Why a dozen Colorado newspapers ran publicity content about the people running our elections

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A ballot going into a ballot box in Colorado (Photo by Alex Burness)

Following a chaotic election meltdown by a state Democratic Party that left The Associated Press unable to declare a winner of the Iowa caucuses, reporting turned to how smoothly— or not— subsequent state primaries might go.

Here in Colorado, with ballots already in the mail, we’re having the first statewide presidential election on Super Tuesday as a primary instead of a caucus under a new system. Voters approved the new laws in 2016 that switched Colorado from a caucus system to a primary that allows unaffiliated voters to participate when they previously could not. In Colorado, a party won’t run it; elected clerks in the state’s 64 counties will run their own elections under these new changes.

That brings us to how some of the state’s smallest local newspapers provided their readers information about the people running their elections. Last week, more than a dozen papers scattered across Colorado ran items about their county clerk. But it wasn’t enterprise reporting by a journalist at each paper who penned the stories. Instead, the pieces were produced by a former reporter, Lynn Bartels, who is now in the public relations business and handles communications for the Colorado County Clerks Association— the organization that represents them. “Yes, this article was printed as news,” an editor at one small rural paper told me when I asked, while adding the editor was “somewhat puzzled” as to why I was interested. “The article ran in print on the front page of the paper,” said another, and a third told me the item was printed as news “in the A section.”

To me, the development represents the reality of a local news industry where fewer reporters means content about certain topics, beats, industries, and, yes, even elected officials, can be crafted by those paid to promote them and wind up printed as news in smaller local publications. In this case, the individual stories targeted for each newspaper stemmed from the annual conference of the Colorado County Clerks Association, which Bartels attended and wrote about favorably in her weekly column for ColoradoPolitics, the Clarity Media-owned weekly newspaper and subscription-based website.

The story came with this note nearly 30 paragraphs in:

“Full disclosure: I now work as a communications consultant; the Colorado County Clerks Association is one of my clients.”

Her attendance at the conference also offered an easy springboard to pitch more localized positive stories about local clerks in newspapers elsewhere throughout the state. Papers that ran them included The Limon Leader, The Burlington Record, The Cañon City Daily RecordThe Dove Creek PressThe Sterling Journal AdvocateThe South Platte SentinelThe Pagosa Springs SunThe Weekly Register CallThe Alamosa NewsThe Fort Morgan TimesThe Stratton SpotlightThe Pikes Peak Courierand The La Junta Tribune-Democrat.

Here’s the disclosure that appeared at the end of most, but not all, of the items:

Lynn Bartels was a reporter for 35 years, including for The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News, before serving as the spokeswoman for Secretary of State Wayne Williams. She now does communications consulting; one of her clients is the Colorado County Clerks Association. She also writes a weekly column for Colorado Politics, and some of the material in this story also appeared in her column.

To recap: Roughly a dozen newspapers published a positive item about their local elections clerk that was a news release from a group that exists to make the clerks look good. At least one editor, Michael Alcala at The Cañon City Daily Record, said the paper should have run a disclosure and not doing so was an oversight. Another outlet that ran the item without a disclosure, The Pagosa Sun, did so, said editor Terri House, because “we typically cut off promotional paragraphs about the writer and their credentials from press releases, but they have a byline.” She added: “We recognize most press releases we receive are meant to make someone or something look good and are written by paid staff or volunteers, and we edit as necessary to keep it newsworthy and appropriate for our publication.” The Pagosa Sun is a fully-staffed paper and not shorthanded, the editor added. “However, there is always outside content presented to us that we run if it involves locals and is newsworthy.”

For her part, Bartels, who doesn’t see herself as a journalist anymore, said what she sent the papers amounted to a news release on behalf of the county clerks group, and she’s not surprised some of them ran it as news. Some small town papers have run releases from publicity organizations as news for years, she said. And this is no new development in Colorado, either, she told me, saying small newspapers published verbatim items she sent them when she blogged as a government spokesperson for the Secretary of State. “Some of these newspapers have known my name for a long time,” she said, and editors know her work. She started with small local papers, she said, because she knows they appreciate news about their local people. “This is new to you,” she told me about the whole thing, “but it’s not new to a lot of small communities.” Indeed, House told me how they handle press releases in Pagosa is “something we’ve been doing for years and years and has been a tradition to help us provide a more comprehensive view of what’s going on that affects our community.”

Now, I know pointing this out in this way is bound to get me crosswise in some circles— and not just with some small local papers. Bartels is a beloved figure in Colorado’s insular politics and media scene. She knows many people and is quite helpful to reporters and sources. She’s been a reliable resource for my own previous coverage; I’ve written favorably about her, and she was often the kind of government spokesperson a reporter cherishes when she directed communications for the Secretary of State. And I don’t particularly blame her for making money as a public relations professional by using her connections and reputation as a journalist to advocate for her clients in the best possible way— because that’s her job now whether she’s on contract for the goodest do-gooder group or on contract for the Death Star. The Colorado County Clerks are clearly getting their money’s worth.

My question would be whether the newspapers running this kind of thing, especially as news and not opinion and without disclosures, are thinking it through completely, and truly believe it’s the best way to provide their readers with the information they need to be self-governing. Because not to put too fine a point on it, but these elected politicians are the people running our elections. So when news outlets cover those powerful local leaders in the future, doing so independently or not is a choice they can make. And, yeah, it sucks that the economic reality for them might complicate that so much. As one editor who ran the item as news told me during my reporting on this, “Yes, I think you are nitpicking.” I’m open to that criticism and would love to get your take on it as a reader or someone involved in the local news industry.

The 2020 Colorado Press Association convention is in Glenwood Springs

Registration is open for the annual convention dedicated to Colorado news outlets at the Hotel Colorado where the theme will be “Sharing our Story.” You can sign up already for the early rate, but that ends March 27. The convention in Glenwood Springs runs from April 30 to May 2. If you aren’t a member of the Colorado Press Association, you can apply here.

How the small Crestone Eagle is saving itself

Over the past 15 years, roughly one in five newspapers in Colorado have shut down, according to data by the Colorado Media Project. Meanwhile, at least 44 Colorado newspapers have owners who are reaching retirement age. One of those papers in the latter category is The Crestone Eagle, a monthly newspaper that has served the Northern San Luis Valley for the past 31 years.

This month, the paper revealed its plan for survival: It has created a nonprofit to buy the paper from its founding publisher and editor, Kizzen Laki. The paper wants to then recruit an editor, and its board will “encourage creative use of exciting new media.”

From the announcement in its February edition:

Donors will be recognized in the paper from time to time, and those who contribute $1,000 or more will receive a Charter Member medallion. But above all, everyone will receive the gratitude of a unique and wonderful community.

Nonprofit status, the Eagle reports, will allow it to solicit funding from grants and donations to beef up its website, enhance its coverage— “especially on important environmental and social concerns” in the region—and become more financially sustainable. “Saguache County is one of the poorer counties of Colorado,” the paper reports. “It is very rural. Job opportunities are few. Many people who move here must bring their income with them. Trying to serve such a large region that is so rural and low-income is difficult … for health and safety, it is essential. This is a job that newspapers do as a public service. Yet, newspapers have their own overheard costs that must be met. There is only so much they can give away. Sustaining memberships and foundation grants can help a non-profit publication like The Crestone Eagle provide the community service that has always been a big part of its mission.” (You can read more by scrolling to page 4 here.)

Amid our local news crisis, for-profit newspapers converting to nonprofits has become a thing. The large Salt Lake Tribune in Utah announced in November it would transition into a nonprofit. Here in our state, the Colorado Media Project, which isn’t involved in the Crestone Eagle move, has called for “programs that help commercial media outlets convert to employee or audience ownership, nonprofit or public benefit corporations, and other mission-driven models.”

Colorado College’s Baca campus is just down the road from Crestone, so I’ve become familiar with this charming paper in recent years. I’ll keep an eye on this development, so watch this space as it plays out.

Revisiting ‘Line of Fire’— 20 years of police shootings in the Pikes Peak region

Last week, I wrote in this newsletter about dual, independent investigations into police shootings by Colorado Public Radio and The Denver Post. That was a missed opportunity for me to highlight coverage from October in The Colorado Springs Independent. For a cover story called “Line of Fire,” the alt-weekly’s Pam Zubeck examined 20 years of police shootings in the Pikes Peak region by reviewing police and DA reports, autopsy records, jail logs and other documents. The story came not long after police in Colorado Springs shot 19-year-old De’Von Bailey in the back as he ran away.

From “Line of Fire“:

The Independent analyzed all 68 officer-involved shootings involving 70 suspects, 35 of them fatal, in El Paso and Teller counties dating to 2001, the most recent being Sept. 29 in Monument. The review was based on DA’s reports, coroner’s autopsy reports, jail logs and media accounts. The typical suspect shot by officers is a 34-year-old white male who’s armed and is believed to have broken the law in some way. Most of those killed had drugs and/or alcohol in their system. That profile might not surprise anyone, but some findings are startling. For instance, Bailey was one of 11 people to be shot in the back by officers. All died.

Though 70 is a relatively small number on which to compute such ratios, black people were overrepresented compared to their portion of the population for those shot and those killed. But the actual numbers are small. Bailey was one of six black men shot by officers, three of whom died. Another startling revelation: The number of officer-involved shootings has gone up by 90 percent in the last nine years compared to the previous decade, and the number killed has more than doubled.

The reporting also comes with a useful visual graphic about the facts and figures. Read the whole cover story here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel tinted its front-page borders green for a big takeout on a hemp boom in the regionThe Longmont Times-Call reported how a new form of CPR— modeled after race-car pit crews— helped the local fire department save livesThe Steamboat Pilot covered a record-setting fireworks displayThe Loveland Reporter-Herald told readers about how the last Kmart in the state will soon closeThe Gazette published an Associated Press dispatch reporting how Air Force suicides last year were the highest in three decadesThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled local historian Barbara FlemingThe Durango Herald questioned whether the city needs a new $4 million footbridge over the Animas RiverThe Denver Post asked what the teachers strike accomplished one year laterThe Boulder Daily Camera published a Denver Post story about how Gov. Jared Polis, a Boulder resident, is more hands-on with legislation than his predecessor.

The (free) Aurora Sentinel is seeking donations

In December, we learned Westword, Denver’s free alternative weekly, was offering an ad-free version of its terrible website to readers willing to pay for it. The move was in response to what its editor said was a local journalism industry “under siege across the United States, as tech giants suck up the lion’s share of online revenue. Westword “tried to make up the difference with new advertising models on desktop and mobile, including auto-play video,” she wrote. “But staffing a top-notch newsroom like ours is expensive.”

Now, another free weekly, The Aurora Sentinel, is seeking donations. Here’s how its editor, Dave Perry, explained the move:

A ‘strategic shift’ toward more collaboration for The Colorado Independent

In November, we saw what could happen in Colorado when a small local newspaper linked up with a statewide nonprofit news outlet to dig into the messy story of a police shooting. The result was a powerful exposé about mental illness in rural Colorado and a remarkable example of expertise-sharing newsroom collaboration between editor Niki Turner at The Rio Blanco Herald Times and editor Susan Greene at The Colorado Independent. The latter indicated it wants to more of that kind of work in the future.

This month, Alan Gottlieb of the Colorado Media Project told the story behind the story of this partnership— and the impact the journalism project had on the ground in Rangley, Colorado. And he hinted how more journalism like it might be in store. From the piece:

Greene, along with Indy Managing Editor Tina Griego, have been pondering a strategic shift in focus for  the popular non-profit news site. What if, instead of running their own organization, they became a roving band of reporters – what Greene calls a “collaborative reporting strike team” — working with other Colorado newsrooms to bring unwritten stories to light? Greene specializes in investigations. Griego prefers deeply reported human interest stories. They figured they could provide on-the-job training to rural and ethnic-media newsrooms, working with reporters on stories the reporters knew about but lacked capacity to produce on their own. When attending Colorado Press Association board meetings and conferences, Greene frequently gets asked by editors from smaller outlets if a reporter can call her for advice on a story. This new model would be a logical extension of that. She and Griego would provide hands-on training by working with reporters, and then be available for future check-ins as well.
The Gottlieb story puts this potential pivot into the context of another collaborative effort afoot in Denver’s media scene. More from the piece:
The timing was opportune for the reporters to consider such a shift. In mid-2020, the Indy and nine other media organizations plan to move into a collaborative newsroom in the new Rocky Mountain Public Media headquarters in downtown Denver. The Journalism COLab, as it will be called, will provide an opportunity to work more closely with the Colorado Press Association and its members, both inside and beyond the COLab’s walls. Greene and Griego also were embarking on a strategic planning process with the Colorado Media Project to refresh their business model — with a goal of adding this type of capacity-building and community engagement to their work.

Learn more about the COLab project here. And find out what The Rio Blanco Herald Times and The Indy learned from their collaboration here.

Westword is moving a few blocks north

As alternative weekly newspapers fold up shop across the nation, Denver’s Westword is merely closing its doors to relocate its office space a few blocks up the road. From Denverite:

Westword founder and editor Patty Calhoun probably doesn’t need a coffin to strike fear in anybody, but she will take her casket, a gift from Denver’s Hearse Club, with her to the alt-weekly’s new home inside the Dodge Building at 13th and Lincoln. “Right now I mostly use it to scare people but I think we’ll use it for our morgue in editorial,” Calhoun told Denverite. Translated, that’s “newspaper archive storage in the news department.”

BusinessDen also wrote up the move.

Disinformation campaign to target local news

As if we didn’t already see it coming, this election year will be a war of misinformation— smeared all over every screen in every feed on every device to which you swear you’re not addicted. And while readers of this newsletter might have had some early warning about your potentially polluted local news ecosystem, reporter McKay Coppins at The Atlantic blew the sewer lid off it this week. His in-depth story, “The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the President,” came with this unsettling subhed: “How new technologies and techniques pioneered by dictators will shape the 2020 election.”

In the piece, Coppins warns about how those in the misinformation space plan to trade on the credibility of local news. From the story:

[One of them] has indicated that he plans to open up a new front in this war: local news. Last year, he said the campaign intends to train “swarms of surrogates” to undermine negative coverage from local TV stations and newspapers. Polls have long found that Americans across the political spectrum trust local news more than national media. If the campaign has its way, that trust will be eroded by November. “We can actually build up and fight with the local newspapers,” Parscale told donors, according to a recording provided by The Palm Beach Post. “So we’re not just fighting on Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC with the same 700,000 people watching every day.”

Running parallel to this effort, some conservatives have been experimenting with a scheme to exploit the credibility of local journalism. Over the past few years, hundreds of websites with innocuous-sounding names like the Arizona Monitor and The Kalamazoo Times have begun popping up. At first glancethey look like regular publications, complete with community notices and coverage of schools. But look closer and you’ll find that there are often no mastheads, few if any bylines, and no addresses for local offices. Many of them are organs of Republican lobbying groups; others belong to a mysterious company called Locality Labs, which is run by a conservative activist in Illinois. Readers are given no indication that these sites have political agendas—which is precisely what makes them valuable.​

Read the whole depressing story here. And then read Joshua Green’s Bloomberg piece, “The Left’s Plan to Slip Vote-Swaying News Into Facebook Feeds.”

Speaking of all that … 9News ran an experiment to report on our political bubble news feeds

Read enough about politics and media and you know how polarized our country is. Or maybe just think back to your last large extended-family holiday meal. Denver’s KUSA 9News, the local NBC affiliate TV station, set up three different new laptops to conduct a political news feed experiment. “Each laptop has a Facebook and Twitter account that follows media outlets, news sites, profiles and personalities that fall within respective left, center and right political spectrums,” the station reported.
To suss out how to focus each computer on the political left-right-and-center, 9News turned to the Media Bias Chart created by Denver patent attorney Vanessa Otero, who runs Ad Fontes Media. “We have to be absolutely clear here: by no means is our experiment scientific,” reporter Jeremy Jojola said in his coverage. “It is purely, purely anecdotal.”

So far the results have been … predictable. We’ll see if anything illuminating comes out of this project as it plays out.

*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

4 COMMENTS

  1. Testing …
    Apparently, the author of the column thinks there are significant questions about outlets presenting content prepared by a person from an association that serves those being covered without an explicit disclaimer (A formula of: newspapers – using Bartels’ writing – about county clerks – without specifically noting her affiliation). No specifics about what was in the coverage (and I’m too lazy to go look for it), No indication of obvious inaccuracy in what was run. No indication of a partisan bias in the coverage. No indication that it would weigh heavily for or against any intra- or inter-party election rival.

    What’s the difference from an outlet, presenting content from a journalism professor/media commentator, about newspapers, journalism innovations, the Press Association and how a newspaper is “saving itself” ?? Perhaps I missed it: Is there an acknowledgement of your participation in the Colorado Press Association? Or the Colorado Media Project?

    I appreciate this column and read it nearly every time it comes out. I appreciate that you are pointing to what the local outlets are doing, to innovations, and to broad trends in the industry. Without some context of whether the papers habitually run press release copy as news, without some indication if there was actual editorial judgment involved before making the choice to print…. yep, I think that portion of the column is a bit nit-picky.

  2. Definitely a tricky subject. Yes, elected officials shouldn’t get free advertising. On the other hand, if they’re collectively doing a stellar job , free from partisanship, and making our elections system something the rest of the country can’t laugh at, they deserve a shout-out.
    I’m certainly glad our elections aren’t the same as Florida, New York, or Iowa. The Clerk’s job is important, I think it’s ok to celebrate that in the local paper (a little)

  3. If I saw the byline of Lynn Bartels, and wasn’t reading closely, I would assume it was an article by the reporter Lynn Bartels and not the paid communications consultant. The fact that it is Lynn Bartels is part of the problem. I know her as a reporter and that would be my assumption if I wasn’t reading closely. This should have bee treated as a “press release” – not a news article.

  4. There is an assumption here that all newspapers are worthy of that designation. Some are awful and should die. Others exist merely by virtue of a second class mailing permit which grants them a “legal ad” publishing monopoly and tilts the playing field decidedly against any innovative form of news dissemination. Some masthead loss is due to the predatory nature of larger papers seeking to eliminate the competition for that 19th century anachronism, albeit a very profitable one, of legal advertising.

    Yes, yes professional journalism is vital to country and community. Yet the citizenry is saddled with an institution which has done little more than conduct hand-wringing seminars since the internet first appeared as a threat to the current business model. Break the tax funded monopolistic practice of publishing legal advertising in established newspapers and watch innovation flourish. As a bonus, legislatively mandated web publishing of legal notices by governments will make that information more readily available to the populous at a lower cost.

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