Colorado journalists warn the nation
This week, the Alden Global Capital hedge fund that owns The Denver Post reached a half-billion-dollar deal to buy another large newspaper chain.
In recent years, media have labeled the New York City-based company a “vulture.” A “ghoulish” cost-cutting practice of draining newsrooms of their journalistic lifeblood, wrote one reporter, is like “a vampire working an old folks’ home.” Columbia Journalism Review once called Alden in a headline “the most feared owner in American journalism.”
Now, Alden, the hedge fund blamed for gutting The Denver Post, is set to take over the Tribune Publishing company, which owns The Chicago Tribune and several other local newspapers. From Margaret Sullivan, a media writer for The Washington Post:
Those who know anything about local journalism in America are in general agreement: Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved.
In Colorado this week, those who work or worked for the dozen or so Alden newspapers here let their journalist brethren know what they’re in for. “Welcome to our dysfunctional and discontented family,” said Denver Post reporter Jon Murray.
Denver Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez said on social media that she learned about the deal during a time when she wasn’t allowed to work because of company cost-saving measures. “Me, a currently furloughed Alden employee, logging on, seeing this news and immediately deleting Twitter off my phone for the week so I can at least give my broken brain a break while I’m on unpaid time off,” she wrote.
“How does Alden have $431 million to buy up Tribune shares but not enough money to avoid furloughing/laying off its employees?” asked Denver Post reporter Elise Schmelzer.
Some other interesting news emerged from the deal. The Tribune-owned Baltimore Sun and some other Maryland papers were able to twist their necks out from the Alden boot by spinning off and coming under the umbrella of a local-based nonprofit.
“I have literally had dreams about this happening for Colorado papers,” Denver Post reporter Alex Burness wrote upon learning of the Maryland arrangement. “There should be a parade down Colfax if it ever happens.”
In 2018, nearly a dozen journalists at The Denver Post voluntarily resigned from the paper in protest of its owner after another brutal round of mass layoffs. They launched The Colorado Sun, which has since become a public benefit corporation, and is growing.
In a newsletter this week, Sun editor Larry Ryckman predicted what will happen to other U.S. newspapers once they find themselves picked at under the bloody beak of Alden. “Their staffs will be cut, their buildings sold and their great legacies diminished,” he wrote. More from the newsletter:
It’s sad to see anyone lose their job. But it’s communities that suffer when newspapers shrink and die. We’ll never know the stories that won’t be told, the corruption that won’t be exposed, the politicians who won’t be held accountable. A free press is part of the very foundation of our democracy. We all lose when it goes away. … The news about the Tribune sale was another gut punch, but we don’t have to let the hedge funds win.
The practical effects of these hyper-capitalist firms that have learned how to make money for shareholders by accelerating the decline of local news is an important story perhaps not on the radar of the average news consumer. Look out for more national media this week in which Denver journalists warn of what newspaper life is like under hedge-fund control.
A ‘common practice’ in the radio industry?
Want to get a gig yakking away on local news talk radio in Colorado Springs? If so, you won’t get paid for it — you’ll have to pay the station. But just think of the exposure you’ll get that could lead to new clients or customers.
This nugget comes from a story in The Gazette in Colorado Springs about a longtime local radio executive named Ted Robertson who manages Power Media Group and is trying to revamp KPPF. The local station currently ranges “from Christian music and preaching to comedy and hip-hop.” Robertson told the paper he wants to turn it into one with “a format that is rare in today's radio industry — all-local news and talk.”
This part jumped out at me:
Power Media Group's new format will feature Robertson offering newscasts in the afternoon and a yet-to-be-hired anchor for morning newscasts, he said. The weekend talk shows will feature hosts who are “top performers in their industry and bring a different approach to what they do — that is what makes them successful.” Hosts will pay the station for the time during which their shows are broadcast, a common practice in the radio industry where hosts use their shows to build name recognition, find clients and increase their market share, Robertson said.
News talk radio isn’t something I’m particularly familiar with, but I guess I assumed these local gabbers got paid for their radio gigs, not the other way around?
Colorado journalists are battling the state’s unemployment office
Sunday’s Denver Post carried a really good story about legitimate anger among Coloradans boiling over as they try to claim unemployment benefits from the state’s backlogged labor agency.
If the print headline didn’t sum it up — “How many people are being told we can’t help you?” — this paragraph should:
The vitriol grew so intense that Cher Haavind, the deputy executive director, told media outlets last week that the labor department was suspending its weekly press calls and temporarily banning its staff from on-camera interviews because of death threats. Haavind, who also serves as the department’s spokeswoman, wrote that she is one of the employees who has been threatened.
The piece, by Noelle Phillips, runs down the issues, puts human faces on them, explains why people are frustrated, and notes how “complaints from unemployed people also captured the attention of the Colorado legislature.” If the labor office “would communicate, the anger would go away,” a moderator of one Facebook group dedicated to the state’s unemployment black hole told the reporter.
When I emailed Phillips about her story I got quite the ironic bounce-back auto-reply. “Hello,” it read. “Due to the pandemic and its blow to our economy, The Denver Post is placing its employees on furloughs to save money. I will be out from Feb. 14 - 20.”
Of course, there’s some insider news-behind-the-news local media angle to all this, too. Journalists at The Denver Post have had their own personal problems with the state’s labor agency and some of them haven’t been afraid to air it publicly. Here’s one of them:
Similarly, Denver Post reporter John Wenzel says he has been on six unpaid furloughs since the pandemic began, and hasn’t been able to process any claims for nearly a year. He felt he did everything right but had trouble getting a hold of anyone for help. A state website froze his claim, he says. Multiple follow-ups went unanswered. He finally got an appeal in the fall but had given up by then. (He wasn’t the only Denver Post reporter to do so.) The thousands of dollars he might have recouped, he told me, didn’t feel worth the months of ongoing headaches.
Still, “I could certainly use it right now,” he says. He has two young children, one with a chronic, life-threatening medical condition. “I support them and my wife entirely on my Denver Post salary, which has been diminished by at least a month-and-a-half of pay in less than 12 months. It’s infuriating, but what else is there to do? I’ve tried everything I can think of only to be told I don’t qualify, even [as] I watched some of my colleagues get assistance for the exact same furloughs.”
The appeal hearing and the justifications for denying him, he says, felt like someone spitting in his face. “I can only imagine,” he says, “the mental state of the thousands more Coloradans who are in far worse situations than me, and who have had the same amount of luck I've had.”
Empowering Colorado is launching new journalism projects
Around this time two years ago, a new nonprofit journalism outfit leapt on the scene.
Empowering Colorado looked like it could become the first standalone news organization in Colorado dedicated to energy coverage in the way Chalkbeat is dedicated to education or Kaiser Health News is dedicated to healthcare.
Indeed, “We’re very much like the Chalkbeat of energy,” Empowering Colorado’s publisher Mark Roberts, who has a background in journalism and PR, told a gathering of supporters during a soft-launch party in Denver in November 2019.
Now the outlet is launching some new projects. For one, it’s creating a Reporting Fellowship to “allow an energy journalist to explore the current environment and overriding issues surrounding diversity in the energy industry in Colorado.” Empowering Colorado also “seeks to create news bureaus in three locations across Colorado where journalists can easily interact with energy professionals, researchers, technologists and academic institutions driving the future of energy development.”
News bureaus. Remember those?
The outlet is also looking to report on challenges involved in embracing “beneficial electrification” in Colorado with help from a $25,000 in-kind grant “awarded by technology-services company Cloutel.”
“Empowering Colorado seeks funding from a broad range of donors, foundations and corporations across a wide array of interests tied directly or indirectly to energy and/or journalism,” the outlet says on its site. “We believe maintaining a diverse donor portfolio is the only way to ensure our reporting is conducted with the fairness and objectivity required of an unbiased news organization.”
Mountain Rumor on ‘Mountain town journalism’
In his latest edition, he checked in with Alison Berg, a young journalist from Utah new to Colorado who is a reporter at the Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper where she “covers the city, ski industry, and cops and courts beats.” Simonovich interviewed her for a piece he called “Mountain Town Journalism.”
From the item:
One of the most challenging stories that Berg has covered, but one that she’s most proud of, was the story about the man who attended the January 6 rally in the Capitol. The newspaper put out a post on social media, and Nathan Butler was willing to talk.
The lead of the piece reads: Nathan Butler stood on the steps outside the United States Capitol Wednesday amid thousands of fellow supporters of President Donald Trump. He said they were all there with the same goal — to ensure what they believed was more necessary transparency in the 2020 presidential election certification process.
Butler said that he did not engage in any violence and that he did not enter the Capitol Building. Berg says that the challenging thing about stories like this is telling a full story without engaging in “both sides-ism,” something that the media industry has been recently reckoning with, especially in the wake of racism and police violence.
There’s value in telling the story about what happened in D.C. on January 6 and why somebody felt compelled to fly all the way there from Colorado to attend a rally. However, journalists must not amplify the untrue message that the election was rigged. To do this, Berg balanced Butler’s quotes with information from Politifact, a non-partisan fact-checking outlet, and with references to Trump-appointed judges who ruled against claims of voter fraud.
“I think that telling stories fairly does not necessarily mean looking at both sides equally because often both sides aren't equal,” Berg said.
Cheers to that. Read the rest of the story linked above.
How should we feel about this sleazy garbage content in our news stories?
The other day, while reading on my iPhone the Pulitzer Prize-winning local daily newspaper in the city where I live, I actually stopped to think about something I typically ignore.
About halfway through an otherwise credible news story was a disturbing photo of a disheveled woman on the street who had missing teeth and looked like she was likely in need of support. “She was once the hottest actress. Guess who?” read a line of text under the photo. “Sponsored content” read another line. This troubling item in the middle of this news story was inviting me to click and leave the newspaper for a website called WhoahWorld.
I immediately thought of an imaginary conversation that might not be so imaginary:
And what’s messed up is that this is totally normal.
You can see this lurid and dehumanizing clickbait in different Colorado newspapers owned by different entities. (Billionaire Phil Anschutz owns The Gazette that published the above paid advertisement, for instance.) While reading The Denver Post, which is controlled by a New York hedge fund, a sponsored item this week invited me to leave the newspaper’s site for WhoahWorld with some different degrading clickbait. “Ben Stiller’s wife is 205lbs and looks insane” the headline on that one read.
I immediately envisioned a new series of imaginary conversations in which a newspaper editor defending this content says, “Don’t worry! Our audience is savvy enough to ignore that garbage and not click on it.” Meanwhile someone from the business side is telling an advertiser, “We’ve got so many suckers who will click on that garbage you should pay us to put it in front of their eyeballs!”
Where does that leave the audience with whom such a newspaper is trying to build trust? For me, I feel a bit uneasy being so willing to accept a little image-shaming alongside my watchdog coverage if that’s what it takes to keep the newsroom lights on.
As journalists, I worry we often have these high-minded conversations about The Value of Local Journalism and Trust In The Local News and purposefully ignore some obviously problematic things smack in the middle of the product.
I’ve embarked on a new column series (read the first edition from earlier this month here) where I hope to try and decipher for a more general readership why those in journalism make the choices they make, and what audiences should understand and expect. I’m thinking of tackling this one next week, so I’d love any insight you might have.
Are you an editor with an insightful take on this junk? Are you a business-side newspaper person who can explain how much revenue the garbage sponsored content actually brings in to the paper to keep reporters on the beat? Is there some other context to this that might be helpful to non-media-industry folks so they can better understand why they’re seeing it in news stories? What questions do you as a reader have?
Shoot me an email and let’s talk.
More Colorado local media odds & ends
❌ Last week I credited a story to The Greeley Tribune that should have been credited as a BizWest story that appeared in the The Greeley Tribune.
🎙️ Gavin Dahl at KVNF in Paonia has a “Reporter Roundtable” show where he interviews local journalists about their work. The latest episode features Katharhynn Heidelberg of the Montrose Press and Lisa Young of The Delta County Independent.
📢 Chalkbeat Colorado has a pilot project to help the education-focused newsroom reach Spanish-speaking readers.
📻 The jazz station KUVO has moved into the Buell Public Media Center on Arapahoe Street in Denver, which “also houses Rocky Mountain PBS, Rocky Mountain Public Media, the Colorado Media Collaborative and the Community Media Center, although most employees of those outlets are working remotely.”
⚖️ The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel highlighted Colorado media lawyer Steve Zansberg’s new firm. “He now works from his home with only a paralegal assisting him in order to keep rates low so struggling newspapers can afford him.”
⚙️ A radio journalist in Colorado told of her atypical career path to landing a job at KUNC.
🚫 Journalist Kara Mason called out KREX on the West Slope for publishing a verbatim press release by a politician in a way that readers might assume was a news story.
⬇️ “We don't talk enough about failure in this job,” says journalist Susan Gonzalez of Chalkbeat.
📰 At the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins, “Roughly 25% of our online content has been reserved for subscribers since the start of the year,” its editor says.
🔎 A team of Colorado College students dug through months of campaign finance reports filed by the 21 candidates for city council in Colorado’s second-largest city.
📚 BizWest reports Active Interest Media, a “Boulder-based publisher of niche magazines such as Log Home Living, Popular Woodworking and Power & Motoryacht, has been acquired by one of [its] co-founders from its previous private equity ownership group.”
🆕 Meet the new editor of the Gannett-owned Arkansas Valley newspapers in Colorado. “I’m committed to helping our reporters find the stories that impact you the most and to be the local watchdogs in the community, keeping track of government and many other issues in the area.” (He also notes more news will go behind a paywall.)
📈 Public relations pro Jeremy Story opined that The Denver Business Journal featured “arguably the most-hated businessperson in Denver” on its cover, and he accused the subject of that coverage of “failing up.”
🗞️ “A lot has changed at The Pueblo Chieftain the past few weeks, months and years,” the paper’s news director wrote this week. “The look of the paper – both online and print – has changed several times. Our staff is almost entirely new.” (Context: A hedge-fundy owner bought it from a local family then merged it with Gannett.)
📧 Read how the progressive Colorado Times Recorder site’s editor, Jason Salzman, responds to critics of its coverage.
🤔 So … was the latest Colorado man arrested in connection with the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol the fifth, sixth, or seventh one? Depends on whose headline you read this week.
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 I’m working on a collaborative higher-ed project with COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. (If you, too, would like to underwrite 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.