MEDIA: Colorado journalists recount protest coverage while facing pepper balls, gas, and spray by police

Plus, how a Colorado news publisher earned a $100,000 grant opportunity from state government

Protesters face off with police May 30 in Denver, ignoring an 8 p.m. curfew on day four of protests over George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police. (Photo by Evan Semón Photography)

In cities across the country, police fired projectiles at journalists covering protests of police brutality and, in some cases, attacked, gassed, harassed, and arrested them while they reported. Making for a particularly sick metaphor, a photographer was blinded in the eye from a shot she says came from the direction of a police line.

In Colorado, a Denver Post reporter says he took four foam bullets — one to the head, two to the side, and one to the thigh — that left him welted. Amid the chaos, he “screamed ‘Press’ shortly before being hit as officers fired on protesters,” said a New York Times reporter on the scene in Denver. Elsewhere, police pepper balls pelted a Post photographer “causing a cut on his arm and shattering the press credential hanging around his neck.”

A reporter for Denver7 said “Police just fired off paintballs and tear gas. Our photographer got hit four [times] and our camera got hit.”

A city reporter for Denverite and Colorado Public Radio said “Cops shoved me after I showed them my press credentials and forced me to inhale choking gas.”

Freelance photographer Evan Semón was pelted with police projectiles as he captured images among a chaotic scene of police and protestors in Denver last Saturday. “I mean, you are in a crowd of people throwing rocks and bottles,” he said. “They didn’t shoot at media for being media.” He stayed on the fringes of the action when police started spraying the crowd in the direction of incoming rocks or water bottles. When someone about 10 feet away hurled a smoke bomb back at officers, Semón had an idea police would retaliate. “So you just turn and run,” he said. When he did, he got hit in the calf by what felt like a paintball. “No biggie,” he said, adding it felt like the sting from a wasp.

Denver CBS4’s Michael Abeyta said officers “treated me with respect and dignity last night and I was sometimes in front of the front lines getting video. They apologized when they hit my GoPro with a pepper ball.” A 9News reporter said he “got hit with something fired by police who were standing at the Capitol. I was clearly with a photographer just after I went live with a large camera and light. Whatever they fired hit my backpack.”

In Colorado Springs, a KRDO reporter posted to social media:

That’s just a sampling of reporting about police action involving journalists in Colorado over the past week and it isn’t comprehensive. Through it all, journalists from different news outlets teamed up to report together and support each other. One opened her Denver home to any journalist who needed it.

In response to local law enforcement behavior during protests stemming from another police killing of an unarmed Black man in America, Colorado journalism advocacy groups sent a letter to state and city leaders. Part of it read:

Journalists know they may find themselves in harm’s way when they cover volatile events such as the demonstrations we have seen in Denver over the past several days. But it is inexcusable – and a violation of the journalists’ constitutional rights – for law enforcement officers to single them out for attack simply for doing their jobs in chronicling these events.

Signatories include the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, Colorado Press Association, Colorado Broadcasters Association, and the Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. They have asked for investigations into some of the above incidents.

On Friday, June 5, Murphy Robinson, director of Denver’s Department of Public Safety, responded.

Robinson said he hoped individuals referenced in the letter from press advocates would “fully cooperate with our Internal Affairs investigators to ensure that we have all information necessary to make an informed decision regarding the conduct of any involved officers.”

How a little-known Local News Network could get a $100,000 grant from Colorado government 

When a Durango-based company called Local News Network, which produces short positive family-friendly video clips that air on TV screens at places like the DMV, bank lobbies, health centers, and an airport terminal, announced May 21 that it won a $100,000 grant opportunity from a program of the governor’s office, it raised some eyebrows in Colorado’s journalistic community.

For one, some plugged-in people working to help sustain local news here didn’t know much about the company, and for another, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis recently threw cold water on the prospect of public-sector support for the local news. But indeed, the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, known as OEDIT, chose the Local News Network among roughly two dozen other startups to help fund. It marks the first time ever the agency gave an Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant to a news publisher.

So what is the Local News Network?

It’s the brainchild of Laurie Sigillito who runs a FastSigns graphics center franchise in Durango and has a background in business. After trying to rebuild a local TV station in 2013, she pivoted to a new idea to place local news and advertising on video screens for captive audiences in places where people wait — like the DMV or in line at a Serious Texas Bar-B-Q. “We’re more about celebrating the community, so we tend to do more good stories,” Sigillito said in a May 29 Zoom interview about the content.

The operation in Durango has nine screens around town, a 90% advertiser retention rate, and is making money — “not hugely profitable, but I am sustainable,” she said. With other locations up and running in TelluridePagosa Springs, and Montezuma, she wants to grow nationally with a franchise-style model. She made a pitch to OEDIT leaning on the decline of local news and the rise of news deserts, and how her good-news-on-TV-screens-in-town model helps local businesses reach an audience and could provide jobs in small towns in rural America. Each affiliate has a website and can do a newsletter, so the video clips get shared around.

Recent stories from the Pagosa affiliate, which has been around since 2019 and recently won a COVID-19 coverage grant from Facebook, include health and wellness tips from the owner of a local super-foods cafe; coverage of a local school graduation; a profile of a local nonprofit offering free counseling to moms; an interview with the owners of a local baked goods and preserves business (“Find out what everyone is talking about in Pagosa Springs!”), and what activities are allowed in national forests. The outlet has a “special message” feature where folks like the local fire chiefschool superintendent, someone from the local Salvation Army, and nonprofit leaders who assist victims of domestic violence and sexual assault talk about what they do. (In a roundup of its coverage, the Pagosa affiliate said it has received more than 22,000 video views, 4,000 website visits, and more than 1,100 opened emails.)

Whether you believe this is the kind of content that’s needed to fill gaps in lost local reporting amid a decline of local newspapers, particularly in rural areas, the model has clearly earned the support of both Facebook and the state’s Economic Development Commission.

For her part, Sigillito is open about approaching what she does from a business perspective, not necessarily a journalistic one, and said a colleague often has to push back on some things. She partners with the local police to create videos the department pays for to help recruit officers. She said local chambers of commerce could become affiliates “to rebuild local news in their community and highlight their businesses.” When I mentioned that doesn’t sound like independent journalism, she said they’re still local stories.

“If you look at the sign business, the sign is a message, a story, an ad that’s on a substrate,” she said. “What we’ve done with the news is create just another venue to be able to push that ad out into. So you see I come at this from a completely different viewpoint.”

The pitch landed and the people at OEDIT decided to help fund the Local News Network as Sigillito seeks to take it nationwide, starting with more affiliates in Colorado and one in the works in Farmington, New Mexico. The state program will give her $100,000 if she can show she’s been able to bring in $200,000 in six months, she said, adding that she’s been talking to venture capitalists. If she pulls it off, it’s not like she’ll just get a big check; she said she’ll have to submit invoices for the grant-maker to approve.

The essence of what the Local News Network is doing, she said, is building “a distribution model to generate revenue from local advertisers,” and Sigillito said she believes the best way to do it is “with hometown local news that helps people be prideful of their communities.” That’s not to say they’d never get into more hard-hitting serious journalism or accountability work — or that any affiliate couldn’t do whatever kind of news it wanted — but that’s not the model now. “Whether each of those towns decide to do watchdog hard-hitting news because that’s what they really feel they need to do in their community versus rosy skiing videos, we’re providing the infrastructure so they can do that in their community,” she said.

When Erin McIntyre who co-owns the small Ouray County Plaindealer newspaper heard about the government grant and researched the Local News Network, she says she stayed up late buying various web domains out of concern they might try to horn in on her small advertising base. “A new innovative thing with indoor screens is not going to help the newspaper keep its niche,” she said. She noted how each week she realizes she can lose local advertising by publishing uncomfortable news her readers need to know. After recently reporting a local campground “remained open despite lodging limits,” she lost the site as a distribution point. She worries about the idea of potentially having to compete for ad dollars with a feel-good operation she believes seems more like marketing and PR.

“It just blurs the lines,” she says of the LNN approach. “We already struggle as a society with ‘what is news.'”

Deborah Uroda is the Local News Network’s news director handling the Durango and Montezuma affiliates. She came from a newspaper reporting background before switching over to public relations and back again. As a reporter, “I had death threats and was called a barracuda by a county commissioner,” she said. She used to do watchdog work but acknowledges that’s not what she’s doing now. “Yeah, it’s a little bit of fluff, and I don’t mind that at all,” she said over the phone June 3. “People really enjoy learning about people. I do my share of budget stories, I do my share of issue stories when I can fit it into a three-to-five-minute time slot, that’s the reality.” (Here’s one she did last year about the Prop CC statewide ballot measure and the Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights from the perspective of the Colorado Fiscal Institute, which backed the measure.) Uroda said she plans to soon press the local police chief on what the department is doing to hire a more diverse workforce. Durango is a small town, she said, and it’s “really hard for people to be corrupt” in the community. “I try to provide accurate information without a slant,” she said. “It doesn’t behoove me to have people calling me up and telling me what an asshole I am. I don’t need that.”

Following our conversation, Uroda sent me an email saying my questions “indicated a pre-conceived idea of what community journalism should be” and that I might consider researching the difference between metro journalism and local journalism. “It used to be how neighbors learned what their neighbors were doing,” she said, adding, “Building community, raising awareness about local issues without judgment is what I’m about.”

Katie Woslager, OEDIT’s senior manager for Advanced Industries, says the Local News Network earned the funding based on its “novel and innovative approach to delivering local news,” and confirmed it was the first time one of the grants went to a news publisher. Here’s what else Woslager said about the company:

“Local News Network has a proprietary local news development process and technology platform for broadcasting the local news into rural towns. Their local news development process was established and will continue to be improved as they add more licensees to their local news network. As part of their deployment, the platform will continue to be enhanced to effectively deliver short-form video content to thousands of screens in hundreds of towns, as well as remotely monitor and manage these displays using wifi connected media players.”

In a state where public-sector support for the local news has been a topic of public discussion more than in many states, this is what emerged.

We should know in six months whether the Local News Network attracts enough revenue to earn the $100,000 opportunity. I’m curious what you all make of this development and approach, so check out what it’s doing, and drop me a line.

Westword published names of arrested protestors— then removed them

Newsrooms across the country are re-thinking the way they cover local crime in an age where digital archives can live long after an arrest or police charge has been adjudicated. In 2018 I wrote for Columbia Journalism Review about the rise of mugshot galleries on local news sites where some newspapers run a rolling feature called “Mugshot Mondays.”

From the piece:

Mugshot galleries rarely divulge more than a subject’s name, age, and suspected offense; their subjects rarely attract follow-up coverage, and so the outcomes of their criminal charges are often not covered in detail. In such cases, mugshot subjects are preserved for readers as suspects. In others, follow-up coverage may come too slowly. A few years ago, a small-town newspaper in Colorado published 39 mugshots in a single print edition after local police announced what it characterized as a busted-up drug ring. The charges against many of those whose faces appeared in their local paper were later dropped amid allegations of a frame-up and a remarkable blunder by local law enforcement. Some of those accused said they lost jobs and housing or relocated because they couldn’t find work. Though the paper followed up on the dismissals, its editor acknowledged it was slow to do so.

Nationally, The Marshall Project and NPR have reported how local outlets are changing their ways. More recently, some Colorado newsrooms have been re-considering their own approach to crime coverage. “We don’t run mugshot galleries, and we have to follow every person we report on who was charged with a crime through the court system, so we can follow up on whether or not they were ultimately found guilty,” a reporter for The Loveland Reporter-Herald said in February.

This week, Denver’s alternative weekly Westword published the names and some photos under the headline “Denver Protests: See the 284 People Arrested During the First Four Nights.” After taking heat from readers, the outlet added this note to the bottom: “The original version of this post included the names of those arrested during the protests. They have now been removed.”

Boulder Daily Camera crime reporter wrote that since Westword made the decision to publish the names of those arrested during the Denver protests, “I sure hope they plan on following up on the results of each and every one of those cases.”

Newsroom diversity emerges amid protest coverage

It shouldn’t take “a national crisis on race for newsrooms to have a discussion on race and gender inclusiveness in their organizations,” said Pueblo PULP publisher John Rodriguez this week. But that discussion is happening as readers, viewers, and listeners are treated to coverage of coast-to-coast protests following another police killing. CJR rounded up coverage by journalists of color in recent days and noted “newsrooms still are nowhere near diverse enough, particularly in the upper ranks, and … top editors too often make major mistakes when it comes to covering race.” Helen Ubiñas of The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote “hiring and promoting mostly white millennials and white women is merely a step – and more than a few steps short of where we need to be. We need millennials of color. We need editors of color. We need a pipeline full of candidates on every level.”

In Colorado, folks are talking again — some publicly, some privately — about the diversity of our newsrooms, particularly during protest coverage. A journalist at The Colorado Sun said “it proved difficult to attract experienced journalists to move across the country to work for a startup” when confronted about it. When the Sun launched, some were watching to see how a new startup might approach hiring. Six months later criticism bubbled up again.

In a recent appearance on Democracy Now! former Denver Post editor Greg Moore said, “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.”

A new small but seemingly well-funded statewide digital newsroom is poised to launch in Colorado soon. A question will be whether it, too, will face that criticism. Eric Gorski of Chalkbeat gave a social media shout out to Colorado Public Radio and Denverite “for making newsroom hires that reflect the diversity of this community,” adding “To anyone who says it’s too hard or ‘we didn’t get any diverse applicants,’ well, it can be done.”

In 2018, during a panel in Denver about trust in local media, Dave Burdick, who was then the editor of the digital news site Denverite, said his newsroom at the time was “the first place I’ve ever worked in my entire life that has the accurate percentage of white people representative of Denver.” His newsroom staff, he said, was made up of “three people of color and four white people.”

In conversations I’ve had with journalists and others about diversity and equity in newsrooms, some themes emerged. Managers have to put in the work and make a serious effort in constant recruiting while doing so outside existing networks. Reach out to local and national organizations that represent minority journalists. Make sure to consider diversity of thought, class, and identity. Consider grooming the next star to mentor instead of hiring an already accomplished journalist. Interviews can illuminate better than applications alone. There are even online tools to check a job listing to make sure it’s not unintentionally coded in a way that can put women off from applying.

Meanwhile, Press On, a southern movement journalism collective, has these tips for journalists covering police violence and Black-led resistance.

More Colorado local news odds & ends

  • Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene, who was handcuffed by Denver police while reporting in 2018, sued them for it, and won a settlement that made them undergo First Amendment training, says that training “still hasn’t happened.”
  • Former longtime Denver Post editor Greg Moore wrote a column for The Colorado Sun saying that as a Black man in America, “I don’t hate cops. I fear them.”
  • The Denver Post’s opinion page editor updated a guest column with this: “This column was updated to reflect the fact that Krista Kafer is both a volunteer for the campaign to put Initiative 120 on the ballot and she has been paid in the past to do social media and media outreach work for the group.”
  • Civil, the cryptocurrency company that seed-funded The Colorado Sun’s launch is shutting down. But the Sun “is vibrant and here to stay,” says its editor.
  • Westword writes that “TV Stations Put Ad Revenue Ahead of Riot Coverage” on one evening this week.
  • I got antibody tested for COVID-19 and wrote about the process. ​
  • CFOIC writes how “With a ‘dull’ bit of code, a Colorado startup aims to help news organizations fight online disinformation.”

*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