🍾💥What happened in Colorado's media world in 2020
Good riddance to a bad year of layoffs, furloughs and further cuts. But we also saw greater collaboration
Dumpster fire, clown show, a glitch in the simulation, whatever you want to call it, 2020 was a kind of something else we should have seen from the start.
Consider how it began in Colorado: Around this time last year, residents and law enforcement were reporting troubling nightly sightings of mysterious lights in the sky over the Eastern Plains. The phenomenon sparked an anxious investigation among 70-plus agencies that included the military and FBI. So unsettling and unaccountable were these swarms of “mystery drones” that our governor dispatched the state plane to hunt them down and determine their origin. “I struggle to see how this could turn out in a way that is not concerning,” one of Denver's most popular news anchors said at the time. Around the height of the hysteria, a sheriff's captain in Lincoln County told me he thought “this is going to reset both how your world operates and my world operates when this thing finally does draw to a conclusion,” and “we’re going to learn lessons from this.” But a massive mobilization of our state and federal government (along with state and national media) eventually ended in a collective shrug. Authorities and journalists walked away concluding the whole thing had really all just been a nothing-to-see-here mass delusion.
A few months later there was more to worry about than our privacy, the vulnerability of our nuclear arsenal, or extraterrestrials — so we kinda sorta just let that one go. Looking back at it now, my goodness, if that was the weirdest thing to happen in 2020 it would have been fine by me.
On the local media front, where this newsletter is concerned, the year was transformative. The state's journalistic establishment underwent a foundational recalibration toward more collaboration. A pandemic underscored the essential nature of the local press while highlighting the economic fragility of its business model. Newsrooms looked inward and reckoned with themselves about race. We lost some news outlets and new ones cropped up.
Here's a roundup of 2020 on the local news beat in Colorado. It's certainly not comprehensive, but here were some high-and-lowlights:
January found our Democratic congresswoman, Diana DeGette, offering a prescient warning against a newspaper merger between the nation’s two largest newspaper chains that would affect The Coloradoan and Pueblo Chieftain. She worried it was a bad idea that would lead to retrenchment and less local news. On the radio waves, Colorado Public Radio continued its statewide expansion by gobbling up KRCC in the Springs. iHeartMedia layoffs rocked Denver radio, Aspen Public Radio bumped music for more local news, and a canceled 710 KNUS conservative radio host who joked about a “nice school shooting” to break up the monotony of impeachment coverage planned a podcast future. Showing some pitfalls of the digital age, a fake Twitter account impersonated a Colorado political journalist, and 9News started letting robots help write some of its news coverage. On the transparency front, someone leaked a copy of finalists for the presidency of the University of Colorado to The Colorado Independent as the school was trying to keep the names secret. The secrecy had confounded local media and open-government advocates and eventually led to an open-records lawsuit ruling in a newspaper’s favor. In the digital news space, a former owner of The Gazette pledged to stir the pot with a new digital news site in Colorado Springs, and an advocacy group took over StreetsBlog Denver. When The Denver Post canceled a columnist whose writing, the columnist said, was “too insensitive,” the conservative Gazette’s editorial page snapped him up. A Denver Post delivery driver got shot in the hand.
In February, there were little hints of the whirlwind to come. The hedge-fund-controlled company that owns The Denver Post bought The Greeley Tribune from Nevada-based Swift Communications. Denver’s CBS4 started a 24/7 streaming news service. The Colorado Independent hinted at its new mission as a kind of ProPublica collaborator at the local level. High Country News celebrated 50 years in business. Colorado Public Radio’s Vic Vela turned his personal story of drug addiction recovery into a podcast called Back From Broken. Highlighting what can fill the void when reporter jobs disappear from local newsrooms, a dozen small newspapers across Colorado ran publicity content about the elected politicians who run our elections. In Saguache County, The Crestone Eagle announced it would turn into a nonprofit to sustain itself, a small-scale version of what The Salt Lake Tribune did to survive in Utah. Reflecting a national trend, at least one Colorado newspaper decided to start covering crime more responsibly in the digital age by re-thinking how it publishes mugshots.
March, typically thought to come “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” reversed itself this year. The month began normal enough with the Democratic U.S. Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, browbeating the Alden Global Capital hedge fund for gutting newsrooms it owns like The Denver Post and a dozen other papers in Colorado, and a 9News reporter courageously pledging he wouldn’t stop reporting on hate — even when hate showed up at his door. (Shame that’s normal these days.) At the Capitol, Colorado lawmakers sided with police over media outlets about whether to allow cops to keep radio chatter secret, and more reporters seemed comfortable testifying in hearings about their work. In Colorado Springs, a major newspaper editor wrote how he came away with a new perspective on journalistic objectivity after hearing Lewis Raven Wallace speak at Colorado College. Things were relatively calm as The Denver Post instituted a “hard paywall.” As a media reporter, my mind wandered to such pressing issues as suggesting to move exhibits from the defunct Newseum in Washington, D.C., to the Union Printers Home in Colorado Springs. By the middle of the month, the first ripples of a novel coronavirus started disrupting local media. Reports that a deadly and contagious new disease had made its way to Colorado brought shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition canceled its Sunshine Week panel. Initially, some newspapers with subscription content lifted their online paywalls for COVID-19 coverage and then opened all stories for free. TV reporters started anchoring news desks solo, Capitol reporters donned masks and stood six feet apart at news conferences. Open-government advocates worried about secrecy creep in a time of virtual meetings. The words “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19” in large font took over the home pages of news sites or as new verticals. Some of the first announced newsroom layoffs hit, beginning at The Durango Herald. Things looked dire: One newspaper company executive with papers in Colorado suggested revenues could fall by as much as 75%. Press advocates asked Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to make members of the media essential emergency personnel, and the governor did it. Editors and publishers started explaining their coverage and role in their communities during a kind of breaking news story that hadn’t gripped the nation’s complete attention since Sept. 11, 2001.
By April, the local news industry was reeling from the “COVID-19 economy.” Some newspapers stopped printing physical copies, others that had never before asked readers for money began to do so. In a disorienting new normal, the way some newspapers disclosed their new financial arrangements to readers differed. Some newsrooms offered their audiences behind-the-scenes looks at how they were coping. Facing a financial crunch from lost advertising, newsroom managers cut pay and put print and TV journalists on furloughs to save money — a brutal irony at a time when communities needed reliable local news and information more than ever. One journalist learned of her layoff while on assignment. “I couldn’t cry,” she said. “You can’t get masks wet and it’s dangerous to touch your face.” Asked if there was anything the state might do to assist the battered local news business, the governor threw cold water on the idea. Philanthropy stepped in, offering grant money to some Colorado newsrooms to cover the virus. Reflecting other broader industry trends, an ex-newspaper reporter in Northern Colorado started her own thing called The NoCo Optimist and the Google-funded Longmont Leader launched in Longmont. On TV, as CNN’s Chris Cuomo and his New York governor brother, Andrew, attracted much attention with their split-screen interviews, a Colorado TV reporter and his doctor brother did the same in Denver. In some good news, The Denver Press Club got a $500,000 donation from a former journalist and paid off its mortgage. The ongoing pandemic pressed the gas pedal down on a unique-in-the-nation statewide effort among formerly competing newsrooms to collaborate and share resources, and The Colorado Independent changed its mission to become part of it. Nearly 100 journalists from more than three dozen newsrooms partnered on a massive project called COVID Diaries Colorado orchestrated by the new Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab. Outlets shared their work with an Associated Press tool called StoryShare. As journalists called on state government to be more transparent, one small-town newspaper wasn’t being transparent itself about a government-employee writing something the paper presented as news.
May found more newspapers asking their readers for money — even those that were already charging for subscriptions. The New York TimesMagazine profiled The Pueblo Chieftain for a story subtitled “In the rural West and around the country, newspapers are stuck at the intersection of a shrinking industry and crumbling local economies.” As the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on the local news business, former Denver Post editor Greg Moore said he worried about outlets becoming less diverse, explaining, “a lot of times, those people tend to be the last ones hired and the first ones to be laid off.” The state’s press association revamped its mission to become more collaborative, leading its director to say, “while the COVID crisis is proving how critical local journalism is to our democracy, it also is magnifying cracks in our industry and highlighting years of decay that we can no longer ignore.” The Colorado Media Project gave $50,000 in grants to newsrooms with underrepresented audiences. The Boulder Daily Camera issued a rare front-page correction. Independent Castle Rock filmmaker Brian Malone released the trailer for his documentaryNews Matters: Inside the rebellion to save America’s newspapers.
In June, protests were raging over the filmed police killing of another Black man in America, and newsrooms reckoned with their overwhelming whiteness. Multiple Colorado newsrooms pledged to combat racism. But it shouldn’t have taken “a national crisis on race for newsrooms to have a discussion on race and gender inclusiveness in their organizations,” said Pueblo PULP publisher John Rodriguez. Philip B. Clapham, project manager of the Colorado Media Project, published a post at Medium titled “Let’s Talk: Journalism’s Race Problem Is in Colorado, Too.” Out in the streets, during demonstrations in Denver, police shot pepper balls at the press and sprayed reporters with tear gas. Westword published the names and mugshots of arrested protesters but later removed them after a backlash. For the first time ever, Colorado’s economic development office offered a $100,000 grant to a local news publisher. House of Pod hosted the first podcast incubator of its kind for women of color. Former Rocky Mountain PBS VP of journalism Laura Frank became COLab’s inaugural director, and to house the initiative the Buell Public Media Center became a new “one-of-a-kind hub for Colorado’s leaders in public media and journalism.” Colorado College students and faculty (myself included) launched The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a daily newsletter about the pandemic’s impact on higher education. Tina Griego told her readers “You may notice that my byline on this piece reads ‘Colorado News Collaborative’ rather than ‘The Colorado Independent.'” A millennial media entrepreneur from California who “helps brands share their stories” pledged to revive the once-mighty Mountain Gazette magazine.
WHOA! You got this far?
Substack, the new format where you’re reading this newsletter, is telling me I’m about to hit a length limit that will cut this email in half in your inbox. So to read what happened during the next six months of 2020, click here for the published version at The Colorado Sun.
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. I’m currently in talks with the Colorado Media Project about them underwriting this newsletter project, and I’m working on a collaborative higher-education project with COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.