Dateline Pueblo: A local newspaper on the brink

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The Pueblo Chieftain's printing press in 2019 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

In recent years, a hurricane of journalistic wrath has raged around The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner over deep gashes the newsroom suffered from cost-cutting layoffs.

Less national attention has focused roughly two hours south in economically troubled Pueblo where GateHouse Media bought the 150-year-old Pueblo Chieftain in 2018 and then merged with Gannett. Last summer, Chieftain journalists protested outside their newsroom about staff cuts.

This week, however, The New York Times Magazine turned a spotlight on the plight of once-powerful Pueblo and its once-venerable newspaper. “An American Jobs Crisis with Few Reporters to Cover It,” read the headline with a subhed reading “In the rural West and around the country, newspapers are stuck at the intersection of a shrinking industry and crumbling local economies.”

Some lowlights from the story written by Abe Streep:

  • ‘‘I feel like we’re in a battlefield,’’ reporter Tracy Harmon told the author, ‘‘and we’re watching our colleagues drop one by one right next to us.’’
  • “Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the company announced furloughs of one week per month for those making more than $38,000 a year, according to The Chieftain’s union representative, Austin White, a 24-year-old sports reporter. Then came more layoffs, which Gannett attributed to restructuring following the merger. Fontenay and five others were let go. An editor resigned and was not replaced.”
  • “The newsroom now had a staff of 11, down from about 30 at the time of GateHouse’s purchase, according to staff members.”
  • “The unemployment rate in Pueblo County jumped to 11.7 percent in April from 7.6 percent in March. … It is The Chieftain’s misfortune to be navigating these local conditions at the same time that a pandemic-driven collapse in advertising rates has further gutted the media, old and new alike.”
  • “Gradisar, the mayor, told me that, since The Chieftain’s sale, ‘’The quality has just gone straight downhill.’'”

Chieftain editor Steve Henson declined to comment for the NYT magazine story, which isn’t all that surprising. Over the years, while the paper has covered workforce reductions at other large and important local institutions it hasn’t reported on its own, leaving its readers to get that news elsewhere. “What such reporting does, in my mind, is fuel the public’s ever-growing perception that we are slipping toward oblivion,” he told me in this newsletter in 2017. “We are idiots to promote our difficulties.”

Read the full New York Times Magazine piece here, which places the Chieftain’s troubles in the context of Pueblo’s own economic hardships and the broader late-capitalist catastrophe for the news industry that’s accelerating during this global pandemic.

➡️BONUS: As for some news behind the news, it turns out at least two journalists at The Boulder Daily Camera learned their newspaper had hired a new opinion page editor, not from anyone at their own paper, but when they read it in The New York Times.

The Longmont Leader is live

Last month, we learned the newspaper company McClatchy chose Longmont, Colorado as its testing ground location for one of the nation’s latest digital local news experiments funded by Google.

Now, The Longmont Leader is live.

Running the newsroom is editor Macie May, previously the editor of the Longmont Observer, the nonprofit news site that sold its assets to the Leader. Here’s what May said in her opening column to readers:

I want to assure you that one thing I do not want to change is having a non-partisan newsroom in Longmont and the staff at The Leader are in full support of that ideal. In our earliest conversations with readers in Longmont, we heard that’s something that’s important to you, too.

My goal is to extend coverage in Longmont to include more topics that are important to our readers, to dive deeper into stories, to bridge the gap between cultures by sharing as many stories as we can, and by getting to know our neighbors even better. This is not an exclusive list but it is a place to start.

The team, she wrote, is still coming together, and she hopes to make more announcements soon.

Those behind the new Longmont Leader also sat for an hourlong video conversation about the publication’s backstory. May said she moved to the Longmont area in 2014 where she fell in love with local journalism at the Longmont Observer. Publisher Mandy Jenkins said the point of the project (a product of McCatchy’s Compass Experiment and the Google News Initiative) is to explore new sustainable business models for local news. They were looking to launch local news sites in cities around the country they felt were “underserved by local news.”

About how Longmont got on her radar, she said, “Early on in working on this project … I had read in the Columbia Journalism Review a story about the Observer and the library district, and I said, ‘This is really interesting, I want to find out more about what these guys are up to.'”

Read that May 2019 CJR story, “Should a Colorado library publish local news?” here.

A laid-off Colorado journalist made a case for anger on NPR’s ‘On the Media’

When Westword staff writer Chase Woodruff got laid off from the Denver alternative weekly, he penned an essay on his personal blog about the power of anger.

The piece caught the eye of Bob Garfield at NPR’s show “On the Media,” who invited Woodruff on the show’s podcast to talk about anger and about his work as an alt-weekly writer. Garfield brought up former muckraking Village Voice writer Jack Newfield, whose work Woodruff referenced in his piece. How, Garfield wanted to know, did a “Newfieldian sensibility” guide Woodruff’s approach for Westword in Denver?

He answered by explaining his coverage of fracking:

“It has such clear moral stakes to it and such a clear narrative of neglect, and, I would argue, wrongdoing, and it is not a good fit for the traditional mode of journalism. It’s infuriating to hear stories of mothers who believe their children have been poisoned by a nearby fracking well or to read the story of a predominantly Latino and low-income school that had a fracking rig popped up right next to its playground and to then pick up The Denver Post or whoever it may be and see that he-said-she-said— to put the people who have been impacted by this, the people who have faced these negative health consequences— to put them sort of on a level moral playing field with a quote from an astroturfed Big Oil-backed industry group that wants to claim that all of this is safe and there’s nothing to worry about and climate change is overblown and all the other bullshit that they trot out.

And there’s sort of an amnesia to how the coverage is produced. Jack Newfield says that one of the things anger improves is memory, and to have an institutional or collective memory to say we the press, we understand what this press release that we’ve gotten from a Colorado oil-and-gas trade group, we understand what they represent and whose interest they’re fighting for and we should treat them differently because of that.”

️Find out what else he had to say about anger and the alternative press here.

How week 11 of COVID coverage looked on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on Colorado Mesa University’s plans for fall semesterThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how Larimer County received a partial waiver to reopenThe Longmont Times-Call upped its death tally for Boulder County to 59The Greeley Tribune looked into oversight at the JBS meatpacking plant where the coronavirus has been killing employeesThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on potential virus outbreaks in Colorado prisonsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins examined how recent graduates are dealing with a “lack of closure” to high schoolThe Durango Herald reported how social distancing works for people experiencing homelessnessThe Denver Post pointed out how the virus is widening a chasm between the haves and have nots in ColoradoThe Boulder Daily Camera laid out the various ways in which Boulder County residents are grappling with the pandemic.

‘Some very wealthy donors’ came through in Aspen

During the current pandemic, this newsletter has been tracking the new and different ways for-profit local newspapers in Colorado have been asking readers for money and where they say that money is going as business closures lead to decreased advertising.

The Aspen Daily News, owned by Paperbag Media, is one of the papers asking readers for money for the first time to help offset COVID-19-related disruptions. In six weeks, the paper raised more than $42,000 from more than 600 donors, publisher David Cook said in a statement.

“Aspen being Aspen, we’ve had some very wealthy donors come through, but it’s not even about the amount,” Cook said. “It’s the fact that the Resnick family, for example, cares enough about Aspen Daily News to give some cash. One of the most heartwarming things is that we’ve had four ex-mayors donate, ex-council members, literally every mayor that’s still alive in Aspen donate. It’s been spectacular to see the diverse range of people.”

The paper runs a full-page list of names thanking those who donate.

I’ve been curious about the levels of disclosure by other outlets when it comes to who is helping fund their news operations now — especially if it’s a wealthy businessperson the paper covers. Are you noticing anything interesting in how your local news outlet is asking for money? Send tips or thoughts my way.

Pilot in progress

A company whose co-founder lives in Colorado and is working to create a local 50-state video news network you could watch on something like Amazon Prime, Netflix, or Hulu is on the lookout for journalists.

“NewsMedia, LLC continues to make progress in it’s efforts to bring local news to the SVOD platform,” says company CEO Todd Landfried. (He’s talking about subscription video on demand.) His company, he adds, “is currently developing the program pilot and is looking for experienced investigative, explanatory and solution-oriented reporters, editors, and producers in Colorado, California and Georgia who can contribute to its design, production and completion.”

Last month, Landfried, who lives in Divide, explained News Media LLC’s plans to 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. If you’re a journalist in any of those three states interested in getting in on this endeavor, you can reach Landfried at todd[at]newsmediallc[dot]com.

Springs alt-weekly founder steps aside

The founder of The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly announced he is stepping away from news decisions as he “continues to pursue the possibility of legalization,” the paper reported this week.

That would be the legalization of recreational marijuana in Colorado’s second-largest city where currently it’s not allowed. From the paper under the headline “Founder steps aside during campaign”:

John Weiss has been synonymous with the Colorado Springs Indy for 27 years, since the paper’s inception. For so many people, to refer to one is to think of the other. John, founder and chairman of the Indy, was instrumental in developing an economic impact study of legal recreational marijuana sales inside Colorado Springs city limits. As John continues to pursue the possibility of legalization, he’s agreed to step aside from news decisions. So what does that mean for the Indy? To readers, probably not a lot. We will still cover local news, still write the stories other media ignore, still hold the powerful to account. We’ll also continue to disclose any conflicts of interest that could arise between the paper’s employees and our marijuana coverage.

In 2015, the paper reported Weiss “decided to step aside from day-to-day involvement with the alternative newsweekly that he co-founded in September 1993.” Five years later he’s steppin’ again.

⚠️WARNING: Don’t challenge John to a game of hopscotch. Kidding, kidding…

WATCH: For some potential local print media marijuana wars, maybe? The Gazette daily newspaper’s opinion folks haven’t been too fond of legalization. Now that The Indy has its own editorial board, things could get spicy if a public policy battle emerges over recreational cannabis and they’re on opposing sides.

More local news-behind-the-news odds & ends

  • A new (if ill-framed) report by the Center for Responsive Politics on dark money behind a proliferation of local news sites has some Colorado connections. I hope to dig more into this soon, but my quick reaction is to wonder whether this is less an issue about ‘fake news’ than of a larger drift back toward the ‘party press’ days.
  • Gavin Dahl is leaving as station manager of KDNK in Carbondale for Montrose. He’ll keep on doing radio things for KVNF radio in Paonia.️The Southeast Express in Colorado Springs will “start pushing hard on bilingual news and information.”
  • Introducing the Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project, which “seeks to provide frequent updates about CC and other higher education institutions during the pandemic by providing original reporting, analysis, interviews with campus leaders, and context about what state and national headlines mean for the CC community.” (Sign up for updates here.)
  • A ColoradoPolitics columnist takes issue with the governor’s press relations and transparency.
  • Landmark Community Newspapers, with outlets in Colorado, told workers they “won’t have more furlough days as of next week.”
  • The Durango-based Local News Network got a $100,000 Advanced Industries Early Stage Capital and Retention Grant through Colorado’s economic development office. (More on that next week.)

And finally, I’m currently taking submissions for a newspaper photo illustration better than this.

*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