Emphasizing ‘the work’ over ‘the brand,’ Indy editor explains upcoming transformation

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Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene (left) and Managing Editor Tina Griego will team up with the Colorado Press Association and Colorado Media Project to collaborate with newsrooms statewide. (Photo by Alison Cooper)
Colorado Independent Editor Susan Greene (left) and Managing Editor Tina Griego will team up with the Colorado Press Association and Colorado Media Project to collaborate with newsrooms statewide. (Photo by Alison Cooper)

“Write about the media long enough and eventually you type your way to your own doorstep,” said the late New York Times media writer David Carr. Fair enough. So this week’s newsletter leads with the latest transition of The Colorado Independent where I’ve written for the past five years and where this newsletter winds up published each week as a column.

On April 10, editors Susan Greene and Tina Griego published a letter to readers on the homepage of the nonprofit digital news outlet. “It’s time for The Indy to do things differently,” the note began. Some key lines from it that might have left readers with lingering questions:

  • “We are excited to be joining forces with the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Media Project and newsrooms across the state in an unprecedented collaborative movement to strengthen local journalism.”
  • “By late fall, our work will have its own landing page on a new COLab site and will be published in outlets statewide.”
  • “We will be partnering with news outlets and communities that may otherwise not have the capacity to produce stories of statewide impact – think of “Through the Cracks,” our collaboration with the Rio Blanco Herald Times – both learning from and teaching each other.”
  • “We’d be lying if we didn’t say this transition will be bittersweet.”
  • “Colorado doesn’t really need another news website competing with other outlets right now.”

Two weeks ago I wrote about the COLab project, which is a collaborative network of Colorado newsrooms working together on COVID-19 coverage and beyond. Expect more on that front in the future as the effort moves forward, accelerated by the current pandemic.

While response to The Indy editors so far has been overwhelmingly encouraging, the move did raise questions, and I heard a few of them almost immediately after their newsletter dropped last Friday evening. “The Indy goes down …” read the first forward that came my way. “I think this means the Colorado Indy is closing down or at least suspending publication?” a reader tweeted.

“[F]olding the website?” asked a Colorado journalist friend of mine in a Facebook message; “what does this mean for you?” queried an editor of a different Colorado newspaper.

So I thought I’d try and answer some of those questions following a conversation I had with Indy editor Susan Greene who took over the operation in 2013 and hired me as an independent contractor two years later. First, on a personal note, as someone who is close to the publication I haven’t viewed this as monumental a development as some of the responses I noted above suggest some others might. I’ve watched The Colorado Independent change a lot since I’ve lived in Colorado. Perhaps it’s representative of a state that feels like it can have a dozen seasons in a year. The editors have talked about transitioning toward something like this for months. “We are hoping in 2020 and the years to come to make this transformation,” Greene said on KDNK in November. I caught up with her Wednesday to see what other details she could share so far. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, which have been edited for length and clarity.

What’s the biggest difference close readers of the publication will notice?

Starting on May 18, they should expect The Indy to look a bit different. We’ll be less focused on daily news. Tina and I will be writing a lot more. [We’ll be] running some of the best news from other outlets. There will be a vertical on our site where we’ll be hosting all of the COVID network coverage. We’ll put all that stuff up on the site.

What people will not see: We’ve always had at least one reporter at the Statehouse since I’ve been running this. You’re not going to see that. There are 14 Statehouse reporters in that building. That’s the last place we’re going to put our resources. It’s not responsible anymore as a nonprofit to put yet one more reporter in that building. At this point it’s not what Colorado needs. What we need is to put reporters in other buildings, in other halls of power, and out around the state.

What will happen to the website?

We’ll have The Indy site through some point in the fall, and then in the fall our site will sort of live — or our work will live — as a vertical on a COLaB site that will be built. I think very much that what’s important at this point is the work, not necessarily the brand.

You said in your letter that Colorado doesn’t really need another news website competing with other outlets right now. What do you mean, and why is that?

I don’t think it serves readers to have to click onto six or seven different sites to get a full picture of the news in this state. We are hemorrhaging here and what’s important is to have people doing the stories that aren’t getting covered. We don’t want to be operating an independent destination news site anymore. It’s not our goal, and it hasn’t been for a while. What we want is to do as much of the work as possible and to support as much of the work out there as possible.

So when readers type Colorado Independent dot com into their URL what’ll happen?

At some point in the fall it will take you to that vertical. We’ll have a place on the COLab site just for our work, and also our archives will live on it.

Those archives are invaluable. When news outlets transition, there’s a legitimate fear of their digital archives getting lost forever. I’ve seen it happen. What are the plans to keep them intact?

All the archives will live on the new site. That’s important work and we’re in no way getting rid of that. It’s going to live on. We cover a lot of issues that still have life in them, and that early work on those issues is part of the body of work on those topics and they can’t go away.

The Indy doesn’t really have a ‘staff’ like a lot of newsrooms, and people might not know that, but what can they expect from its current stable of writers in this change?

We’re going to be making announcements about that as soon as we’re able. This joint venture is something that we’ve been hoping to do and negotiating for many months now. Everyone who works with us and writes for us has known this is coming for a long time.

The Indy has long been a fertile publication for freelancers, student journalists, and emerging writers. To what extent will it remain a place for those voices?​

We’d love to keep working with interns. We have written into our Joint Operating Agreement a commitment to especially work with young journalists of color because there are so few of them in Colorado. I think we happen to be pretty good at recognizing talent and developing it. This lets us really bring that to scale. So, I would say this is very much about that, and in a way we can do more of that.

The Indy hasn’t typically been a particularly establishment entity on the state’s media scene. You have a sticker on your laptop with the words Big Media crossed out. In this partnership with the CPA and others, how do you plan to maintain that independent outsider voice?

One really important part of this is that in negotiating this Joint Operating Agreement we insisted on an editorial independence policy. So all of the sort of values that have really powered The Indy — things like shining light on the experiences of people who are often ignored by other outlets, watchdogging power, all of those things that I think have really distinguished us— are codified in this Joint Operating Agreement, and we’ll be determining which collaborations and which stories we work on. None of that will change. I don’t even think cellularly Tina and I could do anything different. I think that’s just who we are and what our journalism is. Gratefully, I think the Media Project and the Press Association value that.

This newsletter winds up as a column that’s been published for years at The Colorado Independent. I’ve written about The Indy in it along with other news outlets in the state. Will that still be the case?

We’re in a very let-the-chips-fall-where-they-may business, right? So, you personally should know, and your readers should know, absolutely, that we wouldn’t want you working with us, we wouldn’t want you to be partnering with us if you were pulling punches or censoring yourself.

How would you describe the impact of the coronavirus on The Colorado Independent?

Our funding has gone up. We don’t rely on ads, thankfully. When we write well, we get donations. And that has always been our winning formula. If anything, our fundraising has gone sharply up since COVID.

It’s humbling. With this crash and people losing their jobs, getting these donations— some of them are very small and some of them are not small, but that’s always been a constant for us and maybe never more so than right now. Our readers get the value of journalism. And I think a part of new our jobs, for Tina and me, will be spreading the word not just with our readers but with readers everywhere that news is a public good. We’ll be trying to help outlets create journalism that people want to support and that they find indispensable.

And now, onto our regularly scheduled programming…​

Move over ‘Cuomo show’: Meet the ‘Brothers Vanderveen’ on Colorado TV news

You might have heard about the so-called “Cuomo show” — two overachieving New York brothers, Andrew and Chris, who are the governor of their home state and a prime-time TV show anchor on CNN respectively. On a given day you’ll find one of them on TV talking about how he is managing the coronavirus pandemic as the chief operating officer of New York; the other is airing broadcasts from a home basement self-quarantine and managing complications from the virus after becoming infected himself.

The two have appeared on TV together, and the split-screen synthesis of their outsized personalities makes for compelling viewing. They rag on each other. They joke about their mom. And of course the arrangement drew headlines from media watchers. “The Cuomo brothers put on quite a show. Should the journalism-ethics police shut it down?” asked The Washington Post’s media columnist Margaret Sullivan. “Should Chris be allowed to interview a family member in a journalistic setting?” wondered Jon Allsop in Columbia Journalism Review. (Allsop noted how editorial page editor James Bennet at The New York Times recused himself from presidential coverage as long as his brother, Colorado U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, was in the race.)

In Colorado, we have a local version of tele-fraternalistic healthcare coverage.

A few days after National Siblings Day, Chris Vanderveen, a 9News reporter who has aggressively investigated the healthcare industry, interviewed his twin brother Kevin who is a Denver emergency room doctor.

From 9News:

It’s an odd mix these days. Technically, we’re both “essential workers,” but I can tell you definitively that his skills – along with the skills of anyone who works in health care these days – are certainly much more “essential” than mine. Regardless, I worry about him. Not like our mother worries. She worries a lot. Much more about him than me. Not that I’m bitter about that.

“I’m going to try to check in on Kevin from time to time,” Vanderveen the reporter said of Vanderveen the doctor. “Just to see how he’s doing.”

Journalists call for more transparency from state government

You might have read recently how different newsrooms across Colorado are carrying out a spirit of collaboration at a level perhaps unseen before. Here’s another way they’re banding together: Asking for more transparency during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last Friday, more than 60 news organizations in Colorado signed onto a letter to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis requesting his administration “take a few additional actions that we feel would greatly help to ensure journalists throughout the state are best equipped to tell the stories that must be told.”

Read the whole list here at the Colorado Freedom of information Coalition, but this one jumped out at me given these socially distant times:

Please urge all public officials in Colorado to retain emails, text messages, messages from platforms such as Slack and Zoom recordings related to the crisis, so that accurate chronologies of their collective responses can be obtained and recorded. These primary records will become particularly important in the future, as journalists and social science researchers attempt to reconstruct this chaotic period to determine what we can learn from the response.

The letter also asks Polis to allow a pool reporter “to attend, either in person or virtually, meetings with state and local health department officials and the governor.” (A pool reporter is someone chosen as the sole in-person chronicler of events who then sends her dispatch out to a broader pool of reporters to use as they see fit.)

CFOIC director Jeff Roberts says since the letter went out state and county officials have been more forthcoming with data, especially information about outbreaks at senior care facilities and cases by demographic categories. “I can’t say for sure that our letter prompted the release of the additional data,” he says, adding that it could be a combination of the letter as well as ongoing records requests made by The Denver PostThe Colorado SunThe Gazette, ColoradoPolitics, and others.

How week five COVID coverage looked on Sunday’s front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel looked at how the virus is impacting truckers who have larger caseloads and relaxed regulations during this emergencyThe Summit Daily News reported how churches and synagogues were getting creative on a holiday in a time of social distancingThe Loveland Reporter-Herald profiled local healthcare workers on the front linesThe Longmont Times-Call rounded up the COVID-19 case total for Boulder CountyThe Denver Post examined mask-wearing culture in ColoradoThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins brought readers inside a local tent cityThe Gazette in Colorado Springs wrote about Air Force Academy cadets graduating under quarantineThe Boulder Daily Camera looked at how local faith leaders are adapting to the pandemicThe Durango Herald asked on its weekend front page if the coronavirus crisis might be causing irreversible lasting damage to civil liberties.

‘We haven’t laid off workers or reduced hours — at least not yet’

When it comes to the newspaper business, the nation is awash in gory headlines. “L.A. Times to Furlough Workers as Ad Revenue ‘Nearly Eliminated'” read one in Variety this week. “Cleveland Plain Dealer reduced to four journalists” read another.  (That paper used to have 340 news employees.)

Colorado has seen the trauma from COVID-19, as this newsletter has documented in recent weeks. We’ve seen layoffs, furloughs, pay cuts, and more. “From alternative weeklies unable to operate normally because the places they deliver are closed to daily news outlets furloughing journalists – journalism’s crisis has been made that much worse by the Coronavirus. When journalism is needed even more, outlets are offering less,” wrote John Rodriguez of PULP newsmagazine in Pueblo who interviewed me about the Colorado impacts for a video broadcast this week.

But it’s not across the board. Some newspaper companies are handling the impacts differently. The Hearst Corporation, for instance, has “told its newsrooms there will be no layoffs, no furloughs and no pay cuts during the course of coronavirus coverage,” the Poynter Institute reported. Hearst doesn’t have any papers in Colorado, but there are some outlets that haven’t unsheathed the ax.

“We haven’t laid off workers or reduced hours — at least not yet,” wrote Amy Gillentine Sweet, publisher of The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly in a note to readers this week. “We’ve maintained health insurance benefits. We’ve even hired to beef up our digital and events offerings; we’re ready to lead from the front.”

Meanwhile, “We haven’t had any layoffs,” said Jerry Healey, president of Colorado Community Media, which publishes 20 newspapers around the Denver suburbs. On Thursday, he was hoping to soon receive money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which he said would allow him to stay fully staffed through June. “Like all businesses, particularly family owned, we don’t have a crystal ball about this recovery and can only make educated guesses. [Ours] is that June will be better,” he said. “Our reporters are out there covering it from a news perspective and doing a great job. We haven’t cut circulation either. Although we are running tight papers.”

Clarity Media, which publishes The Gazette in Colorado Springs and ColoradoPolitics and is owned by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, is containing costs, keeping some positions open, cutting back on travel and freelance spending and some other expenses like marketing, but “we are not cutting staff through layoffs or furloughs at this time,” says Gazette editor Vince Bzdek.

More from him:

The message I’m getting from our publisher and CEO is that what we’re doing to inform people about coronavirus is vitally important to the state right now, and we at the Gazette have a public service obligation to fulfill. For example, our reporters have filed nearly 20 freedom of information requests and Colorado Open Records Act requests to get information on when and where cases have been reported, the data underlying projections on how bad it will get, the demographics of infections, what nursing homes have been impacted, who has died.

There has been real progress on the release of vital data because and only because of the pressure brought by our journalists and other journalists. On Monday, the governor began releasing racial and demographic data and for the first time on Wednesday, the state began releasing a weekly report on COVID-19 hospitalizations, hospital discharges and on site-specific infections such as nursing homes and correctional facilities.

“This is a change that’s aimed at increasing transparency, better protection for the public, and providing more insight into the extent of site-based coronavirus outbreaks,” Polis said. This is great news because this is all information the public is going to need badly during the next phase so that clusters are identified and quarantined.

“​This wouldn’t have happened without pressure from journalists,” Bzdek added. “In other words, journalism is literally helping save lives.”

Personnel file: Harden in. St. George Out. Masks on.

Former ColoradoPolitics managing editor Mark Harden, who left the publication last year, will become editor of Colorado Community Media. “I recently made the decision to move on from my editor post at Colorado Community Media, and that will happen roughly at the end of this month,” said current editor Chris Rotar. “It’s been a great ride. Look forward to the next chapter, whatever that may be.”

Denver’s FOX31 politics reporter Joe St. George said he is moving to Washington, D.C. at the end of the month to take a national political editor job with Scripps TV. That company also owns the Denver7 TV station.

The most depressing Colorado reporter tweet?

“I had zero control over being furloughed and yet I still feel guilty for not being at work today,” wrote Loveland Reporter-Herald journalist Carina Julig on social media.

More from CBS4 about how a virus is changing the way its journalists work

This week, more than a dozen employees of the Denver CBS affiliate wrote about ways the coronavirus has altered their working life. From a reporter who had never heard of Zoom (“Now it’s my new best friend”) to a web producer who realized “how much I rely on non-verbal communication,” read here how one TV news team in Colorado is adapting to a “new normal.”

*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