In Colorado, the governor’s press office vs. a nonprofit news site

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo by Ken Lund for Creative Commons on Flickr

As we know, ideologically oriented newsrooms with various and murky funding models have popped up over the years offering news with perspectives to help fill gaps they see in a diminished local news landscape. In Colorado, you’ve got your Center Square (nonprofit journalism with a “taxpayer sensibility”) and you’ve got your Colorado Times Recorder (nonprofit journalism with a “progressive orientation”).

Center Square, a project of the Franklin Center, used to be Watchdog dot org, which last December, was seeking a news editor to cover Colorado “from the taxpayers’ perspective.” Following its re-branding, Center Square carried a kind of quiet presence in Colorado. That changed this week.

On Wednesday, the site revealed Conor Cahill, a spokesman for Democratic Gov. Jared Polis, asked two small Colorado newspapers, The Kiowa County Press and The Trinidad Chronicle-News, to remove a story from their websites. The story came from Center Square, headlined “Polis creates ‘Office of Future of Work,’ third new taxpayer-funded office this year.” News of the request rocketed around Colorado media and beyond.

From The Associated Press (published in The Washington Post):

The press office for Colorado’s liberal Democratic governor, Jared Polis, is facing criticism after asking two small-town newspapers to take down an online news story reported by what it calls a biased news organization affiliated with the conservative Koch family.

The Kiowa County Press in Eads and The Chronicle-News in Trinidad refused Polis spokesman Conor Cahill’s request this month to “unpublish” the story, a straightforward account about a new state office dedicated to the future of labor that Chicago-based The Center Square wrote.

Cahill didn’t ask for a correction but objected to the group’s affiliations and said the story should run in the opinion section. The request stunned those who work at the papers, which increasingly rely on content supplied by startups such as The Center Square as they and other legacy news media have cut staff.

This request for deletion from the governor’s office earned a spurt of press clippings, including a segment on the KUSA 9News “Next” nightly TV show.

“Good for those small town news outlets for standing their ground against the governor,” said host Kyle Clark. “These days, rural newspapers— they’re struggling to stay afloat and to fill their pages, and their limited staffs are working as hard as they can to serve their communities. Governor Polis and his team should understand that accurate but unflattering news coverage comes with the job, and they should leave those journalists alone.”

The Kiowa County Press’s publisher and online editor was charitable about the experience. He told the AP he views it as “a momentary lapse in judgment” by the governor’s office and that his Eastern Colorado paper maintains a professional relationship with the administration. In a statement, the governor’s office said when they looked into Center Square and determined it was a re-branded Watchdog effort with a Koch connection, “we were alarmed that it was being reprinted by reputable news outlets in the state.”

Center Square editor Dan McCaleb told me his outlet is operating in 18 states and approaches small local newspapers to re-publish its work because it’s important for those communities to know what’s going on in state government. “Read our stories and you be the judge,” he said in response to criticism from the governor’s office. Center Square’s coverage, he said, isn’t partisan, but, “We cover tax and spending issues and if it’s appropriate we want to make sure the taxpayer’s perspective is in the story.”

I should note that it’s not the only publication in Colorado coming at its reporting from that perspective, either. When The Gazette recently launched an investigative unit, an announcement said the reporting would have “a strong emphasis on holding politicians and state agencies accountable for how they spend our tax dollars.” Center Square is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that seeks to follow a code of ethics and doesn’t disclose the identity of its donors on its site; The Gazette is owned by a conservative billionaire who gets involved in politics. Both publish news, and both say their reporting isn’t dictated by the business side. (“We have a very strict firewall between the news operation and the fund development team,” McCaleb says.) Both outlets have offered small-town Colorado newspapers the opportunity to publish work by their writers. Democrats might point out that more liberal counterparts to Center Square aren’t placing their work in traditional newspapers. Jason Salzman, a progressive consultant who runs Colorado Times Recorder, for instance, told me he has never tried.

The media ecosystem is a rapidly changing and increasingly confusing place— in Colorado and beyond. That’s why lawmakers here passed a new law creating a panel to study whether and how media literacy should be taught in schools. Consider this irony alert from Center Square, showing even how the governor’s own office might have been unaware it was publicizing a piece that originated from an outlet it distrusts:

In June, Polis shared on his Facebook page a Center Square story republished by the Montrose Daily Press about jobs growth, commenting on the shared post, “Great to see that jobs in our state continue to grow!”

Savvy readers realize there’s a lot of information out there that takes work to verify and often have to judge each piece of content on its own terms in the marketplace of ideas. That’s why there are efforts afoot to develop industrywide standards. That’s why some readers install browser extensions like NewsGuard.

To me this episode looks like an unforced error from the first floor of the Capitol— maybe on a busy day. No governor’s office wants this national headline, or a three-day media headache back home. (At least five Colorado news outlets have reported on it so far.) A phone call to talk to those small-town editors miles from Denver perhaps offering a sit-down or phone interview with the governor to provide his perspective on the new government offices might have been a better touch. If there were factual errors in the story the office wanted to correct, it could have engaged on that front, too, but it declined the opportunity for the publication to do so.

Before Wednesday, not many readers in Colorado might have heard about Center Square— an outlet the governor’s office calls “not an objective wire service”— but you can bet they have now.

On the topic of vanishing stories…

Newsflash on the way digital publishing works: It’s hard for things on the Internet to just go away.

Which is why when ColoradoPolitics published a maybe-not-so-flattering item about Colorado’s up-for-re-election Republican U.S. senator, Cory Gardner, and then that story disappeared, it’s no wonder someone flagged it. Especially given the play the Polis story received.

So, what happened?

“I did not take this story down by request by anyone representing Cory Gardner,” says ColoradoPolitics managing editor Mark Harden. He declined to go into his editorial decision making, but said he removed the item from the website because he had issues with it and added he feels it was posted by mistake. He said anyone who thinks his outlet is slanted for or against Gardner or his Democratic opponents— Gardner is fighting for his political life right now— is “utterly unfamiliar” with ColoradoPolitics.

ColoradoPolitics has been posting more quick-hit and aggregated posts lately. In the vanished Gardner story, the URL even labels it under “quick-hits.” Perhaps there’s a vulnerability in such a model— especially in an era where even if something vanishes quickly it can come back to hit’cha.

Our neighbor Wyoming is ‘ground zero for media mistrust’

The last time this newsletter checked in with Casper, Wyoming, it was when journalists at the local newspaper there, The Star-Tribune, were leading a union drive in part so they could “safeguard their ability to report on themselves, in the event they have to.” (The union campaign was successful, by the way; they joined the Denver Newspaper Guild last February.)

The reason we’re hearing about this particular part of the Cowboy State now is because of a new initiative there called The Casper Project. It’s an effort by the Society of Professional Journalists that seeks to “get a deep understanding of the reasons so many people distrust news organizations and their reporting.”

From the SPJ:

SPJ spent the first half of 2019 listening to news consumers explain why they are skeptical about what they read, hear or see in the news media. Rod Hicks, SPJ’s Journalist on Call, led the project, which also included guidance on how to distinguish between news and other types of information and interactions with journalists. The project was conducted in Casper, Wyoming, with residents from all walks of life who were asked to attend five discussions and presentations. Wyoming was chosen because it has a slightly higher share of residents who distrust the news media, according to Gallup. The project hoped to leave participants with a better understanding of how journalists do their jobs and better equipped to judge the credibility of news reports. It also hoped to gain insights from the discussions that could be useful in developing strategies for rebuilding trust.

As The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan reports, “For about six months, media people and 36 Casper-area citizen volunteers met on several occasions to try for some mutual understanding.” So what happened?

More from WaPo:

The bottom-line result wasn’t great: According to a final questionnaire, participants didn’t change their attitudes toward the news media significantly or become any more trusting, said Hicks, who headed the project as SPJ’s “journalist on call,” and who has made six trips to Casper since January.
Ah, well. “But,” Sullivan concludes, “you have to give the Casper Project and its participants credit for trying, against the odds, to make progress. Or at least to show the intractability of the problem.”

Chalkbeat has a 5-year plan to ‘build the news our democracy demands’

This week, the education-focused nonprofit newsroom unveiled a half-decade strategic plan that acknowledges the “daunting” challenge ahead— a time of expansion while “the local news crisis has accelerated.” From the announcement:
By accepting the economics of the internet and using them to our advantage, we have mobilized new and diverse sources of support for an essential public good. We’ve reimagined what local news can be as we’ve rebuilt it, elevating a subject that was previously a stepping-stone beat for rookie reporters, treating readers as partners, and focusing exclusively on the education story that matters most: the almost 30 million children in America who live near or below the poverty line.

The document also offers a micro-history of our American local news apocalypse. By now that’s likely familiar to readers of this newsletter, so I’ll pick it up from where we are now. “The casualty is local public-interest topics, particularly for low-income communities,” Chalkbeat reports. “No longer subsidized, these subjects are covered sparsely, if at all, by a shrinking number of employees at the remaining newspapers, leaving critical decisions uninformed and unaccountable.” And so we’re in an era of local niche outlets: The Athletic for sports, Eater for food. “Chalkbeat takes this approach and applies it to our public-interest topic: a network of bureaus covering the same issue — education — in different locations,” it states. “Each bureau has between one and five local reporters and shares services with other bureaus across the network, such as HR, revenue generation, and technology.”

Of note for readers in our state is that the plan regards Chalkbeat’s Colorado bureau as one of its two most “mature” along with New York where “local philanthropy covers 85% of all local costs (member donations and sponsorships cover the rest).” Chalkbeat, by the way, “was formed by the merger of Ed News Colorado and Gotham Schools, which were both founded in 2008.”

As local news sites struggle for sustainability nationwide, here’s what jumped out at me from Chalkbeat’s charted path:

  • At newspapers, “the education beat was often relegated to the most junior reporters. At Chalkbeat, we’ve elevated the topic to center stage, covering education with care, experience, and dedicated resources.”
  • “20% of readers we surveyed changed their minds based on something they read on Chalkbeat”
  • “Chalkbeat has leveraged its singular focus on education to raise $25 million in philanthropic support since its founding, the vast majority of which comes from local sources.”
  • “83% of our funders were first-time donors to local news”
  • “As we expand to a total of 18 communities in the next five years, we’ll be smart about selecting our locations and responsible about serving them.”
  • “We are proud that 39% of our team members are people of color. The next step is to formalize our vision for diversity and inclusion, defining clear goals across all roles at all levels, and committing resources to achieving them.”
  • “We will also work to inspire local news organizations that do not yet exist by providing a replicable local news blueprint for other topics of major civic importance — like health, safety, social welfare, and criminal justice.”

Harvard’s NiemanLab has a writeup on the news here. One of their takes:

Interestingly, in the midst of the industry’s push for reader money, the word “member” only shows up three times in the whole plan; once is about school board members and the other is about Chalkbeat’s employees themselves. (The network employs 60 total — 39 percent people of color — with 39 directly producing or distributing its journalism, and sees 40 percent of its readership as teachers or principals.) “Subscribe” and its variations are only present in the site’s newsletter subscription box and when referring to other news outlets’ approaches.

You know what word shows up more than a dozen times, though? “Reader.”

The Durango Herald will cut another print day

Monday will be the last time readers of this family owned Four Corners newspaper will find a copy in print— unless or until the economics of local newspaper publishing eventually turns around. Durangoans will now have to find news from the former physical broadsheet on the first day of the workweek online.

Some excerpts from an advance copy of Monday’s (print-only) editorial about it:

…there is still a loss here that we want to recognize. Just the word “newspaper” connotes words printed on paper, with ink and presses and trucks and doorstep delivery …

It wasn’t until we got to the rise of the internet, in the 1990s, that an ink-on-paper delivery system began to feel redundant in some ways. We kept printing newspapers and striving for excellence. But in the 21st century, our business model was changing. Some readers were finding their news by new means, while entrepreneurs were stripping our parts, like sports scores and classified ads, and selling them or giving them away online. They saw their opportunity and took it. That is capitalism. We are a business, too, after all. …

Do we miss the golden age of newspapers, will we miss printing a paper on Mondays? Of course – if only because, like some of you, we are just old enough to know how great it was. But we are not mired in nostalgia and neither should you be; there is simply too much going on, too much change, and too many new opportunities. It would be like lamenting the beautiful Victrola.

The paper will now print on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on the revitalization of a riverfront area from a “junkyard” to a “gem.” The Steamboat Pilot profiled a woman’s “journey to becoming a U.S. citizen.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald found a local cat owner “shocked her pet was shot with [a] BB gun.” The Longmont Times-Call carried a classic local news headline with “Council to hear resident comments.” The Gazette continued its investigation into problems in a newish residential development area called Gold Hill MesaThe Durango Herald reported 80% of area fish died in the Animas River after a wildfire caused ash to seep into the water. Under the banner “Climate change in the High Country,” The Denver Post reported how some folks in Western Colorado are “confronting the impacts of climate change” with “’one-rock dams’ across semi-arid landscapes in an effort to slow accelerated erosion and prevent the formation of gullies.” The Boulder Daily Camera reported local teachers are “enthusiastic” as the school district implements full-day kindergarten.

A transportation agency launched a ‘news’ ‘outlet’ about itself

In June, I wrote about how a publicity idea from the new public relations boss at the Regional Transportation District sparked a debate among journalists about “propaganda” versus agencies telling “their stories.”

Well, this week, RTD announced the launch of what it’s calling “News Stop,” which it says “will act as a straight-from-the-source outlet for the latest RTD-related news. We look forward to increasing transparency by sharing our stories authentically and directly with you.”

From an e-mailed announcement:

We will continue to answer all media inquiries swiftly, 24/7, and we’ll continue our responsive interaction with local and national media. Our newsroom will not replace reporting by outside, independent journalists, but rather provide more information to both the public and the reporters who cover us. … Our goal is that the News Stop will become the first place members of the media and public information officers check for timely, accurate information about RTD, and for contact information to answer further questions.

One Colorado journalist noted to me the lengths RTD seems to be going to emphasize how committed they are to working with local media and not trying to replace it, “clearly anticipating that narrative.”

On Twitter, ColoradoPolitics reporter Ernest Luning already snarked a bit on the agency’s coverage of itself, using the hashtag #hardhitting. Click here to see for yourself how the site looks so far.

Washington Post Trump scoop machine will talk at Colorado College next week

Ukraine. Doctored weather maps. A border wall land grab. “Shithole countries.”

If you’ve read a recent scoop about Donald Trump’s White House, chances are it came from The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey. Next Thursday evening he’ll talk at Colorado College about his work covering the president. One of his recent headlines even offered readers— if you think you can handle it— a “glimpse into Trump’s unorthodox mind.”

From The Colorado Springs Independent:

It isn’t often we in Colorado Springs can get an inside look at what’s happening in Washington, D.C., let alone from a nationally celebrated journalist. … take advantage of a rare Q&A with Josh Dawsey, White House reporter for The Washington Post and political analyst for CNN … This two-time winner of the White House Correspondents Award … will discuss what it’s like covering Trump’s White House.

Just this week, Dawsey had a byline on the inside story about “How Trump and Giuliani pressured Ukraine to investigate the president’s rivals.” Earlier this month, he helped uncover how “it was Trump who used a black Sharpie to mark up an official National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration map.” It was Dawsey who broke the news of the president’s “shithole countries” comment, that Jared Kushner used private email to conduct White House business, and that former Army Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn “actively promoted a private-sector scheme to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle East.” He reported how Trump wants to “aggressively seize private land” for his border wall, among a blizzard of other remarkable scoops.

He’ll talk and take questions from the open-to-the-public crowd at 7 p.m., Thursday Oct. 3 in Gaylord Hall on the campus in Colorado Springs.

ColoradoPolitics needs a new managing editor

The nearly 3-year-old ColoradoPolitics site, which offers insider journalism for politics junkies and professionals, is looking for someone to replace its managing editor, Mark Harden, who came from The Denver Business Journal a little more than a year and a half ago. The site is a product of Clarity Media, owned by Anschutz who also owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs. In 2017, Clarity bought The Colorado Statesman newspaper and turned it into a weekly subscription magazine under the ColoradoPolitics flag. Earlier this summer it expanded further into the Denver market. More recently, the site has been producing single-sourced, aggregated re-writes of news broken in other outlets in the style of The Hill.

Here’s the job description:

We’re looking for someone who can drive the political conversation in Colorado. Ideally, you’re a digital-savvy editor who can manage both a political web site and weekly magazine in a startup environment. Based in Denver, Colorado Politics is the state’s newest, fastest-growing publication, with a staff of eight full-time reporters and producers and 10+ freelancers. We’re looking for someone with political or public policy news or communications expertise and a webby metabolism who can get posts up fast and accurately, but also has the chops to develop and edit enterprise and magazine stories and help manage a high-energy staff.

This week the site announced it hired as a paid biweekly columnist Eric Sondermann, one of the most-quoted political pontificators in Colorado media. His hire comes after that of former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post reporter Lynn Bartels who now writes a column after leaving the secretary of state’s office as a spokeswoman.

As for Harden, who is leaving in a few weeks, he says he’s grateful for the opportunity. “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved together in making CoPo bigger and better in print and online,” he says. “Now I’ve decided it’s time for me to move on to the next challenge.”

Colorado media HR report: AP’s Dan Elliott is taking ‘the rest of his career’ off

After two decades as an Associated Press reporter and editor, Colorado’s Dan Elliott is hanging up the keyboard.

This social media post came from the AP’s western director, Jim Clarke:

OK, funniest thing I’ve heard in the workplace in a while: Dan Elliott, who’s been an AP reporter for 20 years and a journalist for 45, worked his last shift before retirement today. He just walked into my office, shook my hand, and said, “See you later boss. I’m taking the rest of my career off.”

Hats off and happy trails.

A free weeklies vs King Soopers follow-up

A week after The Colorado Springs Independent launched a nationwide campaign to implore Kroger, the nation’s largest grocery chain, to keep free weeklies and other print publications in its stores, there’s no tangible win for the little guy.

The Colorado Springs Independent wrote that as of Wednesday, “more than 1,000 people had signed the petition at dontloselocalnews.com asking King Soopers to keep distributing Colorado Springs’ alternative weekly newspaper.” Elsewhere, “several Michigan politicians are appealing the ban.”

From Editor & Publisher:

After repeated attempts to reach Kroger’s head of media relations Kristal Howard, Teresa Dickerson, a corporate affairs manager for Kroger’s Delta division, issued the following statement: “We are removing the DistribuTech racks because more publications continue to shift to digital formats, resulting in less [sic] customers using the products.” Yet alt weekly readers—on paper—appear to be a potentially lucrative market according to figures provided by the Media Audit, a Houston-based audience and consumer research company. Media Audit provided consumer information for Washington, D.C., the Washington City Paper and Kroger’s Harris Teeter Neighborhood Food & Pharmacy.

Indy owner John Weiss spoke on a podcast with E&P about the latest on all this. I spoke with Gavin Dahl of KDNK public radio in Carbondale, which you can listen to here. (Editor’s note: From the interview, I hope this ends up on my tombstone “Full disclosure, I get my alternative weekly each week from the liquor store— the independently owned liquor store in the neighborhood where I live.”)

*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. Photo by Ken Lund for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

1 COMMENT

  1. People would do themselves and society a huge favor if they would stop freaking out over media bias.

    Yes, it exists.
    The history of the media has correlated with bias.

    Religious texts, hieroglyphs, and other forms of early writing are evidence.

    “News” was not created to inform, but pursuade.

    The best people can do is seek out more views, better recognizing their own biases & leaving those behind, and learn to better discern fact from opinion, utilizing evidence.

    One’s beliefs/convictions should be based on available, quality evidence, and given only that degree of certainty that evidence warrants, whilst keeping in mind those beliefs/convictions may be disproved in the future.

    Every common held “proof” held today was once considered false/crazy.

    I’ve noticed the more “aware” most people become of “fake news”, sadly the more they rely on confirmation bias.
    If you’re on the “left”, anything the “right” says/does is considered wrong.
    Dirto vice versa.

    Attainment of knowledge & enlightened thinking has stagnated as more people rely on tribal propaganda of their “own” side as they watch for peopaganda of the “other” side.

    We are seeing an age of growing mass ignorance.

    “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge”
    -Charles Darwin-

    It seems we’re either seeing a true war of billionaire’s factions, whom are gobbling up and/or increasingly gaining control of media to fight each other; OR,
    A massive coordinated propaganda campaign, wherein billionaires are actively working together, creating factions, keeping the masses divided, and thus busily & ignorantly distracted blaming & fighting one another, as those billionaires (thw secret ruling elite) continue to tighten their grips on more wealth & power, to the detriment of all others.

    Actual tribalism, or divide & conquer?

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