Not long ago, I started noticing Colorado-specific news items in an unlikely place: my Instagram feed. These were short video clips with text about the latest goings-on in the state, from GOP U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner endorsing Trump, and Democratic Congressman Joe Neguse calling out a climate denier, to Denver teachers preparing to strike. Other posts included information about Opera Colorado, criminal justice activist Elizabeth Epps being freed from the Arapahoe County jail, and how Kaiser Permanente is laying off 200 workers here. The first post I saw was sponsored, by something called Versa, so it automatically showed up in my feed. In the “stories” section on top of Versa’s account, “Stephanie, reporting for Versa Colorado” narrated some recent headlines.
So what is Versa? “I would describe it as media with a political point of view,” says its founder Dan Fletcher, who wrote for Time, worked at Facebook and VICE, and now runs the Denver-based political ad agency MotiveAI that does work on the left. (Editor’s note: Fletcher is a former Colorado Independent board member.) What kind of point of view? “It definitely is progressive media,” he said of Versa.
MotiveAI, The Atlantic reported in an October story, “raised $10 million in venture capital” and is “trying to reach people who don’t trust mainstream media and who find themselves awash in deceptive sources. Using audience, engagement, and polling data, they’ve tried to find people who might be open to liberal counterpoints pushed into their feeds.” The piece reported the company was part of an effort spending millions on Facebook ads. According to the Colorado Secretary of State’s office, Versa LLC filed paperwork on Jan. 8, listing MotiveAI Incorporated as its registered agent. MotiveAI has been linked to a group called News for Democracy, whose Facebook pages “inserted Democratic messages into the feeds of right-leaning voters, according to a review of Facebook’s ad archive,” The Washington Post reported last month.
Fletcher says his work with MotiveAI during the election left him feeling no one is thirsty for more or better political ads, but he learned how to talk to people about politics, how to build an audience on social media, “and how to reach people with information about the decisions in their life that policymakers are making that impact them. And particularly we saw a huge gap in local.”
So with a staff of 23, Versa is bringing a Now This News approach down to the state level to see if it can gain an audience with efforts in Colorado, Arizona, and Kentucky. It’s not trying to make any money yet, Fletcher said, noting he has resources to run it from his agency work at MotiveAI and venture capital. “I generally don’t comment on our public funding,” he said when asked who’s rolling the dough. “I would say that it’s certainly all Americans and they’re people who have an interest in our democracy.”
On Versa’s staff page, it says it was founded “to bring you local news that matters to your everyday life. We come from many professional backgrounds, including time spent as journalists, entrepreneurs, writers, video editors, consultants and more. We’ve worked at places like Facebook, Vice News, Uber, etc etc etc. Regardless of where we came from, we’re here now to deliver honest, transparent news to your feeds.” On its standards page, which has a section about “fake news” and how the company plans to earn consumer trust, Versa says, “We will always strive to adhere to rigorous ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalists. If you find an error in our content, we really want to hear about it. Please let us know by emailing us at feedback@VersaNews.com, and we will review it. If we got it wrong, we will issue a correction.”
From Versa’s mission statement:
Over 80% of the stories in the news have nothing to do with your life. We’re here to change that. A handful of corporations took over the media and now they control what everyone thinks of as news. That sucks. We created Versa to break the petty tyranny of their algorithms and bring you stories from people you usually don’t hear from, in places media usually don’t go. We think you’ll find our approach to news refreshing, informative and something that makes you hate your feed just a little less. And since we spend our time in the same places you do, we’ll see you there.
“P.S. Climate change is real, don’t @ us!” reads part of the bio of the Versa Colorado account, which currently has around 600 followers and more than 100 posts. Those posts included a short clip with eerie music and text reading “Bills that would have rolled back gun safety laws in Colorado were killed in the state legislature, thanks to Democrats.” Another pointed readers to “Awesome weekend events in Colorado” while another showcased snowboard bindings someone in Denver created that can turn into snowshoes. Versa’s Facebook page already has 40,000 likes and followers— or about as much as The Colorado Independent, The Colorado Sun and Denverite combined.
All three states where Versa is operating will have major U.S. Senate elections next year in which Democrats hope to flip Republican seats. Fletcher said he chose Colorado because the company is based here and its staff knows the politics, Arizona because it’s close, and Kentucky because they want to get into places that “may not have any progressive media at all or have progressive media that doesn’t necessarily have reach and infrastructure in a way that people in Colorado might.” He added: “Our goal with this is to be media; it isn’t to impact any particular election, but I do think we want to be where the conversation is headed.”
Fletcher says Versa isn’t trying to compete with any news outlets in Colorado, and while it might do some original stuff, it’s goal is to amplify and promote what others are doing. “It’s truly a distributed social media play to just see what happens and see if there’s an audience there for it,” he says. “Because I think there’s a lot of funders— both in the venture world and political— that are trying to figure out what is going to fill the local news gap.” He said he’s not taking political money to run the media initiative and no one outside the company is directing its coverage.
On a personal note, I learned of a corpse flower blooming across town in Colorado Springs from Versa, and checked it out later that day while out running errands. I bought a $10 plant while there, so Good Earth Garden Center can thank Versa for that. When I asked an older man sniffing the flower next to me where he’d heard about the news, he said, “It was in the paper!” Indeed it was, but I saw this particular bit of local information on Instagram first, via Versa, proving these social media movers were already impacting my daily life before I even knew who they were.
A Colorado lawmaker wants media literacy taught in schools
“Students are facing the largest and most complex information landscape in human history. I think we must prepare them to deal with this. Healthy democracy depends on basing our decisions on accurate and credible information.” That’s what Littleton Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter, a longtime public relations professional, said about a bill she’s pushing, according to The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
That panel would include a librarian, a teacher, a parent, two school administrators and two students. The final two would include an administrator and a student from a rural school. The bill also gives the governor the ability to appoint four more people to the panel: someone from a nonprofit that specializes in media literacy, a person representing a nonprofit journalism association, a print journalist and a broadcast journalist.
The Denver Post dug into lobbyist spending and…
Found more money was spent “lobbying lawmakers than electing them,” which means “more money was spent to influence policy than was spent on electing the lawmakers who write it.” (Ed note: Well, on the traceable side, anyway.) Reporter Nic Garcia relied on “multiple requests of state data” for a story he wrote illuminates “an aspect of government with little accountability and oversight.” All told, lobbying entities spent $33 million in 2018 to influence public policy at the Capitol. The healthcare industry spent the most, followed by the education sector and local and state governments. In 2015, the State Integrity Investigation gave Colorado a D grade for lobbying disclosure, ranking it 22nd in the nation (disclosure: I researched and wrote the report). Garcia pointed to some reasons why:
From the Post:
The Denver Post identified nearly $9.6 million in lobbying records — not part of the $33 million total — in which one lobbyist or lobbying firm listed another as a client. It could be subcontracting work in which the actual client’s spending has been noted with the original firm, an individual lobbyist listing their own firm as a client — or bookkeeping meant to shield the name of the actual client. The murkiness makes it nearly impossible to know how much some interests are paying to have face time with lawmakers. Similarly, there are no regulations on how much in-house lobbyists — those who are employed by a single organization and often have titles such as vice president for government affairs — are required to report of their income.
DING! The Nothing vs. Gannett: Round Whatever
It was late last month when news broke that The Denver Post’s cost-cutting hedge-fund-controlled owner, MNG, aka DFM, was licking its chops at a takeover of Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Gannett, which owns USA Today (and the Coloradoan in Fort Collins), rejected an offer. But now MNG, backed by the hedge fund, aka, The Nothing, “is launching a hostile bid to take control of Gannett’s board of directors,” according to USA Today.
From the piece:
MNG Enterprises Inc., also known as Digital First Media, notified Gannett of its plans to nominate six directors to its board, Gannett confirmed in a [Feb. 7] press release. The move sets the stage for a high-stakes tug of war between the two media companies over control of Gannett, which owns USA TODAY, more than 100 local media brands and digital marketing assets such as ReachLocal and SweetIQ. … Digital First, majority owned by New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, operates daily and weekly publications including the Denver Post and the Boston Herald. … Digital First has gained a reputation for relentless cost-cutting at its newspapers, but media analysts say it’s unlikely the company can slash significant costs to bolster profitability at Gannett, which has gone through significant downsizing in recent years.
I wrote earlier this month about what Gannett’s “downsizing” —just say it, USA Today: layoffs, job losses— have meant for the Coloradoan, which caught the spinning blade of budget cuts late last month. (SPOILER: It’s killing the Opinion section.) Speaking of opinion, “The more MNG Enterprises Inc. tries to prove it’s serious about buying Gannett Co., the less credible it looks,” opined Brooke Sutherland of Bloomberg about this latest clash of the newspaper titans.
Meanwhile, could this really be about the real estate?
By tracking real estate records, reporters for The Washington Post this week found Gannett has already sold at least six newspaper buildings to a subsidiary, Twenty Lake Holdings, or an affiliate of the hedge fund— a majority within the past year. “For Alden and its subsidiary, the Gannett empire’s newspapers are clearly an attractive feature,” WaPo reported. “But by purchasing the Memphis building and others like it, Alden has already begun coming for what it may consider a bigger prize: Gannett’s real estate.”
“I think real estate is the first thing they look at,” said Doug Arthur, an analyst at Huber Research who said he met with Alden’s founder, Randall D. Smith, around 2013 after he said Alden principals expressed an under-the-radar interest in Gannett, in which they proposed spinning off all of the company’s real estate into a separate firm. Analysts say such a move would have yanked a potential lifeline the company’s media properties could turn to for cash in hard times.
The piece seems to have caused some immediate impact within the company. “After The Post sent inquiries to the company’s executives, the website for Twenty Lake Holdings was replaced with a page saying ‘Our website is under construction,'” the paper reported.
What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado
RIP Kevin Kaufman, Boulder Daily Camera editor
An editor “known for his tireless work in maintaining the Camera in its role as Boulder County’s paper of record and tenacious watchdog over local governments,” Kaufman died Sunday from complications of cancer. He was 62. “Gone way too soon,” said Colorado Independent reporter Alex Burness of his former boss whom he called a “smart, lucid journalist” who was “fiercely supportive of his staff.” If Kaufman hadn’t hired Erica Meltzer, now bureau chief at Chalkbeat Colorado, when she moved to Denver shortly after the Rocky Mountain News folded, “I might not be in journalism today,” she said upon his passing. “He bent over backwards to keep my job through challenging family circumstances. Forever grateful, despite our differences.”
Here’s how one colleague, Thad Keyes, remembered Kaufman in the Camera’s obit:
“Kevin absolutely abhorred bullshit,” Keyes said. “He abhorred bullshit, and what he called ‘blather,’ usually in reference to politicians. I must have heard the word ‘blather’ from him a thousand times, with great gusto in his voice and a smile on his face. But he knew it when he heard it.”
About transitions: How The Trinidad Chronicle-News is doing after a sale to local ownership
Last month, I noted how out-of-state owners sold The Chronicle-News in Trinidad to a group of locals. Not long ago, Cheryl Ghrist of The Colorado Press Association checked in with the paper’s editor, John Monson, for a Q-and-A about newspaper life in small-town Colorado. The paper has a long history, and Ghrist asked Monson how that legacy influences its work today.
I would like to think we, as reporters, are still as rough-and-ready as they were then, but I haven’t been shot at – yet. Our office has been a consistent part of life here and we are constantly reminded that the people we report on are not just our subjects, but are our neighbors and friends. That means we often act outside our job descriptions. There are plenty of times we act as advisors, mediators and even psychiatrists. Sometimes people just need to vent and who better to yell at than the people most accustomed to criticism? Most importantly, we take very seriously our role as the first recorders and caretakers of this community’s history. We are a touchstone for almost everybody who has lived in Trinidad, from the birth announcement to the obituary and everything in between.
The kids are all right, student journalist edition
The first teacher’s strike in 25 years swamped the Denver news agenda this week drawing national attention, pinching our new governor, and affecting the learning experiences of thousands of students within the state’s largest district.
There’s plenty to read from on-the-ground accounts, what-it-all-means explainers, and traditional coverage. One aspect I found compelling was the role of student journalists. Denver’s KDVR FOX 31 ran a story about student scribes at Thomas Jefferson High School “scurrying from class to class, getting a pulse of what was happening, snapping photos of a packed auditorium, and students playing board and video games in front of substitute teachers” after students learned media weren’t allowed in schools on the first day of the strike. “Members of the TJ Journal, the school newspaper, went from classroom to classroom counting heads,” KDVR reported. “They got a head count and asked teachers how many students were supposed to be in the class, how many showed up, and how many stuck around after lunch.” KUSA 9 News anchor Kyle Clark gave the kids a shoutout on air.
Not allowed inside some schools, The Denver Post relied on student reporting for its own coverage:
A photo of a schedule titled “East HS Strike Impacted Schedule” provided by student journalist Ben Hamik showed the day divided up into four periods — college and career, English and social studies, math and science, and exercise and electives — with lunch in the middle. Hamik, a junior, took a photo of the lessons he was given, which included a worksheet that explained how students’ interests could evolve into careers via an image of an ice cream cone with scoops on top.
“Thank you for being hardworking, passionate student journalists! You all made my day, and your work helped keep so many people informed,” Denver Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez tweeted at one of them. “I hope those kids get a hard bite from the journalism bug! The profession needs them,” tweeted fellow DP reporter Noelle Phillips. Such reporting by student journalists is possible because Colorado has “an excellent law protecting student reporters from retaliation,” Frank LoMonte, the director of the Student Press Law Center, pointed out. “It’s one of only 14 nationally and we need more, for this very reason: Students are our embedded journalists.”
But even still, The Denver Post’s Hernandez and reporter Saja Hindi followed up with another story Tuesday headlined “Denver students sharing photos, video with media during teachers strike say they’re getting pushback from principals” that detailed complaints from student journalists about a crackdown by administrators. And another report headlined “Denver high school violated First Amendment rights of student journalist who documented strike conditions, attorney alleges.”
Don’t back down, kids, stick it to The Man.