Wednesday, August 12

Colorado makes a cameo in new book ‘Ghosting the News’ about the U.S. local journalism crisis Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo illustration by Corey Hutchins

It takes fewer than five pages for Colorado to make its first cameo in a new book called Ghosting the News: Local Journalism and the Crisis of American Democracy, written by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan. Surprise, surprise, right?

The book is a compact survey of the smoking rubble that is the local news business in America, a quick-paced mini-tour of dystopian dispatches from Youngstown, Ohio and East Lansing, Michigan to Lexington, Virginia, and East Palo Alto, California. And, of course, we get our own mention given the carpet-bombing our capital city has taken from the economic realities of acceptance-stage capitalism and more.

“Consider Denver, where The Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News boasted six-hundred journalists 20 years ago — a robust group to cover a city, surrounding metro area, and much of Colorado as a whole,” Sullivan writes just four pages into the book’s introduction.

More from that section:

That situation has changed radically. The “Rocky” as it was known went out of business in 2009. And The Denver Post, owned by a hedge fund fronted by a group called Digital First Media, is down to under seventy in its newsroom. “It’s painful — there’s a knot in my gut to see what we built up over time torn down in this relentless way,” Greg Moore told me in 2018. He was the Post’s top editor from 2002 to 2016, when he stepped away, disheartened by what he called the ownership’s “harvesting strategy.”

Even that part of the book, a pre-ordered copy of the slim paperback that landed in my mailbox last week, is already out of date. The group “fronting” for the hedge fund now goes by the name Media News Group, a re-branding of Digital First that reminds me of the Firestone/Bridgestone saga of an earlier era of soured public opinion.

Ghosting the News does not seek to solve the problems of a cratering local newspaper scene nationwide, nor does it break much ground in how we arrived at (or very near) the bottom. The book, however, makes a succinct case for what happens if we don’t do something to turn things around. Sullivan cites early a recent PEN study concluding: “As local journalism declines, government officials conduct themselves with less integrity, efficiency, and effectiveness and corporate malfeasance goes unchecked. With the loss of local news, citizens are: less likely to vote, less politically informed, and less likely to run for office.” Sullivan adds: “Democracy, in other words, loses its foundation.”

The book, which I’ll probably assign in some classes this year, provides for non-media types an accessible summary about what’s at stake, how we got here, and the hurdles to overcome it — including general ignorance or apathy. “As with issues like the global climate emergency,” Sullivan writes, “it is hard to convince a significant chunk of the public that they ought to care deeply about this, or do anything about it.”

As Sullivan scouted out some trouble spots to inform her reporting for the book, she writes, “I found the Denver situation particularly poignant because of the precipitous fall from prominence of the city’s journalism.” The author relies on some quotes that a then-Denver Post reporter, Jesse Aaron Paul, gave her for a March 2018 WaPo column about a staff-wide meeting where employees learned of another round of brutal layoffs that would cut the newsroom by about a third. The Colorado Sun also gets a mention given Paul joined its staff shortly after the layoffs that spared him. Sullivan uses the Denver anecdote to assess a broader sickness in the industry.

“This was happening not just at Alden Global’s newspapers,” she writes of the hedge fund that controls the Denver Post — and what she refers to earlier in the book as “perhaps the worst of a bad lot.” But it was also happening “at those owned by GateHouse Media, another large chain, and in somewhat less drastic ways at papers owned by Gannett and McClatchy.” (Gannett recently merged with GateHouse, affecting multiple newspapers in Colorado, and a hedge fund called Chatham Asset Management bought McClatchy out of bankruptcy.)

Sullivan does point to some areas and innovations where local news could be viable, but they come with caveats.

“Television journalism can be part of the answer to the crisis in local news, as newspapers struggle for survival and digital startups attempt to fill the void,” she writes. “Whether it will reach its potential is far less certain.” She points to the Community Impact company as a print-and-advertising local news success story, but, well, COVID-19, right? She writes about some new models, what Google and Facebook are doing (SPOILER: not enough), and the role nonprofits play. “In a nonprofit that’s dependent on just a few big donors, their unhappiness can really hurt.” And she nods to the burgeoning discussion of more public-sector support for the local news, though Colorado, where the discussion is happening more than a lot of other places, doesn’t get a mention. “I’m not persuaded that direct government subsidies to news organizations are a good idea,” Sullivan writes. “But I also don’t rule them out.”

I don’t have space here for a proper book review, and you can find those elsewhere, or listen to her talk about her book here. But Sullivan makes a very strong connection between what you read each week in this newsletter and the national and global crisis in local news, and I’d recommend the book to anyone who could benefit from a good diagnosis of the problem. (Ghosting the News was published by Columbia Global Reports at Columbia University where I am a paid contributor to Columbia Journalism Review.)

While Sullivan is convinced there is “no stopping” the momentum of further decline, she is convinced “those who care about good journalism have to do whatever is possible to make things better — more than is being done now.”

New issue of Culturs magazine focuses on anti-racism

The latest issue of Northern Colorado-based magazine Culturs tackles “some of today’s most important multicultural issues from a global perspective — including viewpoints on what is ‘Blackness,’ COVID-19 experiences and anti-racism resources.”

On newsstands now, “this historic Colorado-based print publication celebrates cross-cultural identity with emphasis on People of Color,” according to a statement from the magazine. “The only publication of its kind, Culturs‘ content focuses on immigrants, refugees, Third Culture Kids, Expats and multi-ethnic people.”

The Fort Collins-based magazine, which readers can find in print at Whole Foods stores and Books-A-Million, and online here, pivoted its coverage focus for the summer following the nationwide protests in the wake of the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis. As the files were headed to the printer, editor Doni Aldine, who founded the magazine and teaches at Colorado State University, felt the moment required a recalibration. “I thought, man, this is too important,” she said over the phone this week. “We need to make it real.”

She got the buy-in from her team and they scrambled to re-do the issue — in just 10 days. (Typically, an issue takes four months to put together.)

From the magazine statement:

The “Time for Change” issue was inspired by Aldine’s Costa Rican father, who succumbed to COVID-19 amidst a second battle with cancer. Social justice issues, including the Black Lives Matter movement and the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on POC in the U.S., underscore the need for broader perspectives on culture and race. “Time for Change” tackles those issues from a rarely acknowledged viewpoint and includes an exclusive interview from “White Fragility” author Robin D’Angelo, a much-anticipated African-American Princess photo spread by Hollywood stylist LaChanda Gatson and tips on how to be anti-racist.

Aldine grew up on four continents — and “in-between worlds,” she told me. “So Culturs really focuses on those who straddle culture, race, ethnicity, nation, or location.”

Aldine, who herself straddles ethnicity, says she realized that even in the Third Culture Kid or cross-cultural population, issues related to people of color can be marginalized because the population “thinks they are so open to cross-culturalism that often these issues are seen as not relevant.” Over time, she says, she realized it’s easy to have a blind spot for such issues, and she wanted to create a place where people could find a sense of belonging, and understand themselves.

Aldine recently appeared on the Sea Change Podcast to talk about the latest issue of her magazine if you’d like to hear more from her about it. Check out the magazine here. Subscription profits go toward cross-cultural education.

A Colorado Springs company is a sentinel in the misinformation war

Around this time last year, this newsletter spotlighted a global fact-checking operation called Lead Stories with ties to Colorado Springs. A Colorado Springs Independent columnist reported at the time how the company “led the way in uncovering the truth about that doctored Pelosi video” that you might recall.

Last week, the alternative weekly put the company on its cover as Lead Stories has emerged as a major fighter in the misinformation war over COVID-19. Here’s the origin story from The Indy:

Colorado Springs company Lead Stories is fighting the spread of misinformation on the internet. A reporter, a tech entrepreneur and a lawyer joined forces in 2015 to create a platform that wrote about trending internet items. Alan Duke met Perry Sanders, a Colorado Springs-based lawyer, while reporting in Los Angeles on cases that Sanders litigated for the families of murdered hip-hop artist Biggie Smalls and Michael Jackson. A few years later, after many conversations concerning media literacy and the threat of tabloid journalism, the two persuaded Belgium-based Maarten Schenk, who designed the technology that Lead Stories uses to monitor trending items, to join them after flying him out to Colorado Springs. In 2016, the platform transitioned to finding false trending stories and disproving them as quickly as possible.

Their motto is “Just Because It’s Trending Doesn’t Mean It’s True.” In February 2019, Lead Stories partnered with Facebook as a third-party fact-checker, labeling false information shared on the site. The company is also a member of The Poynter Institute’s #CoronavirusFacts Alliance, which partners with more than 100 fact-checkers internationally to track the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. The company is self-funded and relies on advertising revenue and license fees for use of the Trendolizer (technology that monitors trending items across the internet), and the revenue from the partnership with Facebook.

The Indy’s JL Dawson conducted a Q-and-A with Duke about the work Lead Stories is doing. Some nuggets:
  • “…frankly, the largest percentage of the thoughts — content — that we’re now debunking is not by people who are making a living doing it. It’s made by people who either sincerely believe what they’re putting out there, or they want other people to believe it.”
  • “Groups have converged in the last several months — militia and white supremacists, QAnon and anti-vaxxers. So you’ve got all of those wrapped up together, pushing misinformation. It’s really what you might say is a perfect storm that’s creating a real problem. People don’t know what to trust. They don’t know what to believe. You put all that in there together and it’s quite a combination. It gives the misinformation a lot of power.”
  • “…the problem is, most people don’t care. Most people don’t want to know if it’s true or not. A lot of misinformation takes advantage of that. It tells you something you want to believe.”

Read the whole interview and background on Lead Stories here.

Denver-area DISH Network’s COVID-19 problem

As companies across the country continue balancing their bottom lines with the health and safety of their workers, stories are bubbling up about how management is handling them, including in the media world, and here in Colorado.

One of them is Dish Network, the Colorado-based telecommunications company that beams TV services into more than 10 million homes.

From The Daily Beast:

In a virtual meeting last week with employees at Sling TV, the streaming platform subsidiary of Dish Network—which owns the third-largest pay-TV provider in the U.S. and has also recently entered the prepaid wireless phone business—staffers pleaded with higher-ups to halt the return-to-work expectations. And the company admitted that it wanted employees to start returning to the offices because business has failed to meet its goals. As such, over the past two months, hundreds of staffers have returned because of Dish and Sling’s desire to foster better in-person collaboration between some teams.

The Daily Beast obtained a readout of the meeting, which ran more than 90 minutes and primarily included hundreds of employees from the company’s Englewood, Colorado, headquarters and its Utah office. Staffers submitted dozens of questions pressing company higher-ups, including Dish’s head of human resources, about why the television provider was pressuring many staffers to return to the offices.

The Daily Beast reported the meeting came “after two employees at Dish’s main offices outside Denver, which hosts the majority of Sling TV staff, were likely positive for the novel coronavirus.” But, reports TBD media writer Maxwell Tani, “instead of communicating that there had been a positive case, the company did not inform staff for days, allowing the news of the virus to spread informally among employees.”

Read the whole Beast piece here.

A weathercaster is out at 9News ‘after comparing federal troops to Nazis’

You might have heard about Godwin’s Law. It’s a dictum of the digital age that as an online discussion grows longer the likelihood of someone making a comparison to Hitler or Nazis increases.

This week a popular local TV weathercaster at Denver’s NBC affiliate 9News, Marty Coniglio, left the station shortly after backlash to a social media post he published that invoked Godwin’s Law. “Federal police in cities…now where have I seen that before?” he tweeted along with a photo of German Brownshirts in front of a Nazi flag.

The Denver Post and Westword reported prominent political figures including the head of the Colorado Republican Party, who is also a member of Congress, made hay. The tweet disappeared, and shortly thereafter Coniglio left 9News. He told The Denver Post he would “not be able to talk about the situation for at least a week or so.” The station’s president confirmed the KUSA vet was no longer working there, but declined to explain why to the Post.

More, from Westword:

After the Post reported news of his split from the station (neither side is saying whether he jumped or was pushed), Coniglio took to Twitter again. “While occupying the temporary role of ‘shiny object’ for media and social media, please allow me to remind you that what this is really about is systemic racism in this county and those who would use their power and influence to maintain it,” he stated, adding the hashtag #BLM.

The development made coverage in the pro-Trump Epoch Times. The liberal ColoradoPols blog snarked the weathercaster had been “free speeched.” You might recall Coniglio from this newsletter last year when Westword reported on his plans to leave the station. He wound up staying. Until now, anyway.

Did a longtime Colorado journalist die of COVID-19?

After 30 years covering communities in Douglas County between Denver and Colorado Springs, a veteran journalist and photographer died at 63.

From Colorado Community Media:

Don Peitzman, the original editor of the Parker Chronicle and a staple of Douglas County journalism since the early 1990s, suffered a severe lung infection and died at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree.  …

Don Peitzman was an influential member of the Parker and Douglas County community. Peitzman was a photographer and journalist for his entire time in Parker, which spanned 30 years. He most recently ran a photography business, “WOW! Photoz and Video.” Peitzman was the first editor of what is now known as the Parker Chronicle newspaper, when the News-Press purchased the Weekly Chronicle, which began in 1992. He retired from the paper in 2008. Peitzman is remembered as an old-fashioned journalist who was unshakable, efficient and thorough.

His obituary carried some moments of newspapers in the days of yore.

Don is credited with having taken the first-ever color photo printed in the News-Press, a photo of a woman playing with her child at the indoor pool at the Parker Rec Center around 1992, according to Moon Cronk. The archived paper could not be obtained by time of print.

Moon Cronk remembers the day fondly. A pressman, or page designer, joked to the newsroom he tried to get the “mustache” off the woman in the photo—meaning the crease appearing across the woman’s face in the photo, which was caused by the fold in the paper. Sitting around the conference room on Perry Street, Editor Richard Bangs joked that now that the paper had color, it could never go back.

But the obituary also carries some of today’s pandemic-era confusion about a spreading virus that causes lung issues, and how many deaths are being attributed to it. Consider this line more than 30 paragraphs into the story:

Don took a rapid-result test for COVID-19 upon his admittance late July 19 and tested negative, according to Taryn (his daughter). The nurse who cared for him told Taryn that, based on her experience, she believed Don had COVID-19. Logan (his son), who lived with Don up to his passing, tested negative for the disease as well.

When I reached out to her, Douglas County Coroner Jill Romann said she can understand why a nurse might say that. While medical privacy laws prohibit the coroner from talking about Peitzman’s medical history or how he died, she said federal rules have opened up to allow disclosure of notations about COVID-19 for tracking purposes. “There is nothing in his medical records that I see that indicate COVID, positive or negative,” she said.

Four months into the pandemic, the coverage framing of Peitzman’s death of a lung infection with a negative COVID-19 test result differs from that of a 13-year-old epileptic girl who inspired the CBD movement and died in early April. Initial coverage tied the death of Charlotte Figi to the coronavirus in at least one headline that was later dialed back with an update. A family member later said the young girl tested negative for the virus, but “she was treated as a likely COVID-19 case.”

The new Rocky Mountain PBS building is opening in Denver

“Buell Public Media Center, the new headquarters of Rocky Mountain PBS, KUVO Jazz 89.3-FM and The Drop, is finally complete after a four-year, $34 million fundraising and construction process that saw numerous revisions to its ambitious, community-hub concept,” writes John Wenzel for The Know in The Denver Post this week.

More from the story:

While the building’s opening comes at a difficult time for all news and entertainment media, it also arrives amid the decline of legacy outlets such as newspapers and network-TV affiliates, which have laid off employees and cut coverage due to diminished ad revenues and other factors. Member-supported media, in some cases, has been booming. Those cases include Colorado Public Radio, which has been hiring new employees and devouring new radio markets in recent months as part of its years-long attempt to dominate state news coverage. Several smaller media organizations are slated to share the third floor of the Buell’s COLab, a “new-era newsroom designed to support nearly 100 local journalists,” including The Associated Press, Chalkbeat Colorado, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, The Colorado Sun, The Colorado Independent, Colorado Media Project, Colorado Press Association, KGNU and Open Media Foundation.
Read the whole thing here, and not just because I’m quoted in it.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

🎉Journalist Kara Mason is the new managing editor of The Aurora Sentinel.
💍A Denver Post/Colorado Public Radio partnership.
📰An interview with the founders of My Black Colorado, “a directory and magazine highlighting the Black community.”
👓Ben Smith’s latest New York Times media column begins with former 5280 magazine editor Max Potter.
Update: “This line was added following the publication of this column.”
📣The Durango Herald is looking for a new opinion editor.
🗞️️This newsletter got a shoutout from The Denver Post.
📡Big story: “In addition to reviewing emails obtained in response to open records requests from CPR News and Columbia University’s Brown Institute for Media Innovation, CPR News conducted more than two dozen interviews of state and county public health directors and other experts…”
⚖️KUSA anchor: “As a news organization we have the immense responsibility to present what happens during a protest with accuracy and fairness.”
📬The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project, a student-faculty daily newsletter, focuses on the impact of the virus on higher education. Sign up here.
🤺City Council waving off a recreational cannabis ballot measure likely delays a newspaper editorial war in the Springs.

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE