Powerhouse nonprofit news outlet ProPublica expands in the West, and ‘possibly Colorado’

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo illustration by Corey Hutchins with Wikimedia Commons

The powerful national nonprofit public-interest journalism outlet ProPublica is expanding — perhaps even into our state’s borders.

From an announcement this week:

ProPublica announced on Thursday that it is dramatically scaling up its commitment to local investigative journalism with the launch of three regional reporting hubs. The nonprofit news organization will establish two new units covering the South and Southwest. ProPublica Illinois, which since 2017 has published investigative journalism on key issues in Illinois, will be transformed into a unit covering a broader swath of the Midwest. In addition to the regional reporting hubs, ProPublica is launching a Distinguished Fellows program to support proven investigative journalists. Selected fellows will embark on three-year partnerships with ProPublica, as they report from their local newsrooms.

Funding for the expansion comes from “two significant grants from philanthropic entities, one a donor-advised fund held at the Pew Charitable Trusts,” and will allow the outlet to hire 30 new people across the country.

The new money, the outlet stated, will allow for:

A six-person reporting unit based in Phoenix to cover the Southwest, including New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Utah and possibly Colorado.

“The Midwest, South and Southwest are areas of the country with growing, diverse and underrepresented populations, and these regions appear frequently in ProPublica reporting on a range of issues, from health care to education to criminal justice and beyond,” ProPublica editor Stephen Engelberg said in a statement. “The regional hubs will tackle these issues, publishing stories in a manner tailored to the areas, matching local talent and knowledge with national expertise and guidance.”

Major recent realignments in Colorado’s journalism scene through the COLab initiative have also created something of a new ProPublica-like model here. As part of their COLab work, editors Susan Greene and Tina Griego, formerly of The Colorado Independent, are working with small newspapers around the state on deep investigations and enterprise reporting. Such partnerships can have serious impact. This year, The Anchorage Daily News won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for reporting its newsroom did in collaboration with ProPublica.

News that its expansion might reach Colorado made the rounds here Thursday.

“Just do the non-Denver part,” said John Rodriguez, the former publisher of PULP newsmagazine who now works in communications for the City of Pueblo. “And you’ll be grand.”

A ‘previously unpublished interview with a local newspaper columnist in his native Yuma County’

Those words above are what immediately jumped out at me when scrolling through a recent story about the incumbent in Colorado’s U.S. Senate race written by HuffPost’s climate reporter Alexander C. Kaufman.

The story stems from a recently unearthed phone call that was recorded three years ago between Colorado’s Republican U.S. senator and a columnist for the Yuma Pioneer newspaper in the politician’s hometown.

Here’s the HuffPost story’s lead:

Facing an uphill battle for reelection in a state where two-thirds of registered voters polled last month said they favored a Senate candidate who promised “aggressive action” on climate change, Colorado Sen. Cory Gardner (R) has billed himself as a “national leader” on climate issues and run three separate ads casting himself as a pragmatic environmentalist.

But in a 2017 audiotape HuffPost obtained, Gardner squirms out of questions about what is causing climate change, instead leaning into conspiratorial thinking that efforts to curb carbon emissions are part of a larger plan to “control the economy.”

“There are people who want to control the economy as a result of their belief about the environment,” Gardner said in a previously unpublished interview with a local newspaper columnist in his native Yuma County in rural eastern Colorado. “Absolutely, there are.”

There’s a policy angle to this story about a major politician’s stance on climate change. There’s a political angle to it, too. He’s in a tough re-election campaign against the state’s popular former governor, John Hickenlooper. In response to the piece, one oil-and-gas backer pointed to remarks Hickenlooper, a former geologist, made in 2010 in which he expressed skepticism about climate science. Hickenlooper doesn’t want to ban fracking but said this summer he wants to make it “obsolete” and supports transitioning to net-zero emissions and a 100% renewable energy economy by 2050, though his record and rhetoric is complicated. (In a 2018 summary to policymakers, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned humans would have to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions in order to ward off dire consequences from a global temperature increase.)

The HuffPo item is also a media story. The primary source material for the national piece comes from a 17-minute phone conversation Gardner had in 2017 with Gregory Hill, a novelist from Eastern Colorado who writes columns for The Yuma Pioneer. That conversation got testy when Gardner danced around questions Hill had about the senator’s thoughts on humans causing climate change.

Gardner, a close ally to President Donald Trump, is up for re-election next month, and pundits and journalists generally intone in a sage and sober way that he faces [sage and sober pundit voice] steep odds.

Here’s more from HuffPo:

It’s [a] desire to unseat Gardner that convinced Hill to share his interview with a reporter. Following their testy Tuesday morning call three years ago, Gardner’s team contacted Tony Rayl, the editor of the Yuma Pioneer, to complain about the columnist’s tone and ask whether Hill truly worked for the paper. Hill, who said he is on the autism spectrum and reacts angrily when someone appears to be evading simple questions, was embarrassed at losing his temper. “I felt like a failure,” he said in a phone call with HuffPost. And in a county of roughly 10,000 people, he didn’t want his mostly conservative neighbors to see him as “the shrill, hysterical version of the liberal that they already have in their mind.”

So, three years later, how did Kaufman, a national reporter, learn about a never-published column and get this scoop from Hill that included nearly 20 minutes of audio?

Even though a Hill-authored column about the phone call never appeared in the local newspaper, Hill did transcribe his interview and share it with friends, Kaufman says.

“A long-time source of mine in Colorado — whose request for anonymity I am compelled to respect here —  tipped me off to the existence of the interview,” Kaufman told me. He said he emailed Hill “who shared the interview and gave me permission to publish it in full.”

Why Marty C did it

Two months after a TV weathercaster lost his job at the NBC affiliate in Denver following a tweet in which he compared federal troops in U.S. cities to Nazis, he is speaking out about why he did what he did.

“Better to be a good American than a good employee,” wrote Marty Coniglio, who spent 15 years at KUSA 9News. His column appeared in Denver’s alternative weekly Westword this week where he explained his feelings about how it all played out. His career went kaput after a social media post that read “Federal police in cities…now where have I seen that before?” that accompanied a photo of German Brownshirts in front of a Nazi flag.

“My former employer did the right thing in firing me,” Coniglio wrote. “They set the rules, standards of conduct and guidelines for content. Break them and you pay. I did and I did.”

More from the column:

I’ve never seen myself as a journalist. My training is in psychology and political science, and then late in my college career, I cultivated my fascination with meteorology. I am a scientist who happened to be engaged in mass media, like Bill Nye without the bow tie. As such, I observed journalists for a long, long time. The wealth of close contact that I enjoyed brought me to the conclusion that journalists do not set out to lie, twist the truth or advance an agenda. The people with whom I worked at several media outlets tirelessly sought to achieve accuracy even when interview subjects were hiding the truth.

Balance in storytelling was also the topic of long conversations in editorial meetings…to be sure that all relevant, varied points of view in a story were presented in a restrained, respectful way. In other words, playing by the rules of a polite society.

The mistake that journalists have made is to assume that our current president and his ilk have any intention of playing by those same rules.

Later in the column, Coniglio explained “why I did it. Why I posted what was described as an ‘incendiary’ tweet that ended my media career”:
My father fought the fascist Germans in North Africa and the fascist Italians in Italy during World War II. Three of my brothers served in the Army. My late brother Tim was an Army Airborne Ranger and retired as a major after a twenty-year career. So don’t you dare try to lecture me about respecting our veterans. It was at that moment I realized that maintaining a high-prestige job with a comfortable lifestyle and predictable future was not the most important thing to me. The idea of what America is — self-government, equal access under the law, equal justice under the law, respect for truth: Those were the things that were the most important to me.
Of course, he also said a lot more. So read the entire column at Westword.

Kaiser Health News rounds out its Colorado crew

Last spring, Kaiser Health News, the national nonprofit dedicated to “in-depth coverage of health care policy and politics” set up shop in Colorado.

The outlet, which reports on “how the health care system — hospitals, doctors, nurses, insurers, governments, consumers — works,” had teamed up with two in-state nonprofits and the Kaiser Family Foundation to fund a health care journalism squad here. At the time, KHN had about 50-plus journalists mostly based in D.C. and California and had recently launched a Midwest bureau in St. Louis. David Rousseau, the publisher of KHN, told me back then the move into Colorado came from the state being a place with “a lot of interesting health issues” and “a media ecosystem that has not supported the level of health journalism that it used to in the past.”

This week, KHN made a new Colorado hire. Rae Ellen Bichell jumped over from KUNC’s Mountain West Bureau and will work for KHN out of Longmont. She has also reported for NPR, KNKX, and WPLN.

Bichell is the latest addition to KHN’s Mountain States Bureau, “which will now have four staffers and a bevy of freelancers writing health stories for us about the region,” national editor Kytja Weir says. ​The local staff out here in the West also includes Markian Hawryluk in Denver, Katheryn Houghton in Missoula, Montana, and Mountain States editor Matt Volz in Bozeman, Montana.

“We’re really excited to be able to expand at KHN at a time when accurate health news is more important than ever,” Weir says. “So many news outlets have had to cut back amid the biggest health story of our lives. We help fill gaps by making all our stories free to any outlet to run under our Creative Commons license.”

Check out what KHN’s reporters have been digging into in Colorado so far here.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

🌎Colorado Newsline published an in-depth three-part series, “Climate Inaction,” that examines “the troubled relationship between Gov. Jared Polis and a landmark climate action law.”
🆕A groundbreaking project “examining the history of anti-Black harm in the U.S. media system” counts Colorado’s Diamond Hardiman of News Voices: Colorado as a contributor.
⤴️A Colorado Sun contributor this week found a “cheery” 1925 newspaper article in the Sterling Democrat describing a massive Ku Klux Klan celebration, “complete with a parade, fireworks and wedding at the town fairgrounds, saying it was the largest crowd ever gathered for an evening of any kind in this county.'”
⚭This newspaper/advertiser relationship is complicated.
💸CPR News paid “more than $2,500 split almost equally between counties and the Secretary of State’s office for thousands of pages of emails related to the conduct of Colorado elections.”
📰Readers at COLab/The Colorado Independent weigh in on truth-telling and bias.
🔗Ari Armstrong wrote about Frederick Douglass’s ties to Colorado.
📚Media Bias Chart creator Vanessa Otero of Colorado is offering news literacy workshops this month.
🗳️Colorado College canceled classes on Election Day after a student “submitted a formal request to the college and promoted the idea in the campus newspaper.”
The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel writes of the GOP congressional candidate on the Western Slope: “Boebert spent the majority of her time with the editorial board refusing to answer questions until she got through a point-by-point refutation of [a guest column] Mitsch Bush wrote about her views on health-care policy” and “there was no time for an adequate number of questions after her filibuster.”
📻Labor reporter Taylor Allen said “Last week was my last” at Colorado Public Radio. “More info on next steps later … It’s been a hard year and I’m in awe of people’s resilience.”
🗞️From The Steamboat Pilot & Todayreporting on the death of a local man in an ultralight aircraft crash in Indiana: “[Mike] Schlichtman’s wife of 35 years, Lisa Schlichtman, is editor of Steamboat Pilot & Today.”
📦The Colorado Press Association officially changed its address to the Buell Public Media Center.
📱Click here for a Google Doc betting bracket of currently employed Denver journos who might take the Axios newsletter-writing job.
⚠️A Colorado reporter gives an election-year reminder: Editorial boards “are entirely separate from newsrooms at a newspaper.”
➰From The Cañon City Daily Record: “Reporter, publisher, lumberman, and congressman, Guy U. Hardy played many leading roles in Cañon City in its early years.”
🎙️KRCC public radio in the Springs is getting a new Morning Edition host.
📶KUSA 9News show “Next” stated Wednesday “We’re told Comcast is working through outages of certain stations.” Host Kyle Clark told rival CBS4’s Jim Benemann “You’re welcome.”
📄The first issue of the revamped Mountain Gazette magazine, under a new owner, is off to the printer this week.
🖥️Colorado Press Women’s “popular fall Author’s event” is moving to Zoom.
🚫Harvard’s NiemanLab offers advice for journalists about how not to cover voter fraud 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. Image via Wikimedia Commons