Inside the News: Two Newspapers in Southern Colorado Expand

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

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Countering last week’s news of two Eastern Plains newspapers cutting back their print days, two small hyperlocal publications in southern Colorado say they are expanding their offerings.

The Florence Reporter, which launched last year as a monthly newspaper in Fremont County, announced it will now publish twice a month.

“We’ve earned the support from more than 150 annual subscribers, and almost two dozen advertising partners from across Fremont County,” said managing editor Kevin Mahmalji in a note to readers.

Last year, The Florence Citizen, a newspaper there, folded after about 125 years of serving in some capacity the city of roughly 4,000 on the banks of the Arkansas River between Pueblo and Westcliffe. So what’s fueling the success of its successor?

“Our readers are embracing our hyperlocal reporting and return to classic newspaper marketing tactics such as in-person newspaper delivery and door-to-door subscriptions sales,” Mahmalji said over email this week. “The personal connection piece seems to go a long way with our subscribers.”

Another feature of the paper is that it doesn’t charge for obituaries. Since launching, Mahmalji says the Reporter has also become the newspaper of record for Fremont County and a local library district. (UPDATE: The Cañon City Daily Record’s general manager and editor, Michael Alcala, says that the Daily Record is the official newspaper of record for Fremont County. That is a meaningful and official designation made by the local government. After speaking with Mahmalji about it, he said his paper is publishing some announcements from the county, but he understands the distinction and will change language about how he describes his paper’s relationship with local municipalities in the future.)

As for where it prints, Mahmalji said the Reporter uses a company called Make My Newspaper out of Chicago, which ships the papers to Florence.

More from the paper about its moves:

The decision to publish more frequently will not only ensure more timely articles and news for our readers, it will also generate additional advertising revenue, which will help support our expansion as a publication. While we’re still working through some of the logistics, I anticipate the transition to be completed by the first week of September, which means the newspaper will be available the 2nd and 4th week of each month moving forward. 

Meanwhile, about an hour north in a mountain community outside Colorado’s second-largest city, The Pikes Peak Bulletin in Manitou Springs announced it will begin publishing each week starting this Friday, July 14.

The Bulletin had blinked out as a standalone paper earlier this year when the Colorado Springs Indy alt-weekly that owned it converted to a nonprofit, rolled up its sister papers, and ran into financial trouble. But a group of locals quickly banded together to revive the Bulletin as its own nonprofit newspaper.

And they were successful. In May, the newspaper was back on the streets, first as a monthly. Now, it will come out more frequently and expects to use The Denver Post’s printing facility. “The plan was always to go weekly in July,” publisher Lyn Harwell said over the phone this week. As for the financials, he said a donor is matching contributions up to $50,000 and the paper has raised $40,000 so far.

Notably, both of these papers were started by members of a community that wrangled together resources and enthusiasm to bring back a newspaper after losing one.

As far as I know that has yet to happen in Southeast Colorado Springs — home to one of the most diverse zip codes in the state — after it lost The Southeast Express. Nor has it appeared to happen in Fountain, Colorado, which lost its own paper earlier this year.

Other small newspapers that will lose their printer when Gannett mothballs the Pueblo Chieftain’s printing press next month might still be deciding whether they will stay in business.

Colorado lawmakers sue their cohort over our sunshine laws — and hire a media lawyer

Two Denver-area Democratic lawmakers this week filed a lawsuit against the House of Representatives, of which they are a part.

In it they accuse leadership in both parties and the Democratic and GOP legislative caucuses of violating the state’s open-meetings laws by evading transparency, including using tech devices to privately converse during public meetings.

The Colorado Sun called the lawsuit by first-term Reps. Elisabeth Epps and Bob Marshall a “rare intraparty spat spilling into public view.” A Denver Post reporter wrote that allegations in the complaint are “open secrets in the Capitol.”

Here’s Denver Post reporter Seth Klamann on the matter:

The suit alleges that the use of Signal, the encrypted messaging app that can automatically delete messages, and the prevalence of private meetings violate the state’s open-meeting law, which requires timely public notice (as well as recordkeeping allegedly absent from those meetings) when two or more public officials meet to discuss public business. … According to the suit, the use of Signal during committee meetings “included consideration of witness testimony and discussion of members’ expected votes.” Those conversations, the suit alleges, constituted “meetings within meetings” outside of the public view and in violation of state law.

The Colorado Sun reported that lawmakers using Signal, “which was first released in 2014, has become more widespread over the past two or three years.”

Representing the whistle-blowing legislators in the sunshine laws suit is Steve Zansberg, a prominent Colorado First Amendment attorney with deep knowledge of open records laws. He also represents many media organizations in Colorado, including those that are reporting on this story.

The Colorado Sun disclosed Zansberg represents the news outlet in its coverage, as did Colorado Politics and Colorado Public Radio. The Denver Post’s initial story did not mention Zansberg, nor did one at Denver7. (On a personal note, I have sought out Zansberg’s advice in the past and probably will in the future.)

Here is an excerpt from The Colorado Sun’s triple-bylined Monday story on the lawsuit quoting a legislative leader commenting about the intersection of new technology and our state’s transparency laws:

Senate President Steve Fenberg, D-Boulder, told Marshall that the issue should be addressed in a bill in the future.

“I think the open records laws and open meetings laws are very confusing,” Fenberg said. “And, oftentimes, I think folks don’t know how to actually comply, especially in the modern day. So I do think this is an area that the legislature needs to discuss.”

The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s director, Jeff Roberts, told the Post he thought the lawsuit is a big deal.

“This is an effort by these two lawmakers to expose what is really going on, and to show that the law is not being abided by,” he was quoted as saying.

Zansberg, the attorney for the lawmakers, is listed as that coalition’s president.

The CFOIC, of which I have been a member, also put the case in a broader context. “Quite a few open meetings law cases in court lately,” the Twitter account for the open-government and transparency group posted, listing three separate school district cases.

The Colorado reporter-lawmaker relationship: ‘A game of cat and mouse’

When writing about the above lawsuit, two local news outlets this week likened the relationship between Colorado’s Capitol press corps and the lawmakers they cover to the antics depicted in a popular World War II-era TV cartoon series featuring a feline and a rodent.

This is from The Colorado Sun, in an item from its subscription-only Unaffiliated newsletter:

Journalists who work at the Capitol are very familiar with the secret Democratic and Republican caucus meetings referenced in a lawsuit filed Friday by Democratic state Reps. Bob Marshalland Elisabeth Eppsalleging “pervasive” violations of Colorado’s open meetings laws.

The gatherings happen almost daily during the session — on the Capitol grounds and in nearby buildings — and we typically only find out about them when a lawmaker provides a tip.

It’s sometimes a game of cat and mouse. When a reporter enters an open meeting — defined as a gathering of two or more members of a state public body during which public business is discussed — they are allowed in, but the discussion typically either ends or becomes mundane.

And this is from the editorial board of The Gazette in Colorado Springs:

When legislative leaders need to huddle with party members for a quick strategy session — “caucusing,” in their lingo — they typically try to do so out of earshot of the press and public. And it turns into a game of cat and mouse.

The meetings might involve head counts to gauge support for a bill before a key vote; going over talking points to sell the party’s position on a touchy issue; last-minute amendments to stop unfavorable legislation — the kinds of things members of one party don’t want to telegraph in advance to their counterparts across the aisle.

So, they’ll herd their members into the majority leader’s or minority leader’s office — both parties do it, of course — and post a junior staffer outside to serve as a lookout. Any reporter from the Capitol press corps who comes nosing around has to be let in under Colorado’s open-meeting law. But the objective is to finish the meeting before the press finds out.

No comment from Tom or Jerry, apparently. But I wondered what some of Colorado’s Capitol reporters had to say about it.

Longtime Capitol reporter Marianne Goodland said those in the press corps have a name for when they catch wind of a meeting going on that they are entitled to attend. They call it “storming the gates,” she said. “Sometimes,” she told me, “it turns into a story like this.” Other times, however, lawmakers shut down such meetings and “pretend nothing’s going on,” she said. “This lack of transparency has been my biggest aggravation for most of the 25 years I’ve covered the Capitol.” (A former legislative leader weighed in on Twitter asking for clarity about how many times such storming has happened and what some in the press might deem a “secret” meeting versus a “private” meeting, which led to a discussion about it.)

In 2014, when I was working for the Center for Public Integrity on a yearlong project about Colorado’s risk for corruption, then-statehouse reporter Peter Marcus told me he’d never really felt like elected officials in Colorado were actively trying to avoid the press or public, aside from a few isolated incidents.

“And even in those cases, we have clear sunshine laws in the state, so it’s pretty easy to bust into a closed-door meeting if there are a couple of elected officials meeting, and it’s usually pretty easy to find where they’re going to be,” he said.

In more recent years, Senate Republicans have done quick caucus meetings on the chamber floor, said The Colorado Sun’s Jesse Paul. “I go and sit in the middle and listen and they are always respectful and speak openly while I’m there. (I’ve heard and seen some things…) But that’s the exception, not the norm.”

Former Colorado legislative reporter Alex Burness, who recently left for Bolts magazine, said he doubts it is really possible to regulate much of the communication among lawmakers, especially if the goal is to force them to hold sensitive conversations in public view.

“Even if lawmakers are ordered to, say, stop their private caucus meetings or delete their Signal groups, advocates for press freedom and governmental transparency will probably be disappointed to find little or no resulting improvement to press access or legislative functionality,” he said. “If anything, I predict, those kinds of rule changes would only push lawmaker communications further from the sunlight.”

🔎 Sponsored | Keep digging, Colorado | Colorado Media Project 🔍

Colorado Media Project (CMP) believes our democracy works best when the public has transparency into powerful institutions. That’s why accountability journalism is so important to our civic infrastructure. CMP chose to sponsor this section of Corey’s newsletter to showcase some of the important watchdog work Colorado journalists and their news organizations have been producing so far this year. Corey chose which ones to spotlight.

More Colorado accountability coverage in 2023 so far

In February, I rounded up some important accountability journalism produced in the new year in Colorado, and revisited it again in April, adding to the list.

The following is a review of impactful watchdog work Colorado journalists and their newsrooms have put out since then:

  • Colorado News Collaborative, also known as COLab, led a four-part investigation that included Chalkbeat ColoradoThe Colorado Sun, and KFF Health News called “Last Resort.” The series looked into “the collapsing system of schools that serve some of Colorado’s most vulnerable students.”
  • Following a yearlong investigation into Colorado’s halfway houses and community corrections system by Colorado journalist Moe Clark for ProPublica, co-published at The Denver Post, state lawmakers mandated an audit of the system. 
  • With President Joe Biden’s administration potentially approving an 88-mile railway from eastern Utah through Colorado that would carry crude oil, a hazardous material, Colorado Newsline produced “Down the Line.” The multipart series, by reporter Chase Woodruff, is an “investigation into the risks posed by the railway to some of Colorado’s most scenic, fragile and densely populated places.” The in-depth reporting also comes with an editorial commentary from Newsline editor Quentin Young warning that the “Uinta Basin oil trains are a disaster waiting to happen.”
  • Whether you’ve heard of it or not, the Town of Timnath in Larimer County is the “second-fastest-growing municipality in Colorado since the April 2020 census,” according to the news outlet BizWest. But what that news organization’s reporter Christopher Wood spotlighted is that the town has paid a Fort Collins engineering company $17 million over a decade with “absolutely no public bidding process.” The company, Wood reported, also employed “three individuals who, despite not being employed by the town, held official town roles and titles.”

To submit a local accountability story for consideration in the future, send me an email. If you or your organization would like to sponsor a recurring newsletter section like this, hit me up.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🗳 This new training program seems like a real opportunity for journalists and Colorado newsrooms to learn how to better cover elections and politics by, among other things, exploring “how to move away from polarizing or horse-race coverage of elections.” Here’s to hoping newsrooms in Colorado consider applying, including those that think they might not need it.

✂️ After sending out last week’s newsletter, I added more to the published version about another newspaper on the Easter Plains, The Fort Morgan Timesalso cutting its print days.

🎵 “A multicultural background fueled Arturo Gómez’s love for music, and ultimately landed him his job of more than 20 years with KUVO, Denver’s oldest jazz radio station,” Julio Sandoval and Dana Knowles reported for Rocky Mountain PBS.

❌ The emailed newsletter version of this post conflated the population of the city of Florence, Colorado with the population of the county. Florence has a population of about 4,000. Fremont County has about 50,000 people living in it.

💬 MediaNews Group, the local newspaper company owned by Alden Global Capital, which runs several papers in Colorado, “has shut down all of its comment sections as of July 1st, due to difficulties in moderating them,” executives told Axios. (If you’re reading this newsletter, you also know site speed played a role.)

🌦 Each week, Denver PR pro Jeremy Story catalogues who had the “Worst Week” on his Denver Public Relations Blog. Last week, a local media organization made the list. “Fox31 has an open meteorologist position now that Jessica Lebel left, “and not everyone is impressed with the salary range,” he wrote, quoting someone saying, “I’m sorry, but a (meteorologist) in Denver with a science degree should be paid more than the manager of a Panda Express.”

💨 Carina Julig is leaving Sentinel Colorado to cover City Hall for the Santa Fe New Mexican. “This is hugely bittersweet, and I will really miss Aurora and the entire Colorado journalism community,” she said, adding, “my position at the paper should hopefully be filled soon.”

❌ In last week’s newsletter I stupidly located FOX31 in Colorado Springs. The station, known as KDVR, is in Denver.

➡️ Colorado journalist Moe Clark is one of “15 outstanding journalists” chosen for the Data Institute at Howard University’s Center for Journalism and Democracy.

🦞 “In Colorado and other states, we see a positive track record for the National Trust for Local News, and we look forward to learning more about their plans,” said the executive board of the News Guild of Maine about news that the nonprofit that purchased a string of Colorado papers in 2021 is now buying newspapers in the Pine Tree State. The organization “has philanthropic funders that include the Gates Family Foundation, the Google News Initiative and the Knight Foundation,” The New York Times reported. Bangor Daily has more details about how the Maine newspaper deal came together that includes details about Colorado as a pilot and the financing here.

💰 “The building in RiNo where television station Denver7 will move has sold for more than twice what it fetched in 2016,” Thomas Gounley reported for BusinessDen. “Ivy Denver7 Property LLC paid $26.35 million … for the 2323 Delgany St. property, according to public records. It financed the deal with a $14.63 million loan at 5.82 percent interest.”

💨 Jennifer Kovaleski has left Denver7 for ABC15 in Phoenix, Arizona.

⛷ Seth Masia is “being inducted into the Colorado Snowsports Hall of Fame Class of 2023,” the Twitter account for the Colorado Snowsports Museum posted. “Few Colorado-based ski writers are respected as widely as Seth,” the account added. “He was a key editor and writer for SKI Magazine at the peak of its influence & pioneered online ski journalism.”

⚙️ Louis Wertz is “looking for a few fresh and available” freelance science journalists in July and August “for the upcoming issue of On Land for some short pieces. Preferably located in the American West, though not required.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at 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.