The Denver Post politics team rebuilds, CPR expands ‘while other places are struggling’ and the ‘background problem’ is real

Denver Post printing plant. (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Following last month’s implosion of The Denver Post’s politics team, the paper has rebuilt the desk, pulling in hires from Oklahoma, Cincinnati, and elsewhere.

Ben Botkin, formerly of the nonprofit Oklahoma Watch, is already on the beat along with Anna Staver who migrated over from a producer role at KUSA 9news. Cindi Andrews, who comes from The Cincinnati Enquirer, oversees the desk as an editor. The latest to join is Nic Garcia, who spent the past five or so years at Chalkbeat Colorado. “One more hire, and the politics team will be firing on all cylinders once again,” said Jon Murray, who is the city hall reporter on the team.

A couple things to note here. One is that it doesn’t yet look like The Denver Post has hired a new reporter in Washington, D.C. after the departure of Mark K. Matthews. (If it stays that way, we can start calling him the DC bureau angel of death: Matthews was the last D.C. correspondent for The Orlando Sentinel, he told me, and he says he hopes he won’t be the last for The Denver Post.) Another notable aspect of this rebuilding is that since two of the former team — John Frank and Jesse Paul — will still be covering politics at the newly formed Colorado Sun, if the Post team builds all the way back up to six then there would actually be more reporters on the politics beat during this election season then before the Big Collapse. So a contrarian take, ready-made for a #SlatePitch: Alden Global Capital indirectly created more political journalism in Colorado.

Meanwhile, Colorado Public Radio expands…

This station with an annual budget of around $18 million is on a hiring spree, looking to fill nine positions, which will increase the Colorado Public Radio newsroom by a third and swell its news staff to “nearly 40 journalists.” Among the positions are regional reporters based in Colorado Springs and Grand Junction. “We were able to add these nine positions in news this year without having to cut elsewhere,” the station’s executive editor Kevin Dale told me, adding that an increase in listener support allowed it. “We were going to probably add about four positions this year and I just said ‘You know, it’s really important to grow now while other places are struggling.’ And leadership and the board all agreed with that.”

Dale said he hopes to start building an investigative unit and augment CPR’s digital team. “We need to become a 24/7 newsroom, which we’re not right now,” he said. “Our goal is to build this up to a newsroom of — my dream is around 70 or more … that is covering all parts of the state all day every day.”

On freelance journalism in off-the-Front-Range Colorado

Speaking of covering all parts of the state, David O. Williams, a freelance journalist in Eagle County, went off on his Real Vail site this week after seeing his work in the pages of The Denver Post where he used to earn a “pittance” as a far-flung contributor. He recently had a story in the Vail Daily that localized the effects of Trump’s tariffs on Eagle County, he wrote, and then he saw it re-published in the Big City Paper in Denver.

From his post:

Instead of paying me whatever pittance they used to dole out back in the day when I was a regular contributor to the Post from Eagle County, the “Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire” just strikes reciprocal deals with newspaper chains that are still doling out alms to the poor in places they no longer send staff writers.

Ouch. He says he commends the original paper where he published the piece, however, because “in these darkest of dark times for print journalism, the Daily and its parent company Swift has found a way to survive and still ‘support’ freelancers.” He’s also waiting for a little Sun, too. Read the whole thing here.

Colorado reporter: ‘The background problem is real’

In an effort to “shed more light” on how journalism works, The New York Times has launched a series where it explains some of its practices. Some of its recent pieces include how the paper uses anonymous sources and what “off the record” really means. Here’s the nut, from the Times: “There is no universally agreed-upon meaning for many of these terms — and The Times has no precise descriptions in its own internal guidelines — making it difficult to sketch out even working definitions.” Bingo. So you have to work it out with your sources about how you want to proceed —  “off the record,” “on background,” “not for attribution,” “embargoed,” “for planning purposes only,” etc. —  and do so in clear language so there’s no misunderstanding.

This preamble is to highlight what popped up in some local reporting here in Colorado recently involving the story of an Iraqi immigrant who is accused of shooting a Colorado Springs police officer in the head, leaving him in critical condition. In a solid, triple bylined story, The Gazette, citing court records, reported the suspect, who was “free on bond was known to immigration enforcement officials, yet evaded deportation despite a string of crimes.”

The Aug. 3 story comes with this, (emphasis mine):

El Paso County sheriff’s spokesman Jacqueline Kirby said Al Khammasi was an Iraqi citizen who was born in Iraq. She had previously said Al Khammasi was a refugee, but she later said she was mistaken, and that she wasn’t certain of his immigration status.

Then, on Aug. 6, Blair Miller reported for Denver7:

The man accused of shooting Colorado Springs Police Officer Cem Duzel last week is a refugee from Iraq who has been in the United States since 2012, racking up a host of charges during that time. A Department of Homeland Security (DHS) official told Denver7 Monday that Karrar Noaman Al Khammasi, 31, came from Iraq in December 2012 after receiving a RE-1 refugee status that May. The official only agreed to speak on the condition they not be named. The Associated Press additionally reported Monday that Khammasi was set to be deported before a federal court ruling, though the DHS official did not confirm those details to Denver7. A U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) spokesperson directed Denver7’s questions to DHS.

This is from The AP story:

A refugee from Iraq charged with shooting a Colorado police officer last week was set for deportation before a federal appeals court ruled in 2016 that a portion of immigration law defining violent crime was too vague, according to a Department of Homeland Security official. The DHS official, who was not authorized to discuss the case on the record and spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said Monday that federal immigration authorities began deportation proceedings against Karrar Noaman Al Khammasi after he violated probation terms of a felony trespassing plea in 2015.

In tweeting out his story Monday, Miller of Denver7 told his followers:

Miller didn’t seem like the only frustrated Colorado journalist Monday. Earlier in the day, Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo tweeted:

To which Miller replied: “What I was really trying to say about the way political comms shops operate, put much more succinctly”.

Crashes vs. landings: Donna Lynne on press coverage of her campaign for governor

The moderate, Hickenlooper 2.0 campaign of Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne in the Democratic primary for governor never caught fire — and the lite guv has some ideas about why she came in fourth on Election Day. Big Money was clearly a factor, she told Denver’s alt-weekly Westword in a recent debrief, but she also “doesn’t exempt the media from criticism,” wrote Michael Roberts.

Here’s Lynne in her own words from his story:

“For me, it’s very much about a belief that voters should want to know more about the candidates than you can get in a thirty-second commercial, or what you get from some of the mailings, which tended to get a little more inflammatory or dirty, because they were mostly coming from the independent-expenditure side. I never called people names or made up stories, but that wasn’t the case in some of the debates and some of the mailings and ads that I saw. And in the absence of the press or some organization that might say, ‘Is this really his or her position?,’ you can really say anything you want.”

Granted, “some of the press did fact checks,” she notes. “But most people aren’t paying attention to the fact check when they’re getting all these mailings and seeing all these ads. So maybe it’s a combination of the press having a lack of staff or that they weren’t as engaged in the issue. As I always say, some people like to cover the airplane crashes versus the airplane landings. But I would have hoped it would have been more about policy issues.”

Behind the scenes, “we spent a lot of time on our side developing very in-depth policy positions,” she explains. “We assembled people with very diverse interests and put together very thoughtful papers, trying to be very clear about the issues, because that’s what a candidate is supposed to do. But in a campaign, you can say anything. You can say, ‘I’m going to give you free this or free that,’ without any sense of reality about what our voters in Colorado have done with respect to tax increases over the past 25 years. A candidate can appeal to voters by saying they’re going to give them free something. So it’s not only about the way campaigns are financed. Maybe it’s also about how we get our information and how much time reporters can actually spend saying, ‘Here are the real differences in education policy, on marijuana policy, on whatever.’ That’s as much of a concern as the amounts of money that are being spent.”​

Lynne, it should be noted, aired a TV ad in which she got a tattoo as part of her campaign. Because landings not crashes.

The Colorado Sun soft published and got profiled in Poynter

The 10-person digital startup, which just published its first story in its newsletter last week, got some more national ink, this time from Poynter.

From the piece:

To establish the Sun’s presence throughout the state, the editors are exploring partnerships with local outlets and asking readers about their concerns in weekly newsletters. More than a quarter of reader responses to newsletters have come from outside the Denver area and surrounding cities, [editor Dana] Coffield said. The journalists said they don’t see themselves as competitors to the Denver Post, and emphasized that they still appreciate the work the Post is doing. There are plenty of stories going unreported across the state, [Sun reporter John] Ingold said. He’s said he’s looking forward to being part of a more collaborative news environment to serve the people of Colorado.

Other Denver media startups like the InDenver Times, the Rocky Mountain Independent and Colorado Public News failed due to lack of interest or subscribers after the Rocky Mountain News folded. Coffield said she thinks the Sun will be different because of the timing. The journalists understand better how audiences consume news digitally, and readers aren’t surprised to hear that the Sun will be online only.

As the team continues to build its website, its journalists are also out in the field reporting. The first published story, in last week’s newsletter, came from Jennifer Brown and was about a federal plan “to remove the ovaries of wild horses as part of a controversial birth-control roundup” with the help of Colorado State University. The format is less on-the-ground narrative than it is digital-news-style explanatory with five subject headings like “The history,” “The problem,” and “What’s next.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune had a big takeout on a severe shortage of childcare in Weld CountyThe Longmont Times-Call reported on a potential mill levy for fire districtsThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on a checkered history of a California man connected to a company hired to print ballots for more than a third of Colorado’s countiesThe Durango Herald reported a halfway house director has a “history of sexual harassment complaints,” relying on documents leaked to the paper anonymously and acknowledged by the board president. The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered the cutting down of beetle-infested sprucesThe Steamboat Pilot reported how water managers are boosting the reservoir flow into the Yampa RiverThe Pueblo Chieftain covered a national home-made rocketry eventThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported on how a couple bought a local home for $10,000 under the asking priceThe Gazette in Colorado Springs covered a national honor bestowed on a “conductor” of the Underground Railroad who is buried in the cityThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on its city considering preemptive moves on oil-and-gas drillingThe Denver Post dug into how police respond to “armed law-abiding citizens.”

The Pueblo Chieftain on past reporting conflicts

A call to the GateHouse-owned Pueblo Chieftain’s editor Steve Henson this week led him to pen a column about what happens when the paper’s reporters run into conflicts of interest. The caller said he believed his wife was unfairly treated during a traffic arrest and he wanted the paper to “‘expose’ the wrongdoing,” Henson wrote. The editor said he wasn’t going to write about it and the caller accused him of having relatives on the police force (Henson says he doesn’t) and therefore covering for the cops. The incident led Henson to recall how his paper dealt with conflicts in the past.

From the column:

A few years back, a city government reporter told me she had a concern. She had begun dating a candidate for the City Council and wanted to disclose that. It was an easy issue to resolve. We took her off the city beat temporarily until the election was over. It turns out her friend didn’t win and she returned to the beat after the election. It was an obvious conflict of interest, and as long as I can remember, we’ve worked hard to disclose and resolve such conflicts. Recently, one of our reporters said he felt he couldn’t cover the controversy at El Pueblo adolescent treatment center as he was friends with an El Pueblo board member. No problem. We assigned El Pueblo coverage to other reporters.

Many years ago, we used to publish a list of shoplifting arrests in the misguided belief that would deter such actions and help merchants. One day, the wife of a prominent Puebloan was arrested and the husband called to ask us to keep it out. The big boss said ‘Yes,’ and the newsroom’s response was simple: No more publishing shoplifting arrests then, because, we reasoned, if you don’t publish every arrest, you shouldn’t publish any.

“We make mistakes and things slip through the cracks,” Henson wrote. “But we try very hard to be consistent, fair and to handle conflicts of interest as best we can.”

Letters are flying over the handcuffing of a Colorado journalist

Following the detention and handcuffing of Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene after she took photos of police officers in public, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and other journalist representative groups sent a letter to the Denver Department of Public Safety urging it “to institute intensive First Amendment training for its employees … so that an incident such as that experienced by Ms. Greene … is not repeated.”

On July 10, department Chief Paul Pazen responded with his own letter. In it, Pazen assured the CFOIC, Colorado Press Association, and Colorado Broadcasters Association that “upholding constitutionally protected First Amendment rights is of the utmost importance to the Denver Police Department,” adding that cops undergo training on constitutional issues and that there is a “specific department policy that addresses recording police activities.”

On July 27, writing on behalf of the journalism advocacy groups, lawyer Marc Flink sent a response letter to the response letter. In it, he says the groups were “disappointed in what they considered to be a dismissive, non-substantive response” and they are concerned the matter isn’t getting the priority it deserves. “Absent public acknowledgment and recognition that more and better training on the rights of citizens and the press to record police activities in public spaces needs to be undertaken, there can be no confidence that the training Denver police officers receive on ‘constitutional issues’ and instruction on the ‘policy … that addresses recording police activities’ are adequate on these issues,” Flink continued. He said the groups call on DPS to issue a news release explaining any immediate steps DPS is taking or has taken to “ensure that all Department of Safety employees are educated and trained on the right of Colorado citizens to photograph or video police officers in public spaces.” He also asked to review the current training program and said the press groups are eager to help provide input.

Now, for something totally different: A Colorado reporter role-played as a cop

In May 2016, I reported for this newsletter how an Aspen Times reporter got drunk for a story and let the cops buy his drinks. Not a bad way to spend a workday for sure. This week’s strange role-playing reporter story comes out of Summit Daily where a journalist play-acted as an officer and mock-shot a teenager in an elementary school classroom as part of a training exercise.

Here’s the opening to a first-person piece by Sky-Hi News reporter Sawyer D’Argonne:

It all came down to a split second decision. I stood nervously in a cluttered Silverthorne Elementary classroom, my mock gun pointed down on a distressed teenager sitting on a couch in front of me. The training scenario was clear. Gunshots were heard coming from the school, backup is still minutes away and it’s up to me to act.

We talked at first. He told me his name was Donovan and that he had a gun hidden in another classroom down the hall. I asked him to stand up or to come with me, but he refused. For a moment, it seemed we reached an impasse. Suddenly there was a change in his demeanor. His face, which had been calm as stone, turned frantic and his hand moved to pull something black and red from behind the pillow, something that could be a gun.

BANG. BANG. I made my decision.

This is often the reality that law enforcement officials are thrown into: not enough information, not enough time to think, with life and death potentially on the line. While situations like this are terrifying for someone like myself, police officers train vigorously to be ready for dangerous and complicated scenarios. The best practice Summit County law enforcement officials get is reality-based training, a monthly semi-controlled exercise designed to test police on tactics and use of force.

There’s a video of the reporter doing another role-play scenario along with the story here, in which he responds to a hostage situation in a classroom. “Pretty easy headshot, I think,” one officer tells him.

Some upcoming Colorado Media Project events

In my last newsletter, I wrote about what the Colorado Media Project is up to. This week, I’ll share some public events the project is hosting:

Aug. 13, from noon to 3 p.m. at the Rocky Mountain PBS building at 1089 Bannock St. in  Denver: Building Digital Audiences – A Workshop with Seth Geiger for Journalists and Media Pros. It’s free and the group hopes Colorado journalists from all over show up. Click here for more info.

Aug. 13, from 4 p.m to 6 p.m. at the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science at the University of Denver, 2155 East Wesley Ave., Room 510: Digital Media, Digital Citizens – A Community Conversation with Seth Geiger. For more info click here.

Aug. 22, from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. at the Ritchie School of Engineering and Computer Science, University of Denver 2155 East Wesley Ave., Room 510: Colorado’s Changing Media Landscape: What’s Next? This talk features Molly de Aguiar, the managing director for the News Integrity Initiative at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism.

I hope to see many of you there!

*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.

Photo by Corey Hutchins