What a Denver TV station learned from being tricked by HBO’s John Oliver

Plus more news behind the news in Colorado this week

‘We are vetting our review processes’

The pernicious nature of sponsored content is a disappointing devil’s bargain that some struggling local news outlets seem forced to make. The trade-off is forfeiting credibility and trust for ad revenue that keeps reporters on the beat.

I’d argue the practice is getting worse.

On a recent episode of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” host and satirist John Oliver skewered the way local TV stations broadcast pay-for-play content.

Oliver and his team created a fake product called the Venus Veil, which they called “the first sexual wellness blanket.” They gave money to local TV stations around the country that then produced credulous fluff segments about the phony product on their shows.

One of those stations was Denver7, the KMGH-TV Scripps Media-owned ABC affiliate whose Mile High Living show featured the blanket. Oliver said it cost his team $2,800 for the station to publicize the fake covering they falsely said would stimulate sexual arousal. “The truth is, none of this was nearly difficult enough to get onto TV,” Oliver said toward the end of the clip.

So. Much. Cringe.

On Facebook, commenters who saw the Oliver clip swarmed Mile High Living’s page to excoriate the program that calls itself “a business show offering different ways to save so that you can get the most out of your mile high living!” (The comments later disappeared. Would that be a “cover up?”)

Oliver’s segment has had an impact. Here’s what Denver7’s general manager, Dean Littleton, told The Denver Post about getting suckered:

“Denver7 takes the integrity of our content very seriously. We create clear distinctions between local TV news programming and local TV non-news lifestyle programming, including using non-news employees and clearly identifying sponsorships in non-news shows.

“Our non-news shows were created to help support local businesses and entrepreneurs who are looking for new ways to market their products, and we believe our viewers understand the differences. … We are vetting our review processes for non-news segments to ensure our staff follows the proper standards.”

Indeed, one former Colorado journalist friend of mine waved off the Oliver bit, saying, “What is the point of scamming Mile High Living? It’s like scamming QVC.”

Oliver’s point was to show how easy it is get people at local news stations to hawk dubious products. The indication is some who are watching might not know about the pay-for-play arrangement or the low-bar vetting. “The integrity of local news is crucially important,” Oliver says in his segment. “And there is real harm for everyone if that integrity is damaged.” (Following the Oliver treatment, the Society of Professional Journalists called on news organizations to “end this practice of ‘pay to play,’ which deceives their audiences.”)

I reviewed a handful of Mile High Living clips and heard the host say “Sara Lee paid for today’s segment” at the end of one, and “the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment sponsored today’s segment” at the end of another. At least they’re doing that. Some outlets in Colorado have been known to publish sponsored content without telling readers who is paying for it.

The Denver Post story, by John Wenzel, noted the newspaper’s own relationship to clarity in paid-for content:

To be fair, most media websites (including The Denver Post) also feature at-times-confusing content designed to look like news stories. That includes alt-weeklies like Westword, which first reported on the local angle. But few of us are tricked into running paid advertising for fake products in print, online or on-air.

Ouch. Here was Westword’s take, which highlights the show’s damage control on social media, and also Mile High Living’s previous publicity of questionable products:

Although representatives of Mile High Living have not responded to Westword's requests for comment about being embarrassed across the planet, they clearly know what happened. Mid-morning on May 24, the Mile High Living Facebook page belatedly removed an irony-free post lauding the Venus Veil, which was said to use “proprietary magnetic fibers to improve bloodflow, boosting performance and sensation” — but not before we saved dozens of alternately hilarious and withering comments from viewers. …

The Last Week Tonight segment also includes a clip from a 2019 show in which a spokesperson for Ageless Expressions MedSpa, a business with locations in Littleton and Golden, hyped a laser treatment for vaginal atrophy. When asked by the host if the procedure is painful, the MedSpa rep answered, “The next day, you might feel like you have a sunburned vagina — but it's just healing.” Turns out there was a problem with dismissing such discomfort as “your everyday laser-roasted genitalia,” as Oliver put it. More than a year before, a federal agency had issued a news alert pointing out that such devices were not recommended for use as what Oliver referred to as “a medical pseudo-dildo.”

“In normal circumstances news and sales are like church and state,” one local TV news director in Colorado who acknowledged harboring “angst” for these kinds of shows, told me. “Managing a lifestyle show dips into the gray area.”

Speaking of paid-for things…

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Denver Post’s owner, a ‘destroyer of newspapers,’ now owns more newspapers

“The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital – known for slashing its newspapers' budgets to extract escalated profits – won shareholder approval Friday for its $633 million bid to acquire the Tribune Publishing newspaper chain.”

That’s how NPR played up the latest national newspaper deal that journalists in Denver expect will be bad for local news elsewhere if history is any guide. (Two days after the sale, the company began offering buyouts to journalists.)

The hedge fund made the Denver Post the poster child of bad newspaper ownership after a 2018 bloodbath of newsroom layoffs that led to staff protests, the birth of The Colorado Sun, and a recent documentary. The hedge fund now owns The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, The Orlando Sentinel, and others.

“Alden Global Capital is known as the destroyer of newspapers for good reason,” Gregory Pratt, a reporter and president of the Chicago Tribune Guild told a local PBS station. 

In a segment on CBS This Morning last Saturday, The Colorado Sun got plenty of airtime as a success story of what can rise from the rubble of Alden’s destroyer beam.

“To me journalism is not failing — the old business models are failing,” Sun Editor Larry Ryckman says in the clip. “I just don’t accept that the hedge funds have to win. It is possible for communities to stand up, and for journalists to stand up, and we’re thrilled that we’ve been able to be successful at The Colorado Sun.”

Local media ownership: Colorado teaches the nation

Once ground-zero for the negative impact of newspaper ownership, Colorado is now getting a national look as a pioneer for potential success.

The deal for the Colorado News Conservancy, a partnership of The Colorado Sun and the National Trust for Local News to buy 24 weekly newspapers from Colorado Community Media, has gotten attention against the backdrop of the latest Alden Global development. The Colorado Media Project held a Facebook Live for “the story behind the story” of the first-in-the-nation arrangement that kept these hyperlocal newspapers in local hands.

Now, on June 3, the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder will host a separate free webinar featuring some of those involved.

Among other things, panelists are slated to discuss what the development means for people who rely on Colorado Community Media and how this relationship will “change the news ecosystem in Colorado” and what “consequences [it] could have for local media nationally.”

Denver Post reporter opens up about a concussion that kept him from work

If you pay attention to reporter bylines (that’s an author’s name) you might have wondered why you hadn’t seen that of Sam Tabachnik as prolifically as usual in the past six months at The Denver Post.

The breaking news reporter can sometimes publish half a dozen different stories in a day.

Consider Nov. 14. That day he published his first story on the newspaper’s website at 9:43 a.m., another less than an hour later, another an hour after that, and then another about three hours later. About 50 minutes later, he published another one. His last story of the day posted at 5:01 p.m. The six stories ranged from reports about the weather to an emergency public health order in Larimer County and a video about fire damage in a national park to a traffic reopening and a vehicle rollover. The final story was about a public school reversing course on its COVID-19 plan. Not a bad day’s work.

But for a four-month period between Jan. 19 and May 19 … nothing.

Last week, Tabachnik explained why. He suffered a concussion while snowboarding at Breckenridge. From the story:

Concussions can impact people in a variety of ways, but my main obstacle became looking at screens. Even 15 minutes on my phone or computer gave me low-grade nausea. It’s like being carsick every time you read an article or watch a TV show. Sounds pleasant, right? … As the weeks went on, I was forced to reckon with my own fragility in a way I never had before. You always have your health is a phrase I heard all the time, but I never really gave it much thought. … Progress was invisible. It was mute. And in the absence of evidence, your brain runs wild: What if I never get better? What if I can’t work again?

Thankfully, he got better.

“Haven’t been super public about this until now, but I returned to work this week for the 1st time since January after suffering a concussion,” he wrote on social media.

Less transparency: Lawmakers and the governor re-wrote open-records law

Any of you folks looking for six-and-seven-figure taxpayer-funded jobs as, say, president of a public university or as a city manager, can now worry a little less that your current employer might see your name in a news story as someone in the running for the gig.

Unless someone leaks it to the press, that is. (More on that later.)

The reason for this new development is because state lawmakers passed — and Democratic Gov. Jared Polis didn’t veto — a new law that re-writes part of the Colorado Open Records Act, or CORA.

From the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC):

For many years, Colorado’s open meetings law has required “the list of all finalists under consideration” for a chief executive position to be made public no later than 14 days prior to the appointment of one of the finalists. CORA defines finalist as “a member of the final group of applicants or candidates” made public under the requirements of the open meetings law, and it allows the public to inspect most records submitted by a finalist. It adds: “If only three or fewer applicants or candidates for the chief executive officer position possess the minimum qualifications for the position, said applicants or candidates shall be considered finalists.”

HB 21-1051, sponsored by Republican Rep. Tim Geitner of Falcon and Democratic Rep. Shannon Bird of Westminster, repeals the CORA provision regarding three or fewer applicants and specifies that a state or local public body “shall name one or more candidates as finalists for the position of chief executive officer.” Public bodies still will be required to disclose the finalist (or finalists) 14 days before an appointment is made.

The new secrecy provision comes after the University of Colorado bungled a search process that led to its ill-fated choice of a former Republican congressman, Mark Kennedy, who recently announced he is stepping down after just two years. In 2019, CU Boulder named Kennedy as the only potential applicant when the local newspaper asked for a list of those who applied. The paper sued, arguing the school violated CORA. Two district court judges ruled for the paper, but the Colorado Court of Appeals did not.

Regardless, a list of 30 names got out anyway. Someone leaked them to reporter Susan Greene of the Colorado Independent who published all but three of them “based on a standard in journalistic ethics to minimize harm.”

The CFOIC and at least four editorial boards or columnists urged Polis to veto the new bill allowing public institutions to disclose just one finalist in the future. He declined to do so, and let it become law without his signature. The governor wrote a letter to lawmakers about his thoughts on the new law. From the letter:

“In my view, while the bill creates flexibility for organizations by leaving to their discretion the number of finalists who are publicly named, it should remain a best practice to release the names of several finalists. I agree candidates should be entitled to some degree of privacy when applying for positions, so that the highly qualified may apply without fear of embarrassment, retribution, etc. I also agree that public-facing organizations should be held to the highest transparency, accountability, and integrity standards when hiring candidates for vital executive positions. Transparency can help ensure that a qualified and diverse candidate pool was considered, a thoughtful hiring process was followed, and that the best candidate was ultimately selected for the position.”

Read the CFOIC’s coverage at the link above.

Q-and-A with a newspaper photojournalist

Newspaper photographers are a dwindling breed.

There’s a revealing scene in the documentary News Matters in which former Denver Post Editor Greg Moore says his paper’s hedge-fund operators once questioned why the paper even needed photographers. Newspapers used to have full photo departments. Now few do.

This week, The Gazette’s Terry Terrones in the Springs offered a Q-and-A with the paper’s chief photographer, Christian Murdock. Here’s an excerpt:

Q: What has been one of your strangest or funniest moments while on the job?

A: Once I was in the dressing room at a strip club talking about a child’s birthday party with her naked mother. That had to be the strangest moment. I was there shooting a woman who worked there to support herself through college as a single mom. Funniest moments are anytime I’m on the road with features reporter Seth Boster.

Read the rest here.

A Colorado GOP congressman wants to (try again to) defund public media

Doug Lamborn, the Republican representative who voters in the Colorado Springs area have sent to Congress for the past 14 years, is continuing his crusade against NPR and PBS.

For about as long as he’s been in Congress, the low-profile politician has tried to remove federal support for the public media organizations that bring in much more money through audience support and underwriting. This week, Lamborn filed legislation in that vein again.

Here’s his reasoning from Colorado Politics:

Previous versions of his message suggested that it was time for Big Bird, the iconic “Sesame Street” character, to “earn his wings and learn to fly on his own,” but in this year's announcement, Lamborn also cited NPR’s election year coverage of alleged scandals involving President Joe Biden's son Hunter as a reason to cut its funding. … A spokeswoman elaborated in a release that Lamborn was talking about the broadcasters' decision not to cover allegations that emerged in October surrounding emails found on a laptop supposedly abandoned by the younger Biden at a computer repair store. NPR wasn't alone taking a skeptical approach to the story, which was discounted at the time by veterans of the intelligence community as a possible attempt by Russian interests to influence the election.

“We don't want to waste our time on stories that are not really stories, and we don’t want to waste the listeners’ and readers’ time on stories that are just pure distractions,” NPR’s managing editor for news Terence Samuels wrote at the time, prompting a rebuke similar to Lamborn's perennial refrain from Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son.

President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, which spurred the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Public Radio (now NPR), and the Public Broadcasting System (now PBS).

Colorado, I should note, is one of only 15 states with no state funding for public media.

More from Colorado Politics with context about Lamborn:

Lamborn hasn’t always taken as hostile an approach to defunding PBS and NPR, though he has consistently maintained that the broadcasters snub conservative points of view, including two years ago when he called the children’s cartoon “Arthur,” which airs on PBS, a “complete affront to religious Americans.” An episode featured a same-sex wedding between a rat and an aardvark.

So … yeah.

Recently, Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has reintroduced the Future of Local News Act, federal legislation that would examine ways in which the federal government might try to help fix our country’s broken local news business model. (The Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter and where I write case studies, supports the bill.)

The Colorado Media Project in November hosted a discussion with Bennet along with Colorado journalists and local media publishers about the bill.

Kathy Walsh retires after nearly 40 years on Denver TV

Nearly four decades is a long time to spend at any company — but particularly at a news outlet.

That’s how long Katy Walsh has spent at CBS4 in Denver. Actually, it’s 36 years, five months, and 10 days. Now she’s retiring. Walsh participated in a Q-and-A with her station as she departs. Here’s an excerpt:

You have been on the anchor desk for some of the biggest stories in Colorado history. How do you stay balanced when informing viewers about breaking news?

I relay only the information I have and stay away from speculation. I repeat it so viewers just tuning in have the latest facts. I anchored 9 hours of coverage of the George Floyd protests in Denver, both on CBS4 and CBSN Denver. I depended heavily on the excellent reporters at the scene.

Read the whole thing here. Her last day at the station is May 30.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

📰 Read the long winding road of a little Colorado print publication called 285 Hustler.

🎙️ Colorado Public Radio’s “Systemic” audio documentary, which “looks at people working to reform policing from inside and outside the system” and is hosted by Jo Erickson, debuted this week. (The first episode follows the work of a Black female Colorado Springs sheriff’s deputy.)

🎤 Gavin Dahl at KVNF interviewed local journalists Dennis Webb of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel and Lisa Young of The Delta County Independent for his Local Motion segment.

📞 A Colorado Public Radio reporter called a crisis hotline for a source.

📺 Aurora Mayor Mike Coffman said 9News anchor Kyle Clark wouldn’t pretend to be homeless like the mayor did because “it would probably mess up his hair,” per The Colorado Times Recorder.

🆕 Kourtney Geers is the new editor of Denver Business Journal.

🗞️ Colorado College student Katherine Moynihan asked the student body in a campus newspaper column: “do you support, consume and care about your local news?”

🌲 A big recent merger of Vermont PBS and Vermont Public Radio (that creates the largest staff of any newsroom in the state) benefited from research by the Boulder-based Public Media Company.

👔 Coloradobiz, billed as “the only statewide print publication dedicated to coverage of the Colorado economy, business, finance, technology industries and the leaders behind them,” has named Jon Haubert, “founder and managing partner of H.B. Legacy Media, as its new publisher.”

📼 KKTV reporter Ashley Franco in the Springs “had to fight for the footage as well as investigative and disciplinary records” for a story about a school bus driver accused of slapping a child.

⛪ Colorado Community Media reporter Liam Adams is rounding up religion coverage in Colorado each week. (Reporters who write for the recently sold papers are still identifying as reporters for Colorado Community Media, I’m told.)

🤦 The Associated Press fired Emily Wilder, a recently hired 22-year-old journalist for the Western U.S. region in neighboring Arizona, for unspecific reasons and rightly caught blowback for it.

💬 Homeowner associations “could not ban signs and flags based on their content or message under a bill making its way through the Colorado General Assembly,” the CFOIC reports.

🙄 An Ouray County Commissioner asked a Plaindealer journalist if she was attending a public meeting in person as a reporter or to “grandstand” for the public.

⚖️ While reporting a story, The Colorado Sun and 9News “sued the Colorado Department of Human Services after the agency refused to release aggregate data showing the number of allegations of abuse and neglect at various youth residential treatment centers.”

📣 Last week’s newsletter got a shoutout as “interesting stuff” from The Poynter Institute’s Tom Jones. Thanks, Tom!

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.