Media: Could there or should there be a publicly-funded local news outlet in Longmont?

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The Longmont Public Library (photo by Corey Hutchins)

It’s time to add another local news experiment to test-tube Colorado where some folks in Longmont are proposing some sort of local news operation that taxpayers would support. How, exactly? Through a city library district likely with a mill levy on those who live there. In Colorado, local libraries can be funded by creating specific taxing districts approved by voters who live within their boundaries.

On Tuesday, Longmont’s City Council engaged in a nearly hour-long debate about the idea of a publicly funded news outlet linked to a library district. I attended, and wrote up a dispatch for Columbia Journalism Review. From the piece:

Longmont’s seven council members didn’t outright dismiss the idea, but instead debated about whether local news should be publicly financed. NPR gets some public support, one noted. “We live in a post-truth world today,” said another, Tim Waters, who nonetheless added, “Clearly if there’s one place to go to find balance in information it’s in a library,” and “We owe it to generations coming up to be able make the distinctions between propaganda and fake news and the truth.”

Waters, who mentioned a recent trip to China, said he’d seen “what the worst example of government-funded media looks like.” But he cited federal government support of scientific breakthroughs as an encouraging example of how publicly financed institutions can set up ways to ward off political influence.

Council member Aren Rodriguez said his support was contingent on effective compartmentalization of any news outlet. Council member Bonnie Finley said, “I personally don’t think we want it to have it be our news source. I think the fourth estate is best left to the fourth estate.” Councilwoman Marcia Martin said she would be “deeply grieved” if the possibility of “a future news agency for Longmont gets kicked out because the city thinks it would need to control it or because we think it’s too hard.”

Lately, Denver has been ground zero as a testing lab for the local news business model. You have your hedge-fund owner, your billionaire owner, your nonprofitsfor-profitsNPR-model, and even your crypto-currency and blockchain-backed public-benefit corporation. It’s a heady mix of media business models that’s being researched, examined, and chronicled by industry watchers to see what works. It was only a matter of time until someone tried a publicly-funded local news outlet.

Scott Converse, who runs the digital nonprofit Longmont Observer, is one brainchild behind this idea there. From a post he wrote about how it might work:

You could set this up as part of the Library Special Tax district (well established laws in all states) and protect its independence with a set percentage of the tax districts money that can’t be taken away by the libraries board (creating journalist integrity and the essential ability to not be influenced by anything other than the needs of the community) and writing into the library tax district bylaws protections for the integrity and independence of the newsroom to ensure the newsrooms focuses on the needs of the community and not any special interests.

News about the plans appeared in The Longmont Times-Call, a newspaper in the suite of companies along with The Denver Post controlled by a New York hedge fund. The story quoted Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and Jill Farschman of the Colorado Press Association urging caution with the idea because of the ties to government.

From that piece:

Converse, after hesitating to agree to an interview, saying, “I believe the Times-Call is a hostile entity when it comes to this story,” contends such a library district-run news platform could be protected from being influenced by its funding source via provisions in the district’s bylaws that would preserve journalists’ independence from the government organizations they would cover. “You have to make sure there is something out there that keeps the spirit of what journalism is all about alive,” Converse said. “I feel for you guys, I really do. I honestly feel for the people that are working at the Times-Call and Daily Camera. I look at what the papers used to be and what they are today, and it breaks my heart.”

In 2017, Columbia Journalism Review published a piece by media consultant Simon Galperin who is pushing for Community Information Districts. “Journalists we spoke with were intrigued by the idea, though some become apprehensive when asked to view the proposal as a taxpayer,” he wrote. “But we also spoke with taxpayers, who were generally receptive.” He said such districts “are not a cure-all, and there are obstacles to establishing them. Some communities might resist the notion of an additional tax. Others may not have the tax base to support such services in the first place. We are still looking for solutions to these issues, but they are not insurmountable.”

There are other public-support-through-tax-entities ideas out there. Recently, former Denver Post editor Greg Moore wrote this at Pulitzer.org about one of them: “I’m thinking we might explore something similar to the system we have for political campaigns, where the public can designate a contribution from their state income tax return. It could even be a broader public assessment. A lot of safeguards need to be erected, I know, but just because it is hard does not mean it can’t be done.”

I would be surprised if voters anywhere these days cast ballots in favor of a new tax that would go to support a news outlet with ties to local government, but I’m interested to see how this plays out in Longmont. So watch this space for updates.

In the aftermath of another Colorado school-shooting, students protested media

Two suspects are in custody, an adult and juvenile, on suspicion of shooting several people, leaving eight wounded and one dead at a charter school in the Denver suburbs. During an event on Wednesday, where two Democratic politicians spoke, some students protested the event programming and media covering it. From The Denver Post:

The tone changed during the second vigil at Highlands Ranch High School, as STEM School Highlands Ranch students burst into a spontaneous demonstration, protesting politics and the media.

From Colorado Public Radio:

In a chaotic quarter-hour period, kids and adults, many in tears, poured out of the building and back in while organizers apologized and said it was not their intention to offend anyone. Groups of STEM students began chants of “mental health.” In smaller groups, anti-media slogans rose and fell. Inside the gym, a pastor began the scheduled interfaith prayer.

From the Highlands Ranch Herald:

Applause erupted when more than a dozen students who appeared to be from STEM left the bleachers and exited the gym. But just as the lights dimmed and cellphone flashlights turned on for a moment dedicated to the shooting’s victims, a woman identifying herself only as a mother walked up to the lectern and spoke into the microphone. She said the media had told STEM students to leave. Inside the gym, it wasn’t clear what spurred that statement. Many reporters taking video and photos were in attendance, and some followed students into the hall. Large parts of the crowd then stood up and funneled into the hallway amid murmurs about the media. Confusion and disorder took over the crowd, finding some STEM students and others — a few dozen people — gathered outside the school’s front doors. “It was all political,” a student said, as others talked among themselves and decried the political tone of the event. One speaker inside had mentioned the National Rifle Association, or NRA, as a reason they said national gun policy wasn’t adequate. “Don’t use Kendrick’s name for political reasons!” another student outside shouted, as chants of “Mental health!” and “F— the media!” took hold. Said another student: “It’s not about the guns!”

On assignment for The Washington Post on Thursday, neighbors of one of the suspected shooters declined to give their names to me when I asked, or declined even to talk at all. A fellow journalist pondered if there might be a bit of media fatigue in Denver.

On a suspect’s pronouns…

This is the first time I recall seeing media grapple with a suspect’s gender identity in real-time reporting of a school shooting. The initial coverage led to back-and-forth clarifications, but the angle in local news hasn’t so far seemed overblown.

The Associated Press reported one suspect as Devon Erickson, 18, a male student who attended the STEM charter school and appeared in court Wednesday. As for the second suspect, the AP reported, “Court records listed the defendant as Maya McKinney, but a public defender said Wednesday that his client uses male pronouns and is named Alec.” The AP referred to McKinney as “he” in subsequent references. Initial media reports of the shooting, citing law enforcement, reported both suspects were male— including in print Wednesday morning— but then later reported one is female.

Here’s how Denver7, the local ABC affiliate, handled this part on Tuesday and Wednesday:

Multiple sources close to the investigation told Denver7 late Tuesday night that the second suspect, who is a minor, is a transgender male who was in the midst of transitioning from female to male.

On Wednesday, The Denver Post sourced a classmate: “McKinney was transgender and had struggled with personal problems, freshman Ben Lemos said,” and the paper went with “his” on subsequent reference. “McKinney’s attorney offered some clarity to his client’s gender identity during the court hearing after Douglas County Sheriff Tony Spurlock identified the Juvenile suspect as a boy immediately after the shooting and then as a girl during an early Wednesday morning news conference,” the Post reported.

Story-subject pronouns are something reporters and newsrooms need to think about. Groups like GLAAD offer media reference guides, which you can find here. The first time I screwed this up was three years ago when a source I’d spoken to on the phone called me back after a story ran and said although she had a male name and a male-sounding voice she was transitioning and identified as a woman. We talked about whether a correction in the story might actually draw more attention to it that she would like, and I decided to use her last name in all references instead. As a communications specialist, she said, she was still getting used to flagging her gender identity with reporters during phone calls. It made me think about how often I might ask source in the future how they identify instead of having to be told. It is, of course, harder when you don’t have access to the subject.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call reported on a city plan for its Main StreetThe Loveland Reporter-Herald reported how Berthoud (population 10,000) outpaced Fort Collins (population 165,000) in new single-family home growth last yearThe Steamboat Pilot reported on local students graduating. Under the headline “It’s a wrap,” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a big takeout on the end of this year’s legislative sessionVail Daily ran a story about property values in Eagle County flying like an eagle. “This Year’s Big Laws” was the A1 above-the-fold headline of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins about the legislative session. The Boulder Daily Camera reported on scientists monitoring a local creekThe Denver Post ran a big story looking at how safe Colorado’s motorists are from large trucks following a recent deadly truck crash on I-70The Durango Herald asked if the latest legislative session deepened the state’s urban-rural divide.

Reporting on election results? Remember media’s magic mushroom moment in Denver

Dewey did not defeat Truman and Denver voters did not — at this point, per the vote count so far — defeat a quasi-decriminalization of psychedelic psilocybin fungi, a.k.a, magic mushrooms. Or did they? “Denver Voters Reject Measure To Decriminalize Psychedelic Mushrooms,” read an online headline at CBS4 as of Thursday night, even as the news anchor doing the coverage cautioned that all votes were not in. But the same station’s site also had a headline up the same evening that read, “Denver Voters Decide ‘Yes’ To Decriminalize ‘Magic Mushrooms.” No, you’re not on mushrooms, and, no, CBS4 wasn’t the only outlet to report the local city ballot measure failed and then later report it passed. Here’s a head-spinning headline:

Lesson here? Remember the ‘shroom next time when reporting election results in Colorado where ballots trickle in and different elections offices release them at different times. If reporters are trying to call elections, though, Lynn Bartels, the former spokeswoman for the Secretary of State’s Office, suggests first calling individual county clerks to ask where the votes that haven’t been counted are and how many are left.

Even still, why not wait just a little longer so you don’t wind up running a headline that makes you look a toadstool?

What newsrooms got out of the 2019 legislative session

Colorado lawmakers wrapped up their work last week and our new governor is wearing out his wrist signing bills they passed into law. Journalists and their advocates are cheering some of them. The session was “a productive one for freedom of information and First Amendment-related issues,” said Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. On his organization’s website, he rounded up the bills Gov. Jared Polis already signed and the ones sent to his desk by the time the session ended.

Already signed into law is one that opens up transparency for police internal affairs files after investigations are complete. Another “gives local governments an incentive to post meeting notices online.”

On his desk is a bill to create a panel that will study whether and how media literacy should be taught in public schools. Another is one that would enact an anti-SLAPP statute to allow judges to more quickly dismiss court actions they believe are “strategic lawsuits against public participation.” A third law requires county jails to “report inmate deaths, operational capacity and the number of people held for different reasons among several other data elements.”

Another new law came after a 9News exposé

“I believe one of the fundamentals of journalism is not only to inform but to prompt change for the good, for the betterment of society.” So said KUSA 9News TV reporter Jeremy Jojola who works for the NBC affiliate in Denver, as he strolled through the grounds of the state Capitol last week while filming a personal video for his Facebook page.

He was talking about the legislative fruits of his multi-part investigation called “Stranded” about “helpless people who end up in hospitals because they have nobody to take care of them … hundreds of people dumped, abandoned, and then stranded in Denver-area hospitals every year,” typically at-risk adults and elderly folks. The series also explored hospital and nursing home discharge policies, and questioned oversight by regulators. The reporting prompted lawmakers to pass a law “that would make the abandonment and confinement of elderly people and at-risk adults a felony,” Jojola said in his Facebook video. “I’m happy to say that our investigation prompted this change and it’s something I think lawmakers really responded to.”

And now for next year

The rubber balls hadn’t even dropped — it’s an end-of-the-calendar tradition — on the 2019 legislative session before The Colordoan’s editor was calling for lawmakers to get to work on a new law in 2020 because of hurdles his paper faced in reporting a four-month investigation “into workplace sexual harassment complaints fielded by Larimer County’s nine largest Colorado taxpayer-funded employers.”

From Coloradoan editor Eric Larsen, reacting to agency efforts at stonewalling his reporters:

It’s time these agencies make proactive steps to track the prevalence of workplace sexual harassment so they can better address underlying issues. And as the 2019 legislative session winds down, it’s also time for Colorado lawmakers to discuss possible legislation in 2020 to ensure that our state’s taxpayer-funded employers know how often their workers face unwanted sexual behavior.

So cheers to this year. And the next. Already. 

*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

2 COMMENTS

  1. Colorado newspapers are already publicly funded, through legal advertising. How appealing would local papers be to hedge funds, billionaires and mega news corps without the direct subsidy of monopolistic legal notice advertising? Not very. It is foolish to think the granting of single source subsidies to a given newspaper is done in a political vacuum. One cannot talk about the free market in the news business without stopping these welfare payments to the chosen few papers of record.

    There is an alternative to these subsidized monopolies and it is self-publishing legal notices on local government websites. Make the postings subject to an annual audit to keep the politicos a bit more honest. Then let’s give the free market a real test in the news business.

  2. Frankly, I’m more interested in fair and accurate reporting sans any political BS whatsoever. Some outlets are better than others; and I find it no surprise that Fox News is just beating the pants off other cable news providers. CNN, MSNBC, etc. are obsessed with a Russia, Russia, Russia narrative that has no legs.

    I’ve seen the Longmont Observer, compared it to the Longmont Times-Call, and found them both deficient in similar ways. I can’t imagine that a library-based and publicly financed news soiurce would be much different.

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