🔀 Beat shuffle at The Denver Post: Several reporters to switch coverage areas

Your week in the news behind the news in Colorado

‘Fresh eyes’

Several Denver Post reporters who have developed expertise and sources in their respective coverage areas will be switching to new beats soon, the paper’s top editor told staff this week.

One of the changes includes Bruce Finley, the Post’s longtime environmental reporter, who would be moved to cover education. (I didn’t hear back from him via email about it.) Elsewhere, I’m told this disorienting beat scramble, which includes around eight reporters and shuffles coverage areas from higher education to health, politics, and more, caught journalists off guard and they’re still processing it.

By early Friday morning as this newsletter was going out I hadn’t yet seen anything public on social media from those affected. Perhaps we’ll hear something from the department of Some Personal News in the future as things level out.

One of the affected reporters, Justin Wingerter, who moved to Colorado from Oklahoma in 2019 to cover Colorado’s congressional delegation and other federal topics, will now move to a business beat. After writing about the federal government for the past seven years at three different newspapers, “it’s the only full-time beat I’ve ever had,” he said when asked if he wanted to weigh in on the change. “It’s strange and hard to imagine writing about anything else.”

The reporter said he’s “hopeful and confident” that his colleagues on the Post’s politics team “will continue to report on federal issues, at least on a part-time basis.” The move comes as the nation experiences the greatest expansion of government and spending since LBJ, a fall redistricting effort that will determine political geographic lines in Colorado for a decade, and next year’s midterm elections that could help determine who controls Congress.

Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who said she was heading on vacation Thursday and didn’t respond to a followup, told me in a brief email the timing of these musical chairs is to make sure the paper has a K-12 reporter in place as school starts.

“The best switches allow reporters to tackle new challenges, bring fresh eyes to coverage and fill needed holes,” she said. “Every person involved in these changes is an excellent reporter and will bring their years of experience to these beats. If they need help or support along the way, happily their predecessor is a phone call away.”

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Newspepper: Pueblo Chieftain sorry for ‘harm’ in its outsourced chile coverage

The Gannett-owned Pueblo Chieftain newspaper unwittingly antagonized its local readership earlier this month when when it highlighted New Mexico-based Hatch chile peppers instead of Colorado-based Pueblo chile peppers in a prominent spread.

The out-of-touch, tone-deaf move that seemed to have slipped past a critical eye on the local editorial desk sparked immediate scorn.

Colorado’s House majority leader, Daneya Esgar of Pueblo, said in a social media statement that the Hatch chile howler was an indication for “How you know your local paper is no longer locally owned.” She tweeted at the Chieftain to “do better” and to “know your audience.” Others weighed in, too.

The paper responded to local criticism with an apology and put the mea culpa outside of its paywall. “The article was not chosen by The Pueblo Chieftain editorial staff,” Chieftain news director Luke Lyons wrote. “While the staff here dictates local coverage, it does not always dictate much of the wire and nationally syndicated content that goes into the paper.”

More from the Aug. 12 apology:

The article that ran in Wednesday's paper was not meant to cause harm or to infer that the Hatch chile was superior. The Pueblo Chieftain has long reported on the Pueblo chile, and will soon cover the Chile and Frijoles Festival that will celebrate Pueblo's beloved pepper … A story in Friday's paper about Blazin' Bagels talks about a Pueblo chile cream cheese bagel sandwich.

The piece went on to explain how the paper understands the importance of the Pueblo chile, and promised that its journalists would continue to report on that importance. “We apologize for the harm and offense the story has caused,” Lyons concluded.

One Denver Post editor framed the apology as: “Sorry, our newspaper’s corporate overlords made us publish a story about our city’s rival chile.”

As local newspaper companies consolidate and out-of-state ownership increases across the country, readers will no doubt see more face-palming incidents like this from outsourced content produced from faraway hubs. After local ownership for a century and a half, the Chieftain sold to the hedge-fundy GateHouse in 2018, which then merged with the Virginia-based Gannett chain a year later under a deal backed by private equity. Buyouts soon hit the newspaper, sapping institutional knowledge.

It’s easy for those at local papers to get defensive about these big blunders when they happen — on Facebook, followers weren’t happy with the Chieftain’s apology — and some journalists don’t like to see other journalists elevating these SNAFUs. But a journalist wouldn’t say that about a local police department or hospital that made egregious mistakes because it wasn’t adequately funded or was being improperly managed by an absentee chief or CEO regardless of how hard the rank-and-file might be working under less-than-ideal circumstances.

These instances do underscore systemic problems of consolidation and the pernicious nature of private equity involved in American local newspapering. They highlight the plight of local newspapers writ large and the exacerbating inability to find universal solutions to the local news business model in our current economic system.

A Denver PR pro asks: Who had the worst week?

Jeremy Story, a Colorado communications professional, has a rolling feature on his Denver Public Relations Blog: “Who Had the Worst Week?”

The roundup includes a mix of national and Colorado-related people and organizations.

His Aug. 13 edition counted The Pueblo Chieftain as a contender, but also this:

The Colorado Rockies learned the hard way about the importance of guardrails when commenting during a crisis. In a game earlier this week, broadcasters for the Miami Marlins claimed a Coors Field fan screamed a racial slur that was caught by its microphones, and the Rockies validated that before looking into it by posting to social media that it was “disgusted at the racial slur by a fan … .” The next morning, it became clear the fan had actually yelled “Dinger,” the name of the Rockies’ mascot, in an attempt to get a photo. Media quickly backtracked and blamed the Rockies for legitimizing the story with its social media post (as evidenced by this post from 9News’ Nicole Vap).

Over at The Gazette in Colorado Springs, sports columnist Paul Klee published a column taking certain media to task for their coverage of that incident and scant coverage of a local killing. “Gosh,” he wrote, “I can’t imagine why media credibility is below the Mendoza line.”

Colorado’s first anti-SLAPP ruling for media is a weird one

Ever since Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis, signed a law in 2019 that could protect journalists from retaliatory lawsuits, close media watchers wondered what the first legal test might be.

The legislation in question is something typically called an anti-SLAPP law.

The acronym stands for Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls SLAPP suits an all-too-common tool “for intimidating and silencing critics from exercising their First Amendment rights.”

In a SLAPP suit, the subject of a news story who has enough money to sustain an expensive court battle could sue a news organization in hopes of forcing it to incur defense costs and scare it — and others — from continued reporting on the subject. To combat that, anti-SLAPP laws set up a preliminary hurdle a plaintiff must clear before those legal costs start to pile up.

Now, Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg says we have what he believes is our first ruling from a judge in a media case that relied on the 2-year-old law. It came with an unusual set of circumstances involving a newspaper in Black Hawk, and it probably isn’t what many in the media business were thinking about when it comes to an inaugural SLAPP suit decision.

From the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition:

Patricia and Robert Unruh’s libel claim against Weekly Register-Call editor Aaron Storms, newspaper owner Storm Media, LLC, a local church and several other individuals arose from Patricia Unruh’s decision not to review the annual Gilpin County School play for the newspaper. In April 2019, as a freelancer for the Weekly Register-Call, Unruh wrote a story about an excerpt from the play “She Kills Monsters” presented to the local Rotary Club as a sneak preview. But she decided not to write about the full performance, according to the Unruhs’ May 2020 civil complaint, because she found the play to be “lewd and profane … distressing in the extreme and inappropriate for the stage of a K-12 school.” Writing about it, the complaint adds, “would both draw attention to the content inappropriate for students and also might stir up conflict that would be unkind to the student performers and participants.”

Unruh’s decision, she and her husband claimed, led to an “obviously organized and coordinated series of verbal attacks upon her” and “a barrage of letters to the editor submitted to the newspaper and on social media.” Their complaint, which asked for damages exceeding $1 million, accused the Weekly Register-Call of publishing “false statements with reckless disregard and indifference to their falsity including by not inquiring as to the truth.”

Gilpin County District Court Judge Todd L. Vriesman tossed the suit and applied the anti-SLAPP law in doing so.

“People may behave badly in a person’s view, but not all bad behavior has a legal remedy,” Vriesman wrote in the decision. He added that his ruling “does not vindicate any behavior by any party against another … And, with no legal authority whatsoever, the Court further orders the Plaintiffs and Defendants to ‘be kind.’”

Read the whole story here at the CFOIC site.

Follow-up file: #BillionaireNewsOwnerWatch

Last month this newsletter reported how a newcomer reporter for The Colorado Sun scooped the state’s legal and political press with an intriguing story that the state’s legacy print outlets chose to ignore.

At issue was a tax dispute lawsuit against the state by one of Colorado’s wealthiest and most powerful people, the conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz whose Clarity Media happens to own The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs, The Denver Gazette, and Colorado Politics. (None of those publications reported on the lawsuit. At least two outlets, the Colorado Springs alt-weekly Indy and BizWest, published items citing The Sun.)

A judge in the lawsuit also put some of the details under wraps, The Sun’s Daniel Ducassi reported in his initial coverage. Three weeks later, The Colorado Sun had an update on the case. Ducassi reported Denver District Court Judge J. Eric Elliff dismissed the lawsuit. From The Sun:

Part of what influenced his thinking, Eliff wrote, were the implications of the state having to cut numerous refund checks for prior tax years if he were to agree with the Anschutzes’ argument. He noted “the unavoidable reality of plaintiffs’ interpretation is that the refund associated with the prior tax year would have to be borne by the one in which it was claimed. Plaintiffs are asking for a check, and that money has to come from somewhere.”

Also included in the story was this:

The judge also disclosed just how much money the Anschutzes were seeking: nearly $8 million — a fact that the Anschutzes had tried to keep secret. In a footnote, Elliff explained that the Anschutzes “have availed themselves of a public forum, and given the issues raised in the briefs, the court concludes that whatever privacy interest (the Anschutzes) may have in protecting the amount of the refund request is outweighed by the public’s right to know.”

Read the full update here.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🗺️ Programming note: This newsletter is on vacation mode, meaning it might hit your inbox with less frequency or with lighter reporting and content.

📰 The Denver Business Journal has named Alicia Cohn as its managing editor. She was a senior editor at The Hill in D.C. and “previously worked with the communications teams at Denver-based lobbying and law firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck as well as Colorado Parks and Wildlife,” the DBJ reports.

📺 Tori Mason joins CBS4 News at 10 p.m., and Michelle Griego is “back home and … anchoring CBS4 This Morning.”

🇯🇵 The Springs Indy alt-weekly’s executive editor emeritus calls it “unforgivable that The Gazette abdicated its responsibility” in not sending someone to Tokyo to cover the Olympics “for the first time in a generation.” (The columnist doesn’t attempt to answer the logical question any reader would have — why? — or indicate he even asked.)

🎤 KVNF’s Gavin Dahl spoke with two journalists, one from The Guardian and one from High Country News, about climate issues facing Colorado.

🆕 Welcome Rob Tann to Colorado Community Media where he looks forward to “hearing and telling the stories of these communities, and doing so alongside some stellar journalists.”

⚰️ Longtime Denver-area newspaper man Dick Hilker died. He was remembered as someone “fiercely passionate about his role as a journalist and responsibility to mentor those getting started in his newsroom.”

💉 A vaccinated Colorado journalist with a symptomatic case of COVID-19 says: “I’m one in a million.”

🗞️ The Los Angeles Times reported what’s going on with Colorado billionaire newspaper owner Phil Anschutz’s proposal “to build the country’s largest wind farm.”

🏊🏼 A Denver Post reporter showed how to offer a mea culpa on a story via social media.

🌡️ “Scientifically accurate coverage of man-made climate change is becoming less biased—headlining the idea that print media are no longer presenting climate change as controversy,” according to the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado Boulder. “But there’s one place where the team did find biased coverage: conservative media.”

❓ Readers still want answers about what it means to have a Denver Post sport column “presented by” a local sports bar.

🔎 Rocky Mountain PBS investigative producer Brittany Freeman was one of six reporters chosen to participate in ProPublica’s latest round of its Local Reporting Network.

📻 Alison Borden is the newest team editor at Colorado Public Radio where she’ll help “tell stories about the health, education and justice systems and how they intersect.”

🦁 Applications are open for the Local Independent Online News (LION) awards. (The Colorado Independent won one last year.)

🚫 A Denver Post reporter admonished Denver’s CBS4, saying, “Ban the single-source story quoting someone powerful and/or fortunate dumping on the destitute. Way too common in homelessness coverage and it’s got to go. No nuance there, no attempt to understand or humanize the story subjects. A waste of finite reporting resources.”

⚖️ Watch an attorney for the mayor of Loveland have a city council member served with a defamation and slander lawsuit … during a council meeting.

🏆 Check out the many Colorado winners in this year’s Edward R. Murrow awards for TV news in the region that includes Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, and Wyoming.

💨 Jacqueline Quynh is “going to miss” Colorado as she departs CBS4 in Denver.

🏷️ A Colorado Sun reporter noted a potential gubernatorial candidate’s guest column in The Gazette “lacks an opinion tag.” The paper’s opinion page editor once said, “I’ve even at some points in the past put notes with editorials explaining this is opinion content. We’ve done that, we’ve tried everything.”

📻 Current published “5 takeaways from the expansion of public radio’s climate change coverage” that includes Colorado Public Radio.

🆕 Ike Fredregill is a new reporter for The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. “As a veteran, much of my community involvement revolves around getting to know the local military service organizations and finding out where I can be of the most help to my fellow veterans,” he says.

⚖️ A professional photographer “nearly lost his finger when police officers shot him with a less-lethal projectile while he documented 2020 racial justice protests in downtown Denver, according to a lawsuit,” reports The Denver Post.

🎙️ Colorado Newsline reporter Chase Woodruff’s important tweet thread about climate policy landed him an interview about it on City Cast Denver. (If you’re not sure what City Cast Denver is or why you should care, read this.)

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. (If you would like to join CMP and Grasslands in underwriting this newsletter, hit me up.) Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.