A Colorado newspaper owner apologizes for 'any of our sins' as he loses a city printing gig

Plus, our local media’s pro-bono press freedom lawyer files her first lawsuit, and more

‘I apologize for any of our sins’

A longtime Denver-area newspaper owner made an impassioned plea this month for city leaders to keep his embattled publication as the town’s official printer.

It did not work.

A majority of Greenwood Village’s City Council voted to yank the $10,000 a year it budgets for legal notices in The Villager and give its business instead to The Littleton Independent, which has a different owner.

Last month, The Villager came under fire after publishing an astonishingly tone-deaf April Fool’s article that included stereotypes of Asians. The article, which appeared during a time of increased anti-Asian hate, prompted a swift backlash, a barrage of critical local news coverage, and an advertising boycott.

And now, the paper has lost a financial arrangement with the city.

Like other cities and towns in Colorado, Greenwood Village uses money from its coffers to pay for legal notices that appear in a local newspaper. Some cities call the newspaper that prints their notices the city’s “official” newspaper. Greenwood Village calls it the city’s “legal” newspaper. City Council votes on which paper gets that title. Until now, that was the Villager.

Among other issues, the move highlights the fraught nature of public support for local news organizations at a time when some of their champions are proposing more public investment in a battered local news business.

“I am a conservative, independent, free-enterprise Republican,” Villager owner Bob Sweeney told Greenwood Village city council members during a May 3 meeting as he pleaded his case to keep the government printing gig. He added that being such a person is hard in a publishing world “that is so volatile” these days.

Sweeney argued his paper has been good to the city of Greenwood Village for nearly 40 years, helps area nonprofits, supports local businesses and law enforcement, and that the Littleton Independent just wouldn’t cover the city as closely as The Villager does.

“Regarding the April Fools spoof, it has been praised and condemned,” he said, and added, “we apologize for any readers who were offended.”

Sweeney also argued whether a home-rule municipality could trump a state law requiring cities to publish legal notices in newspapers within the limits of that city and what could happen if they don’t. Greenwood Village city attorney Tonya Haas said during the meeting that the home-rule municipality’s code gives City Council the right to designate a legal newspaper by a resolution and that the provision should supersede state law.

“It’s clear that the council, when they passed that ordinance, intended that village leadership did not want to be constrained in choosing a local newspaper,” she said, according to an online audio recording of the meeting. “This is a matter of purely local concern.”

The newspaper owner mused about what might happen if someone tested the issue in court.

The legal notices in The Villager amount to about 3% of the paper’s gross revenue, Sweeney told the town’s leaders, and if they send that money to Littleton his paper will still be around covering hyper-local issues as it has for the last 39 years.

“I would appeal to all of you tonight to table this resolution, see what happens going forward, and stick with The Villager,” he said. “We’re here tonight, I don’t see any other reporters here tonight, nor will you. … I apologize for any of our sins. I ask you to stick with us, we’ve been with you for 40 years.”

The city council voted 6-2 immediately after to make The Littleton Independent the city’s legal paper of record moving forward, without explaining why.

Last month, the city’s Twitter and Facebook accounts wrote, “The City of Greenwood Village has no control over nor is it affiliated with The Villager newspaper, and Greenwood Village officials are as appalled and dismayed as everyone else by the racist content and poor taste shown in the article.” At least one commenter asked if the city would continue “funding” the publication “with our tax dollars.”

In a coincidental turn of events, on the very day of the decision, Colorado Community Media, which owned the Littleton Independent at the time, announced it was selling the paper along with two dozen others to a newly-formed group called the Colorado News Conservancy in an arrangement that involves the National Trust for Local News and The Colorado Sun

It remains to be seen how long Colorado will require local print newspapers to publish public notices. Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has gone out of his way to say he opposes the idea, offering to “get rid of that requirement” in a few years once we’re out of the pandemic.

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Colorado GOP lawmakers grade news outlets as ‘friendly’ and ‘not friendly’

In our fragmented local media scene, lawmakers seeking news coverage have plenty of options. While some states might lack a robust dedicated press corps at their state capitol, Colorado is not one of them.

Instead, several news outlets consistently cover our legislative session each year. And, it turns out, Republican leadership in the Colorado House has divided them into two categories: “Friendly” and “Not Friendly.”

The Colorado Sun (Not Friendly) got its hands on the list:

Six outlets, including The Colorado Sun, The Denver Post, Colorado Public Radio, Axios Denver, Colorado Newsline and 9News, were listed as unfriendly … Seven others, including The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and television station KDVR-TV,  were listed as friendly. 

The news first hit in the Sun’s paid subscription Unaffiliated newsletter. Twitter users screen-grabbed portions of it and shared them with the #copolitics hashtag. As interest picked up over social media, the Sun put the story online where anyone could see it.

More from the Sun:

House Minority Leader Hugh McKean, a Loveland Republican, defended the list, saying it was created at the request of a member who wanted to know how to best navigate the Capitol media landscape. “We just wanted to make sure that as they’re pushing stories out that they know what to expect out of those different media organizations,” McKean said. “If I have a story that I want to push out that deals with Republican principles, with free market, with fiscal conservatism — with kind of a libertarian mentality — I probably don’t push that story to The Atlantic monthly. I probably push it to The Weekly Standard. Those are just different markets — and different takes on things.”

That makes sense. (Except that the Weekly Standard hasn’t been around since 2019.) It’s unrealistic to think other organizations or entities don’t carry around mental lists of their own about what they think of certain news outlets or individual reporters. This one just happened to wind up on paper and in the hands of a reporter.

No self-respecting reporter is likely happy to see their news organization listed publicly as “friendly” to the Republican caucus — or to the Democratic caucus or any caucus. They want to be seen as outside the friend zone of those they cover.

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel took particular umbrage to the “Friendly” label — “Frankly, we’re insulted” — and took to its editorial page to point out that certain local Republicans might not agree.

“We don’t aspire to be friendly or unfriendly to any party, political or otherwise,” the editorial read. “It’s not our job to be anything but intellectually honest.”

Colorado media’s pro-bono press freedom lawyer files her first lawsuit

Last fall, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press announced attorney Rachael Johnson would handle Colorado as part of the group’s Local Legal Initiative, representing members of the press if they need help.

This week, Johnson filed her first lawsuit on behalf of a newsroom.

From the RCFP:

Filed on May 14 in the Denver County District Court, the complaint involves Colorado Open Records Act requests submitted to the POST Board by The Gazette and The Invisible Institute — news organizations that have reported extensively on police misconduct, often using government data to bolster their reporting. In 2019 and 2020, the two newsrooms filed separate requests seeking similar POST Board data regarding the certification, training and personnel changes of law enforcement officers in Colorado, information that at least 23 states have disclosed in response to other records requests filed by The Invisible Institute.

The lawsuit is interesting because of the way it deals with Colorado’s two-pronged open-records law system.

Unlike in some other states, when it comes to open-records laws, we have the Colorado Open Records Act but also the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act. These are two distinct open-records laws that apply to governments depending on what they do. If, say, a reporter or citizen wants access to police files, they’d submit a request under the CCJRA. If they want emails from the governor’s office, they’d submit one under CORA. This lawsuit asks a judge to declare that Colorado’s Peace Officer Standards and Training board does not perform “any activity directly relating to the detection or investigation of crime” and therefore is not a “criminal justice agency” subject to the CCJRA.

Therefore, the suit argues, the board should be required to “provide access to the requested database in a searchable and sortable format, at no cost — as is required under the Open Records Act,” the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press writes.

“Public agencies cannot be allowed to withhold public records by claiming, incorrectly, that the Public Records Act’s requirements do not apply to them,” Johnson told RCFP. “Local communities should better understand how police officers are certified, decertified and trained. We hope the court agrees with our clients that the database they requested is governed by the Colorado Open Records Act and must be released to the public.”

Read the lawsuit here. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition has more information about it here.

If you catch a mistake from the Colorado Nonprofit Association, know this…

If you happen to notice a grammatical error or other mixup in a piece of content produced by the Colorado Nonprofit Association, the organization has a novel explanation for it.

This disclaimer appears at the bottom of one of its recent newsletters:

The Association's communications department is intentionally scaling back our dependence on editing to perfection and our worship of the written word, and instead reinvesting those resources to shine a light on content, meaning, and community. We are actively reflecting on our individual and departmental contributions to upholding white supremacy culture and countering by reclaiming our capacity, energy, and emotional output, so you may notice a grammar error or broken link in future communications. Learn more about white supremacy culture and white supremacy culture traits.

That’s a new one.

Following last summer’s racial reckoning, diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives have been sweeping U.S. workplaces and institutions. This is the first I’ve seen where an organization is noting such an effort to blunt potential criticism of its content.

Speaking of mistakes, this newsletter is no stranger to the occasional whoopsie-daisy. (You’ll see a correction to last week’s newsletter at the bottom of this one.) You’ve likely noticed typos and mixups in many news outlets you read these days as newsrooms can no longer afford to employ the bevy of copy editors they once did.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about this quote in a recent Politico story about Substack and a new crop of editor-less writers on here. In it, a source suggests that as consumers “have become more accustomed to products like meal kits, IKEA furniture, and other DIY products that require some assembly, readers have come to accept less than polished-perfect copy and are content to let their brains smooth out the corrugations.”

Anyway, the Colorado Nonprofit Association’s particular preemptive defense of future mistakes seems worth noting, and I wonder if others have noticed similar disclaimers elsewhere.

Axios advanced ‘The Holly’s’ exposé on Denver’s gang-violence policies

One of Denver’s freshest digital news operations is following up on explosive revelations in a new book about the way authorities in the Mile High City respond to gang violence.

Axios Denver was the first news outlet to question city officials and get them on record about issues the book’s author, Julian Rubinstein, raised in The Holly prior to its May 11 release. This week, Axios Denver reported the city “is re-evaluating its $1 million anti-gang initiative amid rising violence and questions about its approach.”

From Axios Denver:

The backdrop: A newly published book, “The Holly,” from investigative journalist Julian Rubinstein, revealed significant problems with the city's intervention program and policing that only furthered tension in the Five Points and Northeast Park Hill neighborhoods.

  • The city’s violence prevention grants went to organizations that employed active gang members, Rubinstein found.

Find out the details of the city’s “rebranding” at the link above.

Because of its “smart brevity” format, Axios likely isn’t going to go long-form with future enterprise or investigative coverage, but it’s notable that an outlet known for reporting news in small bites has been able to produce the most revealing follow-ups on the book so far.

Keep an eye on Axios Denver, which I’m told has racked up nearly 100,000 subscribers since launching at the end of February, for even more coverage of the city’s gang issues.

Other Denver-based news organizations that have reported on contents from The Holly, which took Rubinstein seven years to report, include Westword, 5280 magazine, Denverite, KGNU, Colorado Public Radio, City Cast Denver, and Lit Out West.

“There are obviously a lot of powerful wealthy and influential people who will not want this book to get attention,” Rubinstein told this newsletter earlier this month. “This is not the narrative that the powers that be in Denver want out there.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

☂️ Chris Bianchi is joining 9News in Denver. “It’ll be a unique role as a bilingual meteorologist and to anchor + develop @9NEWS' WATCH program,” he says.

❌ I erred with two names last week. Sarah Scoles is the author of a book on UFOs, and Dean Littleton is the general manager of Denver7.

📢 Sentinel Colorado is “launching a series of Town Hall conversations.”

💗 The new Heart of NoCo newspaper labor union at The Loveland Reporter-Herald had its first meeting with management about contracts and is “feeling fine.” (The paper is one of those controlled by a New York hedge fund.)

⚖️ A Colorado judge tossed a case against “one of 18 people cited in Colorado Springs after a Black Lives Matter protest on Interstate 25, calling it a violation of her free-speech rights,” The Gazette reports.

📹 Does your town have a ‘copwatcher’ like this guy in Denver and Aurora?

💰 Colorado telecom billionaire John Malone, aka the “Cable Cowboy,” stands to make out big in the AT&T and Discovery mega-merger, Denver Business Journal reports. (The 80-year-old Liberty Media chairman is Discovery’s largest shareholder.)

🏢 “When Channel 7 bites the dust, it will essentially erase the last evidence of the Brutalist presence that once graced Speer Boulevard,” wrote art historian Michael Paglia in this week’s Westword. (He’s talking about the station’s physical building.)

⛷️ Vail Daily is looking for “a seasoned, detail-oriented editor to lead its entertainment and sports/outdoors coverage.”

🤡 A Denver Post columnist’s clown references in recent sports coverage triggered a sportswriter in another state.

💥 Few media outlets gave “context on domestic violence” following the latest mass shooting in Colorado, Media Matters for America found. “Much of the coverage … also failed to mention potential policy solutions to deal with these connections between domestic violence and mass shootings.”

👀 The most interesting (and legit!) reason for source-protection this week goes to The Denver Post for agreeing not to publish someone’s name “since he is still recovering from his time in the cult.”

🤔 Is there really a media contact at the U.S. Space Force named Spock? Or

💉 Headline of the week: “Colorado has the worst coronavirus case rate in the country as it ends most statewide restrictions.”

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.