MEDIA: A new nonprofit news outlet seeks to cover energy in Colorado

An oil rig outside the town of Erie. An anti-fracking group wants Colorado to fine companies for failing to report data upon which severance taxes as based. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

Go to the website of Empowering Colorado and you won’t make it past a splash page announcing that it’s now an official nonprofit and is reorganizing its website to “provide you with strong editorial content and the opportunity to financially support this important effort at independent journalism dedicated to coverage of all facets of energy development in Colorado.” But here’s a bit of a secret: Type “/project” after the web domain URL and you can get a peek inside.

I feel like I’ve run across Empowering Colorado’s content over the years, but I never really understood what it was. “We’ve given people a lot to wonder about,” acknowledged publisher and director Mark Roberts when I caught up with him over the phone this week.

For the past year or so, Roberts, who has a background in journalism and PR, has been building the non-journalistic aspects of the outlet, assembling a board of directors, developing the best strategy to raise money, and engaging potential partners. On its website, board members and supporters currently include media relations pros in the renewable energyoil-and-gas and utilities industries, along with Michael Kodas, deputy director of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. Early last month, Empowering Colorado got its nonprofit status through the Colorado Nonprofit Development Center. Roberts said he would like to be up and running with a team of journalists covering energy within the year.

“This is loose, but we have put together a $2 million budget for general operations,” he told me, adding that the figure represents a two-year commitment. (To be clear, the site hasn’t raised that money yet, it’s just a goal to operate on $1 million a year, but will adjust its scale depending on revenue.) A significant amount of the back-end work so far, Roberts said, is determining how the outlet will accept funding and from what kinds of entities. “Obviously we don’t want our product to be compromised,” he said, adding that he’s working with the Poynter Institute to help develop an ethics policy. “We need it to represent … or develop the kinds of trust that you want out of a journalism project that can be independent and unbiased and do all the things that a good journalism project is supposed to do.”

For more about that, this comes from the Empowering Colorado site:

As advertising revenues declined, traditional media could not devote adequate resources to covering energy development. At the same time, an influx of advocacy information, often funded by corporate and special interests, did not give Coloradans balanced information necessary to make informed decisions about energy and its impact on their lives. … Chances are, if it relates to energy development in Colorado and is in the public interest, we will cover it — without favor and in accordance with the highest standards of journalism ethics.

Nonprofit journalism outfits in Colorado covering niche sectors have shown proof of concept, particularly Chalkbeat, which covers education without, say, carrying water for the unions or the charter school set. But Health News Colorado, an outlet that sought to cover healthcare without an agenda, shut down in 2016 with its editor saying such independent coverage might have hampered its fundraising. “You step on everybody’s toes when you are an objective journalism organization,” Diane Carman told Jason Salzman at the time. “Everybody got burned a little bit at some point, because we took the role of watchdog seriously. So, when you do that, it makes it really easy for people to say, ‘I’m not so sure we have the money for that this year.'”

Roberts called the example of Health News “a dilemma we know exists” and a reason why he and his team “have taken a long to time to analyze where [and] how we would get funding and how we would build sustainable revenue opportunities beyond foundation money.”

As I reported in last week’s newsletter, the energy industry already has Western Wire doing “news, commentary and analysis” on its behalf. And two weeks ago, I pointed to compelling coverage of climate change and energy policy coming from journalists at Westword (which now counts Chase Woodruff as a staff writer), The Colorado IndependentThe Denver Post and The GazetteHigh Country News has its Energy & Industry vertical. Environment and energy reporter Mark Jaffe has been contributing to The Colorado Sun. Colorado Politics does some robust energy reporting, as does The Durango Herald. On the Western Slope, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel digs in. The Greeley Tribune’s new director of content told me he looks forward covering Weld County’s gas patch from all sides. Colorado Public Radio has its own energy and environment vertical. And there are more I’m sure I’m leaving out.

But as far as I know there isn’t a dedicated news outlet focusing on energy in Colorado the way Empowering Colorado seeks to do. (Inside Energy hasn’t posted in its Colorado section since last March.) “Maybe something like this hasn’t developed sooner because it’s very hard to do when you are trying to raise money around this type of issue and everybody’s got an opinion, and there are various business segments, and it’s hard and it’s complicated,” Roberts said. “This is not an easy task.”

Denver’s SE2 agency x-rays the city’s ‘a la carte’ media 

Speaking of a fragmented media landscape, Denver news consumers “can choose from a remarkably wide range of outlets (including a re-energized, if leaner, Denver Post).” So begins a researched blog post by self-described “recovering journalist” Eric Anderson of the high-profile Denver communications firm SE2. Last month, Anderson surveyed the Denver news scene while seeking to grasp the monthly traffic of some of its web sites. “Gone are the days where a handful of editors at a dominant newspaper or two decided for the public what news was worth reading,” he wrote.

More form the post:

But questions remain whether this breadth of outlets is economically sustainable. Regular financial appeals — from both nonprofit and for-profit outlets — suggest a business model that depends on the benevolence of news consumers. That’s historically been part of a successful formula for public broadcasters but the appeals now come from a wider range of news sources. By our count, the Denver metro area is now is home more than 50 media outlets that make at least some effort to gather news — not just opine — and publish/broadcast on a regular basis.

In 2015, when the The Pew Research Center looked at the news environment in Denver, researches found 143 “news sources across the metro area, from print and digital publications to television and radio broadcast operations.” Of those, Pew described 25 of them as “digital-only outlets,” as opposed to “legacy organizations based in print or television.”

For the SE2 post, Anderson used Meltwater, a media monitoring company, to gauge the online reach of the outlets he identified. “Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Meltwater data show that legacy news organizations, led by The Denver Post, TV stations and Westword, the local long-standing alt-weekly, dominate in terms of their reach,” Anderson wrote. He told me he invited representatives of any news org listed to share their analytics with him if they believe the stats he posted are way off base, but none have. An online editor once told me asking  someone to share traffic numbers would be like asking a rancher how many cattle he has. Good luck, in other words. But I think Anderson is trying to start a conversation about reach regardless, and in my correspondence with him he seems genuinely concerned that not enough people in Colorado know enough about some of these news sites and the journalism they’re doing.

“As an avid media consumer and former reporter, I find it both exciting and exhausting to keep up with this increasingly fragmented news landscape,” he told me about why he took on this project. “As a marketing and communications person, I see the opportunity for some of the outlets, especially the newer or niche ones, to market themselves better and more aggressively. From what I can see, some spend most if not all of their resources on creating content, which results in great journalism that too few people see, according to our numbers.”

PULP publisher’s honest thread about race and media

Two hours south of Denver this week, John Rodriguez, publisher of PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo, was having trouble writing a column. He started four separate times to take a stab at meaningfully editorializing on a topic of national significance and public interest that was beginning to engulf his city.

As a story about Virginia’s Democratic governor acknowledging he had appeared in blackface while in medical school saturated national media, a photo began circulating on social media of a doctor at Pueblo’s Parkview Medical Center who appeared in a yearbook page opposite the governor’s showing the doctor posing as a member of The Supremes, his skin darkened, along with two other men. Under the headline “Pueblo doc was in blackface at Va. medical school,” The Pueblo Chieftain reported the hospital had “no formal comment on the discovery of a nearly four-decade-old photograph of Dr. Steven Nafziger, vice president of medical services.” The hospital stood by its employee, saying the doctor’s “service to Pueblo, including his medical residency, his time as an outstanding primary care physician, and his tenure with Parkview Medical Center is without reproach.”

Trying to write about the local angle to this national story from his perch at PULP, Rodriguez was stuck.

“I get to this same point of needing perspective and realize it’s just ‘ask black professors on race,'” he posted at the beginning of a tweetstorm. “As one of the few minorities in media ownership, I feel @pulpcolorado has a responsibility to talk about this beyond one news article,” he went on. “And yet this one I’m so completely at a loss to defend forgiveness, explain the history of black face, or to condemn or forgive.”

Rodriguez added he would like to engage multiple writers for a piece, writers who could talk him through “what black face means personally, what amends looks like” or whether there should be forgiveness. “This doctor is not a public figure […] how do we factor that in?” he asked into the abyss. “My ultimate question is if racists or at least racist actions cannot be reformed can America ever be reformed? This Pueblo doctor’s actions then and now should make us talk about race in uncomfortable ways.”

The problem, he continued, is there are so few people of color in Colorado media, and those in media know it’s a problem. “Factor in there’s a journalist desert in Southern Colorado, where there are just so few skilled journalists who can write a thoughtful piece and even fewer POC in media,” he said. “From what the Chieftain wrote on the doctor, to the comments, Pueblo needs to have a conversation on race. There’s people defending this man’s years of serving his patients. There are those who see Black Face as a youthful indiscretion. Others want him fired now.”

Rodriguez said be believed his community also needed to understand white and southern culture and to “look at the racism that is perpetual in Pueblo.” He had, he said, heard from “so many” questioning the newsworthiness of the story since “everyone was a racist” years ago. “So if there [are] journalists and especially journalists of color who can help, I’m needing help here … because talking about race is not something you can just wing out 700 words and call that justice on covering America’s original sin,” he pleaded to his roughly 680 followers. “And here’s the confession, I simply don’t know how to write this or even who to ask to enlighten Pueblo. I’m tired of finding ‘the black quote’ and calling that journalism. Colorado needs voices, not just quotes, but that’s a fight for another day.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

Under the headline “Slow your roll,” The Greeley Tribune fronted a story that analyzed police data to track which local school zones saw the most speeding tickets last yearThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on the potential affects for local low-income and elderly residents because of a city market closingThe Longmont Times-Call reported how local businesses are taking precautions with burglaries on the riseThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered local women of WWII being honoredThe Steamboat Pilot reported on local companies at the outdoor retailer trade show in DenverThe Summit Daily News reported on an “impromptu health forum Friday night in Frisco” including Gov. Jared PolisThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how Democratic lawmakers are looking to join 11 other states to give our Electoral College votes to whomever wins the national popular vote. Under the headline “A real gamble,” The Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered how parents spend a lot of money on clubs and recruiters to try and land college scholarshipsThe Boulder Daily Camera reported the backstory of the most expensive home in the cityVail Daily reported a story datelined Slovenia about a local skierThe Durango Herald reported on a strategic plan for Fort Lewis CollegeThe Denver Post fronted a story about a proposed new state law that would put consent at the core of sex-ed classes in K-12 schools.

How The Gazette got results on the #OpenGov front in Colorado Springs

Around this time last year, local government reporter Conrad Swanson of The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how the city council was in “apparent violation of the state’s open meeting laws” because of actions its members took during a secret session. Four months later, he reported how council members “doled out about $5.4 million to settle a string of cases, including racial and gender discrimination,” in closed executive sessions that were similar to what some legal experts characterized as “violat[ing] Colorado’s open meetings law.”

By late August, Swanson was reporting a majority of the city’s nine council members were on board with wanting “to change the city’s code to require themselves and future council members to publicly vote whether to approve high-dollar lawsuit settlements.” Four months after that, he reported the city council was considering specific ordinances to do so and Mayor John Suthers would sign them if approved.

Now, a year since the first stories broke in The Gazette, the city council has approved “laws to bring high-dollar lawsuit settlements out of closed-door meetings and into the public spotlight,” a move Swanson reported is drawing cheers from supporters of transparency and open government. The paper’s editorial board recently lauded the reporter’s efforts to expose the settlements hashed out in secret, writing, “Swanson’s act of shining light on a shady practice speaks volumes about the value of the public’s right to know. As a result of Gazette reports, the City Council took action to prevent additional episodes of closed-door settlements.”

A judge says a sheriff engaged in ‘unconstitutional and prior restraint’ against a TV station’s reporting

A district court judge in Colorado this week said a temporary restraining order obtained by a different judge barring a TV news station from reporting documents it legally obtained was “unconstitutional and prior restraint.”

The background: Last month, upon request, a county clerk gave CBS4 an arrest affidavit involving a Jefferson County sheriff’s deputy. The station relied the documents for a report it published and broadcast about that deputy’s alleged relationship with an inmate in a local jail, details of which included “fondling and frequent ‘phone sex'” as well as “introducing contraband.” The next day day, Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader and the county attorney “obtained a temporary restraining order, signed by a judge, saying the affidavit in question was supposed to have been sealed and should not have been released,” CBS4 reported, and arguing it could compromise investigations. The TV station pulled its story from its website and engaged its attorneys to challenge the judge’s order. In a court hearing, a county attorney argued leads went dry and witnesses clammed up after the report aired. The judge, Philip McNulty, said the station received the affidavit by mistake.

From CBS4:

McNulty said although the government’s interest were of “the highest order,” he said issues of concern could be mitigated by less intrusive measures than a restraining order. “The Court does find the order unconstitutional and prior restraint,” said McNulty as he ordered the restraining order vacated. He apologized to the sheriff’s office for the clerk’s error saying it “puts the sheriff’s office in a tough position.” He reiterated that corrective action had been taken to insure similar mistakes would not be made in the future.
CBS4 News Director Tim Weiland says agencies going to court to block unfavorable reporting is a tactic that’s becoming more common and he thinks it’s because such agencies believe a local newsroom might not have the resources to mount a fight. “In this case, we moved quickly to quash the order, and our position was upheld by the court,” he said in an email Tuesday. “I’m feeling proud to work for a company that doesn’t hesitate to protect our rights and, by extension, our reporting. I hope you feel that pride as well.”

‘First Amendment Audit’ movement hits Colorado

Elsewhere on the First Amendment beat this week, it appears the “First Amendment Auditing” movement has come to Colorado. What’s that? According to a story in The Daily Beast, it’s a YouTube genre in which “self-proclaimed ‘auditors’ test how police will react by filming them in public places or around government buildings. Auditors show up with their cameras at places as mundane as post offices, or as imposing as the entrances to nuclear-weapons factories. Once there, they start filming, and wait to see how police react.”

Anything publicly funded “is fair game,” one auditor from Texas told the outlet. “Armed with cellphones, cameras and sometimes handguns, these self-described ‘First Amendment auditors’ traipse through government buildings, roam the halls of police departments and wander around airports and natural gas plants across the country,” reported The Kansas City Star last month. “But critics, including domestic terrorism experts, say the tactics are intimidating — sometimes downright scary — and that the ‘auditors’ seem intent on inciting authorities. And they fear that it’s just a matter of time before one of the encounters turns violent.”

Police responses to such audits from San Diego to Suwannee County, Florida, have made news — and now the movement is making headlines here. Denver’s alt-weekly Westword this week has the story of a high-profile lawyer representing two men who were arrested in Boulder while “recording video on a public sidewalk near the community’s jail on December 28.” From Westword, which includes video from the incident:

Attorney David Lane, who represents the videographers in question and wrote the aforementioned letter, thinks there’s no way to interpret the images as anything other than proof that law enforcers screwed up in a way that’s guaranteed to cost taxpayers. …

When asked why Kerr and Schiller were taking video in and near the Boulder jail complex on the 28th, Lane replies, “That’s their business. It’s nobody else’s business. They have a right to do it, and they don’t have to tell anyone what their reasons are.” However, Blacklab3l Copwatch, a third YouTube channel, supplemented its sharing of the video above with the following text: “Freedom Fighters, today I’d like to introduce a new activist that goes by the name of Colorado Donkey Watch. On Friday, December 28, Colorado Donkey Watch, along with another brand new activist that goes by ZFG Videography, went to do a First Amendment audit at Boulder County jail to see if these public servants and officials would honor their oath and allow them to exercise their First Amendment right to record in public.”

Last year, the City of Colorado Springs shelled out $41,000 to a man local media linked to the First Amendment Audit movement after police detained him while he filmed officers at a substation. The Gazette reported the payout also included a police general order that “taking photographs or recording from a public place in and of itself does not constitute suspicious activity.”

Speaking of filming Colorado police officers…

An internal investigation just found two Denver police officers violated city policy when they handcuffed and detained Susan Greene, the editor of The Colorado Independent, while she filmed them on a public sidewalk last summer after she stopped to see why a nearly naked black man was sitting handcuffed and surrounded by cops on Colfax Avenue. The officers will be docked two days’ worth of pay, media reported. Denver police also “will continue to address First Amendment issues by developing additional scenario-based First Amendment training,” according to a news release, The Independent reported, adding that “the reports state in footnotes that [one officer] turned on his body camera belatedly, failing to record his behavior when approaching Greene.”

More from The Colorado Independent:

Officers Paulsen and Brooks told Greene she was violating the man’s HIPAA rights and ordered her to stop taking photos. When she did not, and when she directed her camera at Brooks’s police badge, he took Greene’s phone and both officers handcuffed her. “Stand up straight,” Paulsen told her as she was being cuffed. “Act like a lady.” “Stand up and act like a lady,” Brooks repeated. “Are you fucking kidding me?” Greene responded. “‘Act like a lady?’” “There you go,” Brooks told her. “Now you can go to jail.” Neither of the two internal affairs reports nor a personal letter from Chief Paul Pazen to Greene address the officers’ “act like a lady” comments, which Greene called a “glaring hole in this investigation, and something the Denver Police Department needs to grapple with.”
In the story, Greene questions why the officers decided to handcuff her at the point when she was filming their badges. The Indy also notes two attorneys from the Denver firm Killmer, Lane & Newman are representing Greene and the news outlet in negotiations with Denver, and one of them said they’re “prepared to file a civil suit if necessary.”

And elsewhere on the journos-with-cameras beat…

Officials in Park County, Colorado, recently told KUSA 9News TV reporters their cameras would be a “disruption” that could encourage “grandstanding” and did not allow journalists Noel Brennan and Bryan Wendland to roll tape during a public meeting of the county commission as they tried to report a story about the county sheriff reportedly working from Florida and “handling his job through email.”

Writing for the blog of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, CU student Lucy Haggard wondered if that was legal. From the blog item:

CFOIC President Steve Zansberg, a First Amendment attorney, noted that the Colorado Open Meetings Law is silent on whether the public can record a public meeting. However, multiple court cases have set a precedent to allow recording, and other states have recognized the public’s right under the First Amendment to record video or audio of public meetings that are on public property and concern a public interest. … Zansberg said a blanket ban on all recording in a public meeting would likely be ruled unconstitutional if it were challenged in Colorado courts because a ban wouldn’t serve a significant governmental or public interest.

The reporters attended the meeting without their camera, asked questions, and later requested an audio recording of the meeting. My favorite-not-favorite line from one commissioner that day: “I have a problem with the citizens of Park County going through the news to talk to us.” Please. Somebody call the wahmbulance.

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