Gannett’s nationwide layoffs lash the Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins

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Photo by ShashiBellamkonda for Creative Commons on Flickr.

Coast to coast, a wave of layoffs surged through newsrooms of America’s largest newspaper chain — and I’m told three full-time staff positions at the Coloradoan in Fort Collins were swept away in the undertow.

“Gannett began slashing jobs all across the country Wednesday in a cost-cutting move that was anticipated even before the recent news that a hedge-fund company was planning to buy the chain,” was the brutal lede from Poynter. That hedge fund, of course, is Denver Post overlord _____ ______ _______. (Hint: The Nothing.)

Newspapers from California to New Jersey saw cuts; notifications went out to those at the Coloradoan Wednesday afternoon, hobbling the newsroom from a full-time staff of 20 to 17, a source at the paper told me. Photographer and videographer Austin Humphries confirmed on social media he was one of them.

Next door, the spinning blades nicked The Arizona Republic, where a Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist and a digital editor lost their jobs.

Last year, Editor & Publisher named the Coloradoan one of the country’s top 10 “pioneering newsrooms,” and in March, NiemanLab profiled the northern Colorado newspaper, noting it has been “recognized for its resourcefulness in digital experimentation.” Those initiatives included everything from a chatbot to neighborhood watch Facebook groups to public engagement events including News & Brews and The Storytellers Project featuring its journalists. In 2015, an open records request from the Coloradoan about faculty salary inequities at Colorado State University became the poster child for gaps in our state’s open records laws related to databases. Lawmakers worked to update the Colorado Open Records Act as the Coloradoan’s then-editor Lauren Gustus took on an advocacy role in pushing a bill at the Capitol. Reporters have said the update to the law is working.

“They absolutely were a big part of that,” says Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Director Jeff Roberts about the Coloraodan’s impact on transparency legislation.

While plenty of attention has focused on how ownership and market forces have reformed The Denver Post (kind of like, say, how a chainsaw might reform someone’s face), turbulence has also buffeted this newspaper an hour up the road. In 2016, nationwide layoffs at Gannett hit the Coloradoan as the company sought to reduce its staff by 2 percent and abandoned an effort to buy the newspaper publisher Tronc. This year, the Coloradoan turned to a local recreational and medical marijuana company to help fund its education coverage. The morning after Election Day, print readers of the Coloradoan didn’t see the the results.

Last week, a journalist at the paper told me while the staff has lived through a rough ride under Gannett, the prospect of being taken over by The Denver Post’s owner “has us shook.” This latest news almost certainly has not done anything to un-shake them.

Editorial sabers are rattling in the Springs

On a recent Thursday, following a tour of The Colorado Springs Independent’s funky downtown office where keyboards clack from a maze-like newsroom of corrugated metal partitions splashed with grafitti, a group of Colorado College students made their way down the steps of the old church that now houses the city’s alternative weekly. It felt, one exchange student from Costa Rica remarked, like being inside a “resistance base.”

An announcement in the pages of last week’s print edition made such a description even more apt. For the first time, the alt-weekly has created an editorial board and a standalone opinion page it is calling Voice of Reason — an institutional strike force aimed, in part, at the legacy editorial empire of its daily rival.

From The Colorado Springs Indy:

Many times … we’ve felt frustration over not finding a better way to speak more effectively as a local newspaper, especially as an adversary to the Pikes Peak region’s only other editorial voice, The Gazette. We’ve cringed at the daily paper’s many efforts — both obvious and subtle, at times even sneaky — to push their positions, which range from intolerant to outrageous. But we haven’t created the right vehicle across our media platforms to respond or, if needed, retaliate. Until now.

Sounds like fighting words.

Making up this new board is the paper’s top editor, Matthew Schniper, Colorado Springs Business Journal Editor Bryan Grossman, Colorado Publishing House Executive Editor Ralph Routon, Publisher Amy Gillentine Sweet, founder and owner John Weiss, and Regan Foster, editor of the new Southeast Express newspaper.

I caught up with Schniper about the purpose of this move. He said in 25 years in business the paper was lacking a strong editorial opinion page and it’s just time for one. To counter The Gazette’s editorial voice is a big part of it, but, he said, “not to say that on a weekly basis we’re going to be taking jabs at them, but more …  they kind of were the only game in town, so to speak, for an opinion page.”

An editorial board isn’t an entirely new concept for this paper. The Colorado Springs Indy has been doing endorsements under the byline of “Indy Editorial Board,” and I’ve pointed out in other instances that when it published something under that same byline, it did not disclose who made up the board. Now we know. “It’s an assembly of another group of editors who can oversee this page and be more of a voice of the paper at large,” Schniper says.

The Gazette’s editorial page is conservative and its opinions have gotten the attention of a different alt-weekly an hour north. Denver’s Westword in August called one of the G’s editorials “insane” in a headline. Responding to the The Colorado Springs Indy’s news on Twitter, a Gazette photojournalist wrote, “Speaking on behalf of some of us, it bums us out that folks believe we are intolerant based on content out of our control. It is great to see you launch this and good luck.”

In 2015, a then-reporter at The Gazette criticized her paper for not clearly labeling a front-page series about marijuana as opinion. I’ve heard other news-side journalists at the paper grumble about the editorial page’s views given plenty of readers might not understand the separation between news and opinion. I reached out to The Gazette’s editorial page editor for his take on The Colorado Springs Indy’s new initiative, but didn’t hear back.

John Weiss, the alt-weekly’s founder who Schniper credits as the brains behind this new development, says the new Voice of Reason will not focus exclusively on The Gazette. (The paper’s inaugural editorial calls for ending ICE arrests.) “But we are not letting them be the sole voice anymore in our community … the sole editorial voice,” Weiss said. “… We’re putting them on notice — and other media on notice just like we should be put on notice— that the media needs a watchdog in Colorado Springs.”

The Greeley Tribune cut its print days down to four 

Over the summer, something a bit strange happened, a blip in the execution of this newsletter I registered at the time but wasn’t sure exactly how to handle, and resolved just to keep an eye out. Now I’m returning to it. In July, I wrote that The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel was cutting its print run to five days a week. In the item, I quoted Publisher Jay Seaton and wrote this in my own voice:

“He noted The Durango Herald and The Greeley Tribune (both under different owners) have also cut their daily print runs. Instead of getting a printed paper, subscribers will get a digital copy in their inbox.”

Not long after the newsletter started hitting inboxes, someone informed me that The Greeley Tribune had not cut its daily print run. I dashed off a question to a higher-up at the paper to apologize for repeating an error if I had done so and to inquire if the paper had plans to cut its daily delivery. I did not hear back. This month, The Greeley Tribune cut print run down to four days a week — Sunday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday. The paper reported a news story about itself, and in it, Publisher Bryce Jacobson said no jobs would be lost and the paper, operated by a family-owned communications company called Swift, will retain a seven-days-a-week digital publication schedule.

More from that story:

The move comes as legacy news outlets of all descriptions have begun experimenting to find the right business model for the digital age. [In 2018], for example, the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel cut back its print publication days, as have a number of newspapers in Wyoming and across the country.

<head spinning> It’s like the Sentinel saw the future and the future now remarks on that future-seeing present, which is now the past  </head spinning>

Writing about the move, reporter Nate Miller quoted the youngest reporter at the Tribune, 21-year-old Kelsy Schlotthauer, who said she gets all her news from Twitter and apps and only really reads print papers if she’s working at one.

Miller also included this:

Lou Cartier first subscribed to The Tribune when he and his wife moved to Greeley 12 years ago. Since that time, he said he’s come to enjoy reading The Tribune daily, along with the Wall Street Journal, which he not only reads but uses in classes he teaches at Aims Community College, where he is a business instructor. He said he was disappointed when he first heard the news. He grew up in Detroit, reading big city metro newspapers. He worked for a time in journalism and got used to reading a printed paper every day. Still, he said he understood The Tribune needed to change. “You’re trying to adapt yourselves to the modern age,” he said. “I should be grateful you’ve been able to print seven days a week for as long as you have.” Cartier, who said he does use The Tribune’s website occasionally, said he’s sure he’ll find a new routine too. “You can teach an old dog new tricks,” he said. “I’m sure I can figure out how to use this new-fangled technology.”

Those at the paper must have known some readers would react negatively to the news, as I understand some at the paper were shown talking points about how to respond to complaints.

Here are a few:

You are reducing the number of papers I get delivered and not reducing the price 
We will be providing the same level of content and subscriber benefits as before, available around-the-clock online and packed into four stout print editions instead of seven.

You just had a price increase! 
You did, but we don’t plan on any new increases in the immediate future, and you will continue to receive the same great value you have been receiving. (If not on Auto Pay) By the way, I see that you are not getting our lowest rate. By switching to Auto Pay, I can get your rate to $8.66 per month.

What should I expect from the four papers you will publish each week? More. More news. You’re going to see more in-depth coverage, more enterprise coverage and more community coverage. The Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday editions of the paper will contain robust coverage of Greeley, Evans and Windsor.

I don’t go to the website to read the news/ I don’t know how to use the website or computer 

Maybe it would be worth a try. But if that doesn’t work for you, please know you’ll be getting the same amount of content in our four print editions as we did in seven before. Have you registered your account so you can read your daily news online? If not, I will be happy to help you with that now.

Speaking of digital, according to the paper’s reporting on itself, “The Tribune uses 11 different platforms, from push alerts to LinkedIn to connect with readers,” including a mobile app. “We aren’t just another Colorado newspaper cutting its print run,” Jacobson told me in an email, explaining the move as a way to deliver news to a large audience with changing readership habits. “We are a media company that disseminates news and information to the Greeley/Evans and Windsor communities in the way they desire to consume it.”

Cops in Colorado encrypted all radio communications— and now it’s national news

“Colorado journalists on the crime beat are increasingly in the dark,” writes my colleague Jonathan Peters, who covers press freedom issues for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project. “More than two-dozen law enforcement agencies statewide have encrypted all of their radio communications, not just those related to surveillance or a special or sensitive operation. That means journalists and others can’t listen in using a scanner or smartphone app to learn about routine police calls.”

From the piece:

“A national study published in 2017 found that police PIOs zealously try to control the narratives about their departments. That’s especially concerning in Colorado, where law enforcement officials have downplayed transparency implications by saying they will release information about breaking news on social media, in press releases, and in daily reports — as if those are reasonable substitutes for independent reporting.”

Peters quotes Longmont Times-Call reporter Madeline St. Amour saying the new encryptions are making it harder for her to do her job, and he quotes transparency advocates saying the move gives more authority to law enforcement to control the narrative of events. He notes that while other states have made similar advances, “Colorado is notable for its large number of agencies encrypting everything.”

So what about it? The Colorado Press Association, the Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition are working with the law enforcement community to “come up with a solution that emphasizes transparency.” Watch this space for more on how that all shakes out.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call reported how the local police department is hoping to hire a full-time psychologist with grant moneyThe Greeley Tribune profiled a local group that helps mothers struggling with substance-abuseThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how the Larimer County jail is showing its ageThe Steamboat Pilot reported on the Women’s MarchThe Sterling Journal-Advocate published a ColoradoPolitics piece about a local senator’s efforts to aid truckersThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported from inside the local #ResistanceThe Denver Post reported 38 people are suspected of domestic violence homicides while the media spotlight shines on Shanann Watts and Kelsey BerrethThe Gazette put a David Ramsey column about why he loves living in Colorado Springs on the front page. The Summit Daily News fronted a story about the county’s great schoolsThe Durango Herald localized the impact of the government shutdown on a local food bankThe Boulder Daily Camera previewed the Super MoonThe Fort Morgan Times reported on a potential recall campaign against three city council membersThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had a big takeout on how Larimer County’s “new landfill, recycling and composting sites” will change the garbage habits of local residents.

Questioning the future of newspaper journalism 

Surveying the content of a handful of books about the news business, including the recently published “Merchants of Truth: The Business of News and the Fight for Facts” by ex-NYT executive editor Jill Abramson, New Yorker staff writer Jill Lepore asked in a must-read piece in this week’s magazine if journalism has “a future.” (Ed note: Of course it does. The question is how it will look.)

A Colorado newspaper got a name check:

Between January, 2017, and April, 2018, a third of the nation’s largest newspapers, including the Denver Post and the San Jose Mercury News, reported layoffs. In a newer trend, so did about a quarter of digital-native news sites. BuzzFeed News laid off a hundred people in 2017; speculation is that BuzzFeed is trying to dump it. The Huffington Post paid most of its writers nothing for years, upping that recently to just above nothing, and yet, despite taking in tens of millions of dollars in advertising revenue in 2018, it failed to turn a profit.

In the wake of news that Denver Post owner Digital First Media (DFM), which is controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, is looking to take over the Gannett newspaper chain (America’s largest by circulation), attention is turning again to the issue of newspaper ownership, which means looking again to Denver.

This week, writing in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch leads with the voice of former Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger, who was fired when he took on his paper’s owner for a piece about the potential impact of more papers being owned by the Camera’s essential overlord, a man named Randall Smith. “Industry experts predict a number of these local news organizations — the primary source of civic information in most of these communities — will be drained dry and die within five years, maybe less,” Bunch writes.

More from the piece:

“Consolidation (and the cost-cutting that comes with it) remains the dominant strategy in the daily newspaper industry,” wrote long-time industry watcher Ken Doctor. “If revenue continues to drop at or even near double-digit levels, the consensus thinking is that radically reducing expenses through consolidation is about as good a card as anyone has to play.” That’s already been a losing hand for places like Boulder — and it could be for Camden County, N.J., or Wilmington, Del., two nearby communities whose Gannett-owned newsrooms are at risk from Randall Smith’s bloody knife of “consolidation” if the hostile takeover succeeds.

Over the last two-plus years, more Americans than ever have been talking about the threats to a free press — and what that means for a functioning democracy — because of something else: The presidency of a man who calls journalism “the enemy of the people,” echoing Stalin. And to be clear, the danger posed by Donald Trump’s bluster — and the climate of hostility and distrust it creates — is a very real, very serious problem. But there’s also a case that the psychic wounds of a Trumpian war on the press aren’t the same as the tangible decline in the number of journalistic watchdogs in places like Boulder or a Wilmington. In other words — that Randall Smith is doing more right now to keep Americans uninformed than Trump is.

Most days I wish I could see into the future and just know what the eventual business model will be that stabilizes the industry. It was in 1963 when Dow Jones’ The Wall-Street Journal, became the first newspaper to go public, joining the stock market and allowing the sale of shares to the masses. The New York Times followed in 1969, and then it was off to the races. As Christopher Daly writes in “Covering America,” his excellent narrative history of U.S. journalism, “From now on [newspapers] could be owned by people who didn’t care about journalism, or who didn’t even like journalists.”

Back then they were worried about public shareholders. Who could have even imagined a private hedge fund?

Speaking of DFM …

There isn’t much new news about The Nothing’s bid for Gannett, except that here in Colorado, one keen-eyed Denver Post editor did notice something. “Does the name Digital First Media carry too much ugly baggage?” he tweeted. “The company that owns the @denverpost appears to be quietly re-branding itself back to MediaNews Group.”

ColoradoPolitics wants a reporter to cover Denver

The Clarity Media-owned ColoradoPolitics site, an outgrowth of The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs, is moving into the local Denver news scene, looking for a “well-sourced reporter to cover Denver politics for a politically-savvy audience.” The reporter will focus on city hall and the big mayoral election, in which Denver Mayor Michael Hancock faces a fierce reelection bid. Other beat duties include “housing, airport expansion, transportation and traffic congestion, homelessness, education and workforce issues, and Denver’s morphing, gentrifying neighborhoods.”

Some context on this: For the past two years, ColoradoPolitics has been positioning itself as a major player on the statewide politics scene and harnessing the resources of a billionaire owner to do it against the backdrop of a destabilized Denver Post. Now it’s moving in on Denver as part of that continued expansion. Boom. Bust. Contractions. Expansions. To repurpose the kicker of a great story this week about growth vs. nature: “It’s the story of Colorado.”

Reporting on Climate change— season by season

The Colorado Independent is out with its first installment in a seasonal series about climate change, written by Lars Gesing, and focusing on “the life and death of snow.” As the rollout states, “Over the next year, The Colorado Independent will examine, season by season, the effects climate change is having on the state’s water supply and the many forms of life it sustains.”

This is a smart approach.

Coloradans just elected Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, whose messaging about renewable energy and the effects of climate change was a major plank of his successful campaign. Meanwhile, under the Gold Dome of the Statehouse, The Colorado Sun recently reported, “The fact that climate change is atop the legislative agenda at all marks a dramatic shift in Colorado where the oil and gas industry’s influence as an economic driver in the state also has given it considerable power to blunt tougher regulations.” But writing in WestwordChase Woodruff recently identified a gap “between the policy agenda that Democrats have put forward in this state and the scale and urgency of action that the climate crisis requires.” He also spotlighted the carbon footprint of the state’s buildings emissions as one that has “been the object of far less attention, and far less regulatory and legislative scrutiny, than the electric and transportation sectors.” At The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Liz Forster, who holds degrees in both environmental policy and journalism from Colorado College, publishes a weekly newsletter roundup of environmental reporting. Last month, The Denver Post’s environment reporter Bruce Finley published a harrowing story under the online headline, “Climate change clobbers Colorado and the West, unfurling fire, drought, insects and heat.”

Earlier this month, NiemanLab published a prediction about the upcoming year in which Linda Solomon Wood suggested 2019 will be the “year of the climate reporter.” The journalists “who take up the work of climate change reporting in 2019,” she wrote, “will include newly trained reporters as well as many industry veterans who are tired of burying references to climate change somewhere in the footnotes of the latest weather or disaster report.”

Journalists in Colorado have 11 more months to prove her right.

*This column 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 HEREPhoto by ShashiBellamkonda for Creative Commons on Flickr.