🏔️ Colorado's news scene 'is struggling,' media professors say

Your weekly reporting on the news about the news in Colorado

The State of Colorado Local News 101

Good news and bad news.

That’s the message from two University of Denver media professors about Colorado’s local journalism scene. Their latest research gave our local news ecosystem a checkup during the pandemic.

The work comes from Kareem El Damanhoury and David Coppini who recently wrapped up an assessment of the state’s media landscape, working with the community engagement firm Hearken, and with funding from The Colorado Trust. As part of it, they analyzed media content in Weld, La Plata, Montezuma, and Alamosa counties, and also surveyed journalists about their perceptions of the quality of Colorado journalism.

From a column the pair published this week in The Colorado Sun:

The good news is that news output in the four counties far exceeds the national average when it comes to the provision of quality journalism. 

A 2018 Duke study shows the vast majority of local news content across the United States is nonlocal, unoriginal and tends to focus on soft news, such as sports and entertainment. In the Centennial State, around two-thirds of the output is local and original, while a whopping 79% addresses key issues like health care, politics, environment, economy, education, transportation, emergencies and civic life.

Nontraditional news sources in Colorado are also playing a critical role in serving their communities. Staff at ethnic media (e.g., the Southern Ute Drum newspaper), non-governmental organizations (e.g., La Puente and the Immigrant & Refugee Center of Northern Colorado), and government offices (e.g., Greeley-Evans School District 6, Weld County, and San Juan Basin Public Health) are utilizing their social media platforms to fill gaps in coverage and spread timely information on local issues. 

As for the bad news, the researchers found the more diverse, rural, or less affluent a county is, “the closer it gets to being a news desert.” Hearing from journalists, they found rural areas and entire regions, like eastern Colorado, the Western Slope, and some communities in southern Colorado, “are often forgotten by news organizations.” Journalists also told them they felt Colorado media rarely report in depth on Native American, Black, and Latino populations. 

“In short, our study shows that the Colorado news ecosystem is struggling: the gaps in local and original reporting and the lack of resources are undeniable,” the authors write.

I’m currently working with El Damanhoury and Coppini on a news-and-information mapping project at Colorado College inspired by this work. Also involved are Stephanie Snyder of Hearken, COLab, News Voices: Colorado, and the Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter.

As part of this work, we recently wrapped up a CC class called “The Future and Sustainability of Local News,” which is supported by a grant administered by the Online News Association with support from the Democracy Fund, Knight Foundation, the Inasmuch Foundation, and Scripps Howard Foundation.

Look out for more information about that soon.

About limited local news in rural Colorado: A local angle on those ‘mummified remains’

Chances are you might have heard the story making national headlines about a “cult leader” named Amy Carlson and her “mummified remains” in rural southern Colorado.

From The Gazette in Colorado Springs:

Saguache County Sheriff's Office deputies found Carlson’s mummified body last week wrapped in a sleeping bag on a bed in a home in the town of Moffat in the San Luis Valley, decorated with Christmas lights and glittery makeup around her eye sockets, according to arrest documents. … Authorities arrested seven suspects on the night of April 28, presumably followers of Carlson’s, some of whom allegedly transported her deceased body from California to near Crestone, where the group has been headquartered since 2018.

While the group in question, Love Has Won, might have been an obscure reference to many who read the coverage, it wasn’t to those who follow the work of Sara Grimes.

The former UMass Amherst journalism professor, who retired in Crestone, runs a local newsletter with a little more than 80 subscribers circulated via email. Since she started it last fall, she has written in depth about Love Has Won. In a Nov. 13, 2020 newsletter she said the group threatened her with legal action because of her reporting. (A student in a class of mine first got her work on my radar during a recent project in which students spoke with community members in several Colorado counties seeking to identify non-traditional news sources in the state.)

Among other items, Grimes has reported on incidents from the sheriff’s office, local COVID-19 cases from the county health department, and where and how locals can get vaccinated. “I am purposely keeping The Grimes Report newsletter as low-tech as possible, seeking subscribers by word-of-mouth only and resisting pressures to expand,” she told me this week. Months before news of a mummy broke nationwide, she had been raising questions about Love Has Won’s presence in the area. In November of last year she even wrote she was done reporting on the group “unless something drastically changes.” Well, it sure did.

From her most recent newsletter, which nods to the limited news sources available in certain parts of Colorado:

Here at The Grimes Report the reaction from Subscribers to the news of the discovery of the mummified body of Amy Carlson decorated in Christmas tree lights in Crestone ranged from “Oh, My God!” to -- How can a community stand by and watch this happen when children are involved? But those reactions came from Subscribers who live outside the Baca/Crestone, and not from the community itself, which remains silent. Why isn’t outrage expressed here about this organization that has been documented as dangerous and has brought a stain -- even ridicule, if you read the comments in the New York Times and the Washington Post -- to our community?

“Perhaps several reasons,” she goes on in the newsletter. “But included has to be the response from local authorities to requests by Baca/Crestone residents for help with social problems and the lack of any local journalism dedicated to informing on those problems.”

In the preamble of her latest newsletter, Grimes wrote that she hopes her coverage of the story will encourage support for a local group called Crestone Eagle Community Media. That organization, she wrote, is seeking to buy the monthly Crestone Eagle newspaper, upon the editor’s retirement, to help “strengthen news coverage of the Baca/Crestone through a non-profit, independent newspaper.”

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Denver7’s brutalist building will not be a landmark

A battle over brutalism, journalism, and city-planning-ism tracked closely by this newsletter for the past four months is over.

Denver City Council this week waved away a proposal by a handful of residents to designate the blocky brutalist octagonal Denver7 TV station headquarters as a historic landmark. That means the building’s owner, Scripps Media, can sell the brute for big bucks to a developer who could turn it into high-rise apartments.

From Denverite’s Esteban Hernandez:

At least one person who testified during Monday’s meeting went so far as … to call the building “a wart,” even as city preservation staff noted how the building was one of the few examples of brutalism in Denver. After a nearly two-hour public hearing, council members voted unanimously against the designation.

Denver7’s general manager, Dean Littleton, indicated the move would be good for local TV journalism in Denver. By being able to sell the building, his newsroom could move into a newer, updated space. “Give our 200 local journalists and staff the facility they need to better serve the people of Denver,” he told the council, according to Denverite.

Denver City Cast host Bree Davies used the opportunity to explore the look and character of a rapidly changing city.

“I understand that developers have come in to Denver from different states because there’s this incredible boom of new people moving in,” Mary Voelz Chandler, a former arts and architecture critic for The Rocky Mountain News, told her. “And I don’t blame them for moving in here. It has been a really great city. But now it’s starting to look like anywhere. And we’re losing buildings that can be, you know, just a little different. And you’re not going to see it anywhere else.”

Westword readers chimed in about the brutalist downtown Denver7 headquarters and what might replace it. “Eyesore will be replaced with another eyesore, mark my words,” one reader wrote. “Not sure how the designation would affect weather and animal stories,” wrote another. Ouch!

Why a Denver reporter won’t use the term ‘grandfathered’ in coverage anymore

Word choice is important. More and more, journalists around the country, and in Colorado, are paying closer attention to the words they use in their coverage.

Recently, KUSA 9News in Denver changed the way its reporters use language in immigration reporting after its parent company TEGNA met with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Journalists will no longer use the word “illegal” to describe individuals.

The National Center on Disability and Journalism encourages journalists to use “people-first” language to shift away from “outdated terms like ‘handicapped’.” Others encourage similar language around addiction or homelessness. You’ll notice some news organizations in Colorado report on “people experiencing homelessness” or “people experiencing opioid addiction” and have moved on from terms like “the homeless” or “addicts” in their coverage.

It’s a welcome change and I certainly wish I’d been thinking more critically about my own word choices earlier in my journalism career.

This week, one reporter for 9News in Denver, Marshall Zellinger, told viewers why he will no longer use the term “grandfathered” to describe an exemption to rules, as he had in recent coverage about gun laws.

“The term ‘grandfathered’ was originally used to implement voter suppression,” Rosemarie Allen, a professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver, told him. Being “grandfathered” could allow someone the right to vote without taking a literacy test or having to pay a poll tax if that person’s grandfather had been eligible to vote, Zellinger reported. “Rules like ‘grandfathering in’ provided an exception even for whites who may not be able to qualify,” Allen added.

Zellinger said he will scrap the term from future broadcasts.

“Here are two new words,” the TV reporter said at the end of his newscast. “Space and grace. Rosemarie Allen says we need to allow space and grace to grow. Once you learn better, do better. So … I have learned better, and now I will do better.”

The Coloradoan is keeping its online comment section

Last month this newsletter reported how three different Colorado newspapers were re-evaluating their online comment sections in different ways. One of them, The Steamboat Pilot, is getting rid of them altogether.

This week, the Coloradoan in Fort Collins explained to readers why, after “extensive research and testing,” the Gannett-owned newspaper is keeping its comment section while acknowledging that “commenting sections have gotten a bad rap.” From an item at the paper, that took up a Sunday print page, bylined by Anjanette Delgado and Brian Smith of Gannett and Talia Stroud of the Center for Media Engagement:

If certain groups of people don’t comment, then their views aren’t represented. And we know from research that people can form impressions about what others in their community think on the basis of news comment sections. We’re also listening to the comments to improve our work. The commenting section can be a place for you to let us know about new ways to think about a topic, to provide new information about a developing story, or to share new perspectives and ideas. 

The column also appeared in multiple other Gannett papers around the country. Gannett also owns The Pueblo Chieftain.

Along with keeping comments, Gannett is also allowing commenters to remain anonymous. Gannett will use artificial intelligence to help moderate what commenters write. Another excerpt:

Turning off the comments didn’t improve people’s experiences. Even though many of those who had commented at some point didn’t notice, those who did notice thought that removing the comments wasn’t a good decision. We also found that people spent less time on our site, signaling that people do spend time with comments.

The Coloradoan will use a comment platform called Coral. “We found that Coral offered a better user experience, fostered a less toxic conversation and helped us better manage the space we were providing,” wrote the Coloradoan’s content strategist, Rebecca Powell, in a separate column.

One thing I thought was missing from the paper’s explanations about keeping the comment section was the profit motive. Advertising-based news companies are selling their audience to those whose products wind up in front of our eyeballs. More engagement = more eyeballs, the more time on the page, the higher the ad price they can likely charge.

When I noted that on social media this week, the Coloradoan’s Twitter account responded: “Wanting to provide something readers want and wanting to be financially viable are not mutually exclusive. Just ask the 15 Coloradoan journalists who want to continue doing their work providing something important for the community.”

Michael Bennet and others reintroduce the ‘Future of Local News Act’

Last year, under a different presidential administration, Colorado Democratic Sen. Michael Bennet and some colleagues put forward a measure that, if passed, would examine ways in which the federal government might try to help fix our country’s bottomed-out local news business model.

Now, under the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden, and with Democrats in control of the House and Senate, the lawmakers have re-introduced that bill.

The measure would form a 13-member committee to examine our nation’s local news scene and provide “recommendations on mechanisms that the Federal Government can create and effectively implement to support production of professional, independent, and high-quality local news to meet the needs of the public,” among other things.

“Across America, local newsrooms have been pushed to the brink by a confluence of forces – from industry consolidation to the migration to digital, to the rise of social media and the COVID-19 crisis,” Bennet said in a statement. “Local reporting that engages citizens, shapes communities, and holds local governments accountable is foundational to our democracy, and I’m concerned that if we do not take action soon, we could be headed for an America without local news. I hope this legislation will help us find common-sense, nonpartisan solutions to support local journalism while preserving the independence vital to the free press.”

University of Colorado UFO researcher dinged in The New Yorker

I’ve noted before that Colorado has a cluster of journalists on the UFO beat.

Perhaps some of them might be interested in a Colorado connection in last week’s edition of The New Yorker magazine that covers the contemporary seriousness with which the U.S. government has lately been taking the unexplained aerial phenomena.

In a deeply reported piece, Gideon Lewis-Kraus reports on a U.S. government UFO research project called Blue Book, and also recalls how a physicist at the University of Colorado named Edward Condon in 1966 snagged his own contract to study UFOs. Buuuut…

The project was plagued by infighting, especially after the discovery of a memo written by a coördinator noting that a truly disinterested approach would have to allow for the fact that U.F.O.s might exist. That was out of the question—their behavior was not commensurable with our understanding of universal laws. The associated scientists, the coördinator proposed, should stress to their colleagues that they were primarily interested in the psychological and social circumstances of U.F.O. believers. In other words, sightings should be understood as metaphors—for Cold War anxiety or ambivalence about technology.

Elsewhere in the piece, Condon’s report doesn’t come off looking so hot.

Condon, who announced long before the study was complete that U.F.O.s were unmitigated bunk, wrote the report’s summary and its “Conclusions and Recommendations” section. He seemed to have only a glancing familiarity with the other nine hundred pages of the report. As he put it, “Careful consideration of the record as it is available to us leads us to conclude that further extensive studies of UFOs probably cannot be justified in the expectation that science will be advanced thereby.” Schoolchildren, he advised, should not be given credit for work involving U.F.O.s. Scientists should take their talents and their money elsewhere. Project Blue Book was shut down in January, 1970.

In 1972, [Ohio State astronomer J. Allen] Hynek published “The UFO Experience: A Scientific Enquiry,” a scathing postmortem on Blue Book and the Condon Report, and a blueprint for systematic research. Blue Book’s remit had not been to try to explain U.F.O.s, he wrote; rather, it had been to explain them away. The Condon Report, which focussed on disproving any conjecture about alien spaceships, was even worse. 

Read the whole story at the link above.

As for a roll call of Colorado journalists on the UFO beat, here goes: Sarah Scoles of Denver is the author of They Are Already Here: UFO Culture and Why We See Saucers, published last year by Simon & Schuster. Meanwhile, Denver radio journalist Laura Krantz followed up her awesome 2018 podcast Wild Thing, which was about Bigfoot, with Wild Thing: Space Invaders, about extraterrestrial life.

In 2019, reporter Heidi Beedle wrote a cover story for the Colorado Springs Indy alt-weekly about our state’s history of cattle mutilations that some believe are evidence of paranormal activity, perhaps by visitors from outer space. Last year, journalist David Ramsey of The Gazette in the Springs published a spate of columns including a profile of the UFO Watchtower in Sagauche County, a piece headlined “Do UFOs fly through Colorado skies?” and another headlined “Did alien spacecraft land in southern Colorado?” When multiple witnesses including law enforcement scrambled to hunt down the origin of mysterious lights in the sky over the Eastern Plains last year, Ramsey was on it.

Here’s to hoping they stay on that out-of-this-world beat.

More Colorado media odds & ends

📝 On May 18, join a Denver panel discussion “about the importance of Black representation in newsrooms.” Register for the For vs. About: Reporting for Black Communities” here.

📢 Eric Anderson wrote about how he “helped manage communications around the closing of the Rocky Mountain News” and now is doing communications for the Sun/CCM/Colorado News Conservancy deal.

🤝 Tow Center spoke with the National Trust for Local News CEO and a Colorado Sun founder “about the transition from locally-owned to national trust operated–and how this deal could serve as a model to help the ailing local news media ecosystem.”

📰 The Pagosa Daily Post has embarked on a series “All the News That’s Fit to Share.”

✍️ The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has asked Gov. Jared Polis to veto a bill that would “allow state and local public bodies to disclose just one finalist for chief executive officer positions.”

📺 KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark will exit the basement news desk he uses at home to broadcast ‘Next’ at the end of the month as we crawl out of the pandemic. “My kids would like to play down here,” he said.

☀️ The Colorado Sun is scooping up another reporter from a local print newsroom. Olivia Prentzel is leaving The Gazette in Colorado Springs for the nearly 3-year-old outlet. One of the Sun’s recent hires before her, Danika Worthington, came from The Denver Post.

📖 If you enjoyed last week’s Q-and-A with author Julian Rubinstein about his new book The Holly, here are some reviews that have come out since the book dropped Tuesday. “The local media, they were just throwing me under the bus,” Terrance Roberts, the anti-gang activist and subject of the book, said at a launch party Tuesday.

⏱️ Denver Police Chief Paul Pazen “did not have time to answer questions about the city’s gang violence, a spokesman told Axios,” this week. (Something tells me local news organizations will have time to keep asking.)

🆕 Denver’s Daybreak on Channel 2 “is getting a new weekday morning co-anchor: Katie Orth will join KWGN and begin working on May 17,” The Denver Post reports.

👍 The Poynter Institute lauded The Rocky Mountain Collegian student newspaper at Colorado State for the way it “examined its campus culture following a number of high-profile incidents over the last few years.

⚙️ Boulder Weekly will be looking for a new editor soon. Reach out to franzan[at]boulderweekly[dot]com.

📱 The Pueblo Chieftain localized how area schools are prepping for Colorado’s media literacy bill as it gets closer to law.

🚫 A trans Colorado Springs journalist says while it “might seem like self-censorship … I try to refrain from offering negative comment on the actions of my fellow transes.”

🗞️ Robert Sanchez of Denver’s 5280 magazine wrote about “what a thrill it was” to work for two Colorado Community Newspapers as a teenager.

I’m Corey Hutchins, instructor at 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.