When Colorado journalists try to pry info out of governments, ‘cost is the No. 1 issue we hear about’

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Illustration credit: Mark Castillo with graphic elements from www.vecteezy.com

Journalists in Colorado so appreciate the Colorado Open Records Act that at least one reporter who worked here chose Cora as his daughter’s middle name.

The law, commonly called CORA, is our state’s version of the federal Freedom of Information Act. It helps make government more transparent, and citizens more informed to be free and self-governing. But it has plenty of flaws. In 2015, Colorado earned an ‘F’ grade in the State Integrity Investigation for the category of public access to information because of some pretty awful provisions in CORA and its sister, the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act.

Lawmakers could make CORA work better for journalists— and anyone else who wants to better understand the extent to which their government is working properly.

This week, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a group that helps everyone in Colorado gain access to public records, published a special report that analyzed a particularly problematic provision of CORA. Justin Twardowski, a University of Denver Sturm College of Law student, researched and wrote the report, titled “A Return to Nominal-cy: Restoring a Proper Balance for CORA Costs.”

From its executive summary:

In 2014, Colorado’s General Assembly enacted a cap on the hourly fee governments can charge for the “research and retrieval” of responsive records under the Colorado Open Records Act (CORA). The objective of the maximum hourly rate in House Bill 14-1193 was to rein in the practice, by some records custodians, of quoting requesters exorbitant sums, consequently impeding the public’s ability to obtain government records. Six years later, government bodies show a strong tendency to adopt the legislative cap as their research-and-retrieval fee, and they often multiply that rate by many hours in fulfilling requests. The result is the same problem HB 14-1193 sought to fix: unaffordable charges that stymie the public’s access to public information.

This practice, Twardowski writes, “is out of line with judicial interpretations of CORA.” Jeff Roberts, who directs the CFOIC, wrote how Twardowski’s report “concludes that a 2014 amendment to the Colorado Open Records Act has failed to rein in out-of-control and wide-ranging fees charged to records requesters.”

Roberts goes on:

Twardowski’s paper cites examples gleaned from frustrated journalists and CFOIC’s freedom-of-information hotline, including quotes of thousands of dollars to provide records on government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Colorado can and should do better,” Twardowski writes in his report. “Colorado must adopt a policy that requires government entities to expressly, and specifically, justify their charges to records requesters, thereby promoting transparency and ensuring that agencies base their fees on clearly articulated administrative burdens.”

Part of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s duties is to run a hotline where citizens can call in with questions and complaints about some government or another — whether it be a podunk outpost, a major metropolis, or an entire branch of government — blocking access to open records. And cost is “the No. 1 issue we hear about,” the CFOIC’s Twitter account posted in a tweetstorm following this new report. “Journalists and members of the public are rightly frustrated when they’re quoted hundreds or thousands of dollars to obtain public records.”

Reforming the law wouldn’t only help journalists, however, and it’s not just something about which a certain industry sector is concerned. Jesse Mallory, the state director for the conservative-donor-backed group Americans for Prosperity, said in response to the report that he understands the need for research and retrieval costs. When he was working in the legislature, he said he lost count of how many records requests he had to fulfill.

“But the costs need to be reasonable,” he said in a social media statement. “Departments always seem to find a way to make their costs in the thousands of dollars — out of reach for most citizens & organizations.”

Lawmakers can do something about this, and now they have data and research to rely on as they consider it. Let’s see if they will.

Colorado journalists, know your rights. But also, who are you, really?

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press this week offered a helpful “top 5 things to know” tip sheet for Colorado journalists covering the upcoming election.

Those top five, per the RCFP, are:

  • News gathering at polling places
  • Voter rolls
  • Election returns
  • Ballots
  • Initial and recount processes

The RCFP based its tips and analysis on state laws and regulations. They go into a lot more detail about each item above. I thought this at the end was interesting, especially given how journalists should be concerned with the ways in which governments decide “who counts as media and who doesn’t“:

“A media ‘observer’ is defined as a member of the media who must have valid media credentials. It does not include private citizens interested in writing about or filming the voting process. View the guidelines on page 41.”

Following that link to the Colorado Code of Regulations at the Secretary of State’s Office, however, didn’t exactly clear that up. “The Colorado State Association of County Clerks and Recorders, Colorado Broadcasters’ Association and Colorado Press Association have collaborated to develop the following guidelines and protocols for use when members of the media observe the counting or recounting of ballots,” the code says.

But it still doesn’t seem to define who a member of the media actually is. For that, we must turn to the Colorado Secretary of State’s Elections Division Policy and Procedure Manual.

From that document:

A member of the media must have valid media credentials to be a media observer. Media can include reporters, photographers, broadcast journalist, or film crew. Media does not include private citizens interested in writing about or filming the voting process. Media may observe all election activities. Media Guidelines, as outlined in Election Rule 8.18, were agreed to by the County Clerks and Recorders Association, the Colorado Broadcasters’ Association, and the Colorado Press Association.

That led one Colorado journalist to say: “as usual attempting to draw a line just raises more questions. Are journalists not ‘private citizens’? What’s a valid credential? Are Unicorn Riot broadcast journalists?”

More on those Colorado sites ‘made to look like newspapers’

Last week’s newsletter spotlighted nearly 20 websites in Colorado made to look like local news outlets, localizing a New York Times investigation into what the paper called a “pay-to-play network” of PR sites nationwide.

This week, Denver7’s Meghan Lopez dug deeper, analyzing some of these Colorado sites that she wrote are “made to look like newspapers” and putting them on blast. “The websites, which go by names like the Adams County Times, Centennial State News, Colorado Business Daily or Grand Junction Times, look legitimate,” she wrote.

More from her story at the Denver ABC affiliate:

On the about page, the sites claim, “Our approach is to provide objective, data-driven information without political bias. We provide 100% original reporting, including to share as much data as possible from government and other publicly available sources.”

However, Denver7 found that most of the local stories on the Metric Media sites are either reworded press releases or rewrites of articles published by reputable reporting sources with a slight slant which tends to lean conservative.

The reporters who were named on various bylines were found to be freelance writers who do not live in Colorado and who write articles for Metric Media’s websites in states across the country. None of the writers Denver7 reached out to responded to our requests for comment. One of the stories on Governor Jared Polis was a word for word copy of a story featured on the company’s Wisconsin website with only the names of the Governors swapped out.

Lopez goes on to quote communications experts about the importance of media literacy, and mentions some simple things readers can do to verify if purported news sites they’re seeing are legit. More:
Check to see if the website features an ethics policy for its reporters to abide by. Click through the staff biographies and find out where they are based and whether they have written numerous other articles for the same website or type their names into social media and Google to see whether they have an online presence. Check the website’s about page and contact page to see where it is based and whether the station is [easy] to contact.
For more on the national context about these proliferating sites, listen to this podcast at The Daily by The New York Times.

The Social Dilemma is a Colorado production

Those of a certain age might remember the innocent early promise of social media and the Internet.

For me, it was the first day of college in New York when we stood in line for a new IBM Thinkpad and a smiling assistant showed us how this improbable machine could access the Web without being plugged in. We were attending a university billed as one of the first “wireless” campuses in the nation. I’d hear the distinct sing-song digital chimes of AOL Instant Messenger echoing from behind a stall door in a shared dorm-floor bathroom and feel like I was living in the future. Kids from other colleges would come to see if it was true: Yes, you could be online while outside on the quad. We’d see how far we could venture off campus before we lost the signal.

Now, a powerful new film, The Social Dilemma, available on Netflix, shows how corporations have broken the promise of a utopian digital-age future. To be sure, there are untold positive aspects of our connected age. But told through dramatizations, animation, and the provocative confessions of Silicon Valley insiders with titles like the former such-and-such of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Instagram, or whatever, the movie makes a strong case for some kind of counter-action against the online status quo.

The documentary comes as the First Amendment is having a … shall we say, moment … and amid some recent chin-tugging about free speech in our era of unprecedented disinformation. On Oct. 13, Emily Bazelon published a New York Times Magazine piece all about this conundrum. A day earlier, The New Yorker had offered an in-depth takedown of Facebook that detailed how the platform is “overrun with hate speech and disinformation” (and asked if the company really even wants to solve the problem). Even some of our best indie musicians are onto it these days; last week, the band Better Oblivion Community Center noted a song in which they sing “The truth is anybody’s guess” was originally about the QAnon delusion. This week’s cover of The Economist sports these words: “Social Media and Free Speech.”

The Social Dilemma does a compelling job of capturing the urgency about why all this matters. At one point, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt points to spiking suicide rates of teens and pre-teens— numbers that took a rocket ride after 2009 when social media became widely available on phones. “GenZ, the kids born after 1996 or so, those kids are the first generation in history that got on social media in middle school,” he says in the film. “How do they spend their time? They come home from school and they’re on their devices. A whole generation is more anxious, more fragile, more depressed. They’re much less comfortable taking risks. The rates at which they get driver’s licenses have been dropping. The number who have ever gone out on a date or had any kind of romantic interaction is dropping rapidly. This is a real change in a generation.”

Throughout the movie, participants lay out ways in which social media business models can be poison for democracy.

In one particularly grim scene, computer scientist Jaron Lanier games out a future in which Wikipedia, say, stops showing the same entries for everyone in favor of customized definitions for each different user based on payment from third parties. “So Wikipedia would be spying on you. Wikipedia would calculate what’s the thing I can do to get this person to change a little bit on behalf of some commercial interest, right?” Lanier asks. “And then it would change the entry. Can you imagine that? Well, you should be able to because that’s exactly what’s happening on Facebook. It’s exactly what’s happening in your YouTube feed.”

Maybe you’ve seen this in your own life. An aging extended family member on Facebook morphing online into someone you no longer recognize. A youngster radicalized down the rabbit holes of YouTube. “The flat-Earth conspiracy theory was recommended hundreds of millions of times by the algorithm,” says Guillaume Chaslot, a former software engineer at Google, in the film. “It’s easy to think that it’s just a few stupid people who get convinced, but the algorithm is getting smarter and smarter every day. So today they are convincing people that the Earth is flat but tomorrow they will be convincing you of something that’s false.”

Indeed a lot has happened since the days of that Gateway 2000 box with the cow spots on it and those AOL CD Roms that came in the mail. Now, “the way to think about it is 2.7 billion Truman shows,” Venture capitalist Roger McNamee explains in the film. “Each person has their own reality with their own facts.”

Tristan Harris, a former design ethicist at Google, gets plenty of play in The Social Dilemma, hammering on the symptoms, and the cause of the disease: profit-motive fueled by runaway capitalism. “We’ve created a system that biases towards false information,” says Sandy Parakilas, a former operations manager at Facebook. “Not because we want to, but because false information makes the companies more money than the truth. The truth is boring.”

Toward the end of the film, Harris asks viewers to imagine a world where no one believes anything that’s true. “Everyone believes the government is lying to them,” he goes on. “Everything is a conspiracy theory. I shouldn’t trust anyone; I hate the other side. That’s where all this is headed.”

As it turns out, The Social Dilemma has roots in Colorado.

Last month, The Denver Post reported in a headline: “Boulder filmmaker’s new Netflix documentary will make you want to delete social media forever.”

That filmmaker would be Jeff Orlowski. From the piece:

“I was class of ’06 at Stanford. When we all graduated, that was (around) the birth of the iPhone and the birth of apps. So many of my closest friends went directly to Facebook, Google or Twitter. Multiple friends sold their companies to Twitter for exorbitant amounts of money,” Orlowski said on the phone before his film’s world premiere at January’s Sundance Film Festival.

The project came out of conversations with those friends “who were starting to talk about the problems with the big social media companies back in 2017, at the birth of the tech backlash that we’ve been seeing. Honestly, I’d heard nothing about it, knew nothing about it.”

This week Westword wrote also about the documentary’s connections to our state while noting it “became the most-watched film on Netflix in September, beating out Pets Unlimited, two Smurfs movies, and hundreds more offerings.”

From Westword culture editor Kyle Harris:

The documentary … was directed by Jeff Orlowski, edited by Davis Coombe, written by Vickie Curtis, produced by Larissa Rhodes, Stacey Piculell and Daniel Wright, and with music composed by Mark Crawford of Boulder-based Exposure Labs. Even the animations were homegrown, produced by Mass FX Media, run out of Denver by husband-and-wife duo Shawna and Matt Schultz.

How about that! Harris interviewed Exposure Labs and Shawna Schultz for a Q-and-A, which you can find here.

Colorado’s U.S. senator says: protect journalists

A month after Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado introduced a bill to examine ways in which the federal government might help the local news industry, he’s again talking about journalists.

This time, the brother of a former New York Times editor and son of a onetime NPR president is asking the nation’s Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, to help protect journalists around the world.

From a statement this week from Bennet’s office:

“Recently, we marked the somber anniversary of the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally killed by agents of the Saudi government at its Consulate in Istanbul for openly criticizing that country’s leadership,” wrote Bennet and the senators.
More from the letter, signed by nine other senators:
In recent years, countless journalists around the world have been threatened, imprisoned, beaten and even killed as they attempt to report the truth and hold their governments more accountable. On the anniversary of Mr. Khashoggi’s murder, we pay special tribute to those brave journalists whose dogged pursuit of the truth never wavered in the face of these threats. Their legacy is proof that fear will not silence facts.
Bennet’s office noted that beyond his Future of Local News Commission Act legislation, he wrote in February to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg “demanding the company do more to protect journalists across the globe from attacks on its platforms.”

Followup: Fallout from KUNC’s exposé

Gavin Dahl at KVNF invited me on his community radio program in Paonia Tuesday to talk about last week’s newsletter. During the conversation I recounted some updates KUNC reporter Scott Franz posted on social media following his exposé involving a “journalist getaways” program at the state tourism office and travel writers in Texas.

On Twitter, Franz told readers about fallout from his reporting:

Franz says the state of Colorado paid a freelancer $2,091.28 in travel expenses this summer for the trip and told Franz they expected it would result in a newspaper story about travel for the 2021 summer tourism season.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

🤦A national FOX host apologized — “we regret the insensitive error” — after the station played the Johnny Cash song “Ring of Fire” as it showed footage from the Denver affiliate and reported that Colorado’s deadly wildfires had left multiple residents missing or unaccounted for.
🎙️House of Pod is accepting nominations for its annual Colorado Podcast Awards.
💉”A number of reporters and photographers” were present at an Oct. 15 event with Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman who 10 days later tested positive for COVID-19.
⬇️A bill to implement Colorado’s media literacy program in schools “failed this year as the legislature’s attention shifted to responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.” (A member of Colorado’s Media Literacy Advisory Committee says, “My understanding is that a future legislature still has access to that work and could revive it.”)
🗳️A Northern Colorado public radio story headline: “What Happens When Your Ballot Gets Rejected? One KUNC Reporter Found Out First-Hand”
💬​The Denver Post reports Colorado Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner asked Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey during a public hearing “why President Donald Trump’s tweets are sometimes censored by Twitter but tweets from Iranian Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, including one denying the Holocaust, are not.”
📡The anti-Trump talk show host Craig Silverman, who was unceremoniously kicked off his conservative radio station mid-broadcast last year, says The Colorado Times Recorder deserves “accolades in their roles for fighting intolerance, bigotry and creeping fascism, especially as it comes in [the] form of right-wing media.” (In his recent column in The Colorado Sun he said “We should all choose good, reliable sources for information while we still can.”)
🛡️Writing in Complete Colorado, Ari Armstrong defended 9News anchor Kyle Clark from conservative attacks. “Why some conservatives have fixated on Clark is an interesting question,” he writes.” If you look at the journalism that Clark actually produces, you will find that almost all of it presents the news of the day in a thoughtful and context-rich way.”
💰Here are the 25 newsroom winners of the #newsCOneeds funding campaign.
🎙️KVNF community radio in Paonia celebrated its 41st anniversary.
👀A KOA News Radio talk-show host indicated she believes “MSM outlets” that practice news judgement as they see fit “deserve to have their First Amendment rights stripped if they can’t be responsible with them.”
⚠️Aurora Sentinel editor Dave Perry explained how such news judgement works: “For far too long, the media wrongly allowed Trump to tell lies and fiction with impunity, because he’s POTUS. This paper, and most others, kill endless stories because they cannot be substantiated. We stalled 3 this week. It’s our job.”
💨Thirteen new what, KDVR?
👻On Jan. 1, Utah’s Salt Lake Tribune will “stop printing and delivering a daily edition at year’s end and switch to a weekly printed newspaper delivered by mail.” (Coverage of it made NYT and elsewhere.)
⚰️Ex-Colorado journalist and Missoulian editor Gwen Florio writes for The Nation about “the death and life of great American Newspapers.”
*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