About those Texans: KUNC reveals a ‘journalist getaways’ program at Colorado’s tourism office

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

A welcome sign (for vacationing Texans, amirite?) outside Buena Vista, Colorado in the summer of 2020 (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

Conversations about whether to increase public-sector support for a struggling local news industry have been taking place lately among Colorado’s journalistic community more than elsewhere.

But a new story this week by a local public radio reporter shows how tax money in Colorado has been going to support journalism of a different sort.

First, to recap those recent discussions about public support for media here:

  • Last spring, community members in Longmont made national news when they floated an idea of a local library taxing district to help subsidize a local news outlet.
  • Last fall, the Colorado Media Project published a policy paper that laid out specific recommendations around this question: “Should state and local governments play a role in stabilizing and sustaining the future of local news, information, and independent journalism?”
  • Journalism advocates like First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg and former Denver Post editor Greg Moore have publicly said they are thinking differently these days about the role of government in supporting local news because of troubles facing the industry.
  • In November, when PEN America came out in favor of more public-sector support for local news, the group commissioned a case study of Denver’s media environment and convened a public panel discussion in Denver.
  • In April, Gov. Jared Polis threw cold water on the idea of state support for local news publishers when asked about it at a press conference. “We have a free and independent press,” he said. “That is hard to reconcile with government assistance. The minute … a Governor Polis or President Trump is paying you or propping you up, that causes if not a compromising of professional independence — and it might not — an appearance of impropriety.”
  • In May, however, for the first time ever, the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade offered a $100,000 Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant opportunity to a local news publisher.
  • Meanwhile, throughout our pandemic summer, news outlets across the state had no qualms about applying for and receiving federal Paycheck Protection Program relief from the U.S. Small Business Administration.
  • At the federal level, Colorado’s Democratic U.S. Senator, Michael Bennet, recently introduced The Future of Local News Commission Act, which could, in part, “explore the possible creation of a new national endowment for local journalism, or the reform and expansion of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting or another appropriate institution, to make public funds a part of a multi-faceted approach to sustaining local news.”

Now, KUNC reporter Scott Franz, who reports for a collection of public radio stations as part of Rocky Mountain Community Radio, has unearthed even more ways Colorado government is already helping to subsidize local news— just not among Colorado’s own press corps.

From KUNC:

Officials in Colorado have been spending money to bring travel writers to the state. It’s a practice that raises questions for one media ethicist and, as an open records request has revealed, some journalists aren’t disclosing to their readers where the money came from.

Three travel writers from Austin, Texas arrived in Colorado with their families in July with action-packed itineraries given to them by Colorado’s state government. Pam LeBlanc, a freelance writer for some of Texas’ biggest newspapers and magazines, sipped hard cider at an orchard near Paonia and rafted the Arkansas River near Buena Vista. Austin American Statesman travel editor Kristin Finan soaked in the Glenwood Hot Springs Pool. And Statesman freelancer Mauri Elbel and her family ordered beef tartare, halibut and trout at a fine dining restaurant in Breckenridge following a summer dog sledding tour.

Records obtained through an open records request reveal Colorado taxpayers paid most of their travel expenses for their roughly weeklong trips, which occurred when mask mandates were in place after a July spike in coronavirus cases.

The story details “a much broader program, which has used taxpayer money to pay for journalist getaways for several years.” Last year, the “state paid $32,000 through the program,” Franz revealed.

Franz’s reporting has already caused a stir at some of the local news outlets where the travel stories landed. More from KUNC:

…editors of the Austin American Statesman and the Houston Chronicle refused interview requests to talk about the travel stories they published as a result of Colorado’s journalist hosting program. But when provided with public records showing the journalists had accepted payment for their travel expenses from Colorado taxpayers, the editors issued statements condemning the practice. “We weren’t aware of this practice, and it doesn’t meet the standards we’ve established for our staffers,” Chronicle editor Steve Riley wrote. “We’ll be looking further into this issue to ensure freelancers follow the same standards.” …

Austin American Statesman editor John Bridges said reporters must “remain free of potential conflicts of interest and financial relationships that might compromise the credibility of our reporting.” “Accepting free lodging and/or reimbursements is a violation of our principles of ethical conduct,” he wrote. “We are investigating this matter and taking appropriate action.”

Some of the journalists and editors defended the practice. One travel writer who participated in the Colorado program told Franz her paper pays her “between $250-$300 per travel feature” so “it’s not financially feasible to visit multiple destinations throughout the year traveling with a family.” More:

She added that she views travel writing as different from investigative reporting and other beats, and she thought the investigation into Colorado’s journalist hosting program was a “non-story.”

But it looks like the “non-story” appears to have, in Franz’s words, “put the future of an unpublished story resulting from Colorado’s journalist hosting program in doubt.” He reported how one executive editor’s “statement against reimbursements” suggests a story in the works “may not be published in the newspaper as planned.” And some already published stories are now sporting disclosures, like one reading: “This article was partially underwritten with funding from the Colorado Tourism Office.”

More from KUNC:

The state tourism office said Colorado has hosted about a dozen journalists since the start of the pandemic, and the trips are important because they are part of an effort to boost the tourism economy. The state declined to provide a full list of the journalists they have hosted since February. It also said it would cost $606.25 to do the research to fulfill an open records request seeking all of the invoices for those dozen trips. They provided three itineraries and invoices at a cost of $6. They said they host up to 50 journalists per year.

Around this time last year, Mike Rispoli of the national group Free Press was in Colorado speaking on a panel I moderated at CU Denver about public support for the local news. At the end, he spoke about how he’d helped successfully advocate for a public media fund in New Jersey and what he learned from it. He wrapped up the panel with advice for Coloradans: “Don’t listen to the haters,” he said.

I reached out to Mike on Thursday asking whether this type of tourism program for out-of-state local journalists is the kind of thing he was hoping for when he urged Coloradans to think seriously about new ways in which state and local governments could help support the local news business. “Wow,” he responded. “No.”

So how did Franz get this story, anyway? Good old fashioned digging.

“In my downtime between calling sources, I often scroll through the state’s online checkbook to see what our government is spending money on each week,” Franz told me. “I most frequently look through the governor’s office expenses.” In August, Franz noticed a $2,000 payment from the state tourism office to a freelance journalist from Austin, Texas. “I found the journalists’ public Instagram feed and noticed she was recently in Breckenridge and other Colorado cities right before this payment occurred,” he says. “So I reached out to the Tourism Office and submitted a records request on the specific transaction.”

He found the payment was part of a so-called journalist hosting program the state of Colorado has run for years. As he dug more, he found stories published in The Houston Chronicle and Austin American Statesman with, what he called “positive write ups about traveling to Colorado during the pandemic.” Names of the authors were also showing up in Colorado’s online checkbook as receiving payments from the tourism office.

“I reached out to the journalists first, then their editors after the journalists didn’t agree to interviews,” Franz says. “None of the stories had disclosures about Colorado’s reimbursements when I reached out to the journalists and editors to ask about the practice, and the online checkbook was the only way me or the public could see that Colorado paid out the travel expenses and provided hour-by-hour itineraries. It was my first big investigative piece for KUNC.”

Read his whole story here.

A newspaper lawsuit in a two-paper town

One of the few cities left in America with two competing daily newspapers is Aspen, Colorado.

The two battling broadsheets are The Aspen Times, owned by the Nevada-based Swift Communications, and The Aspen Daily News, owned by the local Paperbag Media. Readers in Aspen were treated to the benefits of living in a two-paper town last week when one newspaper reported on the other, pushing that paper to report on itself.

At issue is a federal lawsuit from a former Aspen Daily News photographer against his former newspaper. You can bet it wasn’t The Aspen Daily News that broke the story.

From an Oct. 14 story in The Aspen Times:

Craig Turpin, a photographer with the newspaper for more than three years before leaving in May, is the plaintiff. His suit, which was filed Monday, claims the newspaper’s leadership persuaded its employees to collect state unemployment benefits while they were still working.

The allegations in the suit, as reported by The Aspen Times, are quite juicy. Once the story hit the pages of the TimesThe Aspen Daily News, whose tagline is “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen,” ran a brief editorial saying the lawsuit contained “wild allegations” that left the paper “flabbergasted.” From the Daily News:

On Monday, a former full-time, salaried Aspen Daily News photographer filed a lawsuit against the paper in federal court, as was detailed in reporting in today’s edition of The Aspen Times. The situation is a difficult one. Typically, a lawsuit of this nature would be considered newsworthy — however, how does one separate oneself from any bias in covering a lawsuit in which one’s own organization and leadership are named as the defendants? The answer, it became clear, is one does not. But that doesn’t mean silence is the appropriate ­response, either.

While the editorial said the paper has “no interest in litigating the details of a suit in the court of public opinion, we do stand by the decisions made during an impossibly difficult time wrought by a pandemic. Acting in good faith, we stand by those decisions.”

The editorial ended on a “remorseful” note about a “breakdown of communication” and “optimism that a resolution is feasible in the matter.”

That’s quite a bit more diplomatic than what an attorney said on the paper’s behalf to The Aspen Times.

The Denver Post ordered bulletproof vests ‘in anticipation of increased violence’ 

Last week, this newsletter dug into the many media angles of the fatal Oct. 10 shooting of Lee Keltner in Denver by a security guard for the local TV station KUSA 9News. Toward the end, I noted how at least one news outlet has ordered protective gear for its journalists who report in the field.

This week, Noelle Phillips, who is back to reporting after an editing stint at The Denver Post, wrote how use of security is increasing among journalists. Here’s what she found in Denver:

In Denver, 9News and Denver7 acknowledged in statements after the shooting that they hire security guards and request that they be unarmed. Fox31 Vice President and General Manager Byron Grandy and CBS Denver News Director Tim Wieland would not discuss whether their stations provided bodyguards to journalists while covering local news. Colorado Public Radio and its online news site, Denverite, have not, said Kevin Dale, CPR’s executive editor. The Denver Post has not hired private security for its journalists.
The story also included this:
In the Denver area, journalists have worn reflective vests, goggles and helmets during protests where police have fired tear gas and other projectiles, and where protesters have fired guns and exchanged punches. After the Oct. 10 shooting, CPR ordered ballistic vests, Dale said. The Denver Post already had placed an order out in anticipation of increased violence.

The piece delves into whether journalists should disclose if they have security, and more. Bottom line: “Journalists — notoriously independent-minded — do not have a consensus on best practices when it comes to security,” Phillips wrote.

Meanwhile, the Post’s Elise Schmelzer found Colorado is one of only nine states “that do not regulate security guards or security companies, meaning there are no statewide training or hiring standards for the thousands of people who work in quasi law enforcement roles guarding buildings and people across the state.”

Have you come across any of these Colorado sites?

This week, The New York Times added a troubling new chapter to the ongoing analysis of our national local news dystopia. Some excerpts from the story headlined “As Local News Dies, a Pay-for-Play Network Rises in Its Place”:

Maine Business Daily is part of a fast-growing network of nearly 1,300 websites that aim to fill a void left by vanishing local newspapers across the country. Yet the network, now in all 50 states, is built not on traditional journalism but on propaganda ordered up by dozens of conservative think tanks, political operatives, corporate executives and public-relations professionals, a Times investigation found. …

Editors … assign work to freelancers dotted around the United States and abroad, often paying $3 to $36 per job. The assignments typically come with precise instructions on whom to interview and what to write, according to the internal correspondence. In some cases, those instructions are written by the network’s clients, who are sometimes the subjects of the articles.

So do any of these kinds of sites appear in Colorado? Apparently.

A map in the New York Times story relying on data from the Global Disinformation Index shows Colorado has 18 sites “that look like local news.” A GDI representative pointed me to this searchable database that lists the names of 17 Colorado-related sites with names like Grand Junction TimesBoulder Leader, and Larimer News. They seem to share similar content and carry bylines that read “Metric Media News Service.”

Bouncing off the NYT investigation, Alex Pareene at The New Republic added some context:

The scheme takes advantage of how profit-chasing has blown up the entire concept of “media literacy.” When your local paper’s website is as larded up with spammy-looking ad crud as an illegal Monday Night Football stream, these spare sites cannot possibly look any less “real.” And as newspapers die and people get more and more of their news from social media, fewer people recognize which news “brands” are supposed to be “trustworthy.”

I can’t say I’ve seen any content from these sites cross my radar screen. Are you seeing any of these popping up in your Colorado news feeds?

‘I’ll put them on billboards’

The progressive Colorado Times Recorder published a dispatch this week from an event in Morrison it says “intended to showcase the candidates” whom a new “conservative political group” is supporting.

At the event, according to the story and a video accompanying it, the group’s founder “threatened to dox journalists who report negatively about the group,” and claimed he had identified Antifa members “that are actually journalists writing stories about us.”

Here’s what a video in the piece shows him saying next:

“I’ll put them on billboards. And if you don’t think I have the money to do it, they’ll run out of money before I do. … We’re coming for you. I hope they’re watching … And if you’re in here and if you’re part of the media and you write something bad about us, better take your byline off it.”
Sooooo that’s where we are now, huh?

More Colorado local media odds & ends

🔚Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul published an analysis in The Washington Post’s Opinion section under the headline “It looks like antipathy to Trump has flipped the Colorado Senate race,” essentially writing off Cory Gardner.
🔥Former Daily Camera editor Charlie Brennan co-bylined a piece in The New York Times about the Boulder-area wildfire.
📺The Denver Post published a guest column by a former state GOP spokesman who speculated anchor Kyle Clark could “drown 9News” in the wake of a fatal shooting by one of the station’s security guards.
🤦Asking for a friend: “Why on earth would a flack for [a] statewide candidate be picking a public fight with [a] Denver Post reporter?”
📻Gavin Dahl is moving up to news director at KVNF.
💩Lauren Boebert, a candidate for Congress in Colorado, said: “I have gotten a proctology exam from the media.”
🎙️City Cast, led by David Plotz, will be “a network of daily, local news podcasts in cities around the country, launching in a handful of places this winter.” Will we see one in Colorado? (If so, just please not Denver.)
🤐A “collaborative story between Colorado Politics and MetroWest Newspapers” by reporters Michael Karlik and Liam Adams exposes the secrecy surrounding judicial retention in Colorado.
⚠️The New York Times reports the Colorado Secretary of State’s office will “buy Google ads against relevant search terms whenever a piece of misinformation begins to gain attention in an effort to help slow its spread.”
🗞️Ark Valley Voice has been named “a 2020 #newsCOneeds Matching Grant Recipient.”
🎉The Colorado Independent and Rio Blanco Herald Times won 2020’s Local Independent Online News publishers award for Investigative Report of the Year for their series “Through the Cracks.”
😬When a weekly newspaper makes the wrong endorsement by mistake in print.
📷Denver Post photographer Helen Richardson, who took those astonishing photos of the Denver shooting, told the NPAA she missed other protest assignments this year because she was furloughed.
😡A Colorado reporter spent seven months haggling with the state Department of Labor over his furlough weeks. (“I won’t see a penny of unemployment for my spring and summer furloughs. “You didn’t request,” they said (I did). Now starting appeals.”)
👋A former Colorado reporter explains why she recently quit as editor of a Lee Enterprises newspaper in Montana.
🔎Info from public records requests for notes a university trustee took led to wild must-read story by Elizabeth Hernandez in The Denver Post about some regents and CU’s former president.
💻Nancy Watzman writes in the Sun how the Denver protest shooting was “a superspreader of online misinformation” while one reporter notes that “one of the biggest, earliest pieces of misinformation about the shooting came from the most traditional news source around.”

*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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