Colorado newsrooms unite to cover COVID-19: ‘A pandemic calls for something like this’

The coronavirus has changed the way journalists work by speeding up collaborative efforts, forcing free papers to seek donations, and more

(Photo illustration by Corey Hutchins)

You might have heard how the last few weeks have dramatically destabilized the local news industry.

Perhaps you’ve read that from coast to coast, a global pandemic has infected a business model that was already suffering from a compromised immune system in our current era of late capitalism. (On one video conference call I witnessed last week with employees of a 400-plus-person newspaper company here in the West, an executive suggested revenues could fall by as much as 75%. He then put it bluntly to staff: “The fact is we’re not going to see business return the way it has been.”)

And indeed that’s been the business-angle story of local news since the beginning of March — one of cutbacks, layoffs, furloughs, and financial triage. By now the problems have been clearly identified. This week’s column seeks to focus on some positive responses in Colorado, what some current attempts at solutions look like, where they’re happening, and the tensions involved. 

The revolution will be Zoomed

For about a week, leaders from nearly two dozen local newsrooms representing a scattershot of print, TV, radio, and digital outlets have been meeting on Zoom video calls to hash out ways in which they might collaborate during this crisis.

Stitched together by Laura Frank, who recently stepped down as VP of journalism at Rocky Mountain PBS, this unprecedented networking among different local newsrooms offers a kind of virtual preview of something called the Colorado News Collaborative. Known among the initiated as COLaB, the project has been in the works for roughly a year, led by the Colorado Press Association and supported by the Colorado Media Project. The goal is a physical workspace hub for 10 different news organizations located on the third floor of a new RMPBS building in Denver.

In recent years, Colorado has felt a collaborative streak course through its journalism scene. You might recall in September when about 20 different outlets joined an effort led by The Colorado Sun to report a statewide series called “PARKED” about mobile home facilities. In the months after, a core group of roughly a dozen newsrooms had been talking about doing more collaborative-type projects.

“Those conversations have been going on for almost a year,” Frank said over the phone Wednesday. “And then COVID strikes. And I think everyone realized that this is a moment in time where we as media organizations really cannot afford to duplicate efforts and need to make sure that we’re not overlooking important stories. The urgency of the moment really required we move forward on this.”

So newsrooms have — from large to small, urban to rural. And while those involved include the new-media usual suspects, they also include The Denver Post and Colorado Public Radio (which recently hired a collaborations editor), two of the largest newsrooms in the state. Add KUSA-TV into the mix — a 9News journalist has participated — and there’s serious reach. For the news folks involved, the back-end of all this will take place through Zoom and on Slack and via a new digital dashboard with help from The Associated Press where newsrooms can perhaps view a map of Colorado and be apprised of what stories are developing, which ones are being reported, where they’re playing out, and the ways each newsroom or journalist might contribute or benefit. The Colorado Press Association and Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition are also involved.

How might this look to the average reader, viewer, or listener? It’s early — only three Zoom calls so far— but Coloradans might soon be treated to a sweeping, textured statewide assessment of the virus and its impact with branding on it from the new project. Different participating news organizations might take the lead on various chunks, and parts of it might wind up on TV, the radio, and online. Here’s how Melissa Davis of the Colorado Media Project summed up efforts of the past week in an interview:

“Colorado newsrooms are just working around the clock to keep residents informed, and so we saw an opportunity to kind of host a conversation where we just brought journalists together to talk about what they were dealing with and if there were ways that we could collaborate to take off some of that feeling of being in a hamster wheel by yourself. We see some— not a ton— of duplication, but enough where we could say that there might be opportunities here to talk more on the front end about who’s covering what and opportunities for even more in-depth collaboration to do deeper dives or to make sure that we’re asking ourselves, ‘Are there areas of the state or communities that aren’t being heard from or aren’t being covered?'”​
Newsroom collaboration has been taking root elsewhere as of late. As the Poynter Institute reported last month:

As local daily and weekly newspapers shrink, local newsrooms around the country that aren’t formally connected are finding more and more ways to work together. In North Carolina, 22 newspapers are working together to share statewide news as part of the North Carolina News Collaborative. Newsrooms in PennsylvaniaOregon and Illinois are working together to cover statehouses. In Florida, along major watersheds and in the Midwest, newsrooms have teamed up to cover the environment.

For her part, Frank, who also is on contract with the Colorado Media Project and is chief cat herder of the COVID-19 coverage collaboration, said she’s been amazed by the level of participation and enthusiasm in just one week from the various Colorado news orgs. The former Rocky Mountain News investigative reporter who became a leader in public media also chairs the board of the national Institute for Nonprofit News. And while she’s seen pockets of collaboration in other states before, she says, “I have not seen the news ecosystem — the news organizations of an entire state — come together to cover an issue together like this.”

As Colorado’s efforts move forward, there will, of course, be issues to iron out — some “lion and lamb” situations to deal with, Frank says. There will hopefully be more opportunities for Spanish language outlets and other ethnic media to get involved. As collaborative as the state might be there will also always be competitive tendencies among journalists, even as they work together. It’s part of their DNA.

Still, Frank says, “a pandemic calls for something like this.” If your newsroom wants to be a part, sign up here. Learn more here about an upcoming webinar.

The AP’s StoryShare coming to Colorado?

At the same time as COLaB is taking off, none other than The Associated Press is in on the collaboration game, with support from the Google News Initiative.

From the AP last month:

More than two dozen news organizations in New York state are sharing their content and coverage plans using AP StoryShare, a tool developed by The Associated Press to enable stronger collaboration and foster local news. … Participating newsrooms can republish each other’s stories and photos in their own newspapers with proper credit. The result has been greater access to local news for communities across New York.
Word is StoryShare could come to Colorado in some form soon, so look out for that.

Misinformation Watch 2020 is on the COVID-19 beat here, too

Three’s a trend, right? Independent data journalist Sandra Fish is currently at work on two separate projects — working with COLab, the global nonprofit First Draft News, and the Colorado Media Project — to benefit news organizations in Colorado. As part of her work, she’s leading training workshops for nearly two dozen Colorado newsrooms about how to handle misinformation. (Any Colorado journalist can join by signing up here.)

“COVID-19. The 2020 Census. The 2020 Election. Perhaps never before has a single year held so much in the balance for our social safety nets and our democracy,” reads an announcement. “The opportunity to come together in these moments is great — yet so is the potential for fear and misinformation to drive us further apart.”

If you’re a Coloradan seeing misinformation online, send it to Fish here.

Meet The NoCo Optimist

As large chain newspaper companies continue to force their local outlets to serve their communities less through cutbacks, journalists who are pushed out of them will start their own media organizations in those cities and towns. That’s happening now in northern Colorado where both The Coloradoan in Fort Collins and The Greeley Tribune are retrenching. Kelly Ragan-Polson, a former reporter of both papers, has now started her own thing, The NoCo Optimist.

Readers can contribute via Patreon among three tiers between $5 and $25 per month.

From her site:

It’s no secret the local news landscape is changing. It has been for a long time. I think it’s important to support the institutions we know and love – but I also think it’s important to try new approaches and see what works. The NoCo Optimist is my attempt at that. I’d love for the NoCo Optimist [to] become a thriving nonprofit news organization that can pay people well and do deep, important reporting. I’m working to get those ducks in a row. Right now, my aim is to help you feel connected to your community and to keep honest people honest. Maybe we can share some laughs along the way.

The service, she writes, is “designed to provide high-quality, thoughtful and community-building journalism to Greeley and its neighboring communities.” In a testimonial, former Greeley Tribune journalist Dan England writes, “I believe in the Optimist. I’m giving it some of my time as a quasi-editor, and depending on how things go, I may get more involved. It’s an independent, online, local publication that won’t rely on the stock market to survive.”

Click here to read some of the Optimist’s featured articles so far. In September, I wrote how former Boulder Daily Camera reporter Shay Castle is now covering her city for a newsletter called Boulder Beat. No doubt you’ll be seeing more of these pop up in a community near you, so watch this space in your inbox each week for what we might learn from these two Colorado examples.

The model behind Aspen Journalism’s nonprofit newsroom in the mountain towns

This Monday was a good one for the 9-year-old nonprofit newsroom Aspen Journalism. That day, the outlet saw its work showcased on the front page of The Steamboat Pilot, on page four of The Aspen Times, and high on the news page of Aspen Public Radio. Another of its stories was running on the website of The Summit Daily News. Just a few days earlier, Vail Daily had run some of Aspen Journalism’s work, and earlier this month so had The Craig Daily Press.

The stories ranged from a quarry’s violation of the Clean Water Act, localizing the impact of new water legislation, how stay-at-home orders are affecting electricity consumption, and the ill-advised hoarding of bottled water. Consider the nonprofit’s journalism sprayed across these print pages a Colorado example of the kind of national nonprofit-and-newspaper partnerships you hear about from larger outfits like ProPublica.

While national news is plentiful right now about the havoc this coronavirus is wreaking on big newspaper chains — and what might fill the gaps as they retrench (flawed takes and all) — it might be useful to examine what Aspen Journalism does and how. Started in 2011 by Brent Gardner-Smith, the outlet accepts reader and philanthropic funding to produce reporting in a part of the state that has both a rich philanthropic culture and a print-and-radio ecosystem in which to collaborate.

Here’s how the financials work, according to Gardner-Smith: Right now, a $100,000-a-year grant (for three years) from Carbondale’s Catena Foundation funds its staff-reported water stories including a full-time water reporter and editor in collaboration with Western Slope newspapers in the Swift Communications chain, like The Aspen TimesVail DailyGlenwood Springs Post-IndependentSummit Daily NewsSteamboat Pilot, and Sky-Hi News. (They don’t charge the newspapers for content.) Funding for stories written by freelancers comes from “a fee-for-service arrangement” with the new Water Desk at CU where a writer can earn up to $1,500 for an in-depth story with photos. CU then reimburses Aspen Journalism for that, plus another $750. Funding for stories on the environment comes from Aspen Journalism’s own fundraising efforts for its new Connie Harvey Environment Desk. Elizabeth Stewart-Severy runs that desk and has a $25,000 freelance budget. (According to the nonprofit’s annual report, Aspen Journalism, which discloses its donors, raised $311,000 in 2019, which was up from $209,000 from the year prior.)

“Our watchwords have always been: local, online; nonprofit; investigative; and collaborative,” Gardner-Smith told me Monday on its banner day. He added that “investigative” remains “more of a goal than a reality for us,” as much of the work they do is more “in-depth” or “insightful” at least. “In any event, we take a shoe-leather approach to our reporting, in that we strongly believe in visiting locations, attending meetings, reading and annotating source documents, and doing enough reporting to do a good job,” he said. “And if we can, we try and have an impact and spark necessary reform. Barring that, we seek to inform engaged citizens.”

Speaking of Aspen, that two-newspaper unicorn…

As one of the few U.S. cities left with two daily newspapers serving it — and both free to read — Aspen might be a compelling setting to watch an experiment play out as COVID-19 lays waste to the advertising-supported business model.

This week, the Aspen Daily News, owned by Paperbag Media, announced: “This is the first time we’ve asked readers for financial support in the 42 years that the Aspen Daily News has been a free, daily newspaper.” Meanwhile, the rival Aspen Times, owned by Swift Communications, is also now asking readers to support it financially. “Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage,” reads its request on its website.

Here’s a question for readers of this newsletter who follow local news funding models: How will this affect Aspen Journalism? Con argument: Could it siphon donations away from the nonprofit newsroom? Pro argument: Could it help condition local readers to support quality journalism they consume for free as a worthy cause and bring in more donations to the nonprofit? Another argument _______ (love to hear your thoughts).

How Week III COVID coverage looked on Sunday’s front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on a testing backlog in Mesa County. Under the headline “Facing the fallout,” The Steamboat Pilot focused on locals who had a “footing in the world” until “the world turned upside down.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how the city is lifting penalties on late sales-tax paymentsThe Longmont Times-Call focused on grieving local high school seniors who are losing out on planned activitiesThe Gazette reported how for Colorado Springs’ homeless, a ‘stay-at-home’ order is neither “possible nor effective.” Under the headline “Money stops; bills don’t,” The Coloradoan reported how Fort Collins renters are worried about eviction. The Durango Herald reported how Telluride has turned into a ghost townThe Boulder Daily Camera reported local hospitals are confident they can handle enough patientsThe Denver Post looked to explain what we might learn from the Spanish flu of 1918.

Survey: Coloradans trust government sites more than news outlets for coronavirus info

The Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment surveyed nearly 45,000 Coloradans last week so the agency could “understand how Coloradans viewed the novel coronavirus at its onset in Colorado” and to “understand Coloradan’s attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors around the disease.” Here’s what the government site says about its survey:

For one question, respondents were asked to select up to three sources from a list of eight entities they “trust the most to provide reliable and up-to-date information about coronavirus in Colorado.” The answers in order by rank, according to the survey:

1.) Government websites (81.9%)
2.) News outlets (58.1%)
3.) Government officials (44.6%)

Other options included “social media,” “political leaders,” “word of mouth,” and “partners,” meaning things like emails from schools, employers, or businesses.

From CDPHE

Clearly, an overwhelming majority of nearly 45,000 Coloradans said they trust government websites like the CDC and CDPHE more than they do news outlets like newspapers, TV stations, and radio stations.

You can play around with the data to see how it changes by age group, and also by urban, suburban, and rural, as well as race/ethnicity. In urban areas, for instance, the government-sites-vs-local-news gap closes by about 5% in all age groups. In rural areas, it widens by about 8%. As for age groups, the results seem to show the older people are the more they trust news versus government sites, with the most trust in news sources being among those 60 or older.

 

Magazine highlights Colorado Public Radio’s ‘insane year of growth’

Denver’s 5280 magazine this week took a brief look at one of the few expanding newsrooms in Colorado. An excerpt:

How has CPR managed to expand when so many others are shrinking? There’s no single answer. Unlike other media, which rely mainly on retail advertising sales, CPR has multiple income streams, including individual donations. It also strategically partners with other outlets, such as its January agreement with Colorado College to create a new public-media center in Colorado Springs. The move allows KRCC (NPR’s southern Colorado station), the Rocky Mountain PBS Regional Innovation Center, college journalism students, and CPR to collaborate on future projects. And the station just hired a collaborations editor to share stories with other local outlets.

Check out the station’s new podcast, “At a distance.”

Report: New Springs procedure ‘allows the city to prosecute the newspaper’

Here’s an interesting one: The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly reported on a new approach the city is taking for complaints from residents about unsolicited advertising packets distributed by the local daily newspaper that pile up in bags on driveways and lawns, and apparently also clog sewers and creeks.

From the Indy:

On March 6, the city finalized a new approach to such complaints. While complicated, the procedure allows the city to prosecute the newspaper for distribution of handbills against the wishes of recipients. “Once whoever the producer is [of the ad packet] is found guilty,” says Mitch Hammes, Neighborhood Services manager who oversees code enforcement, “the judge would determine what the fine is.” …

“There’s a lot of steps the homeowner has to take before we can prosecute,” he says. First, a homeowner must send written notice to the newspaper, by certified mail, asking for delivery to be discontinued. He or she also must post a sign on the property, visible from the street, stating hand bills or advertisements are forbidden, Hammes says. The resident then must wait 10 days after receiving confirmation the certified letter was delivered, and then wait another 10 days after that. If another ad packet arrives on the driveway, “We have a violation we can prosecute,” Hammes says. After arriving at the new procedure on March 6, Hammes reports the city is now willing to take complaints from residents and prosecute, as long as the complaining resident is willing to testify.

Read more about this here.

A historical perspective on media and contagion

You might have noticed some media outlets handling coverage of this pandemic differently than others.

Thinking about it brings to mind a scene from a book I’ve been reading about the early colonial newspapers. The time was the early 1700s; the place was Boston, and it involves one of the first real newspaper wars ever fought in what would become the United States. That bitter battle among early colonial newspapers and their readers was about the efficacy of inoculation during an outbreak of smallpox.

At the time, local civic leaders Cotton Mather and his father Increase Mather were pushing for inoculation in Boston. Some newspapers like The Boston News-Letter and The Boston Gazette apparently thought inoculation might work. Ben Franklin’s brother James, who ran The New England Courant, rejected the thought that inoculation could curb the spread of the deadly disease.

From historian H.W. Brands:

James Franklin knew next to nothing of the etiology of smallpox, but he knew he despised Mather for what James judged the eminent minister’s smugness and his inordinate influence over the life of Boston. If Mather advocated inoculation, the Courant must oppose it—and did. The campaign of opposition accomplished no good for the health of the community; nearly 10 percent of the population died before the disease ran its course. In fairness to James, the preponderance of medical knowledge at the time was on his side regarding the inefficacy of inoculation; one of his collaborators in opposition was William Douglass, a physician educated at the best English and continental European universities. But whatever its effects on public health, the anti-inoculation campaign served James’s purpose of shaking the status quo.

As Eric Burns writes in his insightful book Infamous Scribblers about the “rowdy beginnings” of American journalism, the manner in which Franklin wrote about the Mathers and inoculation was new. “Never before had a colonial paper gotten so personal, assailing so viciously a resident of the paper’s own community for his ideas,” Burns writes.

More from Infamous Scribblers:

Never before had disagreement become so public and hostile. Cotton Mather, once an almost universally respected man in his circles, was now a figure of controversy. James Franklin, once virtually unknown, became even more controversial. … The New England Courant added forty new subscribers during its campaign against inoculation; The News-Letter and The Gazette held even for defending the practice.​

According to a 2014 Harvard paper, smallpox “continued to be a significant health threat throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, and part of the 20th, but the introduction and success of inoculation in the early 1700s, followed later by the much safer vaccination method developed by Edward Jenner, steadily reduced the threat the disease posed until its eradication in 1980.”

“Call it a sign:” Burns writes of one of the earliest newspaper wars, “the first indication that controversy would almost always outsell moderation on the American newsstand…”

*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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