Media: A year after The Denver Rebellion, Colorado’s opinion journalists riff about their role

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Opinion journalism in Colorado is in the spotlight on multiple fronts.

The Denver Post recently turned heads when its editorial board yanked back its 2014 endorsement of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. We’re also approaching the one-year-mark of The Great Denver Editorial Rebellion, and The Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins recently scrap-heaped its opinion section altogether.

So the timing was apt for a panel about the future of Colorado’s editorial pages hosted by The Denver Press Club Tuesday evening, featuring editorial writers Megan Schrader of The Denver PostWayne Laugesen of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Quentin Young of The Boulder Daily Camera, and Coloradoan Editor Eric Larsen. Here are some nuggets from the discussion:

  •  The Denver Post’s editorial board is staffed with entirely different people compared to 2014, but Schrader said she consulted with former DP owner and chairman Dean Singleton who was on the board at the time. (UPDATE: Schrader did not talk to every member of the 2014 board. Singleton recently opened up himself about this to Jason Salzman in The Colorado Times-Recorder with quite a zinger.) Singleton, she told me in an interview, advocated hard for the endorsement in 2014. “Our board has been historically center right,” Schrader said on the panel. “When President Donald Trump was elected our board has been pushed a little to the left as a result of that.”
  • “When I was a reporter covering news stories I did not understand the importance of … the opinion pages,” Schrader said. It wasn’t until she started working on an editorial page that she gained respect for them.
  • The Denver Post’s letters to the editor get fact-checked, in a “grueling effort,” Schrader said “to make sure that what we are printing is factually accurate.”
  • “Our endorsements were extremely well read,” Schrader said about the latest state election treatment. “We find that opinion content drive subscriptions.”
  • But editorials were not driving traffic at The Coloradoan. “Online … opinions are 1.1 percent of our readership,” Larsen said. “Were we just really bad at it? That may be true, I don’t think so … or were we really meeting reader needs there?”
  • After ex-Camera opinion page editor Dave Krieger was fired for publishing an editorial about the paper’s hedge-fund owner on a blog because he said his publisher wouldn’t let him run it in the paper, the future of the Camera’s opinion section was in doubt. “My understanding is that our ownership wasn’t necessarily in favor of keeping those pages,” Young said. “Doubtlessly there’s going to come a day probably not too far in the future where our editorial pages are going to be cut too, just out of necessity.” Publisher Al Manzi and ex-editor Kevin Kaufman, he said, have fought hard to keep them so far.
  • Writing in Westword, Chase Woodruff said the Denver Post’s take-back endorsement didn’t go far enough to atone for its original sin of being suckered by a smooth talker. Young cited the Westword piece, pointing out a stat Woodruff noted that a major newspaper can swing a race by 2 to 5 percentage points. “You can make an argument that it got Cory Gardner elected,” Young said of the Post’s 2014 endorsement, “and the editorial most recently could have a converse effect on his chances in 2020.”
  • Bold claim alert: “Eventually there’s almost certainly not going to be newspapers anymore,” Young said at one point. Bold claim No. 2: “I think that for American democracy to remain healthy you’re going to need opinions — thoughtful, reasoned opinions,” he said, “because that’s taking the facts you get from news stories and modeling ways to think about those facts.”
  • The Daily Camera’s editorial page has had serious impact, Young said, setting up a humorous anecdote: Several years ago, “a young boy from out of town” realized he couldn’t buy ice cream at a local pool, “wrote a letter to the editor, and I think a week later they started selling ice cream.”
  • Laugesen said of The Gazette’s op-ed page: “We like to call ourselves a center-right editorial page … although a lot of people take issue with that and say we are far right. Nobody would characterize us as centrist or left of center on most things.”
  • “I have always been able, ready, and enjoyed offending large numbers of people with editorials,” Laugesen said. Ya think? 
  • “We can make a phone call and get almost anybody to show up at an editorial board meeting with any level of expertise,” Laugesen said, adding that Democratic Gov. Jared Polis was scheduled to meet the Gazette board this week.
  • How editorials work: The editor of the page consults with the board about what he or she plans to write, but doesn’t have a big knock-down-drag-out over everything. Often this is done via email and maybe someone on the board might suggest a tweak or argue a point.
  • Plenty of readers don’t know what “op/ed” or “editorial” means, studies show. The Coloradoan switched out “EDITORIAL:” to “OPINION:” labels on its content to make it more clear. “I’ve even at some points in the past put notes with editorials explaining this is opinion content,” Laugesen said. “We’ve done that, we’ve tried everything.”
  • So, will the opinion section ever come back to the pages of the Coloradoan? Larsen said he’s aware of the possibility he made the wrong call killing the section and, “I know that nothing’s permanent. … part of it is a resource issue and part of it is a real needed discussion on community values in Fort Collins and what they want and need from the news organizations.”

“I think opinion journalism might be the purest expression of the First Amendment,” Young said at one point on the panel. “We can go out and talk to officials and report what they say without fear of imprisonment or backlash, but it’s through opinion journalism that we can say what we feel about it and really call out wrongdoing … and suggest solutions.”

A ‘journalism crisis for Southern Colorado’

Tuesday morning, as dozens of journalists and media thinkers, representatives from national foundations, and funders gathered in Denver for a Colorado Media Project brainstorming session, I tweeted this from the event:

I was tagging John Rodriguez, publisher of the independently owned PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo, Colo., a city about two hours south of Denver that Rodriguez argues is consistently left out of conversations about how to save the local news as foundations and other could-be-saviors-of-local-news focus on the capital Mile High City. Later that day, Rodriguez shared a letter he sent to the board of the Southern Colorado Press Club. “At threat is more than just journalism but Southern Colorado’s loss of a local voice and the stature that comes from that,” he wrote.

More from the letter:

In the 2000s radio journalism died here. During that time, KOAA moved most of its operations to Colorado Springs and KTSC was bought by RMPBS. In a way Pueblo’s voice weakened and the once great Colorado’s second city became an affiliate to everywhere else. … We can change this. I understand the loyalties some have towards the Pueblo Chieftain but the issue we face now is there’s no longer a local voice for Southern Colorado. Already we’ve [seen] the Chieftain offer less, charge more and pull up access. In Pueblo I hope, this is still the case, we still have loyalty to local people trying to do amazing work. PULP is local, we’re innovative and we have the audience’s respect. Oh and we’re passionate to turn this around.

Since 2012, Rodriguez went on, the two largest problems he’s faced as an independent publisher in Pueblo have been a lack of talent and a lack of support. “We simply need more” than what the local university produces from its journalism department, he said. “But what PULP has proven above any other media [product] is that we are in demand if we can scale up,” he wrote. “I can’t do this alone. Nor can we wait until there’s nothing left. Everyone is looking to someone else to save local journalism but that, I believe, is now our responsibility.” Attached to the letter were outlines of what he thinks might help, some of which, like facilitating charitable giving, seem like initiatives already being adopted in Denver. (Read the whole document here.)

“Not only is there a news crisis, but there’s a desperate need for local journalism talent,” Rodriguez wrote. “From writers, multimedia journalists, photographers, podcasters, bloggers, editors, designers, and sales. There is not enough young talent being produced or recruited and this needs to be addressed.”

Which brings us to …

During Tuesday’s Colorado Media Project roundtable, which included the senior journalism staff at the Knight Foundation and journalists who gathered at the Rocky Mountain PBS building in Denver, a group of us hashed out the possibility of how Report for America might benefit Colorado if, say, the Colorado Media Project could help bring them in. The national organization is like Teach for America or The Peace Corps for local journalism. How it works: “Report for America will provide half the cost of the reporter’s annual salary, the local news organization will provide one quarter, and a quarter will come from a local supporter (individual donor, university, family trust or foundation).”

One participant noted how some far-flung newsrooms in Colorado don’t have a data reporter or video reporter and could benefit from one. Another mentioned that some publications outside the Front Range need to know what lawmakers who represent their communities are doing in Denver. (I wondered about the idea of a roving Capitol reporter who rotated localized coverage from under the dome.) “We absolutely need boots on the ground,” another said. “Recruiting journalists of color would be a guiding principle of this effort,” read language in a Colorado Media Project/Knight Foundation handout on the Report for America/Colorado topic. That piqued the attention of Gil Asakawa, who manages student media at CU-Boulder and worries about the Colorado-media-thinker-industrial-complex skewing to a “white privilege view.”

CMP chronicler Alan Gottlieb has a write-up on the rest of the event here. “Clearly, the surge in activity around local news here in the past year has caught the attention of the Knight Foundation and other national players,” he wrote, adding how Jennifer Preston, Knight’s vice president for journalism, “told nearly 60 participants in CMP’s Journalists’ Roundtable that this is a prime moment to seize opportunities to build a healthy news ecosystem. ‘Guys, this is a moment in time to help people understand the value and importance of journalism in our democracy,’ Preston said. ‘If you don’t have great journalism, who is going to hold our leaders responsible? And I’m not just talking about government, but also businesses, and nonprofit leaders.'”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

Under the headline “The positive side of the storm,” The Greeley Tribune reported on what the recent bomb cyclone means for water in Weld County. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a story about hopes and fears stirred up by a major new proposed state law aimed at making public health a top priority for Colorado’s oil-and-gas regulatory agencyThe Longmont Times Call reported the legislation would remove industry members from the entity that oversees permitting oil-and-gas wellsThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled a local nonprofit that’s been helping cats for a decadeThe Steamboat Pilot profiled a local shuttle driverThe Summit Daily News reported on a guilty verdict handed down to a 22-year-old Minnesota man who punched a cop in BreckenridgeThe Gazette in Colorado Springs had a big takeout on how Colorado is in uncharted territory for avalanches as the climate changesThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins published a big local election guideThe Boulder Daily Camera covered local arts-and-culture grantsVail Daily put Pink Vail on the coverThe Durango Herald questioned whether local municipal elections really are nonpartisanThe Denver Post dug into Gov. Jared Polis’s signature issue of providing free all-day kindergarten statewide.

News from The Nothing, seeking to spread

“What you’re describing is also happening where I live in the West. A strange sort of … nothing is destroying everything.”

Yessss, we Night Hobs live in the South, and it’s there, too.”

“So, it’s … it’s not just in our part of Fantasia?”

“Maybe it’s already everywhere. Maybe our whole land is danger. What can we do?”

So goes The Nothing scene in The Neverending Story and our metaphor for the cost-cutting, newsroom-gutting vampiric owner of The Denver Post that now wants to buy Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, and is in the process drawing senatorial side eye from the likes of Chuck Schumer. Gannett is pushing back. A fear is that with more newspapers under such ownership, more journalists get laid off, more local news goes unreported, hence, a spreading nothing.

The latest on this front is this from The Wall Street Journal:

Digital First Media took a step forward in its hostile bid for Gannett Co., with a debt specialist indicating Digital First could raise the funds needed to pay for the $1.4 billion takeover. Oaktree Capital Management LP, a credit-investment firm with $120 billion of assets as of December, told Digital First it is “highly confident” in Digital First’s ability to obtain a debt financing package of at least $1.725 billion in connection with the offer for The USA Today publisher, according to people familiar with the matter.”
Let’s all just hope the money people aren’t Russian oligarchs, OK? Because then we could really make a movie out of that.

Dateline: The Sky. Greene’s Hickenlooper profile

Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene didn’t have to get handcuffed or buttonhole her subject in an elevator to score her latest story. She just asked if presidential candidate and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper would agree to move 25 seats back on a commercial flight from D.C. to Denver they were sharing and let her grill him for the remainder of the ride.

What emerged is an in-depth profile of a candidate Greene says is pushing compromise in an uncompromising time. Here are some of the lines likely to get the most repurposing (emphasis mine):

  • “’The way to do so isn’t by out-talking him or kicking him in the balls. That would just strengthen his base and deepen the divisions,’ says the longtime pledger of ‘clean’ campaigns. ‘I think the only way to beat Trump is by demonstrating an ability to make government work (by getting) people in conflict to work through their disagreements and find compromise moving forward.’”
  • “We spoke first about the two state constitutional amendments – the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights (TABOR) and the Gallagher Amendment – that bind Colorado’s budget with strict revenue and spending limits, and a perception that he wouldn’t make the tough decisions needed to ease their stranglehold on state government. ‘I’m not sure what tough decisions we haven’t made,’ he told me, ‘we’ being his preferred pronoun when talking about his record in office. ‘A decision to ask voters to strike them from the Constitution,’ I said. He paused, repositioning his back, which he injured moving a piano at age 35, and acknowledged, ‘OK, fair enough.’ He went on to say TABOR is ‘with all candor, the stupidest thing we have in Colorado,’ but that undoing it and the Gallagher Amendment is an idea ‘whose time hasn’t come’ in terms of ‘public awareness and readiness.’
  • “’So, it’s all coming together now,’ he says of the symmetry he sees between the political landscape, his record, and his hail-fellow-well-met approach. ‘In a funny way, it’s as if it’s my destiny to be here now, at this point in history.'”

David Sirota controversy in real time

For the uninitiated, David Sirota is a longtime polarizing progressive Denver media personality with a national audience. Roughly two decades ago he worked for Bernie Sanders and since turned to hosting radio programs and reporting, racking up bylines for outlets from Harpers to The NYT Magazine to Pando. In 2017, he almost took a job running the left’s answer to Breitbart, but backed out. He wanted to run a media outlet “rooted in a value system — and without regard to political party.” (He’s been called an ideologue, not a partisan.) Since then he has written for The International Business TimesThe GuardianCapital & Main, and Westwordscoring some impactful scoops along the way.

It is in this context that this week reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere published an online story in The Atlantic about Sirota headlined, “Bernie Sanders Just Hired His Twitter Attack Dog.” In it, he alleges Sirota had been doing undisclosed work for Sanders since before the presidential contender announced his hire this week, and noted Sirota recently deleted thousands of previous tweets. (As he launched his latest campaign, Sanders urged his supporters to “engage respectfully with our Democratic opponents.”) From the Atlantic piece:

Since December, David Sirota has, on Twitter, on his own website, and in columns in The Guardian, been trashing most of Sanders’s Democratic opponents—all without disclosing his work with Sanders—and has been pushing back on critics by saying that he was criticizing the other Democrats as a journalist. He centered many of his attacks on Beto O’Rourke, but he also bashed Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Joe Biden, Kirsten Gillibrand, Michael Bennet, John Hickenlooper, Mike Bloomberg, and even Andrew Cuomo.

Faiz Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, confirmed in an interview on Tuesday afternoon that Sirota had been in an advisory role prior to his hiring on March 11. “He was advising beforehand,” Shakir said, explaining that Sirota’s informal work for Sanders goes back months, and was meant to be a trial period to see how the senator, who famously likes to write every word that he says himself, would work with a speechwriter.

If a journalist is not disclosing that he or she is advising a politician, while at the same time writing about that politician or the politician’s rivals, that would be worth knowing. Recall when media commentator George Will secretly counseled Ronald Reagan in 1980, or, further back, when Walter Lippmann secretly wrote speeches for LBJ, among other presidents.

Sirota has pushed back, saying Dovere has the timeline wrong. From ColoradoPolitics:

Sirota acknowledged kicking around some themes and ideas for speeches with Sanders, including some points that made it into speeches Sanders delivered, but rejected any suggestion he’d been doing anything more than talking with someone he’s known for years, including discussions about a possible role in a campaign that had yet to materialize. An exasperated-sounding Sirota scoffed at the notion that he’d been secretly working for Sanders by writing the kind of articles he’s been penning for more than a dozen years.
Shakir, Sanders’s campaign manager, told Paste magazine he was surprised at how his words where characterized in The Atlantic. So far, publications for which Sirota has recently worked haven’t seemed irked by the Atlantic item. The Guardian’s editor told The Washington Post he sought a correction from The Atlantic. A day after the story ran, Dovere updated it with this:
On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for The Guardian, Deepal Patadia, said that Sirota informed the newspaper that he was in conversations with the Sanders team starting in January, and did not file a column forward from that point. Patadia did not address if this account was based on anything other than Sirota’s characterizations, and whether The Guardian was aware of conversations that Sirota was having with Sanders aides through 2018, as people with direct knowledge say he was. Sirota himself would not address this on the record.
About that, Erik Wemple at The Washington Post writes:
There’s an important distinction at play here. Whereas, Dovere’s original reporting suggests that Sirota’s “work with Sanders” overlapped with his contributions to the Guardian, his update falls back to a less troublesome circumstance — namely, that Sirota allegedly had “conversations” with Sanders aides during this period. “Conversations” trigger a different ethical standard than does “work.”

Speaking to a different WaPo writer, Capital & Main’s publisher said, “Without commenting on the accuracy of [the Atlantic’s] report, Capital & Main wishes to be clear that we didn’t know that Mr. Sirota was engaged in any activity that aided Mr. Sanders. When we became aware of Mr. Sirota’s interest in working for Mr. Sanders, he wrote no further stories for us.” More locally, Westword Editor Patty Calhoun tells me she is “completely” satisfied Sirota was not working for Sanders while writing for her alternative weekly newspaper in Denver. (Westword covered the Sirota situation here.)

Some other outlets and prominent media figures (Matt Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald) rose to Sirota’s defense while others dogged him, perhaps most notably David Simon and John Stoehr. On Thursday evening, The Intercept had a 404 error for a missing story with a URL that read in part: “the-crux-of-the-accusations-against-david-sirota-from-the-atlantics-edward-isaac-dovere-is-false,” so now there’s that to add to all this, which might or might not flare up or flame out. (UPDATE: That story, a detailed defense of Sitora, is now online.)

The Durango Herald’s editor says goodbye

After nearly two dozen years at The Durango Herald, Editor Amy Maestas said this week she’s leaving the family-owned newspaper in southwest Colorado. In 2017, Maestas finished a Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan where she focused on the future of hyperlocal newspapers. At the time, I wrote about her fellowship in the context of the paper’s community engagement initiatives:
She says the [Herald’s] community engagement ideas partly grew out of that and from the paper’s selection along with 21 other U.S. news orgs as part of Poynter’s Local News Innovation Program. Fun fact: Colorado has two papers participating. The Denver Post is the other. A more-fun fact: The Durango Herald is the “smallest-market newsroom in the program.” And one more: This will be the first time in history The Durango Herald has an editorial advisory board.

A year later, it seems her time at the paper has run its course. When I asked what’s next for her she offered this: “Twenty-three years is a good long run at a top-notch family-owned community newspaper. We have a solid newsroom of really talented journalists who will, no doubt, keep keepin’ on to do quality journalism. I feel so grateful that I was able to lead them. It’s cliche, but change is good. I love journalism, and I will continue to love it into the future.”

It’s worth pointing out Maestas is one of the few journalists of color currently leading a newspaper in Colorado. March 22 will be her final day at the paper. “P.S.,” she wrote in her farewell column. “Print isn’t dead.”

*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 HERE. Image by Twitter Trends 2019 for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Just my personal opinion, but I find the shrinking size of the Sunday Opinion section of the Denver Post dismaying (to say the least). The disappearance of thoughtful writers on all points of the political spectrum is very sad.

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