Calling out ‘Dark Content’ in Colorado news outlets

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Image by Kiki Sorensen for Creative Commons on Flickr

Local news publishers are struggling. We all get that. And over the years they might have made compromises because of economic realities. For some, the trade-off could be those compromises mean journalists get to keep their jobs and inform the community, so people like me should maybe just shut up and deal with it. Perhaps that’s a devil’s bargain in our current local news purgatory.

Publishing sponsored content can be one such compromise some outlets make to keep from having to shave reporter salaries off their balance sheets. It’s a practice that has existed for a while, but in the digital age it has become more pernicious. Colorado provides a case study. In 2017, I pointed out how ColoradoPolitics was running sponsored content with nothing but a logo for the oil-and-gas industry organization that paid for it. Why would a newspaper do that, especially as its editor pens columns about the perils of “fake news?” The editor and chairman declined to weigh in when I asked.

But now ColoradoPolitics is publishing sponsored content with even less disclosure than before about who paid for it. The only disclosure I can find is that the content is sponsored. That was the case for an Oct. 25 item headlined “Your health care at risk: It’s time to make your voice heard.” The post, ostensibly written by an author identified as Tim Brown, is critical of a plan by Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to provide a public option for health insurance. It quotes in bold type Kristin Strohm, president and CEO of the Common Sense Policy Roundtable (a think tank), questioning the plan. The item ends with a call for readers to contact their lawmakers and “Tell them what you think of the proposed public option.” The post appears in the same font as news stories on ColoradoPolitics. All that sets it apart is a small gray tab above the headline reading “SPONSORED.” But not by who. Other sponsored posts on the site don’t say who sponsored them. (UPDATE, Nov. 3: The post now contains the words “sponsored content” in capital letters in the headline.)

Vince Bzdek, editor at large of ColoradoPolitics, said the outlet reviewed its policy and decided “not to change it at this time.” Publisher Chris Reen said the outlet doesn’t accept “any advertising that isn’t true or factual, or is misleading or inflammatory.” Linda Shapley, former managing editor of The Denver Post who took over as managing editor of ColoradoPolitics this week, said she is not directly involved with the business policies of sponsored content at her new job.

“I do believe, however, that Colorado Politics readers are savvy enough to understand what they get when they’re reading sponsored articles and that they often come with an obvious agenda,” she said. “We’ll of course monitor these on a case-by-case basis as they pertain to our advertising policies.” (CoPo is a product of Clarity Media along with The Gazette, which is owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz.)

The practice of not saying who is paying for sponsored content is not merely a boogeyman of billionaire-backed new media where the business-side folks are more politically conservative. Another media outlet in Colorado Springs, The Independent alternative weekly, which is owned by John Weiss, who helped launch a moderate-to-progressive nonprofit group, also publishes sponsored content that doesn’t disclose who is paying for it. Consider this Oct. 2 item headlined “Let there be light: Solar panels to power 19,000 Colorado Springs homes.” Or this pro-Airbnb item. Or this one pimping out a pot shop. On each of them, the byline is “Indy Promotions” and a small, red “PROMOTED” label appears above the headline, about as small as CoPo’s. But nowhere in these — I don’t even know what to call them — “pieces” does it say who paid for them to run on the newspaper’s website. And let’s not kid ourselves here: advertisers likely do this because they want readers to mistake the content for legitimate news written by journalists. Everyone involved has to know this— except the reader who is ultimately the one being deceived.

Weiss and Amy Gillentine Sweet, The Colorado Springs Independent’s publisher and executive editor, had a different reaction than ColoradoPolitics this week when I asked about the practice.

“Thanks to your inquiry, we have decided to develop new policies for all eight (8) of our print publications and their corresponding digital platforms,” they wrote in a joint statement. “One of our new policies will be to require disclosure of the entity paying for such ads.” (Because they’re in the midst of a digital upgrade, they said it might take some time before readers see the new policies in place. “But be assured that changes are in the works,” they said.) “The Indy’s goal,” they said, “is always to be transparent as possible with our readers.”

Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association, said she could tell the content in both publications was sponsored, “but not easily because, in part, the tagging is very subtle.” She called the items “clearly both positional pieces that should be clearly identified as advertorial or placed on an opinion page with detailed bylines in accordance with AP standards.”

John Carroll, a media analyst for NPR’s Here & Now, says there’s a push and pull between an advertiser and a newspaper, and he has a cynical take about why an outlet might not want to be up front about who is paying for sponsored content. “The less transparent it is, the better it works,” he told me. “It’s in the advertiser’s interest to keep the transparency at a minimum; it’s in the publication’s interest, long term anyway, to retain its integrity and make sure that its audience is not being deceived.” In other words, a news outlet’s editorial content, in general, carries more credibility with readers than marketing material and advertising does.

Earlier this year, when the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute published their landmark report “Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America,” this appeared in its very first recommendation to journalists: “avoiding advertising formats that blur the line between content and commerce.”

A lot of responsibility is increasingly falling on readers these days when it comes to processing information and determining whether something they’re reading is trustworthy. The role of a newspaper should be that of a leader— as an institution— in helping its audience navigate a confusing media landscape, not helping set up the minefield. I’m afraid when newspapers run dark content, they risk sowing distrust among their audience.

I’m on the hunt for more dark content appearing in otherwise-legit Colorado news outlets. So if you see any come across your screens, please send my way.

Robots are helping write sports news for The Denver Post

There’s this great short film in the PBS series Future States called “A Robot Walks into a Bar.” You should watch it. And then consider robots are already helping write the local high school sports news in Denver.

The Denver Post has partnered with a company called Data Skrive, which will provide “automated game recaps” for stories in the paper so reporters don’t have to write them. From a company news release this week:

The strategic alliance confirms the newspaper’s commitment to local athletes and provides passionate Colorado high school football enthusiasts with extensive postgame narratives and box scores. With economical automation conducting the heavy lifting, The Denver Post can keep more revenue in its coffers to hire new journalists, retain those on staff and assign them to cover the value-added stories they previously lacked time to complete.

“Innovation is critical to driving our growth, and this partnership unlocks an avenue that was previously unrealistic for us,” said Dan Boniface, Digital Director at The Denver Post. “By leveraging the affordable power of automation, we can provide coverage of high school sports games across Colorado that we would never have been able to before, and our talented journalists have the time to focus on stories and human-interest pieces our readers crave.”

Get that? Robots aren’t taking jobs, they’re allowing reporters to keep them.

Tony Mulligan, administrative officer of the Denver Newspaper Guild labor union, was surprised to learn about the news this Tuesday because he says the union hadn’t agreed to proposed language in a contract about artificial intelligence; he believes the Guild should have a say.

How this automated coverage works is high school coaches and staff provide information, Data Skrive processes it, and it ends up published on The Denver Post website under the byline “Hero Sports.” A disclosure at the end reads: “This story was created with technology provided by Data Skrive using information that was available at the time of publication.”

Reporters at The Denver Post aren’t currently flooding the zone covering prep sports, a beat that can entice subscriptions largely from readers who want to see the names of their kids or grandkids in the local paper. The trade-off to paying for bot-written news seems to be to see if it brings in new subscribers and money instead of taking a reporter off, say, a City Hall story to write up a high school game recap.

Mulligan said the Guild had indicated the union might agree to artificial intelligence providing prep sports coverage, but he worried about a slippery slope. “A bot cannot effectively cover a municipality,” he said. “Take it to the extreme: they could get the reads from the state Legislature and let the bots write it,” he added. “I don’t think they would ever go to that extreme, but I can see them being enamored with this.”

Reaction to the news was swift from one reporter who works for The Boulder Daily Camera, a sister paper to The Denver Post.

“I’ll believe the part about ‘money in the coffers to hire new journalists’ when I see it,” said former Denver Post digital producer Adrian Crawford. “This is outright corporate cost-benefit analysis, you don’t have to pay benefits to a subscription sports recap-writing robot.”

One local (human) sports reporter in Colorado expressed surprise.

No, don’t expect to see Johnny 5 in the press box anytime soon.

The Greeley Tribune got a national shoutout for its ‘mini publishers’ model 

The Swift Communications-owned Northern Colorado newspaper, which recently went down to printing four days per week, was looking for ways to boost revenue “to avoid reducing the print run further or reducing staff,” according to a write-up in Better News, a project of the American Press Institute and the Knight-Lenfest Newsroom Initiative. The paper’s idea: create mini publisher teams, like one for the paper’s Go+Do audience.

From Better News:

The team’s leader acts like a general manager, accountable for profits and losses, audience, brand and other performance goals. That means that the team needs to span disciplines (across the newsroom and business units) and blend together all of the needed functions.

In Greeley, the Go+Do mini-publisher team consists of employees from most departments across the company: content (editorial), design, marketing, sales, finance and distribution. We meet monthly as a group to brainstorm ideas, develop strategy and assign tasks. Then individual team members work on directives with their department head and report to the mini-publisher who serves as the project manager. The Tribune also has mini-publisher teams for public safety, sports and growth and development audiences.

The piece delves into how The Tribune is adopting the Knight-Temple Table Stakes model, a manual to help newsrooms become more sustainable, or the Knight-Lenfest initiative, which seeks to assist in newsroom business strategy. Specifically, the piece explores how The Tribune was able to nearly double its revenue from a food-and-drink discount cards program in partnership with local restaurants and breweries. The paper is now considering a coffee card to add another revenue stream.

I asked Tribune publisher Bryce Jacobson what it has been like for his paper working with these kinds of national initiatives trying to help local newspapers become more sustainable. “It was a great project,” he said. “The funders of that project along with Poynter are definitely focused on customers first.” The training that Table Stakes provided, he said, gave his team some great direction and guidance towards connecting with the paper’s customers in a way they appreciate.

‘Holes’ are growing in Colorado’s open records laws

As technology becomes more sophisticated, “holes” are yawning in Colorado’s open records laws, according to The Denver Post. From reporter Alex Burness:

Intensifying the problem with electronic record-keeping is the fact that many Colorado officials now use private-communication apps like Confide and Signal, which offer users a function that deletes messages once they’ve been read. At least 15 current Colorado lawmakers are on Confide, and nearly a third of the legislature uses Signal, The Denver Post has learned. Many other public officials, including political staffers, use these apps, too.

Several who were interviewed for this story described this as less of a scandal or open secret than a reflection of the fact that the public, in general, is shifting toward messaging apps. Americans were estimated to spend twice as much time per day on these apps in 2019 as compared to 2015. CORA does not address the use of such communications by elected officials and public employees.

The piece builds from a report out this month from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition with the darkly humorous title “But the emails…: What Colorado Needs to Do to Preserve the Modern Public Record,” written by attorney Jill Beathard.

Here’s the report’s overview:

Open records laws cannot serve their purpose if requested records no longer exist. And yet, the open records acts of many states, including Colorado’s, do not address the retention of public records in a meaningful way. While other statutes may address retention, those laws generally are not enforced or leave a wide berth of discretion to the public employee managing the records, especially when it comes to emails and text messages. The result is that communications often are not retained and thus are not available when someone submits an otherwise valid Colorado Open Records Act request for them. Colorado should address this problem by adopting clearer policies and, perhaps, by purchasing or developing software to automate the process.

Read the report here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran another big front-page package about marijuana, this time focused on its industrial impactThe Steamboat Pilot localized the effects of Trump’s tariffs on China, reporting how “outdoor companies are paying the consequences.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald reported on teen dating violenceThe Longmont Times-Call covered Boulder County’s carbon sequestration project. The Boulder Daily Camera covered a local ballot measure “to take on up to $10 million in debt to start a program to aid middle-income earners in purchasing homes in the city’s increasingly pricey real estate market.” The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported on frustration by Jewish students at CSUThe Durango Herald reported “at least four homeless residents have died this year in La Plata County.” The Gazette continued its series of reporting on problems plaguing a hip new housing developmentThe Denver Post reported how 30 months after the “fatal Firestone blast, Colorado’s widening web of underground pipelines [is] still not fully mapped.”

What’s up with arts and culture coverage in CO?

When the bottom fell out of the local news business model, arts and culture coverage in daily newspapers took a significant hit. That reality has birthed interesting ideas. One of them, at The Greensboro News & Record in North Carolina in 2014, was to allow a local arts umbrella group to pay the paper $15,000 to keep the beat alive and “allow the paper to provide coverage that it hadn’t made a priority at a time of cutbacks and constriction.” Here in our own state, the Colorado Media Project in conjunction with Colorado Public Radio, its hyper-local sister site Denverite, and Rocky Mountain Public Media wanted to know what Coloradans “crave” in arts and culture coverage and how they might want to engage with it. So they researched the issue for five months. On Nov. 8, the group will hold a breakfast at History Colorado to release their findings. Register for the event here.

From the event listing:

New research from Colorado Media Project shows that Coloradans crave arts and culture experiences. But they often feel disconnected from community, and overwhelmed by information. At the same time they don’t get what they really want when it comes to news and information about local arts and cultural events and experiences.

The survey checked in with more than 2,000 Coloradans, “oversampling for racial and ethnic minorities, asking how Coloradans engage with arts and culture in the state, and how they get their information.”

Indian Country Today has joined the AP

This seems hard to believe, but these words appeared this week in Columbia Journalism Review:
If the old adage—that good journalism is the first draft of history—is true, then October 1, 2019, marked the first time in mainstream US media that history was written by a Native publication about Indian Country.

The story is about how Indian Country Today, “the nation’s leading outlet for news from Native America,” has joined The Associated Press, meaning AP members can select its coverage from the wire service. Earlier this month, the AP picked up a story about an indigenous filmmaker from Indian Country Today. That was important, the author of it, Aliyah Chavez, Kewa Pueblo, told CJR, because “in the whole history of media this hasn’t happened before.”

Also quoted in the CJR piece is Jim Clarke, the AP’s director for the West who lives in Denver. The new collaboration between the AP and Indian Country Today, he said, “helps the wires and our collective journalism.”

The Facebook false-ad candidate test

In California, a man says he is running for governor so that he can run false ads on Facebook. “Facebook allows politicians, including candidates for public office, to run ads on its platform that are not fact-checked,” reported CNN. That got me thinking: What does it take to become a candidate in Colorado? Turns out, not much.

From Campaign Finance Rule 1.19 in the Colorado Constitution (emphasis mine):

 “Publicly announced an intention to seek election to public office or retention of a judicial office” means:
  • 1.19.1 Registering a candidate committee; or
  • 1.19.2 Announcing an intention to seek public office or retention of a judicial office through:
  • (a) A speech, advertisement, or other communication reported or appearing in public media; or
  • (b) A statement made in any place accessible to the public; or
  • (c) A statement made in a manner that a reasonable person would expect to become public.

Don’t get any ideas.

The lonely lives of the brothers Bennet

Ben Terris of The Washington Post has a profile of Colorado’s presidential contender Michael Bennet and his brother James, who runs The New York Times editorial page. The subhed: “Michael is running for president. James is a top editor at the New York Times. Both are struggling to figure out their place in an altered landscape.” Some takeaways:

  • “When James was editor of The Atlantic magazine, the company changed its ethics guidelines to allow him to donate to his brother’s Senate campaign.”
  • “You wouldn’t know they were related by looking at them (James is bald, bearded and has expressive eyebrows; Michael has a head full of parted hair, and a clean shave that showcases a crooked smile). But they share a voice — deep and slow, almost a perfect parody of a rich person, as if they speak only while swirling a martini — and they use it to preach the same things: civility, bipartisanship and reasoned discourse.”
  • “A managing editor at The Atlantic told the Post “she reported James to human resources three times during [an] episode.”
  • “If the decision were made tomorrow, I would put my money on it being James,” a senior editor said of a Bennet becoming top editor of The New York Times.

Read the whole thing here.​

‘Far-right conspiracist newspaper’ found in Denver Post racks at the Capitol

Someone wants the people who flock to Colorado’s political power center to pick up copies of The Epoch TimesWestword’s Chase Woodruff found copies of the print paper in racks at the state Capitol meant for The Denver Post and USA Today. From his write-up about the discovery of this “controversial right-wing newspaper with close ties to a Chinese religious sect and a history of promoting conspiracy theories like QAnon, the ‘Deep State’ and anti-vaccination beliefs”:
In an email to Westword, Stephen Gregory, publisher of the paper’s English-language editions, wrote: “Complimentary copies of the Epoch Times are distributed at the Capitol with permission of the administrative office, as well as the Denver Post whose rack we use.” But both Capitol building administrators and the Denver Post say that’s not true. The Colorado Department of Personnel and Administration, which oversees state-owned facilities like the Capitol building through its Division of Capital Assets, says it doesn’t manage the cafeteria newsstands.

“Epoch Times does not have our permission to use the rack — at least we can’t find anyone who gave such permission,” Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo told Westword for its story.

*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 HEREImage by Kiki Sorensen for Creative Commons on Flickr.