As legacy newspapers fade in cities across the country with many of them cutting their print days, shedding staff, and shrinking their circulation areas, some former reporters who worked there will begin to start their own niche news outlets.
A city hall reporter might start her own newsletter reporting on local government. An education reporter might launch one hyper-focused on certain schools. A sports reporter might find a lucrative niche with comprehensive prep sports coverage. You get the idea. There are even organizations that focus on helping individuals launch and sustain these kinds of small local media endeavors. Just this week, Daniel J. Thompson, a digital editor who told The New York Times he was the only Black journalist at The Kenosha News in Wisconsin, quit over his paper’s coverage and has already raised more than $35,000 to start his own outlet.
Here in Colorado, we can find two such examples in Boulder Beat and The NoCo Optimist. Both were founded by former reporters for a local newspaper who left to do their own things on their own terms. (I’ve covered what Shay Castle is doing at Boulder Beat in this newsletter here, and what Kelly Ragan is doing in Greeley here.)
Now one of them, Boulder Beat, is pushing its local newsgathering into the courtroom in a battle over access to information. Castle wants a judge to determine whether emails the city’s mayor pro tem sent from a personal account to local nonprofits about a controversial political issue should be considered public records. (The way in which public officials use private email accounts has been a trend open-government advocates have been following for years.)
The definition of public records in CORA includes the “correspondence of elected officials,” except for correspondence that lacks “a demonstrable connection to the exercise of functions required or authorized by law or administrative rule and does not involve the receipt or expenditure of public funds.”
The Boulder city attorney’s office has maintained that [the councilman’s] email exchanges with the two nonprofits “are not public records” because, in its view, the messages have no “demonstrable connection” to government functions and do not involve the expenditure or receipt of public funds.
Notwithstanding that there is a personal sphere where records are not “public records”, there are limits to the personal sphere when one is an elected official. This Court should determine that an elected official may not manufacture a safe harbor from the category of “public record” for emails that conduct public business by using a personal email address and disclaiming the official role.
A news story Castle wrote for Boulder Beat about the emails and a hot-button local dispute over the city’s residential occupancy rules included a disclosure. She had done contract work until July for a nonprofit involved in the story— an indication of the ways in which local news entrepreneurs might have to supplement their incomes when getting news startups off the ground. Castle says she raised about $30,000 for her site and newsletter this year, and though she took on a recent outside gig, she feels like she’s getting to a point where she can focus solely on the news outlet.
Castle’s complaint against the city is one of two legal actions she’s currently involved in. Though she hasn’t yet written about it, former Boulder District Attorney Stan Garnett is representing her in a separate potential court action against the county in which Castle is seeking emails as she follows up on a news tip.
Both lawyers are working for the independent journalist pro-bono, though Castle has had to spend a couple hundred dollars for filing fees, and she had to pay more than $100 for her initial open-records request. When she worked for The Boulder Daily Camera newspaper, which had lawyers who dealt with open-access issues on behalf of its reporters, she didn’t have such troubles.
“I think the city probably takes them a little bit more seriously than they took me because they know I don’t have the resources to do anything,” Castle told me about the difference in being an independent journalist versus working for a major media company.
In 2015, Colorado earned an ‘F’ grade in the State Integrity Investigation in the category for access to information. For that report, I wrote: “If a custodian denies an open records request in Colorado, the law states the record seeker must use the court system as a remedy. There is no administrative appeals process in Colorado like there is at the federal level.” That was a main reason the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press recently said it was sending a pro-bono First Amendment attorney to Colorado to help newsrooms fight for access to records they believe should be public.
Maybe expect these kinds of battles to pick up soon around here, and we’ll see if any of them move the needle on case law, legislation, or precedents in the future.
Journalism beyond competition
For the past few months when I’ve written here about what the Colorado News Collaborative is doing, emails would pop into my inbox or someone on the phone might say they still had questions or were fuzzy about what this whole COLab thing is and how it works.
This week I wrote about the effort for a national audience in Columbia Journalism Review under the headline “Journalism beyond competition.” (Ironic timing given last week’s newsletter about The Denver Gazette launching in The Denver Post’s backyard.)
From the piece:
The story of contemporary Colorado journalism can be told in two acts. In the first, the Rocky Mountain News and the Denver Post are locked in one of the late twentieth century’s wildest newspaper wars, which ended in 2009 with the Rocky’s demise. In the second, a fragmented media landscape of upstart publications is galvanized by the Denver Rebellion of 2018, when layoffs led the Post’s remaining journalists to rise up against their hedge fund owner in a protest that, by this year, had largely fizzled out.
Now the Colorado News Collaborative, known as COLab, has opened a dramatic third act in the state—one that might see its disparate news media outlets bury old rivalries and unite, in order to hold off collapse.
The depletion of local news scenes, exacerbated by the current pandemic, isn’t unique to Colorado, and similar models in other states are emerging to help mitigate the attendant problems. Collaborative efforts involving news organizations of various sizes and platforms are taking hold in different ways in states from New Hampshire and North Carolina to New Jersey and beyond. “We are seeing more statewide initiatives pop up that are both project-based and more permanent efforts,” says Stefanie Murray, who directs the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University.
Laura Frank, a Rocky Mountain News veteran who recently stepped down as vice president of news for Rocky Mountain PBS to become COLab’s inaugural director, says such a model can work anywhere if it can work in Colorado. “The amount of resources that we wasted in the competitive model was really kind of criminal,” she says. “And nobody has those resources now.”
There are still some aspects of this unfolding new chapter for Colorado journalism that I’m seeking to better understand as it comes together. You’ve seen me write here about how the movement is reshaping the mission of The Colorado Independent, where this newsletter appears as a column, and the broader COLab effort might be solidifying as its 10 core members move into their new building in downtown Denver.
Journalistic collaboration beyond ad hoc projects needs platform building and a sense of shared mission. Compelling ideas here from Colorado's @colabnewsco, tempered with realism. https://t.co/pfOeTM3Tgf
— Nicholas Dawes (@NicDawes) August 31, 2020
I hope the CJR story captures the initiative in the context of Colorado’s recent past and the philosophy behind what’s fueling this new and unique effort.
Colorado Public Radio explains how it covers politics and elections
The public radio giant marching across Colorado gobbling up news outlets and smaller stations as it continues to grow has a mission “to serve all Coloradans, not a partisan sliver,” two of its editors wrote this week. This year, the station is “putting voters — not candidates — at the center of our coverage.”
And the station, which has been opening up to its audience about how it operates, is also explaining its news judgment and reporting process for the upcoming election— from the way its journalists select sources to how they decide what stories are worthy of reporting.
Consider what CPR says about how it chooses whose voice to elevate in the reporting process:
Our reporters are always expanding their source databases. We look for sources who are experts when the story calls for that. We look for sources across a wide range of attributes — race, ethnicity, geography, ideology, gender, age, religion and many other demographics. The most important consideration for a source, though, is their importance to explaining an issue, their veracity and how they help us achieve our goal of factual, fair reporting.
We use anonymous sources in rare instances. When we do, we put them through a rigorous check, to corroborate what they say; examine evidence they have; get the information without an anonymous source whenever possible; find other sources to corroborate what they say; read emails or documents that support their story. We know that our readers and listeners are more distrustful of anonymous sources so every one must be approved by a top editor.
- The station is surveying readers to find out what’s important to them to help guide CPR’s coverage.”By working with you, we can target our questions to the candidates in a way that will be most useful to you as you make decisions with your ballot in hand.”
- “In addition, this fall we are focused on some of the regions that have the biggest chance of determining this election and regions that reveal something significant about the political future of the state. Those include Pueblo, suburban Denver, Weld and Garfield counties.”
- Some questions CPR asks itself when determining whether a story rises to the level of news coverage: “Does this affect actual people who live in our state? How, and how many? Does this help Coloradans understand each other? Does it help them understand the issues they will have to decide on? Is this information our readers and listeners are seeking at this moment? Is this topic already thoroughly covered in other outlets or will we bring something new with our story?”
- “Broadly speaking, we don’t have a running count to make sure we broadcast X number of Republicans and Democrats. But with each and every story, reporters and editors ask each other: Have we presented this issue fairly?”
- “Specifically on Colorado Matters, once the show records an interview with a candidate, we track each claim made and ask a producer to verify it … False claims may be edited out of interviews or aired with corrections or clarifications. If a candidate or ballot measure segment airs live, a producer is on standby to fact check in real-time, and inform the host that a correction or clarification is necessary.”
Newsrooms opening up their processes to their audiences is something that really took off after the 2016 presidential election as more media consumers became interested in how journalism works, and during a time when legit media sources have come under attack primarily from conservative factions. Read CPR’s whole coverage explanation, and take its voter survey here.
— Trusting News (@TrustingNews) August 31, 2020
Department of sensitive topics
Students wondering what course material might be covered in “Sensitive Topics 101” if such a course existed at The University of Colorado can thank The Denver Post for a heads-up about the syllabus. Reporter Elizabeth Hernandez got her hands on a July memo sent by CU’s spokesman to communications administrators. From The Denver Post:
The University of Colorado has instructed communications staff on the school’s campuses to avoid partisan language and submit any statements dealing with “sensitive” topics — including COVID-19 science, race relations, climate change and the First Amendment — to the office of President Mark Kennedy prior to publication. …
The two-page memo lists more than a dozen subjects that “require heightened attention,” including health insurance, marijuana, COVID-19 science, campus reopening processes, international research funding, corporate research funding, divestment, international student visas, the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals or DACA program, First Amendment and free speech, climate change, academic freedom, race relations and LGBTQ+ issues. …
“The intent is to collaborate on sensitive communications in as timely a way as possible, understanding that many communication issues are fast-moving,” the memo states. “One goal is to not surprise the regents on communications.”
The University of Colorado system is overseen by nine regents whom voters choose in partisan elections within congressional districts and statewide— one of the few such institutions in the country. Because regents come from different backgrounds politically, CU spokesman Ken McConnellogue, who wrote the memo, told the newspaper there have been some communications from some campuses within the system that rankled certain regents. He said the memo wouldn’t apply to students, faculty, or staff, adding, “I do not have the inclination, ability or authority to influence dean or faculty communication.”
More from the Post:
McConnellogue said the intent of the document was to be measured in the university’s communications, particularly on politically sensitive topics, and to avoid overt editorializing.
Calling the First Amendment a "sensitive topic" is like trapping hummingbirds in a briefcase
— John Wenzel (@johnwenzel) August 25, 2020
Read the whole story here.
How High Country News evolved— and is evolving
As the venerable western magazine based in Paonia, Colorado, approaches its 50th anniversary, two of its leaders sat for a Q-and-A with one of its editors and talked about the history of the journal and how it has changed over the years.
Here was one interesting exchange from editor-at-large Betsy Marston and senior development officer Paul Larmer:
HCN: Recently, there’s been some tension over the evolution of the magazine and a feeling by some that the magazine isn’t covering public lands enough and is too focused on social issues. What do you think about that sentiment?
Marston: Do you really want to know this? I think it’s great that we cover Native American stories with Native American writers, and in a serious, concentrated, consistent way. I think that was a wonderful addition to High Country News. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be, for me, enough focus on the public lands where everything happens. I think we’ve missed so much of Donald Trump’s impact on the West, and I’m afraid much of it is lasting. I hope that we’ll get back to it. If you ignore what had been the core of High Country News, you’re in danger of losing readers. And I think we have lost some of them.
Larmer: HCN can’t ignore the social and human issues that are happening to the region, or the economic trends and the border issues. We can’t ignore those stories. I think some of it is about resources. If you only have a small staff and freelance budget and you’re going to disperse that budget covering many more issues, you’re going to necessarily spend a lot less time on the traditional stories that HCN has done. It used to be all we did was natural resource stories, everybody on staff. Since we’re covering a much broader range of issues now, maybe we actually need some focused attention on those core areas so that we’re not missing stories. But you can’t do everything.
The Colorado Sun turns 2 and launched a daily podcast
Year two was a big one for The Colorado Sun, the digital outlet launched by 10 former Denver Post staffers who were fed up with the bloodletting at the hands of the newspaper’s hedge-fund owner. Initially, the outlet had financial backing from Civil, a cryptocurrency-and-blockchain company, but the founders were smart not to make too much out of that at the time.
Civil has not been as successful as the Sun, and the outlet has been standing on its own, from reader support, for a while now. Those who follow local news startups have been looking at the two-year anniversary mark as a sign of success. These days, success for a local news company can mean not seeing its name in a headline alongside the word “layoff” or the gentler “downsizing.” In October 2018, two months after the Sun’s launch, I wrote in this newsletter that it was “one of the most impressive local news startups of the year on the output/content front.” Two years later, the Sun has racked up awards, established itself as a major force in the state’s media landscape, and has avoided a layoff headline.
Today, as it enters its third year in business, the Sun has more than 100,000 newsletter subscribers and more than 11,000 paying members, says its editor Larry Ryckman. By Aug. 28, when we spoke, he said the site already had a million unique page views for the month. He said he feels good about where the Sun is, and said he and staff members often say (and I’ve heard this from others) they’re having more fun than ever in their journalism careers. “We know who we are and who we aren’t,” he said.
Here’s from a note to readers Ryckman wrote this week:
Today, The Sun begins a new chapter on a new (for us) platform: podcasting. A while back we conducted our first readership survey, and many of you said you want to hear our journalism as well as read it.
The Daily Sun-Up offers a quick take on our top stories, brings you up to date on the latest news and explores what it means to live, work and play in Colorado. It will be available at 6 a.m. Monday through Friday on all of the usual podcasting platforms, as well as on our new Sun podcast and audio page.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
📢Upcoming panel at Colorado College: “Connecting Colorado for Fair Redistricting: A Public Symposium and Call to Action.”
📺Rocky Mountain PBS has formed a “partnership between Rocky Mountain Public Media, Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative.”
☀️The Colorado Sun hired the recent college grad who wrote that open letter about trouble finding journalism jobs.
🐴Hickenlooper to The Delta County Independent: “…the media is trying to tell the truth and they interpret things that I disagree with vehemently …. it’s the media, I expect that.”
🤷♂️The Pueblo Chieftain gave up on trying to get a candidate to agree to debate terms. The editor “didn’t say which candidate that was,” but you can read between the lines.
🙄When a Trumpy congressional candidate cried “fake news,” a reporter showed receipts.
⚖️A lawsuit reported in The New York Daily News: “2 former Telemundo Denver anchors sue network; accuse boss of homophobia, fatphobia, racism.”
🛑The Kiowa County Independent newspaper feels it’s being stonewalled by the local sheriff’s office.
🔒A Denver Post reporter complains event schedules for John Hickenlooper and Cory Gardner aren’t public.
👀Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff says a CNN story about our state’s new RNC official “doesn’t reflect too well on Colorado’s political press that this kind of stuff is (rightly) deemed newsworthy by national outlets and we’ve just kind of accepted it as background noise.” (ColoradoPolitics and The Colorado Sun picked up the CNN report. The Sun’s subscription newsletter reported that the new official “and his viewpoints are known quantities in Colorado politics, but the CNN story has elevated them to the national stage.”)
🚫For a story about Colorado as a post-apocalyptic fictitious setting, John Wenzel of The Denver Post recalls how game developers once “would only agree to an interview if trademarked names were not mentioned.”
⛰️The first issue of the revamped Mountain Gazette under new ownership is “shaping up nicely” with a “diverse lineup of writers.”
💬What Free Press’s News Voices initiative is doing in Colorado.
🗡️The Aurora Sentinel’s anonymous gossip columnist’s take on The Gazette.
📰Why The Denver Post doesn’t plan to make an endorsement in the presidential race this year. (A thread.)
📍Sure, that’s what Google Maps says, but. (They fixed the headline.)
💰High Country News says it’s halfway to the magazine’s $10 million fundraising goal.
🗒️Watch some of Colorado’s print, TV, and radio journalists share their tips for interviewing people.
*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.