Year in review: Here’s what happened in Colorado’s media world in 2019

Your year-end review of Colorado local news & media

Photo by Corey Hutchins

For the first 2020 edition of this humble newsletter-and-column enterprise that began chronicling Colorado media issues in 2015, we review the year and all that happened in our little corner of the journalism world. OK, not all, but at least some of the items we’ll remember. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but here’s a roundup of notes salvaged from another pile of torn-off pages from the media desk calendar:

In January, we first heard hints that the journalism-devouring Alden Global Capital hedge fund (née The Nothing) that controls The Denver Post and 100 or so other newspapers might want to make a bid for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain. Even then it sounded like a terrible idea. That month we also saw early moves at Colorado Public Radio that would establish it as the fastest-growing and widest-expanding news outlet in the state. ColoradoPolitics lead reporter Joey Bunch had a heart attack, died for several minutes, and survived. (He’s back on the beat like nothing ever happened.) The small, out-of-state-owned Trinidad Chronicle-News, which sold to a group of local owners, moved out of its historic building. At the beginning of the year, Colorado wasn’t immune to Big Corporate Chain layoffs, as The Coloradoan in Fort Collins suffered from a national contraction at Gannett. Struggling to better define itself for its audience as alternative weeklies around the country folded up shop, The Colorado Springs Independent created its first editorial board and called it The Voice of Reason. Like other daily newspapers around the nation, The Greeley Tribune cut its print days down to four. On the transparency front, cops in different municipalities started encrypting their radio channels.

February saw the “First Amendment Audit Movement” hit Colorado. The Colorado Media Project hired a director and announced a three-year commitment to suss out The Big Questions about our state’s disrupted media landscape and provide some actionable solutions. The Coloradoan scrapped its Opinion section to save money. A panel of cannabis journalists and PR people wondered what the future of pot coverage would look like — dominated by industry-linked publications in a further-democratizing niche media landscape or covered enough by legacy mainstream media? The Southeast Express, a new nonprofit newspaper, launched to report on Southeast Colorado Springs, which is home to one of the most diverse city council districts in the state, and to see if a print newspaper could help create an identity for a community. Empowering Colorado, a nonprofit seeking to cover energy from all sides, announced it was trying to raise money and figure out a sustainable business model. Pueblo PULP publisher John Rodriguez published an honest social media essay about covering race and representation in Colorado media. Something called Versa popped up in our Colorado social media feeds, saying it would provide news from a progressive point of view. February was also the 10-year anniversary of The Rocky Mountain News going out of business, and the remembrances were many.

In March, Colorado Public Radio gobbled up the hyper-local, for-profit local news site Denverite. The move underscored CPR’s expansion, the impact of the Colorado Media Project that helped facilitate the deal, and also the economic struggles of finding a sustainable business model for local journalism startups. Kaiser Health News announced it would fund healthcare reporting in Colorado. That month we learned High Country News quietly scrapped its “Writers on the Range” column after roughly 20 years. Colorado’s new Democratic attorney general began a crusade to convince the FCC to allow Denver TV stations to beam into the state’s two “orphan counties,” wading into a decades-long battle over what “local news” really meansThe Denver Post earned some attention for yanking back a 2014 endorsement of U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner that didn’t particularly age well. That same month, a panel of editorial page editors gathered at The Denver Press Club to talk about their role in a time when everyone has opinions and ample places to publish them. John Rodriguez declared a “journalism crisis in Southern Colorado.” The Nothing continued a hostile takeover of Gannett. Amy Maestas, one of the few journalists of color to lead a Colorado newspaper, said goodbye.

April found journalists in Colorado and around the country wondering if they learned anything from the way they covered the Columbine school massacre that happened 20 years ago that month. On another anniversary, we recalled The Denver Post Rebellion one year later as a new project hoped to keep up the pressure. ColoradoPolitics, the three-year-old project of Phil Anschutz’s Clarity Media, flexed its billionaire-ownership muscles at The Denver Post by hiring reporters focused on Denver. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition promulgated an updated copy of its guide to the state’s Sunshine Laws. The Waltons found a way to finance more reporting about the Colorado River. (Which led Boulder Weekly editor Joel Dyer to ask if the Waltons also found a way to ensure less reporting on why the Waltons care about the Colorado River.) Colorado Public Radio expanded more by creating a “climate solutions reporting team” with a $1.21 million grant. The Greeley Tribune downsized. An Associated Press editor testified at the state legislature about the need for teaching media literacy in schools. A reporter-and-editor team at The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel left their newspaper to buy the small, rural Ouray County Plaindealer, which took some guts. In a man-bites-dog story, Jason Salzman wondered if there might be too many reporters covering the Colorado Capitol. (Find me another state in the nation where that’s a legitimate question.)

In May, Denver’s 5280 magazine examined in a major cover story whether the Mile High City was seeing a digital news revolution. The LOR Foundation and the Solutions Journalism Network launched the Mountain West News Partnership to “co-report and share stories, exchange best practices and challenges, and participate in local and regional in-person events.” It wasn’t all good news: A budget blade sliced into Colorado State University at Pueblo’s journalism school. The family-owned Delta County Independent sold to an out-of-state company. But lawmakers proposed an anti-SLAPP law and Colorado Public Radio announced it would move from Centennial to downtown Denver, showing again its march toward potential news primacy. Because of an intriguing idea out of Longmont, I asked in a Columbia Journalism Review headline: “Should a Colorado library publish local news?” Following another school shooting in Colorado, students protested media. A local ballot measure to essentially decriminalize magic mushrooms in Denver illustrated why Colorado journalists should be wary of running definitive headlines about election results in a state where more ballots can trickle in after deadline. The North Forty News announced it would go weekly. Colorado Public Radio hired a reporter to live and work in Washington, D.C., becoming the only outlet in Colorado to have a dedicated beltway correspondent on staff. The Nothing lost a skirmish to take over Gannett. The newsroom mood was “pretty dark” at The Pueblo Chieftain as layoffs lashed it following its purchase by GateHouse. And a man was arrested for pumping shotgun rounds into the night air outside The Loveland Reporter-Herald’s press facility.

June saw Colorado’s new Democratic governor, Jared Polis, signing that anti-SLAPP bill into law, and also gracing his John Hancock across another one that will create a panel to examine whether and how to teach media literacy in public schools. After two years — and two weeks after a CJR story — the FCC ruled to allow Denver TV stations to beam into La Plata and Montezuma counties if they wanted. A Colorado prison was on the cover of The Nation and it wasn’t a good look. Journalists at The Pueblo Chieftain protested cuts to their workforce outside their building and railed against their new owner GateHouse, which is one of those hedge-fundy corporate chains, and some demonstrators held signs reading “GutHouse.” ColoradoPolitics said it was hiring another Denver reporter. The Colorado Media Project announced it would research ways the state’s public sector could better support the local news industry. Journalists debated the level of disclosure of sponsored content at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins.

In July, Boulder was the host city for the annual conference for alternative weekly newspapers, so the spotlight shone on Boulder Weekly, which focuses on print more than its digital product and is doing well financially. An event in Denver put “the media” on trial. The Denver Post went on a listening tour around Colorado. The Gazette created a three-person investigative unit and hired a reporter away from The Colorado SunThe Colorado Independent partnered with ProPublica to document hate incidents. A major fact-checking operation, we learned, is quietly based in Colorado Springs. Neil Westergaard, a Denver Business Journal editor and 1990s-era editor of The Denver Post, died at 67. A debate about journalists, their identity, and what they say on social media focused on Colorado Public Radio’s editor. The content director of The Greeley Tribune was ousted after just seven months amid a dispute about the number of stories reporters should be responsible for writing. Denver Post Rebellion leader Chuck Plunkett gave a TED Talk and endorsed the idea of talking about a “public-funding option” to help support local news. Presidential contender Elizabeth Warren took on hedge-fund newspaper owners.

August found me away from the United States, and while I tried to pay attention to Colorado media news it’s a blank space for me here. I’m really sorry about this. But please: before you email me about something I forgot to note this year — and someone will — just make sure it wasn’t in August?

In SeptemberThe Colorado Sun celebrated a full year on the calendar as one of the most ambitious local journalism startups in the country. The outlet also led an impressive statewide accountability-minded project along with several other news outlets called “PARKED” about mobile home parks in Colorado. Coloradan Scott Yates spearheaded an effort to combat misinformation with standards. Colorado patent attorney Vanessa Otero, who created the Media Bias Chart, made her latest iteration interactive. Bernie Sanders, whose speechwriter and advisor David Sirota lives in Denver, unveiled a media reform plan. The 127-year-old Colorado Daily lost its last staffer. Recognizing some limits of journalism and deciding to try something new, High Country News produced a “speculative journalism” issue to help readers better comprehend the consequences of climate change. Some journalists raised alarm over a pattern of government officials charging high prices for documents in response to open-records requests. Reporters at The Steamboat Pilot opened up about what it was like to report on sexual assault in their hometown. The City of Denver settled for $50,000 with Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene a year after police handcuffed her as she tried to film them in a public space. Cops will have to undergo First Amendment sensitivity training, too. An ex-newspaper reporter talked about how she now covers Boulder city government as a newsletter writer, an example of the ways in which journalists around the country who leave their local newspapers search for ways to cover their local government amid newspaper retrenchment. Attorneys were working on a plea deal since the Longmont man who fired a shotgun outside the Loveland Reporter-Herald’s press facility was “on new medications.” Colorado Community Media journalists began podcasting about how they reported their stories. The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly led a protest against Kroger and King Soopers for no longer keeping free newspapers in racks at the store. Gov. Jared Polis came under fire when a staffer asked some rural newspapers to un-publish stories the office didn’t like. Chalkbeat released an ambitious five-year plan for sustainability. The Durango Herald cut another print day.

October was when the Colorado Media Project released a report that called for more public-sector support for the local news industry in Colorado and held a public panel about its findings. Another Colorado reporter opened up about personal trauma on the job. The Boulder Daily Camera sued the University of Colorado system over transparency in the search process for its new president. Colorado Public Radio pulled down another big grant, this time a half-million dollars from the Temple Hoyne Buell Foundation, which doesn’t typically fund media. ColoradoPolitics got a new managing editor: Linda Shapley, a former managing editor of The Denver Post who left in 2017 for the online marketing company Deke Digital. Two politicos with Democratic backgrounds launched The North Denver Star, a new print newspaper in Denver. The Denver mayor’s office tried to sniff out who leaked a story to local media. The Colorado Sun said it was courting large investors. One Colorado newspaper decided to stop publishing sponsored content that doesn’t tell readers who paid for it while another decided that the practice is fine. Robots began helping write sports news for The Denver Post. A reporter found “holes” growing in Colorado’s open-records laws. Indian Country Today joined The Associated Press. The Epoch Times, which Westword described as a “far-right conspiracist newspaper” started popping up in Denver Post racks at the state Capitol.

In November, journalism jobs were 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 began sniffing out inefficiencies and affected multiple newspapers in Colorado. Empowering Colorado soft-launched, saying it wanted to be “very much like the Chalkbeat of energy.” The Colorado Independent partnered with the small Rio Blanco Herald Times for a blockbuster investigation that showed the power of collaborative journalism. The Colorado Trust announced it would pay $100,000 for a media landscape survey as it hopes to invest in local journalism. A library district bought The Greeley Tribune’s newspaper building. The corporate suits followed journalists out of the downtown Denver building with the Denver Post logo on it. FRONTLINE chose Rocky Mountain PBS for one of its local journalism partners. The Epoch Times started popping up unsolicited in mailboxes around Colorado. A Denver bilingual magazine sold to a new Denver media company called Colorado Hispanic Multimedia Platform. The state attorney general probed satellite and cable companies. A weird site was ripping off local news outlets. Denver became a case study in a PEN America report called “Losing the Local News.” Colorado benefited from the AP’s hiring streak. A question about whether to support hedge-fund-owned newspapers went national.

December was for cattle mutilation coverage and local news outlets getting donations matched from generous funders. The Ouray County Plaindealer was the smallest newspaper in the nation to potentially get a Report for America journalist. ColoradoPolitics remembered those who died in 2019, including longtime Colorado journalist John Ensslin whom the outlet lured back from an East Coast stint to report on Denver. A youth-climate organization tried to mislead Denver media. moved on from Denver. BusinessDen boasted its success as a local for-profit newsroom. The Denver Post hit its goal of gaining 20,000 digital subscribers. Conservative 710 KNUS talk radio came under scrutiny after a host made a school-shooting joke that got him canned and a producer was accused of Nazi stuff. Denver City Council unanimously voted on a resolution urging The Denver Post’s owner to invest in journalism. A nonprofit Longmont newsroom scored a city contract. Rocky Mountain PBS helped Colorado’s two “orphan counties” get some in-state programming via satellite. And the trailer came out for an upcoming documentary called Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads, which was “instigated” by The Denver Post Rebellion. “We cover the fight against [Post owner] Alden Global Capital,” the filmmaker said, “and it broadens out into the crisis in journalism — and local journalism specifically — today that’s happening all around the country.”

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran a roundup about the paper’s Top 10 stories of the yearThe Steamboat Pilot ran a story rounding up the Top 10 Celestial Events for 2020The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered the rising costs of water in the areaThe Longmont Times-Call looked at coverage of a flood that dominated the local news of the decadeThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how experts are looking for solutions in the data about domestic violence after a spike this yearThe Summit Daily News covered warnings about the dangers of winter hazardsThe Coloradoan covered upcoming 2020 electionsThe Durango Herald published a year in reviewThe Denver Post reported how 5G technology could help close the state’s digital divideThe Gazette in Colorado Springs looked at Dade County, Florida’s “vaunted quest to decriminalize mental illness.”

How The Colorado Independent handled a sensitive leak

On Tuesday, The Colorado Independent dropped a bombshell.

As The Boulder Daily Camera newspaper is in the midst of suing the University of Colorado system for access to a list of finalists and candidates interviewed for the job as CU president, someone leaked a copy of more than two dozen names to The Indy’s editor, Susan Greene. (As was the case in at least one other large public university presidential search in 2019, CU’s pick of former GOP Congressman Mark Kennedy was shrouded in secrecy, incited controversy, and, apparently, was infected by partisan politics.)

From The Colorado Independent about how it obtained a much-sought-after document:

A list of 30 names leaked anonymously to The Colorado Independent and authenticated by the board’s lawyer shows Kennedy, then president of the University of North Dakota (UND), edged out the heads of far bigger schools such as Penn State, Rutgers and Texas A&M, as well as several prominent Coloradans, including former Gov. Bill Ritter and former Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne. …
The list of 30 applicants was emailed in late February to the board of regents by its secretary and lawyer, Patrick O’Rourke, as CU was searching to replace its longtime President Bruce Benson, who was retiring in July. In October — six months after the board chose Kennedy in a controversial, party-line vote — the list was mailed to The Independent’s newsroom in an envelope with no return name or address and accompanied by a handwritten note reading, “I trust you will handle this information ethically.”

Greene in late April had been all over the CU story, producing the most deeply reported behind-the-scenes account of the presidential search in a story headlined “Decision Dissected: What regents say they knew – and didn’t – about CU presidential pick.” (The family foundation of one of the regents quoted, the outlet reported, is among the nonprofit newsroom’s supporters.)

The university has said that it doesn’t have to make public the names of other candidates since regents chose Kennedy as the sole finalist for the $850,000-a-year job. An argument for keeping names of applicants secret is that some of them might not want their current employers to know they were looking for jobs elsewhere. Which makes sense. But a public university is not a private corporation and is subject to the Colorado Open Records Act, known as CORA. Taxpayers and the public knowing more about how the process works can help them evaluate how regents, who are elected by voters, are doing their jobs.

From The Daily Camera:

Julie Vossler-Henderson, central news editor for the Camera, stressed the newspaper’s role as advocate for the public’s right to oversight of the publicly elected regents’ decisions. “The public has the right to know the names of the other five finalists interviewed by the regents as outlined in the CORA statute,” Vossler-Henderson said. “The regents, who are elected officials, seem to be asking the public to trust them that they’ve made the right choice for system president without providing the public the opportunity to compare Mark Kennedy’s record and application materials with those of the other finalists. Furthermore, it is our duty as journalists to safeguard and fight for the public’s right to public information.”
So how did The Colorado Independent decide to handle the information it received? From the piece:
Regents, concerned about lawsuits for breaching confidentiality, agreed through O’Rourke to authenticate the list in exchange for The Independent’s agreement to conceal the names of three of the applicants. They are the presidents of a large southern university and a mid-size West Coast university and the CEO of a health care corporation, each of whom informed the board that being outed for having sought the job could jeopardize their current positions. The Independent agreed to conceal their identities based on a standard in journalistic ethics to minimize harm.

The Indy story, headlined, “CU regents passed over more experienced and prominent applicants when picking Kennedy as president,” ricocheted around Colorado and beyond. The Denver Post’s Elizabeth Hernandez advanced the story by scoring an interview with another finalist who cast some shade at the process. (Free idea: I’d love to read someone synthesize this search with the latest one at the University of South Carolina for The Chronicle of Higher Education or InsideHigherEd.) The independent student newspaper at CU editorialized that it’s time to “reform CU’s Board of Regents.”

So what happens now? Some at CU want an investigation into the leak. “Whoever provided this information to the media without the university’s authorization has harmed the university and undermined the integrity of the search process,” four GOP regents wrote in a letter that became public. “We are requesting a formal investigation to determine how this breach occurred and to advise us on how to protect confidentiality in future searches.” A CU spokesman told media the university “promised candidates confidentiality throughout the process, so that confidentiality has been breached,” which he said makes it “harder for us to recruit executive talent.”

You’re invited: Discussing Colorado’s local news at the Denver Public Library

On Tuesday, Jan. 7, at 6 p.m. at the Denver Public Library, a panel of journalists, researchers, and the state librarian will discuss “the media ecosystem in Colorado and the search for innovative solutions.”

Panelists include Denverite’s housing and hunger reporter Donna Bryson (who was 2019’s Colorado journalist of the year), Nicolle Ingui Davies, Colorado’s state librarian, Melissa Milios Davis of the Colorado Media Project, Laura Frank of Rocky Mountain PBS, and Westword’s Alan Prendergast who recently wrote a case study about Denver’s media scene for PEN America. I’ll be moderating.

From the event listing:

Local news is in a state of crisis. For over a decade, there has been a steady succession of local outlets closing down, reporters being laid off, production schedules cut, and resources tightened. As a result, thousands of communities across the country have less access to critical information on governance, elections, education, health, and numerous issues specific to their cities, towns, and neighborhoods. This crisis both exacerbates and is exacerbated by systemic inequities in the U.S. media landscape. Many of the communities that have traditionally been underserved by local media are those most affected by its decline.

Maybe see you there?

*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.