Inside the News: What Happened in Colorado’s Media World in 2023

  • 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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Hello, and welcome to 2024 at Inside the News in Colorado.

Each January, I write a year-in-review column for the Colorado Sun, rounding up reporting from this newsletter by month across the calendar.

Typically, there’s a theme. In 2020 it was chaos. For 2021 it was changes in local media ownership. In 2022 it was Colorado newspapers turning into nonprofits.

This year I settled on 2023 as the year that broke Colorado’s newspaper printing industry, focusing on the destabilizing summer closure of the Pueblo Chieftain’s printing plant and fallout that continued from it.

Southern Colorado’s media scene took a particularly hard hit in 2023; elsewhere across the state’s media landscape the year was a mixed bag.

More newspapers closed, and digital outlets popped up. The state’s two largest public broadcast outlets expanded their physical presences, union organizing in commercial newsrooms led to overdue raises, and a unique support structure for local news that exists in Colorado continued to have a positive influence.

Some Colorado newsrooms enhanced efforts to ensure better representation in coverage, women sports broadcasters broke barriers, and more than a dozen outlets endeavored to cover politics better. In 2023, our state kept with its reputation as a local media pioneer and innovator as global or national organizations chose Colorado to test ideas, tapped our residents to lead initiatives, or spotlighted our efforts as something to emulate.

If you follow this newsletter each week, you know it as the place that reports on, comments on, and analyzes the goings on in our state’s local media scene. It connects local developments to what’s happening nationally and explores what makes Colorado’s local news ecosystem unique.

The annual year-in-review Sun column came out today and you can read it here as my attempt at rounding up the year’s news behind the news (by month), or continue reading below.

🙏 A special thanks this year to Colorado Media Project, Colorado Health Foundation, GFM|CenterTable, Grasslands, Rise Above Colorado, Regional Air Quality Council, and Colorado Press Association for underwriting and sponsorships that kept this newsletter free for subscribers in 2023.

January marked an unfortunate trend that would continue throughout the year when the local newspaper that had operated since 1958 in the town of Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs, closed up shop, citing faltering ad revenue as the reason. An hour north, however, Colorado Public Radio said it had grown to become the “fifth largest newsroom in public broadcasting” and had “the largest locally owned news operation in the state capital.” Inside the state Capitol, lawmakers protected “political speech and journalism” in a new privacy law. Colorado Media Project offered more than two dozen grants totaling more than $350,000 to “support Colorado newsrooms, journalists, and media entrepreneurs in launching new projects and strengthening existing efforts to build a more inclusive local news ecosystem that reflects and serves Colorado’s diverse communities.” Cherry Road Media, the New Jersey-based technology company that has been gobbling up local newspapers, including in Colorado, tapped Coloradan Lee Bachlet as its COO. The Denver Gazette, with the backing of the digital newsroom’s editor, launched a negative attack-ad campaign against the Denver Post to try to poach subscribers. Denver Urban Spectrum stood out as one of six outlets in the nation chosen among an inaugural cohort of a Black media initiative. Julian Rubinstein wondered if he had become the first journalist accepted into Colorado’s address confidentiality program after threats on his life following his book and award-winning documentary “The Holly.” Romi Bean at CBS News Colorado became the first-ever female lead sports anchor in the Denver TV market.

February saw a brewing newspaper war in Colorado’s second-smallest county. (The conflict raged over which periodical ought to earn Gilpin County’s title of “newspaper of record.”) Not far away in Nederland, a local entrepreneur with a background in software development, marketing and business, Christian Vanek, became the new owner and publisher of the small Mountain-Ear newspaper. On TV, Denver’s 9NEWS+ launched “Culture Report,” a new streaming show focused on marginalized communities. Meanwhile, the small Golden Transcript nestled in the foothills west of Denver became the latest newspaper to publicly grapple with some of its own history of harm to communities of color. In Colorado Springs, a few months after shepherding a major transformation and consolidation of the Indy alt-weekly newspaper and its sister publications into one nonprofit weekly magazine, publisher Amy Gillentine bolted the operation. Christine Rourke became managing editor of the Denver Business Journal. In Greeley, Trenton Sperry joined the ranks of local newspaper employees to start a hometown Substack newsletter when he launched the Greeley Gadfly. Ed Sealover, a longtime reporter who covered the legislature for the Denver Business Journal, turned in his press pass and joined the ranks of those he once covered as a vice president of the Colorado Chamber of Commerce where he started a business-focused publication. The Colorado Press Association launched a podcast called Local News Matters.

In March, six Black journalists at KUSA 9NEWS in Denver filmed a segment for 9NEWS+ talking about what it’s like being Black in a newsroom. A week later, CBS News Colorado broadcast a roundtable discussion among six of its own Black journalists at the station. As more nonwhite journalists spoke out about representation, Colorado News Collaborative’s Voices Initiative published a report called “Fighting to be Seen” focusing on Asian, South Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders and recommendations they had for local media. Two large broadcasters — Colorado Public Radio and Denver7 — decided to join forces to launch a new public affairs show called “Real Talk” dedicated to the “stories and experiences of underserved communities.” On the transparency front, the board of the National Freedom of Information Coalition elected Jeff Roberts, who is executive director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, as its president. “Student journalism as a whole in the state of Colorado is strong,” said the vice president of the Colorado Student Media Association. In regulatory land, a division of the federal agency that regulates broadcasters said it wanted to hold hearings into a plan by a hedge fund to buy Tegna, the company that owns 9NEWS in Denver. Metro State University journalism professor Alfonzo Porter, known as an “amplifier of Black voices,” died unexpectedly. The progressive Colorado Times Recorder digital site punched back at the Denver Gazette with a digital ad campaign that focused on the newspaper’s politically active conservative billionaire owner, Phil Anschutz. (Meanwhile, while multiple outlets reported on how a tax lawsuit by Anschutz against the state could impact the state budget, Anschutz’s own publications were conspicuously silent about it.) In the book world, Alan Prendergast published “Gangbuster” that recalled 1920s Denver media and the Ku Klux Klan. Estes Park journalist and author Jason Van Tatenhove published a book “The Perils of Extremism: How I Left the Oath Keepers and Why We Should be Concerned about a Future Civil War.” Colorado journalist Jonathan Rose launched a new statewide newsletter, Regulated State, “hyperfocused” on Colorado’s cannabis industry and the state’s “burgeoning psychedelics sector.” The Indy alternative weekly in Colorado Springs, which changed its name to Sixty35 Media, laid off half its staff after identifying an unexpected $300,000 accounting error. Then it changed its name back to the Indy and went on a fundraising campaign to try to save itself.

April found Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk, antagonizing NPR, which trickled down to Colorado and led public media to begin pulling away from the platform. In other tech news, newsroom leaders across the state were trying to figure out how to deal with the emergence of ChatGPT and the rapid development of AI technology. The fallout from the Springs alt-weekly collapse led longtime food-and-drink writer Matthew Schniper to start his own Substack newsletter called Side Dish. The Center for Community News at the University of Vermont spotlighted Colorado College’s Journalism Institute as a higher-education program that gives students “real-world experience while they support community news in Colorado.” The FortMorgan Times ran a front-page above-the-fold item about a police ridealong that was written by the mayor. A Colorado couple who owned a string of newspapers in the Central Mountains region under the banner of Arkansas Valley Publishing sold them to Arizona-based O’Rourke Media Group. The Lever, run by Denver journalist David Sirota, won an Izzy Award. (Judges said: “No news outlet is as thorough & relentless as The Lever in exposing the corrupting influence of corporate power on government & both parties.”) Dylan Anderson in Steamboat Springs became another local journalism entrepreneur in Colorado to leave a shrinking newspaper only to launch a digital newsletter and website in the backyard of his former employer. (He called it the Yampa Valley Bugle.) The Denver Urban Spectrum launched a BIPOC podcast network. Rocky Mountain PBS once again expanded its physical presence — this time with space in a building in downtown Fruita on the Western Slope. One of the nation’s biggest media stories of the year had a Centennial State connection: Avoiding a messy defamation trial, the FOX TV channel settled for $787 million with Dominion Voting Systems, a company based in Colorado.

In May, a group of locals in Manitou Springs banded together to revive their local newspaper, the Pikes Peak Bulletin, and went the nonprofit route. COLab’s Voices Initiative came out with another report — this time about Indigenous communities and their recommendations for improving relations among them and Colorado media. Denver Post reporter Sam Tabachnik was named as a finalist in the Livingston Awards that “honor the best reporting and storytelling by young journalists.” (The honor came in the international reporting category for his series “Looted: Stolen Relics, Laundered Art and a Colorado Scholar’s Role in the Illicit Antiquities Trade.”) The building that used to house the Greeley Tribune newspaper became the new library in Greeley. As online sports betting proliferated in Colorado, some local news organizations leaned into the lucrative industry. (I followed one local news outlet’s “Best Bets” column for a week and lost money.) A deal by a hedge fund to take over a national network of local TV stations that included Denver’s 9NEWS imploded. When the Denver Nuggets basketball team made history by sweeping the Los Angeles Lakers and headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1976, local journalists called out national media coverage of the team. In a nod to where voters were getting their news and information, Yemi Mobolade thanked supporters of his historic and successful mayoral campaign in Colorado Springs for “helping set the record straight on Facebook and NextDoor.” His election represented a major shift in the politics and reputation of a growing and changing city that would suffer some very bad media news in the coming months.

June was when all hell broke loose for Colorado’s printing industry. Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, announced it would close the Pueblo Chieftain’s printing plant. The move sent dozens of newspapers scrambling to find a new printer or go online-only, and forced at least one, the Eastern Colorado Plainsman, to shut down entirely. And Pueblo’s La Cucaracha newspaper, which had started up again after a 40-year hiatus, had to move online. The Chieftain’s owners also said they would sell the newsroom building. Across the state, in a bit of man-bites dog news, a Colorado newspaper owner, Ballantine Communications, expanded by opening a new newspaper just across the border in New Mexico. In another man-bites-dog journalism story, newspaper reporters actually got raises. That was thanks to union organizing efforts at the Loveland Reporter Herald — and it wouldn’t be the only time in 2023, either. The number of journalists who showed up to the (re)opening of Casa Bonita in Denver was something to behold (especially since one TV reporter called the event “one of the more restricted press tours of my career.”) A Colorado Community Media reporter had to explain what “off the record” means to a city council member (and did a good job doing so.) Steve Zansberg, a prominent First Amendment attorney in Colorado who has long represented the state’s news organizations, wrote a column for the Miami Herald saying he’s “proud to be woke.” Colorado College journalism students who were reporting from eastern Europe found Nuggets star Nikola Jokić at home in Serbia and wrote about it for the Gazette. The Colorado Sun got an app, and the Denver Post became the latest newspaper to kill off its comments section.

In July, following what one city staffer in Aspen called an “extensive review,” city leaders of the legendary mountain town anointed the locally owned Aspen Daily News as the city’s “newspaper of record” over the Aspen Times. (It was a big deal, and followed a year’s worth of newspaper drama.) Across the Continental Divide, two newspapers in southern Colorado, the Florence Reporter and the Pikes Peak Bulletin, announced they would expand their offerings. But at the same time, three newspapers on the Eastern Plains said they’d cut the number of days they would publish a printed edition. In Colorado Springs, a TV story disappeared after a newspaper reporter called out “almost identical paragraphs.” The Pueblo Chieftain listed its building for $3.6 million. The nonprofit Pueblo Star Journal newspaper published an anonymous dispatch from a former Gannett employee that detailed a summer meeting when “two corporate stuffed shirts” announced the company would close theChieftain’s printing plant. The Center for Community news highlighted “deliberative journalism” at CSU in Fort Collins. Matthew Eric Lit became the new managing editor of the Crestone Eagle newspaper, which converted into a nonprofit in 2022. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition updated its Sunshine Laws guide. When a 9NEWS viewer noticed on-screen text referring to the station’s meteorologist Chris Bianchi as “Crispy Donkey” while on the scene of a tornado, a news anchor called it “either the best or the worst closed-captioning mistake we have ever seen.”

August found another string of weekly newspapers, this time in the San Luis Valley, changing hands to an out-of-state owner. This time, the buyer was a contrarian millennial newspaper publisher from Wyoming who has been snapping up rural local papers across the country. The nonprofit publication Startup Colorado took note of a triad of our state’s local news publishers and touted them as success stories. Free Press and Media 2070 said they were “drawing inspiration” from Colorado College students as they embarked on a national curriculum about media reparations. Colorado-based patent attorney Vanessa Otero, who raised millions of dollars in 2023 to take her Media Bias Chart global, published a column titled “Why I decided to rate the news.” The Denver Gazette’s John Moore looked back at “Denver’s storied roster of TV sports broadcasters.” Thirteen Colorado news outlets joined a program to help them cover the 2024 election season better. Colorado journalist Trevor Hughes of USA Today became the victim of creepy fake news sites that try to harness clicks by cranking out bogus “obituaries” of people who haven’t died. Colorado journalist Allen Best earned a profile for editing “a one-man online journalism shop he calls Big Pivots.” Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore said, once again, that the idea of more public support for local news doesn’t scare him and that smart people will “figure out a way to do it” ethically. The fusillade of attack ads by the Denver Gazette against the Denver Post earlier in the year wound up having some unintended consequences; Jason Salzman of the progressive Colorado Times Recorder started hearing stories about the Gazette and got sources to go on the record about allegations of business and political pressures on the newsrooms from its conservative ownership. (He published another installment later in the year). The Gannett-owned Coloradoan in Fort Collins moved into a new, leaner, office. Colorado Public Radio became the first U.S. news organization to earn a certificate from the Journalism Trust Initiative, an international project seeking to bolster trust in local news. (Colorado had become the first state-based testing ground for the project in 2022.) The tech company Microsoft lauded Colorado Media Project and COLab as a “groundbreaking model” to help local news. Roughly 18 months after choosing Denver as the test market for an original local news experiment, the national app NewsBreak decided to pull the plug. In Colorado’s Yampa Valley, the weekly “Voice” went quiet.

In September, the Colorado Media Project reflected on five years of its impact and published “Reimagining Colorado’s Public Square,” a report on the state’s local news landscape that also asked “What does a healthy local news & information ecosystem look like in 2028 — and how do we get there?” The Denver Gazette celebrated its third birthday with a roundup of its impactful watchdog journalism and accountability reporting. The Colorado Sun, celebrating its fifth anniversary, announced it would convert from a public benefit corporation to a nonprofit. The Broomfield Leader closed, making it the first site the Canadian-owned Village Media ever shut down. Colorado Newsline countered local media reporting of “rising crime” with data showing otherwise. The Intermountain Jewish News said it is “very much on the both sides spectrum.” City Cast Denver, the local news podcast, launched a membership program. Colorado Public Radio announced an anonymous donor gave $8.3 million for the station to build a new headquarters, calling it “the largest gift in Colorado public media history.” (CPR declined to name the donor, saying it would eventually, and insisted whoever it is wouldn’t pose a conflict for the station’s reporting.) Colorado News Collaborative, Colorado Press Association, and Colorado Media Project produced a report about the future of printing in Colorado. (It painted a dire picture, but offered potential solutions.) How coverage of an incident in Boulder played out in local media offered some insights into the ways people seem to increasingly be getting their news and information, the role of online social networks like Reddit and Nextdoor, and how different local news organizations treat developing “crime” stories. If Colorado’s reality-TV Republican congresswoman, Lauren Boebert, is defeated in 2024, it will likely be because (of all things) media reporting about her being kicked out of a performance of Beetlejuice for obnoxious behavior and denying she was vaping. (Media obtained video surveillance footage that punctured those denials.) Colorado News Collaborative unveiled Amplify Colorado, what it called a first-of-its-kind online guide that will “help newsrooms find diverse sources” while also helping community members connect with local reporters. One of Colorado’s most prominent journalists, Denver’s 9NEWS anchor Kyle Clark, said “It’s OK to be pro-democracy.” Meanwhile, a Russian journalist in exile reflected in the Colorado Sun about “democracy and the importance of journalism.” Denver Post journalists and their labor union ratified their contract and earned raises for the first time in seven years. At the Colorado Press Association convention in Denver, the CPA’s president, Tim Regan-Porter, said the press advocacy group planned to lobby for “state funding for reporters” in the 2024 legislative session.

October was the month Andrew Travers, an editor of the Aspen Times who was fired last year amid a censorship scandal, sued his former newspaper and its parent company. Travers accused the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers of cowing to a wealthy foreign developer and reneging on a promise that he would have editorial independence. The Colorado Sun reported that while “many small-town newspapers are vanishing,” some Coloradans are working to keep local news alive, and examined other areas of the state’s local news scene, including how an “old-fashioned newspaper war inspired by modern politics is raging in Westcliffe and dividing readers.” After five years, filmmaker Rick Goldsmith’s documentary, “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink,” which focuses heavily on Colorado and is about a “secretive hedge fund that is plundering America’s newspapers and the journalists who are fighting back,” premiered at the Santa Fe International Film Festival. The 2023 Denver Democracy Summit featured a panel titled “The critical role of local media in the democracy ecosystem.” Colorado’s Supreme Court became the first to weigh in on the use of “reverse key-word warrants” by police as an investigative tool, sparking outcry from privacy groups. The small but mighty Rio Blanco Herald Times newspaper on the Western Slope nearly died — but the community rallied to keep it afloat. Reflecting a national trend among thoughtful political journalists, the nonprofit Colorado Newsline explained why it would be “demoting horse race election coverage.” The Democracy Fund highlighted Colorado as a case study in a national report about how funding local news ecosystems “helps American communities thrive.”

In November, journalist Shay Castle said she would wind down her Boulder Beat digital news site after five years to become editor of Boulder Weekly. Colorado’s independent journalists who are part of a growing informal network of digitally focused local news organizations blooming across the United States and Canada said they still keep legacy local media in the mix. Colorado College students in a newsletter writing journalism class helped Axios Denver produce two newsletter editions. Colorado newsrooms swarmed to serve Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley. Anne Trujillo retired from Denver7 after nearly 40 years in the TV business. (“I wish I could say that news stations were diverse enough,” she said.) Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis declared Nov. 16, 2023, “Anne Trujillo Day.” Two weeks later, he declared Nov. 30, 2023 as “Mike Daniels Day” in honor of the retiring KOAA Pueblo native who spent five decades as a weather caster. Some Colorado journalists said they were fleeing X, formerly known as Twitter, as its owner Elon Musk became more erratic. As part of its conversion to a nonprofit, the Colorado Sun donated its shares in the Colorado News Conservancy’s newspapers to the National Trust for Local News. Grant Houston, who started the weekly Silver World newspaper in Lake City right out of college when he was 23, wondered what might happen to the paper as he tries to retire after 46 years. Inside the News in Colorado rounded up a list of more than 70 Colorado-based podcasts (and will keep adding to it).

December was the month that the Indy alternative weekly newspaper that served Colorado Springs for 30 years announced it would shut down for financial reasons. (The paper signaled a potential comeback in the new year.) Putting the news in perspective, Axios Denver had earlier reported how a new study found “Colorado’s local newspapers are declining more rapidly than predicted … creating deserts void of trustworthy and nonpartisan news.” Meanwhile, as new technology including artificial intelligence became cheaper and easier to use, Colorado newsrooms were having to fend off a crop of sites that rip off their work. In Denver, some wondered if or when the Denver Post signage might come down from the iconic downtown building that used to house the paper’s newsroom. (The City of Denver was trying to buy the building.) Acknowledging a lack of trust in the news, the Colorado Sun joined the Trust Project. “If we reach our goal,” Axios Denver said of its membership program, “we’ll top our colleagues in Chicago as the Axios Local city with the most members.” Pittsburg State University professor Ken Ward promoted his book “Last Paper Standing: A Century of Competition Between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News.” Kim Becker became the first woman to serve as public address announcer for the Broncos. Erica Meltzer, who spent six years as Colorado bureau chief of Chalkbeat Colorado, became the outlet’s national editor. Wolves arrived in Colorado, but not without a major press slip-up. (And after Colorado’s First Gentleman, Marlon Reis, criticized a journalist’s story about wolves, the editor of the Fence Post agricultural publication wrote that Reis “proved in a recent Facebook post that he knows less about journalism than he does about dangerous carnivores.”) Sol del Valle launched as a publication to serve Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley. The League of Women Voters of Colorado said they would advocate for the “health of local news.” When a Colorado judge made the remarkable decision to order a reporter for BusinessDen to return documents he obtained through an open records request and to destroy any electronic copies he might have, the reporter, Justin Wingerter, fought back in court.

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 Threads, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.