MEDIA: A rebellion at The Denver Post ‘instigated’ an upcoming film about a national crisis in journalism

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Former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett speaks at a protest outside his ex-newspaper's office in spring 2018 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Last spring’s Denver Post editorial page revolt against its hedge-fund owner, which garnered national headlines and became known in media circles as the Denver Rebellion, led an intriguing figure to trek to Colorado from California.

Rick Goldsmith, a well-known documentary filmmaker who had already produced two Academy-Award-nominated films about journalism, embarked on a new project: Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads. And while the film, which is still in production, has a national focus, “it was definitely the Denver Rebellion that instigated this,” Goldsmith says.

For more than a year, he and a film crew have been in and out of Colorado interviewing subjects. Their cameras have been rolling at public events about the news. “We do cover the Denver Rebellion,” he told me this week about the documentary. “We cover the fight against [Post owner] Alden Global Capital, and it broadens out into the crisis in journalism— and local journalism specifically — today that’s happening all around the country.”

Our nation’s local news crisis is certainly ripe for documentary treatment, and as a fan of Goldsmith’s film, The Most Dangerous Man in America, about Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers, I can’t wait to see the final product. In the meantime, you can now watch the trailer for Stripped for Parts 👇🏼

The film isn’t finished— Goldsmith said he expects a release in early 2021— and he says one goal is for viewers to have a better understanding of what it means that hedge funds are “so involved in controlling newspapers and news dissemination” these days. I asked him if the film will be all doom-and-gloom or if it might also focus on potential solutions to what essentially amounts to a crisis in democracy. He said he’ll cover the past, present, and future, and the struggle to make journalism “responsive to the needs of the public and to serve democracy.”

In the nearly-four-minute trailer, you’ll recognize plenty of familiar faces from Colorado journalism as subjects of the film, which also tracks reporters from elsewhere around the country. (For background on California investigative journalist Julie Reynolds, who also appears to play a key role, read this Q-and-A I did with her for CJR as she dug into Alden Global.)

Beyond his documentary about the Pentagon Papers, Goldsmith in 1996 made Tell the Truth and Run about muckraker George Seldes. “Journalism has always been a subject close to my heart,” he said.

You can help support Stripped for Parts here. You can also sign up here for emailed news about the film.

So, that rollout went smoothly…

Question: What did the journalism professor say when she read tweets about something she said? 

Answer: They took me out of context! 

If that sounds like the kind of #PartyLikeAJournalist joke you might hear in the faculty lounge of your local Big U J-school, welp, this week you’re not too far off.

At issue is a comment University of Colorado journalism department chair Elizabeth Skewes gave the local Boulder Daily Camera newspaper for a story about how the college plans to cut funding for The CU Independent student newspaper. The college announced the change last Monday in a news release about its decision “to move toward a more academic and faculty-led student learning enterprise.” That means the CU Independent will lose its newsroom and have to find a new revenue stream, The Denver Post reported.

More from The Denver Post‘s Elizabeth Hernandez:

When asked whether having faculty leading the charge on stories that may cover the university critically would be a conflict of interest, Skewes said CU’s media faculty are “journalists at heart” and would pursue the news under the new venture. “If there is news about the university that may reflect negatively on the university, what we want to do is teach our students through this learning lab model how to report that thoroughly and carefully and have it nailed down,” Skewes said. “This is not about controlling what the students write. It’s about making sure when it’s published, the stories are verified and accurate. We don’t want to control the message. We want to make sure the message is being relayed in a way that reflects the best standards of journalism.”
But it was the professor’s comments to the The Boulder Daily Camera that raised some journalistic eyebrows. From reporter Katie Langford:
The college’s new program will not bury stories that are unfavorable to the university, Skewes said, citing abundant journalism experience among faculty. “The mission of this new opportunity is not to have some kind of publication that tries to make the university look good all the time,” she said. “I don’t think there’s a lot that the university is doing that needs to be uncovered, but if it does need to be uncovered, we want to encourage students to do it in a way that’s thorough and deep.” 

The line, “I don’t think there’s a lot that the university is doing that needs to be uncovered” came in for criticism by the Camera’s opinion page editorThe Denver Post’s top editor, and others including CU grad Carina Julig, who is a reporter for The Loveland Reporter-Herald and worked for the campus paper as a recent student. And it makes sense. The Camera recently sued CU’s board of trustees over transparency in the process of its recent controversial search for a new president. Julig pointed to reporting she did for the CU Independent about how LGBTQ grad students at the school “struggle with isolation and intolerance,” and a piece another student wrote about the way the school shut down a program appreciated by marginalized students on campus.

For her part, Skewes said she wasn’t surprised by the response to her remark. “I would have responded in the same way to the partial quote that’s been circulating on Twitter,” she told me. “However, the partial quote was misleading.”

So what did she mean by it? Here’s what she said over the phone last week:

“I realize CU is a big institution, and yes, the Kennedy search … there are certainly questions that need to be raised about that, and I think the attempt to get at more of the records around that is important, and that’s what we teach our students. But as I was saying that particular middle part of that quote my brain was thinking about the people who have the offices near me and the kind of time and dedication that they put in and, you know, yeah, I don’t think they’re doing a lot that’s wrong, so that’s where that came from. I wasn’t trying to convey a sense that ‘Don’t look to the right because there’s nothing to see here,’ it’s that I work with really good people.”​

If there is a negative story about the university to publish “or about a faculty member, or about me,” Skewes said, “I want this new student publication to go for it and do the best job they can of it.”

The CU Independent has changed over the years. From around 1980 until 2009, the paper, which used to be called Campus Press, “was a publication that was produced by a class taken by students for a grade and taught by journalism department faculty,” Skewes said. “In its current incarnation, as an editorially independent student publication that has been funded by an academic unit, the CUI has been in existence only since the Spring 2009 semester.” (Hernandez of the Post has more history of it here.)

Here’s The Boulder Daily Camera editorializing about the matter this weekend:

The Independent is truly independent — the outlet’s journalists work with a “student media manager,” school staff member Gil Asakawa, but they do not consult with faculty members on editorial direction or seek the school’s approval for their reporting. The new enterprise will be different. It explicitly will be “faculty-led.” How such supervision will shape content is unclear, but it’s certain that student journalists, with school-paid adults looking over their shoulders, will feel pressures that the Independent’s reporters do not. It’s easy to imagine that the journalistic impulse to aggressively pursue a sensitive story involving the university itself could be compromised by the editorial involvement of university staff.

The CU Independent’s editor, Rob Tann, was able to use this entire scenario to explain why he believes keeping a truly independent paper around at the university is necessary with these changes on the way. “If a story comes up that’s critical of the university, looking at a certain policy or doing watchdog journalism, I think it’s a little unclear how that will play out in a university setting,” Tann told the Camera, adding, “I think students will recognize that’s where the CU Independent thrives.” (The student paper already raised nearly $1,000 in a GoFundMe campaign. The school pumps about $13,000 into it per semester, which it is set to lose.)

The paper’s fate could serve as an interesting case study about the extent to which readers within (or outside) the university community are willing to support it because of its coverage priorities or whether the new CU multimedia learning lab outlet will cover the institution comprehensively enough — warts and all.

Eater dot com is moving on from Denver

This space might be a frequent repository for news about the shuttering of publications in Colorado, but this is a new genre for your humble newsletter writer. “Denver is about to have one less source for restaurant news,” reported BusinessDen this week. “Eater is laying off its sole part-time reporter focused on the Mile High City, the publication’s editor-in-chief confirmed.”

More from BusinessDen, citing Eater’s Amanda Kludt:

“We are instead prioritizing investment in other cities where we’ve seen strong growth, including Portland and Seattle, experimenting in new areas (launching in 2020), and focusing on national initiatives, including travel coverage and events,” Kludt said. Denver is the only city where Eater is eliminating its reporting staff, Kludt said. Eater Denver launched in late 2011 and always has had one part-time editor/reporter. The site, which also worked with local freelancers, typically has published multiple news stories a week on restaurant openings, closings and menu changes.

I’m not really sure what context I can add, except to say that given this absolutely brutal recent restaurant review in the Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly (which also serves as a savage takedown of the culinary sophistication of diners in the city), I doubt Eater will be sending a team of food writers down there any time soon.

Speaking of BusinessDen, though…

The five-person newsroom covering local business news in the Mile High City for the past five years hit a milestone late last month by signing up its 20,000th morning email subscriber.

From BusinessDen:

What does 20,000 mean for us? For starters, it’s a resounding confirmation that our business model gives readers what they want. And on days that the morning email isn’t in our readers’ inboxes by 6:31 a.m., I hear from dozens of worried readers. I see that as a vote of confidence that readers don’t want to start their day without their daily dose of BusinessDen. The other milestone I’m thankful for this time of year is our P&L; we pushed into the black this year and now we are a solidly profitable small business. We are still in the infancy of the newsroom we intend to build, however, and we aim to tackle deeper stories and more beats in 2020. So please keep the tips coming!

Catch that? A “solidly profitable small business”— in the local news space.

The site’s 39-year-old founder, journalist Aaron Kremer, says he started BusinessDen after a similar site he launched in 2008 in Richmond, Virginia, took off. “I thought, ‘Let’s see if I’m a one-hit wonder or if I can compete in a bigger market,'” he says. He doesn’t believe paywalls are a good long-term business plan, so the site is free to read. It makes money from event sponsorships and business-to-business-focused advertising like local banks, law firms, and real-estate brokers, among others. “They pay a premium to reach other businesspeople,” he says. The reporting, which amounts to about five posts a day, is brisk and to the point. Recent stories focused on a downtown store closing, an uptown office selling, a Lone Tree businessman’s indictment, and The Denver Post severing its “last connection” to its downtown building with a sublease to the city. They hammer on commercial real estate and development, and stay on top of local disputes.

Each morning the BusinessDen email goes out, Kremer wants it to contain a roster of stories that readers paying attention to business in Denver need to know for their daily intel. “We left off some of your tougher beats where it’s a lot of reporting effort for just a few stories here and there,” he says. “We didn’t want to go that model. We wanted to go more like covering baseball where you’ve got a game every day all spring, summer, and fall. … Hopefully our readers are finding stories on our site that they can’t find anywhere else.”

The Denver Post got 20,000, too

That’s 20,000 digital subscriptions, anyway, and a goal the newspaper was hoping to hit.

Three things helped it happen, wrote Dan Petty, the audience development director for the paper’s owner, Media News Group:

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on “the curious case of the Curecanti National Recreational Area.” The Steamboat Pilot reported how FBI agents met with students across two counties “to address a national rise in school violence.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered the impact of local budget cuts on the communityThe Longmont Times-Call told readers how the state panel that regulates oil-and-gas development is set for another round of rule-makingThe Gazette in Colorado Springs found a wide gap between the “haves” and “have nots” in El Paso County schoolsThe Summit Daily News reported how service dogs at the local DA’s office are helping victims of crimesThe Denver Post continued its series about taxes and elections, focusing on the state’s metro districts.

A reporter caught some hate after reporting on hate

Denver’s KUSA 9News investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola has been on a tear, reporting how white supremacists and other hate groups are becoming more active in Colorado, and exposing local neo-Nazis.

But in the networked digital age he’s faced some ugly backlash in the process. The reporter opened up with Denver’s Westword this week about threats he’s received. “These are people who are clearly racist,” he said. “Some of them are using anonymous accounts, but some of them aren’t. Some of them aren’t afraid to own their views. And I’ve gotten emails saying things like, ‘I hope you get justice soon.’ They’re kind of vague, but pointed at the same time.”

More from the piece:

If the haters are hoping that Jojola will stop covering such topics as a result of their attacks, he wants them to know they’ll be disappointed. “I think the response begs us to keep at this,” he stresses. “By no means am I intimidated. If anything, this emboldens me to continue what I’m doing.”

While he says he knew he would wind up on the receiving end of vileness and threats because of his reporting, Jojola told Westword, “it’s been ten times worse than I expected.”

Meanwhile, Westword asks this week whether there’s a Neo-Nazi producer of conservative shows working at 710 KNUS radio in Denver, which is apparently something that actually has to be asked in 2019.

Speaking of Westword

Just having one tab open from its website for me to write that last section nearly led my laptop to melt down.

The aggressive advertising vomit, the auto-play videos, and whatever other horrible-user-experience-nightmare-nuisance-tech they have running in the background immediately slows my browser down and gets the cooling fans whirring like a beehive under my keyboard. But by god the site must get more clicks because I bounce off it just long enough to let things calm down before pasting the link back into a URL, hitting Enter, and trying to read as much more as I can of a story squeezed into a sliver of my screen from four-corner-multi-colored-moving-picture-ad-creep before having to pull the ripcord and X out again, do something else on another less belligerent website for a few minutes, then go back for another brief cringe-read session until I’ve finished. Sometimes hitting the Escape key buys me a little more time. Sometimes I might just never finish an article. The online experience of that website borders on being criminal to the outlet’s journalism.

But I digress. The above paragraph is not breaking any news to anyone at Westword. The publication has a grip on what its readers like about it, and its readers are “very vocal” about what they don’t like. “And lately,” wrote Westword editor Patty Calhoun, “we’re hearing this a lot: Why is it so hard to read Westword online?”

Here’s her answer in a note to readers about a new initiative:

It doesn’t have to be. We’ve listened to you, and we have a solution. While we continue to rely on our advertisers to fund our local journalism, we also recognize that some people would like a faster, smoother reading experience, and might be willing to pay a small amount to enjoy that kind of access while supporting our work. So starting immediately, if you become a member of the Westword community by pledging to make a monthly or annual cash contribution, you’ll be able to read an absolutely ad-free version of westword.com. If you’d rather not go ad-free, you can also help us keep community-focused journalism alive in Denver by making a one-time cash contribution or signing up for one or more of our email newsletters.

Westword isn’t the first free alt-weekly to ask its readers for money. Free Times, in Columbia, South Carolina, where I worked from 2010 to 2013, has started asking for money and offering perks to those who pay. (Alt-weeklies are dying all over the place, by the way.) Click here to find out how much it’ll set you back to be able to read a Westword story online again without having to down a kava first.

Denverite needs a new editor

Ashley Dean, who took over as editor of Denverite when Colorado Public Radio bought it in March, is leaving the position to move to New Orleans. “I’ll say that this has nothing to do with Denverite or CPR,” she said in her announcement this week. “Being the editor of Denverite is a dream job and joining CPR has been the absolute best. It’s really difficult for me to leave.”

The hyper-local digital newsroom has gone through a series of changes since its launch in the spring of 2016 and its purchase by Colorado Public Radio in March. Its original editor, Dave Burdick, who is now the digital managing editor of CPR, wrote about what kind of editor the site would like to see:

Candidates must be able to triage, assign and edit in breaking news situations, and know how to pick moments for something voicey, funny, pointy, observational — essentially, those unusual (but not *that* unusual) cases in which something’s worth more of a reported blog approach. Candidates should be interested in how cities work, from city planning to legislation to neighborhood activism, and in how cities play, including arts, dining, the outdoors and more. The editor will be involved in the long-term balance and interplay of all of these things — as well as in how we work with and grow our membership to do the best job we can for the Denver metro area. Strategic thinking and an adventurous, entrepreneurial approach will be critical to long-term success in this role.

It looks like they’ll try to make a decision this month or in January. If you know anyone, send them here.

Tribune journalists are protesting The Nothing

Harvard’s NiemanLab has a nickname for The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner Alden Global Capital: Thanos, the super villain from Marvel Comics. But I like mine better: The Nothing, the villain from the ’80s classic film The NeverEnding Story. Because what, really, is worse than nothing? And a nothing that … grows?

Anyway, The Nothing is back in the news again because the dark, vast edges of its journalism-devouring nothingness are spreading further into our nation’s newspaper industry now that it bought 25% or more of the Tribune Publishing company.

From NiemanLab:

Alden is best known as the hedge fund that never found a budget it couldn’t cut, a journalist it couldn’t lay off, or a community it couldn’t make a little bit dumber. By all accounts, Tribune itself was surprised by the deal and has taken steps to limit Alden’s further investment in the company (which is currently up to around 32 percent). But that can only last for a few months — until June 30, 2020 — after which it’s possible control of Tribune could be available for Alden strip-mining.

But journalists aren’t taking the news lying down. Hundreds of Tribune workers in multiple states have signed on to a petition urging their company’s board to, as one local newsroom union put it, “take specific steps to show its commitment to #savelocalnews after the board’s decision to give Alden Global Capital two seats.”

Read the details here. And make sure this holiday season you’re enjoying your late-capitalist local news dystopia responsibly.

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