‘We are not immune’: COVID-19 layoffs hit Colorado newsrooms

The virus is 'killing local news' and is a 'nearly perfect weapon' against alternative weeklies

The COVID-19 novel coronavirus claimed a round of newsroom jobs in Colorado this week as revenues nosedived across local news balance sheets nationwide. (Image by Tina Griego)
The COVID-19 novel coronavirus claimed a round of newsroom jobs in Colorado this week as revenues nosedived across local news balance sheets nationwide. (Image by Tina Griego)

The COVID-19 novel coronavirus claimed a round of newsroom jobs in Colorado this week as revenues nosedived across local news balance sheets nationwide.

“We are not immune from the same health and business issues our communities are facing,” Doug Bennett, CEO of Ballantine Communications, told readers Tuesday about his Durango Herald newspaper. “We are supported by subscriptions and advertising. While subscriptions are staying steady, the same can’t be said for advertising.”

More from The Herald:

The Durango Herald also has felt the impact of the fight against the coronavirus. Employees are practicing social distancing, and most are working remotely from home. Reporters and editors are working longer days and weeks to provide readers with the latest developments in the pandemic. On Friday, the Herald laid off five people from its news and advertising departments, the core teams of its news business, amid falling advertising revenue. Demand for news remains high, and online subscriptions continue to increase.

The Herald, which prints three days a week, is one of the few larger family-owned regional newspapers left in Colorado. And while a newspaper typically will report on layoffs at other important local institutions, some newsroom managers, including in Colorado, don’t like to tell their readers about their own layoffs. That leaves their audiences to learn about them from other outlets or on social media, so I appreciate this from the Herald and wonder if cuts might have come to other newsrooms this week that we don’t yet know about.

“I am a broadcast casualty of Covid,” one public radio employee in Colorado told me Thursday. “I just lost my voice tracking gig of 14 months because of ad revenue shortfalls.”

Meanwhile, multiple sources say some of the Prairie Mountain Media papers, which are part of the constellation of properties under the Alden Global Capital hedge fund umbrella, have suspended freelance work. A freelance writer for one of them, Colorado Daily, said Thursday he is out of a writing gig, and cursed the hedge fund on his way out.

Impacts of the virus have been deadly to newspapers across the country. COVID-19 is “speeding up the collapse of local newsrooms,” CNN reported. Particularly, it has been a “nearly perfect weapon against alternative weeklies,” wrote the editor of The Riverfront Times in St. Louis. Alt-weeklies rely heavily on ads from bars, restaurants, and events, which are now closed and canceled.

At Denver’s alt-weekly, some Westword staffers fear layoffs after their company, Voice Media Group, announced it would slash their pay by 25%. As Westword journalists tweeted about their situation, readers chimed in saying they had become members and donated to the paper. (Click here to do that yourself.) Layoffs have already hit Westword’s sister papers in Phoenix, Arizona, and Miami Florida.

Two counties to the west, Boulder Weekly has altered its distribution because so many of the places where readers can find it are shuttered. Those who deliver the paper, “will be handling the papers they distribute with gloves, and employing any and all possible measures to ensure the purity of our papers,” the local owners told readers last week. But that won’t happen in the near future. With “the County’s stay-at-home order in place, we will publish our content exclusively online during the weeks of April 2, 9 and 16,” owner Stewart Sallo wrote March 26. The paper has also offered to post gift cards on its e-commerce site and is sending all money collected to the appropriate restaurants.

About 100 miles south on I-25, the locally owned Colorado Springs Independent is printing fewer papers now that fewer places that carry them are open. Some managers have taken pay cuts, but the paper guaranteed all full-time salaries through May 15. “We don’t know what’s going on and we wanted to give a sense of security to our staff and our readers that we’re in this for the long haul, because we are,” John Weiss, who founded the paper, told me Tuesday. “Change brings opportunities and we are a nimble company,” he added. “If we decimate our staff we’ll be cutting off our nose to spite our face.” The paper launched a newsletter for coronavirus coverage and an initiative with local restaurants called #DineINdy. “These past few weeks, though, have been difficult for all of us at the Indy,” the paper’s editorial board wrote. “As we see our advertising partners struggle, we’ve helped by mobilizing our readers to visit local restaurants and bars for takeout. We’re sharing the innovative ways businesses and individuals are responding to the coronavirus crisis. And we’re sharing your good news while keeping you updated about the swiftly changing mandates coming from state and local government.”

In the Aspen area, the weekly Snowmass Sun will now be incorporated into a four-page section of The Aspen Times “for an unforeseen length of time (hopefully just a few weeks),” wrote Aspen Times editor David Krause this week.

Elsewhere in the mountains towns, “I regretfully announce that we’ll be suspending the weekly operations of the Roaring Fork Weekly Journal. It was our hope and intention from the beginning to give the midvalley a news product and voice of its own,” wrote publisher David A. Cook on Thursday. “While there are certainly forces well beyond our control please know that we take full responsibility for this action. We must, as a news organization, rally around and protect our core product, the Aspen Daily News, to ensure the existence of locally owned and operated media in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

Across the state, editors and publishers lauded the contributions of their staffers who are working under unprecedented circumstances. Fifteen people “in 15 different locations put together a paper in what was one of the most miraculous feats of #journalism I’ve ever experienced,” wrote Dave Perry who edits The Aurora Sentinel. “I just finished the paper and was in awe,” wrote Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who leads The Denver Post, about her own paper’s Sunday edition. “News, analysis, stories about coping. Incredible effort by an incredible … team.”

The new working conditions for journalists include more desk-bound coverage— and wrestling with “the ethics of going out” to report. “I’m older than 60, and my immune system is compromised,” wrote senior columnist and reporter Kevin Duggan at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. “If I were to get sick, it could be very bad news for me.” (On March 21, the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment amended a public health order to exempt “Newspaper, television, radio, and other media services” from social distancing regulations.) Days before Denver’s mayor put the city on lockdown, Westword’s Michael Roberts conducted a journalistic experiment. “The idea was simple: I would walk around … near where I live, for an extended period of time, and count every adult and child off their property, as well as any car driving on a neighborhood street,” he wrote. Read his findings here.

Here’s Jessica Lee Gibbs, who covers Douglas County for Colorado Community Media:

Newspapers across Colorado started talking directly to their readers.

On the front pages of The Boulder Daily CameraThe Longmont Times-Call, and The Loveland Reporter-Herald appeared a note from the publisher of Prairie Mountain Media (under the Alden Global hedge fund umbrella). “Our news team is working around the clock to bring you essential information and the latest news about this pandemic as well as our community’s everyday news,” he said. Out on the Western Slope in Grand Junction, Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton made a front-page plea to readers of the family-owned paper. “Newspapers rely on advertising revenue to operate,” he wrote. “Revenue from advertisements, which had declined gradually over the years, has steepened its slide as local businesses suffer themselves. The future of The Daily Sentinel relies on you, our subscribers. Please consider renewing or extending your subscription now.”

Journalistically, The Denver Post’s Sunday lead story on the front page, written by reporter Jon Murray, deviated from the paper’s typically detached view-from-nowhere tone and read more as an evocative and sweeping reported essay with passages in the first person.

Making sure digital outlets weren’t duplicating efforts in a time of overdrive reporting, some of them reached out to each other to offer cross-pollination, like when The Colorado Sun re-published Tina Griego’s Colorado Independent piece about the state girding for a “wave of domestic violence” amidst quarantines and job losses.

As The New York Times detailed, it has been a cruel irony that local news outlets in recent weeks have been dealt a “crippling blow” as they struggle to report “the biggest of stories.” From NYT:

For newer outlets that started as online publications, the pandemic has been less damaging, said Jason Bade, the president of Pico, a software start-up that works with digital publications including The Colorado SunBlock Club Chicago and BoiseDev of Idaho.

“While we appreciate all those who support @ColoradoSun through sponsorships, most of our support comes directly from members,” wrote Sun Editor Larry Ryckman. “That helps us during such a time.”

As Congress hashed out emergency economic legislation, two news industry advocates wrote a piece for The Atlantic headlined “The coronavirus is killing local news.” The federal government “should not ‘bail out’ newsrooms,” they wrote, “but future stimulus plans should include steps that can help save local news organizations.”

The Society of Professional Journalists, which has produced a newsroom guide to COVID-19, also wants to hear what newsrooms need. “What would help? What would make you breathe easier as the pace and scope of this story grows?” asked SPJ president-elect Matthew T. Hall. “Let me know. Tell us at @spj_tweets . We’re stronger together.” (The Colorado Press Association on Thursday sent a newsletter full of resources and information, too, so get a hold of them if you’d like a copy.)

During Colorado’s stay-in-place order, the news is ‘critical’

Under a section titled “these are the businesses that will be open” in Gov. Jared Polis’s executive order for Coloradans to stay in place, which he announced Wednesday, appeared this: Newspapers, television, radio, and “other media services.” Those businesses were also listed under a section that described “Critical Business or Operation” under the order.

And we’re in good company:

“This is the recognition we needed to continue broadcasting, maintaining and informing our communities,” said Justin Sasso, president of the Colorado Broadcasters Association. “Listener and viewership is at a pinnacle for radio and television during this crisis and communities would panic if they lost this vital connection.”

Not that journalists would have just stayed home.

Press groups urge governments to stay transparent

Among more than 130 organizations urging state and local governments to “recommit to, and not retrench from, their duty to include the public in the policy-making process, including policies relating to COVID-19 as well as the routine ongoing functions of governance,” is the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

From the CFOIC:

CFOIC signed a statement drafted by the National Freedom of Information Coalition and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information that asks government bodies to defer making noncritical policy decisions “until full and meaningful public involvement can be guaranteed.” When government bodies do meet, they should take every available measure to 1) notify the public of those meetings and explain how to participate remotely; 2) use widely available technologies to maximize real-time public engagement; and 3) preserve a viewable record of proceedings that is promptly made accessible online.

I’m reminded in these fluid and nebulous times about something the late Texas columnist Molly Ivins used to say about the things we might be willing to give up when we’re frightened.

“We get scared so bad–about the communist menace or illegal immigration or AIDS or pornography or violent crime, some damn scary thing— that we hurt ourselves,” she wrote in 1993, even before 9/11 and The Patriot Act. “We take the odd notion that the only way to protect ourselves is to give up some of our freedom— just trim a little, hedge a bit, and we’ll all be safe after all. Those who think of freedom in this country as one long, broad path leading ever onward and upward are dead damned wrong. Many a time freedom has been rolled back— and always for the same sorry reason: fear.”

So keep an eye on that.

Speaking of fear, the Glenwood Springs Post-Independent publisher talked about panic

Following his recent newspaper column headlined “Panic at the Costco— shifting away from mob mentality,” publisher Jerry Raehal appeared on KDNK radio in Carbondale to talk about it, and also about how the century-old Swift-communications-owned paper is adapting to a new normal.

“It’s not easy working from home at times,” he said. “And different team members had different challenges with that but we’re making it work.”

Meanwhile, “online readership is surging,” he said. “We’re double, triple, or more on our website every day right now.” (I imagine that’s the case across the board at local news outlets.) The paper lifted its paywall, and because their analytics show a group of people who predominately read the paper’s paid e-edition are “susceptible” to the virus, Raehal told KDNK they made it free to read— “revenue be damned.”

Emergency home for orphan counties a ‘bright spot’ amid outbreak

For decades, when residents who watch TV via satellite in two Colorado counties, La Plata and Montezuma, turned on the “local news,” they were treated to newscasts from Albuquerque, New Mexico. That’s because they live in so-called “orphan counties,” like many that pock the United States, where news comes beamed in from the state next door because of decisions by the private Nielsen ratings company and the public Federal Communications Commission.

Here’s what I wrote about Colorado’s orphan counties for Columbia Journalism Review last year:

La Plata residents turned their frustrations on the FCC, and submitted hundreds of letters to its online public docket. “I feel shut out of what is going on in my own state because we do not have access to Denver television,” wrote a woman from Bayfield. “Granted I live in a forgotten corner of the state, but the goings on with in the state is essential,” wrote someone from Durango. “We would like to be informed voters,” one couple wrote. “I don’t care about New Mexico politics or their elections. We want to see what is going on in our state capital.” Residents have cast their plight as a “ridiculous situation,” “absurd,” and “blatantly obvious at election time.”

Following pressure from members of Colorado’s congressional delegation and the state’s new Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, the FCC last summer finally granted La Plata and Montezuma the ability to receive programming from Denver TV stations via satellite. In December, Rocky Mountain PBS was the first to get on board. Other Denver TV stations hadn’t yet hashed out agreements about whether they would or wouldn’t beam their programming into the Four Corners region.

It appears COVID-19 changed that. From The Durango Herald:

Local, state and federal elected officials called on broadcasters this week to reach a temporary agreement to allow Denver television stations to be broadcast in La Plata County, which is considered an “orphan county” by being lumped in with New Mexico’s Nielsen market area. Officials said La Plata County residents have been missing important updates about the coronavirus pandemic in their own state, including news briefings by Gov. Jared Polis.

“As the state confronts the COVID-19 crisis, DISH is pleased to offer subscribers in La Plata County access to Colorado-based news and information,” said Jeff Blum, DISH senior vice president of public policy and government affairs.

On Tuesday, the paper reported Denver’s ABC affiliate KMGH and FOX affiliate KDVR are now available in the counties via DISH, and ABC should be available for DirecTV customers. “The outbreak of the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, is an urgent reminder that access to local news is not a mere convenience for local residents,” reads a March 19 letter from Weiser, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, and Republican U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton.

Here was the kicker to a recent Durango Herald story: “The crumbling resistance of Denver affiliates to offer their signals to the state’s Southwest corner appears to be one of the few bright spots in the unrelenting grim nature of events since the outbreak of COVID-19.”

How the pandemic looked on Colorado’s Sunday front pages

The Longmont Times-Call reported how CU Boulder’s Natural Hazards Center is focused on the virusThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how the virus created a surge for area delivery driversThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel focused its coverage on the virus’s impact on local homeless services centersThe Gazette in Colorado Springs covered how a Colorado “prepper” sees the pandemic “as a wake-up call.” The Coloradoan in Fort Collins spoke with a local patient who explained what it feels like to have the virusThe Summit Daily News offered stay-at-home workout tips from local expertsThe Durango Herald covered how to manage stress during the pandemic. Under the headline “A moment when normal changed,” The Denver Post published an account about Denver life amid the pandemic that included passages by the reporter in the first person. With the words “booze” and “pot” in large font on its front page, The Boulder Daily Camera reported on certain retailers that are seeing a boom in these strange days.

Why The Wall Street Journal removed a photo of Colorado students on a COVID-19 story

On March 18, The Wall Street Journal published a story headlined “A Generational War is Brewing Over Coronavirus,” that had a (brief) Colorado connection. The photograph that ran with the story was of Colorado College seniors participating in a “champagne showers” tradition on campus, making them the unwilling faces of a generational divide over how to deal with the virus.

A journalism minor who appeared in the photo, Catie McDonald, wrote a letter to the Journal pointing out how the photo was taken March 11, “before social-distancing guidelines were in place.” The letter went on to explain how the students “weren’t actively defying rules; we were living in a moment that stood for so many unlived moments. We are at war with Covid-19; we cannot afford to be at war with each other.”

The Wall Street Journal removed the photo and ran a note in its “Corrections & Amplifications” section. “The photo has been removed because the article’s headline incorrectly implied that the students were among a number of young people not taking the threat of coronavirus seriously, thereby hindering the fight against the virus’s spread,” the item read.

Locally, McDonald published a guest column in The Colorado Springs Independent about the incident. “My letter to the editor was allowed only 270 words,” she wrote. “Here is the full version, written from my self-mandated and expert-recommended quarantine in New Mexico.” Read the whole thing here.

Editors and publishers continued to explain their coverage and role

During Week II of Colorado’s local media response to a story that seemed to come out of nowhere, newsroom leaders continued to elucidate their role at a time when media has come under attack in certain quarters, including during White House briefings. (Some outlets have stopped airing those briefings live, with one NPR station in Washington State saying it’s because of “a pattern of false or misleading information provided that cannot be fact checked in real time.”)

At The Gazette in Colorado Springs, which has lifted its paywall for coronavirus coverage and launched a free newsletter about the pandemic, Editor Vince Bzdek penned a column calling “freedom of information” the “best weapon” against this virus. “Trusted local information sources are really the best way to find out what you need to do in your own backyard to keep yourself safe,” he wrote. “Good information vs. bad, in the coming weeks, may literally spell the difference between life and death.”

Speaking on a local talk radio programColorado Sun Editor Larry Ryckman said the year-and-a-half-old digital newsroom has seen “just off the charts traffic” in the past few weeks. “We don’t make money off of our traffic, that’s not our business model,” he said, “it’s just a reflection of how much people trust us and how many people are coming to us.” Within the past several days, 500 people became paying members, he said on March 23. That represents “by far the strongest period” of donations since the outlet’s launch. “People want facts,” he said. “Fear grows in the absence of information. … It is important for all of us to have access to actual facts, to just sober, fact-checked information, and that’s what we provide.”

The Sun has also launched a new vertical called “Write On, Colorado” that in a time of social distancing asks “all of you, anyone with the capacity and the willingness to commit your thoughts to print, to share your observations of the many aspects of this remarkable period.” The outlet will publish “select pieces periodically — an ongoing time capsule of sorts — as we confront the challenges ahead of us.”

“I won’t lie to you when I divulge that we’re making this up as we go along,” wrote Editor Dave Perry at The Aurora Sentinel.

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,” Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo 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.)

In Fort Collins at the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper, which is part of the USA Today network, Editor Eric Larsen wrote what he called “the most difficult column I’ve written in my nearly 20 years as a professional journalist.” In it, he wrote of how the 16-journalist newsroom is coping. “Journalism is an inherently social pursuit. A reporter’s best days are filled with face-to-face interactions, shaking hands and sharing stories,” he wrote. “Now that’s a problem.”

A ‘selfless act of love’ for an ‘Ancient’ KDNK DJ

If you’re looking for a heartwarming local media story in these dark times, Current magazine has one for you about the KDNK local public radio station in Carbondale, Colorado. It focuses on a nonagenarian station DJ named “Ancient” Art Ackerman and how he was able to keep the hits spinning while the coronavirus kept him home.

From Current:

As the novel coronavirus outbreak continued to spread, KDNK Station Manager Gavin Dahl made the call that it was too risky for Ackerman, who is 94, to come to the studio for his show Swing Swing Swing. The weekly show mostly features swing jazz from the 1930s and 1940s, chosen from Ackerman’s personal record collection. … Dahl told Current that he had to tell Ackerman, “‘I gotta be the bad cop on this one, man. I can’t be responsible for letting you come in right now.’” Ackerman wanted to be there for his listeners. “He’s like, ‘I want to do my show,’” Dahl said. … So Dahl came up with the idea to pick up Ackerman’s albums and drop the needle on the records in the studio while Ackerman hosted from his home by phone. So the two worked something out. … It was a hit with listeners. “People were telling me they were crying,” Dahl said.

With a cameo from his 16-year-old cat Sparkles, Ackerman’s stay-at-home show helped the station reach its fundraising goal of $80,000.

Colorado Public Radio CEO Stewart Vanderwilt told Current “that he heard about Dahl playing Ackerman’s playlist while he called in to host” and said it “struck me as a selfless act of love on his part and my wife and I made a point to listen in.”

*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

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