The nonprofit energy news site Empowering Colorado is powering down
The news behind the news in Colorado this week
‘We’ll see where it goes’
A nonprofit news outlet based in Colorado that launched in 2018 and sought to become the “Chalkbeat of energy” has shut down. Kind of.
Think of it maybe as in low-power mode. For now. “I’m not sure our final chapter has been written quite yet,” Empowering Colorado publisher Mark Roberts said this week.
For the past few years, the site had been publishing stories on the energy beat in a state where energy issues are a polarizing battleground. Empowering Colorado looked poised to 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.
Former Colorado Gov. Bill Ritter had even championed the effort and rallied support for the outlet at a soft-launch event in 2019. A year later the site was surveying Coloradans about what readers thought about media coverage of energy development, was hiring freelancers, publishing the work of emerging Colorado journalists, and engaging with the state’s energy research community. Last month, though, Empowering Colorado turned out the lights.
From an announcement about it “shutting down operations”:
… our nonprofit developed a strategic plan that called for Empowering Colorado to not only provide citizens with quality content, but also make a range of reportorial resources available to local media in an effort to strengthen energy reporting across our state.
In the end, we couldn’t make it work. The fault, is ultimately ours. But we witnessed first-hand how issues of energy and media polarize our society. We encountered a broad lack of understanding about how energy and media work. We also saw the impact of the extensive misinformation put forward by energy advocates and policy makers. Trust us. It has impacted all levels of our society regardless of education, race, status or sophistication.
We hoped to solve this problem, but in the end others will have to find the solution. There will be future journalistic endeavors that will step into the fray. We encourage you to support them. Local journalism remains in crisis and only a community-wide effort will allow it to resume its proper watchdog role it was meant to play in a healthy society.
Asked about the line regarding misinformation, Roberts said it was about how the site encountered mistrust of media from some in the energy industry. “There’s just a feeling that they can’t trust anybody and that’s why they throw a lot of money towards advocacy,” he said. “So trying to provide them with an alternative was a challenge.”
Also included in the goodbye post was this: “We are a case-study for future journalists and community stakeholders to learn from.”
In a way, Empowering Colorado’s fate sounds like that of other local news startups that couldn’t find sustainability, whether it was Health News Colorado or a pre-CPR-saved-Denverite. “If I had to go back and look at what we could do differently or do better, I think you’ve got to get the funding in front of the journalism … instead of the other way around,” Roberts said in an interview. “We weren’t getting the value out of the journalism that we were doing in the form that we were doing it. I’m very proud of what we tried to do but ... it needed to be more impactful, and we just weren’t able to do that.”
His advice to aspiring publishers is also that an outlet might have to go through several iterations or funding models before it finds stability. That’s also why Roberts says Empowering Colorado might not be completely dead yet. He’s having some conversations to see what he might be able to do to still make a journalistic impact on the energy front.
“We’re now going back and developing a broader plan and getting some partners involved that I think could help us move some things forward,” Roberts said. “We’ll see where it goes.”
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Should reporters file their own complaints to get at the truth?
Reporters usually don’t like to become the story. Or get too involved in a story. Or make a story. Audiences likely expect them to report a story and maintain a reasonable degree of independence.
In practical terms, that could mean a reporter working on a story might feel uncomfortable, say, filing a complaint about a story subject, even if it might significantly help the news-gathering process. It’s something to think about.
Here’s a hypothetical example: Say a state’s ethics agency will only say whether a politician’s conduct is improper if there is an official investigation into it. And say that ethics agency is not allowed to launch an investigation on its own — it can only conduct one if someone outside the agency files a complaint. Should a reporter file a complaint to find out, thus becoming part of the story? Probably what a reporter might do is write a story laying out the facts about, say, a politician’s campaign spending, cite the law, note how the agency can’t investigate without a complaint, and then see if a reader or political operative does the deed. A follow-up story would ensue. Headline: Ethics Agency Investigates Politician. Then another one once the investigation is over either clearing or fining the politician.
When I was a reporter in a different state I grappled with my role in a situation similar to that. I recall talking about it in the newsroom. Yes, we we’re supposed to be independent, but we are also looking to find out the truth. If law or policy makes that difficult, how involved should we get? When and to what extent is it prudent?
A Colorado TV reporter faced a similar question recently, and he decided he was going to … do the thing. At issue was access to police body-cam footage. In our state, law enforcement must release footage if “there is a complaint of peace officer misconduct.” No complaint, no footage — or so it seemed.
FOX31 Denver investigative reporter Rob Low wanted body-cam footage for a disturbing story that involved alleged kidnapping. He wanted to see why one police department’s officers let people linked to a potential crime go while another’s did not.
“Typically, we don’t involve ourselves if we don’t have to, but why not? That’s the role of the media,” Low told Jeff Roberts at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “If we see something that’s questionable — and the family’s too scared, they’re not going to do it, and I want some answers — then I’m prepared to do it myself.”
In this case, it turns out he didn’t have to. His reporting alone triggered an internal affairs investigation at the Denver police department. Roberts has more details at his CFOIC blog.
‘Ink in her blood’: The Steamboat Pilot got a new publisher
Bonnie Stewart, the Steamboat Pilot & Today’s revenue director, will be the newspaper’s publisher. From the paper:
“Bonnie was born with ink in her blood and has always found a way back to the publishing business,” said Samantha Johnston, Colorado Mountain News Media general manager and a Steamboat Springs native. “It is a challenging time to be in media, and I’m grateful for Bonnie’s passion for the industry and her pursuit of sustainable business models, always with an eye for how to put people first.”
Stewart began her career at the Daily Sentinel in Grand Junction, where she worked for almost 13 years. She started in the circulation department and soon moved up to classified advertising account manager. From there, Stewart took a job as the classified inside sales manager, and she remained in that role for several years before moving to outside sales and covering the real estate and automotive territories.
The new publisher’s background also includes a stint in real estate and working for the Colorado State Patrol. She replaces publisher Logan Molen who spent 40 years in the newspaper business, three-and-a-half of them in Steamboat. “This has been a good ride but a long one, and I’m ready for a break,” he wrote in a goodbye column. He added: “My retirement has been in the works for months and the timing of this column has nothing to do with last week’s announcement that Ogden Newspapers had purchased the bulk of Swift’s publishing business, including Pilot & Today and its many products.”
As you read in a recent newsletter, the Pilot also has a new editor. And staff shakeups are taking place at other papers now owned by Ogden. “There will be a couple new names and faces in the paper in the coming months, but those are internal changes that were in the works prior to the sale,” wrote Sky-Hi News Publisher Emma Trainor.
In her column, Trainor said Ogden has “stressed that their company is very decentralized and has no intention of guiding our content because they want us to focus on what is important to the locals.”
West Slope Boebert media ripples
Axios Denver was the latest outlet to tackle a question about how to cover Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert following commentary by KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark.
The anchor has been encouraging local journalists to evaluate how they cover a politician who he says “traffics in cruel, false, and bigoted” comments and is rewarded for it with attention and fundraising. He said his station holds her to a “lower standard” than other politicians who don’t consistently make outrageous remarks.
“We decide coverage of what elected officials are saying on a story-by-story basis, always anchored in our reader-first approach that focuses on why a story matters and the big picture context that informs the news,” wrote Axios Denver’s John Frank in a write-up about the media angle.
Elsewhere in Clark Commentary Reaction Country, reporter Charles Ashby from The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel said about the anchor on a liberal podcast, “I think he is right.” (Then, on social media, Ashby said he’s started a weekly feature “to highlight her tweets.”)
A bit south, the publisher of The Delta County Independent and Montrose Daily Press, Dennis Anderson, appeared this week on KVNF community radio to talk about a Nov. 30 column he wrote headlined “It’s time to move on from Boebert’s antics.” In the piece, he called her behavior “sophomoric.”
On the radio show, host Gavin Dahl pointed out how Anderson once gushed about Boebert in an editorial calling her “the real deal” with deep-rooted convictions who “walks the walk.” In his latest editorial, Anderson wrote Boebert “uses immature insults and pathetic props to inspire a base that is becoming smaller and smaller as voters see what she truly represents: her own selfish ambitions.”
For his part, Anderson said on air that while he got some favorable feedback he caught a lot of backlash — at least one person one asked if he was a now a Muslim — and name calling. “And that’s what she tends to draw out of people,” he said of his federal representative.
More Colorado media odds & ends
🎯 The Colorado News Collaborative’s latest installment in its “On Edge” series seems to already have had some serious impact. The story, which was the product of a six-month investigation by journalist Susan Greene, reported the ways in which the state’s mental health safety net is “failing.” Focusing on health centers that get nearly half a billion dollars from the state each year, and have benefited from “non-compete contracts and a privileged rate status for nearly 60 years, without meaningful oversight.” After the story landed in multiple outlets as part of COLab’s unique content sharing initiative, Mental Health Colorado, other advocacy organizations, and elected officials, sent a letter to Gov. Polis, the state’s department of human services and health care policy department, that urged “immediate reforms for the state’s mental health safety net.” Look out for another installment in the series soon.
🎙 City Cast Denver has partnered with The Denver Voice, a monthly “street newspaper that provides income opportunities for people experiencing homelessness and poverty in the Denver metro area.” Host Bree Davies interviewed one of its distributors.
🆕 Welcome Rita Sibaja, who joined KCEC Noticias Univision Colorado as a weekday reporter. She “arrives to the Entravision-operated Denver station from Central Florida, where she most recently worked in the non-profit sector and as a freelance journalist.”
❌ Last week’s newsletter referred to Sky-Hi News as Ski-Hi News in one reference.
🤔 A story in Marketing Brew that examines the business model of Colorado-based Ad Fontes Media, creator of the Media Bias Chart, includes this: “Topics can tilt a score; for instance, outlets that cover climate change tend to tilt left.”
💰 CherryRoad Media bought more than The La Junta Tribune in Colorado. The “New Jersey-based technology company” also bought The Fowler Tribune, Bent County Democrat, and Ag Journal, all weekly newspapers.
💬 A Chicano journalist for Colorado Public Radio said about the term Latinx: “If that’s how someone chooses to identify, I respect it. But using an English-invented term as a blanket way to reference Brown folks who overwhelmingly don’t use or have even heard of it, will not endear us to the communities we seek to engage.” Meanwhile, an Asian-American reporter for Colorado Politics said: “As a person if color, I find BIPOC somewhere between puzzling and insulting.”
💉 Talking about COVID-19, Gov. Jared Polis said, “our hospitals remain filled, largely with unvaccinated Coloradans, many of whom are victims of misinformation campaigns and targeted lies that are being spread about the life-saving vaccine.”
💨 Avery Lill is leaving Colorado Public Radio and is “very excited about some new opportunities in freelancing” including guest hosting City Cast Denver. Denver Press Club board member Jim Hill is joining KUER in Utah. Spencer Wilson has left KKTV in the Springs and has joined CBS Denver.
🏗 The Denver Post’s former printing facility is officially “blighted,” Denverite reported. The move could pave the way “for massive redevelopment in Globeville.”
📲 KUNC and The Colorado Sound are among 75 public media stations around the country “selected to participate in the Digital Transformation Program, a virtual program developed by the Poynter Institute to educate, assist, and coach public media senior leaders and their staff on the best strategies and tactics to transform their organization’s digital operations and culture.”
👀 A story headlined “The Facebook Post That Led to a Recall Election In Colorado” about how a community weighed “whether to remove a ‘loudmouth liberal’ from its school board” made The Washington Post’s “Lost Local News” issue.
⚖️ An attorney for The Denver Post and The Denver North Star “explained in a new court filing why the news organizations believe Denver Public Schools must unredact hidden portions of an outside investigator’s report on sexual misconduct allegations against school board member Tay Anderson,” the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition reported.
💼 BizWest is seeking a “hard-driving reporter looking to excel in one of the most entrepreneurial and innovative regions of the country.” ($43k-$45k, full time.)
📻 KVNF has become “the only radio affiliate of the longstanding PBS12 public affairs program, Colorado Inside Out,” says news director Gavin Dahl. While the show was off last week, Dahl interviewed the longtime host, Dominic Dezzutti, and one of the show’s regular guests, Westword Editor Patty Calhoun.
⛰ The Ouray County Plaindealer is getting another Report for America corps member.
📰 5280 Publishing is seeking “an innovative and creative digital associate editor to join its award-winning team. The ideal candidate should be a highly organized, talented editor with impeccable judgment, a strategic and tactical thinker, and an exceptional multitasker who thrives in a fast-paced, digital journalism environment.” ($50k.)
🗞 The Villager newspaper, owned by Bob Sweeney, “recently purchased the Gilpin County Weekly Register-Call, the oldest weekly newspaper in the state started in 1862,” he writes in his latest column.
🗡 Boulder Beat published a guest column that the author says was rebuffed by the daily newspaper. “I believe the Boulder community also needs to hear about my experience,” the writer says.
🏛 “As the local news industry grapples with financial blues, a pair of New York state lawmakers said Wednesday that they were introducing legislation that would create tax credits for regional media outlets and their readers,” The NY Daily News reports.
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.