A big new push for public support of local journalism in Colorado rolls out next week

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A statue of a person reading a newspaper in downtown Colorado Springs in the fall of 2019. (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Local News is a Public Good.” That’s the message from some familiar faces in our state’s journalism scene who are sticking their necks out in a very public way on a perhaps controversial issue. On Monday morning, a panel including former journalists and editors, a First Amendment attorney, an entrepreneur, and a free press advocate, will talk at CU Denver about a new research paper the Colorado Media Project will unveil that lays out multiple ways Colorado’s public sector could help support the state’s battered local news ecosystem. I’ll be moderating the event.

From the invitation:

With traditional business models for local journalism near collapse in the digital age dominated by Facebook and Google, more Colorado communities are becoming “local news deserts” with very little original, independent, local news.

Research shows that civic impacts abound when local news outlets close or reduce coverage— the public lacks independent information about important issues, voter turnout lags, local officials have fewer avenues to inform voters and residents, and the perception of reduced government transparency has been linked to higher municipal bond rates and other costs.

What strategies exist for local communities and elected officials to address these issues? How might existing institutions like libraries and higher education expand their roles in addressing community information needs? What new opportunities exist for public-private partnership in this space?

The panel will take questions from the audience, and the discussion “will include a summary of research findings and recommendations” from the soon-to-be-published (Update: It’s out now, you can read it here) Colorado Media Project report. To compile its manifesto, the organization convened “national, state, and local leaders in journalism, government, libraries, higher education, technology, and law to study Colorado public policy pathways for sustaining local news and civic information.”

In recent months, this newsletter has been chronicling nascent rumblings about an appetite for a kind of public debate about public support for local news that might have been unthinkable, say, two decades ago. But now we’re talking about it— and the various ideas this group has come up with are worth hearing.

Appearing on Monday’s panel will be former longtime Denver Post editor Gregory Moore, Gates Family Foundation VP Melissa Davis, DU College of Computer Science and Engineering dean JB Holston, Free Press News Voices director Mike Rispoli, Colorado Media Project director Nancy Watzman, and First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg. I’ll moderate the panel and ask questions crafted with the help of Colorado College students who studied the report in a recent journalism class.

If you can’t make it to the free, public event, register here to watch it via webcast. The program starts at 8 a.m. Those who register will also receive a copy of the report a day early this Sunday. Speaking of Sunday, keep your eyes peeled on the opinion sections of your favorite newspapers this weekend.

Props to the 9News corporate suits for doing the right thing— which in this case was nothing

Give a hand to the executive and advertising floor of KUSA 9News and the business side of this journalism enterprise for not making a peep when the news folks lost them money— likely because of coverage.

Here’s the backstory: KUSA has been doing some sustained accountability reporting about surprise medical bills. KUSA then reported a “mysterious political group” called Doctor Patient Unity started airing TV ads on 9News. OpenSecrets reports the group is urging “vulnerable senators to reject a proposal meant to cut down on expensive surprise medical bills.” KUSA journalists wanted to know who was behind the group. They aired a piece saying they couldn’t find out because our federal campaign finance laws allow a lot of secrecy. (The New York Times has the answer.) What happened after that report aired? The group pulled its ads from 9News and the station lost at least $100,000 in one week.

From KUSA 9News investigative reporter Chris Vanderveen in a first-person piece:

And here’s the crazy thing: I still have a job. …

By Aug. 15, “Doctor Patient Unity” stopped spending any money with 9NEWS. FCC records clearly indicate our competitors received the bulk of what we lost. Here’s a disclaimer I feel utterly necessary to provide before you read anything else: The 9NEWS Sales Department has not uttered one word to me about this story. Not one. That’s the way it’s supposed to work. Here at 9NEWS, the sales department occupies a good chunk of the second floor. Our newsroom rests on the first. It’s more than a symbolic divide. Optimally, what they do up there remains their own business. And what we do is our business. I’m not sure most people fully understand that. I periodically hear from people who truly believe our business interests supersede our journalistic interests.

Vanderveen notes that after other local TV stations aired news reports about the group the group stopped airing ads on those stations, too. The reporter had a question for reporters at some TV stations still taking the ad money:
 …don’t you at least have to wonder why you never questioned who was spending all of that cash so quietly and discreetly? Journalism relies, in my very humble opinion, on journalists who ask tough questions of everyone. Even those who might stop spending money with your sales staff.
He ended with a thanks to his boss— for doing nothing. And cheers to that.

What a freelance journalist in Pueblo learned about reporting ‘outside the bubble’

Jill Rothenberg, an independent journalist in Pueblo, is out with a piece in Pressland this week titled “Pueblo Dispatch: Crisis and Response in a Storied Colorado Newspaper City” about what a “struggling Western community” taught her “about reporting outside the bubble in a time of industry tumult.”

The piece deals with the recent purchase of the area’s longtime local newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain, by one of those hedge-fundy mega media corporations and the typical fallout that occurs after the sale: staff cuts, layoffs, less journalism. But it hits on a point I’ve made here a couple times, how a paper’s readers sometimes have to get that news elsewhere. Call me crazy, but a reader having to find news about her own community from a news outlet in another city doesn’t seem to align with the mission of a local newspaper.

From the piece:

When GateHouse bought the Chieftain, the paper reported on its own sale in a story written by editor Steve Henson, but the staff cuts were not reported. (Henson did not reply to an email for this story.) The instinct in the newsroom was to treat the cuts like any other local story — as they would have been treated under the longtime family owners. Apparently, GateHouse saw things differently. “The journalists did want to self-report,” said Luke Lyons, a Pueblo native, the Chieftain’s arts and entertainment reporter and the paper’s labor union chair. “We wanted to let the public know that the paper isn’t designed in Pueblo anymore, that there have been layoffs, this is why the funnies look different. But we were told by higher-ups that we couldn’t report it.”
I’m quoted in it, too, but I don’t think it’s anything you haven’t read in this newsletter before. Find out what else Rothenberg learned working in Pueblo as a journalist here.

When journalists keep asking the same question as their competitors 

Slick politicians know how to avoid answering questions they don’t want to answer and there are fewer politicians slicker than Colorado GOP U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. The man is typically a walking fog machine, a master class in deflection, spin, and manipulating the press— on the rare occasions he offers himself to on-the-spot inquiry outside conservative talk radio. His natural abilities and affable nature benefited him in his 2014 campaign against Democrat Mark Udall, but with Gardner’s ally Donald Trump in the White House he’s been on the ropes as he runs for re-election.

This week a thundercloud engulfed the candidate once dubbed by a national pundit as a “human beam of sunshine.” In a press scrum at an event in Denver Thursday, KDVR-TV reporter Joe St. George asked Gardner straight up if he believed it’s “appropriate for the president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival.” Gardner dodged and didn’t answer. Asked again by the same reporter, Gardner said he answered it and turned to another journalist. She rightly repeated the question. A third reporter tried a different variation of the interrogatory. When AP reporter Nick Riccardi reviewed his recording of the press gaggle, he found Gardner declined to answer a version of the question 12 times in seven minutes. The clips went viral in political media.

Speaking at Colorado College last week, Washington Post White House reporter Josh Dawsey took a question from an audience member who asked whether reporters at competing outlets coordinate questions or coverage. He said no, but they will at times back each other up in news conferences if a source doesn’t answer one of their questions, saying it was a kind of unspoken bond. “In these settings, people who dodge or fail to directly answer rely on being able to turn to the next journalist and get a new question,” said Denver Post politics reporter Alex Burness, who praised the way reporters handled Gardner. “We need more of this.” The Colorado Sun has more details in its write-up of the incident. From the story:

In two sometimes-tense scrums with groups of reporters before and after an event with the Colorado Chamber of Commerce, the normally upbeat Colorado Republican rejected questions, accused a reporter of being biased and then jostled his way out of a downtown Denver hotel. It was an uncharacteristic display of frustration. …

Later, as he was leaving the event at the downtown Denver Westin, he was asked by a reporter about his tweet linking Senate Bill 181 to oil-field services giant Halliburton’s layoff of 178 people in Grand Junction. “You didn’t like the tweet? Who are you with?” Gardner said. “I’m with 9News,” the reporter, Anusha Roy, said. “So, you must have your own opinion,” Gardner pressed. “What’s your opinion?”

By Thursday evening, the video from reporter Joe St. George’s tweet had racked up more than two million views by Friday. (The reporter is probably more happy about the reaction to that tweet this week than he is to this one.)

Should local news outlets stop saying ‘opioid’ crisis in coverage?

Colorado news organizations have been localizing stories about the national “opioid crisis” for years, so I thought I’d share this piece from CJR with a headline that made me click with acute curiosity: “It’s not the ‘opioid’ crisis. It’s the opiate crisis. The distinction matters.”

From the piece, by Mike Laws, a freelance copy editor:

To call Vicodin or Percocet or OxyContin “opioids” is flat-out wrong—they are not “like” opiates, as the -oid ending would have you believe (for -oid equals, and here I quote Webster’s, “resembling; having the form or appearance of”; cf. humanoid, =like or having the characteristics of, but not being, a human being); they literally are opiate painkillers.

Which presents a dilemma. To invoke the broad heading “opioids,” for the pharmaceuticals themselves, and to call our present epidemic “the opioid crisis” probably won’t strike any reader as wrong per se. In fact, so ingrained is this terminology that to buck this trend—to elect for the more precise usage, as you’ll no doubt have guessed that I, for one, would prefer—does run the risk of perhaps momentarily nonplussing your average reader, accustomed as he is to “opioid” and “opioid crisis.”

But screw all that. For one thing, to call these drugs “opiates” and the crisis “the opiate crisis” will shock that complacent, and complaisant, reader out of his lexical stupor (which is not, when you think about it, all that much different from the narcotized haze these drugs famously produce). And what we’re awakening our reader to is nothing less than the category error perpetuated by every other rag that’s bought into this no-good, very-bad nomenclature.

I thought this was the most persuasive line: “To refer to it as ‘the opioid crisis’ is, in a very real way, to minimize the culpability of all the very bad actors who contributed to the crisis: just as they once pushed these drugs on doctors and clinics with the promise that they were somehow categorically different from street drugs like heroin, so we the journalist class have repeated that mistake linguistically.”

The Boulder Daily Camera is suing the CU board of regents over transparency

From Colorado to South Carolina, large university president searches this year where politicos and military figures are top picks for the job have turned into circuses in an era when “secret searches” are a “recent phenomenon.”

For a recap into the controversial presidential search this spring that led to the choice of former GOP congressman Mark Kennedy to helm the University of Colorado system, read this inside story from The Colorado Independent’s Susan Greene about what regents said they knew — and didn’t — throughout the process.

Now, the latest in this drama is a lawsuit brought by The Boulder Daily Camera, CU’s hometown newspaper, over transparency in the search. From the Camera:

The university has refused two separate requests by the Camera asking for other finalists’ names under the Colorado Open Records Act, and for the names of the candidates ultimately interviewed by the Board of Regents. “We attempted to negotiate through our attorneys with the administration and the regents to have them do the right thing and release information on all the finalists for the university president,” Camera publisher Al Manzi said. “The regents determined they would not offer any transparency. “The Camera was forced to file a lawsuit in order to protect the public’s right to the information. We feel certain we will prevail and the university will be required to release the information we are seeking.” … CU system spokesman Ken McConnellogue said Monday the lawsuit was “curious,” citing the university’s long-standing practice of naming sole finalists in presidential searches. … McConnellogue said the Board of Regents had “met all of its obligations” in the search process and “did a good job balancing the need for candidate privacy and the need to get the best candidate possible with the public’s right to know.”
Watch this space for how this legal action plays out.

A Colorado-based radio station to ‘save the world’?

Somewhere in the farms north of Fort Collins is WWV, a station with “the country’s oldest radio call letters,” according to a story by KUNC’s Michael de Yoanna. But it’s not just any old station. From the report:
The station is run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology in Boulder, which is home to the atomic clock. WWV is capable of more than telling time. It could, if need be, save the world.

“Bold statement there, Michael,” said a KUNC host in the radio segment. “Yes, I’m confident in reporting that after my conversations with military and federal officials,” de Yoanna replied.

Sooooo, how exactly? More from KUNC:

Mark Jensen, a civilian planner with U.S. Northern Command, the military’s homeland security operation in Colorado Springs, called WWV a “most essential asset to our nation.” Should an emergency arise, volunteers would jump into action. They’re part of a program the military dubs MARS, which stands for Military Auxiliary Radio System. While jokes abound that the operators should not be confused for Martians, their work is serious. It’s doomsday stuff, like responding to the aftermath of a nuclear attack because the associated electromagnetic pulse could wipe out most communications. Or this scenario: extreme sun activity releasing masses of plasma accompanied by an unruly magnetic field.
Mmmmmk. So WWV would become a source to transmit information if our traditional digital infrastructure grid gets zapped. Good to know. Read (or listen) to the rest of this interesting story here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported how new funding is changing the way local police do their jobsThe Steamboat Pilot profiled a family trying to find out how their college-aged daughter died of a fentanyl overdoseThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled a local domestic violence shelterThe Greeley Tribune reported on a shortage of local high-school refereesThe Denver Post reported on a looming pilot shortageThe Summit Daily News reported on a national epidemic of vaping illnesses, with nine confirmed cases in ColoradoThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered what the area can learn from a centralized homeless shelter in San AntonioThe Durango Herald reported on artifacts from the Native American homes in Mesa Verde coming back from Finland after more than 100 yearsThe Gazette in Colorado Springs detailed cracks, flooding, and “other problems” in an up-and-coming new residential development in the cityThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on area moose controversies.

Denver approved $50k for The Indy’s editor after cops handcuffed her while filming + 1A training

Members of the Denver City Council decided to cough up $50,000 to settle a legal showdown between Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene after two city cops handcuffed her while she was filming them on a public walkway last year.

From Denverite:

Although the officers did not seem to respect Greene’s First Amendment rights, DPD released a statement earlier this year assuring the public that the department as a whole does. “Guided by that value, the department trains officers on First Amendment issues, and has reiterated to officers the relevant policies involving First Amendment considerations,” the statement said.

The City Council agreed to give Greene $50,000, but also to agree to “significantly strengthen First Amendment and sensitivity trainings for police through at least 2024,” The Indy reported. “The department also will update its policies on police bias and search and seizure of recording devices.”

The Indy reported Greene “plans to share the settlement money with The Independent, which is a nonprofit newsroom, and donate some of the money.”

CPR pulled down another big grant

Half a million dollars. That’s the latest announced grant haul for Colorado Public Radio, which is perhaps the fastest-growing newsroom in the state these days. The money comes from the Denver-based Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, which supports “programs and organizations to ensure that there is a quality system in place that allows all children to be valued, healthy, and thriving.” In other words, not typically media.

“We fund early childhood programs, but sometimes a project outside of our focus is so compelling that we make an exception to our own rules,” the foundation’s director, Susan Steele, said in a statement from CPR. “This is one of those projects.” She went on to say the need for “reliable, accurate news is more pronounced than ever,” and that The Buell Foundation is “excited and proud to support the expansion of CPR News in Colorado.”

The announcement included what has become an ever-growing boilerplate graf in CPR news releases:

CPR announced a multi-year vision of growth in July of 2018, and has since added regional reporters throughout Colorado, acquired the local-news site Denverite, welcomed its first Washington D.C. based correspondent and created an investigative team. In addition, the organization will move its entire CPR News operation within a few blocks of the state capitol in Denver later this year.
We’re all going to be working for CPR one day.

Some Colorado journalists also pulled down their own grants to cover water

The Water Desk, a project of the Center for Environmental Journalism at CU Boulder, announced this week that it’s doling out $112,880 in grants to journalists and media orgs “covering water issues involving the seven states of the Colorado River Basin—Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming—as well as the borderlands of Northwest Mexico.”

Among the winners in Colorado are independent journalist Bob BerwynColorado Independent editor Susan Greene, KFFR 88.3 FM Community Radio’s Denis Moynihan, and Ted Wood and Jim Robbins of The Story Group.

According to The Water Desk, grantees “will delve into a wide range of issues throughout the region, including biodiversity, pollution, groundwater, climate change, public lands, energy development and tribal water rights. The journalists and outlets will use a variety of media—newspapers, magazines, websites, television, radio—to explore critical challenges facing the West’s water.” The Water Desk says it “launched with support from the Walton Family Foundation” and that its funders and the University of Colorado “have no right of review and no influence on the journalism that is produced with these grants.” (I’ve pointed to previous coverage in this newsletter about the Walton’s involvement in Colorado water journalism and academia.)

And the new managing editor of ColoradoPolitics is…

Linda Shapley. The former managing editor of The Denver Post, who left in 2017 for the online marketing company Deke Digital, is coming back to journalism. Accolades rained down my Twitter feed when the news broke last week.

Journalism “is where @LindaShapley belongs,” said Colorado Public Radio’s Alison Borden.

More from the Colorado media HR report: Springs alt news editor out, Staver leaving, Hindi in

Last month, state politics reporter Nic Garcia left The Denver Post for Dallas. This month, his state politics reporting partner Anna Staver is leaving to cover the Statehouse in Ohio for The Columbus Dispatch. Staver came to the Post 15 months ago from a producer position at 9News. She dug into tax and budget policy stories about TABOR and covered federal elections and the legislature. The move is personal and reflects plenty of the work-life-balance pressures and challenges of being a reporter in the digital age. Staver, who has two small children, wanted to be closer to family in Ohio who can help out with the kids. She said she enjoyed her experience at the paper, and “I’m still going to keep my Denver Post subscription.” Like Garcia, Staver joined the Post at a troubled time for the newspaper following mass layoffs and a newsroom rebellion against its hedge-fund owner. She now heads to a GateHouse owned paper. As for her replacement, “I think it would be great if they hired another woman on the team,” she said. And they did! Saja Hindi will move from the paper’s breaking news team to join Alex Burness as a brand-new state politics team. And they both once worked at The Loveland Reporter-Herald.

An hour South, journalist J. Adrian Stanley has moved on from her news editor position at The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly to work in communications at the county health department. The paper promoted Alissa Smith to associate editor and hired Zach Hillstrom from The Pueblo Chieftain as a reporter. The management team at theSprings alt-weekly has resembled a cement mixer in recent years when it comes to staff turnover. Top editor Matthew Schniper “left the building” in July; (he still writes about the food-and-bev scene). Stepping in was Bryan Grossman who now edits both the alt-weekly and The Colorado Springs Business Journal, which is owned by the same company. Last year, publisher Carrie Simison departed to become a brand ambassador for a local brewery following the earlier departure of CEO Fran Zankowski. The paper has seen five editors depart in as many years. “We’re exceptionally pleased with our current editorial team,” says founder and chair John Weiss who praised the paper’s journalism. (Speaking of The Indy, for a recent cover story, reporter Pam Zubeck dug into “all 68 officer-involved shootings involving 70 suspects, 35 of them fatal, in El Paso and Teller counties dating to 2001.”)

ProPublica wants to work with more local Colorado newsrooms

ProPublica is a public service journalism powerhouse. So apply, people. The national outlet is looking for “six additional local accountability projects to fund in 2020.” A Colorado newsroom should be able to come up with something and pitch it hard. Let’s see one of our outlets here snag one of these opportunities.

*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