Media: Why dozens of newsrooms across the Mountain West are partnering to provide ‘solutions journalism’

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A yak in the Mountain West (photo by Corey Hutchins)

“Crime and corruption, troubled schools, drug epidemics, natural disasters — the news deals with some pretty discouraging subjects. But it doesn’t have to be negative. In recent years, a movement for ‘solutions-oriented journalism’ that highlights promising responses to social challenges has picked up steam. The Solutions Journalism Network, one of the leading advocates for the approach, has trained newsrooms around the country. And earlier this year, the network launched ‘Small Towns, Big Change,’ a partnership with seven local newsrooms in southern Colorado and New Mexico designed to bring solutions journalism to smaller communities in the rural Mountain West.”

That was a lede I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review three years ago that seems to have aged well enough.

This week, an initiative that began as a pilot project on our state’s southern border in 2016 is expanding — in a big way. With a half-million-dollar grant for one year, the LOR Foundation and the Solutions Journalism Network have now launched the Mountain West News Partnership, a regional network of newsrooms that will “co-report and share stories, exchange best practices and challenges, and participate in local and regional in-person events.”

I caught up with LaMonte Guillory of the LOR Foundation over the phone this week. He said the pilot project worked so well on the Colorado-New Mexico border that they wanted to scale it up. “Of the stories that were produced through this pilot, [solutions-based stories] were the most read, most shared, most time spent on page,” he said. Guillory knows the time commitment for journalists producing solutions-oriented stories versus a “headline grabber” is significant, so newsrooms are faced with whether they want to expend the necessary resources. The grant money could help mitigate that.

“We don’t know how the 50-plus newsrooms are going to work out from a regional perspective, but we find that it’s an important one to at least test out,” Guillory said, adding he hopes the Mountain West News Partnership can wind up serving as a model.

The newsrooms include a dozen in New Mexico, 13 in Montana, five in Idaho, and three in Wyoming.

Colorado newsrooms participating in the Mountain West News Partnership so far include KRZA public radio in Alamosa, Aspen JournalismBoulder WeeklyKDNK in Carbondale, KSJD in the Four Corners, KBUT in Crested Butte, Colorado Public Radio, The Colorado SunThe Durango HeraldThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins, The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, KUNC, The Gunnison County TimesHigh Country NewsKVNF in Paonia, KOTOThe Mountain Independent in Telluride, and the Rocky Mountain Community Radio network.

Support for the Mountain West News Partnership also comes from Montana’s Kendeda Fund and the New Mexico Local News Fund. Also involved is Report For America, which recently announced locations where its 2019 crop of reporters will deploy. Out here in the Mountain West, they’ll drop into four newsrooms in Wyoming, two in Utah, two in Idaho, and two in New Mexico. (None in Colorado, incidentally.)

If you’re curious about what “solutions journalism” actually looks like (and how to write a solutions story without it coming off as a puff piece), listen to this podcast I recorded with some of the members of that 2016 pilot project in our neck of the woods. In it, J.R. Logan of Taos News, who called himself “proudly podunk,” said his work with the Solutions Journalism Network changed the way he approached his work. “When you say the word ‘solution’ you can feel the tension in the interview room drop,” he said. “Some of these people are sources that I’ve talked to in the past that I have written very critical stories about and who are always wary to get a call from me. And the mood is totally different when you say ‘I want to help find a solution, the story is looking for a solution.’ Everyone takes a breath. And that’s been true of every story I’ve written for this project.”

Talking about navigating potential conflicts if certain solutions they’re reporting about might be tied up with foundations funding the journalism work, Leah Todd of the SJN said that happened early in the project when she found out late into the reporting process that the LOR Foundation was a funder for a subject in a story she was covering. “I wrote about this story without interference from the funder,” she said. “I was totally free as a reporter to investigate what I wanted to look into and talk to who I wanted to talk to … it was no different, I’m saying, than any other story I’ve done.”

To read more about this kind of approach, you can read this just-published case study about how The Durango Herald “partnered with several organizations to use a solutions journalism approach to covering youth suicide, a sensitive subject that the publication had received criticism for in past coverage.”

Grand Junction Daily Sentinel: ‘Get your bias here!’

Following the departure of this Western Slope newspaper’s managing editor, the paper has a new one, Dale Shrull, who has launched a new editorial feature called “Miscellaneous.” The section will focus on items that “don’t require a full-blown news story, but still deserve answers.” In its write-up about the section, the paper’s editorial page tackled a problem of perception among some readers. From the Sentinel:

Some readers seem to think that anything that doesn’t conform to their political views is “biased.” We’re nobody’s echo chamber. If the Sentinel only published pro-Trump or anti-Trump columns or cartoons all the time, critics might have a case for bias. But we don’t do that. We try to present a diverse array of opinions so readers can decide for themselves which arguments stick. We seem to get as many complaints about being too conservative as being too liberal, which we take to mean that we’re right where we should be. If you aren’t upset with your local newspaper’s opinion page at least half the time, either we aren’t doing our job or you aren’t paying attention. … It’s our job to stir the local intellectual soup. There’s no hidden agenda with regard to selecting columns, letters and cartoons. Our goal is simply to shove people out of their comfort zones. Whatever your political views are, or whatever reason you pick up the Sentinel, thank you for reading and thanks for your feedback.

The editorial, which also cites this newsletter, ran under the headline “Get your bias here!”

The Denver revolution will be … digitized 

That was the essence of an in-depth feature story in this month’s 5280 magazine by Boulder freelance writer Michael Behar that takes a look at the world of online journalism in the Mile High City. The headline: “Are We Witnessing a Digital News Revolution in Denver?” Much of the story will be familiar to readers of this newsletter, focusing on three outlets with different business models: the nonprofit Colorado Independent, the for-profit Denverite (recently bought by Colorado Public Radio) and the public-benefit corporation Colorado Sun. The story comes three years after a 5280 feature by a different writer titled “How Massive Cuts Have Remade The Denver Post.” (And that was before The Great Bloodletting of 2018.)

Some nuggets from the latest piece, with notes:

  • The Independent has been around since 2006; Denverite and the Sun are less than five years old. And yet it’s still next to impossible to surmise just how successful any of them really are, or will be. (My take: We’re in the Big Shakeout decade where everyone is trying everything to see what business model might work to replace dwindling subscriptions and disrupted display and digital advertising to make money while attracting readership.)
  • “Nobody I spoke with for this article is interested in trying to make digital advertising a primary source of revenue,” the author writes.
  • “Ryckman declined to provide hard numbers for the Sun, though he did say that more than 22,000 people subscribe to the Sun’s four email newsletters and that it has “thousands of paying members overall.” Greene says the number of donors to the Independent has grown exponentially each year. “We have 2,074 individual donors, plus several foundations supporting our work,” she says. “As for our reach, we’ll share those numbers if and when our competitors share theirs.” (My take: For some digital outlets, compare it to ranchers who don’t want other ranchers to know their cattle count, or maybe politicians who don’t want you to see their tax returns. Perhaps they’d rather not unnecessarily help the competition or maybe they’re embarrassed by something in there. Eric Anderson of the Denver SE2 communications firm has used a data analytics program to try and get a sense of the reach of these outlets and posted about it.)
  • “…the Denver Post averages 122,150 individual paid subscribers for its weekday print and digital content combined and 200,539 for its Sunday edition … so although the conventional wisdom is that the Post is on life support, it appears to be drawing significantly more verified readers than Colorado’s newest news organizations.” (My take: Its digital reach is likely far and away larger than any digital news site in the state. In 2017, the Post reached 5.68 million unique visitors in the month of March, according to numbers from comScore, and reached “more unique visitors who live in the Denver market than any other major media outlet.” In march of this year, that number was 6.4 million unique views.)
  • “What remains unclear is whether collaboration will be enough to keep the upstarts afloat. Former Post staffers now helm the Sun, the Independent, and Denverite, which makes one wonder, given all the talk of teamwork, why they didn’t band together in the first place.” (My take: I’ve wondered that, too, especially with the Sun/Independent.)
  • “For his part, Ryckman cites differing missions. ‘The Independent wears their politics very much on their sleeve,’ he says.” (My take: I think that’s a kind of dated view, unless he’s talking about what the columnists write about.)

For more plugged-in media industry junkies, though, it’s this graf in the story that’s likely to get the most tongues wagging and heads shaking in Denver:

Ryckman pitched his boss—the Post’s editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo—a story about Krieger’s dismissal. She rejected the idea, Ryckman says, claiming that Boulder wasn’t in the Post’s domain. The Boulder City Council subsequently approved a declaration urging Alden to support full editorial independence of the Camera. This time, Ryckman asked Colacioppo to run the Camera’s piece on the council’s decision. “ ‘This feels like news to me,’ I told her,” Ryckman says. “She said, ‘If it were Denver City Council, yes, but not Boulder.’ So I showed her a half-dozen examples of stories just the previous month that we’d picked up from the Daily Camera about the [Boulder] City Council.” Plunkett agreed with Ryckman; he wrote a follow-up editorial about Krieger, which the Post’s publisher spiked, and Plunkett quit over it. Colacioppo finally agreed to let Ryckman author a piece about Plunkett’s resignation. But Ryckman says Colacioppo insisted that he leave any mention of Alden out of the article. “Never in my career had I been told to take facts out of a story for some nonjournalism reason,” Ryckman says. (In response to a request for comment, Colacioppo wrote: “Larry is obsessed with these moments. It may have been all Larry had to think about at the time, but I had more important things on my mind then and now. As a result, the details and nuances of those discussions are lost to me.”) The Post published the piece on May 3, 2018. The next day, Ryckman resigned, along with Dana Coffield, the Post’s senior editor for news.

Do read the whole piece, though.

A Colorado newspaper was banned from reporting in a national park

Officials at Mesa Verde National Park denied a Colorado newspaper’s request to report on a roundup of “trespass” horses on federal land. From The Cortez Journal:

Other horse roundups on federal land have included public and media viewing areas, and courts have ruled that media have a First Amendment right to witness federal government activities. Park Superintendent Cliff Spencer banned media coverage of the roundup in an email April 24, stating that roundup representatives informed him they did not want anyone not involved in the roundup to be present because “the distraction would negatively affect the behavior of horses.”

First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg wrote a letter to Spencer, in which he said: “Accommodating a single reporter and pool photographer for a limited period of time at a considerable distance from the wrangler-horse interactions is a constitutionally appropriate way to protect the public’s First Amendment right to access a National Park and to engage in protected newsgathering activities there.”

Read more about the dispute here.

The budget blade slices into CSU-Pueblo’s journalism program

In the euphemistic terminology for people losing their jobs, Colorado State University at Pueblo is undergoing a “25-position reduction in staff.” One of those affected by the budget cuts is Joanne Gula, an assistant professor in the college’s mass communications program, whose job is going poof. The school’s president, Tim Mottet, defended the cuts in The Pueblo Chieftain, saying students wouldn’t be impacted.

From the Chieftain:

Mottet said that enrollment has been declining in mass communications over the past few years. “The dean and the provost are going to be working with an external consultant to re-examine the academic programming taking place in mass communications,” Mottet said. “We are going to develop a new plan moving forward that we think is going to reflect where mass communications is today.” Mottet said the curriculum needs to be assessed in the department. “When your enrollment is dropping at that rate that is a sign that we need to go back and re-evaluate what’s going on.”

The paper reported Gula saying three other faculty members in the mass communications department are also losing their jobs and all four are women. “This is basically half of the mass communications department,” Gula told in the Chieftain. “What happens to the students?” She said some of them have been crying, sending emails, wondering how they’ll be able to earn a diploma.

Kara Mason, the immediate past president of the regional Society of Professional Journalists who writes for The Aurora Sentinel, PULP in Pueblo and ColoradoPolitics, graduated from CSU-Pueblo’s journalism program in 2015.

“I loved my experience at CSU-Pueblo for the most part. The classes were small and there really seemed to be a focus on learning basic skills,” she told me about her experience. “We would sit at these large conference tables for classes — instead of traditional classrooms — and it really felt like an editorial meeting, and that our professors were really part of the learning process that we’d eventually experience in the real world. I’m disappointed that there doesn’t seem to be an emphasis on helping preserve and expand the program. There are ample opportunities to partner in the community, but it doesn’t seem like there’s anybody in the department willing to put it together. I’m thankful for CSU-Pueblo’s program, but without the connections I made outside of the classroom — and I felt I was often navigating those waters alone — I’m not sure I’d even still be in journalism. I can’t imagine what it’ll be like with even fewer resources.”

Family-owned Colorado newspaper sold to out-of-state company

After more than three decades as a family-owned newspaper, The Delta County Independent has been sold by the Sutherland family to the Arizona-based Wick Communications. From The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel:

Wick Communications also owns the Montrose Daily Press, which was acquired in the 1990s. The Delta County Independent and Montrose Daily Press are both 137 years old, established in 1883. “We are thankful that the Wicks are the kind of company that could come in and keep that community focus. They have a proven track record,” Randy Sunderland said. Montrose Daily Press publisher Dennis Anderson, a Delta High School graduate and a current Delta resident, will also serve as the publisher of the Delta County Independent.

The terms of the deal are not public.

Colorado could pass an anti-SLAPP law that could be good for some newsrooms

In the mad scramble toward the end of this year’s legislative session, the first in years where Democrats controlled the House, Senate and the governorship, one proposed law that’s advancing could potentially shield individuals — and newsrooms — from spending time and money defending lawsuits aimed at trying to shut them up. From the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

House Bill 19-1324 would add Colorado to a list of nearly 30 states with anti-SLAPP statutes that provide a process for the early dismissal of civil cases filed against people who are exercising their First Amendment rights of free speech or freedom to petition the government.

SLAPP stands for “strategic lawsuit against public participation.” Interestingly enough, the term, writes the CFOIC’s Jeffrey Roberts, was “coined in the 1980s by two University of Denver law professors.” The proposed new law, “modeled after California’s anti-SLAPP law, establishes an expedited court process in which a defendant in a civil action can file a special motion to dismiss the case based on an assertion that the lawsuit arose from the exercising of his or her constitutional right of petition or free speech.”

In 2015 I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review about how the Golden State’s anti-SLAPP statute helped a nonprofit news site prevail in court. Lately, there are some in Colorado who worry our state is becoming too much like California. In this regard, though, I think I’ll take it.

One of the sponsors of the bill is Lisa Cutter, a first-year lawmaker. At the beginning of this year’s legislative session as part of its Capitol Sunlight project explaining how state government works, The Colorado Sun profiled Cutter’s rise from the sidelines to the Women’s March and to the legislature. Now, as the session closes, Sun reporter John Frank profiled her again for the project in a story that puts a human face on how legislation is sponsored and shepherded through (or gets jammed up) at the Capitol. (An additional nugget from that story: “In a meeting room in a legislative office building, the lawmakers gather with lobbyists and the Polis administration to get an answer to a key question: Does the administration support this idea? The exact response is unknown because a lobbyist asked The Sun to leave, even though it qualified as a public meeting under Colorado law.”)

Colorado Public Radio will move its newsroom to downtown Denver

The public radio behemoth is moving its reporting team out of Centennial and into the heart of Colorado’s capital city. From the announcement:

When complete, the 9,000 square foot newsroom and studios will accommodate 70 reporters and producers, including the daily production of the statewide news program, Colorado Matters. Initially, nearly 50 reporters, producers, editors and digital news staff – about a third of Colorado Public Radio’s total staff and all of Denverite’s staff – will relocate to a 9,000 square foot office space at 303 E. 17th Avenue. The organization will continue to operate its primary business, including both CPR Classical and CPR’s OpenAir, from Bridges Broadcast Center in Centennial.

“We’ve outgrown that space with plans for continued growth,” CPR’s executive editor Kevin Dale said in a statement about the move. “Moving downtown is a desirable option to add space, while also reducing operational challenges we face being a half-hour away from the state’s largest news hub.”

An update on the Waltons and the Colorado River 

In a recent newsletter, we looked at the Walton Family Foundation and its funding of news outlets that cover the Colorado River, highlighting a Boulder Weekly piece questioning that arrangement. Now, E&E News reporter Jeremy Jacobs is out with a two-part series on the Walmart heirs and funding from The Walton Family Foundation’s focus on the river.

From the first installment:

The foundation’s reach is dizzying and, outside the basin, has received scant attention. It has funded environmental groups (Environmental Defense Fund: $5.55 million since 2017, National Audubon Society: $2.6 million, Trout Unlimited: $2.7 million), university research (Yale University: $60,000, Stanford University: $98,000, Utah State University: $150,000), even journalists (KUNC, a community radio station for northern Colorado: $155,000). Earlier this month, the University of Colorado, Boulder, announced a journalism “water desk.” Its funder: Walton ($700,000). The Walton money has fueled symposiums, conferences and pilot projects up and down the river to establish “proof points” for conservation programs.

The piece points out two dueling narratives (read the story to see what they are) about the high-financing influence, summed up at the end by Anne Castle, a former Obama-era assistant secretary of Interior for water and science. “I think both of them are true,” she said. “They are doing a lot of good … But in doing good, they have become part of the establishment. It seems to me that conservation groups aren’t as willing to question the way things are running. It pushes them toward the status quo.” (The second installment is here.)

As if to underscore the point about Wally World’s Colorado River water funding focus, the E&E News series carries this disclosure at the end: “Reporter Jeremy P. Jacobs was a 2018 Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources fellow on the Colorado River, which was largely funded by the Walton Family Foundation.”

Personnel file and weekly Colorado newsroom HR report

Kerry Leary, who served as the first producer of the innovative KUSA 9News TV show “Next,” took a segment producer job at MSNBC and starts at 30 Rock in New York City this month.

Mike Brohard (best sports journalist name ever?) has left The Loveland Reporter-Herald after a quarter-century for a communications role at Colorado State University. From the write-up about it at CSU: “A Colorado native, Brohard has been sports editor at the Loveland Reporter-Herald since 2001 and has covered Colorado State Athletics longer than any reporter in the market. He began working for the paper as a sports writer in 1992 and was promoted to assistant sports editor in 1996. Brohard has been the beat reporter for CSU football since 2002 and for CSU volleyball since 2012, and has written numerous feature stories on CSU Athletics in his 27-year tenure with the newspaper.”

On old typewriters and those who repair them

“With a wince, Raymond related how the late gonzo writer Hunter S. Thompson, using a shotgun, blasted apart an IBM Selectric that he had worked diligently to maintain over the years. To this day, he can’t bear to look at the famous photo of Thompson standing in the snow aiming at the helpless typewriter.”

That’s from an evocative must-read story by Nancy Lofholm for The Sun that had one hell of a headline and lede about typewriter repairman Darwin Raymond of Raymond’s Office Machines & Supplies in Glenwood Springs. “It’s a dying art we are in,” one of his Colorado counterparts told the writer with a sigh.

2 COMMENTS

  1. As a reader of the Delta County Independent, I have avoided writing to the Editor, for only one reason…there are a few folks who would “get back at me”….or retribution is a common method to shut up opposition to republican the party…this has been known for quite some time…I have had death threats because of articles that were published…so, I am intimidated by some of my neighbors, out of safety concerns for my family, my friends, and my dogs…if It were only me, I would not hesitate to tell it like it is…but this is a red dominated area, almost like it were dominated by religious fanatics…oh wait…

  2. As a high school newspaper adviser, I’m excited and nervous about this new era in journalism. I’ve been a reader of the Independent for quite some time (long enough that I can’t remember how long it’s been), and I’ve been reading the Sun and the Denverite for a few years. Have you all thought about joining forces and publishing a print paper to compete with the hedge-fund-owned, money-grubbing Denver Post? Just a thought since I’ve given up my subscription in the past six months and really miss that old-school hard copy.
    Thank you all for great journalism, by the way!

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