Denver editor says investigators asked her newspaper to reveal its sources

The news behind the news this week in Colorado

‘We declined’

The editor of Denver’s alternative weekly says investigators who are looking into allegations against Denver school board member Tay Anderson have asked her newspaper to reveal sources it consulted for its coverage.

Longtime Westword editor Patty Calhoun mentioned the unusual request during this week’s episode of the Denver public affairs TV show “Colorado Inside Out” on PBS.

The notable disclosure came when host Dominic Dezzutti asked a roundtable of local journalists about their thoughts on the ongoing Anderson saga, a tangled story involving anonymous sexual assault allegations that has gripped Denver media and that Anderson has denied.

Here’s some of what Calhoun said on the “Inside Out” show, emphasis mine:

“I am wondering why this investigation is taking so long. We know that no one was really coming forward in public to speak but you would hope they would be speaking in private. I know that they, for example, asked us — and maybe this happened to other people at this table — to reveal our sources on stories … I don’t know why they are trying to get information from journalists, which journalists are not going to give up anyway. And if journalists actually knew what was going on we’d all have a better idea of what’s going on with this story.

In an email, Calhoun indicated she didn’t want to go into more detail about the source-protection issue. But she said Investigations Law Group, the Denver firm that specializes in workforce issues and is conducting the probe, asked to speak to Westword about a recent story and how the newspaper obtained information it published.

“We declined,” Calhoun said, “as we do all legal requests for work product/sources.”

Good for Westword. Journalists aren’t an arm of investigative bodies, especially ones working on behalf of government entities. Sources must be able to trust journalists won’t give them up when asked. Both a reporter and a source should make sure they’re on the same page about that when dealing with sensitive information and also about the ground rules for how they’re communicating. (And if you’re wondering, yes, a source can sue a news organization for breaking a promise of confidentiality.)

Investigations Law Group partner Jennifer Volmer declined to comment on the matter over the phone Tuesday, citing an ongoing investigation.

Westword saying it was asked to rat out a source offers an opportunity to note Colorado’s protections for free speech and source protection. Colorado has a Press Shield Law dating back to the early 1990s, and also a law that addresses a journalist’s privilege in administrative proceedings.

Here’s the preamble:

The general assembly finds that an informed citizenry, which results from the free flow of information between citizens and the mass media, and the preservation of news information sources for the mass media is of vital concern to all people of the state of Colorado and that the interest of the state in such area is so great that the state shall retain jurisdiction over the use of any subpoena power or the exercise of any other authority by any governmental entity to obtain news information or the identification of the source of such information within the knowledge or possession of newspersons, which is hereby declared to be a matter of statewide concern.

A history and background of these laws are housed on the website of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

I’d be surprised if the firm’s investigators push the matter with Westword. If they do, that’ll be worth following.


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‘I was assaulted … because I am a journalist’

This in today from a Colorado Politics reporter:

He went on to say the woman who did it “was set off when she found out she was in the press room and echoed the rhetoric the former president directed at journalists.”

Westword caught up with him for more details.

“This wasn't the sort of hyper-online, hyper-partisan, QAnon, deep-dive type of person who's ingrained in this stuff," Poblete told the paper. "This was just a woman who'd heard what the former president said about journalists and took that to heart. Even at that level of information and intake, it's still penetrating the public psyche.”

More from Westword:

“The event happened around ten, and I was writing up a short story. I was the only person there,” he recaps. “I heard a voice behind me, and there was a woman kind of poking around the press room. I imagine she just wandered in because it was hot outside. I asked what she did, and she said she was unemployed and living on the streets. Then she asked what I did and where we were, and I said we were in one of the CPA [Capitol Press Association] press rooms, and that set her off. She did the whole Trumpy, nine yards thing about fake news and how you guys are making up lies and journalism is poisoning the community.”

At that point, Poblete continues, “I thought, I don’t need to be subjected to this at work, so I asked, 'Can you leave?' and tried to usher her out. And she shoved me, hit me, took a couple of items off Marianne Goodland's desk and stormed out.”

Read the rest here.

‘Places most reporters never think to look’

In Colorado, news consumers who care about state politics are spoiled.

As reporter ranks have dwindled at statehouses across the country, a bevy of journalists swarm the Capitol in Denver during the legislative session. Each year it seems like there’s more than before.

And, even in the off-season, while beats like arts and culture, religion, lifestyle, the judiciary, and others have thinned, there’s still a glut of politics reporting within the borders of our square, blue state. Sometimes it can seem like too much at the expense of other news. (If you want a daily download of timely stories on the state politics front, synthesize ProgressNow’s morning link-farm newsletter with Complete Colorado’s news aggregator.)

Still, a pair of recent scoops by two of Colorado’s newest statewide digital journalism sites shows there’s plenty left to uncover.

Daniel Ducassi is one of the latest hires at the 3-year-old Colorado Sun and comes from Miami. On his LinkedIn page he writes, “I find news others miss in places most reporters never think to look.”

Indeed, last week, for his first single-bylined piece for the Sun, Ducassi produced a scoop headlined “Billionaire Phil Anschutz and his wife are suing Colorado for a tax refund. How much they want is a secret.” The couple filed their complaint in April, he reported, so the information had been sitting there a while, though Ducassi reports a judge put it “under wraps” with a protective order.

State lawyers indicated the court action could have serious consequences, saying if the wealthy couple get their way it “would empower the federal government to inadvertently sabotage Colorado’s carefully constructed budgets for years already passed.”

The story left me wondering what kind of implications, if any, the Anschutz lawsuit could have, if it’s successful, for other Coloradans beyond just the couple who filed it.

Scott Wasserman, president of the Bell Policy Center, which focuses on economic mobility in Colorado and is interested in issues involving the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, said over the phone Monday he believed the lawsuit with its ties to TABOR has “high stakes.” But he wished he had more information about it and any attendant consequences it might have for Coloradans. In other words, it sounded like he might benefit from some follow-up reporting on the matter.

Multiple tax-cut measures are headed for the ballot in the future, Wasserman added, and he said he thinks it’s important to track broader patterns about what billionaires do with their money and the ways they advocate on tax issues. “I think it’s very important,” he said about the Sun story. “We’re talking about a lot of money here and a lot of power.”

Anschutz owns plenty of things in Colorado and beyond, including Clarity Media, a company that runs the print Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs and the digital Denver Gazette. Clarity also owns Colorado Politics, the statewide site that publishes a feature called “Court Crawl” and would typically report on litigation about politics and policy, especially if it involved TABOR and a wealthy and powerful politically active and connected Coloradan.

As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly a week after the Sun story, none of the Anschutz-owned outlets had reported the news. Editors declined to comment when asked about it. The Denver Post also hadn’t followed up.

What might that mean? Perhaps a couple things: One might consult Occam’s razor for the Anschutz outlets. Or perhaps both publications assume the Sun has such saturating reach that they don’t need to be redundant with their own audiences. Perhaps there’s an ego thing going on. Or maybe in their news judgement it’s really just not that big of a deal. All of which is to say: We have to wonder if the Sun hadn’t reported on the lawsuit filed by one of Colorado’s richest residents whether the broader public might have known about it.

The story-behind-the-story of how the Sun’s new reporter found out about the newspaper-owning billionaire’s tax lawsuit isn’t all that complicated, he told me this week. “It was just a bit of shoe-leather.”

Ducassi walked down to the courthouse and started looking for interesting cases among the records. He says he found one noting Anschutz was suing the Colorado Department of Revenue. “Reading through what few records were open to the public made it obvious this was newsworthy,” he says. “I asked the records clerk to check the redactions on a few other documents that had lower-level security restrictions, such as the state’s redacted motion to dismiss, got those opened to the public and the rest was just writing the story.”

His scoop reminded me of another recent Colorado politics exposé, this one from Colorado Newsline, the nonprofit digital site whose launch a year ago led me to wonder what lane they’d occupy to stand out and what they might add to political coverage here.

Last month, the site’s Chase Woodruff broke the news that Colorado’s former Republican Party chairman, Ryan Call, is “facing potential legal disciplinary sanctions over allegations that he ‘misappropriated’ nearly $280,000 from a pro-Donald Trump super PAC.” (Call denies wrongdoing.)

Follow-ups bounced around the state’s media outlets, including an AP wire story, and illustrated how without Newsline uncovering it — a legal complaint serving as the basis for the Newsline scoop was two weeks old by the time Woodruff reported it — the information seemed content to stay unpublicized.

Woodruff says says he obtained the info by requesting public records from an obscure judicial body.

The Latina journalist ouster at 9News made NPR

National Public Radio is the latest news outlet to report on the stories of three Latina journalists ousted from “Denver TV powerhouse” KUSA 9News.

The five-minute national broadcast comes with a much more in-depth digital story about the development that has roiled 9News ever since journalist Lori Lizarraga penned a March column in Westword about her experience and that of two of her former colleagues.

Lizarraga’s column led to backlash, including boycotts, news coverage, multiple public Zoom panels, organizing, and some impact at TEGNA, the corporate parent of 9News. After meetings with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, NAHJ, TEGNA told its news directors nationwide that its journalists “should avoid using ‘illegal immigrants’ in both broadcast and digital content.” In April, The Denver Post’s Elizabeth Hernandez published a story headlined “How three Latina women let go from 9NEWS are helping change the journalism industry.”

NPR’S David Folkenflik goes on to describe 9News as a station with “swagger and sway,” whose Denver headquarters “looms as a citadel of local television.” There, he writes, “More than 100 journalists work in the KUSA newsroom (which also serves its sister station, KTVD), far more than the 60-some news staffers at the once-dominant local newspaper The Denver Post.”

Some excerpts from the reporting:

  • Folkenflik revealed “a group of local elected officials, all Latina, called for the dismissal of KUSA's top news executive, Tim Ryan” and “according to two people who attended the NAHJ meetings, the association demanded the firing not only of Ryan, but also of his news director and the corporate official in charge of hiring.” (The station declined comment to NPR about it.)

  • Ex-9News journalist Sonia Gutierrez said, “I can tell a story in a much different way than a female white reporter can because I lived it. I know the questions to ask.”

  • Recently, Folkenflik writes, “Often led by journalists of color, younger generations of staffers questioned whether their profession's tenets of "objectivity” and “impartiality” — in a sense, standing apart from those they cover — harmed Black and brown communities in particular.”

  • 9News “has hired 20 people, 10 of whom are people of color. … five Latino journalists have been hired since the start of this year. People of color now make up a third of the entire newsroom.”

  • “Lizarraga says she rallied colleagues of color to object when the station decided to stage a town hall meeting on race and equity hosted solely by a white anchor. Instead of channeling that fervor, Lizarraga says, it was largely deflected.”

  • In October, the Colorado ACLU plans to honor the three ex-9News journalists for “fighting discrimination in the newsroom.’”

I don’t recall seeing this reported before:

Emails among Ryan, other news leaders and Lizarraga reflect that supervisors told the reporter repeatedly that she fell short, starting around the time of the protests and moving forward. She was told she had failed to turn in two digital text versions of her television pieces. She had been late hitting "slot" — the deadline for filing video and audio. They wondered whether she could take the care and precision with the technical aspects required to succeed in the job.

Lizarraga says that she did not fail to file the digital stories and that Ryan was mistaken. She maintains that she did not crash deadlines, although she sometimes pushed up against them. These, she argues, are small-bore critiques in search of red marks against her.

Read the whole thing here.

Some Denver Post journalists were irked by NPR’s treatment of the paper in its report.

“Frustrating NPR’s only reference to Denver Post in the story is belittling the local paper whose Latina reporter told this story before they did,” Hernandez wrote on social media.

“National media’s continued belittling of @denverpost based solely on its ownership is disappointing,” former editor Cindi Andrews added. “Here’s an idea: Set your assumptions aside and look at the journalism that’s actually coming out of that paper.”

Responding to the national broadcast from a big public radio station, Colorado progressive activist Alan Franklin said, “When word of discrimination against Latina reporters at 9NEWS first broke it was pushed by the talk-radio right as part of their grudge against the station. Glad that’s not where it died.”

Follow-up file: How the Durango Herald column actually wound up in print

In last week’s newsletter I gave “kudos” to the family owned Durango Herald newspaper in southwest Colorado for allowing a departing editor to reveal the not-so-nice details of retrenchment in a goodbye column he recently published.

Perhaps they were not as warranted as I suggested.

After the newsletter went out, John Livingston, the paper’s former sports and outdoor editor, wrote to let me know he published the column surreptitiously.

Here’s what he said:

Thanks for sharing the piece. I would say, though, that the Herald had no idea I was publishing this farewell column. There has been zero oversight in what I’ve put in the paper for more than two years now. It didn’t go onto a page or into the system until everyone else was gone Friday night. Probably not my finest move, but I felt OK publishing the truth and going about it without naming names (though names not mentioned might speak just as loud).

I give the Herald credit for not deleting the column online. But the reason I feel that hasn’t happened is probably because nobody there read it. They haven’t read any of my work - unless it ran on 1A - in a long time.

Yikes.

After I posted that update to the published version of last week’s newsletter, it wound up on a large national private Facebook group populated by many former journalists and those who post about the Newspaper End Times.

“I have a problem with this,” one commenter said. “I assume he still has friends there. This is going to send people away from the paper. It’s not always about you. Quit if you want, but don’t make the paper look bad. You’re only hurting your friends and other journalists.”

“Oh, nutz,” another replied. “It’s not like the paper had a chance in hell of growing readership under current conditions. He spoke up about a declining industry that most of the readership across the country has no friggin’ clue as to why it has deteriorated.”

I reached out via email to the Herald to see if someone wanted to weigh in about the column, and an editor passed along something from the newspaper’s chairman, Richard Ballantine. He spoke fondly of Livingston’s coverage for the paper and addressed some of what he’d written in his goodbye piece.

“Heavy ROP [run-of-paper] and classifieds once made his department a three-person department, then two, as John wrote in his final column on the weekend of July 10, 11,” Ballentine wrote. “All newspaper managers know the decline in revenues have caused similar reductions.”

The Herald’s circulation is growing, he added, and is now half print and digital, and half digital only, and “totals what it did at its peak a decade ago.” He said the paper’s “reporting and opinion pieces continue to be appreciated, enjoyed and talked about.”

More from the Big Guy:

The Herald is increasing its digital services and digital advertising opportunities, and now has a reporter in Farmington, N.M., an hour to the south. 

In October, The Herald will move back into a fully renovated, more efficient newsroom in the downtown Main Avenue location it has occupied for 55 years. Smaller, yes, but I think more conducive to continued good work.

“In my final-day conversation with John, when I expressed my extensive thanks, he volunteered that he might like to selectively write about the major local athletes and events coming next year,” he concluded. “He knows them all, and his readers and I hope he will.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

💨 Programming note: This newsletter will be hitting your inbox with less frequency or with lighter content for the rest of the summer.

🔎 The latest installment of The Backstory, which offers professional development for journalists at The Denver Press Club, will feature Kathryn White and David Sabados of The Denver North Star.

⛰️ A Steamboat Springs reporter noted how “stories about the housing crisis” in Colorado are “written by journalists who can barely afford to live in the cities we cover.”

🌐 Colorado Republican Congressman Ken Buck announced “the creation of the Freedom from Big Tech Caucus,” reports Julia Fennell of Colorado Newsline.

📺 Keagan Harsha, an evening anchor at Denver’s FOX 31, is heading back to his previous home of Montana to become news director for KTVQ-TV in Billings. He’s “excited to be closer to family and for this next chapter in my career,” he said.

📡 You know the Southern Colorado Public Media Center is close to opening when the tote bags come out.

🚴‍♂️ Reacting to a Daily Camera headline “Boulder Cyclist Dies After Collision With Vehicle,” Jack Healy of the New York Times snarked: “Man Dies After Collision With Bullet.”

⚙️ Colorado Public Radio is hiring … again.

📚 The keynote speaker of this year’s Colorado Gold conference hosted by the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers has a new novel whose protagonist “is a White House correspondent trying to walk the line between personal feelings and dispassionate objectivity in the era of ‘fake news’ and #MeToo.”

💉 The Aspen Daily News reported how misinformation isn’t helping the battle against COVID-19 and variants on the Western Slope.

💍 Local Colorado journalistic engagement.

📂 The Colorado Supreme Court law library is “open again, but you can still get civil court records on your laptop at no charge,” the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition reports.

🚰 The staff of Colorado Politics with the journalists of the Denver and Colorado Springs Gazettes are “fanning out this summer to tell the story of a state as reflected in its water, its people, and its future, with the past as prologue.”

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.