What’s half a newspaper war? A newspaper tussle? Whatever it is, Denver is poised for one.
Six years after floating an idea that Clarity Media might relaunch The Rocky Mountain News and challenge The Denver Post, conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz’s media company is going for it. Kind of. The company will launch what it’s calling an “interactive newspaper” in Denver but it won’t be in print. And Clarity didn’t revive the Rocky, though it owns its name and intellectual property. Instead, beginning next month with staff from the Gazette in Colorado Springs and ColoradoPolitics, along with some new hires, the company will launch The Denver Gazette, a daily digital news outlet.
“We’ve long considered publishing a Denver newspaper,” Clarity CEO Ryan McKibben said in a statement, adding in part that the “timing and market dynamics aligned.”
Here’s some history and context about this move: Anschutz’s Clarity Media, which bought The Gazette in Colorado Springs in 2012 and also owns the conservative Washington Examiner site, is a well-financed operation that has been seeking for years to establish itself as Colorado’s primary source for information, particularly when it comes to politics. It offers a conservative editorial voice in a state that is trending a deeper shade of blue. The Gazette’s current editor has said Anschutz “tried to buy The Denver Post … but The Denver Post would not sell to him.” In 2014, Clarity explored bringing back the Rocky and confirmed it had quietly bought the rights to its assets when the venerable paper folded in 2009.
Reviving the Rocky didn’t happen. Instead, in 2016, Clarity launched ColoradoPolitics, a statewide subscription-based politics site, and hired away journalists from other newspapers. A year later, Clarity bought The Colorado Statesman, a longtime Capitol insider politics journal, and turned it into a print version of ColoradoPolitics. By 2019, ColoradoPolitics was throwing spears into The Denver Post’s subscription base. ColoradoPolitics, whose managing editor, city hall reporter, and designer are Hispanic women, lured former Rocky reporter, John Ensslin, an old bull from the city’s broadsheet-high-watermark days, back to Colorado to report on Denver, and it announced job listings for more reporters to “produce a high volume of engaging, quick-turnaround content on Denver politics and Denver issues.” (The much-beloved Ensslin died last August.)
Last summer, The Gazette in Colorado Springs made a statewide play by creating a three-person investigative team, hiring a reporter away from The Colorado Sun, and promising “a strong emphasis on holding politicians and state agencies accountable for how they spend our tax dollars.” These moves over the past six years came as The Denver Post’s newsroom suffered crippling cutbacks, the loss of its downtown headquarters, and competition from the digital startup Colorado Sun, which was built by 10 Post defectors. And it comes at a time when many Colorado media players are joining forces in a “stronger together” mentality to collaborate, share their work amongst themselves, and not duplicate efforts. Beyond competition, if you will.
Now, Clarity is going full bore into the Denver market with a daily subscription-based news product.
In the lead for this item, I called this new development “half” a newspaper war in large part because the new outlet is forgoing a print component, though it is still very much branding itself as a “newspaper” and not merely a digital site. (Visually, it will have a newspaper’s layout but in digital form with videos, translated text, and audio components.) Clearly this new player is rattling sabers at the Post. In its initial branding, The Denver Gazette boasts it will provide “more hard-hitting news, investigative journalism and thought-provoking local opinions than any other publication in the city.” (Reading that, Post senior politics editor Cindi Andrews said “Don’t count on it. But I welcome the competition.”)
In an interview on Denver’s 9News TV show “Next,” Publisher Chris Reen said the company went with the Gazette name over reviving the Rocky to protect its brand. “It makes sense for us as we’re expanding to expand in that brand that we since 2012 have really put a lot of resources behind,” he said. The paper will, however, publish something each day from the archives of The Rocky Mountain News, which Reen suggested will tug at some heartstrings.
More nuggets from that interview with Next host Kyle Clark (and an extended version on the show’s YouTube channel):
- Asked if the paper’s opinion section will be conservative, Reen said “We think the Denver market is looking for an alternative voice, and that’s one of the reasons why we think we’re going to fill that void.”
- Asked if the publication needs to make money to stay around or if “Anschutz is willing to bankroll it just to get conservative views out there,” Reen said they hope to produce high-quality journalism and the market will tell them if they’re successful. “We don’t have a business plan that says we have to be at this milestone by this date,” he said.
- Because it won’t publish in print, its deadlines will be later, offering the ability to provide more timely news to readers by 5 a.m. when it hits inboxes the following day. “Those are all legacy costs that we don’t think we need in a new venture like this,” Reen said of the costs that go into printing.
- Asked how many actual new hires are being brought on board, Reen said “We’ve made quite a few hires in Denver. We don’t get into specifics in terms of how many employees we have in the company.” He said they plan on hiring more in Denver.
The Denver Gazette will “feature city hall and legislative news, suburban and statewide reporting, business, national and international coverage, outdoor trends, entertainment and local editorials” and “will resemble a printed newspaper in a tabloid format similar to the old Rocky Mountain News, with a front page, sections and news pages that readers can flip through on their devices. The paper will have at least 56 pages daily and 68 pages on Sundays.” (It will be free until after Election Day and then $9.99 per month behind a paywall after that.)
So who will lead it? From a news release:
The Denver Gazette will be led by Publisher Chris Reen, Editor Vince Bzdek, News Editor Jim Bates and Digital Editor Chuck Hickey. Among the newspaper’s staff and contributors are familiar names to Denver including Lynn Bartels, Woody Paige, Joey Bunch and Paul Klee.
When news broke Wednesday about the emergence of this new rival on the scene in Denver, some journalists offered initial takes. Former Westword reporter Chris Walker had this to say:
it strikes me that this is an old-guard of journalists to be leading a new, digital publication. The opposite approach Denverite took, which found a fresh voice and receptive audience….then again, maybe older audiences actually pay for news, so, there's that. https://t.co/Z4JlQ8LaFn
— Chris Walker (@bikejournalist) August 26, 2020
Chalkbeat’s Susan Gonzalez said all she could think of “is the large swaths of Colorado that hardly get covered (or are complete news deserts) and how much good 50 reporters could do in those parts.” (It should be noted that the new outlet isn’t saying it has hired 50 new positions as part of its launch.)
Others said they were glad to see competition in Denver. “A free society benefits from a strong free press, and I welcome the Denver Gazette, the newest voice to enter the fray,” said Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. “No more monopoly,” said one self-described “die hard conservative living in a blue state of pot heads.”
Following his interview with the publisher, Clark said of the new Denver media organization on his TV show, “Between now and Election Day it will be free to everybody and expect it to continue the Colorado Springs Gazette’s staunch advocacy for Republicans including Senator Cory Gardner, and vocal opposition to his opponent Democrat John Hickenlooper.”
The Gazette’s opinion page content has caused some in the Springs to deprive themselves of the important news value their hometown paper has to offer because they don’t want to help financially support its editorial page, or its owner. It’s similar in a way to a struggle some news consumers have in Denver about wanting to support The Denver Post’s hard-working and responsible news reporters while not wanting to financially reward their hedge-fund owner.
In the fall of 2016, I heard Gazette editor Vince Bzdek speak at Colorado College, his alma mater and where I teach, about what he believes are the motives of his boss, a big-time Republican donor who has bankrolled Christian conservative causes and has been dubbed “The Man Who Owns LA.”
Here’s what Bzdek said, versions of which I have heard him repeat since:
“I’ve been trying to figure out, so why is Anschutz interested in this? He’s got all these giant businesses. And part of it is … he really believes in community and that a community is better if it has a good newspaper. And that’s what his belief is in the Colorado Springs paper. You know, before I got here I interviewed a lot … sort of trying to find out ‘Is this going to be a mouthpiece for this guy? Is this something he’s going to use to drive his agenda?’ I’ve not found that to be the case. I found that he has this very sort of Penrose-like commitment to the betterment of Colorado Springs.”
Now, whatever the reason, his company is making a big commitment an hour up the road.
Free Press moves into Colorado with News Voices
Colorado continues to garner attention from national journalism organizations that are putting people on the ground in our state. From an Associated Press expansion to a Report for America correspondent and a pro-bono Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press attorney, we’re a place where folks from outside our borders are taking notice and making investments.
A lot of that has to do with the way mass newspaper layoffs in 2018 zapped our state’s media scene into buzzing ions of creativity and innovation, most recently leading to an unprecedented movement of statewide collaboration.
The latest national group to invest in Colorado is Free Press, the DC-based group that focuses on “saving Net Neutrality, achieving affordable internet access for all, uplifting the voices of people of color in the media, challenging old and new media gatekeepers to serve the public interest, ending unwarranted surveillance, defending press freedom and reimagining local journalism.”
To that end, Free Press and the Colorado Media Project launched News Voices: Colorado, “a new initiative that will work alongside communities underserved by local media to help strengthen and re-imagine local news.” Managing the effort is Diamond Hardiman, a born-and-raised Coloradan who studied African-American studies and political science at Saint Louis University where she did community organizing and researched liberation theory and womanism.
“All of those things combined to really shape my understanding on the importance of narrative and how big a role it plays in shaping communities, shaping how they see themselves, and really shaping the boundaries of what people believe is possible,” she told me over Zoom this week. “So that’s really how I was able to join in on this work.” Her hope is to work alongside community members in Colorado to transform local news here in a way that’s “more accountable, equitable, and sustainable for the communities that it reports with.” (Notice, she says reports “with” not “on.” Think about that.) She hopes to start building relationships with communities and hearing their thoughts on their local news ecosystems and working with people to help them understand the power they have to play a role in local news. “That also includes working with journalists and newsrooms to really talk about how we can share power and how they consider communities as a part of their process,” she said.
The News Voices initiative here kicked off this Tuesday and it already has some scheduled events on the calendar:
Sept. 16 at 6 p.m. MT: Reporting on Resistance: 2020 Uprisings
Sept. 24 at 6 p.m. MT: COVID-19 News and Information for Colorado’s Immigrant Communities
Sept. 29 at 6 p.m. MT: COVID-19 News and Information for Colorado’s Immigrant Communities (Spanish)
Look out for some organizing in a community near you, whether it be public conversations, collaborations, residents embedding inside newsrooms, or something else. “What we’ve found in all the places where we’ve worked is that when you let the community lead on figuring out what they want out of local news that projects wind up looking very different,” says Mike Rispoli who directs the News Voices project.
How will success look for the project? When communities Hardiman and News Voices are working in feel as though they are represented in local news and feel connected to newsrooms in a way that makes them engaged and involved in what’s going on, she says. You can watch a video of Hardiman speaking with Philip Clapham, project manager for the Colorado Media Project here.
LIVE NOW: Tune in to our live Q&A celebrating the launch of #NewsVoices Colorado. Let's talk local journalism, centering communities, and shifting power.
— Free Press (@freepress) August 26, 2020
The Colorado Media Project is a partner with The Colorado Independent, where this newsletter appears as a column, and The Colorado Press Association in the new nonprofit COLab initiative.
The Colorado Press Association looks for a new leader
“It is with regret that I have resigned from my position as the CEO of Colorado Press Association.” So wrote Jill Farschman in a letter to members last week. She cited medical issues that are leading her to retire earlier than she’d planned. “This wasn’t an easy decision,” she said, pegging her last day as no later than Oct. 31.
Farschman, who has a background in publishing and recruiting, took over the state’s largest press advocacy group in 2018 when then-director Jerry Raehal left the organization to publish The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. (Incidentally, Raehal announced this week he’ll be leaving that position — and Colorado — to lead the Louisiana Press Association.)
The CPA is looking for a new director at a time when the nonprofit trade organization with a six-figure budget and three-person staff completely reshapes its mission. The group recently took on a leadership role in COLab, with Farschman writing, “While the Covid crisis is proving how critical local journalism is to our democracy, it also is magnifying cracks in our industry and highlighting years of decay that we can no longer ignore.” The CPA also has a for-profit advertising agency arm called the Colorado Press Network. Leading both, Farschman once said, requires a “pretty vast skill set.”
The person to lead this group as a new chapter of journalism unfolds in Colorado must be “a mission-driven, transformational leader deeply committed to high quality local independent journalism,” according to a job listing. Another attribute: “a steady and savvy media consumer dedicated to highlighting the practices and values of ethical, legitimate journalism.” And, of course: “You are keenly aware of the financial challenges facing our member news outlets and are devoted to securing sources of diversified revenue to help local independent journalism in Colorado thrive.”
How a journalist expertly handled a big home-page howler
Journalism history is full of hilarious examples of wild headline typos or eye-popping photos that slipped past the keen eye of an editor and into print or onto a homepage. How journalists handle them can sometimes be as instructive to note as how the actual howler came about.
A case study could be found at The Denver Post this week where the paper was prepping a story about how the governor was allowing bars to temporarily extend last call hours. Danika Worthington was handling how the story would look online and recalled a photographer recently shot images from a local bar, the Hi-Dive. She grabbed a photo from the file and uploaded it to run with the bar story. Once it went live, on the paper’s home page, readers immediately saw in the image that Worthington had not: A photograph on the wall behind one of the bartenders of (get ready) a naked man. Oh, the horror, right? Of course, the image had to come down. Unfortunately, the one that replaced it had the F-word in the background. Hands clutched at pearls across Colorado.
Those kinds of things happen, but it’s the way Worthington handled it on social media that deserves more attention. “Look everyone, I’m sorry I didn’t see the naked man in the background,” she tweeted. “But in my defense, I’m a lesbian.” Well. Played.
Readers were already responding in good spirits to the screwup. “I wasn’t offended but had a great chuckle,” one wrote to the paper. “Don’t reprimand the reporter or the photographer, these things happen. Maybe more people would pay attention to the news if innocent things like this happened more often. This one article was worth my whole months subscription price.”
Worthington posted a screengrab of the reader response:
As you can see, the nude pic was really just *checks notes* audience engagement. I did this FOR our readers pic.twitter.com/zt3lTMYKxw
— Danika Worthington ♉️ (@Dani_Worth) August 22, 2020
Speaking of audience engagement, CTR builds its email list with … a push poll?
These days, especially for digital news sites, email lists are gold. They help build audience engagement and brand awareness and can give publishers valuable insight through analytics that show who is clicking what, how much, and when. And they’re especially helpful for raising money via email fundraising campaigns.
The Colorado Times Recorder, a progressive news site that doesn’t disclose its donors (and whose role in our state’s media environment I’ve covered before), is employing a noteworthy way of building its list. The site is sponsoring polls on Facebook under the heading “What Colorado Thinks.” Plenty of them. One of them asks what Facebook users think about Gov. Jared Polis’ mandated 10 p.m. last call. Another queries folks if they would support a temporary closure of Colorado’s borders during COVID-19. Both of them drummed up some Facebook engagement — and maybe even some email addresses. “Poll questions get people’s attention,” says Jason Salzman, founder and editor of The Colorado Times Recorder.
But how should readers feel about this other sponsored Facebook poll from CTR? The question: “What Colorado Thinks: Will Gardner drop out? What do you think is the chance that Cory Gardner will drop out of the Senate race because he’s so unpopular among Coloradans?”
Does that sound like a push poll to you? Something designed to seed a particular message about a candidate to a respondent rather than illicit a valuable response? Multiple Colorado journalists who saw the poll-slash-email-list-builder wagged a finger at it with varying levels of disapproval. For his part, Salzman, whose site is a fount of unflattering Gardner content, says that wasn’t his intent. “It was designed, like our other non-Gardner [polls], to get people to click on it,” he says. It didn’t even occur to him that such a thing could be viewed as a push poll, he says, though he acknowledged it’s a “milder version,” of one. Salzman’s outlet has run all kinds of poll-type questions, he says, and you can see them via Facebook’s transparency pages. (The page shows CTR paid around $3,000 for ads in the past week; Salzman says that particular sponsored Gardner poll cost less than $100.) He maintains these aren’t intended to be real polls. “Gardner topics generate a lot of interest on our FB page,” Salzman says.
I bet they do! And along the way, maybe even help seed an idea about a candidate running for re-election.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
⚠️A scary email to a Denver TV reporter: “You, the media Will be the target. That day will come.”
🎙️Community Foundation Boulder is creating “a new TRENDS Reporting Fellowship program.”
🗞️KVNF “Local Motion” host Gavin Dahl interviewed two rural Colorado newspaper owners, and found “passionate hyper-local reporting in the public interest can come at a cost.”
⚙️The Colorado Independent editors write about Laura Frank “meet our new boss.”
⚰️KKTV news anchor Don Ward died suddenly while hiking. “We are rudderless,” wrote a reporter. Governor Jared Polis thanked him for his “years of dedicated journalism in Colorado.”
😷Denver7’s general manager, who said he hadn’t seen a photo of station staff without masks and not social distancing until Westword sent it to him, “acknowledges the disconnect between the image and best practices promoted by Denver7.” (ICYMI: Westword’s Aug. 12 headline: “Three Fox31/Channel 2 Anchors Have COVID-19, Coverup Alleged).
👀A Colorado State lineman who was selling roofing and found himself forced to the ground at gunpoint by a white man: “I just figured: This guy’s been watching the wrong type of news channel or something.”
📰KUSA 9News reporter Jeremy Jojola has a piece in the latest issue of the Investigative Reporters & Editors magazine titled “The myth of ‘thick skin'” about trauma some journalists can suffer.
🔌How campus journalism by Colorado College students got cited in The New York Times.
🐦A Denver sports-radio host said he was “horrified” after realizing he tweeted this.
⚖️Colorado’s new pro-bono press freedom attorney says “I can see how journalists can be so frustrated.”
*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.