A wicked week for the local news business, and Colorado as a case study

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Image by Paul Kline for Creative Commons on Flickr

This week, a Grim Reaper was stalking the newsrooms of America’s largest local newspapers, dragging a scythe along the carpeted floors, stopping briefly by desks to turn a hooded head, raise a bony finger, ponder, and move along.

Journalism jobs are in peril coast to coast as shareholders of Gannett and GateHouse, two of the nation’s largest newspaper chains, merged into a mega-company that’s now sniffing out inefficiencies. Meanwhile, the “publishing giant McClatchy reported severe liquidity problems along with its third-quarter results,” and the known-for-newsroom-gutting Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that controls The Denver Post and about a dozen other newspapers in Colorado, acquired “a 25 percent stake in Tribune Publishing Company, becoming its biggest shareholder.”

In other words, it was a bad week for local newspapers in our late-capitalist era where, as one Colorado journalist put it:

To put a finer point on it, “at a time when local news is needed more than ever, it is the bankers who are deciding what will be defined as news, and who will be employed to report it,” news-economics industry analyst Ken Doctor told CNN.

In our state, the Red Wedding of Gannett and GateHouse means the news giant now owns these papers in Colorado: The Coloradoan in Fort Collins; The Chieftain in Pueblo; The Fowler Tribune; The Bent County Democrat; The LaJunta Tribune-Democrat; The Ag JournalPueblo Events, and Pueblo West View.

Meanwhile … Denver is a case study in a major ‘losing the local news’ report

Here’s the tease from a big new report by PEN America:
As local news outlets are gutted and shuttered, reporters laid off, publication schedules cut, and resources tightened across the country, Losing the News: The Decimation of Local News and the Search for Solutions sounds the alarm about the existential threat facing local watchdog journalism and proposes big-picture solutions for its revitalization.
The full study is here, but below are some key takeaways:

“Local newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations are being bought and consolidated by hedge funds and media conglomerates and often subjected to relentless cost cutting—leading to coverage that is more national, less diverse, and, in some cases, more politically polarized.” …

“Because newspapers still provide the majority of original local reporting in communities, their evisceration robs the American public of trusted sources of critical information about health, education, elections, and other pressing local issues.” …

“Many of the communities traditionally underserved by legacy local media—communities of color, low-income communities, and communities in rural areas—are those most affected by its decline.” …

“Given the scope and scale of the problem, a solution is unlikely without dramatically expanding public funding for local journalism…”

As part of the report, PEN conscripted journalists in a handful of states, including Colorado, to provide case studies. Journalist Alan Prendergast wrote the “View from Denver.” Here are some nuggets:
  • “Important journalism is being done at several of the niche outlets, many of them digital first. It’s not clear, though, that enough Denver residents have the inclination or the patience to seek out their news in an à la carte fashion, now that there’s no single media source to rely on for comprehensive coverage.”
  • “The fragmented media marketplace compels consumers to rummage among several news sources to try to make sense of events, a time-consuming hunt”
  • “Will some of the outlets with like-minded missions ultimately merge, or will the market become more fragmented?”
  • “Many of the digital outlets are reluctant to disclose their actual readership or subscription figures.”
  • “[Colorado Public Radio is] moving its newsroom from the suburbs to downtown Denver, as if declaring that it’s ready to dethrone the ailing daily as the region’s dominant news organization.”
  • “The proliferation of niche outlets has been good news for state politics junkies, since there are now more journalists regularly covering the Colorado legislature than at any time since the 1990s.”
  • “In 2007, the former Rocky building was demolished to make way for a city jail. Since 2016, city agencies have subleased several floors of the former Post building, occupying office space where hundreds of reporters once roamed. As journalism recedes, government becomes ever more powerful.”
Read the whole Denver news scene analysis here. (Disclosure/warning: I’m quoted as a source for it.) The New York Times has a write-up about the larger report here.

All this. ALL THIS. And yet…

The majority of Americans “erroneously believe that local news organizations are doing well financially,” according to a new report titled “Putting a Price Tag on Local News” by The Knight Foundation and Gallup. “But if you tell them otherwise, they’re more likely to think supporting local outlets is a good idea,” Harvard’s NiemanLab reported in its write-up of the study. (So, for some of you who might bemoan this newsletter’s ever-chronicling of the death of the local news business, I say: Tell your friends to subscribe here!)

More from NiemanLab:

… the survey findings offer newsrooms and management new evidence to avoid a potential market failure, according to John Sands, Knight’s director of learning and impact. “We think this report points to the fact that Americans do value the good that’s being provided to them by local news organizations. They think that by and large, everyone should have access to quality local news, even if they don’t pay for it,” Sands said. “We think that now that there’s empirical evidence that shows that Americans are thinking of local news more as a public good, what sort of policy pathways open up to potentially sustain it?”
Catch that? “A public good.” Sounds a lot like language in the Colorado Media Project’s recent report titled “Local News is a Public Good” that zeroed in on Colorado and the ways in which the state’s public sector can better help support the local news industry. (Read the project’s latest newsletter ‘Forward’ here.)

Conservative talk-radio host ousted mid-show: Trump punt or publicity stunt?

A conservative rebel in the Trump #Resistance was unceremoniously kicked off a Denver talk radio show he was hosting in the middle of a broadcast this week, launching a string of headlines about pro-Trump corporate bootlicking and a zero-tolerance policy for apostasy in the MAGA-verse.

That’s the storyline the longtime host and former Denver prosecutor seems content to leave in his wake as he moves on, anyway.

From The Denver Post, which changed its initial headline from “KNUS radio host Craig Silverman taken off air midshow for criticizing Trump” to (emphasis mine) “KNUS radio host Craig Silverman says he was taken off air mid-show after criticizing Trump”:

Silverman was in the middle of a segment about Roy Cohn, Trump’s former personal attorney, when he suddenly was interrupted by network news, he told The Denver Post. Silverman’s producer threw his hands up in the air, indicating it wasn’t him. Instead, program director Kelly Michaels came through the door. “You’re done,” Silverman recounted Michaels as saying. The former prosecutor, who has hosted “The Craig Silverman Show” from 9 a.m. to noon on Saturdays for more than five years, responded to the sudden firing on Twitter. “I cannot and will not toe strict Trump party line. I call things as I see them,” he tweeted. “I see corruption and blatant dishonesty by President and his cronies. I also see bullying/smearing of American heroes w/courage to take oath and tell truth. Their bravery inspires me.” Representatives from KNUS did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The page for Silverman’s show appears to have been removed from the station’s website. A link to his show gives a “404 Error — Not Found” message.”

A few days before, the conservative talk-radio host had penned a column for The Colorado Sun in which he said “the immediate impeachment issue is whether President Trump is too corrupt,” and argued that while most of his guests and listeners are conservative, “and I understand their difficulty digesting damaging facts against their hero, Donald Trump,” he hoped for an even-keeled discussion and didn’t want to “hide from hard truths or label it fake news.”

In our current red-team-blue-team-bunkered country, the story of a conservative peeling away from the president in public was catnip to journalists and commentators. On Sunday, Silverman found himself on CNN where he told Reliable Sources host Brian Stelter his canning was “complicated.” He said as an independent contractor he had other media opportunities and he took them. “They were frustrated about that,” he said of the higher-ups at Salem Radio. “I was frustrated that we couldn’t talk about the facts of the impeachment case, and it all came to a head as I was excoriating Donald Trump on my show.” Asked who told him he couldn’t talk about the facts of the case, Silverman didn’t say, but he indicated he wished his fellow right-wing radio hosts would do more of it and not ignore the realities of the impeachment hearings. “I’m sure I’ll find another forum” to do that, Silverman told Stelter.

And then…

710 KNUS general manager Brian Taylor led a news conference Sunday to push back on the story that was gaining national attention. Taylor said it wasn’t Silverman’s Trump critiques that led to his ouster, but that the well-known host was appearing on other radio programs. “He decided it was important for him to work across town, and so on his program on Saturday he announced that, and that’s what prompted our decision to take him off the air,” Taylor said, adding he wasn’t fired since he’s an independent contractor.

Writing in The Denver Post, former KNUS talk-radio host Krista Kafer said she herself was let go for being a Trump critic. She had this to say about the Silverman saga:

These competing narratives contain both truth and deception. Salem hosts are not free to voice opinions that contradict the network’s pro-Trump stance. Silverman knows this. Did he orchestrate and deftly publicize Saturday’s dramatic morning showdown to further his own ambitions? If so, he brilliantly used the national press’ hunger for anti-Trump stories and Salem network’s Trump sycophancy to his advantage. Hats off.
Firing back, talk-radio host Jimmy Sengenberger authored his own guest column in the Post. From the piece, headlined “KNUS doesn’t tell us what we can and can’t say”:
…any suggestion — by Silverman, my former colleague Krista Kafer or others — that Salem Media Group polices the views and speech of its hosts is contrary to my experience hosting on KNUS for almost nine years.  … It’s worth emphasizing that we’re talking about a privately-owned talk radio station, which can set editorial standards if they wish. Even so, I have seen no evidence of Salem ever constricting its hosts’ content and views. And as a genuine advocate for the free play of ideas — on the radio, on college campuses and elsewhere — I am more than comfortable with the way Salem gives its hosts in Denver content discretion.
Whatever the reason for Silverman’s removal, “You’re done” has officially become the “You’re fired” for independent contractors. (Hashtag 1099, right?)

Mapping the Epoch Times in Colorado

Last week, I asked where Coloradans might have found this unsolicited pro-Trump newspaper in their mailboxes or elsewhere as it targets state residents in the lead-up to an election. I heard from a few.

“I received a copy in my PO Box last week,” said a reader in Avon. “I threw it away so I can’t tell you if it was addressed to me or just the PO Box holder.” A reader in Colorado Springs said she “received the Epoch Times in my mail box a week or two ago. I just immediately trashed it.” A reader in Broomfield got one “maybe a month or so ago. Long gone in the recycle bin.” Another “saw one discarded at the Fraser post office” near Winter Park in Grand County. Adrian Crawford found a stack of them at his local 7-Eleven in Denver, and and filmed himself tossing them into the garbage.

Not everyone had the same reaction. A reader who got one in Littleton said he “liked the articles.”

And a pair of letters to the editor even fluttered in to The Steamboat Pilot after the paper published a front-page story about unsolicited copies of the Trump-backing paper being mailed to residents in Routt County. “Congratulations are in order … you did an epic job of unwittingly promoting The Epoch Times. I’m presently not a subscriber, but thanks to you I will be soon,” wrote one resident. Another said it’s the Pilot that’s the real fake news. “I hope your lame attempt at manipulating us readers backfires enormously,” the letter writer wrote.

Hear Colorado journalists talk about their favorite story ideas that never found a home 

“A spiked editorial. A forsaken tip. An idea laughed out of the newsroom. Three tales of Colorado journalists and the stories that should have been.”

That’s the tee-up for the latest podcast on Range & Slope, titled “Ghost Stories.” It’s a compelling podcast episode that checks in with a handful of Colorado journalists who talk about some of their stories that never made it to publication. In the piece you can hear reporter Andy Kenney, formerly of Denverite and The Denver Post— he now works for Colorado Public Radio— trawling local skate parks looking for the best skater in Denver. (He has a fun way of trying to find out who it is.) Also included is Esther Honig of KUNC telling a sad and depressing tale about a maddening bad-cop story out of another state that evaded her. Rounding out the hat trick is former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett recounting an editorial he authored calling out the paper’s hedge-fund owner that never made its way into print (though it lives online here).

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Steamboat Pilot covered the visit of a Danish researcher studying the quality of rural lifeThe Loveland Reporter-Herald looked into the fate of eight city projects after voters shot down a local funding ballot measureThe Longmont Times-Call profiled a local woman trying to break the cycle of dating violenceThe Boulder Daily Camera fronted news the paper is creating a scholarship to help media students and honor its former journalistsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins traveled to Austin, Texas, to find out whether tiny homes could be the answer to local people experiencing homelessnessThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on the loss of the city’s golf proThe Durango Herald put news of its new membership model for readers on the front pageThe Denver Post reported on construction issues at DIAThe Gazette in Colorado Springs offered new details about an investigation into the killing of former Department of Corrections chief Tom Clements.

A Colorado sheriff didn’t like ’60 Minutes’ 

A Weld County lawman who was the subject of a March CNN story headlined “This Colorado sheriff is willing to go to jail rather than enforce a proposed gun law,” apparently didn’t like the way he came off in a “60 Minutes” segment this week on CBS. The high-caliber news show focused its reporting on Colorado’s recently signed Red Flag law, or “extreme risk protection order” legislation, that allows authorities to confiscate guns from people who might be a danger to themselves or others.

A day after the “60 Minutes” package ran, one subject interviewed for it, Weld County Sheriff Steve Reams, told a talk-radio host he would have rather seen the reporters focus on the ways in which Colorado’s law is different than others in the more than a dozen states that passed similar measures, “and why so many sheriffs were pushing back.” (More than half of the state’s counties opposed the new law.) The conservative Complete Colorado interviewed Reams. Here’s an excerpt:

Reams said when he decided to come out against the Red Flag law, he would never turn down an interview because he wants to keep the discussion on the law in the forefront. However, after it becomes law on Jan. 1, he is likely to change his perspective, thanks to the 60 Minutes episode.

He’s already on record— in two different interviews with more ideologically simpatico outlets— saying he wouldn’t talk to “60 Minutes” again.

This isn’t the first time a Colorado sheriff showed frustration with the way journalists approached coverage of this particular legislation. In April, I reported in this newsletter how the sheriff of Larimer County penned a lengthy Facebook post accusing a local reporter of “just fishing for soundbites” before the story even came out. That sheriff didn’t return an email or a message left with his assistant at the time to talk about how he felt after the story ran, so ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Watch for yourself the latest “60 Minutes” segment that earned public policy in Colorado some major airplay on a prominent national platform. And here’s a link to a bonus “inside the story” interview with one of the show’s producers.

A high school parent in Steamboat hired a lawyer over ‘Howl’

After a review committee for a Colorado high school ruled to keep Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl” in a music lit class for 16-year-olds, “a student’s family has recruited the help of a religious rights lawyer in an attempt to strong-arm changes in school policy.”

From The Steamboat Pilot:

Published in 1956, the poem elicited praise as a “prophetic work” and is considered a literary canon of the Beat Generation. Its lewd language and graphic sexual reference also sparked criticism, culminating in an obscenity trial to determine if it should be banned and its publishers criminally punished. One student’s father, Steamboat resident Brett Cason, lodged an official complaint over the poem, which prompted the district’s review committee to evaluate the material. In an 8-1 decision, the committee determined that “Howl” is “an influential part of our history” and, when taught in the context of the time period in which it was written, is an “important” piece of literature with widespread influence on poetry, art, jazz and hip-hop, the Steamboat Pilot & Today reported following the ruling. …

Cason hired Jeremy Dys, an attorney at First Liberty Institute, which on its website claims to be the largest legal organization in the country specializing in religious rights cases. Cason declined to be interviewed by the Steamboat Pilot & Today and deferred questions to Dys. …

Dys cites one line of the poem in particular, in which Ginsberg speaks of the best minds of his generation, “who let themselves be f*** in the a** by saintly motorcyclists and scream with joy.” According to Dys, this language is inappropriate, particularly in the wake of the #MeToo movement involving sexual assault. He said such language describes “sexual violence against women, and vivid literary depictions of heterosexually and homosexually erotic acts.”​

The teacher said “he includes it to encourage students to take a critical look at what determines artistic merit and what justifies censorship,” the paper reported.

Empowering Colorado responds to scrutiny 

Earlier this month, I reported on the emergence of a new nonprofit news outlet seeking to cover energy in Colorado. Responding to it, Colorado Capitol Watch owner Paula Noonan penned a column in ColoradoPolitics taking aim at the effort. From the piece:

Empowering’s “soft opening” was sponsored by Crestone Peak Resources, a driller in the Denver-Julesburg Basin. Former Governor Bill Ritter, now with Colorado State University’s Center for a New Energy Economy, was the principal presenter. The online magazine’s board and advisors consist entirely of middle age to elderly men with various roles in the energy sector. No environmental scientists, climate scientists, medical researchers, environmental justice advocates, or parents of children living on top of Colorado’s fracking fields are included. Not even Erin Martinez, the person most affected by energy development in the state, is an advisor, even though she has much to offer related to her history with natural gas, pipes, leaks, and fires.  …

Empowering Colorado will have lots of … issues to cover. Journalism needs to get after it. Part of that work is making sure that any publication that undertakes the job is truly trustworthy and independent.

The column might have had some impact. Mark Roberts, the publisher and director of Empowering Colorado, told me “I’d say she’s right” when I asked his response. When he formed the board, he said, he wanted to make sure it was “balanced across all facets of energy” and journalism. “It ended up being a group of white men who are all about the same age,” he said. “The Board is well-aware of its lack of diversity and acknowledges this has to change.”

During the board’s meeting this Tuesday, he said, its members agreed to expand from six members to 11. “We will be reaching out to a new group of professionals who will not only bring racial and gender diversity to the board but also an array of skills in areas such as law, accounting and fundraising,” he said.

News of teachers ‘making more money’ than some TV newscasters earned a ‘they should’ response

This week, Westword wrote up the news that Denver’s KUSA 9News weathercaster Marty Coniglio is leaving the station. The piece included this:

“I can tell you that I make the same money I made in 2004,” he reveals. “We had a big adjustment in 2009, during the economic downturn, and those monies have not come back. Now, for me, that’s not a hardship — but for a lot of people who are starting out as producers or reporters, it’s very difficult to live in some of these larger metropolitan areas on what they’re paid. I think people have this assumption that people on TV are paid these massive amounts of money, but there are a lot of schoolteachers who are making more money than some on-air people here. That’s the reality of the business.”

Some readers on social media had some things to say about that.

“For school teachers everywhere I’m offended,” said TV news journalist Carol McKinley. “A schoolteacher with years in the business should make more than an entry-level tv reporter,” said journalist David Milstead, former president of The Denver Press Club.

In Colorado, school teachers ranked around 31 in the nation for salaries last year, according to the National Education Association.

*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 Paul Kline for Creative Commons on Flickr. 

1 COMMENT

  1. Why oh why would this state or any other continue to subsidize these pariahs through the required publication of legal notices? Legal notices would reach a broader audience if published on line by the entity required to post them; quicker, easier, faster, cheaper. This all but dead business is being gutted by the raiders so, I repeat, why are public monies used to give these absentee owners a stable bottom line?

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