Media: Gov. Jared Polis riffs on government intervention to help COVID-battered Colorado news

Also this week, a for-profit newsroom backed by Google replaces the nonprofit Longmont Observer

Jared Polis addresses a Boulder crowd in 2018. (Photo by Phil Cherner)
Jared Polis addresses a Boulder crowd in 2018. (Photo by Phil Cherner)

During one of Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s many public news conferences about COVID-19, a reporter made note of impacts the virus is having on the local news industry and asked if Polis thought government support “including providing funding of any kind” is appropriate.

The governor’s answer left me wondering if he’s familiar with some recent Colorado research about it.

Polis indicated he understood how the revenue model for local journalism has collapsed during this crisis at a time when “more eyeballs” are on news pages. But “government intervention is a tough one,” he said. “We have a free and independent press. That is hard to reconcile with government assistance. The minute … a Governor Polis or President Trump is paying you or propping you up, that causes if not a compromising of professional independence — and it might not — an appearance of impropriety.” He then noted how other countries have struck “some degree of balance,” and mentioned how PBS relies on some public funding here in the United States. “But in general,” he went on, “I would worry about having government support with the strings that it came with that would … prop up and potentially influence an independent press. That doesn’t mean that there’s other ways that the government can’t help.”

And here’s where I felt like the governor might have missed an opportunity as he answered the question posed on April 17. Colorado is a place where potential public support for the local news business has been on the agenda for high-profile press advocates like the Colorado Media Project and PEN America that are seeking ways to reach what Polis called that “degree of balance.” They’ve drafted policy papers with specific recommendations for Colorado and held public events about the topic. One key leader said in October they had talked to lawmakers in both parties about it.

Some of the CMP’s recommendations included:

  • Creating so-called Local News and Information Districts.
  •  Creating a “state-level, public-private partnership to stimulate local media innovation and prioritize the needs of underserved rural, low-income, and racial and ethnic communities.”
  • Developing “programs that help commercial media outlets convert to employee or audience ownership, nonprofit or public benefit corporations, and other mission-driven models and provide state tax incentives for owners who donate community news assets and seed philanthropic trusts to meet local civic information needs.”
  •  Increasing support for libraries and higher education to help meet basic community news and information needs, as these existing institutions are well positioned to play new roles, particularly in news deserts, where no independent local media exist.”
  •  Creating “a new type of special district that specifically protects local news independence from government interference via a governing board elected directly by residents of the district. Alternatively, the state legislature could amend the library district statute to allow governing boards to be directly elected by constituents, an idea that was proposed but not advanced in the 2019 legislative session.”
  • “Extending Colorado’s 2.9% state sales tax to digital ads that are targeted at Coloradans would modernize the state’s sales tax system by tying it more closely to the growth in digital services while generating additional revenue to address the consequences these changes have had on local civic information and trustworthy local journalism.” (The revenues generated from such a tax, the CMP wrote, “could be used to fund most of the ideas in this paper.)

It’s worth pointing out how such conversations have been taking place about this in Colorado to a greater degree than other states.

During his news conference, Polis noted an area where the state government already helps support local newspapers through a requirement that certain public notices be printed in local papers — and then mentioned how he might one day cut off that revenue source.

“In the long run, you know, I’m a free-market guy, I think that’s silly because you can do it online,” Polis said about requirements that legal notices be printed in a local newspaper. “Let me just say if they tried to do that now I’d veto it because we’ve got to keep that little revenue source there for our press. Talk to me about it in three or four years and I’ll get rid of that requirement, and you guys’ll oppose it. But right now we need that — the money from those name changes and everything else. That’s a key source for those little papers. So keep that going. And, you know, we’ll fight that fight some other day.”

As COVID-19 continues laying waste to journalism jobs, debate about public-sector support for local news is timely.

As I reported last week, here in Colorado, some newspaper companies are already relying on federal money from the Paycheck Protection Program via the U.S. Small Business Administration. The Poynter Institute recently wrote how news organizations seeking federal loans meant casting aside “historic taboos.” Even before this pandemic, though, Colorado was ahead of the curve in the debate. Longmont earned national attention in Columbia Journalism Review and NPR for the novel idea some there had to use local library taxing districts to potentially help fund local news. We also saw prominent Coloradans like First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition director Jeff Roberts, and former Denver Post editor Greg Moore, saying they are thinking about public support for local news a lot differently these days.

If you or someone you know might be interested in a more nuanced look at the current thinking around the idea of public support for the local news industry — or just want to elevate your contemporary understanding about it beyond PBS and public notices — give this a read.

Speaking of … to what extent do we care who funds our local media these days?

The Telluride Daily Planet and its two sister publications became the latest free newspapers in Colorado to ask for donations from readers to help keep them afloat. They join outlets from free weeklies like WestwordThe Colorado Springs Independent, and The Aurora Sentinel, as well as free dailies like The Aspen Daily NewsVail Daily, and others. Even big national digital outlets like Vox are passing the hat.

This makes me wonder about the extent to which readers should want to see these for-profit local news outlets disclose who is funding their operations after years of expecting nonprofit newsrooms to do so. For the uninitiated, donor disclosure has been a best practice for news outlets that accept funding beyond subscriptions, memberships, and advertising because of a perception of potential influence on news coverage regardless of what kinds of guidelines are in place to guard editorial independence.

No one expects a daily newspaper to disclose all of its subscribers who are all paying the same price for access. But if a wealthy businessperson in a community dumps a boatload onto the local paper to keep it alive, wouldn’t you want to know, especially if that paper is reporting on the business? There’s a reason we expect a newspaper whose owner also owns a big hotel in town to disclose that whenever it reports on the hotel. Now, how about a big financial contributor to the paper?

At one point, The Aspen Daily News printed the names of those who gave it money on one of its pages, along with a thank you.

Before any of these outlets asking for reader support gets bent out of shape about this, let me say I’m glad they’re thinking about their sustainability beyond advertising. (I’ve personally donated to some of them since they started asking.) That ship was sailing before this pandemic, as PULP’s John Rodriguez and I discussed on a recent program. Local news outlets should be thinking about things differently. Part of that entails thinking about questions like this. It’s early, and I’d love to hear some thoughts. Feel free to jump into this public thread here or shoot me an email.

Hey Google: Tell me about The Longmont Leader

In a tandem twist on the local news business model, a new for-profit digital site will replace a nonprofit newsroom in Colorado — and is hiring journalists as its parent company lays off staff nationwide.

McClatchy, the country’s second-largest (if beleaguered) newspaper chain, announced this week it picked Longmont as a testing ground for one of the nation’s latest digital local news experiments. The Compass Experiment, which is financially backed by the Google News Initiative and calls itself a “local news laboratory,” is seeking to prove it’s still possible to make money with a hyper-local news startup amid traditional newspaper retrenchment.

In laying out her plans this week, McClatchy’s Mandy Jenkins, who is based in New York, said this new outlet, The Longmont Leader, has “acquired all the assets of the Longmont Observer, a community-operated, free, nonprofit, hyperlocal news website run by local volunteers.” Those assets included “email lists, archives, the URL and social media accounts.”

With plans to launch in May, The Leader has already identified an editor and is looking to hire two reporters, an assistant editor, and a business development leader. In an area where a third of the population is Latino, the site is looking for a reporter who can speak Spanish. Longmont is the second of three cities in the McClatchy-Google experiment; the first landed in Ohio last fall.

“We’re looking more at the community news model — updates of what’s going on, who are the people around town,” Jenkins told me about the site’s journalistic ambitions. “It would be nice and I think it would be great if we could get up to a point where we’re doing more accountability-type work, or investigative-type work — I certainly don’t rule that out — but our priority up front is day-to-day community news, keeping people informed of what’s happening.” She said the site plans to “make a strong effort into bringing the Hispanic community onto our site,” adding, “it’s a lot of people; there’s a lot of young people, there’s a lot of not-young people. Those stories are not necessarily getting told.”

The Google money should fund the site until March 2022, Jenkins says, and she hopes the outlet will be self-sufficient by then, making enough by selling local advertising, underwriting, sponsorships, and accepting donations from readers. She declined to say how much startup funding Google provided. As for what might be different about The Longmont Leader, that’s where the word “experiment” comes in. They won’t try to reinvent the wheel, Jenkins says, but will test out what’s working elsewhere. At the site in Ohio, a local bank underwrites coverage of businesses and stories about local entrepreneurs, for instance. “We do have sponsored content as well, so that may be something that comes into play,” she says, adding they’ll be “very clear with readers about what that is.” (Editor’s note: hopefully nothing like this.)

As with many of our nation’s cities and towns, the backdrop here is that the once-vibrant daily newspaper, The Longmont Times-Call, has shrunk considerably amid cutbacks by its owner MediaNews Group, which is controlled by a New York hedge fund with a reputation for severely gutting its newsrooms. Three years ago, the paper closed its Longmont office and moved its staff to Boulder.

This latest development is another way in which local news startups, this time backed by a legacy newspaper chain and Big Tech, can find out if the advertising-memberships-and-goodwill-support model can find success in a community where others have struggled. The backers of the experiment chose Longmont in part because it met a list of criteria. It’s hard for me not be reminded of when the for-profit hyperlocal Denverite chose the Mile High City in 2016 as a test market for a potential string of for-profit local news sites. That didn’t pan out; Colorado Public Radio bought Denverite last year when it couldn’t find financial footing despite its very good journalism. (Elsewhere, the for-profit hyper local news network Patch has been able to find economic success, but its quick-churn journalism can be derivative and limited.)

As for the disappearance of the nonprofit Longmont Observer in this deal, “We’re both excited and sad,” founder Scott Converse wrote in an email to city council members this week. “Sad to see the Longmont Observer go away after several years of hard work, but, happy to see that the work paid off in getting the attention of these much larger and better funded companies noticing Longmont and deciding to launch their experiment in creating a new kind of local for-profit newsroom in our community.” Converse told me The Compass Experiment folks gave a modest donation for the Observer’s assets, and its reporters will operate out of Longmont Public Media’s office space for a $100-a-month corporate membership fee. He says he’ll use the money from the deal to buy more cameras and equipment for LPM, where he’s the CEO. (LPM won a city contract last year to provide public access TV, and it operates as a makerspace for interested locals to create media.)

Matt Sebastian, a former editor at The Longmont Times-Call, who is now at The Denver Postnoted on social media that by his count, “this will be the third attempt — and the first well-financed one — at a digital news startup in Longmont in the years since MediaNews Group bought the @timescall from the Lehman family.”

Watch this space for how this latest experiment plays out in test-tube Colorado.

How week six COVID coverage looked on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported how fewer cars on the road and less industrial activity means clearer skies and less pollutionThe Summit Daily News let readers know how to safely recreate during a shutdownThe Loveland Reporter-Herald reported on a northern Colorado 3D printing company making medical personal protection equipmentThe Longmont Times-Call covered the city’s consideration to open golf coursesThe Gazette in Colorado Springs looked into the state’s coronavirus testing capacityThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins revisited how the Spanish flu of 1918 rocked the stateThe Durango Herald profiled area people on the front lines of medical careThe Denver Post reported about life on Colorado farms as the virus could threaten our food supplyThe Boulder Daily Camera took a break from front-page COVID coverage this week to showcase a story about the controversial CU presidential search after a court order made finalists public. The cover story for the weekly Colorado Springs Independent, which comes out on Wednesdays, was about how a local bridge club led to the state’s first coronavirus death.

So what would you call this?

That was a question I had this week for readers of The Fort Morgan Times, a small newspaper in the MediaNews Group umbrella out on the Eastern Plains.

The newspaper on April 15 ran a piece of content on its website under a tab labeled “Latest headlines.” The headline in question read: “COVID-19: Sterling prison inmates confined to cells after two test positive for virus.” What followed looked like any other typical coronavirus-related article you might read in the local paper. But the byline (the author’s name) on the item was Annie Skinner. Now this is important: Skinner does not work as a journalist at the newspaper— or as a journalist anywhere. She is (drum roll) the spokesperson for the Colorado Department of Corrections. Nowhere in this piece of content on the newspaper’s website was this very important disclosure mentioned. This note appeared at the bottom of the item: “Times Assistant Editor Jenni Grubbs contributed to this report.”

To recap: Information readers relied on in their local newspaper about prisons and COVID-19 came from the person paid by the state prisons agency whose job includes making the agency look good. “What would you call this?” I asked on social media. “The future,” might have been the most depressing response. “I certainly wouldn’t call it journalism,” replied someone else. “This — the Colorado DOC spokesperson getting a byline in a story about the DOC — is a tragic sign of the times,” replied Denver Post reporter Alex Burness. Someone else described it as a “reformatted press release.”

This development brings to mind a pre-coronavirus edition of this newsletter about small Colorado newspapers publishing publicity content about their local county clerks that was crafted by a publicity agent for the elected politicians who run our elections. Some of them ran the content as news. For that story, some folks told me this kind of thing was business as usual for some small newspapers.

I reached out to the publisher of The Fort Morgan Times (no editor is listed on its contact page), who said he’d connect me with someone, but I never heard back after a few followups. The assistant editor who contributed to the item also didn’t respond to emails. I did, however, hear from Annie Skinner, the DOC spokeswoman who wasn’t happy with some of the Twitter chatter in response to me flagging the piece. “I sent a press release. I did not write an article,” she told me. “I did not request a byline.” She added that she didn’t even know she had a byline until she saw the tweet about it.

The Post’s Burness added later to the online discussion: “I think it’s better to publish nothing than to package a press release like it’s a real news story. But if you’re gonna publish a press release, for god’s sake, include a clear disclosure so your readers know what they’re getting.”  (You can read some other interesting commentary here from others offering their thoughts, or add your own.)

A Colorado reporter’s goodbye underscores what we’re losing each week across the nation

We’ll see more of this, but it’s important to document. On April 17, Amy Brothers, a multimedia producer at The Denver Post, said she was laid off after five-and-a-half years at the hedge-fund-controlled newspaper.

“I couldn’t cry, you can’t get masks wet and it’s dangerous to touch your face during this pandemic,” she wrote in an online social media bulletin about her experience. She also had some predictions about her paper’s owner. “Journalism is important and unlike other industries who are experiencing layoffs, it’s highly unlikely that Alden Global Capital, who owns the paper and many others, will reinvest in its papers,” she wrote. Anger. Frustration. Gratitude. Hope. It’s all there in a tweetstorm that should serve as a reminder of what we’re losing as more and more local journalists lose their jobs during this pandemic.

A Colorado reporter’s COVID-19 work made her a PEN ‘local hero’

PEN America is highlighting the work of local reporters across the country who are covering COVID-19 and cast its spotlight into Colorado. Here’s an excerpt from the organization’s Q-and-A with Denver Post health reporter Jessica Seaman:

What personal risks have you or your colleagues faced while covering COVID-19? 

As this is a pandemic, the biggest risk we face is our physical and mental health. Our photographers are out in the community daily. Reporters are covering press conferences and reporting from the field. All of this raises our risk of exposure to the new coronavirus. We fortunately work for a news organization that is not requiring us to report from the field. The editors are letting us make that decision based on how safe we feel, and there are safety guidelines for photographers who can’t do their jobs from their homes. As with everyone else, we also face risks with our mental health. Not only are we isolated in our homes and worried about our loved ones, but as journalists, we are reporting on death and illness daily. We have always covered death and trauma in our jobs, from daily crime to wars to mass shootings. But that doesn’t make it any easier. The constant pace of the pandemic coverage is enough to lead to burnout. And as sources have cautioned me in the past, secondary trauma is real, and journalists are among those at risk. Through our reporting, we are hearing how rapidly the illness progresses and what it is like when someone needs oxygen and struggles to breathe. We are telling the stories of those who have died and the grief of their loved ones daily. We carry the weight of other people’s trauma, and what we do with it, on top of our own.

Read the whole thing here.

A bright spot for the kids amid the doom

KGNU’s Denver programming manager Dave Ashton was thinking recently about all the kinds of senior-year moments Colorado’s high school class of 2020 will have to forego. He wondered if the community radio station might be in a unique position to help.
So on May 2, KGNU is putting together a video-conference “virtual prom” dance event over the airwaves for students of Denver Public Schools and Boulder Valley Schools. From KGNU:
The video guest list will include 50 senior couples dressed in formal attire who will be treated to live music provided by KGNU’s two-time Westword magazine “Best of Denver” DJ Erin Stereo, and chaperoned by KGNU’s Denver program manager and DJ, Deeprawk Dave Ashton. The entire event, complete with the virtual “crowning” of Prom King and Queen will be broadcast live on KGNU radio. … Parents and other community members can join the fun by listening to the live broadcast of this event or by streaming it online at kgnu.org.

“I went to as many school dances during my time as a DPS student as my parents would allow, but the anticipation of Prom was bigger than all of them,” Ashton said in a statement. “COVID-19 can’t infect the Prom vision.”

*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. Guv Polis little ‘ experiment’ re: early opening next week is borderline criminal, and the newsmedia of our state needs to call him out on it, but won’t. It’s waaaay too early and he knows it, or should. But, guess who agrees with him? the Trumpster and the far right and right wing governors of Texas, Florida & Georgia. Who disagrees? nurses, doctors and caregivers across our the state.
    Dr. Fauci and the director of the CDC disagrees with Polis. Nevertheless, our clueless and feckless, too smart for his own good governor has convinced himself that he’s smarter than anyone else. Who else does he sound like? our psychopath of a president.

    I promise you that a month from now there will be a upsurge in confirmed cases and deaths, and Polis, like Trump, will indeed, have blood on his hands, and his can kiss his re-election goodby.

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