‘News Matters’ documentary will focus on Denver and a crisis in local journalism

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Journalists protest against their hedge-fund owner outside The Denver Post's printing plant and newsroom in Adams County in 2018 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

A Colorado filmmaker’s documentary slated to come out this fall will tell the story of our current local news crisis through what he calls the “desperate attempt of Colorado journalists to try and save” The Denver Post.

Brian Malone, an Emmy Award-winning independent filmmaker from Castle Rock, released a trailer today for his upcoming film News Matters: Inside the rebellion to save America’s newspapers. “It’s a very personal story,” he said in an interview last night. “From some of the participants, the journalists themselves, and what they had to live through.”

Malone is talking about the circumstances surrounding The Denver Rebellion of 2018 when the newspaper’s journalists rose up against their hedge-fund owner following mass layoffs. A lot has changed since those dramatic days. In a recent conversation I had with a non-Post newsroom leader for an upcoming story about foundational shifts in the current Colorado news scene, I was told, “I don’t need to read about the Denver Rebellion anymore … we’re way past that.” A hedge fund still controls the paper, however, and recent cuts have sliced into the newsroom. As diminished as it is, the Post remains an outlet with one of the furthest reaches and largest newsrooms in Colorado. Its journalists work incredibly hard and do indispensable work under unfortunate circumstances beyond their control.

Malone was rolling film on the ground early in those spring days in 2018, filming journalists as they protested outside the newspaper’s printing plant, and he had early access to some of the pivotal characters. He accompanied former Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who resigned after leading the revolt, on the day he packed up his things and left his office for the last time. “Chuck is a central character in this film, and a lot of it is his journey and his decision to leave The Denver Post,” Malone says.

In the trailer, former Gov. John Hickenlooper, who is now running in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate, makes some cameos, as do current and former Denver Post staffers. Also appearing are journalists from The Colorado Sun during their early days. The public benefit corporation, now nearing two years old, has close to 10,000 paying members and is no longer relying on a starter grant from a blockchain-and-cryptocurrency company.

News Matters will be Malone’s 18th film, he says. In 2017, he produced Beyond Standing Rock with Inside Energy and Rocky Mountain PBS about the Dakota Access pipeline protest “and its roots in a 170-year-long conflict between tribes and the U.S. government over independence, land ownership, and control of resources.” In 2006, he did Breaking News about coverage of celebrity trials.

His latest film is a co-production of Fast Forward Films and Rocky Mountain PBS. (When talking with Malone about the film yesterday, he asked if I’d help connect some dots in work he’s already done as he finishes up the post production, and I said I’d consider it.)

Colorado, it seems, will get plenty of play on the silver screen in the coming months, and those interested in Denver’s role in the history and potential future of our local news armageddon will be spoiled. You’ll recall in December, you read here about another documentary scheduled for release next year with a focus on The Denver Rebellion. Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads, by California filmmaker Rick Goldsmith, also tackles the crisis in local news. He released a trailer six months ago, and earlier this month sent an email to his network saying he was still hard at work on it.

“It’s a big world, there are lots of different angles to cover on this story,” Malone says. “I feel like my story is unique and personal, and it’s very representative, it strikes a chord, and I believe it will be on the pulse of what journalists — newspaper journalists, particularly — are feeling around the country.”

Diversity is ‘the first thing that goes’

As the novel coronavirus scythes through the ranks of journalists and forces some news outlets to close entirely, a former editor of The Denver Post is warning of a “whitening” in media among the fallout.

Greg Moore, who spent 14 years leading The Denver Post and is now a partner at the marketing firm Deke Digital, appeared this week on Democracy Now! for a segment about the pandemic’s affect’s on journalism. When host Amy Goodman asked about the issue of diversity as more local newsrooms close, Moore responded, “Yeah, that’s the first thing that goes, is diversity. A lot of times, those people tend to be the last ones hired and the first ones to be laid off. And so, one of the things you begin to see is the whitening of the media.”

Moore went on in the clip:

And in particular, I’m really concerned about some of the new digital startups. I mean, when you go and look at many of these digital startups, very few people of color are a part of that system. And I think that’s the number one thing as we look to the future of media in this country, whatever that is going to become, is to get a recommitment that it should be for everyone. And we need people of color at all levels to be able to participate, tell the stories that need to be told the right way. Right now that’s suffering.
Plenty has been written about the failures in media when it comes to diversity and inclusion — Columbia Journalism Review dedicated an entire issue to it in the fall of 2018 — and the industry has been slow to make gains, in Colorado and elsewhere. It would be a sick irony if those recent gains, slim as they might be, do become a quick casualty of COVID-19 in the way Moore warns.

More on the Moore show

Democracy Now! invited Moore on the show because he had penned a recent piece for Pulitzer[dot]org about how the current coronavirus crisis could reshape a crippled local news industry. From the piece:
Could this be the moment to redirect the trajectory of local news? Can organizations accelerate the transition to digital, jettison print, and invest those savings and subscriber revenues for a post-COVID-19 world where wicked problems are the new normal? Journalists are surely hoping that is the case. Listening to editors, you realize how transformative the COVID-19 bomb could be for journalism.

The past Pulitzer Prize board chair checked in with a handful of newspaper editors from around the country to get a sense of what they’re thinking. He closed with this: “Industry thinkers need to get the right people together to figure out the right profit, the right technology, and the right funding models. In doing so, they just might figure out how to hold off the eulogy for local news, and instead get ready for the next wicked problem coming our way.”

In his Democracy Now! segment, Moore went further about how those funding models might look. “I think we ought to look at a taxpayer-funded model,” he said. “I think we should look at a model that’s similar to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. I think we have to look at philanthropy. I think we have to look at social impact funds that might be willing to fund journalism. I think we need to look at everything.”

Colorado has been ahead of most states on discussions about the ways in which public support for local news might be able to work in a contemporary industry with an inherent allergy to it. Moore also said Facebook and Google — two social media giants that are giving money to Colorado newsrooms — aren’t giving enough, calling their investment “a fraction of what they need to put on the table.”

‘We are subsidizing the public education system’

As educators rapidly scramble to figure out distance-learning during the pandemic, Rocky Mountain PBS this week launched a new morning TV program with teachers that offers daily lessons for kids. The move is in partnership with the Colorado governor’s office, the state Department of Education, and others.

About a month ago, the governor’s office reached out to see if the station that reaches roughly 98% of households with a TV or the internet, could help, says RMPBS president Amanda Mountain. New Jersey, Tennessee, and Missouri are doing something similar. “What we started talking about is how could we use the broadcast infrastructure of Rocky Mountain PBS,” Mountain says, adding that some of its highest viewership is in the state’s most poverty-stricken areas. “We already have a high level of trust with families, and particularly underserved families who are English-as-a-second-language families.”

In Colorado, Mountain says, more than half of Colorado kids don’t attend a licensed pre-school before going into kindergarten and are often behind before they get started. “As PBS, we are subsidizing the public education system because those families that can’t afford preschool, which are many — the cost of preschool is prohibitive for the majority of families — they are already looking to our educational content as a way to help teach their kid before they get into the formal school system.”

Mountain recently published a column about the new program in The Colorado Sun. An excerpt:

School districts across the state report that nearly 65,000 families do not have reliable internet. During a time that is now marked by an increasing scarcity of childcare and an attendant abundance of screens, families are facing huge burdens as they try to keep their kids learning. It’s unclear how much learning is going on for those who have tablets or computers and can use Zoom and Google Hangouts – but in areas without reliable access to high-speed internet (or without the devices to access it) the answer is likely very little. One thing we do know: many of these families have television. The numbers of households tuning in to PBS Kids channels tell us these families are still watching.

About the partnership with the governor’s office and state education department, Mountain says:  “We knew together that there was this issue as while we’re doing a rapid transition to distance learning there were going to be wide swaths of Colorado’s kids that were kind of left out.”

Find the new programming here.

How week 10 of COVID coverage looked on Sunday’s front pages across Colorado

The Summit Daily News reported on a study that suggests people who grew up at higher altitudes could be less susceptible to the virusThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how a farmers market will reopen in June with precautionsThe Longmont Times-Call reported the virus caseload was at 822 in Boulder County. Under the headline “Canceled Culture, The Greeley Tribune handled how the city is feeling a pinch amid kaput or postponed events. In “Sound of Silence,” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on the impacts of the shutdown on area music venuesThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported “routinely collected cellphone data shows Coloradans acted independently and in advance of the state’s orders during the past two months, distancing themselves prior to the statewide stay-at-home order and then partially easing back toward normal behavior prior to the state’s relaxation of the order on April 27.” The Coloradoan in Fort Collins explained how political primary season will play out along a socially distant campaign trailThe Durango Herald reported how school counseling has gone virtualThe Denver Post explored how the virus is taking a toll on Colorado churchesThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how “graduating from college in the middle of a pandemic is weird.”

More spokesperson bylines and news releases

More Colorado newspapers are publishing items readers might mistake as news that in reality are crafted by government spokespeople paid to make their government agencies look good. Some newspapers are (pardon the pun) copping to it when they do it; others are not. (When this is pointed out, one way of handling it has been to update the byline with a disclosure; another has been to just remove the item from a webpage.)

As far as best practices go, when a newspaper receives a press release from a publicity agent, a reporter independently writing a story based off of information in it is preferable. It’s understandable some newspapers might lack the staff to independently report each press release it believes carries information its readers should know. But if a news organization must run a news release verbatim, the paper should tell its readers who wrote it. This week offered two case studies.

Case 1: Under the headline “Five new officers come aboard at MPD” in The Montrose Daily Press, appears this byline (meaning the name of the author): William Woody, City of Montrose. At the end of the item appears this: “William Woody is the public information officer for the City of Montrose.”

Case 2: Under the headline “Great Sand Dunes to begin phased reopening on June 3” in The Valley Courier in Alamosa, appears no byline at all. But the text is verbatim from a news release on the website of the National Park Service.

Bold claim: A newspaper should let its readers know when it’s publishing government publicity material. I’m willing to turn the microphone over to anyone with a compelling argument for otherwise in next week’s newsletter.

Underrepresented audiences get grants

Eight Colorado media outlets and two community organizations that are “on the front lines of providing accurate information about COVID-19 to Colorado’s diverse racial/ethnic communities and non-English-speaking residents” earned grants totaling $50,000 from the Colorado Media Project this week.

From the announcement:

The range of COVID-19 Informed Communities grant recipients is broad, including two immigrant and refugee centers that provide public health information in more than 15 languages via SMS and WhatsApp; television and radio stations catering to the Spanish-speaking residents in Denver, Colorado Springs, and mountain communities; one community radio station serving Ute tribal communities in the Four Corners and another serving Aurora’s Ethiopian and East African populations; a hyperlocal print outlet serving Colorado Springs’ most diverse ZIP codes; and print and digital media hubs serving Colorado’s Asian and African-American communities.

The eight newsrooms are Denver Urban SpectrumEntravisionSouthern Ute Tribal RadioLa Tricolor AspenQue Bueno 1280Rocky Mountain Multicultural RadioMile High Asian Media, and The Southeast Express.

“Recipients were selected for their ability to actively reach and engage specific and underrepresented audiences or geographic areas to share timely updates on the unfolding COVID-19 public health crisis and related economic impacts,” according to the CMP. (The Colorado Media Project is a partner in the Colorado News Collaborative with The Colorado Independent where this newsletter appears as a column.)

It’s nice to see outlets representing Colorado Springs and Pueblo on the list, given the blank space represented on the interactive map of COVID-19 coverage. But one Hispanic independent news organization owner in Pueblo is bummed he didn’t make the cut. PULP publisher John Rodriguez has been trying to raise awareness about a dearth of coverage ability in the region as The Pueblo Chieftain shrinks. “Denver needs to understand the gravity of the situation in Pueblo,” he says.

Photojournalists on the front lines 

Since the pandemic began, the news director for Denver’s CBS affiliate, Tim Wieland, has been keeping his audience apprised of the many ways the virus has affected how the station’s journalists work. This week, he explained the new normal for CBS4 photojournalists. From his piece:

“We always say we’re like the last cowboy. Out there when everyone else has gone. Blizzard, wildfire, pandemic. We’re out there.” Kevin Hartfield is the Chief Photographer at CBS4. He’s been a photojournalist for nearly 40 years, but he’s never covered a story like this one. “There’s always been a risk involved, but this is different. We have to think about everything, like how to put a microphone on a person, how to get audio, how to navigate the whole area — are there a lot of people, are we safe there?” Kevin considers all of this on the stories he covers daily, but also stays in close touch with the rest of the team. “I tell them, safety is your priority. If you’re not feeling safe, speak up, or leave, or call me for advice. Safety is number one.”

Makenzie O’Keefe tells me that she also game plans before every story, but it’s a little different for her. She’s an MMJ, which means she is both the reporter and photographer. That’s required her to get creative, “I have a boom pole but it’s tough to use as an MMJ. I’ve been using a light stand and hooking my wireless microphone to the top of it. Then the person I’m interviewing can walk up to it, while I get behind the camera.” Makenzie says she tries to be outside when shooting her stories, and her story shoots are more focused. “It’s a whole different process. It’s very condensed. Quick interview, quick video and get out. It’s hard for me because I really like to chat with people I interview.” When she does work inside, she says the safety protocols are even more intense. “Today I shot a story inside a soda plant. I had to step on a rug, clean off my shoes, they checked my temperature, gave me gloves, glasses and of course I had to be wearing a mask.” She expects this will be the norm, as more businesses reopen, “I think everyone is really thinking about safety. It’s good to see.”

Those are just two of the station’s photojournalists Wieland checked in with for the column. “One thing all of our photojournalists told me is that they understand these risks come with the job, and the reward is doing work that provides a tremendous service to the community,” he writes. He ends his column by saying he hopes we “come out of this crisis with an appreciation for the photojournalists and reporters taking their own risks to provide vital information.”
Read the whole thing here.

*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

2 COMMENTS

  1. Your “Bold claim: A newspaper should let its readers know when it’s publishing government publicity material.”

    My Bolder claim: A newspaper should let its readers know when it is publishing material from ANY source. Government agencies are not substantially different than for-profit corporations, nonprofit organizations, or agents/individuals. If it isn’t the work product of someone at the media outlet, the source ought to be identified so media consumers are aware of who is making the claim.

    [says this former debate coach, currently unaffiliated with any professional payments]

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