So much of the story of Colorado happens in smaller moments in people’s lives. As 2018 winds down, we look back over our year covering these moments and the larger issues they revealed about our state.
A mother in the immigrant detention facility in Aurora couldn’t eat or sleep because her son was yanked from her at the border and she didn’t know where he was.
A sick, elderly woman sat at her kitchen table in rural Colorado describing the helplessness of having to rely on a public transit system with service so limited that she has to wait a week for a ride.
State inmates ate breakfast in the predawn darkness of a forest before heading out for another day of fighting fires. The job pays them next to nothing, but, they said, it makes them feel valued.
Because this was an election year, much of our coverage was aimed at educating voters — from columnist Mike Littwin’s weekly gubernatorial rankings and behind-the-scenes look at that race to our in-depth explainers of ballot issues, which hundreds of thousands of Coloradans relied on to fill out their ballots. Those explainers dominated our most-read lists of this year, but it was our in-depth profiles of Jared Polis and Walker Stapleton that stood out as examples of The Indy at its best. Alex Burness’s four-part portrait, “How Jared Polis Gets What He Wants,” is still the most thorough look at the background and business and political lives of the man who will become governor on Jan. 8.
The 2018 state legislative session was marked by #MeToo turmoil. Some of the best work on our team came from John Herrick and Littwin. We were especially keen on the above photo John took of Republican Randy Baumgardner, the oft-accused sexual harasser who resigned from the state Senate earlier this month to avoid expulsion in January. The picture at once captures Baumgardner’s swagger and defiance, the exhausting tension of this year’s session, and the isolation borne from accusations of workplace lechery in the #MeToo era. It’s one of those small moments that we at The Indy are big on capturing.
On the environmental beat, we took a hard look at why, three years after Gov. John Hickenlooper released Colorado’s first statewide water plan, the strategy to avoid a looming water shortfall still has scant funding. Water policy can be — pardon the pun — one of the driest topics out there, but with our climate changing and Colorado now 19 years into a record-long drought, this juicy story by Editor Susan Greene is worth your time. Watch in 2019 for how, if at all, the new administration and legislature make progress averting a water crisis.
Susan was the first to report that six former Anadarko employees came forward on behalf of investors to describe a culture of corporate callousness that puts profits before safety. The six include the oil and gas giant’s one-time chief lobbyist and spokeswoman, both of whom say Anadarko can’t be trusted to maintain deteriorating wells like the one that caused the 2016 fatal home explosion in Firestone. We were struck by former Anadarko spokeswoman Robin Olsen’s assertion that her boss told her to “keep quiet” about the safety concerns and that her job “was to shovel shit, and to clean up the messes” the company’s employees made.
When news spread over the summer that the federal government was separating immigrant families at the border, it instantly became the biggest story in the nation. Alex broke the news that dozens of parents who had been separated from their children at the border were being held at the ICE detention center in Aurora and published accounts of their ordeals. “He kept asking for me and telling me that he didn’t want me to be (away from him). I said I love him a lot. We were both crying,” one mother said of the moment officers took her 6-year-old son from her.
We’ve all heard that students who skip meals or don’t eat enough are more likely to have lower grade point averages than other kids. But we didn’t know the extent to which many college students in Colorado are going hungry. We explored the emerging trend of on-campus food pantries, which serve student populations increasingly suffering from hunger as rent and tuition costs skyrocket. Rachel Lorenz and Forest Wilson, both students themselves, had the story.
Earlier this month, intern rockstar Shannon Mullane took a sobering look at the growing problem of suicide in rural Colorado, including how kids are especially vulnerable. These were tough stories, but the talent and commitment of young journalists like Shannon, Rachel and Forest gives us hope for the future of our craft in Colorado.
The Indy continues to lead in covering criminal justice. We broke news that Denver District Attorney Beth McCann has blocked state compensation for a wrongfully convicted man whose mistreatment she highlighted as a campaign issue. We were the only outlet to cover efforts by the Douglas County Sheriff’s Department to pin a break-in and sexual assault on a cognitively delayed teenager from whom its detectives coerced a confession. And we were the first to report that an investigator for death row inmate Robert Ray chose jail time rather than testify as a prosecution witness.
In that same capital case, we took a close look at remarks by the jury foreman who wrote that what he knows about African-Americans is “bad news.” There was a moment in the courthouse elevator when, clearly shaken by questions about his racial views, juror Carl Dubler said he wouldn’t discuss them with the news media. But the white software marketer from Centennial opened up to Susan a few weeks later about the weight of having sentenced a young African-American man to death. “Now I can see how dangerous the whole job of judgment is,” he told her.
In yet another year without a haircut, Littwin was busy capturing moments like Walker Stapleton’s outburst at a gubernatorial debate: “He’s mad — red-faced mad, sweaty-brow mad, yelling-into-the-mic mad — because Coloradans seem not to understand how dangerous the ‘radical and extreme’ Polis would be as governor.” And of the moment state Rep. Steve Lebsock, accused of sexual harassment at the statehouse, switched party affiliations, from Democrat to Republican, in order to stick it to the party that wanted him gone, Littwin wrote: “It was one of the finest days ever witnessed at the state legislature. It was so moving, so emotional, so powerful that only a self-righteous, self-absorbed vindictive jerk like Steve Lebsock could have ruined it. And so he did. Or tried to, anyway.” Upon learning that his friend, Rob Hiaasen, and Hiaasen’s colleagues were killed by a shooter in their Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis, Md., Littwin said: “I mourn for a friend, I mourn for my business. And, as all of us do, I mourn knowing there will inevitably be more tears, after more shootings, after more deaths, in what has become an endlessly tragic news cycle that America has steadfastly refused to address.”
This mass shooting habit inevitably prods Pulitzer-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe to pick up his pens. But there were plenty of other outrages to ‘toon about this year, including the assassination of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump’s complicity in the matter, the Brett Kavanaugh nomination to the Supreme Court and the Senate’s handling of accuser Christine Blasey Ford. Keefe also got spun up about climate change, propaganda about climate change, propaganda in general, and flat-out lies.
This was the year in which The Indy’s ongoing fight for a transparent and accountable government took a more personal turn. Denver police handcuffed and detained Susan as she was taking photos of a police scene on a public sidewalk. You may remember the moment, caught by body cam, when officers ordered Susan to “act like a lady,” or her musing in her column about “how exactly a woman should behave on a perp walk after having been blocked from doing her job, obstructed from exercising her First Amendment rights, handcuffed and otherwise manhandled by an ignorant and over-amped police officer and his sidekick.” Almost six months later, Denver police still haven’t released their investigation of the 14-minute incident.
We in our small but mighty nonprofit newsroom are proud to have stood up against a dangerous legal precedent — the sealing of key court documents in one of Colorado’s three death-row cases — by petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to hear the case of The Colorado Independent v. District Court for the Eighteenth Judicial District of Colorado. We’re also proud that we’re backed in that effort by the Colorado Press Association and all of Colorado’s top news outlets as well as most of the leading news organizations in the United States. We’ve built a national coalition of news outlets and First Amendment scholars joined in solidarity against case law that threatens to erode our ability to do our most basic job: watchdogging government. It is not just our responsibility to report news, but also to champion and defend all Americans’ right to scrutinize powerful institutions. Check out Susan’s piece explaining why we’ve taken on this fight.
The Indy has a mission. It’s there on our home page for all to read. “The Colorado Independent’s award-winning team of investigative and explanatory reporters and news commentators aims to hold public officials to account, shine light on the relationships between people, power and policy, and amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard.” Looking back on our coverage this year, we’re pleased to have stayed true to these goals.
We’re honored to be able to do this work in this interesting time, yet especially tough spell for our industry. We’re grateful for the skyrocketing number of Coloradans who are reading The Indy, and to those among you who’ve supported our nonprofit newsroom. If you’ve given, thank you! If you’ve not yet backed our work, please make a tax-deductible contribution now. The deadline for the 2018 tax year is midnight tonight. We need your help. You need smart, in-depth, public-interest news. And Colorado needs veteran journalists reporting on moments that matter in this state and, when necessary, who are willing to speak truth to power.
We wish you a happy, healthy 2019.
The Colorado Independent team