MEDIA: Colorado academics and experts join a battle over the U.S. Global Media agency

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The Open Technology Fund has helped support development of tech tools like the Signal app (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Roughly two dozen Colorado academics and experts are calling for the state’s federal leaders to safeguard public funding for open-source technology projects. These important initiatives, they argue, have enabled people in other countries, including journalists, to “safely access the Internet free from censorship and repressive surveillance.”

At issue is the fate of the Open Technology Fund, a program within the U.S. Agency for Global Media that oversees it along with Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, Radio Free Asia, and others. Republican President Donald Trump’s new head of the federal media agency has been on a head-rolling rampage, cleaning house.

Since Trump chose Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker who is an ally of Breitbart’s Steve Bannon, to oversee the country’s state-run media organizations, two top executives at Voice of America resigned. (The U.S. government launched VOA during World War II to combat Nazi propaganda with broadcasts oversees.)

Being government-run, but ostensibly independent, the broadcasters occupy a unique role in U.S. media. Upon taking his new agency post, Pack “removed the chiefs of four news organizations under its purview” The New York Times reported, an action the paper said “raises questions about their editorial independence.”

The moves garnered national and international media attention, but another entity overseen by the Global Media Agency is the Open Technology Fund. Observers worry it, too, could be in danger; Pack laid waste to the OTF’s bipartisan board. The Verge reports OTF “has helped support nearly all of the most prominent encryption projects at various points — including Signal, Tails, Qubes, and the Tor Project.”

On July 1, Colorado professors of journalism, law, computer science, international studies, and other fields joined privacy and technology experts in writing to members of the state’s congressional delegation urging them to do something.

From the letter:

Support for OTF is a natural fit for Coloradans. Our state is a growing hub for technology entrepreneurship and innovation, and Coloradans see the immense potential from greater engagement with the world. A recent Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, prepared in part by CU Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, noted that support for foreign aid in Colorado is not a partisan issue, and that it helps “grow new markets and head off crises that could spill across borders.” OTF is also a powerful and proven example of effective U.S. foreign assistance. Its open, fair, competitive, and evidence-based award process … ensures that activists around the world have the best tools and technologies available to protect themselves. OTF funds open-source technologies and has funded more than 100 independent, third party security audits of Internet freedom technologies to ensure only those with the highest security standards are supported with U.S. government funds.

Specifically, the signatories called on federal lawmakers “to encourage Congress to ensure that the new leadership at USAGM does not dismantle OTF, and, against the intent of Congress, rescind U.S. government support for its essential work.” It also asks them to “publicly support OTF with a statement and co-sponsor the Open Technology Fund Authorization Act (HR 6621).”

Boulder-based digital rights advocate David Sullivan says he helped organize the local effort as a global coalition of groups began to mobilize around the issue. As he’s connected with people in the state’s tech industry over the years, he says he’s noticed a growing community of people who seem to care about tech’s impact on the world. Within a few days, he wrangled more than 20 people to sign. “When you see the breadth of the kind of expertise of some of the folks who signed on, from computer scientists to lawyers to media folks, that’s the sort of thing that sometimes can really have an impact on Congress,” he says. (View the initial signatories here.)

One particular Colorado politician to watch could be Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee and chairs the subcommittee on East Asia, the Pacific and International Cybersecurity Policy. He has talked up his support for human rights in China, condemned human rights abuses in Russia, and said he spoke with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte about human rights abuses when news leaked that he’d met with him in Manila in 2017. The Internet Association in 2018 gave Gardner an Internet Freedom Award, calling him “a leader on internet and technology policy issues.” Currently running for re-election, Gardner will likely pick and choose where he wants to try and distance himself from Trump, a close ally, as he faces a steep uphill race against former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper in a state where voting demographics and a political atmosphere do not bode well for the GOP incumbent.

“One of the great things here is this is also a bipartisan effort,” Sullivan says, noting Republican U.S. Sens. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Florida’s Rick Scott are sponsors with Democrats Bob Menendez of New Jersey and Ron Wyden of Oregon on a bill that would authorize the OTF “as an independent grantee” within the U.S. Global Media Agency. A hearing on the bill could come up soon.

If you’re looking for more background on the OTF developments, VICE on Thursday published a story, “Inside the Plot to Kill the Open Technology Fund.” The U.S. Global Media Agency requested $628.1 million from Congress this year.

One of the reasons readers of this newsletter might be interested in what happens at the OTF is because the technology it produces has been “essential for journalists,” Sullivan says, especially when dealing with censorship and surveillance around the world. “Tools that have been incubated by Open Technology Fund, which is this small agency that people are not familiar with, are now really essential tools — not just nationally but even here in the U.S.” Anyone interested in getting involved or who wants to sign onto the letter can connect with Sullivan at david[dot]mcgraw[dot]sullivan[at]gmail[dot]com.

How COVID-19 battered the Glenwood Springs newspaper

 Each week, wreckage in Colorado’s newspaper industry continues to pile up from the impacts of COVID-19. The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, owned by Nevada-based Swift Communications, recently explained to readers about how it has borne the brunt.

From a note by its outgoing publisher, Jerry Raehal:

For many local businesses and residents, the COVID-19 era has felt like a rolling crisis. Employees have been laid off or furloughed. Many businesses have reduced services and some are facing shutting down. The newspaper industry is no different. Like other businesses, media across the nation have tried cost-saving measures: Reducing circulation, limiting the number of days printed, going online only, merging with other news organizations, eliminating syndicated services, and reducing staff. And sometimes those cost cutting measures don’t work, with at least  30 papers closing already.

Facing sharp declining revenues in COVID-19’s wake, the Post Independent initially cut two days, reduced the average number of daily papers by 20%, and reduced hours and salaries for our staff. Thanks to quick action by Swift and Colorado Mountain News Media leadership — our parent companies — we quickly received Payroll Protection Program funding, and the vast majority of Swift employees were made whole again for eight weeks. More than that, PPP gave us two months to help us road map our future. And when we looked at our expected revenues and expenses, it felt like a crisis.

For the rest of the column, Raehal explains how the paper plans to “reinvent” itself by handling the move to three days a week in print, starting July 13, while remaining a seven-day-a-week news outlet online.

He also talks about some recent personnel turnover at the paper despite it not having to lay anyone off. “The final change includes me,” he writes. “I’m stepping down as publisher July 17, but will continue to partner with CMNM and Swift via consulting and other tasks.” On July 6, he adds, Bryce Jacobson, former publisher of The Greeley Tribune “will take over as publisher of the Post Independent and Citizen Telegram — in addition to other duties.” The Tribune was owned by Swift before it recently sold to the hedge-fund-controlled company associated with The Denver Post.

Why the Loveland Reporter-Herald did what it did

When a newspaper learns a government secret does it always tell it? Depends on the secret and the circumstances, right? What we hope is that serious thought goes into the decision, and undue influence from the government or elsewhere doesn’t impact it.

This week, the local newspaper serving the Loveland area of Colorado explained to its readers why it published local government secrets its reporter learned, and how those secrets made their way into the public domain.

First some background: The COVID-19 pandemic means plenty of government meetings are happening via computer screens instead of in person. Government meetings are recorded and put online for transparency. Local governments still rely on what they call “executive sessions” or secret sessions to keep some things from the public, and state laws lay out what’s allowable for secret discussion. Those discussions aren’t put online. Until they are. By mistake. That’s what happened with the City Council in Loveland.

From the Reporter-Herald:

On June 2, while listening to the online stream of that night’s meeting, a Reporter-Herald reporter noticed the live audio feed of that night’s executive session. The following day, a video and audio recording of the meeting was uploaded to the city’s website with the complete session audio intact, and the Reporter-Herald discovered that the May 19 session had been similarly recorded and uploaded. The Reporter-Herald contacted City Manager Steve Adams, Economic Development Director Kelly Jones and assistant to the city manager Justine Bruno, who oversees the city’s public information office, on June 5 to ask questions concerning the transmissions, and the three indicated they were unaware of the breach.

Whoops.

So what did the newspaper learn from these mistakenly aired secret sessions? For one, it learned about a quarter-million-dollar “economic incentive proposal” to help build a new IMAX theater in the area. Sounds like news. So the Reporter-Herald published it. Weeks later, the newspaper explained why, and also how it handled its reporting.

From a June 28 editorial:

The Reporter-Herald newsroom staff discussed the issue and decided the best way to proceed would be to quickly inform the city staff about the problem, to give them a chance to respond, and to consider whether publishing the information the city had inadvertently shared would hurt the public interest. Contacting the city staff allowed them to make corrections in their procedures so they did not continue broadcasting executive sessions. Telling others what had happened could serve as an alert to other governing bodies of a potential issue should they hold virtual executive sessions.

The paper bemoaned the city staff’s refusal to comment for its news stories “or answer any questions about the leak.” By releasing confidential information, “the city broke a promise that it had made to people who had provided the information,” the editorial board wrote, and the public “had a right to know what happened and how the city will keep it from happening again.” The paper also popped the city staff for apparently asking council members not to talk. “The elected officials have an obligation to answer to the public they serve.”

The editorial states a lawyer and managers vetted the news story before publication. “There are, as the law allows, reasons for governing boards to have some discussions in private, but in general the public is better served when there are fewer secrets,” the editorial board wrote. “After keeping this one from readers while we worked out how to handle it, we are satisfied we did the right thing by sharing what we knew.”

Denver’s public safety director talked to journalists about problems covering protests

Two weeks ago, Colorado’s department of public safety told journalists its director, Murphy Robinson, wanted to host a virtual meeting with them following some “problems” during protest coverage. To recap: those problems included allegations of officers gassing, pepper-spraying, and shooting journalists with pepper balls and foam bullets.

On June 26, the department held an online video call with several Colorado journalists. Some nuggets from it:

  • If there are officers “that need to be held accountable they’ll be held accountable,” Robinson said at one point.
  • Robinson said there were “a lot of people out there who said they were press that may not have been press.” He added he knows it’s not his job to define “who press are.” When Robinson personally asked one person who they were with, he said he was told, “I’m with my family newsletter.” Robinson chuckled at the recollection. (Editor’s note: Same.)
  • When Robinson floated the idea of universal press vests for journalists, one Denver TV station’s news director pushed back. “I don’t think we would be able to wear a vest that identified as press,” he said. “Not so much worried about police officers shooting us, but we’re taking rocks and stuff like that from protesters.” He said his station “took about $50,000 worth of damage to three vehicles. Two were totaled. We had people get hit with rocks … it was just awful … our company has told us to make yourself as inconspicuous as possible.” He said of media nowadays “we’re getting hit from all different angles from people … identifying ourselves as press, while it might have worked and it might work in some war areas, does not work when we’re dealing with Antifa and homegrown terrorist organizations that are on attack.”
  • Robinson said because the protests erupted so quickly, “we didn’t have an opportunity to review riot training and all those kinds of things with the officers before they were deployed. This happened very quickly. Not making excuses here because there is no excuse for misconduct, however, I will tell you that this isn’t something … you didn’t come into with doing training three or four days ahead of time. It was a spontaneous event that had to be reacted to. So I think— lessons learned, though. And I think that we will absolutely be able to make sure that we do train not only how they deal with the press but how they deal with these type of incidents as a whole. We’re going to come away with this with so much — so much — that we can change and make better and that we can react differently to and hold our officers accountable to and all these things. That is not lost on me and I don’t think that’s lost on the police chief or the police department.”
  • Robinson and spokeswoman Kelli Christensen talked about the possibility of a task force with professional journalism organizations. “We are looking into the First Amendment training that Denver police agreed to in the Susan Greene settlement,” Christensen said. “That is on track to happen.” (Background on that here.)

ColoradoPolitics also has a write-up about the call here.

Colorado Newsline is live

On the day following Colorado’s most recent statewide elections, readers looking for coverage and context of the results had a fresh outlet to consult. Colorado Newsline, the latest nonprofit news site to pop up as part of the States Newsroom network, launched Wednesday.

From an introductory column by editor Quentin Young:

The primary way Colorado Newsline will fit into the state’s media landscape is by helping to return it to its previously fertile condition. We’re unable to resupply it with 400 reporters. But we are starting with three. And every new set of eyes watching government leaders, every extra observer keeping track of public spending, every additional journalist reporting stories of how official policy affects residents helps ensure readers understand what government is up to and leads to a more enriched community. I am exceedingly grateful to the reporters who joined the Newsline team, because, given their proven talents and professionalism, they allow me to say confidently that Newsline readers will benefit from some of the best journalism Colorado has to offer.
The site sparked with a burst of election-results coverage but it also came out of the gate with some enterprise reporting including a piece about how oil-and-gas companies are reaping government relief amid the pandemic “as global emissions rise.” Newsline also came quick with commentary, publishing a column by Denver political consultant Mansur Gidfar headlined “No, Colorado is not a progressive paradise” that takes on the state’s blue hue from the left.

Speaking of Newsline…

The Colorado Times Recorder, a nonprofit digital information site backed by progressive donors, stirred the pot a bit when riffing on something from last week’s newsletter. Writer Jason Salzman mentioned how I’d said I expected a potential skirmish over press credentials should Newsline apply for them since the outlet doesn’t disclose its donors.

Here’s an eyebrow-raising passage from his item:

Journalists who defend the existing policy tell me, among other things, that lawmakers will kick out all the journalists, not just the bad apples, from the floor of the House and Senate, if some rogue writers ask questions deemed rude or unfair.

Almost immediately, reporters who cover the Colorado Capitol expressed skepticism about that.

“Huh? This is so nonsensical,” said Colorado Sun reporter John Frank.

“Don’t know who the author of this piece has spoken to, but I find it very hard to believe there’s any real chance our press corps would see access limited over ‘unfair’ questions,” said Alex Burness of The Denver Post. “That would be a terrible idea and I’ll be glad to say so if it happens, but can’t imagine it will.”

Read this piece by former Watchdog journalist Art Kane about why he couldn’t get credentials one year when his outlet wouldn’t disclose its funding. Maybe we’ll see how or if the thinking has changed if the credentialing panel evaluates a Newsline application.

Here’s longtime Capitol reporter Marianne Goodland of ColoradoPolitics:

The Longmont Leader reports to its readers

A month has passed since the Longmont Leader digital news outlet launched with the backing of Google and an affiliation with the McClatchy newspaper chain. When it started, this newsletter described the development like this: “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.”

Late last month, the Leader penned a note to readers about its first month and what to expect next. Meanwhile, McClatchy took final bids this week for its 30 newspapers “as the country’s second-largest chain prepares to wind toward some exit from bankruptcy,” media analyst Ken Doctor reported for Harvard’s NiemanLab. “A spokesperson said that the company did not intend to reveal how many offers are received or for how much,” reported Poynter.

Regardless of who acquires the beleaguered chain they won’t have much business in Colorado. The Longmont Leader is the only McClatchy property I’m aware of in our state. The Leader is part of McClatchy’s Compass Experiment, which is funded by the Google News Initiative.

“Like everyone else in the company and the industry, I’ve been closely watching the McClatchy sale and hope for the best in terms of future ownership,” says Longmont Leader publisher Mandy Jenkins, who is general manager of McClatchy’s Compass Experiment. “Because The Compass Experiment operates independently within the larger company and is funded separately through the Google News Initiative, I don’t expect this sale to change … how we operate The Longmont Leader.”

More Colorado local media odds & ends

  • 9News reporter Jeremy Jojola won a Don Bolles Medal from Investigative Reporters and Editors that “recognizes investigative journalists who have exhibited extraordinary courage in standing up against intimidation or efforts to suppress the truth about matters of public importance.” This year’s awards honor journalists “targeted by extremist groups in retaliation for their reporting.” IRE wrote Jojola, who “reported on local neo-Nazis and a group known as the Proud Boys, was targeted by extremists who visited his home when his wife and child were there alone, court records show.”
  • Colorado Independent editor Susan Greene told the story behind the story of her in-depth collaboration with the Valley Courier in Alamosa about a protester shooting.
  • ️Even the youngest of “intrepid” reporters at a “self-published newspaper” knows not to show a draft to a source for prior approval.
  • Colorado Public Radio published an editor’s note that read, “A source has been removed from this story because Hickenlooper’s campaign says the interview with the source was on background.” (More about “on background.”)
  • The Denver Post’s labor union “reached a deal with management that extends our contract that expired a year ago,” reporter Elise Schmelzer says. “We still don’t know what sacrifices our multi-millionaire owners are making, if any.”
  • No more furloughs at The Pueblo Chieftain, a reporter says.
  • “Reporters at Prairie Mountain papers, including the @dailycamera, are now being told we will have to continue furloughs in the 2021 fiscal year,” a Boulder Daily Camera reporter said on Twitter.
  • KUNC explained the “role of body cameras for police and communities.”
  • How sponsored content can make a serious newspaper look silly.
  • A CPR journalist says “Journalists of color who are looking for a job – Colorado Public Radio has a couple openings right now and will have more down the line.”

*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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