Westword’s sister alt-weekly newspapers are trying to unionize. What happens in Denver?

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The Westword office building on Broadway in Denver in February 2016 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Staff at two out-of-state alt-weeklies owned by Westword’s corporate parent, Denver-based Voice Media Group, last week announced efforts to unionize — leading some to wonder what Westword might do.

From a Jan. 21 news release from the group comprising employees at New Times weeklies in Miami, Florida, and Phoenix, Arizona:

A majority of reporters, editors, and designers from these sister publications signed cards stating their desire to be represented by the Voice Media Guild, a unit of The NewsGuild-CWA, which represents journalists across the country. They presented their requests for voluntary recognition to local management after months of organizing. …

“For years, many of us have sat by as management has laid off friends and colleagues who have produced crucial work,” Jerry Iannelli, a Miami New Times staff writer and member of the Organizing Committee said. “We’ve been routinely forced to do extra work without any say in the matter — and often without extra pay. As alt-weekly writers, we confront the world’s problems loudly and with character. And it’s time we did the same for our own workplaces.”

And this comes from the Guild’s mission statement:

We are organizing a union because we want a seat at the table. We want working conditions that ensure our writers and editors are treated well, are adequately and equitably compensated, and feel equipped to do their best work. We want to attract talent from all walks of life who believe they have the option of a long and sustainable career. That’s not possible when the most common point of entry is a fellowship paying $500 a week (pre-tax).

In Phoenix, staff writer Elizabeth Whitman, who is helping lead the union drive, told me since the staffers announced their intentions last Tuesday they haven’t yet heard from anyone at Westword. With constant pressure to produce more work with fewer resources, Whitman says she hopes collective bargaining rights and protections under the law could lead to better pay, vacation time, and job security— plus a seat at the table when management makes future decisions about the company.

So far, Westword staffers haven’t announced intentions to try and unionize, and they haven’t been publicly vocal about the efforts of their VMG brethren in Miami and Phoenix. One Westword staffer told me some employees support the union efforts in the other cities and there are mixed perspectives about whether staffers at Westword should do the same.

Voice Media Group’s executive associate editor, Andy Van De Voorde, who is based in Denver, says VMG has “engaged in a preliminary back and forth with the union,” and characterized the tone as “professional and friendly.” But he said he wanted to correspond directly with the union and employees, and declined to say much else. “As for the mood on Broadway”— where Westword is located in Denver— “from my vantage point it’s great,” Van De Voorde said Wednesday.

More about VMG, from VICE in a write-up about the sister-paper efforts:

After acquiring the properties in September 2012, VMG began selling them off one by one. In early 2013, VMG sold SF Weekly and Seattle Weekly. (SF Weekly still publishes; Seattle Weekly is now digital-only.) In 2015, it sold Minneapolis City Pages (the paper still publishes under new ownership), St. Louis’s Riverfront Times (it also continues to publish), and its flagship, the Village Voice (it suffered a slow decline before the new owner shut it down in 2018). In 2016, VMG sold OC Weekly (the Orange County, California paper shut down abruptly just before Thanksgiving), and in 2017, it sold LA Weekly to shady new owners who drove talent away and ran the paper to ruin. Of the 13 properties VMG acquired in 2012, they now own only six. Only four of them—Miami, Phoenix, Denver, and Dallas—are still in print. The Broward New Times and Houston Press no longer publish print editions and are hobbling along with only a few employees.

In Denver, where editor Patricia Calhoun has run Westword for 40 years and multiple pages of marijuana advertising has likely offered a cashflow cushion, corporate ownership works out of the same office building as the newsroom. This spring, the paper plans to move from Broadway into the old ballet building at 13th and Lincoln where I’m told parking costs for staff could triple.

In recent years, union drives have swept the newsrooms of national digital media outlets like  Buzzfeed, HuffPost, and Vox. “In joining with unions, reporters and editors at online publications are following in the footsteps of their print predecessors,” reported The New York Times last year. In neighboring Montana, about 10 staffers of the Missoula Independent chose to unionize in 2018 after the local daily newspaper chain bought the alt-weekly. Six months later, though, the company shut the paper down and locked its staff out of the office. Other than that and the Village Voice in New York City, union drives haven’t really taken root in alt-weekly newsrooms, says Fran Zankowski, who publishes Boulder Weekly and is the past president of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia.

Recent years have been brutal for the typically funky and unruly city alts, which began as scrappy organs for the counterculture underground. Some have sold their souls to local dailies, gone to online only— or just closed down. “Alt-weeklies are a dying breed,” reads part of the Voice Media Guild’s mission statement. “The media landscape is shrinking locally and nationally. We don’t want our communities to lose the critical and distinct perspectives the alternative press provides. If we want to maintain and strengthen our presence, it’s critical we invest in ourselves.”

Lawmakers could expand protections for student journalists in Colorado

A former journalist who now serves in the state legislature hopes to create a new state law that would expand free speech protections for students at public schools— and for administrators who work with them.

From Moe Clark at The Colorado Sun:

The bill would also broaden explicit free speech protections for student journalists to include audio and visual storytelling platforms. “This bill will update our law in Colorado and get it into the 21st century,” said Rep. Barbara McLachlan, a Durango Democrat and former journalist who is leading the push for change. “The First Amendment applies to all of us,” she added. “This bill is really just a good reminder for everyone about what this law says and why it’s important.”

Colorado is one of 14 states with free speech protections for its student journalists already on the books, but they are focused on print journalism. “The bill would bring broadcast and online publications under that umbrella,” the Sun reports, adding the measure “would also prevent a public school employee who advises student journalists from being fired, suspended, disciplined, reassigned, transferred or ‘otherwise retaliated against.'”

For the story, Jack Kennedy, a  longtime student journalism advisor who directs the Colorado Student Media Association, spoke about the balancing act for administrators when advising student journalists. “The advisers are employees and they are members of the school faculty almost always, but they’re also advocates for students and they are their journalism coaches,” he told the Sun. “So they’re sort of caught in between. … It’d be very difficult to find a publication advisor who hasn’t felt this.”

Clark spoke to student journalists and other media advisors for the piece, which you can read here.

Colorado lawmaker’s husband gets profiled in NYT

Denver Democratic Rep. Emily Sirota’s husband David earned himself a profile in The New York Times last week. He’s currently serving as a speechwriter and advisor to Bernie Sanders and pens the presidential campaign’s high-metabolism and excellently named Bern Notice newsletter.

From the NYT:

Mr. Sanders talks frequently about wanting to stick to the issues, but he and his surrogates’ take-no-prisoners tone risks distracting from their substance. Media criticism is a prime example. Mr. Sirota, a journalist as recently as a year ago who early in his career served as press secretary to Mr. Sanders when he was a House representative, has amplified the campaign’s consistent focus on criticizing news outlets that most regard as mainstream, targeting stories that he considers unfair. …

Politicians have long deflected criticism onto the news media, blaming it for not covering them the way they want. But the frequency and tenor of the Sanders campaign’s critique is unusual, a can’t-miss leitmotif alongside “Medicare for all,” the Green New Deal, the millionaires and the billionaires. “I am not a candidate of the corporate media,” Mr. Sanders has said.

A particularly visible contributor to this effort is Mr. Sirota, who even while working as a journalist seemed to delight in trolling the media from inside the house. Accepting the 2015 Izzy Award for special achievement in independent media (it is named for the radical muckraker I.F. Stone), Mr. Sirota spoke of doing hard-hitting investigations “at an outlet that allows you to do it, which tend not to be legacy media outlets.”

Readers of this newsletter might remember when David Sirota backed out of running the left’s “answer to Breitbart” because he wanted to run a media outlet “rooted in a value system — and without regard to political party.” At the time he was writing for the International Business Times. Further back, you might recall when he took on some local Colorado newspaper executives for their political activity in a 2014 piece for Pando Daily.

The New York Times writes Sirota, 44, is an “interesting case” having “began his career working for congressmen and political institutions,” then spending “more than a decade as a conventional journalist” where he “won an award from the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.” Read the whole profile here.

Peek-a-boo, whoopsie daisy

If Coloradans want to know what those who make their laws are doing they’re in luck. There are a lot of journalists filling press desks in the state Capitol in Denver. That should be a good thing— and it’s also different than in many states where there aren’t enough reporters covering a Statehouse. Here there are enough. Some might even argue too many.  Coloradans got a heavy dose of what it means to have so many legislative reporters last week when a lawmaker had a baby. It saturated the news— and later exposed the vulnerabilities of pack journalism, too.

When Democratic state Sen. Brittany Pettersen of Lakewood gave birth to a son last week almost every local news outlet, including Colorado Public Radio, ran stories saying that she was the first state lawmaker to ever give birth during the annual legislative session. Turns out we were wrong. On June 4, 1981, then-Denver Sen. Barbara S. Holme delivered her son, Tim Holme, just two days before the legislative session ended.
The development should have triggered a slew of corrections on digital platforms last Friday morning. Here’s how The Colorado Sun explained its error to readers in its paid subscription newsletter ‘The Unaffiliated:
The claim was based on the work from another Colorado news outlet. But now we know it’s wrong. … In prior stories, news outlets, including The Colorado Sun, missed this fact. We fact checked the claim that Pettersen was the first against newspaper clippings in an online database and didn’t find any information that would lead us to believe it was wrong.

The Sun reported a tip from a listener led CPR to dig up the news that former Sen. Barbara Holme delivered a baby in the waning days of the 1981 legislative session. If there’s a lesson in all this it’s that some claims can be hard to definitively verify and if a reporter plans to do that they should have it nailed down 100%. And if the shoe leather isn’t enough and you’ve done all you can as deadline approaches, there’s no shame in qualifying a claim with “perhaps” or “believed to be”— or just letting your readers know how much you know and how much you don’t.

Another issue is digital archiving. As one journalist pointed out, “not all archives are in the database, particularly the source for much Colorado political history, The Statesman.” Colorado’s state librarian recently talked on a public panel about the importance of digital news archives and what libraries are doing to help.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

Under a headline “The Big Short,” The Denver Post questioned whether Colorado’s historically low unemployment rate might be “too much of a good thing as labor shortage puts squeeze on businesses.” The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on unsealed court documents in a lawsuit it says show “the largest oil and gas driller in Colorado over the last decade, engaged in a multibillion-dollar fraud against investors by overstating and misrepresenting economic prospects in its oil field in the Gulf of Mexico.” The Steamboat Pilot reported on whether a ski resort’s snowmaking has unintended consequencesSummit Daily News had a second-part in a series on former local NFL lineman John ReinstraThe Longmont Times-Call covered how its city council will move some meetings to the local libraryThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported how a local hospital’s profitability is drawing concernsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered school zone safety scrutiny after a kindergartener’s deathThe Durango Herald wrote about Fort Lewis College wanting more local say on its boardThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on how a local public-private bike-share program might be in jeopardy.

New Maverick Observer site looks to crusade about Springs government and business

Frustrated by what he sees as a city not living up to its potential and a local media environment too rah-rah-rah, Tim Hoiles, a former owner of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, plans to soon launch a digital news site and administer some tough editorial love.

In an interview, Hoiles described the future Maverick Observer as a kind of Springs-area version of Complete Colorado, the conservative website run by the Independence Institute that is heavy on aggregation, but also produces original reporting and investigations. The way he talks about it, readers can expect the new venture to stir the pot in Colorado’s second-largest city and go on some crusades. A staff of a few part-timers who he describes as not necessarily journalists have already been doing some research, and Hoiles is directing the effort.

What’s on the horizon? Certain businesses in the Springs are “controlling what happens at City Hall,” Hoiles says, and developers have too much power. He plans to start doing some exposing. “God forbid we take a firm stand and say something bad about Colorado Springs,” he says.

The business model could eventually be a nonprofit, he says, but he’s funding some of it himself. “I’m not sitting on $5 million bucks,” he adds in case anyone thinks this will be some mega-funded operation. But he does believe startups should make a three-year commitment. Tim Hoiles is the grandson of R.C. Hoiles, once described by The New York Times as a “crusty 85‐year‐old publisher” of Freedom Newspapers, which once owned The Gazette. “I was fortunate enough to get out of the news business at a good time,” Tim Hoiles, 67, says about his 2004 exit from the dead-tree industry. These days he’s trying to better understand new media as he seeks to once again become a part of the local publishing scene.

Over the phone last week, the future publisher of The Maverick Observer outlined some of his criticism of Colorado Springs, where he was raised, left in the mid-’70s, and returned. He describes a traffic-plagued city with a sales-tax based economy bloated with special districts and seemingly intent on growth for growth’s sake. “I believe that while the city employees are really neat people, a lot of them are not qualified to be in a top-50 city,” he says bluntly. “As wonderful a city as Colorado Springs is it’s basically junior-ized,” he said at another point. “We haven’t grown up.” The city, he believes is “limited in its exposure” to “worldly” and “philosophical” issues. Why, he wonders, do downtown bars and restaurants close so early? He might not have all the answers, he admits, but “we can do better.”

Look out for the site to launch at the end of February.

I don’t know what this site will end up looking like, but regardless, for a city its size— roughly the 40th largest in the nation— Colorado Springs could use more local media, particularly online. Beyond the newspapers, area magazines, and TV and radio stations, there is no dominant blog or digital information outlet that keeps Springs residents captivated as even some smaller cities have. NextDoor seems popular in some of the neighborhoods, but that can be an unfortunate thing.

Westword’s Ana Campbell 👩‍🦰 💻 👉 Denverite 

Taking over for Denverite editor Ashley Dean who moved away is Ana Campbell who will start Feb. 11. From the announcement:

Ana will come to Denverite from Westword, where she has been managing editor since the middle of 2016, and her experience beyond editing short- and long-term coverage at Denver’s storied alt-weekly paper is delightfully varied

“Denverite captures this city unlike any other news outlet,” she said in a statement. “You never know what to expect when you visit, and I am so looking forward to guiding that magic.” Colorado Public Radio last year purchased Denverite, the hyper-local news outlet that has gone through a series of changes since it launched in 2016. Westword is now looking for a full-time news editor.

Free Press is looking to hire someone in Colorado

Gobs of foundation money are sloshing around to fund initiatives that those in charge of dispersing them believe will help build sustainable local news ecosystems around the country. Colorado has become a place where plenty of that money is flowing.

The Colorado Media Project is here, PEN America chose Denver as a case study, Report for America chose a Colorado newsroom to deploy a reporter, we won a pro-bono press freedom lawyer from the Local Legal Initiative at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. When RFA helped The Associated Press beef up its staff, they placed a reporter in Denver. Other entities are eyeing Colorado for other projects, too.

Now, the Washington, D.C.-based media watchdog and reform group Free Press is hiring a manager based in Colorado and starting a new project. From the Free Press site:

Free Press is launching News Voices: Colorado, a two-year initiative that invests in building the capacity of local newsrooms and communities to transform Colorado’s media ecosystem and improve local news and information across the state. The manager is a key position in expanding News Voices to Colorado, and will focus on engaging Colorado residents, community leaders, and journalists to work collectively to envision, strengthen, and transform local news.

The job looks like it pays between $55,000 and a $65,000. Apply for it here before Feb. 7. It looks like the work starts in March. Free Press seeks to “change the media to transform democracy to realize a just society.”

Learn more about the organization here.

The Gazette and ColoradoPolitics snapped up the Post’s canceled columnist

A week after The Denver Post’s editorial page cut loose libertarian-leaning think tank president Jon Caldara, The Gazette and ColoradoPolitics took him on. That’s not surprising given the Clarity Media-owned Colorado Springs newspaper and digital site’s angling to position itself as a kind of rightward counterweight to the editorial voice of the Post and other newspapers in Colorado.

“The veteran journalist hosts ‘The Devil’s Advocate with Jon Caldara’ on Colorado Public Television, and is also president of the Independence Institute,” ColoradoPolitics wrote in an un-bylined report, also calling him a “legendary” TV, radio and newspaper personality. “I know @JonCaldara well enough to know he’d be the first one to laugh uproariously at the idea that he is anyone’s idea of ‘legendary'” wrote liberal Colorado Independent columnist Mike Littwin. “Or a veteran journalist.”

KUNC followed up on misinformation online

The public radio station in Northern Colorado followed up on this newsletter’s Jan. 16 item about ColoradoPolitics reporter Marianne Goodland being impersonated on Twitter.

Host Henry Zimmerman used the incident to check in with Denver-based Nancy Watzman of First Draft News about projects she’s working on to clean up disinformation, misinformation and malinformation with a fellowship to help local journalists understand what they’re seeing online and how to sort it out. “It’s all brand new,” she said, “and I think certainly some journalism schools are getting in the mix, but we’re just learning how to do it.”

*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.