2018 was bloodbaths and ‘blooms’: The year in Colorado’s media world

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Denver Post reporter John Wenzel leads the charge as Denver Post employees walked out of work in protest their hedge-fund owner. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography)

For this week’s column, we take a look back at 2018 and all that happened in our little corner of the journalism world. OK, not all, but at least some of the big news that made its way across my keyboard for coverage in this space over the past 12 months. It’s not comprehensive, but here are some nuggets from another year’s stack of torn-off calendar pages:

In January, we saw a man-bites-dog story from a hedge-fund-controlled Digital First Media newspaper in Colorado when The Longmont Times-Call actually expanded its newspaper staff. That was not foreshadowing for the rest of the year, which we’ll get to later in Colorado’s version of the Red Wedding. What was a bit of foreshadowing, though, was Denver Post journalists rallying around a new paywall. That led to an inevitable question, raised in a piece at Columbia Journalism Review: “As The Denver Post asks its readers to pay for online content, some readers naturally might wonder if doing so will mean an investment into the newsroom and no more cuts, or a boost to corporate profits as layoffs continue.” So it was a “hedge fund Catch 22” as one DFM editor put it at the time. The paper’s top editor told me at the beginning of 2018 there was nothing in writing from corporate saying revenue generated by the new paywall would stave of future newsroom cuts at Colorado’s largest newspaper, though she was hopeful it would.

In February, the for-profit hyperlocal news site Denverite launched a new membership model, turning Denver into a testing ground for a new sustainable business model. Also in February, The Colorado Independent took its court fight for judicial records to the state Supreme Court, and the alt-weekly in the Springs pushed back against threats from VDARE. The sitting attorney general made newspaper ownership an issue in her campaign for governor, and a CU regent claimed going to journalism school moved her daughter to the left.

In March, readers (and journalists) at The Pueblo Chieftain were in the dark about who would buy the venerable southern Colorado newspaper that had been family-owned for 150 years, while in some places, the FCC started cracking down on pirate radio stations in our state. But what really made news that month was the bloodbath at The Denver Post. On Wednesday, March 14, journalists there learned during an all-hands-on-deck meeting that the budget ax would fall hard on their newsroom, cutting deeper than previous layoffs and splintering roughly a third of their ranks. Shock registered across the public radio airwaves and on the nightly broadcast network news in Denver — and beyond. “Is this strip-mining or journalism?” asked Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post. Ire at the situation quickly turned to Alden Global Capital and Digital First Media, which had also been hacking away at their other properties across the country. In the aftermath of the March 14 Massacre, no billionaire Bruce Wayne swooped in to save the bleeding broadsheet, the State of Colorado didn’t seize it under eminent domain, the governor did not intervene, and the paper continued to produce solid, meaningful work amid an atmosphere of high anxiety, even as insider dirt about the owner’s high corporate profits leaked out and at least one lawmaker at the Capitol darkly joked that less reporting would mean “we can do whatever we want.”

T.S. Eliot said April is the cruelest month, and in Colorado, 2018’s rose to the challenge. We found out whose careers the layoffs claimed, and we met investigative journalist Julie Reynolds, who was “like a dog with a bone” on Digital First Media’s hedge-fund owner. And, on the most dramatic day that month, then-Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett published The Editorial Rebellion, defying the paper’s corporate bosses with a 10-piece package of columns and editorials taking aim at the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. The individual pieces, which called out the paper’s owner in stark terms, blew up on social media and in the national press. An “extraordinary act of defiance,” wrote HuffPo. Oliver Darcy at CNN said The Denver Post was sending out an SOS distress call. The New York Times put the story on its Sunday front page, calling the move a revolt. Of note in the Times piece: The backstory of how Plunkett, who orchestrated the package unbeknownst to DFM corporate and the paper’s top editor, almost lost his job over the move. I reported for CJR about how the rebellion rippled across America at other DFM-owned papers and found the response within the newspaper chain of about 100 was mixed or muted. A group of investors said they were looking at trying to buy The Denver Post. (To date, they have not.) Gov. John Hickenlooper pronounced April 16-22 “Colorado Journalism Week.” There was irony in that. Just days later, Dave Krieger, then-editorial page editor of the DFM-owned Boulder Daily Camera, said he was fired after he published an editorial on a personal blog that he says his publisher blocked from appearing in the pages of the newspaper. As other newspapers in Colorado rallied around the Post, a journalism organization set up an Economic Hardship Grant for its departed journalists. Krieger didn’t go away quietly that month. He made the media rounds and did an hourlong Q-and-A with me at The Denver Press Club about his saga. Was doing what he did worth losing his job? “Oh yeah,” he said. “Absolutely. … there’s no question in my mind about this. … In this case, there’s good and there’s evil it seems to me — it’s just really clear to me — and I’m not going to be associated with that.”

May wasn’t much better. National newspaper analyst Ken Doctor poured a mountain of salt into laid-off journalist wounds when he dropped a bombshell of insider financial info headlined “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.” Around that time, Chuck Plunkett suddenly resigned from The Denver Post after he says the paper declined to approve an editorial (it lives here) that decried “outright censorship.” He was followed by a string of other resignations including chairman and former owner Dean Singleton and a senior editor who said he had “more freedom as a journalist in Russia.” Dozens of the paper’s journalists signed a letter blasting their owner and then rallied outside their printing plant/newsroom shouting “What do we want? New owners! When do we want it? Now!” All the while, a contingent of them were in New York City protesting outside their owner’s headquarters and making the rounds in Big Apple media. Twice in May, people packed into The Denver Press Club to engage with a town-hall-slash-panel discussion largely focused on what readers could or should do about a crisis at The Denver Post. As if all the implications of a hedge-fund-owning a newspaper weren’t bad enough, The Pueblo Chieftain announced its buyer: GateHouse Media, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which NPR said is a — wait for it — “New York-based hedge fund.”

In June we learned at least one thing corporate ownership meant for journalists at The Pueblo ChieftainNo more jeans. We also learned a local government sued two Evergreen newspapers and how Trump’s tariffs and his Federal Communications Commission had implications for two different newsrooms in Colorado. Chuck Plunkett got a new gig directing the News Corps at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Denver TV ratings went down, and we got to read a transcript from an audio recording of a meeting between Denver Post journalists and their corporate overlords. Also in big June news, the Denver Post politics team imploded, and we saw the rise of The Colorado Sun, a collection of 10 Post journalists who left voluntarily to start an online news venture with backing from a New York-based cryptocurrency/blockchain technology group called Civil.

July found much enthusiasm for The Colorado Sun and whether it could crack the code of a sustainable business model for local news amid a bumper crop of digital startups across the country. At the same time, The Gazette in Colorado Springs stated that it (at that particular time-stamp in history) had a bigger news staff than The Denver Post. The month also saw a trifecta of new faces running the opinion pages of some of Colorado’s largest newspapers and two new publishers, too. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel cut its print run to five days a week. And in a story that quickly went viral, Denver police officers handcuffed The Colorado Independent’s editor, Susan Greene, as she filmed them while trying to report on an incident on a public sidewalk. Also in June, a coalition launched The Colorado Media Project to study the future of the state’s journalistic landscape.

In AugustThe Denver Post’s politics team rebuilt, as Colorado Public Radio continued an expansion that still has not stopped, dropping new reporters into Grand Junction and Colorado Springs. A Colorado reporter role-played as a cop, a TV reporter griped about the “background problem” in sourcing, and Colorado newspapers heeded The Boston Globe’s call for a coordinated pushback on President Donald Trump’s anti-press rhetoric. An anonymous oil-and-gas group singled out Colorado journalists, and Denver realized it had a shortage of black TV news personalities. A group of nonprofits gathered to fund a housing and homelessness reporter at Denverite as a pot company sponsored education coverage at the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins. The Colorado Independent, not getting what it wanted at the state’s highest court, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear its case for open judicial records.

September saw the rebuilding of The Denver Post’s editorial board, and police released the body-cam footage of Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene’s handcuffing. It was not a good look for the cops. Longmont’s police chief, meanwhile, blamed media outlets for marketing “fear and fault.” On TV, special-interest groups used clips of real Denver TV journalists in their political ads, causing one news director to say, “My concern … is that viewers will see our content presented in a commercial context – and we may be misrepresented as supporting or opposing a particular issue or candidate.” As the political campaigns heated up across the state, the Republican nominee for governor yukked it up about “phony news organizations” at a fundraiser that was closed to media. A newspaper in the Sangre de Cristos called the Colorado Press Association “part of the left wing, corrupt, deep state press.” The longtime publisher of High Country News died, a reporter was asked for her ID when she asked for public information, and for one Colorado newspaper, pumpkin spice latte season was front-page news.

In October, The Colorado Media Project released its findings after three months of research into what ails local Colorado journalism, the Coloradoan graciously dropped its paywall for election coverage, and the University of Colorado system changed its free speech policies. The Denver-based creator of the viral News Bias Chart started her own company to scale the project, an alt-weekly reporter’s notes got snatched at a public meeting, and about 80 state and national news organizations backed The Colorado Independent’s efforts at the U.S. Supreme Court. Speaking on a journalism panel, Denverite’s editor said his office was the “first place I’ve ever worked in my entire life that has the accurate percentage of white people representative of Denver.” The Gazette launched a cold-case podcast, and The Open Media Foundation’s future looked shaky as the City of Denver looked to shake it up.

November had elections, but, in a sign of changing news consumer habits, one Colorado newspaper chose not to run the results in print. Jared Polis, who would become governor, apologized for using the term “fake news,” the Denver Film Society honored journalism, and Durango found somewhat of an end-run around not being able to beam Colorado news into local TVs. Colorado Community Media published a whopping series on mental health, and Ed Lehman “the journalist, lawyer, former legislator and civic leader who owned the Loveland Reporter-Herald for 51 years and the Longmont Times-Call for 54 years,” died.

Last month, well, you already read last month’s newsletters so I’ll skip the details. Last year, though, when I published a similar end-of-year roundup, my inbox filled with irate responses from journalists, newspaper owners and special interest folks about things I’d missed. And I’m sure I missed plenty this year, too. To which I say: Always feel free to holler if you think there’s anything in 2019 that might slip past the keyboard of your humble newsletter printer.

And now, onto our regularly scheduled programming…

High Country News checked in on journalism in the West 

Kenton Bird, who teaches journalism at the University of Idaho, recently published a piece in the latest edition of High Country News assessing journalism in the American West. Here’s a sampling of what he found:

Even long-established legacy media are struggling, decimated by staff cuts imposed by corporate owners and private-equity firms in response to plummeting readership, declining ad revenue and the relentless push to maximize profits for owners and investors. In city after city, reporters struggle to meet deadlines with less time, fewer resources and increasing demands to file stories round-the-clock for social media and online editions. While good, sometimes outstanding work is still being done even at the hardest-hit newspapers, the bread-and-butter coverage of government, politics and public issues is already suffering, becoming thinner almost everywhere. …

In the West, coverage is indeed shrinking. Wyoming and Arizona still have a newspaper in every county, but Colorado has four counties without newspapers, while Idaho has seven. In Idaho, weeklies in neighboring counties provide some local coverage, but the hometown, county-seat paper has vanished from the fast-growing state’s rural areas. Meanwhile, many Western counties are at risk of losing their only remaining newspapers. …

Still, Denver and Seattle (and Tucson, to a lesser extent) have potentially high numbers of investors, donors, journalists and audiences to support new media startups. The West’s small towns and rural areas lack that advantage. Instead, these communities risk losing critical information when a newspaper closes or merges with a neighboring county’s publication. Few entrepreneurs or startup editors see their future in the Western news deserts.

Bird profiled a handful of newsrooms from Idaho to Washington State to here in Colorado, where he found some “blooms” in the “West’s news desert.” It’s “not clear how many of the new digital startups and nonprofit news outlets are sustainable,” he wrote, “particularly if they depend on subscriptions, donations, business sponsorships and foundation grants.” Of note in the piece was this line about The Colorado Sun: “The Sun is currently an LLC, but its staff is pursuing a Public Benefit Corp (B-Corp) status.”

Speaking of High Country News

The magazine also ran a must-read profile of Patty Calhoun, the longtime editor of Denver’s alternative weekly Westword. “In an era where alt-weeklies are dying and daily newspapers continue to see their influence erode, Westword occupies a special place in American journalism,” wrote Gustavo Arellano in the piece. “Its mix of investigative stories, cultural coverage, snarky humor and articles that frequently go viral has created something almost unheard of in the industry today: stability, and a widespread respect bordering on civic reverence.”

An excerpt:

Calhoun is tall, with long blond hair and piercing blue eyes. The 64-year-old always wears long skirts, cowboy boots or flip-flops, and some form of turquoise jewelry, and carries herself like a cross between legendary journalist Nellie Bly (a personal hero) and Annie Oakley — crusading, but not showy, with the personality of a cool aunt who never married because she’d rather travel the world. She gets up at 5 every morning and, for three hours, edits stories scheduled for the web that day, then spends the rest of the day working on the print edition and her own articles. She tries to write at least one story a week, across different sections, but ultimately follows her own breaking-news clock. In an eight-day stretch in September, for instance, she penned 1,000-plus word pieces on the Colorado gubernatorial race, the closing of a dive bar, a quick profile of a nonprofit, and a review of a just-opened hiking trail on top of a former nuclear power plant.

Some other quick takeaways: The Denver Post has had 14 editors while Calhoun helmed her paper. Westword Publisher Scott Tobias said the alt-weekly is “very, very strong” with “a big profit.” Outgoing Gov. John Hickenlooper, cited as a longtime friend, said Calhoun “embodies what journalism used to aspire to become.” Tom Tancredo called the weekly’s coverage of him fair, and offered this zinger: “I think that the Denver Post has maybe three or four years, and it’ll be gone. And I bet you Westword will still be there.” (Tancredo has said he doesn’t read the Post.) “In 1986, Calhoun revealed that the president of a group of suburban newspapers had killed his mother, father and sister as an 18-year-old, yet never disclosed his past to readers or mentioned that he had changed his name.” The paper has 10 full-time editorial staffers (a lot for an alt-weekly) but the paper itself shrunk over the years: “An October issue was 72 pages, with 31 devoted to marijuana ads.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune reported how an address filing change exposed ties between a dark money group and a county commissioner’s wifeThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel revisited its top local story of 2018: A school administration “shake-up controversy.” The Longmont Times-Call reported how a local office is leading radon mitigation effortsThe Summit Daily News covered how the death of two skiers is spurring talks of heart healthThe Steamboat Pilot fronted its 2019 calendar of celestial events for 2019The Loveland Reporter-Herald reported on Larimer County’s lowest inmate population since 2015The Boulder Daily Camera covered an expansion of a local churchThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had eight things for 2019The Gazette in Colorado Springs chronicled a year in a young boy’s battle with cancerVail Daily reported how a local competitive skier is doing on the slopes in AustriaThe Durango Herald wrote about what to expect in local news for 2019The Denver Post fronted a big takeout on where marijuana money goes.

The year in review from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition

Judicial secrecy, child autopsies, secret settlements, access denied, and cops cleared of charges. Those are just a few lowlights from the CFOIC’s year-end roundup of news on Colorado’s open records and press freedom front.

Now, onto … 2109?

This headline howler appeared on the front-page above the fold of The Longmont Times-Call on Wednesday in big, bold type:

If that’s not actually a typo and the baby really is from the future, though, I’d like to ask it how long it took for the local U.S. newspaper business model to recalibrate enough to hire back all those copy editors.

Speaking of getting ahead of yourself, one local Colorado politics site, Colorado Politics, on Thursday inadvertently showed us how the sausage is made when it mistakenly published a dummy-blank story template for the following day’s news coverage.

In texting me a screen grab of the blunder, a former Colorado journalist said, “One step closer to reporters being replaced by robots.”