Colorado, COVID-19, and the press: ‘Essential’ status requested from the governor— and more

How journalists are covering the coronavirus, and how a dangerous breaking news story is changing the way they work

Stock photo by Carol Yepes/Getty Images

Across the state, Coloradans are feeling what it’s like with daily life on low-power mode.

The governor shuttered dining at bars and restaurants for a month; theaters, gyms, and casinos are kaput. The legislature temporarily adjourned. Ski resorts closed. Schools shut down. Grocery stores slashed hours (and started hiring). People are panic-buying guns. Churches canceled mass; professors learned to teach online; public defenders tried to spring clients as prisons prepare. Conference organizers scrapped major events like the Broadmoor’s Space Symposium and Denver’s 4/20 fest. Some people who live in homes held their first family meetings. Some people experiencing homelessness scrambled for a plan. Sunday’s front page of the Daily Camera newspaper seemed to sum up so much of life around us right now: “Boulder’s heartbeat a murmur during state of emergency.”

UPDATE: (WEEK II): ‘We are not immune’: COVID-19 layoffs hit Colorado newsrooms

Initially, some newspapers with subscription content lifted their online paywalls for COVID-19 coverage, but later opened all stories or told readers about loopholes they could use to view them for free. “All urgent health alerts are in front”—of a paywall, meaning accessible to non-subscribers— “but we need your support to do our work,” Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo tweeted March 16. “Please consider subscribing — it starts at just 99 cents. Another option is to download our app where all content is available unmetered for a short time.” (The Post’s decision got a shout-out from the governor.) ColoradoPolitics is also letting readers view its virus coverage for free.

Out in the sprawling Denver suburbs, Colorado Community Media, which runs roughly 20 newspapers in the metro area, initially lifted its digital paywall only for coronavirus stories, but on March 16 opened up everything. “Such a high percentage of our content at this time is related to COVID-19, it just made sense to keep it simple,” editor Chris Rotar told me. “But also, it seems like the right thing to do to give people access to non-virus stories to help take their mind off it, if only for a couple minutes.”

The paywalls might have come down, but the newsroom doors are shut. Outlets from The Cañon City Daily Record to KOAA-TV closed their offices to the public. Journalists began working from home and checked in on colleagues who are covering the virus. After a reader called the local newspaper in Boulder and asked how many people were working, boxes of pizza showed up at the newsroom door.

On the local TV news, Tim Wieland, news director of Denver’s CBS4, told viewers how the virus was changing how his journalists work. Only one news anchor will be on air at a time, he said, because “We want to follow the same guidelines for social distancing that you follow.” Editorial meetings happen via conference call. And, he added, “in a move that will be recognized as ‘the day this became real’ by anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom, I have outlawed communal food at the assignment desk.” (View a photo of the Capitol press corps practicing social distancing at a recent news conference here.)

At The Denver Post, because of a lack of games and other activity, the paper is scaling back its sports coverage “until things start returning to normal,” the editor wrote. “This move also lets our sports staff help with work related to covering the coronavirus and its impact on the state.” (The paper’s deputy sports editor has more about that here.)

At KRCC in Colorado Springs, radio journalists practicing social distancing “is resulting in some very difficult decisions for on air programming,” the station’s programming manager Jeff Bieri wrote to members.

Elsewhere on TV, in print, online, and over the radio, journalists kept their audiences informed about what the president has called an “invisible enemy” and how confronting it is, our governor said, like “chasing a ghost.”

The Colorado Sun has a rolling interactive map of COVID-19 cases in the state and is also tracking unemployment claims. Chalkbeat created a map of where kids can get meals while schools are closed (also helpfully translated into Spanish). Readers, listeners, and viewers were looking for answers, and news outlets responded. The Denver Post set up an FAQ page and is soliciting questions. In Colorado Springs, KRDO hosted an hourlong Q-and-A TV special with public health experts and took questions from viewers. Vail Daily held a webinar with its sister papers in Aspen and elsewhere. First Draft News published a resource for journalists covering the coronavirus. Some news outlets are watchdogging institutions. “The Broadmoor closes restaurant dining rooms after KRDO investigation,” read a headline in the Springs. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition put out a guide to Colorado’s Sunshine Laws as public officials “think about how they can do the public’s business virtually without violating the Colorado Open Meetings Law.” The words “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19” — often accompanied by that red deteriorating-clown-nose-looking graphic— took over the home pages of news sites like PULP in Pueblo, and outlets from Westword to Colorado Public Radio added dedicated verticals to virus coverage. Digital-only sites like The Colorado Independent and Denverite are offering oft-refreshed updates as every newsroom in between seeks to provide their own communities with the information they need to be free and self-governing.

The Colorado Media Project on March 17 announced “Colorado 2020 Misinformation Watch.” From the blog post:

Members of the network will gain access to a private, moderated Slack channel, and receive timely email updates from 20+ year veteran data journalist Sandra Fish on viral mis/disinformation on a range of topics – including COVID-19. Fish will also offer training that includes tips and tools for journalists to discover what Coloradans are seeing, and when and how to take action — and when it’s best to wait.

Read more here about the project’s new collaborative efforts to help support Colorado newsrooms through 2020. (To sign up, complete this form by the end of the month.)

Amid this firehose coverage, if you’re looking for a quick, passive way to stay up to date on Colorado headlines each morning, you might consider subscribing to ProgressNow’s Daily News Digest and synthesizing it with Complete Colorado’s news aggregator.

It would be impossible for me to highlight all of the exceptional work local reporters are doing across the state right now, but believe me they are doing it. So keep following their reporting, and, as always, subscribe 👏 to 👏 your 👏 local 👏 news source. 

They need you now more than ever.

Colorado press groups ask governor for ‘essential’ status as emergency personnel’ 

On Monday, The Colorado Press Association and Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition sent a joint letter to Gov. Jared Polis seeking assurances that news operations will continue to be considered an “essential part of emergency personnel” during the state of emergency.

“Freedom of movement for credentialed reporters and those delivering newspapers is essential to our ability to keep the public apprised of rapidly evolving developments in this pandemic,” the letter read. “This is especially true in remote areas of our state with poor broadband options where local newspapers are the primary method for keeping citizens well-informed. Even in Italy where there is a total lockdown in place, news publishing operations are recognized as essential.”

Here’s more from the letter:

Our members understand the need to protect themselves and the public and they are committed to doing so through maintaining social distance and following other transmission-avoidance requirements in place. In fact, in light of the CDC’s latest policy against gatherings of ten or more people, we would like to encourage all State and local government institutions to transition to virtual press conferences. For the health and safety of critical agency leaders, reporters and staff this seems like a prudent way to balance transparency with the need to mitigate disease transmission. With the implementation of a platform such as Zoom, reporters could send questions via chat and audio to ensure these virtual press conferences remained appropriately interactive.

The governor’s communications team “has inquired with members of the Colorado press corps on recommendations for best practices,” spokesman Conor Cahill told me Tuesday evening. “As of now we’ve been told that the Denver metro TV stations have agreed to pool press conferences and the Governor is going to [be] holding press conferences in the West Foyer because it has more space and will help everyone practice good social distancing – we [are] also exploring video call options.”

Follow my Twitter feed for more updates on how this plays out.

On March 21, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment amended a public health order on social distancing to exempt “Newspaper, television, radio, and other media services.”

On the opinion pages, an urge of calm, also 💩

Amid this unprecedented public health crisis, opinion leaders at some newspapers tried to reel in the chaos.

Panic and hysteria are “only making matters worse,” intoned the small Craig Daily PressThe Denver Post asked readers to “act selflessly” and avoid large gatherings. “Stop hoarding toilet paper” scolded The Steamboat Pilot. Because of that hoarding, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel took the unusual step of leaving part of its page blank— and then welcomed its readers to tear it off and use it to wipe their ass. “Many claim that this is the highest and best use of The Sentinel,” their editorial read. “Or that we’ve been scraping bottom for years. Here is a chance to make it literal.” (Not to be outdone, the small Johnston Breeze dedicated its front page to TP.) The Gazette wrote kindly of Trump and called COVID-19 a “secular, apolitical foe … we must fight … together,” while The Aurora Sentinel said “Trump’s lying has destroyed his credibility at a time Americans need it most.”

The Durango Herald editorialized about how we “seem easily to be getting the information we need from various news media as well as state and local authorities. Our innate suspicion of power has paused.” And it noted a “great coincidence at work as the Democratic Party wrestles with how far left it can go in statism, intervention in the economy, central planning, socialism, and a vastly expanded welfare state, which it turns out we could use just about now.” The Greeley Tribune took on truth itself amid a rapidly-developing story. “In journalism, we put a premium on truth,” its staffers wrote in an editorial. “Believe whatever you want about us, but the reality is that truth is our stock in trade. So this coronavirus outbreak is wild for us reporters, because the truth is constantly changing.”

Guild: Westword’s owner blames coronavirus for pay cuts and possible layoffs

The Voice Media Guild, an organizing union that represents employees who work for the company that owns Denver’s alt-weekly Westword, say the company is planning budget cuts. (Westword hasn’t joined in the unionizing effort, but some of its sister papers have.)

“The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic has been dramatic for companies across America,” and Voice Media Group is already feeling impacts, reads a letter the VMG said came from the owner on St. Patrick’s Day. It goes on to say “layoffs will very likely be necessary” at the company. The letter also said the company will reduce the pay of employees by 25% to 35% beginning March 18.

“Today, our staff received the somber news that we will be experiencing drastic pay cuts, and are likely to face layoffs,” the Westword account posted to Twitter. If you want to help out the free weekly, you can contribute to its membership initiative.

Westword isn’t alone:

From a recent American Press Institute newsletter:

Across the country, local alt-weeklies are shutting down or laying off staff as a direct result of the coronavirus. Fully dependent on advertising and distribution in cafes and other local businesses, many of which have temporarily closed in an effort to contain the outbreak, alt-weeklies are among the first to feel the devastating economic consequences of the pandemic. In Detroit, the Metro Times has laid off 8 staff members. The Cleveland Scene has laid off 5 employees. Voice Media Group, which alt-weeklies in Dallas, Houston, Phoenix, Miami, and Denver, is cutting salaries by 25% and warns staff to brace for layoffs. In Oklahoma, the Oklahoma Gazette has laid off staff and temporarily ceased print publication.

As Westword journalists tweeted about their situation, readers chimed in saying they had become members and donated to the paper.

Major Colorado news events are scrapped

The Colorado Press Association’s board this week decided to cancel its upcoming April convention in Glenwood Springs. Organizers are now “working through how we will create interactive virtual awards presentations and celebrations,” they said.

The Denver Press Club postponed its April 11 Damon Runyon dinner, and is closed “at least” through March 31. “We will continue to pay our staff and employees their regular wages through the closure,” wrote press club president Daniel Petty in an email to members.

The Colorado Broadcasters Association also canceled its annual gala.

Consider the ‘other casualty’ clause for legal-notice newspapers amid disrupted delivery

The cancelations above aren’t the only major events not moving forward because of an unexpected disruption, which has meant clients advertising major events are also canceling their publicity placements in local newspapers— and choking off cash flow. (Economically, state budget forecasters predict nearly $1 billion less in revenue coming in to the state because of this mess.)

So across Colorado, some newspaper owners have been airing concerns about what might happen to their status as legal notice providers if they’re forced to disrupt the frequency they publish. The Colorado Press Association sought to alleviate such fears by pointing publishers to the state statute governing it.

The relevant portion:

A newspaper shall not lose its rights as a legal publication if it fails to publish one or more of its issues by reason of a strike, transportation embargo or tie-up, or other casualty beyond the control of the publishers. Any legal notice which fails of publication for the required number of insertions by reason of a strike shall not be declared illegal if publication has been made in one issue of the publication.

“Our attorney believes the exception for ‘other casualty beyond the control of the publishers’ would apply to the worst global pandemic in modern history,” press association CEO Jill Farschman wrote to publishers this week, adding how the governor has “issued several directives severely limiting the abilities of newspapers to publish.”

Polis’s #DoingMyPartCO ‘challenge’ to reporters

Governor Jared Polis, who has held a solid, steady presence throughout the crisis, on Monday challenged a handful of journalists via Twitter to join him in explaining what they were personally doing to help stop the virus’s spread. “I’m doing a conference call in my office instead of meeting in person,” Polis said, tagging individual reporters from four TV stations along with the hashtag #DoingMyPart. “What are YOU doing to stop the spread?”

Westword ‘s Chase Woodruff had the best answer: “This is a fine idea, but don’t let the actions you take as a neighbor and a consumer become a substitute for political engagement,” he wrote. “Demanding that your local, state and national leaders respond proportionally to this massive health and economic crisis is also #DoingMyPartCO.”

While Trump has raged at the press at times during the pandemic, Polis thanked members of the press corps during a news conference. “Your reporting will save lives in the weeks and months ahead,” he said, according to his office. “You should be proud of your work. During times like this, we are reminded of how essential you are to keeping the public informed and keeping the public safe. And we will continue to need your expertise in getting this information out to as many people as possible to avoid panic.”

Colorado news outlets explained their coverage and role to readers

As their newsrooms swarmed to saturate coverage of a kind of breaking news story that hasn’t gripped the nation’s complete attention since Sept. 11, 2001, editors sought to explain their method to their audiences.

From editor Susan Greene of The Colorado Independent (where this newsletter is published as a column):

Constant news alerts don’t help, so The Independent won’t be carpet-bombing your inbox. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and we are trying to keep you, our readers, as well as our reporters and editors from burning- and tuning- out. The Independent’s news coverage over the coming weeks and months will reflect who we are as a news team. We will report with an eye toward the humanity of our sources and with a commitment to public accountability. We also will collaborate with other outlets, pooling limited resources to reach as many Coloradans as possible with information about coronavirus and the countless ways it will affect our communities. There aren’t enough journalists in our state for us not to work together, especially at a time like this.
Editor Larry Ryckman at The Colorado Sun:
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how best to describe The Sun and how we approach the news. I came up with this: “Beyond the what. The Colorado Sun explains why.” But I also believe this: We’re stronger together, Colorado. … We have no paywall, meaning you can read as much of The Sun’s journalism as you wish without paying us, if you choose. It’s more important now than ever to ensure that every Coloradan has access to quality information.
Mike Wiggins and Erin McIntyre at The Ouray County Plaindealer:
Our coverage isn’t meant to cause panic. And it’s not to make money off of selling papers. In fact, we’ve taken down our paywall to the articles about coronavirus. We’ve offered to help the Ouray County Public Health Department spread news it needs to disseminate to the public, as we have the largest reach to inform people in Ouray County. We realize this is an important public safety issue. While we would appreciate it if you subscribed and supported our work, now is not the time to be asking you to pay for it. … Our goal is to give you useful, reliable information that helps you make decisions and be informed. Please be patient with us as we all try our best.
… We reported on it all. Sometimes — often, really — we used partner reporting. Sometimes we did our own. Sometimes we could lean on official press releases. Sometimes we went off our own sourcing.
Geoff Van Dyke, editorial director of Denver’s 5280 magazine:
The April issue of 5280 went to press before COVID-19 became the biggest story in recent memory, and some of that edition of the magazine will feel out of step with the times. We wish that weren’t the case, but such are the realities of a monthly print publication schedule. As I write this, however, we have been working to incorporate coverage of the pandemic and the resultant fallout into our upcoming May issue; in that issue, you will also find the kinds of pieces we traditionally do—stories that will hopefully entertain and provide a respite for readers during these difficult times.
Aspen Times publisher Samantha Johnston (who published her personal cell-phone number in the paper):
We know that the distrust of mainstream media is at an all-time high and that fact and fiction can be hard to sort out in a sea of opinions disguised as facts. … You may notice that we monitor social media posts on our stories more closely and that we hide or remove comments that claim facts we can’t verify, are based on rumors or hearsay or that add to hysteria rather than educate and inform. Community dialogue and discussion is important, but we won’t allow our platforms to be a breeding ground for panic based on opinion.

If you see any other compelling ones I missed, send them my way.

How newspapers across the state handled COVID-19 on their Sunday front pages

Here was The Summit Daily News banner headline: “Polis orders ski area closures.” The Steamboat Pilot also went with that newsThe Loveland Reporter-Herald led with a national AP story under “Virus impacts American life.” The Longmont Times-Call reported how Boulder County had confirmed its first positive caseThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel did the same for Mesa County. Above the fold, The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how the first Coloradan to die had recently attended a local bridge-game tournamentThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported on how city and county officials were taking actionThe Durango Herald focused its weekend coverage on the local response where “organizations face limited resources while working as fast as possible in a constantly shifting regulatory and emergency environment.” The Boulder Daily Camera localized the effects under the headline “Boulder’s heartbeat a murmur during state of emergency.” The Denver Post’s largest headline was about how amid the outbreak, businesses in the state are divided over paid family and medical leave.

And now onto our regularly scheduled programing…

The Denver Post staff honored its journalists  

It’s been a hell of a week. So it must have been a pleasant respite for Denver Post journalists to gather at the Press Club and honor each other just before the shit hit the fan. For a newsroom troubled by cuts, moves, and anxiety in recent years, the tributes to each other were likely something of a balm, at least for an evening.

“Photojournalist R.J. Sangosti, who distinguished himself last year with his Long Shadow project exploring life near the I-70 construction project, was named The Denver Post’s journalist of the year Friday,” the paper wrote. Other winners included Noelle Phillips for a Colleen O’Connor Coworker of the Year award; Elizabeth Hernandez for an “I (heart) Readers” award; and Elise Schmelzer for a Rising Star award. Read more about it here.

No suit for you!

Want to sue someone in civil court for violating the Colorado Constitution, including its provisions for free speech and a free press? Not going to happen. Lawmakers killed a proposed new law that would have allowed it.

From the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

Called the Colorado Rights Act, the proposal would have allowed anyone whose Colorado constitutional rights are infringed upon to bring a civil action in state court and receive reasonable attorney fees and court costs upon prevailing. It would have prohibited governments from defending against such suits by using qualified immunity, a legal doctrine that shields government officials from being sued for actions performed in their official capacity unless they violated clearly established law or constitutional rights.
“Without the Colorado Rights Act, the Colorado Constitution is nothing more than a piece of paper on a shelf gathering dust for most Colorado residents,” said Denver civil rights lawyer Andy McNulty, according to the CFOIC’s Jeff Roberts. Read here about how and why the bill died.

The Maverick Observer is now live— for real

A new digital information site to shake things up in Colorado Springs was in promo phase. Then live. Then not live. Now it’s really live— for real.

Founder Tim Hoiles, a former family owner of The Gazette, sat down with the Independence Institute’s Jon Caldara to talk about it. “We anticipate full function within the week!” Angela Gilpin wrote in an email, adding, “Remember we are a start-up and still developing content.” Here’s more about the new site.

What’s new at High Country News

If you’ve noticed a different look from the high-caliber Paonia-based magazine High Country News, it might be because it has a new photo editor.

From HCN:

We’re thrilled to welcome Roberto (Bear) Guerra to the staff. Bear, a longtime contributor to HCN, has 15 years’ experience as a documentary and journalism photographer. He and his wife, Contributing Editor Ruxandra Guidi, are based in Tucson. Meanwhile, at our headquarters in Paonia, Colorado, two of our very own have published new books. Art Director Cindy Wehling assisted in the production of The North Fork in the ’90s, which features articles from The Valley Chronicle, the monthly newspaper formerly published by Cindy’s husband, Don Olsen — stories about rock ’n’ roll stars, forest fires and the quirky valley that HCN calls home. The other book comes from Executive Director Paul Larmer, who recently published a photo collection inspired by his extensive travels around the Western U.S.

The magazine’s journalists have also been all over the place recently talking to journalism students about science writing, environmental journalism, the magazine’s approach to covering the climate crisis, their paths to a career in journalism, and more. Glad to hear students are learning from these folks.

*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

1 COMMENT

  1. Thanks for the update.
    One additional “press” comment … the various information officers at government agencies seem to me to be doing well, and I especially appreciate their efforts to point to one another’s work. Rather than doing a partial re-write of fast moving updates, they have created links to consistent entry pages. For example, the CDPHE page https://covid19.colorado.gov/ has its own data visualization and its press releases, but also has links to the sites for Local Public Health Agencies and the CDC.

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