Colorado Springs Gazette stamps another ‘statewide footprint’ with a new investigative team

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The newsroom of The Gazette in downtown Colorado Springs (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Colorado’s second-largest newspaper, The Gazette, based in Colorado’s second-largest city, doesn’t seem to want to play second fiddle.

Within the past three years, the paper, run by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz’s Clarity Media, launched the statewide (paywalled) politics site ColoradoPolitics and incorporated it into a weekly subscription print magazine after purchasing The Colorado Statesman. In doing so, Clarity pulled reporter Joey Bunch away from The Denver Post and Peter Marcus from The Durango Herald, though Marcus since left for the pot industry. Marianne Goodland jumped onboard after leaving The Colorado Independent, and Ernest Luning joined from the Statesman. Managing Editor Mark Harden came over from The Denver Business Journal. More recently, Clarity Media has made inroads into Denver by hiring former Rocky Mountain News vet John Ensslin to focus on Colorado’s capital city and announcing a job listing for another Denver-focused scribe.

Anschutz reportedly once wanted to buy The Denver Post, but it didn’t work out. After mass layoffs at the Post last year under ownership that doesn’t appear interested in investing in the newspaper, it has been my working theory that Clarity Media wants to position itself the flagship news source for Colorado. (It should be noted that while Clarity invests in journalism here, it shut down its Weekly Standard magazine in D.C. last year.)

This comes from an announcement to staff by Gazette Publisher Chris Reen this week:

“The Gazette is expanding its statewide footprint with the addition of a three-person investigative team, to be led by veteran Colorado journalist Chris Osher. The new team, which will be based in Denver, will focus on investigative reporting projects across Colorado for both the Gazette and Colorado Politics, with a strong emphasis on holding politicians and state agencies accountable for how they spend our tax dollars. With such a team in place, we plan to enhance our efforts to be a teaching newspaper, rotating in reporters from The Gazette and Colorado Politics to learn investigative skills sets and improve their ability to do accountability journalism, public records research and data analysis.”

Osher’s move to The Gazette is especially notable given he joined The Colorado Sun to cover education just six months ago following 13 years at The Denver Post, where he worked on investigative projects. The Gazette hopes to fill out the rest of the I-team by the end of this month. I’m told to look out for deeper, “harder hitting” coverage.

Beyond the surface-level analysis of The Gazette’s further statewide expansion, the new initiative’s stated focus on public spending (that’s not unlike the mission framing of, say, the former or the investigative arms of those state-based libertarian-leaning think tanks we’ve seen pop up in the past decade), there’s something else to think about here. This is the second multi-reporter investigative team to launch in Colorado this year. In January, Colorado Public Radio announced it was committing $300,000 “to build a team of investigative journalists” with support from an anonymous donor. It’ll be worth watching to see what kinds of priorities each outlet makes with its coverage, and to see whether any other Colorado outlet takes a similar tack into longer, deeper, slower investigative journalism with impact.

From journalism to politics and back again

In the early 1970s, when William Safire took a job as a columnist for The New York Times after working as Richard Nixon’s speechwriter, he said he believed his time in politics informed him as a journalist. As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosentiel later wrote, Safire also understood his conversion could be muddy and shouldn’t be repeated. “Going back and forth every few years confuses the reader/viewer and must trouble the inveterate switcher as well,” the authors quote Safire saying.

Colorado is seeing some of this as of late. In 2015, Lynn Bartels, a former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post politics reporter, took a buyout and joined state government as the spokeswoman for Republican Secretary of State Wayne Williams. Now, following a Democratic replacement in that office, she’s back in journalism, writing columns for ColoradoPolitics. (The outlet’s opinion editor, Dan Njegomir, also spent years as a journalist, worked in politics, then returned to the media business.)

In 2012, Denver Post assistant-managing-editor-turned-columnist Chuck Murphy left the newspaper for the nonprofit sector. In 2017, he was helping with communications on Democrat Mike Johnston’s gubernatorial campaign. Last week, Murphy started as the investigative editor for the team at Colorado Public Radio. He told me the team hasn’t come together yet.

Speaking of Colorado Public Radio…

It wouldn’t be a week writing about media without mentioning the expanding behemoth. The statewide news outlet got a spiffy new website. Check it out here.

The Pueblo Chieftain apologized for publishing a letter from someone impersonating a lawmaker

On Wednesday morning, Pueblo Democratic Rep. Bri Buentello was startled by texts from constituents about a letter to the editor they said appeared with her name on it in that morning’s Pueblo Chieftain. Buentello, a young special education teacher who won election in November, thought that was odd. She doesn’t have a habit of writing letters to the editor, and certainly didn’t recall sending one in. She doesn’t subscribe to her hometown newspaper — it’s not a slight, it’s just not in her budget, she says — so she headed down to a nearby gas station and grabbed a copy. There, in the “Tell it to the Chieftain” section, she saw it: A three-paragraph letter lauding some “great news out of Washington, as the Democrats and the Republicans managed to agree to fund” the Arkansas Valley Conduit, a pipeline project from Lake Pueblo to Lamar.

Buentello phoned editors at the Chieftain and let them know she didn’t write the letter. Editor Steve Henson responded with a public note to readers, apologizing, and explaining what happened:

The Chieftain for years has required contact information for all letters submitted for publication. Further, for those letters selected for print, we telephone the letter writer for further verification. We did that in the case of Buentello’s letter. But the number, and the woman impersonating Buentello, were bogus. We have not had this happen before involving anyone of prominence, but as we all know, there’s a first time for everything. So we are beefing up our process of verifying letters in hopes of this not happening again.

The editor said the paper apologizes to the lawmaker and “to you, our readers,” and promised to do better. (Editorial page editor Blake Fontenay didn’t return an email for this item.)

“I honestly have no idea who it was,” Buentello told me Wednesday about the letter writer. “It’s an enigma.”

Another enigma is the content of the letter itself. There doesn’t seem to be much recent news about the conduit. A May 8 story in the Chieftain reported the “big, long-awaited water project” is “finally getting some federal funding,” but Buentello doesn’t feel there’s real progress being made on the project, and currently there’s no allocation for it. “We could really use clean drinking water as we’re human beings,” she says.

I reached out to Chris Woodka of the Southeastern Colorado Water Conservatory District, who also happens to be a longtime former water reporter for the Chieftain, to find out the latest about this pipeline project and to set the record straight.

“We have about $3 million in committed funds, no federal allocation for 2020, and the possibility of some funding through internal reallocation within Reclamation,” he said. “The administration determines funding for the [Arkansas Valley Conduit]. We are working very hard to restore funding, and the congressional delegation is supportive. The Colorado General Assembly unanimously passed a Joint Senate Memorial in support of AVC in its last session. That’s about it.”

As for Buentello, she doubts she’ll frame this particular issue of her hometown newspaper to display for humor or posterity; she already has a commemorative edition that makes her laugh. “The one that’s framed is just ‘Buentello narrowly wins House District 47, recount certain,'” she says. “I’m like, ‘Yay, ringing headline.'”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune ran a front-page profile of the local police chief following his first year in office — and, well, the local police chief was the only source quoted in the storyThe Gazette in Colorado Springs ran a front-page piece on “The tug of war over the San Luis Valley’s water” written by Fresh Water News, “an independent, non-partisan news initiative of Water Education Colorado.” The Steamboat Pilot reported how after five years of legalization, “Colorado struggles to test marijuana impairment for drivers.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald wrote about a local development projectThe Longmont Times-Call reported on a volunteer effort to weed a local gardenThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a story about a conservative petition effort to recall Democratic Gov. Jared Polis who won by more than 10 percentage points in November’s electionThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled Tony Frank, the new president of CSUThe Durango Herald wrote about a local park in tattersThe Denver Post reported how Durango’s residents are divided as its “beloved coal-fired train faces lawsuits over its role in the 416 fire.” The Boulder Daily Camera reported on an affordable housing program.

Colorado Media Project got the NiemanLab treatment

The Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard, which attempts to “help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age,” this week took a look at what the Colorado Media Project is up to, and set the stage for its profile with this opening paragraph:

Look at the local journalism scene of almost any metropolitan area in the U.S., and you’ll find a similar set of players facing a similar set of challenges. One remaining daily newspaper, facing still more cuts and cratering print advertising. A few TV stations, buttressed by advertising but facing mergers and uncertain investment in journalism. A public radio station, supported by residents but not immune to the industry’s crises. Maybe a startup or two trying to scope out a new vision. And it’s all darkened by a cloud of drip-dry revenue, broken trust in media, and important stories already going unreported.

Readers of this newsletter might be familiar with The Colorado Media Project, but here are some nuggets from the piece that jumped out at me:

  • “Four entities — the Gates Family Foundation, Democracy Fund, the local Bonfils-Stanton Foundation, and most recently the Membership Puzzle Project — have given the Colorado Media Project nearly $2 million to go forth and test new local news things.”
  • “The Colorado Media Project has made some progress already, including … a ten-year business plan for the Colorado Sun.”
  • The Sun, after launching on Civil’s blockchain grants, now has almost enough members to make up close to 70 percent of those grants after one year.”
  • “Bonfils-Stanton gave $150,000 toward the Denverite–CPR happy union (along with $50,000 to CMP to study the local cultural journalism landscape and $50,000 to Rocky Mountain Public Media to develop a cultural journalism aggregation hub through CMP).”
  • “The resounding sentiment across seven participants interviewed was the project” ensures continued collaboration, “not a selfish grab by any party.”
  • “…an idea like the group paywall Epic Pass idea has the risk of creating tensions in any local market.”

Read the whole thing here, and consider the kicker where the writer talks about whether this is something that could be replicated elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the CMP’s Epic-Pass-for-local-news revealed its newsroom finalists

The project rolled out its multiple Colorado newsroom partners to experiment with a joint marketing initiative modeled, in a way, after the iconic Epic pass that gives skiers and snowboarders access to multiple mountains that have different owners. The membership pilot project newsrooms are: Chalkbeat Colorado, The Colorado SunThe Durango HeraldThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, and KDNK. Univision briefly appeared as an announced partner, but pulled out — a “corporate decision,” CMP’s Alan Gottlieb told me.

“The ultimate question we’ll be exploring together,” the project announcement reads, is “can we develop a joint marketing and membership program that engages community and broadens support for newsrooms?”

I asked Nancy Watzman, the CMP’s director, what any news organization in Colorado that is not part of the project might get out of the results. She said the point is to test and prototype potential models and then be able to scale up what works and bring more newsrooms in. “We’re testing out the idea that the sum will be greater than the parts,” she said. “By joining together we can develop audience and community outreach and engagement.”

​Thanks to KNDK public radio in Carbondale for the shoutout

If you’re not regularly checking out the news from KDNK, which recently announced some big changes to its programming, you should be. It has a monthly book club show, localizes state and national stories, keeps tabs on local arts, culture, music and politics, keeps the community informed with news briefs, and more.

This week, Gavin Dahl, “one of the youngest station managers in public radio,” had me on air to talk about the fate of our state’s orphan counties and a recent ruling from the FCC governing satellite TV in parts of rural Colorado. Listen to the five-minute clip here.

Why The Colorado Independent is partnering with ProPublica to ‘document hate incidents’

Citing a rise in hate crimes across Colorado and a lack of statewide data on the incidents, the nonprofit Colorado Independent newsroom has joined ProPublica’s investigative reporting powerhouse to help with its national database of hate crimes.

From The Independent:

The project, Documenting Hate, gathers and verifies data from victims and witnesses, social media posts, news reports, social justice groups and law enforcement agencies with the goal of creating a national repository of information about hate crimes and trends about who is committing them and whom they are targeting. The database includes incidents investigated by law enforcement as well as those that law enforcers and governmental agencies don’t document because they don’t rise to the level of criminality. It is meant to raise state and local awareness about extremist groups, which often operate undetected in their communities.

There are too many stories for us — or even all news outlets in Colorado — to report. That’s why we hope you’ll participate in this effort. If you’ve been the victim of, witnessed or read about a recent hate crime, please consider filling out this form. Please include your contact information so our reporters may contact you to follow up. The incident may or may not qualify as newsworthy, but in either case will help our news team and reporters statewide and nationally track the prevalence of these incidents.

Please know that this form is not a police report nor a complaint to law enforcement or a government agency. It is for journalistic purposes only — and consistent with our mission of helping to amplify the voices of Coloradans whose stories are unheard.

Click here to find out how to help.

A major fact-checking operation is based in the Springs

You might have heard about the doctored video of Nancy Pelosi, altered to make her appear drunk, spreading across the Internet. But you might not know: “One fact-checking operation led the way in uncovering the truth about that doctored Pelosi video, and that company happens to be headquartered in Colorado Springs.”

That’s from Colorado Springs Independent columnist John Hazlehurst. More:

Founded in 2015 by local attorney/restaurateur/hotel owner Perry Sanders and then-CNN reporter Alan Duke, Springs-based Lead Stories has become a major fact-checking/fake news-debunking organization on the cyber scene. “We were told by one of the people we work with at Facebook that Lead Stories is the most prolific fact-checker in their world,” Duke says …

So where is this world-spanning Colorado Springs company? Is it somewhere downtown or maybe up north, a high-tech powerhouse hiding in two or three floors of an obscure medium-rise building? No. Like the internet miscreants it battles every day, Lead Stories is everywhere and nowhere. Alan Duke operates out of Los Angeles, Maarten Schenk works in Brussels, Perry Sanders is in the Springs, and the company employs independent coders “all around the world,” according to Duke. It’s headquartered in the offices of the Sanders Law Firm at 30 N. Tejon St., but the action is elsewhere.

“As long as I have my two laptops and my phone, it doesn’t matter where I am,” Duke told the paper.

R.I.P. journalists Neil Westergaard and Dustin Cuzick

The Denver Business Journal editor and 1990s-era editor of The Denver Post died at 67 this week. Westergaard, “came to Colorado from his native Chicago as a ski bum,” recalled his former colleague, Mark Harden. “And, in a way, that’s the approach he took to journalism across his long career: He attacked it with passion. He challenged himself and those around him.” Former Gov. John Hickenlooper recalled the editor’s “guitar chops,” while ex-colleague Cathy Proctor noted how he “guided a generation of journalists.” Being a “curmudgeon is a positive in my book,” recalled consultant Sean Duffy, adding that Westergaard “perfected the art.”

Also this week, KKTV News 11 reporter Dustin Cuzick died “surrounded by friends and family” after a battle with a kidney disease, the station reported. “Dustin was kind, intelligent and wickedly funny,” reads a KKTV report by Don Ward. “He always made us laugh, and our newsroom was always better when he was in it.”

*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