The newsroom mood is ‘pretty dark’ as cuts hit The Pueblo Chieftain

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The Pueblo Chieftain newsroom in southern Colorado (Photo, Instagram filtered, by Corey Hutchins)

Last year, Colorado’s oldest daily newspaper, which at the time was under family ownership, was, like many newspapers around the country, bought by GateHouse, a company managed by a private equity firm that had in turn been bought by a Tokyo-based conglomerate.

The paper has filled some vacant positions, I’m told, but since the sale, the Chieftain is down a handful of editor and newsroom leader positions, its design team had been asked to potentially relocate to a hub in Austin, or be laid off, and the paper added a publisher but let its general manager go. The newsroom staff had “shrunk considerably” after GateHouse bought the Chieftain, one reporter told me around then. (Two years prior to the sale, the paper had already let multiple people go and stopped delivering newspapers west of Cañon City, east of Las Animas, and in the San Luis Valley, citing declining advertising revenue.)

Just last week, after about a year under the new ownership, things got worse. Across the country, dozens of axes fell in GateHouse newsrooms, and The Pueblo Chieftain was not immune. Longtime business editor Dennis Darrow caught the blade, and longtime reporter Mike Spence took an early retirement deal, essentially a “voluntary layoff,” says reporter Luke Lyons, the Chieftain’s labor union chair. “The mood here in the newsroom is pretty dark,” Lyons told me last Friday. “Facing an uncertain future doesn’t really translate to more productivity.” Prior to the GateHouse sale, Lyons says there were 30 people in the newsroom, including clerks, photographers, reporters, designers, and editors. “By my count now, we’re down to 18,” he says.

Meanwhile…

The devastation hedge-fund ownership has wreaked on local journalism has been well documented in Denver; what’s happening in Pueblo, less so — mainly in this newsletter and in Pueblo’s PULP newsmagazine. Kara Mason, a journalist from Pueblo who now lives and works in the Denver area, pointed out this week how journalists at The Denver Post helped focus national attention on their plight while those in Pueblo have not.

“I never heard one Chieftain writer raise even a question about being sold off to Gatehouse,” she said on Facebook. “In fact, it was applauded and management said it wouldn’t impact the paper. Hello! Google Gatehouse. If you think for a second rallying over being sold to a major out-of-town corporation known for sucking local newspapers dry wouldn’t have at least warranted a second look, you are so mistaken. If you go down, go down with a fight. Now your hometown daily, which has been on the decline for years, is down an editor and two reporters. Welcome to Gatehouse’s business operation. Print news isn’t easy, but if you really believe in your mission, you do what you can to save it.”

As the latest layoff news settled, another shoe dropped. Longtime reporter Peter Roper announced he would be retiring on June 1, though I’m told he had been telling people about his plans before the news of the latest layoffs. Roper was “an institution,” said state Sen. Jeff Bridges of Arapahoe County upon hearing the news. He called Roper’s departure a “major loss” for the state. “G-D that’s a loss for Colorado journalism,” said Megan Verlee, an editor at Colorado Public Radio. The paper put together a video send off for him here.

I reached out via email to Chieftain Editor Steve Henson about the latest layoff news, but didn’t hear back. He has told me before he does not think newspapers should report their own bad news. “What such reporting does, in my mind,” he told me in 2017, “is fuel the public’s ever-growing perception that we are slipping toward oblivion.”

Colorado’s ‘orphan county’ update

For a story in Columbia Journalism Review this week, I introduced a national audience to a battle on our border between Colorado’s La Plata County, the Federal Communications Commission, and broadcasters in New Mexico. It’s one that, in a way, hinges on what “local” news really means. The background is that while La Plata is in Colorado, it’s in the Albuquerque-Santa Fe Designated Market Area, or DMA, created by Nielsen, the private data analytics company that helps determine the top-ranked TV stations by audience. La Plata County officials and some Colorado politicians want the FCC to allow Denver stations  to broadcast there. (La Plata was the first county in the nation to ask for such a market modification after a tweak to federal law allowed local governments to do so.) The FCC hasn’t made the final call on a so-called market modification yet — they approved it, but the New Mexico broadcasters appealed — and Colorado’s new attorney general, Phil Weiser, is pressuring the commission to rule in La Plata’s favor. Not being able to get in-state news on TV is a “pain point” for some residents in southwest Colorado, Weiser told me. “In theory, they can just sit and do nothing,” he says of the FCC. “The FCC unfortunately isn’t always a model of alacrity in their decision making. Part of why it’s important that we be applying pressure, voicing our concerns, is we need the FCC to act.”

Not everyone wants the commission to act. From the piece:

Should the FCC uphold La Plata’s market modification, Albuquerque broadcasters argue the decision could upset the way DMAs are drawn by Nielsen. “If they let this happen, it is going to be counties all over this country that are going to want their DMA changed,” Paula Maes, president of the New Mexico Broadcasters Association, says. …

Michelle Donaldson, who manages KOB-TV in Albuquerque, says while she sympathizes with Durango residents, the potential of losing them as viewers would be “just like having a piece of yourself cut off.” Along with concerns for politics coverage relevant to their state, orphan county residents have also complained about a lack of access to their state’s sports teams. When the Broncos play, for instance, Denver stations carry their games, and Albuquerque stations do not. “We can be honest about that, I know that’s a huge driver,” Donaldson tells CJR in an interview. “Over the 20 years that I’ve been dialed into this issue, it certainly has been a lot of football talk.”

Though it’s headquartered in a different state, KOB is on the ground in La Plata County when big news breaks, she says, and is there covering local news for the community. In 2015, when a major mine spill turned a La Plata County river mustard yellow, KOB was quickly over the scene in its helicopter, sharing photos and videos with outlets in Colorado. “We’ve been delivering a service to that community for decades,” Donaldson says. “When it comes to having a local news commitment, we’re doing that.” If the FCC alters the media market in a way that limits KOB’s satellite service to La Plata, Donaldson argues, residents there could be left with less local news than before. “The whole issue opens a can of worms not just for the Colorado and New Mexico state line,” she says. “These markets in these orphan counties are all over our country. And it gets back to the heart of how do you define community?”

In doing research for the story, I picked through the hundreds of comments in the FCC’s online public docket from frustrated La Plata County residents who were raging about how they get their news from Albuquerque and how badly they want to get it from Denver. Perusing them can feel like reading letters in a bottle washed up on shore from some remote island outpost.

“I feel shut out of what is going on in my own state,” wrote someone from the town of Bayfield. “Granted I live in a forgotten corner of the state, but the goings on with in the state is essential,” wrote another from Durango. “We would like to be informed voters. I don’t care about New Mexico politics or their elections. We want to see what is going on in our state capital,” one couple wrote. “My wife and I would like to know what is going on in our state,” wrote another. “We do not get to hear about state legaslative (sic) stuff for Colorado from Albuquerque news stations.” Another Bayfield man wrote he has lived in La Plata County for 24 years and knows “more about what is happening in the news, in politics and in sports in New Mexico than Colorado.” “JUST HOW MANY HOOPS DO THE RESIDENTS HERE HAVE TO JUMP THROUGH TO HAVE THEIR WISHES HEARD?” asked another. Residents have cast their plight as a “ridiculous situation,” “absurd,” and “blatantly obvious at election time.” At least one quoted scripture: “As Moses said to pharaoh ‘free my people’ and I say free my people from NM TV.”

It should be noted that no one should cast their ballots based only on what they see on local TV in election years. And yet. Consider this letter one Durango man wrote to the FCC: “The biggest problem having NM TV is that it doesn’t allow me to have Denver news. This is important especially during an election because I don’t have any means other than newspaper and internet, both questionable sources, to rely on to vote a well informed ballot.” Ouch!

Read the whole story here. Or listen to me talk about it here on CJR’s podcast, The Kicker.

Coloradoan journalists: Why they do it

As part of the Trusting News initiative at the Reynolds Journalism Institute at the University of Missouri and the American Press Institute, Jennifer Hefty of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins is letting readers know how the Gannett-owned paper is trying to adapt in the local print industry’s Doom Decade.

She recently mapped out how many digital subscribers the paper needs to cover its newsroom expenses— “pens, computers, public records fees, travel, the salaries of our 16 journalists”— and estimated it at 20,000. As of last week, the paper needed 9,000 more subscribers to hit its goal. As they try to do that, she asked the paper’s journalists to explain to the newspaper’s readers why they do what they do in two sentences or less. One reporter said he does it because he believes in democracy, another because digging through documents and learning the history of her community fascinates her, and another said he loves talking to people.

I wonder what  how any media-thinker group, foundation or university dedicated to helping fix the local news biz model might help the Coloradoan journalists get to, or past, that 9,000 number.

A few states to the west, The Seattle Times is also empowering its journalists to “drive subscriber growth.” From Digiday:

Over the past year, the news publisher, which grew its digital subscriber base 38 percent to 40,000 in 2018, has been trying to get small teams of reporters to think more entrepreneurially about driving subscriptions. It wants them to not just monitor which kinds of content visitors read on their way to paying but also to experiment with new content and packaging formats designed to keep readers engaged.

Elsewhere on the journalists-opening-up-about-how-they-do-their-work front, Eric Lubbers and Jesse Paul of The Colorado Sun submitted themselves to a Reddit Ask Me Anything. User Bigbrothersrule asked a question likely on the minds of plenty of industry insiders: “There hasn’t been a ton of transparency around the health of your business itself. Obviously you can always use more members, but where are we at? Are there enough supporters to fund the current operation when the seed money from Civil runs out?” Lubbers, the outlet’s chief technology officer, answered: “So we’re not quite in a position to share raw numbers yet (we’re planning on giving a big update in our annual report this September) but I can say that we’ve been publishing for just under 9 months and the revenue we get from members is covering more than 60% of the monthly amount we receive via the grant from Civil. Obviously our goal is to get that number to 100% (and beyond) before the grant expires and we’re confident that we’re ahead of pace on that goal.”

Read the whole AMA here.

Meanwhile, an Arkansas newspaper is converting print subscribers to digital with free iPads

Speaking of digital subscriptions, Walter Hussman, the publisher of The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is on a mission to convert his paper’s print subscribers in 63 of the state’s counties to people who read the paper online. “If all goes according to plan, the print edition of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette would cease by the end of the year, except for Sundays, said Hussman, who is publisher of the newspaper and chairman of WEHCO Media, Inc.,” according to the paper.

More from The Democrat-Gazette:

Hussman is providing Apple iPads to subscribers so they can read a replica of the newspaper online. Hussman said he’s prepared to spend $12 million on the tablet computers, which retail for $329 each before tax. He has distributed more than 10,000 of them so far, starting with outlying areas of the state. The digital subscription rate is $34 to $36 a month, regardless of whether the subscriber wants an iPad. Hussman said he needs to convert 70% of subscribers from print to digital to make his plan profitable. “It may not work,” he said. “It’s a risk, but it’s a risk we’re willing to take. We want to remain a viable journalistic enterprise in Arkansas and we don’t see any other way to do it.”

A risk indeed. (And one, I must say, that has my eyes peeled on that one share of Apple stock in my E-trade account.)

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

Under the headline “The Wet Years,” The Greeley Tribune asked what a drought-free Colorado means for water users. The Steamboat Pilot launched a four-part series “exploring the hidden gems when you head down the road in Routt County.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald wrote about a local school’s graduationThe Longmont Times-Call reported on whether the city might get a new aquatic centerThe Gazette in Colorado Springs continued its series on mental health, this time focusing on first responders, where in “a state notorious for its fractured approach to mental health care, police and first responders are increasingly left to shoulder the load, forced to turn away from traditional tactics and play therapist, nanny and even chaperone.” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel revisited the West Sand Creek Landslide, an “unthinkably giant wall of rock and debris that roared almost three miles down a valley outside Collbran, burying everything in its path, including three beloved local men,” five years laterThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled a local graduate finding her voice against gun violence. The Durango Herald had a story about historic business signs in southern Colorado, like one for the Chief, in an age of increasing political correctnessThe Denver Post reported how Colorado’s largest polluter, an oil refinery in Commerce City, wants to raise the level of hydrogen-cyanide it can emitThe Boulder Daily Camera looked into whether CU-Boulder might have violated “the spirt of the law” in how it chose its latest president.

Longmont: No vote on a publicly funded news experiment this year as the conversation expands

This will not be the year voters in Longmont take up a question about whether a special taxing district for libraries might help fund local newsIf they ever do. The idea sparked a conversation in the growing city with a declining print newspaper that already has a publicly owned utility and a publicly owned broadband network.

For a broader look at how such a thing might look — anywhere — University of Colorado-Boulder media studies professor Nathan Schneider recently spoke with Community Information District advocate Simon Galperin for a KGNU “Looks Like New” podcast episode about so-called information districts and how they might fund local news organizations in an age of newspaper retrenchment and an increased privatization of the public square. About the nascent effort in Longmont, Schneider said on the hourlong podcast, “This is a town, remember, where the local newspaper, the Times-Call, has removed its office from the town it’s actually reporting on … so this is another story of a kind of withdrawal of local news.”

Galperin laid out how information districts might work in practice, and said the goal is “not to create a newspaper funded by the local government” but “to create a mechanism for residents, citizens, folks who work in the community to have an advocate at an institutional level for their news and information needs.” And he pushed back on the notion of the contemporary corporate media funding model being a panacea for local news delivery.

“I think that the history of private media colluding with private interests is well documented, and if we just have a superficial review of sort of the ownership and the practices of some of our major media institutions we would find that they are not ideal,” he said. “That said, I think that public funding is more treacherous in a lot of ways because of how people define partisanship, and expect a level of neutrality and objectivity that is not necessarily media literate.”

As for how the Longmont experiment fits into his work on information districts, Galperin said, “Longmont has certainly been an inspiration and led me to get my ass in gear as it relates to beginning to organize at a local level in my own community.”

Meanwhile, Dave Krieger, the former opinion page editor of The Boulder Daily Camera who was fired after he published a column critical of his newspaper’s hedge-fund owner, offered a tweetstorm about our late-capitalist local news apocalypse. The Longmont Experiment got a mention. He suggested the First Amendment is “generally understood to prohibit the sort of government support the British Parliament provides the BBC” and that the “proposal in Longmont, Colo., for a public library district to support local news coverage is constitutionally vulnerable as a result.” But, he wondered, “Could a smart lawyer devise a special taxing district subject to no existing government entity that supervised only the dispersion of j-tax proceeds, with a board of nationally-recognized journalists to hire editorial executives who would have sole discretion over content?” Or, he went on, “could a nascent nonprofit set up, campaign for and administer such a taxing district, contingent on public approval, allowing communities to establish news enterprises and underwrite their products with enough markup to allow reinvestment and growth?”

Around this time last year, Colorado was ground zero for the debate about How To Save The Local News. Krieger was part of it, speaking on panels and on TV. Now, it looks like he wants more conversation. “I’d like to see a panel of people more knowledgeable than me about legalities and logistics convened at the state level to examine the state of local journalism in Colorado and come up with some recommendations,” he said. “We have to start by recognizing the problem.”

An ‘EPIC pass for local news?’ Colorado newsrooms needed for a pilot experiment

Is your newsroom adventurous? The Colorado Media Project is looking for five newsrooms in Colorado to “join as partners in a pilot project where we will co-create and test a joint marketing and membership program for homegrown, local news.” From the announcement:
Each selected news organization will receive $5,000 for participating in this project, which includes a “summer sprint” period for research, message testing, and campaign design. The goal: launch of pilot campaign in fall 2019 with initial results reported by Dec. 31, 2019. Audience research shows a large, untapped market of Coloradans interested in local news and one million of them would pay for it. Yet with an increasingly fragmented media landscape, it’s getting harder for local newsrooms and stories to get noticed. If we work together, can we help local Colorado news organizations reach more people?

This is the EPIC-pass-for-local-news experiment I’ve been super curious about. You know how you buy one pass and get access to several ski mountains? Think of that but for access to news outlets in Colorado instead of resorts. It’s a way the Colorado Media Project, along with the Membership Puzzle Project out of NYU, are looking to help our state’s newsrooms become more sustainable.

“Participating news organizations will help Colorado Media Project co-design the marketing and membership model throughout summer 2019, support the fall launch and participate in continued iteration of the program based on user feedback,” the CMP says.

So get on this if you want your newsroom involved.

1 COMMENT

  1. Newspapers in Colorado already enjoy a huge tax funded subsidy through a monopolistic designation to publish legal advertising. It is curious that students of the newspaper business can discuss the financial condition of the medium without acknowledging and analyzing the out-sized role this subsidy.

    If governmental entities were allowed to self-publish legal notices either through audited web-sites or direct mailing much of the incentive for outside ownership of newspapers would be eliminated.

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