Local news on your cord-cutter video service? A company with a Colorado connection wants to try it.

This week's look at how the coronavirus is changing the way journalists work in Colorado and other local media news

Could we one day find local news on our favorite subscription video on demand service? (Photo by Corey Hutchins, filtered by Instagram)
Could we one day find local news on our favorite subscription video on demand service? (Photo by Corey Hutchins, filtered by Instagram)

A company working to create a local 50-state video news network you could watch on something like Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Hulu has a Colorado connection.

Todd Landfried, who has a background in tech, politics, and media, and is currently based in the Pikes Peak region, is one of the partners behind NewsMediaLLC, a TV production business looking to become the first local news provider to crack into the lucrative world of SVOD, or subscription video on demand.

The idea is this: Create a network of TV news bureaus in each state that focuses on serious public service journalism — think “60 Minutes” meets “VICE News Tonight,” but reporting at the state level — and sell it to a Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, or another interested SVOD service. The business-side process for it would be similar to how a production company might sell any other form of high-demand content to a streamer from “Tiger King” to “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.”  But this would be news. Local news.

The deep-pocketed streaming service would pay the up-front cost for production so the news producers wouldn’t have to sell advertising, court donors, wrangle memberships, or chase other fickle forms of revenue. Conceptually, a cord-cutting viewer in, say, Colorado Springs who subscribes to Amazon Prime and doesn’t have cable (OK, me) could watch 30 minutes or so of Colorado news via a genre tab on the screen before clicking over to the next episode of “The Man in the High Castle.” Amazon Prime knows my zip code so it would surface my state, and if I wanted I could play back clips, search archives or scroll through previous news programs. I could jump over to another state, too, if I wished, or check in on news from back home if I’m out of town. I could watch it on my smart TV or on my phone.

“There is no program on any SVOD platform that offers original news of any level,” Landfried told me over the phone this week from his home in Divide. So he and Phoenix-based TV and film producer Randy Murray want to create one; Landfried says he’s already had preliminary discussions with people at some of the streaming services, “and they’re interested.”

In conversations with a handful of broadcast and digital analysts around the country this week, a few potential reasons emerged for why a local news component hasn’t already landed on one of the big SVOD services. Companies probably look for the largest un-fragmented audience they can find rather than one splintered up by geography; video on demand traditionally has been for viewers to catch up on things, not watch in real time or same-day; younger cord-cutters can get their news elsewhere online, anyway. But those I spoke with described the concept as an ambitious idea though not without challenges.

Amy Schmitz Weiss, who researches spatial journalism, teaches at San Diego State University*, and is also involved in the effort, says getting there  will take a “mindset shift” for plenty of people about where they get their local news, and their streaming services will eventually wind up being part of that mix. “I think the future generations are going to expect it because they’re growing up on it,” she says.

The concept of doing local news on a big SVOD service is attractive to one of NewsMediaLLC’s informal advisors, Jim Brady, a well-known local news entrepreneur whose Spirited Media company used to run Denverite before Colorado Public Radio took it over. “Clearly video on demand has been one of the media trends of the last couple years but it hasn’t really transferred to news yet,” he told me. “There are legitimate questions people will ask about whether it could or … the limitations of that. But certainly any idea that sounds interesting off the top that hasn’t really been tried yet seems worth pursuing these days when we’re looking for any kind of sense of what path to go down.”

On the website of NewsMediaLLC, a section called “Making the case” treats readers to the kind of slaughterhouse tour of our local news industry you’re used to getting from this column— and then points to the rise of SVOD subscriptions and the kinds of revenue they generate. From the site:

The trend is unmistakable. SVoD is a growing market projected to reach 208M U.S. subscribers by 2025. It is, to paraphrase the late comedian Sam Kinison, “where the food is.” It is where billions of dollars are being spent to create content, none of it intended to draw subscribers to the platform on a daily basis. It is where news doesn’t have to worry about advertising, subscriptions or donations to operate. It is a platform where stories can be told completely and without time limits. It is a platform that allows fully national coverage of issues such as vote suppression, climate change, and tax policy. It is where news can return to its original mission of informing the public. This is where we are focusing our developmental efforts because we believe SVoD is the inevitable local news platform.

“I am convinced news is going there anyway,” Landfried says about these high-growth streaming services. “It has to.”

So he and his partners want to get there first. But currently, the folks behind NewsMediaLLC are in a chicken-and-egg-type situation. They need to create a prototype and pilot to show a proof of concept to pitch to streamers. To do that they need a team to create a practical model to showcase how it would look and work. To build that, they need money to pay people to create it. To raise money, funders want to see a team. So they’re looking for the startup capital and individuals to get that in place, and someone who understands current SVOD interfaces to help build a prototype.

The SVOD market is awash in money. Netflix pays a lot for original content. Amazon Prime, too. And the latter could be an interesting home for an ambitious local news program, says T.K. Gore, director of business development for media analytics firm Comscore, who noted how the NFL pitched Amazon Prime to show Thursday night football and created a separate stream for it. “Companies like Amazon who have deep pockets are probably willing to experiment,” he says.

The current coronavirus pandemic has likely chilled much innovation in local media at the moment, but it has also highlighted the need for more local news— at the same time impact from the virus has led to fewer resources to produce journalism. If such a 50-state news network ever does land on a big SVOD platform, no doubt — and with good reason — those behind it would quickly come under scrutiny about agendas given their potential influence among a large audience, particularly if they’re producing hard-hitting public affairs reporting.

The folks behind NewsMediaLLC are convinced it won’t be long when the day arrives that we see local news on one of these services. “Whether it’s Todd and I or somebody else,” Murray says, “this is something that will be in the future of America.”

The ‘COVID-19 economy’: Layoffs and furloughs ripple through Colorado newsrooms

Week four into the pandemic was brutal for newsrooms nationwide.

Here in Colorado, 13 layoffs lashed The Denver Post, with four coming from the newsroom. The cut positions were assistant editors and an editorial assistant, not reporters, said Denver Newspaper Guild administrative officer Tony Mulligan. “There is more of a need in these next couple months— more than ever — for journalists, and now they whack off the second eyeballs,” he said. “We know the industry is losing revenue. We know the industry is reacting to that. It’s not surprising, but I believe it is a short-sighted mistake.” On Wednesday, Mulligan sent a letter to members of the union saying management asked the Guild “to agree to three one-week-long, unpaid furloughs to be taken by June 30 by all Post employees covered by the Guild.” Mulligan said in the letter he believed employees on unpaid furloughs would be able to draw state unemployment benefits plus a “federal $600 per week subsidy.”

Cuts came swinging at The Boulder Daily Camera, also owned by Media News Group, which is controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. On its front page Friday appeared a note to readers saying its Friday magazine won’t appear for the “foreseeable future.” Inside the newsroom, this:

Down the road at the newspaper in Loveland, owned by the same company, a reporter “had to say goodbye” because of a layoff.

And a few hours south at another Media News Group/Alden paper:

Elsewhere among smaller papers, Landmark Community Newspapers, a Kentucky-based company that owns The Brighton Standard BladeCanyon CourierClear Creek CourantCommerce City Sentinel ExpressThe Fort Lupton Press, and 285 Hustler (yes, that’s its name), sent a letter to workers saying full-time employees would need to take a day off each week.

The Aspen Daily News furloughed most of its reporters through the off season, says publisher David Cook. “The big question, for all resort-based media, is will there be a meaningful summer season to help activate the economy?” Cook says. “With many (most) of our keystone events canceled we’re realistically looking at an off-season that will last until Christmas. Even then we’ll be eagerly waiting for a vaccine or an effective treatment that will help curb the fears and realities surrounding a new ‘spike.'”

Boulder Weekly furloughed its sales people, drivers, two designers, and a part-time marketing person, and reduced hours for some others; it has held onto its full-time editorial staffers, but dropped freelancers. The paper applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan through the U.S. Small Business Administration and hopes to bring staff back if it’s approved. “That’s why we furloughed folks so they know we want them back soonest,” says publisher Fran Zankowski.

In TV land, TEGNA, which owns KUSA 9News and KTVD in Denver announced weeklong furloughs companywide. Elsewhere on the airwaves, the virus has halted the expansion of Colorado Public Radio, which is perhaps the fastest-growing large newsroom in the state. “Given the uncertainty of the current pandemic, CPR is pausing all hiring until further notice,” the station wrote.

Some newspapers have stopped publishing printed copies. The Left Hand Valley Courier in Niwot, for instance, will shut down its print run and go online, the paper told readers, “in an effort to survive in the current COVID-19 economy.”

Without any staff, and “ad revenue blown up,” the print PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo has “turned into a TV show of sorts,” says publisher John Rodriguez. He’s still figuring out how to monetize it, but the outlet has been breaking news and interviewing local public officials as a video product more than print during the pandemic.

This awful week follows previously reported media layoffs and cutbacks around the state tracked by this column.

Some journalists have turned to GoFundMe to ask for support. One group, overseen by a Seattle reporter, launched a “furlough fund” to help mitigate some expenses for those out of work. Another group put together a micro-loan program for journalists.

Here in Colorado, unionized workers of The Pueblo Chieftain, have set up their own GoFundMe as they bargain with the Spätkapitalismus Frankenstein that now owns them following the monster-merger of chains Gannett and Gatehouse. “In the meantime, our staff still has rent, medical bills and other monthly costs that they need covered,” the journalists write.

Some news outlets showed us how they’re coping

On TV, Denver’s CBS4 shared a “behind-the-scenes look” at how the virus changed the way the broadcast station operates. The four-minute clip shows empty office space, editorial meetings conducted via Zoom, new dividers separating newsroom desks, and an anchor doing a broadcast from his living room.

In Colorado Springs, The Gazette put together a video introducing its audience to some of its journalists from their homes where they’re working or from out in the field. “One of my favorite things about my job is being able to connect with people in the community,” videographer Katie Klann said in part of the clip. “The coronavirus has made those face-to-face interactions and connections very difficult. So as visual journalists we’ve had to think outside of the box.”

One TV news anchor, KOAA-TV’s Brie Groves, is eight months pregnant and broadcasting the news from a basement studio at her home in the Pikes Peak region. “We tell all of you, ‘Stay home. Slow the spread of the coronavirus,’” Groves wrote on Facebook. “Now, I’m just practicing what I preach here.”

Earlier this month, CBS4 news director Tim Wieland wrote a “day in the life” report for The Radio Television Digital News Association. Here’s what one Zoom story meeting looked like for the station:

Over the last few weeks, many of our reporters have gravitated toward certain “beats” related to the coronavirus outbreak. The story is overwhelming, so breaking it down into beats allows them to develop stronger sources and stories. Investigative reporter Brian Maass pitches stories about PPE shortages among our health care workers, Joel Hillan tracks companies that are hiring, Kati Weis is monitoring the latest information coming from political leaders and our state health department, Kathy Walsh follows stories from the front lines of the medical community, Tori Mason and Karen Morfitt are tracking how e-learning is going in homes across Colorado, Shawn Chitnis is following our arts and cultural institutions and restaurants, Conor McCue is sharing stories of Colorado businesses stepping up to help fight the spread of coronavirus. And those are just some of the examples – all of our reporters, every day, are following the many ways that coronavirus is affecting our lives in Colorado … It’s 9:40 a.m. and we’ve heard all the pitches. There are 50+ stories on the idea board and today we’re picking 12 to follow for our 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. newscasts.
Read the whole day’s events here.

Eight Colorado newsrooms got grant money to cover the COVID crisis

As media professionals across the state continue to report the hell out of this virus and its impacts in our communities, they’ve gotten some help in the form of grant money to do it. This week, the Facebook Journalism Project, the Lenfest Institute, and the Local Media Association announced it had given $35,000 to eight Colorado newsrooms to cover COVID-19.

Colorado Public RadioGunnison Country TimesMontrose Daily PressOuray County PlaindealerPagosa Local NewsRocky Mountain Public MediaThe Aurora Sentinel, and The Colorado Independent each got $5,000.

“Access to trustworthy, accurate, and local information is critical now more than ever in our state,” read part of an announcement. “These small investments can help fulfill immediate needs such as increasing frequency of publishing, tools to work remotely, combating misinformation and serving vulnerable and at-risk groups. … This is a part of Facebook’s broader effort to provide support around COVID-19, including a separate $1 million in grants to support fact checkers and a recently announced additional $25 million in relief grants. Applications for these grants opens on Monday, April 13.”

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

The Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported how 3D-printed home-made masks are filling gaps for workersThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how rent assistance has soared in the areaThe Longmont Times-Call reported on Boulder County’s third coronavirus deathThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel looked at how local school communities are faring during distance learningThe Gazette in Colorado Springs focused on Colorado’s halfway houses during the pandemicThe Durango Herald reported how a local lab is helping bring protective gear to medical personnelThe Denver Post examined how air pollution has dropped with fewer cars on the roadThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how honor guard ceremonies and memorial services have been suspended.

Incumbent county clerk newspaper-PR-machine rolls on

A certain kind of elected official in Colorado continues to enjoy promotion in a statewide political newspaper.

The Clarity Media-owned statewide news outlet ColoradoPolitics on April 7 published a column on its homepage by Lynn Bartels, a communications consultant for the County Clerks Association, about how the county clerks are handling their jobs during the pandemic. The County Clerks Association represents incumbent politicians who run elections in Colorado counties, and one day might be up for re-election themselves. “It is amazing how many duties clerks perform and what they have done in recent weeks to try to do their jobs as calls from anxious Coloradans pour in,” wrote the newspaper columnist who is paid by the clerks association to promote the incumbent clerks.

In February, this column reported how the clerks association is getting its money’s worth by hiring a former journalist to place positive stories about the elected officials in small rural newspapers around the state. Readers responded the following week, offering their take on the arrangement.

Denver Press Club gets $500k, pays off mortgage, will fund scholarships, support photogs

The estate of the late journalist Walter Baas, who was a photojournalist for Rocky Mountain PBS and KMGH-TV, has donated half a million smackaroos to The Denver Press Club, allowing the organization to pay off its mortgage. More from the Club:

As part of the bequest, Baas asked that each year $1,000 be taken from the gift and put toward the John C. Ensslin Memorial Scholarship, named after John Ensslin, who died Aug. 5, 2019. Ensslin was a friend of Baas’s and an ardent support of the Press Club. Baas also requested the club find a way to recognize the leading role Denver television photojournalists have played in the city’s history, many of whom have won numerous national awards. A select committee led by board member Roger Ogden, a former CEO with Gannett Broadcasting, is exploring options.

More here.

Coronavirus resources for Colorado journalists 

Here’s a roundup of webinars and other resources that might benefit reporters covering the pandemic in Colorado, courtesy of The Colorado Press Association:

The Colorado Press Association has a dedicated page on its website where the group has “compiled a list of resources for reporting on coronavirus, employer resources, webinars and more.”

In last week’s column I wrote about an unprecedented statewide collaboration among Colorado newspapers on coronavirus coverage; if you’d like to participate, join the network here.

Meanwhile, a Journalism Relief Fund is open “to women-identifying journalists in dire straits — journalists who have faced significant financial hardship, lost work, were recently laid off or who urgently need assistance to avoid severe, irreversible outcomes,” reads an announcement. “This fund will provide small grants of up to $2,000 USD per request. However, special consideration will be given on a case-by-case basis to those who have greater financial need.”

*CORRECTION: A previous version of this story described an incorrect university

*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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