The Colorado Sun turns one — and more news from across the state’s media landscape

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Staff of The Colorado Sun celebrate their first-year anniversary at the Wynkoop brewery in Denver, Sept. 5, 2019

Last summer, when writing about a new kind of local journalism business model in Colorado, I wrote: “In 1833, The New York Sun revolutionized journalism as a pioneer of the penny press. In 2018, a new startup called The Colorado Sun is hoping to do the same as a pioneer of the blockchain/cryptocurrency press.”

A year later— Thursday, Sept. 5— the Sunstaffed by 10 former Denver Post journalists, publicly celebrated 12 months on the calendar. But those in the room didn’t hear much about cryptocurrency or blockchain technology. Instead, the journalists who run the LLC-turned-public-benefit-corporation touted their support from about 6,000 paying sustaining members, which they say makes up 80% of the grant funding that the crypto/blockchain organization Civil gave to help start the Sun last year. The outlet is also launching a marketing campaign to try to raise the remaining 20%, and more, to run through the rest of the year.

“Our goal all along was to wean ourselves from grants,” Sun editor Larry Ryckman told me amid a packed house of supporters Thursday at the Wynkoop brewery in Denver during a party for the newsroom’s anniversary. (The Sun has not said how much grant money Civil initially gave, but it runs out next May.) “It could continue … I don’t want to wait to find out,” the editor said.

Beyond the financials, Sun journalists released a 50-page print magazine that rounds up their notable coverage from Year One. It also comes with an annual report. Among accomplishments mentioned are 16 awards from the Society of Professional Journalists and two from the Best of the West. As for metrics, the report states the Sun racked up 6 million page views since last September. (For comparison, The Denver Post typically sees somewhere between 15 million and 20 million page views per month, according to ComScore, and that’s with a paywall). The Sun has published nearly 1,000 original stories by staff and nearly 200 by freelancers in the past year. More than 450 of its articles came from outside the Front Range. One of its stories was included in a Colorado Supreme Court decision.

In the past year, the Sun’s work has been impressive. It’s no surprise editors field calls from around the country by those looking to replicate its success, especially as a mega merger of the nation’s two largest newspaper chains looms amid the prospect of more local newsroom layoffs in cities from coast to coast. “I tell them, first of all, doing great journalism is not enough,” Ryckman says about offering advice. “You also have got to pay attention to the business part of it.” (Diversity of the Sun’s staff has been an issue; Ryckman says he expects the staff will look more diverse as it grows.)

Against the backdrop of a disrupted local news landscape and previous newsroom anxieties, technology and business reporter Tamara Chuang told me her past year at the Sun has felt like living in “some surreal bubble.” Government and human services reporter Jennifer Brown, who has been in the business for 20 years including at the AP and newspapers in Texas, Montana, and Denver, called her past year at the Sun probably the highlight of her career. “I never saw this coming,” she said when thinking about her work ambitions. “This was never something I saw in the journalism landscape.” (It is worth noting that one year is one year; the real test about the Sun’s sustainability will come around this time in 2020.)

In a speech to the brewery crowd Thursday, Ryckman hinted at what he characterized as a perhaps unprecedented statewide Sun project in the works. He was vague, but he said it involved a way to try and bring “local journalists all across our state together to do something impactful— to do work that would be greater than any one of us could do alone.” Whatever this project is involves knitting together a network of news organizations on multiple platforms “to do some important journalism,” he said, and it should come out in about a week. “Once upon a time we were all worried about our competitors,” Ryckman said. “Those days are gone. As far as I’m concerned it’s not about competition, it’s about collaboration.”

A Coloradan is at the heart of a growing effort to combat misinformation— with ‘standards’

When it comes to the media business, I often say Colorado is a microcosm of America. Some of the worst problems afflicting the industry are happening here just as Coloradans are studying some of the more interesting potential solutions. So lets add another to the list: In the world of trying to combat misinformation online, behold the efforts of Colorado native Scott Yates.

This week the former journalist and technology entrepreneur helped organize a Denver workshop for The Journalism Trust Initiative. It comes after a Medium post he wrote about an effort to stymie the spread of misinformation by enacting standards to certify journalistic organizations. Doing so, he argues, would give those outlets better exposure over uncertified ones on platforms like Facebook and Google. From the piece:

The way the process works is that the proposed standards, in general, stay private as a way [to] encouraging full participation. Then at an agreed-on time, the standard becomes public, and anyone can comment on it. We have now reached that time, and you can now read the whole thing, and comment. …

If these journalism standards get wide acceptance and use, then the original goals of the JTI will start to happen. First it will be harder for misinformation to infiltrate the newsfeeds of the world. Second, the platforms and the advertisers will have a new tool to encourage legitimate journalism. They will be able to see who has gone to the trouble of applying for and getting certification under a set of voluntary standards. People from Google and Facebook have been a part of the JTI process at various stages. We’ll have to wait and see if they use the tools provided to them to make things better, but I am hopeful. …

I say the only one who should get to decide who’s a journalist is other journalists. The way that works practically is if they come together and declare themselves some kind of group as diverse as The Associated Press or as niche as a group of publishers in one city or state, well, then they get to do that.

I caught up with Yates this week as he was boarding a plane to take his show on the road, evangelizing to journalists around the country. Having accepted standards, he said, is a “system that works in every other industry, and we just haven’t had them in news because we kind of didn’t need them before— but now we do.”

This standards effort, which you’re likely to hear more about soon, has somewhat quiet roots in the Certified Content Coalition, an initiative of the Colorado-based CableLabs, which is a research arm of the cable industry. Yates is doing his current work on contract with the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters Without Borders), the organization leading this project.

Journalists, typically a skeptical bunch, I imagine might be fairly suss, as the kids say, about the idea of a standards body assessing their news outlets and choosing which ones get certified and which do not. Colorado Sun editor Dana Coffield, who attended this week’s meeting in Denver, says she was initially resistant to the idea of certification, but found the reflectiveness of the meeting’s exercise useful. She said concerns about misinformation are often discussed in the context of teaching children, but “then you realize there are a lot of adults that can’t tell the difference between super spinny stuff and legitimately reported news, and so if there’s a way we can help people detect that then it’s cool.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa Otero’s Media Bias Chart is now interactive

This newsletter has tracked the various iterations of Denver patent attorney Vanessa Otero’s Media Bias Chart, and her creation of the media company Ad Fontes Media. Last fall, she launched a crowdfunding effort to scale up her project, which seeks to educate the public on the orientation of national news organizations and information (and misinformation) sites. She also wanted to make it interactive. Now, she’s released the 5.0 version.

A sampling of what’s new from her re-vamped site:

1. Each news source is backed by ratings data of multiple articles, each rated by at least three Ad Fontes Media analysts having left, right, and center political leanings respectively. You can see and search these ratings throughout the chart and site.

2. The news sources we ranked at the very top, bottom, left, and right of the chart do not land right at the edges of the chart. This positioning more accurately reflects the mix of articles each source actually produces. For example, even our most highly rated sources (e.g., wire services AP and Reuters) do not purely produce “original fact reporting stories.” They produce the greatest percentage of them compared to the others, but they do have some analysis and opinion content as well, which makes their average score reflect that mix. …

The vertical axis has been renamed from “Quality” to “Reliability”—a subtle but important shift.

Ad Fontes Media has also published a white paper about how it gathered the data to produce the latest chart. “We analyze and rank news content and display those rankings in a way that is easy for people to understand,” the company’s website reads.

Can Democrats for president save the local news?

That might be a stretch. But they’re talking about it. And that’s something. This week Vox looked at some proposals percolating on the campaign trail after Bernie Sanders published a column in Columbia Journalism Review laying out his “plan for journalism,” which he said is under assault “by Wall Street, billionaire businessmen, Silicon Valley, and Donald Trump.” He uses phrases Colorado media followers are familiar with, like “hedge fund vultures.” He speaks of “billionaires who can use their media empires to punish their critics and shield themselves from scrutiny.”

David Sirota, a former journalist in Denver who now advises Sanders, writes speeches for him, and authors the campaign’s (perfectly named) Bern Notice newsletter, rounded up praise for the column. Part of the Sanders plan to reform the media industry includes “taxing targeted ads and using the revenue to fund nonprofit civic-minded media,” clamping down on media consolidation, asking companies for more disclosure about potential layoffs, appointing “progressive leadership” at the FCC, preventing “media-related merger and deregulation decisions at federal agencies that adversely affect people of color and women,” and strengthening collective bargaining.

As for part of Warren’s plan, she told Vox it would “rein in private equity vultures and force them to make investments that help companies and protect workers rather than stripping them down for parts.”

Here’s more from Vox, with a quote by Chuck Plunkett, who led last year’s Denver Rebellion at The Denver Post against its hedge-fund owner and now directs the University of Colorado News Corps:

One of the prime examples Warren cited is the Denver Post, the major metro paper serving the Denver area that went from a staff of more than 280 in 2003 to around 60 currently. The Post is owned by Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund that owns newspapers around the country.

As the Denver Post’s editorial board wrote in 2018, Alden raised subscription rates while it ordered round after round of cuts from the newsroom, even as the paper demonstrated it was profitable and award-winning.

“You had another year where you’d hit ambitious targets, we embraced video, we made all those changes, and another 20 [people] would get cut,” Plunkett told Vox. “It just seemed arbitrary, it seemed like they had a number in their head. What their endgame ultimately is … is acquiring massive numbers of newspapers and bleeding them dry.”

Other presidential candidates who have talked about media reform mentioned in the story are U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar and entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

Gutted: The 127-year-old Colorado Daily lost its last staffer

Pour one out for another Colorado print publication, this time in Boulder.

Colorado Daily, which used to be the Silver & Gold and served as the student newspaper of the University of Colorado at Boulder (before getting shut down and pushed off campus), is focused on the 18-35-year-old demographic, and is owned by the hedge-fund-controlled company that owns The Denver Post.

So, naturally…

“When I started designing pages for the Colorado Daily, it had about a half-dozen full-time employees,” wrote the paper’s editor Deanna Hardies on Aug. 21. “When I became editor three years ago, we had two. On Monday, I learned that number will soon be zero.” The paper, she added, will be “put together by people who are working on a lot of other newspapers at the same time.”

Matt Sebastian, a former editor at the Daily and former city editor of The Boulder Daily Camera who is now an editor at The Denver Post, put the news in context:

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune spoke with the director of the new Weld County Oil and Gas Energy DepartmentThe Loveland Reporter-Herald explained why a local student was back at school after a gun-related Snapchat postThe Longmont Times-Call explored how the city is looking to correct dangerous intersectionsThe Gazette in Colorado Springs published a special report about how depression and addiction “stalk Coloradans.” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel localized global turmoil about recyclingThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had a Sunday takeout about college drinking as the school year beginsThe Durango Herald asked where those experiencing homelessness can sleep in the cityThe Denver Post reported how critics of federal oil-and-gas leasing are focusing on the sage grouse and public landsThe Boulder Daily Camera covered how the city’s police chief is stepping down.

Covering the climate crisis: High Country News makes a case for ‘speculative journalism’ 

Last month, former Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple wrote a piece for The Atlantic magazine titled “I’ve seen the limits of journalism.” It was about media’s response 20 years ago to the Columbine school killings and how we cover mass shootings now. “Journalists feel the need to bear witness,” he writes at the end. “But to the same horror, again and again? I can’t say anymore that I believe we learn from terrible things. I can say that I’ve seen the limits of journalism—and of hope. And I’m struggling with what to do about it.”

Well, High Country News is trying something.

In the latest edition of the magazine, editor Brian Calvert pushes the boundaries of “speculative journalism.” Not the kind of speculative journalism that flows from headlines like “Republicans’ 2018 Resolution: Bipartisanship. Will It Last?” No, we’re talking really speculative. Like, how life will look in 50 years following the U.S. government’s latest climate assessment if we do nothing about it. When the report came out, the magazine, which has covered environmental issues closely for years, was at a loss for how to adequately respond within the framework of how its writers traditionally do journalism that matched the gravity of the issue. “How,” Calvert said the staff wondered, “can we help people understand the importance of all these facts, if the facts aren’t enough to speak for themselves?”

From his note to readers in HCN’s issue:

One possible answer is this issue, a departure from our usual rigorous, fact-based journalism, and a foray into the world of imagination. Call it science fiction, or, if you prefer, speculative journalism. We took the projections of the Fourth National Climate Assessment, interviewed scientists, pored over studies — then imagined what the West would look like 50 years from the release of the report.

The result is a multiverse of future Wests, all set in the year 2068. No two stories take place in the same reality, but each is a reflection of possibilities presented in the climate assessment. … For our hardcore readers, we’ve provided a citations page, where more information on the relevant science and studies can be found. None of these stories are true, but any of them could be. The fact is, we don’t really know what climate chaos will bring … but we do know that enormous challenges — and opportunities — lie ahead. Our chance to change the future is now, but we’ll need a better story first.

I’m into this. Read the magazine’s Speculative Journalism Issue here.

A live storytelling event in Denver will feature some compelling Colorado journalism

On Sept. 13 at the Su Teatro Cultural and Performing Arts Center in Denver, an organization called Pop Up magazine will hold a live public story event — think of the Moth Radio Hour but more focused on reporting — that will feature Colorado journalists telling the stories behind the stories of some of their recent work.

“The shows are one-offs with original reporting and are not recorded, so you have to be there to experience it, hence the ‘pop up’ nature of the show,” says Chris Walker, a former Westword staff writer who is helping organize the event with Ashley Dean and Kevin Beaty of Denverite. The events, Walker says, “have become a sensation in major cities, selling out 1,500-seat theaters within hours of going on sale, and have featured many famous journalists, including contributors to This American Life. Earlier this year they reached out to journalists about creating smaller, local ‘zine’ shows that feature all local journalists.” He says the shows have a radio component, print journalist, musical act, live interview, photographer, and videographer.

For the Denver Su Teatro show, Westword editor Patty Calhoun will do an interview with Brother Jeff, and Denver Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez will talk about what it was like covering the Denver teacher’s union negotiations, Walker says. Hillary Thomas will share footage “from a documentary covering night shift workers in Denver,” and Rachel Woolf will present work from “a photojournalism project following a family that has coped with deportation,” he adds. The all-Denver cast, organizers say, “have prepared original, reported stories that shed light on Colorado communities in entertaining and surprising ways.”

Get tickets to the event, which is sponsored by the Colorado Media Project, here. Share it on Facebook here.

ATTN journalists: Register now for ‘Colorado Migrahack’

It might sound like one-weird-trick to combat a headache, but actually it’s “Journalists + community partners + techies + immigration data = Migrahack.” That’s according to the Colorado Media Project, which is co-hosting the event at the University of Denver later this month. So what is it minus the math?

From the CMP:

[It’s a] chance for journalists to gather with web developers, data crunchers, multimedia specialists, immigration community representatives, students, and faculty to create data-based reporting projects.

The event includes:

Data journalist Sandra Fish … gathering data that is crunch-worthy and ready at Colorado Media Project’s Migrahack Github repository, and we’ll have links to more data sources on the day of the event. Among the planned offerings: demographic data from the Census Bureau and the Department of Homeland Security, as well as data about Colorado employers participating in the E-Verify program.

… experts from Open the Government (OTG) will lead a workshop on writing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, and will provide technical assistance on follow-up to make sure you get the data you need.

… A good story on immigration may start with data but it doesn’t end there. Journalists don’t always have deep connections with immigrant communities when they source and report stories. We’ll have community representatives on hand to help you vet your project ideas.

Learn more about the Sept. 27-28 event here, and register here if you’re already sold.

Heh. CORA = ‘Colorado Only the Rich Act’?

KUSA 9News investigative TV reporter Jeremy Jojola has proposed a new name for the Colorado Open Records Act, a.k.a CORA: The “Colorado Only the Rich Act.” Why? Because, he says, some state entities are allowed to charge journalists and members of the public $33.58-an-hour to review and release public records, which Jojola notes is three times the state’s hourly minimum wage.

Jojola says agencies deciding to charge such fees has become a “standard tool for governments to keep things secret.” When might they do that? “Especially when those records are embarrassing,” the reporter says. “A lot of people who want to keep tabs on the government are not wealthy — and the government knows that,” he said in a recent broadcast in which he re-named the CORA law to reflect how only those with the money to pay can view records — records they’ve already paid for once as taxpayers.

The Denver Post editorial board ripped into this trend, writing, “high costs being charged for records have created a system where only the rich have unfettered access to public records. It’s interfering with every Coloradan’s right to know.” The editorial also showcases how one of the paper’s reporters was told he’d have to cough up “$1,839.60 plus copying fees” for information he requested for a story.

The CBS4 weekly highlight reel ‘Covering Colorado First’

Across town from 9News, CBS4 has compiled a social media highlight reel establishing the station’s “commitment to covering the biggest, most important stories — wherever news is happening in Colorado,” according to news director Tim Wieland.

The clip, viewed thousands of times, rounds up a sample of the station’s work this past week, leading with the very Colorado story of an older couple in the town of Pine fighting off a home invasion from (drum roll…) two bears.

*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

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