Journalists are the “enemy of the people.” The “failing New York Times.” Fake news, Yadda, yadda. We’ve heard it all from President Donald Trump and his dedicated fans. In Colorado, while there has been some trickle-down press bashing, it’s nothing like what’s been coming out of the White House.
Which brings us to a packed event this Thursday in which two city leaders in Colorado Springs did the opposite— lavishing praise on the launch of a new nonprofit print newspaper that will serve the southeastern part of the city.
“If everybody here buys advertising in The Southeast Express, you’re going to be a big success,” said Mayor John Suthers at the beginning of a speech to around 150 or more at a public library. A city, he said, is made of great neighborhoods, and what makes great neighborhoods is a sense of community. “And it’s information and communication, in large part, that creates a community,” Suthers said. “So local news and information of importance to Southeast Colorado Springs will soon be in the hands of residents [with the] launch [of] The Southeast Express newspaper, and that will help create community.” He added “the city is proud to partner with The Southeast Express to keep this community in the know about how your city government is at work.”
The new paper, as reported in this newsletter last month, is a product of Colorado Publishing House, which owns the Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly, the local Business Journal, and other Pikes Peak publications. The new Southeast Express is a nonprofit and will be mailed to 30,000 homes in the Southeast Springs, which its city council representative says is the most diverse council district in the state. Its founders believe the area is a news desert that deserves its own newspaper dedicated to covering it. John Weiss, chairman of Colorado Publishing House, said the paper will host a city council candidate forum in March along with two dozen community groups, as well as other public engagement events to “connect the community together.”
Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Yolanda Avila, who won her election in April 2017 when voters swept her and others into office and flipped the council’s majority from conservative to a moderate-to-progressive one, also cheered on the paper. “There’s been a perception about Southeast, and people have been imposing their stories on Southeast,” she said. “And now with this newspaper, The Southeast Express, we get to tell our story.”
In 2014, I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review about the city government in Fitchburg, Wisconsin spending $30,000 to revive a local community newspaper and help mail copies to every home and business in the diverse, rapidly changing city of 25,000 that was struggling with its identity. “Local officials believe a regular print paper might help foster public discourse and a sense of community,” I wrote. The piece also looked at the obvious conflicts of interest issues involved in such a scenario.
— Corey Hutchins (@CoreyHutchins) January 30, 2019
I asked Suthers on Wednesday what the city’s partnership with the paper means. He said it meant supplying information. Beyond that, “I can theoretically see … maybe some advertising events or something like that,” he said, “but no taxpayer dollars directly or anything like that.”
As for the paper being able to critically cover local public officials who so fiercely champion it, Southeast Express editor Regan Foster said she will lean on reporting from staffers at The Colorado Springs Independent.
Can a newspaper help foster a sense of community in an urban news desert— with or without backing from local public officials? A year after the government helped revive that newspaper in Wisconsin, a local professor of media ethics who was skeptical about the arrangement told me it seemed to have done just that. “What’s been fascinating in all of this is how much the newspaper reinforced the sense of community,” she said. “It is actually a town because it has a paper. … It gives an identity to a place.”
Layoffs are reshaping The Coloradoan
In last week’s column, we learned how nationwide layoffs at Gannett affected three staffing positions at the Coloradoan in Fort Collins. Actual people affected were two: photojournalist Austin Humphreys and events manager Cody Frohman. The paper also won’t fill a public safety reporter position following Saja Hindi’s jump to The Denver Post.
Now, to stave off future bloodletting, the paper will have to change.
That means scrapping the weekly Opinion section, brushing away the Coloradoan’s USA TODAY-branded news section and disappearing the work of community columnists. “We will not convene an editorial board in 2019, which means the Coloradoan will not publish editorials moving forward,” editor Eric Larsen told readers this week.
From his column:
“…faced with the reality of fewer resources, the Coloradoan must devote its best people to delivering what is central to our mission — watchdog and accountability reporting and storytelling that is vital to Northern Colorado readers’ understanding of their communities.
… Instead of dedicating a portion of our resources to influence public opinion in 2019, the Coloradoan will be wholly focused on providing fact-based reporting and analysis that informs this intelligent community we serve. We are active in re-evaluating all reporter assignments and structures as we align toward this goal.
If your (disclosure: my) half-baked initial take was that if one less editorial about Trump means one more news story about what the county commission is up to, Megan Schrader, editorial page editor of The Denver Post, will set you straight. “The editorial boards in Colorado write predominately about state and local issues to hold our politicians to a higher standard,” she said. “We call for good public policy; we call out injustices and we inform readers.” Chiming in on social media, Boulder Daily Camera op-ed page editor Quenton Young gave a rollcall of his recent house editorials: “Oil and gas operations on the Front Range – Felony filings by Boulder DA – Officer-involved shooting in Louisville – Recreation in Rocky Flats – Joe Tumpkin plea deal – GMOs on Boulder County land – CU Regents – etc., No Trump. None.”
The paper kissing off that section and its board is a major change. And print subscribers who have seen increases in the paper’s price at the same time the product shrinks sure might grumble. “We’re going to be honest with you, we need at least 20,000 digital subscribers to help us sustain the future of local journalism in Northern Colorado,” Coloradoan content strategist Jennifer Hefty told readers on Twitter. “[We’re] nearly halfway there. And to our 9,000 digital subscribers now, we appreciate you more than you know.”
Since the announcement there have been no pitchforks or torches at the door, Larsen told me. He took about 50 calls that ran the gamut of what you might expect. “From people saying they’re going to subscribe to support us to people saying that the Coloradoan is too liberal to last past the end of the year,” he said. Since he hit publish on that column, about 100 new subscribers signed up— a “two-fold increase from a typical week.” One man from Bailey (that’s not in the paper’s circulation area), wrote in to say, “I just subscribed because, as it says on the masthead of my former home town paper, The Washington Post ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’ and it is getting darker all the time.”
He made the editor’s day.
The NY Post thinks The Nothing wants to sell
Readers of this newsletter are familiar with the sourcing “has learned.” It’s the kind of attribution I sometimes use when I don’t want readers to know who gave me certain information. It’s not the best practice, I admit, since it places more trust in your humble newsletter printer than it does much else. Which brings me to The New York Post and a lede this week from the Rupert Murdoch-owned tabloid:
“Looks like slashing and burning has its limits in the newspaper business. The secretive hedge fund that owns MNG Enterprises — a controversial newspaper chain hated by journalists for slashing jobs at papers like the Denver Post and The (San Jose) Mercury News — is desperately looking to exit its investment, The Post has learned.”
I haven’t seen any other outlet match that reporting, so I’m probably going to wait to see what DFM-whisperer Ken Doctor says over at Newsonomics or Harvard’s NiemanLab once he weighs in on the hedge fund known as Alden Global Capital, aka, The Nothing. (The good Doctor told me he’ll have something to say soon.)
An interview subject-slash-lawyer quizzed Western Wire writers about their role and ties to Exxon
Last year, when I wrote an end-of-the-year recap about what happened in Colorado’s media world, Matt Dempsey reached out with this: “I think you missed something big in the media landscape in 2017: the launch of Western Wire.”
To the uninitiated, Western Wire is a website that provides “news, commentary and analysis on pro-growth, pro-development policies across the West.” It is a fossil fuel industry-funded project of the Western Energy Alliance, a Denver-based oil-and-gas trade group that calls itself the “voice of the industry in the West.”
Here’s what Western Wire says about its role:
At Western Wire, we believe in markets and the marketplace of ideas. We also know the newsrooms of the West are stretched thin, and when reporters and editors are overworked, the marketplace of ideas suffers. The loudest and most inflammatory claims usually get the most attention. Key facts are overlooked. Voices of reason are minimized or ignored altogether. You can see this trend in the media’s coverage of key industries across the West, especially the energy and natural resources sectors. Support for these industries, and the economic opportunity they make possible, runs deep throughout western communities. But those voices don’t get the same attention as the well-organized minority of opposition groups. So we decided to do something about it.
The site publishes items from the oil-and-gas industry perspective. Its managing editor, Michael Sandoval, has said whenever he reaches out to someone for a piece he lets them know about that and how his project is backed by the WEA. “So that people know where we’re coming from … so they know who they’re talking to,” he has said.
But this week Dempsey and Sandoval became subjects of this headline on the website Climate Liability News: “Exxon Reps Pose as Reporters to Query Lawyer Leading Climate Lawsuit Against the Company.” The item states “two public relations strategists representing Exxon recently posed as journalists in an attempt to interview an attorney representing Colorado communities that are suing Exxon for climate change-related damages.”
The background: Sandoval called lawyer Marco Simons who represents Boulder and San Miguel counties in a lawsuit against ExxonMobil and Suncor— two of the largest oil companies operating in Colorado. Simons, who recorded the call, repeatedly questioned Dempsey and Sandoval about whether they were representatives of Exxon in any way, in which case he said he couldn’t speak to them because lawyers in a lawsuit are supposed to correspond with lawyers for an opposing side and not clients or representatives directly. Western Wire writers reached out to him, they say, because Boulder wouldn’t answer questions and punted to him. Simons pointed out that the Western Energy Alliance has an Exxon executive on its board, so unless the two Western Wire writers could dispel that they were representatives for Exxon “in any way,” he wasn’t going to talk with them about the case. The writer of the Climate Liability News piece wrote the interview attempt “appeared to be a fishing expedition for information about Simons’ clients in that suit.” In any case, Simons declined to talk about the case and Dempsey ended the call.
I reached out to Dempsey, who is Western Wire’s opinion editor, to ask if he and his team think of themselves as journalists or reporters or what when they’re engaging in work like this. “Absolutely,” he said about writers Michael Sandoval and Elena Connolly. They have “a career in journalism and their reporting is of high caliber and their work can be judged on our WesternWire.net website,” he said. He added that he feels his site has been welcomed in the state’s media community because of its disclosures about its oil-and-gas funding. KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark once called the site “a great example of how the industry can tell its own story with transparency.”
But that only gets you so far— and apparently not an interview with a story subject who’s going to use it against you.
Speaking of industry-linked Colorado journalists-or-not…
Last Thursday night, audience members packed into The Denver Press Club for a panel discussion about the “complicated future” of cannabis journalism moderated by Ricardo Baca. You know him. He was the pioneering marijuana editor for The Denver Post, the subject of the documentary Rolling Papers, the swashbuckling, cannabis-consuming gatekeeper of an emerging beat who was just oozing cultural cachet when he left journalism in the spring of 2017 for, well, what exactly?
Baca is the founder of a company called Grasslands in Denver, which calls itself a “journalism-minded agency.” The company does public relations and marketing for clients in the cannabis industry, and more. It recently helped the City of Denver with its marijuana expungement efforts. From the site’s What We Do section:
But what does a qualifier like journalism-minded mean for a full-service communications firm? For the journalists and marcom professionals at Grasslands, it means using only vetted information, distributing professionally written copy, getting things right the first time, listening intently to our clients and media partners, thriving on tough deadlines and employing self-mandated ethical standards while carrying out the important work of our clients’ public relations and marketing.
So, that’s public relations and marketing done by people with backgrounds in journalism, not, like, it’s actual journalism, right? It’s still PR and marketing whether it’s for oil-and-gas or legalized grass? Sure. But Baca also hosts a podcast, writes columns for The Daily Beast, Cannabis Now, mg, and contributes to Sensi, a magazine with a self-described “progressive editorial stance around the changing landscape of cannabis.”
On Thursday I asked Baca, whose website bio notes his long journalism career and how he’s “thrilled to be working on the other side of communications,” if he considers himself a journalist. He said yes. I asked how come, given he now takes money from clients in an industry to promote specific companies and the industry. He said he wears multiple hats and when he’s doing PR he’s doing PR and when he’s writing columns he’s back in journalist mode. What makes him different than someone with oil-and-gas contracts and an industry-backed firm doing “news, commentary and analysis” from that perspective?
“I would never write about my clients in my columns,” Baca says. “Everything we do is informed by journalism, and so those ethics and standards are still very much in place.”
The 10 full-time staffers at Grasslands have a collective 60 years of journalism experience, Baca adds, counting alums from The Denver Post, The Daily Beast, The Chicago Sun-Times, Men’s Health and elsewhere. “In less than two years of agency operations we’ve found that background to be invaluable— especially because our content team is surrounded by PR professionals who have studied and practiced public relations and marketing for decades,” he says. “It’s that intentional collaboration that differentiates Grasslands from other agencies, because that collision of PR and journalism informs the strategies we develop and implement for our clients.”
The question of who is a journalist is probably a tired one. And god help the trial court judges whenever that comes up.
“We think this is the wrong question,” wrote Tom Rosentiel and Bill Kovich in The Elements of Journalism. “The question people should ask is whether or not the person in question is doing journalism. Does the work proceed from an adherence to the principles of truthfulness, an allegiance to citizens, and to informing rather than manipulating— concepts that set journalism apart from other forms of communication? … The new delivery systems and formats may be journalism or they may be political activism. They may be lie-mongering or they may be incisive academic debate. The issue is not where the information appears. The issue is the nature of the work itself. … But communication and journalism are not interchangeable terms. Anyone can be a journalist. Not everyone is.”
So what about the complicated nature of cannabis media, anyway? Some takeaways from the panel:
- Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said one “painful” thing the paper realized was, “marijuana coverage, in the way we were doing it, is super hard to monetize. It was hard to get the advertising support, it was hard to get the support to sustain seven full-time trained journalists on the site.” Some businesses, she said, would advertise and then the paper would try to collect money and the businesses would be gone.
- While the paper’s Cannabist vertical still exists, she said it would be “absurd to say we really staff that site.” (More traffic came to the site from California than Colorado, BTW.)
- She added one thing she would do differently is charge for the content at the beginning.
- Marijuana Business Daily has more than 20 editorial employees, confirmed founder Chris Walsh
- The Denver Post once had trouble with new hires asking to wait a couple weeks before they started. “They couldn’t pass their drug test,” Colacioppo said. “Finally we changed our policies around that, so now we don’t have to drug test.”
- The AP’s Katie Foody called diversity and equity in the cannabis industry a “big area where we don’t know a lot.”
- Baca wondered if the future of cannabis journalism will be pot-specific outlets like MBD or The Cannabist or if the space will be covered by the MSM “as the industry that deserves to be covered.”
What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado
“Pentagon: Climate Change a danger,” read a front-page headline of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, whose largely conservative circulation area is ringed by five military installations. The Greeley Tribune reported on the increased normalization of armed cops in local schools. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel covered how disabled children and their families are “sometimes at odds” with the school district over what’s required in special ed. The Longmont Times-Call fronted a story about more and more farmers turning to rental programs. The Summit Daily News reported on “the most sweeping public lands legislation for Colorado in nearly three decades.” The Steamboat Pilot profiled a place where you can get a drink at 9,300 feet. The Loveland Reporter-Herald had a piece about the city exploring a potential tax increase. The Boulder Daily Camera reported allegations of alleged verbal abuse by a local basketball coach. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered a rough start to snow season. Vail Daily reported on the demise of the Vail Centre nonprofit. The Durango Herald told readers how the city’s code enforcement is buried in snow complaints. The Denver Post profiled a family with multiple cases of Alzheimer’s disease.
The Colorado Media Project: A three-year commitment
Last year, amid a season of drama surrounding The Denver Post, the Colorado Media Project emerged. It’s led by a University of Denver dean and other thinkers with help from the Gates Family Foundation and the Boston Consulting Group. The project, which held meetings for months, wanted to suss out The Big Questions about our state’s disrupted media landscape and provide some actionable solutions. In October, the group released its findings, which I analyzed in this newsletter here.
This week the project announced a next step: The hire of Nancy Watzman as acting director, and a three-year commitment from Gates to continue assessing and assisting Colorado’s media world by “galvanizing financial and technical support for Colorado’s public-serving journalism outlets” to strengthen sustainability, innovation and collaboration, among other areas. Additional support is coming from other partners, including the Democracy Fund. (Now for some disclosures: The Democracy Fund has been a major backer of the United States Project at CJR where I’ve written since 2013; and I’ve been in recent talks with some people at The Colorado Media Project about potentially sponsoring this newsletter, which have included, at this point, a beer and lunch. I’m not sure what sponsorship might even look like, it’s all up in the air. I haven’t thought much about it before, but I guess I am now, and I welcome thoughts from readers about it.)
On Thursday, the project held a get together in downtown Denver where journalists, funders, academics and more heard from Watzman, JB Holston, Tom Gougeon, Melissa Davis, and others. So what’s the end goal? “At the end of the day I think what we all hope is some few years down the road we can say there’s more journalists back at work, it’s more sustainable, there’s better coverage, there’s more coverage, really important topics are getting covered,” Gougeon said. “If we do all that than democracy and civil society have a better chance of kind of working like they’re supposed to.”
Watzman said the project is aiming to have monthly gatherings for journalists beginning this month and to bring in speakers. They’ll also create a Slack channel for anyone who wants to join the conversation about the CMP, so look out for that.
A bright spot at the tire shop— and in a new national survey
The other day while at Rex Tire in Colorado Springs, KOAA-TV reporter Eric Ross came in to deal with one of the station’s company vehicles. “I give you all the credit in the world for … [what] you do on the news, man,” I overheard the guy behind the counter tell him. It was nice to hear some kudos from someone out in the wild these days.
But there’s good news beyond that midday anecdote in Colorado’s second-largest city. According to an annual Gallup survey (h/t Laura Eurich), Americans currently rate the ethics of journalists at 33 percent— up 10 points from 2016. While that’s decidedly not as high as, say, nurses, teachers or police officers, journalists haven’t hit a 33 percent high since 1977.
But hey, at least we’re beating bankers, advertisers, and members of Congress.