On Thursday, Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet sat in on a Zoom call with dozens of Colorado journalists and local media publishers to gather input on a bill he filed to help save the local news.
Those on the call represented outlets large and small— nonprofits, for-profits, print, digital, TV, radio, and more. (Endale Getahun, a multi-lingual news producer in Aurora, even talked about how he’s been offering local news via Roku during the pandemic.) The media folks offered remarks about how they’re faring, prodded Bennet about what his bill might accomplish, and urged him to examine certain aspects he might not have considered.
At issue is the Future of Local News Commission Act, which Bennet rolled out in September with Democratic U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz of Hawaii and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota. The bill would create a 13-member commission to examine, among other things, “potential new mechanisms for public funding for the production of local news to meet the critical information needs of the people of the United States and address systemic inequities in media coverage and representation throughout the country.”
- Journalism is no longer “safe and easy”: That came from 9News General Manager Mark Cornetta. “Many journalists have been physically attacked by police, by angry mobs, and have had their gear and property destroyed on top of sustaining physical injuries,” he told Bennet. “In addition, journalists and their families have been threatened, doxxed, to the point that they’ve had to find alternative places to live and have had to hire, in some cases, 24/7 security for their protection.”
- The CARES ACT saved newsroom jobs: “At KVNF a reporter resigned and that position would have gone unfilled without knowing that this onetime funding was coming in. Same at KDNK,” said KVNF’s Gavin Dahl. KSUT, a tribal station in the Four Corners region of Colorado, “is actually building on their news department this year in part thanks to these funds,” he added. “So, straight up, it was a lifesaver for our newsrooms.”
- Old-school journalists are thinking differently about public funding: “I’m on record … as being against the idea of public funding — or government funding — of media,” said Laura Frank, a former Rocky Mountain News and Rocky Mountain PBS journalist who serves as the inaugural executive director of COLab. “But I will say that the last year has brought me to the point where I am completely open to the discussion, and I think a commission is the right way to look at this.” Former Associated Press and Denver Post editor Larry Ryckman, who now runs The Colorado Sun, told Bennet, “Like Laura, I’ve had some misgivings about government funding. I think my thinking about that is evolving. I’m certainly eager to join in a conversation about it. The reality is that legacy media has been funded by the government in some way or another for decades— through legal notices and through other things. So, it’s not a foreign concept that there’s some government funding that goes to media.”
- Can’t be beholden: “Certainly, what you guys wouldn’t want, and what I wouldn’t want, is for the press to become beholden to government for support,” Bennet said at one point. “And that’s a real challenge we’re going to have to think through, but it’s not an excuse to throw up our hands and say there’s nothing we can do.” (Those who recall the fate of the Silver & Gold Record at CU might know something about that.)
- A COVID death close to a newsroom: The novel coronavirus has disproportionally hit communities of color, said Bee Harris, publisher of Denver Urban Spectrum, which has served the Black community for more than 30 years. “As a matter of fact,” she told Bennet, “our editor, his mom was one of the first who died of COVID back in March. So, it has hit home very closely to the Denver Urban Spectrum.”
- Don’t just hear from journalists. Bring in communities: That was a suggestion from Mike Rispoli of Free Press who helped successfully advocate for a public media fund in New Jersey. “Certainly, what we would want the commission to do is take the soundings of journalists, but not just journalists, communities as well,” Bennet told him. “I know from my travels around the state that people are really worried about this issue. They may not be worried about whether journalists are able to make a living or make a profit or sustain, but they are really worried about where information is coming from and how decisions are being made, and they feel like democracy is being corrupted as a result.”
Included in the duties of the federal panel created by The Future of Local News Commission Act is this, emphasis mine:
… recommendations, in addition to any other proposals deemed appropriate, may 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.
Some folks on the call zeroed in on the CPB part.
- “I would say we’re quite likely very supportive of a commission that you are proposing,” Colorado Public Radio CEO Stewart Vanderwilt told Bennet. But he urged any commission to have “close coordination” with the CPB to reduce the risk of unintended consequences that could dismantle “a system that has been very beneficial to the American people.” He called the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television “transformative” for setting the stage for what public broadcasting is today, noting how “in many cases, the most robust locally owned newsrooms are now inside of public broadcasting institutions.”
- But has the CPB been helpful to minority broadcasters? Endale Getahun, who serves immigrant communities in Aurora across various platforms, doesn’t think so. He told Bennet he hoped any commission would scrutinize the CPB, which he feels hasn’t been friendly to minority broadcasters in the past. His audience, he said, is made up of many Uber drivers, taxi drivers, and hospitality workers. “It is hard to reach them” during this pandemic, he told Bennet, adding that he’s found using Roku devices and other platforms have helped him reach even more people than on radio during the pandemic.
- Government flaks can’t replace reporters: Susan Greene, formerly of The Colorado Independent, now at COLab, told Bennet that Colorado Press Association members in small towns are complaining their governments are “completely bypassing” them. “I don’t know if this is a Colorado thing or all over, but it’s interesting that government money is being used for spin essentially — not that everything PIOs do is spin, some of it is valid information — but … bypassing reporters, there’s something wacked about that,” she said. “I think that might need to be looked at.” Bennet said he thinks about that a lot. “When a PIO becomes the stand-in for the press … then you’re living in an autocratic society, not in a democracy,” he said.
- Bennet thinks Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t get the 1A: After having dinner with the Facebook founder nearly a year ago, Bennet says he did not leave impressed. “It would be difficult to find somebody who has less of an understanding of what the First Amendment is all about than Mark Zuckerberg,” Bennet said. He added he left the dinner “horribly worried about what Facebook’s position in all this is,” and said, “nothing that’s happened since then has made me think about it any differently.”
- What about tax law and diversity? Damian Thorman, COLab’s board chair, said he hoped any federal commission would look at tax implications as legacy local news publishers looking at transferring to new ownership could use some tax benefits to encourage them. “We really want to make sure the commission is looking at how diversity is impacted as we try to build up and support the ecosystem,” he said. “It’s really important that we look at some kind of encouragement of diversity.”
- Leverage on Big Tech: Dan Petty, digital director of audience development at MediaNews Group, which owns The Denver Post, wondered about the possibility of giving those in the local news industry the ability to collectively bargain or negotiate with large internet companies for carrying or aggregating their content. TV broadcasters make plenty of money from re-transmission fees, he noted, but there isn’t really an analogous comparison for the publishing industry. Bennet said he thought it’s something the commission should consider, and added he believes the anti-trust division of the Justice Department should look into it as they investigate Big Tech.
Our democracy depends on local journalism, but newsrooms across the country have been pushed to the brink. Today I joined @co_mediaproject & journalists from across our state to discuss my bill to support local journalism while preserving the independence vital to the free press. pic.twitter.com/RZuOwdPyfi
— Michael Bennet (@SenatorBennet) November 19, 2020
During his unsuccessful run for president in the 2020 Democratic primary, Bennet didn’t hide his frustration about how he believed social media was impacting contemporary politics— and its affect on his own campaign.
“The Twitter base of the Democratic Party decides what’s important, not the actual base,” he told The Atlantic last fall. “The actual base of the Democratic Party are a bunch of people that have never, ever, ever engaged with a politician on Twitter. They are the people we met with today who are teaching school. Those women are invisible to cable television. The children that are in that school are invisible to cable television, and invisible to the Twitter universe.”
To the Zoom full of journalists Thursday, he said there might be a role for his potential federal commission to take at doing … something about the platforms.
“Now that we’re on the back end of the 2020 elections I’ve never been more persuaded that if this democracy is going to survive we need an answer of some kind for the existing social media,” Bennet said. “I see no reason why social media couldn’t have been a constructive force for our democracy. I see no reason it couldn’t have been a democratizing force for America or for democracy around the world. But I think it’s fair to say that instead, much of it has been a destructive force. I see no reason why it couldn’t have been a powerful tool to inform people and engage people and organize them in a way that strengthens our democracy, but we are a long, long way from that. And I don’t have any brilliant answers for those challenges but I hope this commission will think it through.”
He went on:
“I do know these platforms have become too large and too powerful and they’ve been far too cavalier about their responsibilities to anticipate and to address the damage the platforms are causing our democracy. They’re flooding users with toxic disinformation, they’re digitally gerrymandering Americans with secret algorithms, they’re radicalizing people with self-reinforcing content loops, and on top of that they’re destroying local journalism by aggregating your content and with it the lion’s share of the ad revenue. Sitting back and doing nothing, I think, is not an option for our democracy.”
Colorado in the past year has become a place where these kinds of conversations about the efficacy of increased public support for the local news industry have been taking place more than elsewhere. The ways in which government support is actually materializing in practice here, though, is something of a different story.
Despite Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis throwing cold water on the idea of increased state-government support, this year his office’s economic development agency offered for the first time ever an Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant to a local news publisher. As the revenues of local news publishers cratered during the pandemic, outlets large and small across Colorado applied for and received federal relief dollars through programs of the U.S. Small Business Administration. Meanwhile, Colorado’s tourism office has been paying for the travel arrangements of Texas journalists who vacation in Colorado and publish stories about their experience.
“In the past two years, members of Congress from both parties have introduced five bills to boost local media, via antitrust exemptions, tax credits, and other means,” Columbia Journalism Review recently reported. None of them have passed.
“There are no silver bullets to any of these problems, but I know that we can’t just wait around for the situation to resolve itself,” Bennet said on Thursday’s call. “If we do that, we’re going to wake up one day in an America without local news, and we can’t let that happen. So that’s why we wrote the bill, and my colleagues and I are going to push hard to get it passed in the next Congress.”
On that front, Bennet told the assembled media industry faithful that he plans to seek bi-partisan support for the Future of Local News Commission Act. “We’re going to have to find somebody on the Republican side who’s living in a journalistic desert,” he said — and then he added some grim commentary: “That’s not going to be that hard to find.”
The inside story of what happened to Pulp in Pueblo — and so much more
Several weeks ago I got a call from Abe Streep, who had written that great New York Times magazine piece about Pueblo and the struggling Gannett-owned Chieftain newspaper. He was planning to follow it up for a piece in Columbia Journalism Review about Pulp, the scrappy monthly news magazine run by the scrappy John Rodriguez. I learned some things on the call I didn’t know, and it was clear to me Streep was going to go deep on it.
The piece is now out, in CJR’s winter edition of the magazine, and you really should set some time aside to read the entire thing. It’s headlined “For Pueblo,” and it’s just gutting — line after line. You’ll learn a lot about Pueblo, about Rodriguez, and about a city’s relationship with its hollowed-out daily broadsheet after it was swallowed up in a newsroom-devouring monster merger in a place that once supported 20 different foreign-language newspapers.
Here’s a particularly devastating graf:
In May, Nick Gradisar, Pueblo’s mayor, told me that, following the Chieftain’s sale to GateHouse, “It’s to the point we will write a story and we can just send it to them and they’ll change a few words and publish it. You know, that’s the advantage of them not having many reporters —we get to write our own story.”
Against the backdrop of the Chieftain’s troubles (like so many daily newspaper troubles) emerges a story about Pulp and an idea that “had recently been picking up steam in Colorado” — a potential appetite for increased public support for local news. It’s a story about how that played out on the ground in Pueblo, and about place, home, and the people who leave it and why. Streep cites Kara Mason, a former Pueblo journalist who now edits Sentinel Colorado, growing up “having absorbed the idea that staying in town meant failing.” Early during the coronavirus pandemic, Pulp was failing too, and Rodriguez was scrambling to save it.
Then a bold, if slightly desperate, idea came to him. In his brushes with the professional journalism crowd, he’d heard about an increasingly popular school of thought: if the press is a public service, it ought to be publicly funded. That idea had recently been picking up steam in Colorado. Rodriguez figured it was worth making a case for the Pulp’s survival. So he reached out to Gradisar; the county commissioners; the president of the city council; and Jeff Shaw, the chief executive officer of pedco. He suggested that the town’s leaders bail out its media with tax dollars. “We are in a new world,” Rodriguez emailed Shaw, “but I think Pueblo helping Pueblo must be our future.” He acknowledged that the proposal brought potentially awkward complications. “Who wants to fund something,” he later asked me, “which could expose people for doing a bad job?” He wasn’t sure of that himself.
RMPBS CEO: Media ‘built on the roots of privilege’
Amanda Mountain, who runs Rocky Mountain PBS, said this week her news outlet makes up “the largest membership organization in the state.” She also reflected on her values as a public media manager.
Some excerpts from Mountain in a write-up by the Orapin PR firm:
I stand for the democratization of the media. I think that media and the roots of media are really built on the roots of privilege and by nature of that privilege, there has typically been a division between the community and the media that is serving the community. Oftentimes I think that division, even when unintentional, has seeded mistrust and created opportunities for misinformation, or underrepresentation of so much of our American story.
Our vision for Rocky Mountain Public Media is nothing short of a Colorado where everyone feels seen and heard. So often media has shaped self-perception and public-perception in ways that are not accurate with someone’s lived experience. So reconciling that and having media truly reflect people’s lived experiences has tremendous potential, I think. When people are seen and heard it can change lives. It can empower people, it can motivate people, it can inspire people, it can remind people of the power they have to share their voice and the innate value in that.
‘Support our young people’: The loss of a KUNM journalist in New Mexico
The suicide of 29-year-old public radio journalist Hannah Colton in New Mexico has those in the business telling each other to check in on one another.
From Marisa Demarco for KUNM where Colton led the news team:
She has been a brilliant news leader during the pandemic, guiding the team and editing stories about the virus, the calls to stop racist policing and the 2020 election. She was passionate about equity and racial justice. She fought those fights in the field, in news content and on behalf of her staff. … In April 2019, she shared on social media a story she did for KUNM called “Hands-On Therapy Helps Students Rebuild Self-Esteem After Trauma.” On that post, Hannah wrote: “The older I get and more work I do, the more convinced I am that most or all of us are traumatized to some degree by this messed up, unjust, patriarchal, white supremacist society. Healing is possible, but we cannot heal alone. And that’s why I love making pieces about mental health. Especially when I get to speak with compassionate, expert elders.”
This breaks my heart. We in news organizations need to do more to support our young people, especially in these difficult times. https://t.co/W7kTVBGXAU
— sandra fish 🐠 (@fishnette) November 12, 2020
(KRCC’s May Ortega, who knew and worked with Colton, said of Fish’s thread: “News managers need to read this.”) In a letter in the University of New Mexico’s Daily Lobo, those close to Colton wrote that friends checking in on each other isn’t enough. “She was a movement journalist,” they wrote, “someone who practices journalism that meets the needs of communities directly affected by injustice, who actively engages in unlearning transactional and extractive interactions and who does away with the myth of objectivity.”
On anxiety and depression in the newsroom
In the latest edition of Denver’s 5280 is a feature by the magazine’s editorial director Geoff Van Dyke, who is 46, about what it’s like living and working with anxiety and depression. In the piece, he talked about “the voice” — and lucky you if you don’t know what he’s talking about.
By early afternoon, my mind would clear … but that simply made head space for the depression and anxiety that can manifest when one tries to make it through even the best days. It also left room for the voice, the voice that tells me the reason my company is struggling is because I suck at my job; that the reason I’ve put on 10 pounds is because I’m lazy and drink too much; that the reason my kids are bored is because I’m a crappy dad. After listening to the voice berate me for a few hours, 5 o’clock would once again bring relief. I’d crack a beer or mix a margarita. Lather, rinse, repeat. …
Over the past half year, I’ve been pushed into profound misery for roughly 48 to 72 hours at least once a week. I don’t smile. I don’t laugh. I have difficulty feeling love. I contemplate different ways of hurting myself. I want to sleep so I don’t have to think about anything anymore. Sometimes I’ll work the better part of the day and then crawl into bed at 4:30 in the afternoon and sleep for two hours. Then, of course, I can’t fall asleep at night. My mood darkens. My mind whirs. The voice returns.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
🎙️New ‘Unhoused‘ podcast partnership bridges Boulder Weekly with KGNU.
📃CJR quoted a Colorado journalism professor for its much-trafficked story about Substack.
⚰️Journalist Arthur H.“Dick” Dixon died at 79 in Salida.
💻Editor & Publisher reports The Denver Gazette debuted online. “The online publication launched Sept. 14.”
🛡️A source asked a Denver Post reporter to remove their name from a story about a Denver-based voting system targeted by Trump “because they were receiving threats.”
👀Look at these front-page COVID headlines from newspapers in our neighboring states this week.
⚖️A pastor in Colorado Springs and her sons are suing some former parishioners, “claiming they posted ‘defamatory, false and slanderous’ statements on social media about her, her family and her church.”
👔Glenn Rabinowitz has joined BusinessDen as an associate editor.
🔐Speaking of BusinessDen, after six years as a free daily news site in Denver, “we are tweaking our business model,” the outlet told readers this week in an email. “Starting later this month, BusinessDen.com stories will be restricted to paid subscribers.”
🆕The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent’s new bilingual reporter says she’d “like to be a resource and advocate for the Hispanic population as well as for other minority groups in Glenwood.”
😷Colorado’s rising COVID-19 caseload means one Denver news anchor is back in the basement.
👨👦A Colorado College student wrote an op-ed with his dad for The Oregonian.
🔎The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition wants to know if a home-rule city’s charter overrides the Colorado Open Meetings Law.
🏫Boardhawk, “an independent advocacy news site focused on Denver Public Schools,” is looking for “an experienced reporter to cover the district, with a particular emphasis on its board of education.” ($40k-$50k/independent contractor no benefits.)
💵A new public notice placement company called Column “switched over the state of Colorado to use its services.”
📱Colorado makes two cameos in this piece about “how national digital networks are transforming local news.”
📢Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet joined colleagues “in asking Facebook to crack down on anti-Muslim content and material that violates the website’s policy against calling for individuals to bring weapons to advertised events.”
🤔Colorado’s outgoing Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner told a reporter he thought a question about whether he considers Joe Biden the president-elect was a “Gotcha” question. “I’m not going to play your games,” Gardner told him. “I’m tired of it.”
✒️A former Coloradoan editor is the new editor of The Salt Lake Tribune.
*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.