Freelance reporter David O. Williams is on a tear.
In an ongoing series of stories he published this month in Vail Daily, the reporter exposed some harsh realities for some non-one-percenters living and working near the desirable destination town.
The first story detailed complaints about dirty drinking water in the Eagle River Village mobile home park in Edwards, which Williams notes is “one of the most populous neighborhoods in one of the wealthiest counties in Colorado” and houses a sizable chunk of the area’s workforce. The second story dug into a failed $4.4 million deal to provide better drinking water to the trailer park, and the latest story looked at how Eagle County is eyeing the ways in which regulations and legislation might provide some sort of fix. (Meanwhile, Williams has also been reporting on immigration issues in the Vail Valley, from the local impacts of a work-visa shortage to DACA and wage theft to Republican President Donald Trump’s family-separation policy and anti-Mexico rhetoric.)
This week, Vail Daily’s editorial board followed up on Williams’s water-quality reporting with a pointed house editorial. “We can argue until we’re blue in the face about how to solve the valley’s workforce housing crisis and where those developments should go. We can scream about the dwindling bighorn sheep herd in East Vail and the proposed Booth Heights development,” the editorial read. “But first, let’s talk about fixing the damn water at Eagle River Village. It’s a stain on our community and speaks volumes about how we treat workers in this valley.”
I caught up with Williams to talk about his recent work for Vail Daily in the context of his previous gripes with the Swift Communications-owned paper that’s part of a collection called Colorado Mountain News Media. “Trust me,” he said about the publication of his water-quality series, “that took some balls for this chain that operates mostly in resort towns where everyone tries to pull in the same economic direction.”
As a freelance writer and self-described progressive blogger, Williams has in the past taken shots at Vail Daily for being, he said, a free, resort-town paper heavy on ads and light on editorial quality. He even competed with it by leading a rival publication. “But publisher Mark Wurzer hired an editor, Nate Peterson, who is shaking up the old pro-business, conservative-leaning model in a county that’s increasingly blue,” Williams told me. “Politics aside, that’s the role of a community newspaper: to tell the stories impacting all of their readers— whether it’s the big city or a ski town— not just the wealthy and the privileged fortunate enough to visit or buy real estate.”
Williams says he gives Vail Daily credit for going where he contends they’ve been nervous to go in the past.
“Resort town papers don’t like to take on problems like 7 percent of the population forced to drink crappy well water,” he says. “Things are supposed to be glorious for all here in the Tyrolean-tinged home of Vail and Beaver Creek. But mostly things are just glorious for the owners of 10,000-square-foot starter castles paid for by Trump administration tax cuts— or the .01 percent of Mexico that owns homes and vacations here. Who knew the water would be better in Mexico?”
CPR editor embroiled in debate over how journalists should behave on social media
On Friday, Aída Chávez, a journalist for The Intercept, garnered plenty of attention on journalism Twitter with this:
wait since we’re on the subject, remember the time my journalism school wanted to kick me out of their DC program for tweeting that my parents are immigrants while I was an immigration reporter pic.twitter.com/qgcXhpUGHX
— aída chávez (@aidachavez) July 26, 2019
The post came with a screen grab of a note to her from someone at the Cronkite School where she was a student three years ago saying she had been “talked to or messaged at” about her presence on social media. “And yet you continue to post inappropriate tweets, the latest being tonight’s tweets: ‘fact: I wouldn’t be here if my father didn’t cross the border. he’s an engineer. I’m trying to get two degrees and graduate early.’”
The letter went on:
“Though I think that is an amazing story, posting something like that is not appropriate for a reporter in a news organization. It might be different if you were an opinion writer or working for a media site that is pushing an agenda. But a news reporter in Washington working for an organization that is trying to fairly cover a variety of issues cannot post a pro-immigration tweet during an immigration speech by a presidential candidate. The tweet would not be appropriate regardless of the timing.”
The letter also pointed to part of the school’s social media guidelines and syllabus. (Read the whole thing by clicking the tweet above.) Chávez told New Times in Phoenix she publicized the letter after an NPR music writer said she lost work at the outlet because of what the outlet called her “activist stance.”
The Chávez post immediately drew attention, including from high-profile media figures, and racked up hundreds of comments, the bulk of them condemning the letter. It didn’t take long before the author of the admonition was identified as Kevin Dale, who spent two and a half years as executive editor at Cronkite News at Arizona PBS and is now executive editor of Colorado Public Radio.
On Saturday, Dale responded via Twitter, saying federal privacy law prohibited him from discussing student issues. “But,” he said, “I will say that all of the context has not been told.” (Click the tweet to read all eight statements.)
I'll respond as I can to tweets by @aidachavez and others. 1/8
— Kevin Dale (@kevindale) July 27, 2019
The Phoenix New Times ran a story about all this Monday, and The Arizona Republic’s media critical took it on, too.
From the New Times piece:
The consensus on Twitter: that Chávez’s tweet was an appropriate personal disclosure and that Dale’s warning to her was an absurd over-correction rooted in an outdated notion of journalistic objectivity.
“I have almost always found collegiate journalism programs more willing to teach students how to publicly perform ‘nonpartisanship’ than actual journalistic values, like the pursuit of truth or accountability,” wrote New York Times national politics reporter Astead Wesley.
“Not acknowledging that your parents immigrated verges on concealment, and Cronkite never would abide that,” wrote Los Angeles Times reporter Geoffrey Mohan. “The additional irony: Your school administration has no clue how much it taught you with this.”
The Cronkite School released a statement to media as well:
“Under federal law (FERPA), the Cronkite School is barred from discussing any student’s performance in an academic program. However, we believe that journalistic impartiality, especially in today’s media climate, continues to be an important journalistic standard. Separating professional and personal lives is a well-established daily practice for working journalists and is an important part of the teaching that takes place at the Cronkite School and at journalism schools across the country.”
Dale, who was preparing to address his staff Monday about the incident and answer any questions they might have, didn’t go into much further detail than he did in his tweets when I talked to him about it, citing privacy rules. He said Cronkite News had “very strict policies” about what could and could not be on social media “and we enforced those rules.” He said he was carrying out the syllabus of Cronkite News. Asked if that’s his same philosophy now as a news manager, he said his current professional newsroom standards are not as strict as Cronkite’s though he has asked journalists to take down tweets at CPR and as an editor at The Denver Post.
About the particular tweet mentioned in the Chávez letter, Dale said if a current reporter he oversees wrote a factual social media posting like it, he wouldn’t have a problem with it — if it were “out of the blue.” He said later, “I don’t mind them posting personal stories as long as it doesn’t hinder their ability to cover the story.”
Robert Hernandez, who teaches journalism and ethics at USC Annenberg, weighed in on the social media thread, writing, “Journalism Professor here (also son of an undocumented immigrant) … I actively talk to my students — and working journos — about their brand and how they identify themselves. You can totally do this, but do it with eyes open … Just know that talking about your experiences can close doors as well as open doors. The most important thing is that you are true to yourself and honest with the diverse communities you serve. And, that truth can make some people uncomfortable, including your employer. … For some of us, the act of just being ((alive)) makes us non-“neutral” in the eyes of some. We all are shaped by our experiences and that’s a good thing, not a threat to journalism.”
In a bit of irony— and a clear dose of reality about journalists on social media these days— The Intercept’s Ryan Grim said Chávez Twitter presence was noticed by someone who thought she should be writing for The Intercept. “[A]nd now she is,” Grim said, “so don’t listen to your teachers, kids.”
Speaking to Arizona State University’s student paper, The State Press, Chávez said she felt her academic program “kind of scares people away from being themselves and they tell you you’re never going to get hired”— something she called “a very antiquated notion of the journalism industry.” She said she hopes this recent experience is “comforting that a few non-neutral tweets aren’t gonna ruin your career actually in the real world. Most professional journalists do have their own voice on social media.”
Even some at CPR, it turns out…
so, i was told to go back to my country before.
yes, i am from the great republic of buffalo, ny.
but it doesn't matter.
— Ann Marie🧙Awad (@AnnAwad) July 15, 2019
A compelling example of a journalist’s own lived experience in the context of reporting— not posted on social media but instead smack in the middle of a broadcast— emerged this Saturday when CNN anchor Victor Blackwell was hosting a segment about Trump’s characterization of Baltimore, which Trump called “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess” where “No human being would want to live.”
After 11 seconds of silence while reporting Trump’s statement, Blackwell, choking up, said, “You know who did [live there], Mr. President? I did. From the day I was brought home from the hospital to the day I left for college. And a lot of people I care about still do. There are challenges, no doubt, but people are proud of their community. I don’t want to sound self-righteous but people get up and go to work there, they care for their families there, they love their children who pledge allegiance to the flag just like people who live in districts of congressmen who support you, sir. They are Americans, too.”
Content director of The Greeley Tribune ousted
Publisher Bryce Jacobson fired him earlier this month, Amestoy says, over a disagreement about what the content director believed were “unreasonable” story quotas for journalists at the northern Colorado newspaper. Jacobson declined to discuss a personnel matter, but said he disagreed with how Amestoy characterized why he had been forced out.
Recent exits also include content manager Nate Miller, public money reporter Emily Wenger who left for a job at KDVR-TV in Denver, and Kelsy Schlotthauer who moved on in January for a job at a paper in Oklahoma after just six months. Reporter Sara Knuth left in the spring, and in April, reporter-columnist Terry Frei was let go during a downsizing. The paper’s longtime editor, Randy Bangert, considered a stabilizing force in the newsroom, died last May.
Amestoy’s ouster comes just weeks after the paper’s content manager, Tyler Silvy, who worked at the Tribune off and on since 2011, bolted for a job at The Press Democrat in Santa Rosa, California. “I haven’t been this happy to come to work in a long time where I’m at now,” Silvy said this week, adding, “I didn’t take pride in the product we were putting out at the Tribune. And it hurt.” Asked what attributed to that, he said too few journalists being asked to produce too many stories and a pivot away from what he called mission-driven journalism.
In January, the paper cut its print run down to four days a week and put a greater emphasis on the digital product.
Amestoy’s departure is the latest editorial turnover at the newspaper that was founded in 1870 and is owned by the Nevada-based Swift Communications. Jacobson attributed the turnover to hiring a young staff.
The Greeley Tribune is facing the same unruly headwinds that are buffeting the local newspaper industry nationwide. Hometown papers are trying to do more with less while struggling to maintain print subscribers; revenues dwindle as advertisers flock to online platforms like Google and Facebook. At the Tribune, however, Jacobson says a digital-print subscription combination is taking off and the paper is hitting its benchmarks for distribution, content creation, and marketing. The Tribune won the Colorado Press Association’s award for general excellence this year, among dozens of others.
As for Amestoy, he said he believed the paper was able to do a lot of good journalism in the brief time he was there but he felt a lack of respect for his experience and expertise, and he disagreed with the amount of stories he said the publisher expected from reporters. Amestoy and others put that number at 23 per week per reporter; Jacobson says he believes a journalist should be able to do 15. “Eight of those meal-sized stories and the balance between eight and 15 snack and bite-sized stories,” he said.
Publisher Jacobson, who has always responded when I’ve reached out for a story he probably wasn’t going to like, didn’t appreciate my phone call about all this, and he let me know it. He said I’ve only called when there’s something I perceive as bad happening at the paper, and he’d rather I write about the positive things the Tribune is accomplishing during a tough time for the local print newspaper business. It’s a story I’m missing out on, he told me, and one he wishes would pique my interest instead of writing about “the demise of this industry.” I told him I’d take that to heart— and I want to ask you whether you think this newsletter has been unreasonably negative over the years— in general or about any particular news outlet.
Amestoy expressed a lot of excitement about getting back into journalism less than a year ago following a brief stint in PR in California. I wondered if the experience of moving to Colorado only to leave a new paper so soon under these circumstances disillusioned him about the news business. It hasn’t, he says; he’s looking for journalism jobs in an industry he loves.
Chuck P’s new revolution: A debate about a ‘public-funding option’ for local news
In recent months, this newsletter has been reporting on nascent moves within certain corners of the state’s journalistic landscape that indicate some sort of appetite to explore the viability of a public-funding component to help support the delivery of local news.
This year we’ve seen an experiment bloom and bust in Longmont with the idea of a library taxing district to help fund a community news gathering operation in a town where the local paper has withered. Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore wrote a piece for Pulitzer.org explaining why he believes exploring public subsidies for local news is necessary. Meanwhile, The Colorado Media Project is spending this summer researching ways to financially support local journalism that include a public-funding model.
Now, Chuck Plunkett, leader of last year’s Denver Rebellion and current director of the University of Colorado’s News Corps program, has made a very public pitch for more discussion on the topic. In front of a crowd at a recent TEDxMileHigh Humankind conference, Plunkett told the inside story about how as editorial page editor of The Denver Post he orchestrated the famous editorial package aimed at the paper’s hedge-fund owners and the sequence of events that led him to resign citing censorship.
Then, at the end of his talk, Plunkett said this: “A properly staffed local newsroom isn’t profitable, and in this age of Google and Facebook it’s not going to be. If newspapers are vital to our democracy then we should fund them like they’re vital to our democracy. We cannot stand by and let our watchdogs be put down. We can’t let more communities vanish into darkness. It is time to debate a public funding option before the Fourth Estate disappears and with it our grand democratic experiment. We need much more than a rebellion. It is time for a revolution.”
Joey didn’t know
Last week, an un-bylined post at the liberal ColoradoPols blog pointed to an alleged invitation for a summer BBQ that doubled as a fundraiser for Republican candidates. ColoradoPolitics senior reporter Joey Bunch was listed on the invitation as as master of ceremonies for the event. Whoa if true, right? The unnamed author of the post was not charitable about the matter. Something like that would be problematic indeed.
I assume plenty of politics watchers and journalists had seen the post or mention of it, but Bunch hadn’t said anything publicly about this by Sunday when I asked him about it. He speaks at events often, he says, and he’d agreed to emcee what he thought was a barbecue, but he didn’t know who was attending or specific details about the event. He says he backed out when he learned what it was. “As soon as I found out it was a fundraiser it was a no brainer,” he told me, adding, “ColoradoPols could have found that out if they’d called me and asked me.” (Side note: He says he actually learned it was a fundraiser from the blog post.)
A Democratic party operative told me the thought of a political reporter serving as the emcee of a Republican fundraiser might give the operative pause when considering whether to engage with that reporter on future stories. Understandable. “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and all. The Democrat put it in the context of ColoradoPolitics being a sponsor of this year’s Western Conservative Summit, as the outlet was in 2018, and that the outlet is owned by a wealthy conservative who gets involved in politics. So there might be some extra sensitivity there. (Bunch, who gives plenty of talks throughout the year to various groups, said he would entertain an invitation to speak at Democratic events if asked.)
Hedge-fund newspaper ownership hits this year’s presidential race
As The Denver Rebellion rippled across Colorado last year, a sprawling governor’s race was taking place at the same time that counted something like a dozen candidates. Reporters asked some of them to weigh in on the situation, and some of them did. But none of them said anything close to what Democratic U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who is running for president, did this week when she said in a public statement: “Private equity firms are destroying our free press. They buy newspapers like the Monterey Herald for cheap, cut the staff, and bleed them dry. My new plan to hold Wall Street accountable would end this looting.”
The legislation places limits on compensation to executives in companies owned by private equity and prevents big payouts when workers receive nothing during the bankruptcy process. It also gives priority to severance pay during bankruptcy. It eliminates the so-called “carried interest loophole” whereby the money extracted from both the companies they own and their limited partners is taxed at a low rate. Most importantly, the Stop Wall Street Looting Act makes private equity ownership much more transparent. It directs the Securities and Exchange Commission to collect information. The names of general and limited partners will be known, as will the ownership percentages. The amount of debt used to finance the purchase will be known. The private equity firm’s other portfolio companies will be known.
“It’s tragic when a hedge fund takes over your local pharmacy or toy store chain and thousands lose their jobs,” Reynolds continued. “But it’s catastrophic when the casualty is your right to know what’s going on in government and in your community. It’s catastrophic when that hedge fund systematically and intentionally destroys the sources of information that are essential to society.”
Newspaper mega merger would impact Colorado
Heeeeeere we go…
It now looks like this pairing might last. Late last week, the Journal’s Cara Lombardo and Dana Cimilluca reported that Gannett and GateHouse are close to a deal; an official announcement could follow in the next few weeks. According to Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor—who has long foreseen a major move to consolidate the media industry—the combined company would own 265 daily titles with a total print circulation nearing 9 million readers. That’s one of every six daily newspapers in America. “The hunt for scale seems to be ending with a merger of No. 1 and No. 2,” Doctor writes. Some scale.
If the deal goes through, the papers it would impact in Colorado are the Gannett-owned Coloradoan in Fort Collins and GateHouse’s Pueblo Chieftain, La Junta Tribune Democrat, Ag Journal, Bent County Democrat, and Fowler Tribune.
Writing in Poynter about how such a mega merger might work, Rick Edmonds reported the strategies of both companies match. “Both are focused now on their largest metro papers like The Arizona Republic and The Indianapolis Star for Gannett and The Columbus Dispatch and Austin American Statesman for GateHouse,” he writes. “Both have sliced operations at smaller titles to the bone, often with newsrooms that number in the single digits. So my hunch is that further deep newsroom cuts as a result of a merger sometime later this year may not be in the offing. But there are important qualifiers. GateHouse, by reputation, does operate more leanly than Gannett. And even once the chains combine, if revenues per property keep declining so will news staffing.”
What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado
The Loveland Reporter-Herald wrote how this year’s county property assessments led to record protests and a county official’s resignation. Steamboat Today wrote about the healing nature of art. The Longmont Times-Call reported on city officials reminding people of an expanded downtown smoking ban. The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported why air quality in the Pikes Peak region is better this year. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel wrote about a chronic disease facing animal herds. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins checked in on a 40-year effort to complete a Poudre River trail. The Durango Herald wondered whether the city manager trying to sell a home through a city councilman’s real estate firm is an ethics violation. The Denver Post reported how some funeral homes are looking to “inject life into the commemoration of death” as trends shift. The Boulder Daily Camera reported the local transportation board backs protected bike lanes.
The Denver Post sent a cease and desist to Aurora police for using a photo
Denver Post reporters know how to ask if they’d like to use a photo taken by someone else. The Aurora Police Department? Not so much, apparently. “The Aurora Police Department has removed a photograph that was included in a news release yesterday after The Denver Post insisted the local law enforcement agency stop circulating the image,” reported The Aurora Sentinel. More:
…Aurora police said the department received a cease and desist letter from The Post, instructing investigators to remove an image of a masked man holding a U.S. flag during an organized protest at a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility in Aurora July 12. Nearly 2,000 people attended the rally at the north Aurora facility. An open records request revealed the cease and desist letter from The Post came in the form of an email sent to the city’s records unit at 4:31 p.m. yesterday. Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo sent the email, and a lawyer for The Post was copied on the message.
Colacioppo penned her own piece headlined “Why The Denver Post asked Aurora police to stop using our photograph of an ICE protester.” From the column:
First and foremost, we are not a tool of law enforcement. Our independence from any other institution is critical to our ability to be a trusted news source. We believe that Aurora’s use of the photo suggested that we acted in partnership with law enforcement. Our job is to report the news and remain an independent voice. How can the public believe we will ever be critical of the Aurora Police Department if they think we have a partnership with them?
“Additionally, the Aurora Police Department’s use of our photograph is a clear violation of copyright law and The Denver Post’s terms of fair use,” she went on. “We defend both vigorously.”
Speaking of The Denver Post…
David Migoya is at it again. After exposing Colorado’s notoriously secretive judicial department in a series of stories called “Shrouded Justice,” the investigative reporter is peeling more scabs off a branch of government that is proving a target-rich environment for accountability journalism these days.
Earlier this month, Migoya reported the state’s chief court administrator had resigned amid an investigation the reporter was conducting into a $2.5 million contract. A day after that July 18 report, Migoya wrote a second state court official quit. This week he had a third story detailing how state auditors are “investigating whistle-blower claims about fraud” in the judicial department.
In a classic newspaper one-two punch, The Denver Post’s editorial board put the reporting into perspective, and explained how “the public needs questions answered about the scandal rocking Colorado’s Judicial Department.”
By the way, did you know you can get The Denver Post for 99 cents for three months?
That’s a deal. Click here to take advantage of it.
KRFC community radio just got $100k from Jack and Ginger Graham
The local public radio station in Fort Collins— 88.9 on your dial— got a serious signal boost in the form of a $100,000 donation from the Grahams. Jack Graham, you might remember, was a former Rams quarterback who served as Colorado State’s athletic director, ran in the Republican primary for U.S. Senate in 2016, and flirted with a run for governor last year. The couple also own a pie bakery and cafe in the city’s Old Town area.
As its largest single donation to date, the funds will be directed to the nonprofit station’s Power the Tower campaign — which has been raising funds for a new radio tower to increase the station’s broadcasting power. The Grahams’ donation brings the campaign’s funds to $288,000, just $20,000 short of its goal, according to the station’s executive director, Jen Parker. Once built, the tower will be able to boost the station’s signal to 63% more of Northern Colorado, according to a news release from KRFC 88.9 FM Radio Fort Collins.
KRFC bills itself as a station that plays “a variety of musical genres—from rock to hip-hop, bluegrass to country, classical and so much more” with programming that’s a “source of community-oriented information and cultural enrichment, as well. Focused on local, public affairs, we provide an information source for northern Colorado. Human interest stories, real time news and public affairs programming provide a listening option to a world-wide audience.”
Programming note: Back in your inbox this fall
If you’re just seeing this newsletter (posted here as a column) for the first time, someone might have signed you up to receive it. If you’ve been reading each week for the past few years, I hope you’ve enjoyed it. I know the format is pretty lo-fi, and I recently attended a conference where a newsletter guru told us all about the contemporary tricks of the trade. So I wonder: Would you want to see photos? Would you prefer a more slick and up-to-date format like other newsletters that fill your inbox each week? Are some of the sections too long? How’s the content and what do you like best about it? Anything I could do better?
I’ll consider your replies over the next few weeks as I take some time off from the Colorado media beat, and I’ll be back in your inbox before the summer ends. In the meantime, here are the archives going back to 2015.
Audience engagement: DM for ‘photographic evidence’
Last weekend, Denver Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez told her Twitter followers:
Y’all, I’m working on a Sat. today because I couldn’t pass this story up. In my backpack I have
• Back-up phone charger
• A black dress (I am wearing jean shorts & a T-shirt)
• A towel
Keep your eyes 👀 next week for a wild story.
— Elizabeth Hernandez (@ehernandez) July 20, 2019
Last Wednesday, her story landed on the front page: A memorable, well-crafted feature about a Colorado man who runs a business raising white homing pigeons to release at funerals and memorials. (They fly back to his home in Kersey from wherever the ceremony happens to be that day.)
Following publication, Hernandez invited her social media audience into the story-telling process once again:
This is *maybe* the most fun I've had reporting a story.
Lemme know you made it to the bottom of the story (MAKE SURE U DO) & I'll DM you the photographic evidence.
— Elizabeth Hernandez (@ehernandez) July 24, 2019
How did she find this story, anyway, one follower wanted to know. “He was at a memorial service I was at about a year ago,” the reporter replied. “I asked him how the birds find their way home, and I was fascinated! Couldn’t get him out of my head, so I called him a few weeks ago.”
CU’s Mini Law School registration is open— with a class on the First Amendment
The University of Colorado’s Mini Law School is open again for registration this year.
As someone who went through the program a couple years ago I recommend it to anyone who has time once a week in the evenings to attend and wants to better understand certain aspects of the law. (You can also do the whole thing online.) Each week a different law professor gives a lecture on a different specialty, from copyright to employment to American Indian law.
Journalists who subscribe to this newsletter might be interested in the Nov. 5 lecture by Helen Norton called “Listeners and the First Amendment.” This year’s class goes from Sept. 10 to Nov. 19. “Open to all,” CU says, “this program is designed for non-lawyers, is an excellent lifelong learning opportunity, and is a great chance to get a taste of what law school is like.”
*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.