New Colorado nonprofit news outlet ‘couldn’t pick two more polarizing topics than journalism and energy’

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A drill site in Erie, Colorado (photo by Phil Cherner)

“We’re very much like the Chalkbeat of energy.”

That was the message publisher Mark Roberts had for a crowd of supporters at the Denver Athletic Club Tuesday about his new journalism venture Empowering Colorado.

Roberts, who has a background in journalism and PR, was talking about the successful national nonprofit with a newsroom in Denver that deeply covers education from all sides without a stated agenda. While Chalkbeat does that for education, and Kaiser Health News reports on healthcare here, there isn’t a journalistic news outlet dedicated solely to Colorado’s energy-environment space. Empowering Colorado wants to become that.

In February, I reported on this burgeoning org’s efforts to raise money with hopes to launch sometime within the year. Nine months later the outfit, with a board of directors and a staff of about half a dozen, held a celebration with former Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter as a featured backer. But this wasn’t a real here-we-are-now-cranking-out-coverage launch; it was more of a soft one. They’re still developing a detailed strategic plan and budget to present to the board in January, before they start robust reporting. They’re still raising money and developing partnerships and a proof of concept. “It’s a chicken-and-egg kind of thing,” Roberts told me.

The site, however, is no longer behind a splash page, has a newsletter, and has produced some recent stories, mainly about research at Colorado State University, penned by Roberts. CSU researchers “developing solutions to drilling-induced methane emissions,” for instance, or researchers “developing new methods to derive energy from algae,” and researchers “working to bring energy to regions of Sub-saharan Africa.” Roberts says Empowering Colorado developed the stories with the Colorado Energy Research Collaboratory, which coordinates research among the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado, CSU and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The outlet is building a relationship with that entity and is looking to potentially build relationships with others. It’s still in the building stage, in other words.

“We have to produce content that exhibits our ability to be able to serve in this space and do journalism,” Roberts said, adding that he hopes to do big stories with impact, not quick-churn items.

How to raise enough money for an enterprise like this could be tricky. Health News Colorado folded in 2016 when it learned funders might have wanted it to choose a side in contentious debates. “If we are to build trust in the journalism product we produce, we need to be straightforward and honest about how the journalism is funded,” Roberts said. (The ways in which nonprofit news outlets here disclose donors varies some: Aspen Journalism, for instance, lists donors by name, the date a donation comes in, and the amount; The Colorado Independent lists names but not amounts; Chalkbeat lists names of donors who gave $1,000 or more in the last two years.)

“We don’t want, nor can we take, realistically, money from, say, an Xcel or an Anadarko,” Roberts told me about the fundraising front. “It’s possible that we would engage them on, say, an event that is centered around a specific topic. But in terms of having them funding the journalism, there’s no way that they could do that.”

One such event was the one on Tuesday at the Athletic Club where former Gov. Ritter talked about his views on energy and the environment. Empowering Colorado plans to hold around 10 events in 2020 and has tiered sponsorship levels for entities featured at them. Crestone Peak Resources, “a top producer of oil and natural gas in the Denver-Julesburg Basin,” was a $2,000 sponsor for Tuesday’s event.

Empowering Colorado is seeking to emerge in this space as Colorado Public Radio ramps up its climate coverage, receiving a $1.2 million grant this spring to create a team for “fact-based reporting on the impact, solutions and political aspects of climate change.” (Find its reporting here.)

If there’s a state to see whether a new-media approach like this is sustainable and how, it might as well be Colorado. I wonder whether Empowering Colorado ends up looking more like Chalkbeat or like, say, Marijuana Business Daily, which is a journalistic entity that’s also kind of part of the cannabis industry in the way it hosts events.

For his part, Roberts says, “You couldn’t pick two more polarizing topics than journalism and energy. We know that.”

The Colorado Independent + The Rio Blanco Herald Times = This badass partnership

Here’s your must-read this week. When a police officer killed a mentally ill man in a small Colorado town, and the hometown newspaper said local public officials discouraged it from reporting the story, the Rio Blanco Herald Times partnered with the Denver-based nonprofit Colorado Independent to dig in and tell the whole messy tale about what happened. This took guts.

The result is a riveting piece of investigative journalism and a remarkable example of expertise-sharing newsroom collaboration. Part one of the series came out Thursday, published in the local newspaper and on The Indy’s site. Part II came out today. Here’s from Herald Times editor Niki Turner in a column she wrote about her courageous partnership with Indy editor Susan Greene:

I know not everyone will be pleased with this story, and I accept that. It’s not our job to make everyone comfortable. We’ll leave that to the likes of glossy magazines and partisan news sources that tell their readers just what they want to hear and nothing else. I’m not going to apologize for doing my job. I am going to apologize for not doing it a lot sooner. When Daniel’s Pierce’s mother says she doesn’t understand why no one seemed to care or contacted her after her son died, I take that as a rebuke. We didn’t do what your local newspaper is supposed to do: we didn’t tell the story. We allowed ourselves to be silenced right along with everyone else. Our job is to tell the stories, as best we can, with as much integrity and honesty and accuracy and fairness as we can muster. I believe we’ve done that with this story. This wasn’t an easy story to tell. Without Susan’s expertise and assistance, it wouldn’t have come together. My dip into the pool of investigative journalism was intense, educational, and exhausting. And now I have a new set of tools in my tool box for future use.

Read her whole column here.

And, really, do set some time aside to read the two-part series “Through the Cracks” at the Times Herald and The Colorado Independent. As Greene wrote on Twitter: “A mentally ill man died at the hands of a small, NW Colorado town’s police department distrusted for its SNAFUs and hubris. Town leaders figured they could get away with ignoring the local newspaper’s questions. They didn’t. Newsrooms of the world unite!”

The Colorado Trust will pay $100k for a ‘media landscape survey’

The Colorado Trust, a foundation dedicated to “advancing the health and well-being of all Coloradans,” is looking to spend up to $100,000 for “a consultant or consultants with demonstrable experience in conducting media landscape studies” to conduct one for them. The scope of the project is broader than these bullet points, but here are a few aspects that jumped out at me:

  • “The research will include a look at local accountability journalism, and which media outlets are or have the potential of revealing and highlighting inequities, or holding public officials and/or corporate entities accountable to the people they serve”
  • “Examine representation within media outlets of reporters, editors, leaders and other staff and contributors who reflect their communities’ diversity in terms of race, ethnicity, language, ability, gender and sexual orientation”
  • “Provide The Trust with recommendations on one or more approaches to funding journalism that highlights the systemic factors driving inequities, connects to societal narratives, builds support for solutions, and centers the concerns of residents, organizations and the communities they serve”
  • “Be inclusive of non-traditional sources of local news, information, storytelling and analysis, which may include college journalism programs, newsletters and email listservs, library or museum news, storytelling initiatives, etc.”

Why would the Colorado Trust be interested in an X-ray of Colorado’s media landscape? From the call for RFPs:

The Trust believes the stories we tell ourselves and each other about why inequities exist are deeply embedded in historical and current context and lived experience. Societal stories, or narratives, are rooted in shared values and common themes that influence how people process information and make decisions. Journalism is one way that narratives are formed and maintained.

In Colorado, local news plays an important role in ensuring that people have the information they need to participate in decision-making in their communities. When people and organizations have good information about their communities, both are better equipped to advocate for policies that reflect their concerns and address their needs.

High-quality journalism can reveal new information; make crucial connections between what people are experiencing and the policies and practices that are driving these experiences; and help hold government officials and corporate entities accountable to the public. Strong, responsible reporting on local government agencies, public office holders, businesses and other powerful entities can inform communities and the organizations with whom they work. We also believe that high-quality local reporting can lead to policies that better serve all Coloradans.

The Trust says it wants a media study here “to help us understand the current reach and scope of local coverage; the role of journalism in creating, changing and/or maintaining narratives; and possibilities for enhanced and expanded coverage across the state.” The deadline for RFPs is Dec. 6.

So what would Colorado Trust be looking to do with this information? “We’re hoping to do more funding of journalism, in short,” Trust spokeswoman Kristin Jones told me. The Trust has funded journalistic efforts in the past as one-offs, like Kaiser Health News and helping Denverite cover housing and hunger. “We see journalism as really important for communities to be able to build power, especially when we’re talking about people who have been left out of decision making,” Jones said, adding, “we see journalism, obviously, as a huge role in holding powerful people accountable to the public.”

The study is a first step for the Trust to identify gaps in coverage in Colorado and to get an idea of how the Trust might help fill them. The study might inform whether they’ll fund one or multiple outlets, where, and to what extent. The budget for funding yet isn’t clear, she said. She said she would like to make as much of the study public as possible.

Speaking of mapping media ecosystems…

The Democracy Fund has a new guide “to assessing your local news ecosystem.” The group has a blog post about how to use it here. Included in the guide are case studies from “funders we’ve learned from in Colorado, New Jersey, Detroit, and the Mountain West.” The one in Colorado, as you might expect, is about the Colorado Media Project.

From a DF blog post about the guide:

This guide can help you take a look at that big picture and chart a path forward. It starts with understanding what makes up a healthy news ecosystem, then walks through the ways you can get to know your community, including research and engagement methods you can tailor to your goals. Our “deep dive” section includes a trove of free and low-cost data sources as well as some simple scavenger hunt-style assignments to help you see what those sources have to offer. We talk through ways your organization can act on what you learn so that your assessment will inform collaboration and ongoing engagement. And since we know budgets and bandwidth vary, we offer ideas for ways to right-size your assessment to the resources you have.
“The story we often hear about local news is dire, but it doesn’t have to be,” writes DF’s Teresa Gorman. (Disclosure: The Democracy Fund has supported the United States Project at Columbia Journalism Review where I often publish.)

A library district bought The Greeley Tribune building

Here’s a twist. Readers of this newsletter have been following recent talks about whether local public libraries in Colorado should get more involved in the production of community journalism. That was the subject of a May CJR story headlined: “Should a Colorado library publish local news?” and subsequent publicity via NPR, plus a proposal from the Colorado Media Project to further explore the idea about library taxing districts.

But forget about libraries in Colorado publishing local news. In Greeley, the local library district just bought the local newspaper’s building. From the Swift Communication-owned Greeley Tribune:

The distinctive Greeley Tribune building on its own full city block will soon take on a new role as the home of the downtown branch of the High Plains Library District. The transaction was finalized Oct. 9. The Greeley Tribune staff, along with employees of The Fence Post weekly agriculture publication and Acres USA, a magazine, book publishing and events company focusing on regenerative agriculture, will relocate in Greeley. That location has yet to be finalized.

“We are delighted that this great spot will be the home of the downtown library,” Tribune publisher Bryce Jacobson was quoted saying in the paper. “The size of the building, as well as the expansive grounds should be a perfect spot and allow ample room for growth.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel profiled the “native son” behind the city’s new river recreation areaThe Steamboat Pilot localized a new state report showing abuses by Catholic priests in ColoradoThe Loveland Reporter-Herald reported on the affordability of a local daycare programThe Longmont Times-Call covered local Dia de los Muertos celebrationsThe Gazette in Colorado Springs explored a debate about E-bikes raging across the stateThe Summit Daily News covered how local retail stores are losing money to online shoppingThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins dug into a proposed ballot measure to re-introduce wolvesThe Durango Herald profiled a local woman who helps Russian adoptees find their birth familiesThe Denver Post looked at Molson Coors Brewing Co.’s decision to uproot and move from Denver to ChicagoThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how a local school district is looking to better support its special education teachers.

An argument against more public support for local news

Former Denver Post editorial page editor Vincent Carroll is not on board with the Colorado Media Project’s proposal for more private sector support for local news. Writing in the opinion section of The Colorado Sun, he outlined why:
The project’s authors are at pains to stipulate that government officials should have no direct or indirect influence over how funds are distributed, but how realistic is that? It’s inconceivable that officials aggrieved by news reports won’t attempt to retaliate in some fashion or to influence future funding decisions. And for that matter, do we really want public money to be entirely immune to political oversight, as appears to be the report’s goal?

Carroll says it’s “far healthier for journalists to stand on their own, fully supported through voluntary relationships — whether through advertising, subscriptions, individual donations or philanthropy — rather than rely on money taken from people who in many cases would never have offered it on their own.”

So far, this is the first major rebuke I’ve seen of the proposal in the few weeks since it came out. Carroll also dropped this anecdotal nugget: “The people I meet today who don’t pay for local news coverage aren’t living like isolated farmers of an earlier century. They exist in an environment seething with information. They may not follow local news as closely as their parents but they’re generally aware of what’s going on. They’re still responsible citizens — unless you believe the fairy tale that the average voter of bygone eras was a fully rational agent who mastered the issues of the day.”

Denver’s 5280 magazine editor Daniel Brogan chimed in:

‘Direct service journalism’ coming to Denver?

Documenters are “citizens and civic actors; creators and collaborators” who represent “a broad base of intergenerational, diverse communities.” They are recruited by Chicago’s nonprofit media lab City Bureau, which trains and pays this group of “highly engaged citizens to monitor local government and contribute to a communal pool of knowledge.” And now they might be coming to Denver.

From Jeff Roberts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

What Documenters calls “direct service journalism” works like this:
  • Volunteer coders “scrape” the websites of multiple government entities for meeting times, agendas, minutes, presentations and other records, all of which are organized on one central website.
  • Civic-minded folks who may or may not have a background in news gathering sign up to receive training in how to cover a government meeting, how to take detailed notes, how to use their phone as a recording device, journalism ethics and what they need to know about their state’s sunshine laws.
  • The trained “documenters” are assigned to attend meetings that likely would not have been covered otherwise. Their notes are reviewed by Documenters staff before they are posted to the central website.

“We look for things like a sheer lack of objectivity, but we rarely see problems in that area,” Holliday said. “The people that apply to be Documenters understand that this is about accountability and access.”

Denver is “really high on our list” for where Documenters might show up next, co-founder Darryl Holliday told Roberts. Read the whole thing here.

MNG moving folks out of The Denver Post building

Last month, employees with ties to Media News Group, which runs The Denver Post, were told they’d be moving out of the building and following those who worked in the newsroom to the paper’s printing plant in Adams County. According to a memo, they’re doing so to mitigate costs, and some employees will save $2,500 in parking for the year. (Who was paying that?) The plant might be in a polluted industrial zone, but according to a memo, it comes with this: “A pingpong table and basketball game are available in the same space with plans to add other fun arcade style games.” But maybe not a lot of windows.

Rocky Mountain PBS is one of FRONTLINE’S ‘local journalism partners’ 

The national high-profile investigative documentary series FRONTLINE that airs on PBS has chosen five parters for its inaugural “Local Journalism Initiative,” and Colorado’s Rocky Mountain PBS is one of them. From PBS:

A groundbreaking, multi-year initiative to strengthen local investigative journalism in communities where it needs support, the initiative is supported with $3 million from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and $1 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Over the next year, FRONTLINE will provide comprehensive support to five reporting teams in Florida, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma and Wisconsin through a new partnership model that addresses the critical need for enterprise journalism in areas with limited or dwindling access to news and information. FRONTLINE will extend consistent journalistic guidance and editorial vetting, along with extensive expertise on how to connect investigative journalism with new audiences, helping these news organizations develop sustainable models that they can carry forward and adapt for future investigations.

“There is a direct correlation between a decline in local journalism and an increase in local corruption,” FRONTLINE Executive Producer Raney Aronson-Rath said in a statement. “Through the FRONTLINE Local Journalism Initiative, we’re helping reporters pursue investigations of vital public interest in communities where independent, accountability journalism is under strain. The ability to do this sort of reporting isn’t just essential to local communities — but to our democracy as a whole.”

For context, this is more money trickling down to Colorado from that $300 million five-year commitment that Knight has pledged to help build the future of local news.

*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.