A new digital site that’s recruiting freelance journalists and looking to become a “national alt-weekly” is co-owned by a former Colorado journalist-turned cannabis PR guy.
The News Station, whose managing editor Matt Laslo, a D.C-based journalist who put out a call for new writers this week, is a recently expanded and spun-off national project co-owned by Peter Marcus of Arvada. A former reporter for The Durango Herald and Colorado Politics, Marcus left journalism in 2017 to become director of communications for the privately-owned Terrapin Care Station, one of the few Colorado-based Multi State Operators in the cannabis industry.
Quitting journalism cold turkey, though, can make for a difficult transition for newly minted flaks. So Marcus created something for Terrapin called The News Station where he could continue to do some writing from behind industry lines.
Eventually, he realized he didn’t have the capacity to run a site with original content along with his other duties, and when the pandemic hit he saw plenty of journalists looking for work. He and Terrapin Care Station CEO and founder Chris Woods hashed out whether they might be able to put some resources behind the project on a bigger scale. The pair created a separate LLC for The News Station, Marcus says, and spun it off from their cannabis company as a standalone news site. They hired Laslo to run the editorial department after meeting him last year when he was in Colorado reporting a profile of Cory Gardner for Playboy.
“He’s getting into issues related to cannabis and drug policy reform and other things that other outlets are not looking into,” Marcus says of his managing editor, while also talking up the site’s culture, music, and lifestyle coverage. “Getting into the weeds so to speak.”
Laslo, who teaches journalism and reports for public radio and publications like Rolling Stone, Wired, and VICE News Tonight, is looking to build a stable of contributors across the country— established and not-yet established. He’s already wrangled well-known national journalists like Ben Jacobs while also trying to cultivate young talent and fresh voices. He recently published a piece by an incarcerated writer and is looking to partner with Street Sense to publish writers who are experiencing homelessness. He wants to help college students hone their skills and notch some clips. Students from Appalachian State University, the University of Maryland College Park, and Macalester College have picked up bylines.
“We’re not really planning on having a staff, per se,” Laslo says about the site. “It’s going to be a lot of relying on freelancers.” He says he negotiates rates with contributors.
Have you seen our work? I've published former Vice News colleagues, Guardian reporters, Playboy correspondents, NYT contributors, CNN, Yahoo, local alt-weekly contributors, etc. And yeah – they've said it's worth their time. I'd love an email from you firstname.lastname@example.org
— Matt Laslo (@MattLaslo) November 11, 2020
The News Station, a for-profit publication with a goal of eventually making money — Marcus says they aren’t thinking about how just yet — is another example of the ways in which those in a cash-flush industry are moving into the media space amid a disorienting breach in journalism’s traditional business model. Readers should, of course, take The News Station’s ties to the industry into consideration. These days, ownership structures of news and information outlets are coming under scrutiny as hard-to-decipher sites proliferate on the Internet. The site’s coverage ambitions, however, are broader than just cannabis and the site seeks to offer non-daily in-depth reporting in the style of city alt-weeklies that are disappearing across the country.
“We’re not a pro-cannabis site, we’re not a pro-drug site,” Laslo says, adding that he has editorial independence, and also that he has his own perspectives about drug policy. Readers aren’t likely to find much skepticism about legalization, and they’re likely to get insights about the War on Drugs from a standpoint of how it’s failing. It will be interesting to see the extent to which the site covers legitimate public health concerns about cannabis. A “Fake News” vertical on the site publishes items Laslo says are dedicated to debunking myths.
There’s a lot of new money in the growing cannabis world, and legalization is spreading among the states. Four of them — Arizona, New Jersey, South Dakota and Montana — this month passed laws allowing cannabis possession, while in the latest election voters in South Dakota and Mississippi cast ballots in favor of medical marijuana. That means 36 states currently allow medical cannabis and 15 states allow recreational. (Disclosure: I own two cannabis stocks that are currently valued at less than $1,000.)
Marcus acknowledges how money from cannabis legalization allowed for The News Station’s ambitions. “If I worked for Chris in another industry he probably would have been interested in it just as much— we just happen to be in cannabis,” Marcus told me. “The cannabis industry has more flexibility to be working on projects such as this because of the success of the industry.”
A few years ago, when The Denver Post’s pioneering cannabis editor Ricardo Baca left the paper and tried unsuccessfully to buy The Cannabist vertical from the newspaper’s owner, he says he’d sought funding from two very different potential sources. One was from an entity involved in the cannabis industry and one had no ties to it. Baca, who now runs Grasslands, a “journalism-minded” PR agency, says whichever one wound up funding the outlet would have “undeniably” had an impact on what the site covered. He says he’s thought about that he has watched The News Station grow, and notes that as cannabis has become more normalized in Colorado and throughout the nation he’s seen a growing media hole to fill about drug policy and cannabis coverage.
As for recent content, The News Station, which Laslo says will be getting a site upgrade, has produced features about domestic extremism, efforts to end cash bail, the ways in which Trump, Congress and COVID-19 are “screwing artists,” drug decriminalization movements, and a look at Kamala Harris’s complicated criminal justice record, among plenty of others. A former fellow at the conservative Weekly Standard is a contributor, and Laslo says he might even run an op-ed by Roger Stone.
Stories have carried datelines from Alabama, Minnesota, Oregon, Oklahoma, and elsewhere. “I fully believe that local reporters on the ground tell the story better than those in New York, people here in D.C, and people in LA,” says Laslo, who sits on the board of the Regional Reporters Association. Writers with ties to Colorado already include Leland Rucker of Boulder and 5280 intern Hannah Farrow. Rucker published a piece this week about how legalization advocates fear former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s anti-marijuana past now that he’s a U.S. Senator.
As for the site’s tagline as the nation’s alt-weekly, Laslo says, “For me what alt-weeklies do best is capture the essence and heart of their towns. And so what we want to do is assist them in that goal with providing national coverage.”
Colorado Springs TV anchor with the ‘rona says symptoms are like ‘standing atop a 14er’
Heather Skold, a longtime anchor for the Colorado Springs ABC affiliate KRDO, dropped some personal news this week. “So, here’s the scoop: I got COVID,” she wrote in a Nov. 9 Facebook post. “So did my parents.”
More from her post:
My symptoms started to appear as pure exhaustion, which I attributed to stress. But then, the night of the election, I just couldn’t warm up (which I thought was due to spending extended time in our usually-cold studio. Feeling chilled after a show isn’t anything out of the norm). I was then informed Tuesday, in the middle of election coverage, that someone I had direct contact with had COVID. I left before the 10 o’clock show and have been home since.
As for what the virus feels like, she said she lost her sense of smell, and breathing and talking has sometimes been difficult. “I liken it to standing atop a 14er, where your lungs feel tired, but mainly the air is dry and thin,” she said. “You just feel like it’s time to descend to where there’s more oxygen.”
Two days later, Skold posted a photo of herself in a car “Out for a little drive with dad and mom, quarantine style,” and said she was feeling better.
The ‘Guns & America’ project is over
Following two years of work and 500-plus pieces of content, “Guns & America is ending production,” the project reported this week. The initiative was a reporting collaboration among 10 public radio stations that focused on the role of guns in U.S. life.
One of those stations was KUNC in Greeley. Recent stories for the project out of Colorado explored a rancher’s relationship with his AR-15, how surging gun sales might mean sliding background checks, the way sheriffs were resisting a new “red flag” law, how few people have been sentenced under the state’s six-year-old large-magazine ban, why a doctor bought a gun after a death threat, and how one Denver investigator is getting guns out of the hands of domestic abusers, among many more.
“The role #guns play in American life is a complicated issue to focus an entire newsroom on, and coverage has only become more important since we began in 2018,” the project stated in its swan song. “Thank you for reading, listening, and learning with us.”
Newspaper vs. town over the legality of a meeting
Breckenridge town leaders are riled up over the way their local newspaper described a recent meeting, and the reporter on the story is standing by her treatment.
At issue is a meeting town leaders held “regarding a transit center and workforce housing project proposal by Breckenridge Grand Vacations” and what happened when the public officials went into “executive session.” The official-sounding term means when public officials seal themselves off to discuss things in private outside the view of members of the public and the press. Colorado has laws that regulate when officials can go into secret sessions and what they can and can’t do during them. In a time of social distancing, the onetime “smoky backroom” could become something of a smoky back Zoom.
What Breckenridge town officials did in one of these sessions has led to a dispute between the mayor, the town’s attorney, and The Summit Daily News. From reporter Taylor Sienkiewicz in a story headlined “Breckenridge releases recording of illegal Town Council executive session”:
The town of Breckenridge has released a recording from a Breckenridge Town Council executive session held illegally Tuesday, Nov. 3, regarding a transit center and workforce housing project proposal by Breckenridge Grand Vacations.
The town of Breckenridge disputes the fact that the meeting was held illegally.
Again, not “The town says the meeting was legal.” The reporter and newspaper report straight-up as fact that the meeting was illegal.
In earlier coverage, the paper did use more qualifying language, reporting how the meeting “might have violated the law.” For that Nov. 4 piece, the author quoted First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg saying of the town, “They violated the open meetings law … It is supposed to be done in the open; it’s not supposed to be reported to us after the fact.” Also in that earlier story, the paper reported: “The Summit Daily News has expressed its concerns about decision-making that appears to have taken place illegally and has requested a recording of the executive session.”
A few days later, though, when town officials released a video of the meeting, the paper went with much bolder language, dispensing with qualifiers and drawing the ire of the mayor.
From the paper’s Nov. 9 story:
At the public portion of the meeting, Breckenridge Grand Vacations CEO and co-owner Mike Dudick proposed partnering with the town to move the transit center near the Watson Street roundabout and Park Avenue on land that he would provide for free. Workforce housing units on the Gold Rush lot also were proposed. Council members then asked questions about the proposal before going into executive session, where the project was discussed privately among council members and staff. Immediately following the executive session, Mayor Eric Mamula said the council decided it would not be interested in either the transit center or workforce housing proposals.
While entering an executive session to discuss negotiations is allowed, Colorado Open Meetings Law permits only limited discussion as it pertains to negotiations and prohibits any type of decision-making, informal or otherwise.
Zansberg said Monday that the decision to not move forward with the proposal should have been deliberated publicly because an open discussion would allow the public to understand why the decision was made. He noted that the town essentially adopted a position on the proposals, which is not allowed in an executive session.
On Tuesday, Breckenridge Mayor Eric Mamula vented frustration at the paper at the start of the council’s work session meeting.
“The newspaper decided that what we did was illegal,” he said. “They called it illegal today in the newspaper. I disagree. I’m not a lawyer. Tim Berry, who is our lawyer, also disagrees.” Mamula said he took exception with the paper’s characterization. Berry then chimed in adding this: “The headline in the Summit Daily [News] that characterized the executive session as being illegal is just wrong. There is a dispute about what the council did in executive session, but the executive session, I think, was properly called.”
For her part, Sienkiewicz says her definitive language in the paper came from Zansberg’s assessment as a media attorney. She says she didn’t write the headline — reporters often don’t — but stands by it as appropriate.
Local media call out Colorado’s COVID-19 secrecy
As coronavirus cases flared across the state this week, multiple news outlets told their readers about how hard it is to obtain certain information from their governments about the crisis.
Colorado’s health department has routinely deleted emails sent and received by officials responding to the coronavirus pandemic, despite a request by the state archives that agencies save all documents related to their management of the historic public health crisis. The Denver Post discovered the Department of Public Health and Environment deleted public records after requesting emails sent and received by state epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy. Emails belonging to state employees are public records under the Colorado Open Records Act.
In April, more than 60 news outlets in Colorado sent a letter to Democratic Gov. Jared Polis urging more transparency. “I’m disappointed because we asked for this,” Colorado Freedom of Information director Jeff Roberts told the Post this week. “Just because they may not think the messages are important to keep, those are government records and they are the public’s records.”
A few miles north, The Greeley Tribune’s editorial board said it’s hard to believe the paper is still “begging” for more COVID-19 transparency. “As reported by Greeley Tribune public safety reporter Trevor Reid this week, the way the state tracks and reports outbreaks remains a somewhat murky swamp of partial information,” the editorial read.
More from the Tribune:
The Tribune is not trying to out sick people, nor could it possibly, even with the information withheld from its reporters by the public institutions that steward them. So why was it so hard to get simple information on reports that are created for the express purpose of transparency and openness in administration?
This lack of transparency is nothing new for Colorado government. As @alex_burness reported last, most state departments purge emails — which are public records — after 30, 60 or 90 days. https://t.co/DYhxS7u8HZ
— Matt Sebastian (@mattsebastian) November 11, 2020
Journalism educator spotlight: Kristi Rathbun
An advisor to Rockmedia, which includes the Black & Gold yearbook, Rockmediaonline.org, and The Rock newspaper at Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, the Douglas County teacher is one of this year’s four National Scholastic Press Association Pioneer Award recipients.
From the NSPA:
A former Colorado Journalism Education Association state director, she received a JEA Medal of Merit in 2007. She was CSMA Adviser of the year in 2012, JEA Distinguished Adviser in 2014 and received a CSPA Gold Key in 2016. She has served on the CSMA board since 1998, working to help advisers, students and media programs throughout Colorado.
Her primary goal is to empower others to create valuable publications and media outlets for their school communities through continued education, student and adviser advocacy and opportunities to hone media skills — regardless of their level of experience or location in the state or country.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
🎬One of Colorado’s “most unsung heroes” is the “hero” of a Netflix miniseries.
🌐The Colorado Sun reported how “More than a dozen agencies, organizations and even competitors came together one weekend to make sure the internet would not go out as the Cameron Peak fire inched closer.”
😷When Republican lawmakers didn’t wear masks at work, a Denver Post reporter wrote “Capitol press corps reporters shouldn’t have to risk their health just to cover a caucus meeting.”
📺KKTV evening anchor Dianne Derby resigned from the station after nine years at the desk in Colorado Springs. (The move comes after Adam Atchison took over following the August death of anchor Don Ward.)
🎊The Public Relations Society of America named CPR’s Vic Vela its Media Person of the Year.
⚰️Are any Colorado newspapers re-thinking how they handle obituaries?
🛑The Colorado Sun reports: “Steamboat Powdercats has sued a former employee, Stephen Bass, to stop his book from hitting shelves.”
🔄KRDO says when it asked Colorado Interactive what it does with Coloradans’ personal information, “Colorado Interactive sent us in a circle.”
💥The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project made the front page of The Gazette.
⚖️Our neighbor Oklahoma is benefiting from “an ambitious program that expands legal support for local news.”
🎙️KUNC is looking for a producer for Colorado Edition ($49,200-$51,600). Vail Daily wants a reporter.
💨David Olinger wrote in The Gazette about a hate crime in Lakewood: “An international flurry of news followed the hate crime announcement, from the West Coast weekly India-west to television networks, the Associated Press and Colorado papers. Then, silence. The media had moved on.”
🤔Law professor Eugene Volokh called a Denver Post editorial “odd” in a Reason headline.
📻The Open Media Foundation is looking for a Radio Operations Director ($45,000 to $55,000).
🍻The Mountain Gazette partnered with Alibi Ale Works for a “Your Dad’s Beer” pilsner that “celebrates the rebirth of the Mountain Gazette with Issue 194 on November 16.”
🔎Colorado Watch is “dedicated to uncovering the truth, wherever it may lead, through investigative journalism.”
🏙️Denver’s 5280 magazine is looking for a senior editor ($65,000). Westword wants a news editor.
👀The Sun learned Moffat County’s “human services director — who oversaw the department and its child welfare division since early 2019 — left the position the day after The Sun published its story exposing the fraudulent casework.”
🎊Susan Gonzalez, Social Media Strategist at Chalkbeat, who lives in Denver, was elected to the Online News Association’s board of directors. The ONA announcement says she “brings expertise in audience engagement and a passion for supporting underrepresented voices in the journalism industry.”
📡A Gazette guest columnist wrote a paean to local radio, saying: “Colorado Springs remains home to a slate of vibrant radio stations appealing to almost every possible taste in news, music, sports, faith and political talk.”
❓The Colorado Springs Independent’s editorial board asks: “After all the lies, the distortions, the malicious fantasies of the Trump years, how do we resurrect reality and reclaim our nation’s sanity?”
*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.