Colorado news outlets got some ‘breathing room’ with federal relief PPP loans

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The former RMPBS building in downtown Denver (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Colorado news organizations were among millions of businesses nationwide that accepted federal money to help weather a financial battering from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Data released this week by the U.S. Small Business Administration shows millions of dollars flowed from the federal Paycheck Protection Program to more than a dozen media outlets that do business in Colorado. They include newspapers like The Durango Herald, broadcasters like Rocky Mountain Public Media, and digital newsrooms like The Colorado Independent and The Colorado Sun.

These forgivable loans, which recipients might not have to pay back as long as they spend the money on payroll and other approved expenses, are meant to keep small businesses from shedding employees during the pandemic (not that all businesses relying on federal assistance did). The money comes from one of the nation’s largest economic stimulus packages ever.

Readers of this newsletter have been reading since March how the pandemic carved into newsroom budgets and led to layoffsfurloughs, reduced print days, and more. In April, some Colorado news organizations said they applied for PPP loans. That month, the Poynter Institute, a journalism thought leader, stated in a headline that such outlets would “cast aside historic taboos” by asking for federal assistance. Colorado has been a state where debate and discussion about the efficacy of expanded public-sector support for the local news business have been taking place more than elsewhere. Just last month, for the first time ever, a state program of the governor’s office offered $100,000 to a news organization that gladly accepted the opportunity.

That said, there wasn’t much debate in newsrooms here about whether or not to accept federal relief, says Jill Farschman, CEO of the Colorado Press Association. As COVID-19 continued to tear through media industry balance sheets, the association offered webinars about the PPP application process and kept its members abreast with frequent emails about the program.

Now we have an idea which outlets benefited from the money and how. According to the new PPP loan data, between $5 million and $10 million went to Swift Communications, a Nevada-based media company that operates 11 newspapers in Colorado including Vail DailyThe Steamboat Pilot, and the Craig Press.

As for Colorado-based news organizations, some of the largest beneficiaries were Rocky Mountain Public Media (the parent company of RMPBS), and Grand Junction Media with each getting between $1 million and $2 million. Grand Junction Media operates the Daily Sentinel newspaper and a handful of radio stations. “Like most media organizations, Rocky Mountain Public Media saw an immediate and steep decline in corporate sponsorship revenue with the arrival of COVID-19,” said its president Amanda Mountain. “Applying for and receiving the PPP allowed us to protect our staff levels so that we could increase our service to the community at the precise time they need us most.”

Another million-dollar recipient that shows up in the data is Way FM Media Group in Colorado Springs, which has a stated mission of “influencing this generation to love and follow Jesus through culturally relevant media.”

Denver-based My24HourNews, founded by former U.S. Senate and gubernatorial candidate Erik Underwood, received between $350,000 and $1 million, according to loan data. The company’s website says it delivers news “using our own proprietary platform to cut through the noise of being inundated with news and information that you did not sign up for.” Underwood said the money helped keep the company’s workers on the payroll.

In Durango, records show Ballantine Communications, which owns The Durango Herald, a newspaper that suffered some of the first coronavirus-related newsroom layoffs in Colorado, received between $350,000 and $1 million. It was a process its CEO Doug Bennett found manageable despite questions that arose in the program’s early days.

“The PPP money was one of the best government programs we could have hoped for during what was a tumultuous time,” Bennett said. “We were trying to understand the impact of the shut down of the economy to our business while our viewers and readers expected even more than ever from us reporting the news.” The money meant the company could “take a breath for 60 days” to try and figure out how best to move forward, he added. “We were able to keep our staff employed at a time advertisers were cancelling at alarming rates.” There’s still plenty to figure out in Durango, he said, but the loan helped “weather the worst of the storm.”

The 2-year-old Colorado Sun, a public benefit corporation launched by ex-Denver Post staffers, applied for and received a loan, and has included this disclosure in its coverage of the program: “The Colorado Sun received a $212,000 PPP loan for 13 employees.” While the virus burned through advertising revenues at traditional newspapers, it also smoldered other forms of cash flow for different media outlets. “We were just ramping up our live events operation and that’s completely off the table for 2020, and probably 2021 as well,” Sun editor Larry Ryckman said. “It certainly cut into our revenue.” The federal money helped the outlet make it through a tough period, and because it wasn’t a program designed specifically for media but open to any business affected by the virus, Ryckman said there wasn’t a big debate about whether or not to apply for government support. “We might have had second thoughts or deeper discussions had this been something directly aimed at media, at newspapers, at journalists,” he said. “And this was not.”

Out in the Denver suburbs, the Macari-Healey Publishing company that runs Colorado Community Media and its nearly 20 newspapers took in $256,000. The small-business rescue loan came at a time when “many advertisers” were postponing or canceling buys, said owner and publisher Jerry Healey. “It provided us the breathing room to manage this crisis and implement a plan to move forward, while not missing an issue, reducing [full-time employees] or circulation.”

Down in Colorado Springs, John Weiss, who owns 6035 Media, said his company received more than $300,000 for its seven newspapers that include The Colorado Springs IndependentThe Colorado Springs Business JournalThe Pikes Peak Bulletin and some military papers. The company had to make modest pay cuts after July, he said, but hired two marketing people and is looking to hire two new journalists including a seasoned investigative reporter. Since March, the business lost $200,000, but he expects it will be profitable again in September. “It’s really hard for businesses to advertise when they’re closed,” he said, adding the PPP loans “allowed us to weather the storm.”

Other news organizations that received between $150,000 and $350,000 include Colorado Public Television, BIZWest, Arkansas Valley Publishing, Boulder WeeklyHigh Country NewsThe Aurora Sentinel, and Channel 1 Networks.

The next step for some news organizations could be trying to make sure they can achieve maximum or complete forgiveness of these loans, essentially turning them into grants. Media companies likely won’t want to take on new debt (or increase it) as they continue to struggle with revenue.

Underwood, of My24HourNews, has a different take. “If you’re a company and can pay back the loan rather than taking forgiveness, in my personal belief, you should,” he said.

For this item, I found media PPP loan recipients through searchable databases provided in coverage by ColoradoPoliticsThe Colorado Sun, and The Washington Post. Play around with the search functions yourself to see if I missed any, and let me know. The Sun reported the data had some “eye-popping errors” so keep that in mind, too. “There was also a lot of missing information in the SBA data,” the Sun reported. “Most applicants didn’t answer the questions about the business owner’s race, gender or veteran status. Another 1,377 did not list the number of employees they had.”

Also, the Small Business Administration doesn’t publicly name companies that sipped in loans less than $150,000. So, the nonprofit Colorado Independent, which received $50,000 and where this newsletter is published, does not show up. Neither does PULP in Pueblo because it got less than $10,000 or The Denver Press Club, which received around $20,000. Other smaller news outlets also might have gotten federal money and aren’t showing up by name in databases, like The Ouray County Plaindealer, which also saw some relief.

Why the Coloradoan isn’t into ‘publicly shaming children’ over racist behavior

Last week this newsletter reported how and why some government secrets a newspaper learns can wind up in print, using as a case study a mistakenly aired secret city council session noticed by a journalist at the Loveland Reporter-Herald.

This week, we examine how just because a newspaper learns about news percolating in the community doesn’t always mean it will publish a report about it. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins on Sunday ran a column by its editor, Eric Larsen, explaining a local controversy in this context.

From the piece:

Earlier this month, social media and news reports began to swirl about a group of [Poudre School District] students posting racist video content on social platforms. I’ve reviewed the posts, which were forwarded to Coloradoan reporters by people demanding that the school district take punitive action against the students. The Coloradoan will not republish the posts for the simple reason that doing so will not only further their intolerant message, but cause irreparable damage to the underage students who posted them.These videos may follow those children for the rest of their lives, in Google searches done by college admissions staff, in background checks by prospective employers, in situations I can’t currently fathom.

In no way do I condone any racist behavior, but publicly shaming children for their ignorance is not an appropriate use of the Coloradoan’s resources. I also chafe at the idea that these students should be removed from our public schools as punishment. If racism is a learned behavior, so is tolerance. If ignorance breeds ignorance, then the only tool we have against it is education. PSD has a role to play here, but it’s not to shun these students. It’s to better challenge their narrow way of thinking in the hope that someday they will realize the hurtfulness or their actions and alter course.

“The Coloradoan and USA TODAY Network are committed to furthering the fight to eradicate all forms of systemic racism,” Larsen went on in the column. “We have much work to do, inside our newsroom and in our community, to learn how to be allies in that struggle.”

Speaking of the Coloradoan

Following its owner Gannett’s merger with another giant newspaper chain, GateHouse, it now has a sister newspaper in The Pueblo Chieftain. “Amid the turmoil of the coronavirus pandemic, two important things happened,” editor Larsen wrote in a note to readers.

One of them was the merger. The other is that both papers have developed a partnership with The Colorado Sun, the 2-year-old digital public benefit corporation launched by ex-staffers of The Denver Post that recently surpassed 10,000 paying members. The collaboration will help fill what Larsen called a “Denver-sized hole in the combined coverage of two newsrooms that bookend Colorado’s Front Range.”

More from the editor at the Coloradoan:

With Colorado working to recover from the economic toll of the coronavirus, and with the November election looming, a lot of news of importance across the state will come from the blocks surrounding the Capitol. The 10-person team of the Colorado Sun has distinguished itself as a trusted news source in short order, and we’re excited to add its coverage to our lineup. Sun articles will appear partially online, with links back to Coloradosun.com, and in full in print.

“The Colorado Sun is proud to share its content with the Coloradoan and the Chieftain,” said Sun Editor Larry Ryckman. “The Sun’s politics coverage has twice been recognized by its journalism peers this year with first-place awards for Public Service in Colorado and the Rocky Mountain region. We’re independent and strictly non-partisan, and we always put readers first. We’re delighted that readers in Fort Collins and Pueblo will become part of the Sun community.”

These papers add to more than two dozen others across the state that publish Sun content. What’s different about this one, Ryckman told me, is that it’s more than just the papers being able to run Sun journalism. The Coloradoan and Chieftain, which will pay for the arrangement, will be able to work with Sun journalists on story development, too. On Election Night, for instance, the Sun shared its content plans with the Coloradoan so the paper could be better equipped for its print deadlines for coverage the following day. “It’s more of a syndication and partnership, really,” Ryckman says, adding that the outlet has different arrangements with different outlets.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Gazette in Colorado Springs reported how COVID-19 is hitting Hispanics hardest. The Coloradoan published its note to readers about the racist videos and the Sun partnershipThe Loveland Reporter-Herald ran an AP story about July 4 headlined “Troubled times mark holiday” above the foldThe Longmont Times-Call reported on a local murderThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel looked at how fireworks sales are booming during the coronavirus pandemicThe Durango Herald covered local listening sessions where residents shared examples of racism and discriminationThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how pandemic restrictions thinned crowds for the holidayThe Denver Post reported how a “cacophony of crises” threatens Colorado’s higher education institutions.

Denver has encrypted radio traffic for about a year

“For the third straight year, lawmakers rejected a proposal to address the trend among law enforcement agencies in Colorado to fully encrypt their radio traffic.” So wrote Jeffrey Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition last month in a wrap-up of the latest legislative session.

Police encrypting their radio traffic has been a theme in Colorado as technology advances and anyone with a smartphone can listen in to some cop channels in the way reporters used to keep an ear to the squawking scanner in a newsroom. Law enforcement officers have moved to shut that down arguing that criminals could rely on it to keep from getting caught.

But encrypted radio traffic also “makes it difficult or impossible for reporters to learn of significant police activity in a timely manner, and it undermines their fundamental role as government watchdogs,” editorialized The Boulder Daily Camera earlier this year. “If reporters are in the dark, so are members of the public, whom the police are supposed to serve.” (Last year, Columbia Journalism Review reported how a “national study published in 2017 found that police PIOs zealously try to control the narratives about their departments.”)

Last year, Denver police tried to sell un-encrypted scanners to some local media outlets for $4,000 that came with an agreement about how they would use them, but local media brushed them off.

This week, CBS4 news director Tim Wieland told an inside story about what it was like for a news organization trying to deal with Denver police over the issue. Over many months, journalists and the department tried to work out an agreement. They thought they were close. The “deal killers, it turns out, were the auditor and city attorney,” Wieland said.

A license for newsrooms came with requirements for “newsrooms to cover the city’s legal costs in the event of a lawsuit, the other allowed the city to examine our notes and records related to the use of scanners. Uh, no,” Wieland went on. In other words, no deal. “It leaves us all in the dark, now reliant on police PIOs,” Wieland said. “As we’ve seen in recent cases, that information is rarely timely and never complete. The public, then, is not fully informed on police activity in their community. At best, that info is hours late; at worst, months late.”

So, what now?

“There’s a lot of lofty talk by city leaders about providing more transparency in policing,” the newsroom leader said. “They’re talking the talk. Great. Now, let’s walk the walk and reach an agreement that serves the community. A public safety agency should not operate outside of public view.”

More Colorado local media odds & ends

 

  • A Pueblo Chieftain editor’s note stated a “reporter was endangered and was prohibited from further covering this event.” But then the note disappeared. (Story in question here.)
  • COLab has a new homepage.
  • Take this newsroom survey from the University of Denver and Colorado Press Association.
  • Colorado’s rogue national elector, Micheal Baca, leads off an upcoming book on the Electoral College and the Hamilton Elector movement, and includes his inside story.
  • Cory Gardner said without citing evidence “the media does not want us to win.”
  • Sign up for The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project’s daily newsletter for pandemic-related higher-ed news.
  • Webinar registration: “The Art and Craft of the Interview: How to Deeply Listen.”
  • Empowering Colorado wants to know what you think about media coverage of energy development.
  • KUNC’s CEO, Neil Bestis retiring. “No big fireworks going out the door.”

*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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