoneman Douglas student gun-control activists with a heavy presence on TV, was rejected by four colleges. The media angle to it flared up when Fox News conservative commentator Laura Ingraham mocked Hogg and he sparked a successful boycott of her show’s advertisers. CNN host Alisyn Camerota asked Hogg on the air, “What kind of dumbass colleges don’t want you? You have taken the country by storm.”
Here in Colorado, one journalism professor had her own message for the 17-year-old Hogg:
@davidhogg111 Please apply to the University of Northern Colorado. Our journalism program would be proud to have you.
— Lynn Silverstein Klyde-Allaman (@crankycopyed) March 30, 2018
Soooo, who bought The Pueblo Chieftain? We still don’t know yet.
*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.