Denver author's new book is 'not the narrative that the powers that be in Denver want'

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The Holly chronicles ‘invisible Denver’

A new book out May 11 could cause a stir in Denver — at least I hope it does.

The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood, by Julian Rubinstein, offers a fascinating history about a part of the city the author describes as “invisible Denver.”

The book, which took seven years to report, examines a shooting by the charismatic Denver anti-gang activist Terrance Roberts of Hasan Jones in 2013 and the criminal case it led to. (Roberts, who said he pulled the trigger in self defense, was acquitted.) Rubinstein also offers a sweeping national narrative of Bloods-and-Crips street gang history and its ties to the northeast Denver neighborhood known as The Holly. The book serves, too, as an example of how narrative nonfiction and slow journalism can sometimes challenge local media narratives that can form through daily journalism.

Here’s a passage about the outcome of the 2015 Roberts trial:

The verdict appeared to stun most of Denver. The reporting on how Terrance had “admitted to planting” the knife on Hasan, and the long-held view that Terrance had shot Hasan five times, including twice “while he lay motionless on the ground,” made it difficult for anyone who had followed the media coverage to understand how Terrance got off.

Rubinstein, who is currently a visiting professor at the University of Denver and had intimate access to Roberts and others throughout the case and trial, understood the verdict because of his proximity to it. His reporting into Roberts’ belief about a conspiracy to take him down is revealing and relies on original shoe-leather news gathering, public records, a network of sources, and, in many cases, just being there.

The book, which was published by the major New York publishing house Farrar, Straus and Giroux, also illuminates some Denver media history along the way. Here’s an excerpt from a period around the early 2000s:

Black-owned media was virtually nonexistent in Denver. It consisted of two small publications, the weekly 5 Points News, published by the activist Brother Jeff Fard, and the monthly Urban Spectrum. James “Daddy-O” Walker’s flagship community radio station KDKO was shutting its lights. In its heyday, Daddy-O had used the station to discuss social justice issues and question lawmakers. But few could afford to pay for advertising. In April 2002, het got a call from a representative of an unlikely source, the Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz. Anschutz made Daddy-O an offer for the station of $2.2 million. Daddy-O, who was seventy-two, couldn’t turn it down. “KDKO has been silenced,” announced the station’s former website. “The Afro-American community of Denver is mourning the loss of their voice.” Anschutz changed the station’s call letters and turned it into a news talk radio channel. A year later, he shut it down altogether.

A line about a Civil Rights-era incident in northeast Denver after a young Black man was ticketed in front of his friends for jaywalking makes reference to friction between the community and coverage of it. “In what would become a concurrent campaign against the city’s white-owned media,” the author writes, “a car driven by a newsman was chased and pelted with rocks.”

Parts of the book aren’t flattering to newsmakers like Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, former state Sen. Mike Johnston, and other high-profile Denver public figures. Others in the politically connected developer-and-foundation class don’t come off particularly well. The author, who was raised in Denver, also takes issue with some local media reporting over the years on the characters and developments in a troubled neighborhood that often made headlines.

“It’s a riveting read,” said former Denver Post editor Greg Moore about the book on a recent radio show. “I was reading it in the bathroom and I was sticking my arm out of the shower reading through the glass it was that compelling.”

That’s quite an image — and I’m not surprised. An advanced copy of the book recently landed in my mailbox, and it is, indeed, a page turner. It’ll be interesting to see what kind of response it draws once the work reaches a broader audience next week.

“There are obviously a lot of powerful wealthy and influential people who will not want this book to get attention,” Rubinstein told me this week. He added that someone who read it recently mentioned at a recent book gathering: “This is not the narrative that the powers that be in Denver want out there.”

Those who read the book will understand why. (I don’t want to give too much away.) Among other things, the reporting left me with a troubled view of the tactics police use to allegedly combat gang violence in Denver, including how authorities use confidential informants and with whom they decide to form relationships.

Rubinstein and I spoke on Wednesday to talk about his book. What follows are excerpts from our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity.

You write about what you call ‘invisible Denver.’ What does that mean?

I constantly had this sense that whatever happened there, no matter how big or consequential, it just wasn't understood or seen outside of the community, and it’s a really weird feeling. I saw that in terms mostly of the gang community aspect of these neighborhoods, which is a big part of these neighborhoods. And it just seemed like they were completely cut off in a way from the rest of the city.

Throughout the book, it seems you believe some media coverage of invisible Denver offered a different version of reality as you came to understand it through your reporting. Why do you think that is?

I didn’t expect this going into it, but I ended up thinking of this book as an alternate history of a place and a shooting case — and that was because the chronicle I tell is not what is now in the record.

I think that is also a factor of what has been something that newsrooms have been now trying to address … which is the reality that there’s not the proper amount of representation in newsrooms.

You’re an outsider — a white outsider — who got sourced up in invisible Denver. How?

I did face challenges being a white person trying to report this but the number one thing that I felt got me where I needed to be was that I kept listening, kept showing up, and kept trying to understand.

You spent seven years on the book. At times it feels like you want to burst into the daily coverage with some of what you were learning or were frustrated about. You do at one point alert a newspaper about the death of a child and — importantly — who was being investigated for it.

The reason that I was so ethically kind of distraught or challenged was because I felt like “God, I don’t know how long it’s going to be until this book comes out but all this stuff is going on now. Is there some burden on me? Should I reveal what I know because it will expose some of this corrupt system that’s going on that’s contributing to violence and real strife?” I think the only time I really did it was kind of out of frustration.

You write about trying to maintain what you call “journalistic neutrality.” What does that mean to you and to what extent do you think you succeeded?

What I meant by it was just that in the process of reporting the book — and I’ll say it because … I don’t try to hide it, I tried to sort of explain it — I became close to Terrance who was going through this whole thing. At times it was just hard to see so many sort of injustices and misperceptions that were especially impacting his life and others. I was trying not to take a side, basically, but there were times when it felt hard not to feel just really distraught over what was happening to him. I had to re-write the whole third act of the book.

My editor was just ‘you’re too close to it.’ Ultimately, I realized, he was right. The challenge in reporting, especially in a project like this — it’s kind of what I love about reporting but it’s also one of the things that’s hard about it: You’ve got to go all the way deep, deep, deep, in, in, in, in, in — as close as you can — and then you’ve got to come all the way out in order to tell a story in an objective way that’s going to be digestible for people who don’t know this story. I just got too close to it. It was almost impossible not to. I was drawn into it to the point where I almost had to testify at the trial.

What impact do you hope your reporting will have on Denver?

I think that we need more accountability in our public spending, in our elected officials. I think there’s just been a huge lack of transparency, even, I would say borderline coverup of evidence. There was the case where Denver seemed to report — erroneously, I guess I would say — on the success of its anti-gang effort in 2014. It was not going great. So, accountability, transparency. Just more understanding about this part of our city and the realities of what’s going on there.

Find the book and learn about upcoming events surrounding its launch here.

Newsmax settled a defamation suit from a Denver voting systems worker

A Colorado-based employee of an election software company has spent half the year in hiding after right-wing figures and media organizations spread conspiracy theories about him. Since facing death threats, he has fought back in court.

From Colorado Public Radio this week:

The conservative media outlet Newsmax, which amplified former President Trump’s false allegations of election rigging and widespread voter fraud, said on Friday that there is no evidence that Dominion Voting Systems or one of its top employees, Eric Coomer, manipulated election results in 2020.  … Coomer filed a lawsuit against Newsmax for defamation in Colorado state court on December 22, 2020. He withdrew that suit earlier on Friday, ahead of Newmax’s apology. Coomer’s attorneys say he has reached a financial settlement, but terms of the arrangement were not disclosed. 

“This seems quite significant after this lawsuit was filed in Colorado court,” wrote 9News reporter Jeremy Jojola. “The plaintiff still has pending claims against several others. This false rumor began when Joe Oltmann claimed Coomer of Dominion was with Antifa.”

Jojola added that Oltmann, who is active in Colorado’s political scene, “is a defendant in the suit, continues to make Facebook videos about the lawsuit,” called the Newsmax settlement and apology “stupid,” and indicated he isn’t concerned. Jojola also reported Oltmann said in one Facebook video, “If you’re wondering if I’m ever going to settle with that shitbag, the answer is no.”

CPR’s Dan Boyce wins $10k Mattingly award for mental health reporting

Each year, judges for the Carolyn C. Mattingly Award choose a piece of journalism about mental health that is worthy of its $10,000 prize — and its namesake.

This year they chose “The Long Lonely Lake,” an audio documentary by Colorado Public Radio reporter Dan Boyce, who lives in Colorado Springs.

From The National Press Foundation:

The story was the product of three years’ work and 11 drafts, as Boyce pieced together his descent into depression, his failed treatment with drugs and then his successful treatment with electroconvulsive therapy. Boyce used interviews with family and friends to fill in gaps he could no longer remember. NPF’s judges called it “searingly honest,” “a feat of storytelling” and “an amazing achievement.” … In their decision, NPF judges cited the craft of his compelling 43-minute narrative, the courage required for a journalist to reveal his struggle despite the stigma associated with mental illness, and the educational value of the work in demystifying a serious disease that strikes one in 20 Americans each year.

“Knowing the heart-rending story behind the Mattingly Award, this is one of the great honors of my life,” Boyce said.

This year’s honor marks the first for a radio journalist, and notably, it’s the second year in a row the award went to mental health reporting from Colorado.

Last year, Susan Greene and Niki Turner won the award for their investigative series “Through the Cracks: A stranger, a police shooting, and a small town’s silence.”

Journalist safety emerges in Denver7 fight over building’s landmark status

In January, this newsletter reported on a quirky piece of under-reported local Denver media news at the intersection of architecture, journalism history, development, and city planning.

At issue is the brutalist building that houses the Denver7 TV station and whether the building deserves a designation as a historic landmark. Such a designation could save the structure from a wrecking ball as its owner Scripps Media tries to sell it to a developer.

Denver’s Community Planning and Development office concluded the KMGH building has the potential to become a historic Denver landmark, and some community members have been pushing for it. For about four months, a battle over its fate has been brewing over brutalism and the historic nature of the blocky building on Speer Boulevard. The TV station’s general manager, Drew Littleton, said in January the company wants to sell the building so they can move into a larger space with fewer floors.

Now that Denver City Council will decide the building’s future, the story is getting broader attention. From The Denver Post this week:

As it’s currently zoned, the site could hold a building up to 12 stories high, and the prospective buyers — Manhattan- and Miami-based Property Markets Group — have floated the idea of building new apartments there. But if the building is designated as historic, city planner Kara Hahn said, Scripps will be limited in its ability to change or alter the structure. Demolition would be out of the question.

A group of residents is pushing for landmark status in part because of the architectural style. “There aren’t that many brutalist styles at all in Denver, only a handful, and we feel this is the best example,” one of them told the Post. “It’s just a fantastic example of architecture.”

With the city set to make the call on a potential landmark designation, Littleton put forward a new line of argument against landmark status that could dampen any development deal. From Westword:

“We feel trapped,” Littleton says. “If the building is designated, we may not be able to afford to move, because the designation diminishes the value of the property. But if we stay and have to make a change to the outside of the building due to being knocked off the air, we'd have to go through a lengthy process to get permission. We're a 24/7 operation, and I can't wait 24 hours to replace a microwave dish. That could be devastating to our station because of the minute-by-minute nature of our business.” …

Littleton contends that his staff's journalistic efforts will be hampered if Denver7 is forced to stick around. He refers to the current set-up as “a 1970s-era TV station” that doesn't allow his various teams to work together in ways that create the best product. And then there's the matter of safety.

“Another part of the landmark designation would prevent us from making any changes we need to make for security reasons,” he maintains. “As you know, journalists have often been the target of threats and negative statements directed our way, and if we decided we needed to boost security by replacing windows with walls on the first floor, for instance, that would create an issue for us if we weren't allowed to do it. And the security of our teams is vital.”

In February, Littleton told BusinessDen he hadn’t determined whether Denver7 would cover the drama, saying, “We don’t like being the center of attention.” That has changed.

On April 21, Littleton published an editorial under the headline “Potential historic designation endangers Denver7’s future.” From the piece:

We are respectfully asking Denver City Council to honor Denver7’s history of service to this community and the ongoing work of our dedicated journalists by not hamstringing us for the future. At Denver7 we take our obligation as journalists seriously. To use our reporters and our news programs to advocate for our position would not meet journalistic standards of objectivity and impartiality. We will, however, cover the fate of our building because it is a relevant story about private property ownership in a growing city.

And indeed, the news side of Denver7 did publish an April 27 report.

City Council will meet May 10 about the building’s fate. Read the compelling backstory on all this from this newsletter’s reporting here, and here.

ATTN: Emerging journalists

If you’re a college journalist, recent graduate, or just moved to Colorado, you might consider checking out the Emerging Colorado Journalists Facebook group

“This group is a place for early-career professionals to connect with each other, share job postings and discuss how to navigate this rapidly changing industry,” says one of its founders, Lucy Haggard. “Only requirements for joining are living in Colorado or are moving here soon for work, being relatively new to journalism as a career, and an interest in socializing with and supporting your peers.”

The group is planning a virtual meetup later this month, Haggard says, “and we’d love to see new faces along with returning ones.” If you’d like to get involved but don’t have a Facebook account, you can email Haggard at lucy.haggard.818[at]gmail[dot]com

More Colorado media odds & ends

🗞️ ICYMI: This newsletter published a special edition Tuesday about how a new ownership model for newspapers emerged in Colorado.

🌞 The Poynter Institute listed the above development as one of its “5 reasons to be a little bit optimistic about local news.”

🎒 Colorado’s media literacy bill for public schools is getting closer to the desk of Gov. Jared Polis.

❌ Last week, I misstated where a QAnon person lives. It’s in Douglas County, but not Parker.

🏆 Westword’s “Best of Denver” awards are out, which include media honors like best local morning and evening TV news shows, best talk radio host, best podcast, best local TV news anchor, and more.

📡 KUNC’s Scott Franz won a regional Edward R. Murrow award for his “investigative story on CO subsidizing journalist getaways to get tourism coverage, and the ethics of it.”

📶 “Big Tech has too much power,” complained Colorado Republican Congressman Ken Buck after Facebook’s Oversight Committee upheld the platform’s ban on former President Donald Trump.

☀️ Editor & Publisher spoke with The Colorado Sun’s Larry Ryckman about how the digital newsroom is growing its audience and revenue.

🔢 Join COLab for two free workshops for journalists led by Kimberly Davis of the U.S. Census Bureau. “Free. Fact-filled. And you'll be ready when the census drops later this year,” says Tina Griego.

❄️ Axios Denver checked in with meteorologist Joel Gratz, who founded the powder forecasts @findopensnow and the hiking forecasts @findopensummit, about his media consumption habits.

💉 The Colorado Media Project announced eight newsrooms earned $85,000 worth of grants to “support local journalism and community listening and reporting projects that address critical information needs, questions, and concerns about uptake of the COVID-19 vaccine among communities of color and other marginalized groups.”

🆕 Desiree Mathurin has joined Denverite as its neighborhood reporter.

🏆 Colorado College student Isaac Yee won some honors in the National Press Photographers Association’s Best of Photography awards.

🎙️The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel’s longtime politics reporter Charles Ashby, aka OldNewsMan, appeared on the Get More Smarter podcast to talk about his recent coverage.

⚙️ After 39 years at The Loveland Reporter-Herald, Craig Young is joining the conservative National Review magazine as an associate editor. “I’m excited about the change, but it’s definitely bittersweet,” he said.

💪 Ari Armstrong reviewed the News Matters documentary for Complete Colorado.

🌄 High Country News is hiring an indigenous affairs editor.

✔️ Marcus Hill wrote in the Colorado Springs Indy that journalism scored “a victory against hedge funds” this week.

💨 The Washington Post Magazine is accepting pitches for un-reported or under-reported stories in your community that would show “what the American public misses when thousands of stories are not told.”

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.