Call the plumbers: Denver mayor’s office is investigating leaks to media

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo © 2011 J. Ronald Lee for Creative Commons on Flickr

Need a plumber in Denver? You might find one scrambling to plug some leaks in the mayor’s office.

That’s according to a recent story drawing journalistic side-eyes in the Mile High City.

From CBS4 on Oct. 24:
Denver’s city attorney is conducting an internal investigation into about a dozen of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock’s appointees and confidantes attempting to learn who may have notified the media Aug. 12 that the city was terminating the contract of Great Hall Partners for redevelopment of the Denver International Airport terminal. DIA administrators announced the termination the next day, Aug. 13.

Citing “multiple sources familiar with the probe,” CBS4 reporter Brian Maass broke the story of what he called an “unusual investigation,” which he said is “being conducted by the Denver City Attorney’s office.” The city attorney told him it would be “irresponsible to not follow up on those kinds of matters” and that the office is simply doing its job. It was Maass at CBS4 who broke the August story in question.

More from Maass:

Unhappy about the information getting out prematurely, the city attorney has contacted about a dozen of the Mayor’s confidantes and appointees who were informed of the termination the night of Aug. 12. They have been asked to sign a release allowing the Denver City Attorney to access their cellular phone records. According to a copy of the release obtained by CBS4 via an open records request, the employees are being asked to authorize release of “copies of any and all cellular phone records, including but not limited to, telephone bills including detailed call and text records, statements, text data, notes, or any other document whatsoever pertaining to the above individual for August 12, 2019.”

“This doesn’t really have anything to do with the media,” City Attorney Kristin Bronson told The Denver Post for its write-up. “This has to do with our charter obligation to ensure that the city’s systems are secure and don’t create any unnecessary or unwarranted legal risk.”

Journalists in Denver took quick notice of the probe.

👆That’s the editor of The Denver Post. This is from a political reporter there 👇

Another perspective:

From the reporter himself…

And to sum up the lay of the land on the transparency front in Colorado’s largest city in general:

In 2017, sources told CNN that President Donald Trump “signed off on press secretary Sean Spicer’s decision to check aides’ cell phones to make certain they weren’t communicating with reporters by text message or through encrypted apps.”

So cue the editorial tying Hancock to Trump, amirite? (<— Click that link to get up to speed.)

Print is dead. Long live print. In North Denver, anyway…

Followers of this newsletter like a good local journalism startup story. Especially in Denver. (John Rodriguez probably just smashed the screen with his coffee mug.) So here’s another one: Two youngish veterans of Democratic politics and government who ran unsuccessfully for city council in Denver recently launched The Denver North Star, a new monthly print newspaper they’ll run in their free time.

That’s right, a print newspaper.

Sabrina D’Agosta, 41, and David Sabados, 37, believe there’s still a successful business model in hyper-local ink-and-paper news. D’Agosta, a former community journalist in multiple states, left the business years ago. “We were seeing the writing on the wall … I went into government communications because of it,” she told me over the phone this week about the local print news narrative. “And I cried for like a week.” Her jobs in PR included advising former mayor-turned-governor John Hickenlooper, speaking for Denver Public Schools and state government. Now, while serving as communications manager for the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, she’s getting back into her old field on the side, writing stories about school board races, local restaurants, and school construction.

The birth of this neighborhood newspaper comes two years after the demise of The North Denver Tribune following an 80-year run. The paper couldn’t keep up with expenses. So what will The Denver North Star do differently? For one, home delivery to 30,000 locations instead of mail. They considered the nonprofit route—The Southeast Express did that in the Springs, for instance— but they decided to sell ads and subscriptions. They believe a solid advertising base exists as well as a readership need for North Denver news. (On the day I talked to them they had already fielded calls from two new advertisers before noon. You can view the paper’s first edition here.)

The venture made a local media splash with write-ups in ColoradoPoliticsBusinessDenMediaPost, and broadcasts on the local CBS and NBC affiliates. All mentioned the founders ran for city council, but not much about the extent to which their politics intends to inform the paper’s news coverage.

When I asked Sabados, who is a former Democratic National Committee official, ex-vice chair of the state Democratic Party, and onetime chair of the Colorado Young Democrats, if he’d be skeptical of the coverage if a former leader of the Young Republicans launched a newspaper in his neighborhood, he chuckled, paused, and said he would. “Of course anyone should always look into who is publishing a paper and I think that’s important,” he said, adding that he and D’Agosta have been open about their backgrounds.

Sabados said plenty of journalists register as unaffiliated and yet they vote, and, of course, have opinions. “I think, honestly, the best journalists are upfront about their viewpoints,” he said. He also opened the curtain a tad about the political-PR-journalist relationship, saying:

“All of my time working in communications, whether it was for a candidate or an organization, we all knew the journalist to go to for a specific story— for a specific angle. Because over time you start to learn someone’s viewpoint in that way. … You have a sense of where they’re at, and it’s about being upfront about who we are.”

The paper, he indicated, would not be a “Democratic rag;” and D’Agosta, who says she is an unaffiliated voter, added that much of what they’re doing is community news, “not centered around wholly political things.” When they do write about politics, she said they’ll do their level best to act as a check on each other.

One of the defining reasons D’Agosta, a seventh-generation Denverite whose mother and grandmother grew up in North Denver, decided to go full bore into the print community newspaper business is because of a tension between old North Denver and new North Denver. “I think we’re giving people an opportunity to create that community connection and to be able to learn about where they live in a way that’s really meaningful,” she said. “And so that, to me, is really core to what we’re trying to do.”

The Colorado Sun is courting large investors

“A little over a year ago, mass layoffs at the Denver Post led to a dramatic editorial rebellion against the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital. The broadsheet became the poster child for the perils of hedge-fund newspaper ownership,” I wrote this week for Columbia Journalism Review. “Last summer, 10 journalists defected from the Post to risk launching the Sun when a cryptocurrency and blockchain technology company offered them grant money to do so.”

The piece checks up on the Sun for a national audience as media watchers keep an eye out for new kinds of local journalism models to emulate around the country. The cryptocurrency-and-blockchain-backed grant from a company called Civil that seeded the Sun’s launch runs out in May, so plenty of eyes will be on the outlet to see how it manages to sustain itself with a mix of reader support and underwriters as a public benefit corporation that can make a profit and offer a return on investment.

On that front, from the story:

The year-old startup is also now courting large investors, says [editor Larry] Ryckman, though he cautions against those who might hope to make a killing on an investment. Because the Sun doesn’t need money right now to stay afloat, he says, the journalists can be choosy about who they allow to buy in. “We don’t want to take money from just anyone.”

I asked Ryckman what the pitch to potential investors sounds like.

“If you’re looking to make a killing on an investment, this isn’t necessarily the right move for you,” he said. “If you want to work with us and build something that you can be proud of and serves our state and produces great journalism— and by the way hopefully will turn a profit one day and will be able to pay you back a reasonable rate of return— let’s talk.”

The editor says he doesn’t think this kind of model has really been explored in Colorado yet, “and that’s something that we’re interested in playing out [to] see how that works.”

Elsewhere in the story is this nugget:

Last September, the Sun launched The Unaffiliated, an exclusive weekly politics newsletter written by [John] Frank and other reporters that costs subscribers $20 per month. Frank, who thought his newsletter might net 500 subscribers in the first year, says The Unaffiliated has “already doubled the numbers I expected.”

So, let’s do the math on that. $20 a month x 12 months = $240 a year. $240 x 1,000 subscribers = $240,000. Pretty good for a year-old newsletter. Some caveats, though, make that figure likely high: I subscribed to it during a deep discount drive, and I doubt I’m alone, and there would be payment processing fees, so that nearly-a-quarter-million-dollars number is likely not on total target. But still, damn. Speaking of… how much would you pay a month for this newsletter if you had to? (Asking for a friend.)

An oil-and-gas health study Rorschach test: How media framed it

Last week, the release of a new state report about public health risks for people living near oil-and-gas drilling sites in Colorado made for an uncharacteristic day of local media-on-media sniping. Journalists tweeted at each other about whether a news organization broke an embargo (it didn’t), and over the word “significant” in one outlet’s headline. News of the findings was so hot one outlet stated it was “first” to report it, but timestamps show it was two minutes behind a rival. And, goodness, the headlines about what the 380-page study showed were all over the place. Here’s a sample:
  • Colorado to tighten oversight of oil and gas sites near homes in wake of study finding possible short-term health effects (Denver Post)
  • Potential for short-term health impacts from Colorado oil and gas drilling leads to calls for temporary halt in permits (Colorado Sun)
  • Colorado residents near oil and gas sites have long worried about health impacts. A new state study bolsters their concerns (Colorado Independent)
Not too far off from each other yet. But…
  • Long-Awaited Colorado Health Study Finds Significant Risks From Fracking (Westword)
  • New study cites minimal health risks from Colorado oil and gas development (ColoradoPolitics)
So, which is it? Let’s turn to TV:
  • New study doesn’t settle question of whether living near oil and gas sites always poses a health risk (KDVR)
  • Colorado-funded study shows possible health risks near oil & gas sites during ‘worst-case’ scenarios (Denver7)
  • New study outlines health risks from oil & gas development (9News)
So that’s kind of a muddle, isn’t it? Health risks. Significant risks. Minimal risks. Possible risks. Doesn’t settle. Here’s another:

Want to read the full study for yourself? Click here.

So, what’s an embargo, anyway? It’s when someone with information gives it out to media, but asks them not to publish anything about it until a certain time. Journalists aren’t obligated to respect an embargo by much other than their own credibility with a source down the road. A journalist who breaks an embargo can lose access to information later. Why do sources embargo information? Often to let reporters get a jump on something they plan to publicly release later— and often so they can attempt to control the narrative of coverage. What happened here was a competitive feeding frenzy to process and publish findings from a 380-page report in a matter of hours. Assess for yourself whether that worked out well for everyone.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel tinted its front page text in green and dedicated the entire above-the-fold section to the marijuana industry’s impact under the headline “High times in Western Colorado.” The Steamboat Pilot rounded up reporting on local construction projectsThe Loveland Reporter-Herald reported how a lack of affordable housing hurts victims of domestic violenceThe Longmont Times-Call reported violent crime in Boulder County surged in the past five yearsThe Boulder Daily Camera covered the affects of beer deregulation in grocery storesThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had a guide to the local ballot on the front pageThe Durango Herald ran a story called “clearing the methane cloud.” The Denver Post introduced a new feature looking at Colorado’s food cultureThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how Air Force Academy cadets are fighting “hazing expulsion.”

A reporter jumped from The Denver Post’s city hall beat to covering the statehouse for CPR

From Denverite to The Denver Post and back again. So goes the career path of reporter Andy Kenney. Kind of. The 32-year-old reporter who moved to Colorado from North Carolina in 2015 recently quit the print newspaper’s City Hall beat to cover the state Capitol for Colorado Public Radio, which recently bought his former employer, the hyper-local digital news site Denverite.

“Denverite-adjacent,” is how he jokingly described his new work home to me over the phone this week. “I’ve always thought that radio is a really promising avenue for journalism, and public radio has been doing a good job of it, so I wanted to be a part of building something and continuing to build something at CPR.” (The outlet is currently trying to build a newsroom of 70 journalists and has enjoyed a period of rapid expansion.) Kenney will take a policy-oriented focus and work alongside Bente Birkeland, who moved to CPR from KUNC last year.

The reporter’s departure from The Denver Post’s politics desk is the latest in a string of exits since the newspaper’s team imploded last summer when four reporters and an editor bolted. At the time, I wrote this for CJR:

The Post, despite its diminished staff, has continued to publish in-depth investigative and accountability reporting. Lee Ann Colacioppo, the paper’s top editor since 2016, says she’s had no trouble filling vacancies and anticipates finding a more committed staff of journalists who believe in the paper. She adds, “Our readers are going to get better news, more news, better-written stories than we ever had with the people who left.”

Since then, four of those who filled the vacancies have left. Nic Garcia and Anna Staver each said they enjoyed their time at the paper but new opportunities arose. “For me, it’s a way to do something new and start with something that I see some promise in,” Kenney said, adding that the Post was one of his “best jobs ever.”

The Post politics team is now rebuilding again. Alex Burness joined from The Colorado Independent, and Saja Hindi moved over from a breaking news position. They join Justin Wingerter who moved here in February. Jon Murray started a position as an enterprise reporter on the politics team last summer after covering City Hall. John Aguilar, who has been at the paper since 2014, is also on the team covering Denver’s suburbs, growth, and industry. Cindi Andrews, who came from The Cincinnati Enquirer last year, oversees the desk as an editor. Here’s the job listing for the Post’s city hall reporter position, which the paper describes as “one of our most high-profile and competitive beats.”

Here’s an editor who explained a vanished story … with a whole new story

Last month we learned the former managing editor of ColoradoPolitics wasn’t really planning to explain to readers of the news site why a story about a politician vanished. (He did explain in an interview when I asked, though.) The quick-hit post wasn’t up very long. But still, critics were flagging on Twitter its disappearance. Which is what tends to happen these days and why outlets should be aware and willing to respond to it if they want to build trust with their audience.

This week, The Denver Post’s opinion section did something different. When editorial page editor Megan Schrader realized the leader of a progressive group misattributed the name of an organization behind a TV ad in a column about a statewide ballot measure, she “immediately removed the article from public view online and did not run the article in print.” Then she published a whole new online post explaining why.

From the item:

Ordinarily, when an error occurs, The Denver Post corrects the text and places a transparent correction at the bottom of the story online and on page 2A if the story appeared in print. Because this article is no longer published online and did not appear in print, I’ve decided to err on the side of transparency with a note to our readers explaining why the story was removed and correcting the error.
At least one reader thought the way the editor handled it was an overreaction. “Don’t be so dramatic,” commented another, saying the typical error policy could have sufficed. I didn’t see the original column, but I did see someone on social media asking why it had disappeared. Which led me to the note explaining why it had. That’s certainly better than pretending it didn’t happen, no matter how embarrassing it might be.

A Colorado reporter launched a cannabis PR firm— then bought a $1.2 million building for it

Whoever said money doesn’t grow on trees never sold marijuana. Or, for that matter, started a cannabis-focused public relations business in Colorado. This newsletter has followed the metamorphosis of former pioneering Denver Post marijuana editor Ricardo Baca who in 2016 had to “remain sober at work,” left the paper a year later, started a “journalism-minded content agency” called Grasslands, which now counts more than a dozen full-time employees, and considered buying The Cannabist from his old newspaper. Earlier this year I asked Baca if he was a millionaire yet. He might have laughed, but I don’t recall a direct answer. But this week he bought a $1.2 million building for his company’s headquarters in Denver. The 5,000-square-foot space is on North Santa Fe Drive. The structure, built in 1954, is “already zoned to go five stories up,” according to a Grasslands statement.

The grocery store newspaper war is growing

A month later, the nationwide campaign by weekly newspapers to convince Kroger not to kick newspaper racks out of stores in the nation’s largest grocery chain hasn’t worked out in favor of the news folks. The Colorado Springs alt-weekly led the charge, and the protest made plenty of news. But Kroger didn’t back down. “We are removing the publication racks from our stores because more publications continue to shift to digital formats, resulting in less customers using the products,” a Kroger exec said, according to The Memphis Business Journal.

It turns out more grocery stores are giving newspapers the boot, and not just stateside. The U.K.’s Press Gazette reports the German-owned Aldi isn’t selling newspapers in its U.K. stores anymore in order to better utilize floor space.

Also, this, from Harvard’s Niemanlab:

… the disappearance of reading materials from retail shelves isn’t a trend limited to Europe. Starbucks stopped selling print newspapers at its 8,600 U.S. outlets in September, though it announced this month it will offer free digital access to a handful of newspapers in its stores, at least for a limited time. … This pushback in grocery stores is only the latest case of retailers stepping away from print; what was once seen as a tool to pull in daily customers is increasingly seen as something taking up valuable floor and counter space. Independent newsstands once common in any significant city have dropped like flies.

One day our screens will own our souls.

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*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. Image by © 2011 J. Ronald Lee for Creative Commons on Flickr.