How COVID-era Colorado newspapers asking for money say they’ll spend it

Also, The Boulder Daily Camera issues a rare front-page correction, and more local news & media

The family-owned Grand Junction Daily Sentinel on the Western Slope is the latest Colorado newspaper to ask its readers to give it money beyond paying for a subscription or supporting it through advertising.

For-profit, subscription- and advertising-based newspapers passing the hat like their nonprofit brethren hasn’t gotten as much attention from the media-thinker industrial complex as has whether they should accept government assistance. But I think it’s worth pointing out the different ways in which these newspapers are asking and how they’re saying they plan to spend what money these new initiatives bring in. Here’s a look at what some in Colorado are doing.

“All contributions will fund a subscription scholarship program for people who have lost income or employment due to COVID-19 and can no longer afford to pay for their subscription to the Sentinel,” reads language from The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s request.

More than two hours southeast in Telluride, The Daily Planet and its two sister publications The Watch and The Norwood Post (all free to read), are also asking for money. “But we don’t want this to benefit solely our work,” the newspaper’s publishers say, adding they launched a “Pay-it-Forward” program. “In exchange for any size contribution from you, we will provide a local nonprofit, of your choosing, with an advertising credit of the same value.” The paper describes the move as “a great opportunity to help local journalism, and support your favorite nonprofits at the same time.”

Over in Aspen about four hours away where the free Aspen Daily News is requesting financial support, they promise, “every dollar raised will go toward our journalists and other critical expenses to keep bringing you the news on a daily basis.”

That’s different than in Denver where the free alternative weekly Westword is asking for donations (disclosure: I’ve chipped in), and whose terms and conditions say this about where the money might go: “The donation may be used by Westword for any purposes and/or to support its operations in any/all areas of its business such as editorial.”

Most of the 11 Colorado newspapers owned by Nevada-based Swift Communications are asking readers for money. Vail Daily promises, “Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.” Same with The Aspen TimesSummit Daily News, and othersThe Steamboat Pilot adds this: “We’ll double your impact by giving back matching dollars in free marketing and advertising to local nonprofits.” Unlike some of the others, Sky-Hi News goes out of its way to tell potential donors “*The Sky-Hi News is a for-profit organization. This is not a tax-deductible donation and the Sky-Hi News reserves the right to refuse any donations.”

Denver communications consultant and former newspaperman Eric Anderson has pointed out how some of these for-profit outlets are using the language of nonprofits when they mention “contributions” or “donations.” The distinction is that money donated to a nonprofit can be tax-deductible while donations to a for-profit might not. The free Colorado Springs Independent tells potential donors (like me) the contribution is “Not tax deductible,” while others don’t mention it.

Speaking of those deductions, I learned something about tax law this week from the latest fundraising pitch by the nonprofit Colorado-based magazine High Country News: “P.S. If you claim the standard deduction, the CARES Act allows you to file an ‘above-the-line’ deduction of up to $300 for donations you make in cash to charities this year.”

This isn’t a comprehensive list of all the news outlets in Colorado that are asking for financial help where they haven’t before, but a quick sampling of those I’ve noticed since the virus struck. If you see any others out there, send them my way.

The Boulder Daily Camera issued a rare front-page correction

Editors at a major Boulder newspaper are keeping mum about a lengthy and rare front-page correction this week, saying only that it “speaks for itself” while the laid-off reporter at the center of it speaks out.

At issue is a roughly 1,350-word item that ran on 1A and hit the web on April 25 under the headline “Daily Camera corrects errors in April 13 article titled ‘Air quality improves as Front Range stays home’.”

From the correction:

The article “Air quality improves as Front Range stays home,” which appeared on Page 1A in the April 13 edition of the Daily Camera, contained errors to such an extent that editors and management of the paper have determined that a front page correction is necessary instead of the customary placement of corrections on Page 2A.

Here’s another excerpt:

Concerns about this article were brought to the attention of the editor on April 17 by representatives of the Colorado Oil & Gas Association, an industry advocacy group. The editor checked the assertions of the COGA representatives against federal and state documents, as well as against charts and graphs from the air quality station that was the subject of the article, and found COGA’s concerns to be valid. In addition, the editor tested every statement made in the article — not just those that were questioned by COGA representatives — against publicly available documents, as well as through direct contact with representatives of the Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. The editor found significant factual errors that were unrelated to COGA’s concerns. At that point, the editor removed the article from the Daily Camera website.
After running down a list of errors the editor said the editor found, the correction ended with this:
This list represents only those concerns that the editor could determine require corrective action. Again, nothing in this list of corrections is intended to question Helmig’s work, only to address the reporting for which the Daily Camera is responsible. These corrections also do not reflect any position that the editor or this newspaper has in regard to the effects on air quality of oil and gas exploration. This newspaper, first and foremost, has a duty to provide news content that is factual and fair. In the publication of this article, we failed that duty and are at fault. It is our responsibility to correct the record to the best of our ability

A couple things to mention: The note to readers doesn’t name the author of the story in question, John Spina, nor does it explain to readers what happened in the paper’s editorial process that led its editors to make such a major mea culpa. Perhaps more importantly, it doesn’t explain what steps the paper plans to take to ensure something similar doesn’t happen again. Many local newspapers have suffered deep cuts to staffing, which has eroded quality. As I’ve written recently, some newspapers are letting paid publicity agents write newspaper content about their clients while others are running government press releases and passing them off as news coverage. If this kind of correction had run decades ago at, say, The Rocky Mountain News, you could bet it would become a full-blown statewide media circus. I’d love to be wrong, but at this point it wouldn’t surprise me if much of the public largely gives it a ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

Some details surrounding this particularly remarkable front-page correction are already getting muddy.

The main source for Spina’s story, a scientist and researcher at the University of Colorado Boulder “was fired,” the Camera reported on April 20, though not for anything related to what the April 13 story was about. The story about the researcher losing his job, written by a different reporter, also now comes with this note on top: “This story has been updated to clarify why Detlev Helmig was terminated from the University of Colorado Boulder.” (Helmig has retained former* Democratic Rep. Joe Salazar as his lawyer, and Salazar says he recently sent a letter to CU telling the university to cease and desist discussing his client’s personnel matters with the press.) Meanwhile, that big front-page Camera correction now comes with a note at the top reading that the correction itself “has been corrected.”

While Spina, who covered resources and the environment and had been at the paper for about three years, defended the bulk of his story in a Thursday interview, the editors clammed up, declining to talk with me about it. John Vahlenkamp and Julie Vossler-Henderson, the managing editor of the Longmont Times-Call and Loveland Reporter-Herald, and the senior editor of The Boulder Daily Camera and Times-Call respectively, said separately that the item “speaks for itself.” Vahlenkamp later added, “The correction will have to stand on its own without further comment from me.”

Developments surrounding this scandal for the paper have already made their way into a couple of other local media outlets and it’s possible some more press clips could flutter in given the topic. A site backed by oil-and-gas representatives has written about it, and ColoradoPolitics published a column about it, each with differing takes. Chase Woodruff of Westword who writes about climate change and the environment characterized the controversy as one that’s “unfolding on the front lines of Colorado’s Front Range fracking wars” and called the Camera’s correction “kind of a mess.” (In describing his reporting style, Woodruff has told critics, “I write with a slant towards the scientific reality of climate change and don’t make a habit of giving astroturfed flat-earth denialists a platform to spread dangerous misinformation.”)

After trying multiple times earlier in the week, I eventually got ahold of Spina Thursday close to my deadline for this newsletter. He told me the paper laid him off roughly two weeks ago, and he was surprised when he saw the front-page correction. (He described the circumstances of his departure alternately as being “laid off,” “let go,” “fired” and having the position eliminated.) As for the paper’s treatment with the correction, he said, “I thought that it was unjustified,” listing only one aspect, the distinction between a well and a site, being wrong, and adding that he could have included a comment from the Colorado Oil and Gas Association. When asked to what extent he stands by a story his former editors pulled from the website and corrected, Spina said, “I stand by it.”

Elsewhere at the Boulder paper…

Boulder Daily Camera opinion page editor Quentin Young is leaving for a job at a new “Denver-based nonprofit online news outlet.” That outlet will be part of a network of the States Newsroom that says it employs “more than 50 full-time editors, reporters, and support staff across the country.”

More about the network:

States Newsroom is a network of affiliates we created and independent partner news sites that we support. Every newsroom is led by a veteran local journalist with deep knowledge of the state’s political history and media landscape who oversees a staff of experienced capital reporters. Our Washington, D.C., bureau reports on congressional delegations and key Supreme Court and administrative decisions that affect the states

From the network’s ethics policy: “Our fundraisers inform all potential donors, who make any type of contribution, that their support does not entitle them to preferential treatment or to relationships with newsroom staff, and in no way protects them from journalistic scrutiny.  …  ​We do not accept donations made anonymously.” Elsewhere it reads that “Editorial decisions are made by journalists alone.”

The States Newsroom until recently was a funder of The Colorado Independent.

Read Young’s May 1 Twitter thread about his time at the Camera and his new gig here. This is a developing story that you’ll likely read more about next week.

A day in the life of the story of a lifetime

All week, the stories have been dropping like anvils across Colorado’s media landscape, pounding in hard truths about the various ways the novel coronavirus is impacting the lives of everyday people.

In recent weeks, nearly 100 journalists from more than three dozen newsrooms have been partnering on a massive project that launched on Sunday. “COVID Diaries Colorado” at the new Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab, offers a textured look at a day in the life of the pandemic. Consisting of work by journalists from the state’s largest and smallest outlets in print, online, and on the radio and TV airwaves, an around-the-clock and across-the-state picture emerged of Colorado life on April 16, the deadliest day to date for the COVID-19 disease.

Chalkbeat’s Eric Gorski knitted together multiple vignettes from timestamps throughout the day in different parts of Colorado, each produced by a different reporter. An anchor story appeared on Sunday’s front page of The Denver Post and elsewhere. Here was the lead:

A teacher greets her students. An imam counsels his congregants. A firefighter reports for duty. New parents take their baby home from the hospital. These are routine moments in the lives of Coloradans. But the coronavirus has transformed the routine into the remarkable, upending how we live and interact with each other. As a heavy spring snow blanketed the state on Thursday, April 16, journalists from news organizations across Colorado set out to chronicle a day in the life of the state’s residents during this extraordinary time.

Since then, dozens of news outlets have been publishing their own unique contributions. The individual stories are collected here on an interactive map at the new COLab website, which launched with support from the Colorado Media Project and Colorado Press Association.

The journalistic result is the fruit of an unprecedented local journalism partnership afoot in the Rockies. “AP StoryShare facilitated the project,” noted The Associated Press about the COVID diaries. “Twenty-two news organizations are using the tool, which AP launched in Colorado earlier this month.”

Last month, Stefanie Murray, who directs the Center for Cooperative Media, wrote how it’s during times like these when collaborations among local media can work. “There are so many reasons why collaboration makes sense for journalism right now,” she wrote. “We can better support each other, avoid duplication, diversify our coverage, amplify each other’s work and expand our own reach.” She rounded up some other ways local outlets in other states are swarming together to cover the virus.

Colorado has been out in front of this early. COLab was in the works for roughly a year, but the virus pressed down the gas pedal. As Laura Frank, who is helping direct the effort, said in this newsletter a month ago: “A pandemic calls for something like this.”

How Week Seven of COVID coverage looked on Colorado’s front pages

The Summit Daily News explained the county’s new health order that was about to go into effectThe Loveland Reporter-Herald wrote about Loveland’s “largest natural area” re-openingThe Longmont Times-Call and Boulder Daily Camera reported how some Boulder County officials are ‘wary’ about easing restrictionsThe Greeley Tribune examined how renters and landlords are feeling the “pressure” of a potential “post-COVID-19 housing crisis.” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported how weddings are “tied in knots” during the pandemicThe Denver Post reported the COLab piece under the headline “A Colorado day in a pandemic life.” The Coloradoan reported on the death of a 78-year-old meat plant worker and relied on emails obtained through an open-records requestThe Durango Herald asked “How will we deal when it flares up again?” Under the headline “Stealth Attack,” The Gazette in Colorado Spring reported “how the coronavirus got the drop on El Paso County.”

The Coloradoan’s strategy to gain new subscribers

This newsletter has been tracking the Coloradoan newspaper’s efforts in Fort Collins to explain to its readers who their journalists are, and why they do what they do. This week, the paper’s content strategist Jennifer Hefty penned a post for Medium about the next steps of this initiative during the pandemic. From the piece:

The next iteration of this was to explain our “how” — how our journalism isn’t free; how we are funded; how we approach coverage of certain topics. Now, we have a real-life opportunity to expand that experiment as we’ve shifted our coverage to tell the story of the biggest public health crisis of our lifetimes.

To do this we are being more strategic about where we add subscription asks and thinking carefully about the following: 1.) Who is the audience for each story and at what stage of the audience funnel is the story targeted? 2.) How does that audience interact with our coverage? 3.) How often are we using each subscription ask? 4.) Should we alter or refresh our messaging?

The Coloradoan has found some success with its approach so far, Hefty writes, and now they’re tweaking it in the time of COVID-19 to convert digital readers into subscribers. And she notes how the paper has changed its approach to investigative and enterprise stories that are exclusive to subscribers.

Read what else is working for this Gannett-owned newspaper in northern Colorado as others like it around the country struggle to make the business model of local print journalism work in their communities.

Gotta stay positive 

I don’t know about you, but as the coronavirus wipes out advertising and turns newspaper balance sheets into ribbon from coast to coast, I typically don’t expect announced changes to a local print publication in the foreseeable future to come through the ‘ole specs with a rose-tinted hue.

But I was game to be wrong as I read past the headline on a recent column in The Montrose Daily Press alerting readers to how the paper will change. Sections will move around, and the newspaper will switch from a morning delivery to the afternoons. “I know many of you enjoy stepping out, grabbing the paper off your front porch and reading it over a cup of coffee, but in the end, it’s all about delivering a better, more complete product,” wrote Montrose Daily Press managing editor Justin Tubbs. “Switching to afternoons will allow us to do just that.” Also, the Sunday edition is going away and a weekend paper will take its place. (Sunday editions have disappeared elsewhere in Colorado, like at The Durango Herald and The Steamboat Pilot.) “From a newsroom perspective, having only one weekend paper will do wonders for us,” Tubbs explained. “For every second I don’t have to put my attention toward production and pagination, that’s an added second to focusing on choosing content, coaching writers and editing stories.”

The paper’s publisher, Dennis Anderson, earlier had announced the new printing schedule, saying, “Many newspapers across the country have moved to a weekly or twice-weekly model in print during this time. Our advantage is owning our own printing facility.” I appreciated Anderson’s candor in that one. “I’m not going to paint a rosy picture when it comes to advertising revenue,” he told readers. “We’re no different than newspapers across the country, seeing a steady decline pretty much across the board.” He added, however, that he is encouraged by gains in digital subscriptions. “These increases put us in line with a goal we set some time ago: The increase in subscriber revenue, in five years, will pay for our newsroom.” He said the editorial team at the paper is as strong as it’s been in some time.

More from the publisher:

This shift in revenue resources has allowed us to add on to our newsroom as we go. We’ll continue to do so as our reader support grows. That’s exciting. The “Daily” in the Montrose Daily Press now refers to our daily digital presence. We post the freshest news on our website, montrosepress.com, every day. In this changing world, the daily print deadline is less important than getting stories online as soon as we can.

In the end, he said, the paper isn’t “making this move because we are forced to by COVID-19 and its economic side effects. We’re making this move because it makes sense.”

*Corrected: We understand the irony of correcting a story about a correction that needed a correction, but here’s our correction: A previous version of this story stated that Joe Salazar is state representative. He is a former state rep. 

*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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