‘I want to see what happens’
Last Saturday, Jordan Hedberg was running a portable sawmill on his Custer County farm, turning diseased aspens into boards for a chicken shed. He was working with dead trees, as it were.
Appropriate. A day before, the 34-year-old grassfed-beef rancher who owns the Wet Mountain Tribune newspaper in Westcliffe had quietly launched a new digital publication just across the Fremont County line.
The Cañon City Tribune, an eight-page production laid out in a newspaper-style format, carried news about local impacts from an emergency drought designation, new city council members being sworn in, the Fremont County budget, and a water augmentation plan. Other items included local impacts of redistricting, letters to the editor, and more.
The paper’s inaugural edition also (unfortunately) included a section called “Cañon City Police Report” that published the names of locals who were recently arrested, relying on public information from police. I’ve argued against this practice, particularly if news outlets aren’t planning to follow each case to its conclusion in the courts. (Hedberg says he plans to re-think the approach in future editions.)
His plan is to publish this new digital paper every Friday.
To gin up subscribers, the publisher is running targeted Facebook ad campaigns to see how many locals he can sign up at $29 a year or $2.14 a month. “I think a thousand to two thousand would justify me launching a print edition,” he said over the phone during a break in the woodcutting.
With a population of about 17,000 on the banks of the Arkansas River roughly 45 minutes southwest of Colorado Springs, the city in question is home to The Cañon City Daily Record. Like other newspapers in Colorado run by Prairie Mountain Media and financially controlled by the cost-cutting Alden Global Capital hedge fund out of New York, the Record has shrunk over the years. (As have some Colorado newspapers not controlled by hedge funds.) The Record, which also runs a police blotter naming arrested suspects, has a small staff, and the paper reproduces plenty of coverage from its sister papers. (It was hard for me to get a sense of its local news output about Cañon City this week from its website alone. Let me know how it looks on your browser.)
According to a comment by Prairie Mountain Media Publisher Al Manzi in September, the Record has “one of the most visited websites in all of Prairie Mountain Media, frequently generating more traffic than seven-day papers in much larger communities.”
Record Editor Michael Alcala says local news “does drive traffic but sharing of content from other papers in our chain is a big boost” and the paper recently launched a “Neighbors” section. The Record’s site in December, he said, had more than 150,000 users on it generating more than half a million page views, which he said has been about the average for the past few years. The Record counts about 20,000 Facebook followers and more than 1,200 on Twitter.
“I would wager most residents in Fremont County learn of important issues from us first,” Alcala says. “There is an abundance of news to cover in Fremont County and while we have a loyal base of print subscribers, most are first reading about those stories through our website.”
News of a new digital publication in Fremont County isn’t the only disruption there. On Jan. 1, The Florence Citizen, a weekly newspaper that has served the area for 125 years, announced it was going online-only.
“No longer printing the paper will be a bittersweet change,” the paper told readers. Responding to commenters on Facebook, the paper’s account explained, “Unfortunately, the number of subscriptions and newsstand sales reached an unstainable (sic) amount, and as much as we didn’t want to end print, it was no longer an option.”
Hedberg sees an opening to join in, and as someone who has had to rely on the existing publications in Fremont County to provide him news for the Wet Mountain Tribune in Custer next door, he sees some gaps he thinks he can fill himself.
“I want to see what happens when you try to start a brand new for-profit local news publication in an area where you have basically entered a news desert,” he said.
Penny Abernathy, who is perhaps the nation’s foremost authority on news deserts, has defined them in her seminal research as communities “either rural or urban, where residents have very limited access to the sort of credible and comprehensive news and information that feed democracy at the grassroots level.”
Fremont is not one of the nation’s roughly 200 counties without a newspaper. Beyond the Record and the now-digital Citizen, KRLN radio serves the area. Also in the mix is a right-wing print publication called the Fremont County Crusader that says it presents “Constitutional viewpoints” with reporting guided in part by the Ten Commandments that will not be constrained by “political correctness.” In addition is The Inside Report, a “newspaper produced within the Colorado Department of Corrections” in partnership with The University of Denver Prison Arts Initiative that has a newsroom at Fremont County Correctional Facility.
While Hedberg would like to go to print with his new effort eventually and sell advertising, he says he’s willing to give it a year of digital-only access to see how many people are willing to pay for more local news. (Last year for this newsletter, I spoke with Hedberg about the success of his Wet Mountain Tribune as a rural local print newspaper. He has an interesting theory about “costly signaling” and the legitimacy of printed news.)
To finance this new enterprise he’ll basically pull resources from the Wet Mountain Tribune and sacrifice his own time. Not having to pay printing costs up front makes it less expensive. He’d like to get to the point where he could hire a designated reporter.
“I’m doing this because I really care about local news,” Hedberg says, adding, “what can a for-profit weekly or something like that do? Is it possible? I don’t know.”
Watch this space to see how this experiment plays out.
2022’s big investigative journalism conference will be in Denver. Your ideas are welcome.
This year, Investigative Reporters and Editors, the powerhouse organization known as IRE, will bring its popular summer conference to the Mile High City. It’ll take place June 23 to June 26 at the Gaylord Rockies Resort and Convention Center.
In the meantime, conference organizers are open to your ideas for speakers, panels, workshops, classes, demos, networking events, or anything else. What would you want to see from an investigative reporting conference? What would make you want to come? What might you like to impart to those who attend? If you have any ideas — think outside the box — you can fill out this form. The deadline is Jan. 16, though I imagine it might stretch one more week.
I’m on the regional IRE22 conference committee so expect to see more updates about the event in this newsletter as it approaches. If you have any questions about it, you can send them to email@example.com. If you want to stay in the loop about the conference, you can sign up here for emails and updates.
Helen Thorpe quit Westword — quickly
In about the time it takes to get results from a PCR test — and less time than it takes to get an at-home test kit from the state — author and journalist Helen Thorpe took a job running Denver’s Westword and then promptly became part of The Great Resignation.
“Just resigned!” she tweeted Tuesday, five days after announcing that she’d be the alternative weekly’s news editor. “Shortest amount of time I have ever held a job—but it was so clear to me this was not the right fit in terms of tempo. Good to change course when you make a mistake.”
As far as tempo goes, the social-media age has transformed alt-weekly jobs into the kind of high-metabolism, traffic-hungry operations of digital media writ large, especially the corporate-owned ones, and they’re sadly no longer the slower-paced roll-in-hungover-by-noon gigs of old.
Indeed, Westword may not be 24/7, “but we’re definitely 12/5,” longtime Westword honcho Patty Calhoun says. “And while I think Helen would have done a wonderful job as News Editor, that pace proved not to be what she’s looking for in her next chapter — which will be incredible, no matter what it is. I remain an admirer of her work, and a friend.”
For her part, Thorpe said she was “unexpectedly busy” and unable to talk about the details when I asked if she wanted to chat this week.
A Colorado Catholic school fired teachers over a pro-choice item in the student paper
A private Catholic high school in Aurora says it doesn’t “tell our students what to think” but teaches them “how to think and how to discern with an informed conscience.”
Unless. Well. From Carina Julig at Sentinel Colorado:
Regis Jesuit High School retracted the winter issue of its student magazine because it contained an op-ed from a student expressing pro-choice abortion views, and fired both of the magazine’s faculty advisors, according to Sentinel sources.
One of the advisors later confirmed the news to The Denver Post.
The magazine in question is called Elevate and comes out four times a year. The winter edition carried a piece “written from a pro-choice point of view, and argues that making abortion illegal causes women to die from unsafe illegal procedures, and that there is a meaningful distinction between a fetus and a baby,” Julig reported.
More from Sentinel Colorado:
The school’s handling of the situation appears to directly contradict the editorial policy printed in the magazine, which said that the student editorial board will have final say in the content of the publication and that “school officials, administration or faculty and staff shall not practice prior review or have the ability to censor any student publication” except in specific circumstances including articles involving deaths or legal situations.
Student journalism has fewer First Amendment protections than other publications, and student journalists at private schools have very little recourse to fight staff censorship, according to Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at nonprofit advocacy group Student Press Law Center. The Colorado Student Free Expression Law protects the rights of student journalists at public schools and limits their ability to be censored. It also contains a clause protecting faculty student media advisors from being retaliated against by school administrators. However, the law only applies to students and employees at public schools.
National Catholic Register reported Denver Archbishop Samuel Aquila saying he’d heard from many families concerned about the pro-choice piece and “he was ‘deeply troubled’ that an essay advocating a position ‘in direct contradiction to the Church’s teaching on the sanctity of life’ was allowed to be published in a Catholic school.”
Regis Jesuit High School president David Card told CNA: “An opinion piece that presented a stance on abortion clearly in opposition to Catholic Church teaching was included in the winter issue of the student-produced magazine that we found both deeply troubling and unacceptable.”
If this had happened at a public school, “clearly this would be breaking the law,” Hiestand of the Student Law Press Center told Sentinel Colorado. “But at a private school you don’t have any sort of First Amendment protections.”
On Wednesday, two former editors of the school’s magazine penned a guest column in The Denver Post deftly taking their alma mater to task for its censorship. And on Thursday, one of the faculty advisers told Sentinel Colorado “she was fired without cause and was defamed by the archdiocese” and provided the paper with “documents of written communication between her and Regis Jesuit administrators regarding the situation.”
The editor of The Grandview Chronicle student newspaper at Grandview High School, Will Inzan, published a column saying in part, “student journalists should not be held to the standard of only expressing views matching those of their school.”
The Coloradoan and Chieftain will cut their Saturday print deliveries
Reflecting a broader change at Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, the Coloradoan in Fort Collins and the Chieftain in Pueblo “will cease home delivery on Saturdays but instead will provide subscribers with an e-edition of the newspaper that day,” the papers told their readers this week. The change comes in March.
From the Coloradoan’s editor:
“Our commitment to local news remains steadfast, but the platforms on which people are consuming news continue to evolve. What was once solely a daily newspaper has transformed to include a digital site, mobile app, social media platforms, multimedia and more,” said Coloradoan Executive Editor Eric Larsen. “Our print newspapers remain a vital and important part of our strategy, but we are making a change this year in response to subscriber and advertising trends.”
Right now, “more than two-thirds” of those who subscribe to the Coloradoan are getting their daily news through its “digital offerings, including the e-edition and Coloradoan mobile app,” Larsen added.
One perk coming with the change is that subscribers will also be able to access e-editions of Gannett-owned newspapers across the country for free. The change in delivery will also affect the Gannett-owned Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, Larsen says. (UPDATE: The Chieftain posted its own note to readers Thursday, which was much less personal and attributed quotes to Gannett).
Journalist and educator Dan Kennedy has some national context about Gannett’s “new Saturday experience” at his Media Nation site.
A call-out for missing context in a COVID news story came from inside the house
These days, consumers of media pretty much have to learn how to assess each piece of content on its own terms for its legitimate news value.
It’s getting harder to assume something is right, real, accurate, in context, or is otherwise providing us with the kind of timely, relevant information we need to be free and self governing simply because it was published under the banner of a purported news organization.
We have to pay attention to bylines — is this a news story or a paid-for ad made to look like one? We have to ignore unseemly sponsored content appearing smack in the middle of otherwise legit news, and we should be reading the About Us sections of news sites to see where they’re coming from while being able to easily identify ownership and funding of news publishers — and understand why that’s important.
But ownership alone can’t always help us as some journalists noticed this week when Seth Klamann, a COVID-19 reporter for The Denver Gazette, had to clear up out-of-context COVID-19 information published in The Washington Examiner, which is owned by the same company he works for, Phil Anschutz’s Clarity Media.
The Examiner is a national publication out of Washington, D.C. that describes its coverage as “deliberately fair, giving a respectful hearing to conservative ideas and conservative people who get short shrift from most other media outlets.”
The item it published was re-published in The Denver Gazette, the 1-year-old digital sister publication to the print Gazette in Colorado Springs. On social media, the DG’s Twitter account teased the story with an image of text reading “CDC director says 75% of COVID-19 deaths ‘had four or more comorbidities’” with the accompanying narrative: “Dr. Rochelle Walensky’s assertion means the 834,000 deaths in the United States that have been attributed to COVID-19 could be lowered to just over 200,000.”
Eh? Not so fast.
“This is an out-of-context comment from a story written by a sister paper,” Klamann alerted his followers. “Walensky was specifically referring to deaths among the vaccinated, not all 834,000+ deaths since March 2020.” The reporter also provided a link to a 2020 CDC study on the topic.
Klamann then walked his followers through how a full quote from the CDC director provided “significantly more context than what forms the basis for this article and other articles like it.” He also used the opportunity to highlight local journalism he and others at his outlet have been doing on COVID deaths “from reporters who’ve covered it up close for going on two years.”
The Denver Post’s COVID-19 reporter, Meg Wingerter, added: “Also, some people do live with multiple chronic conditions for an extended time. The idea that everybody who had chronic conditions was on death’s door and the virus is irrelevant is flat-out wrong.”
Meanwhile, at the national level, ABC’s Good Morning America misleadingly edited 22 seconds from an interview Cecilia Vega conducted with CDC director Walensky. “The network said it was done ‘for time,’” wrote CNN’s Oliver Darcy. He called the effort “egregious” and said it wound up supplying “days of ammo” to anti-vaccine media personalities.
More from CNN’s Reliable Sources newsletter:
Here’s what happened: In the interview, Vega mentioned “this new study showing just how well vaccines are working to prevent severe illness,” and Walensky reacted by describing the findings. It’s a “really important study, if I may just summarize it,” the CDC director said. But ABC didn’t let her. Someone, presumably an editor working in conjunction with a high-ranking producer, cut out the details about the study to make the interview 22 seconds shorter. In isolation, the remarks made it appear that Walensky was suggesting that 75% of all Covid deaths “occurred in people who had at least four co-morbidities.” In reality, of course, she was saying that in the very rare case that a vaccinated person succumbs to the illness, the research shows that more than 75% of the deaths occurred in those with “at least four co-morbidities.”
ABC later published the full interview with context.
Darcy called the incident “a reminder to all journalists of how important it is to play as close to error-free ball as possible” since “We operate in an information environment in which dishonest people will take advantage of mistakes — and once the lie spreads, it’s difficult to correct.”
Here in Colorado, we’ve seen that movie before.
More Colorado media odds & ends
💐Former Steamboat Pilot advertising director Meg Boyer is remembered for her positive impact on the community after dying of a brain tumor at 40. “Boyer eventually added the titles of publisher of the Ski-Hi News and associate general manager at Colorado Mountain News Media,” the paper reported.
💨 After nearly four decades, Betsy Marston, a “fierce defender of the Western word” is retiring from the Colorado-based High Country News magazine. Readers of this newsletter might recall a curious decision in the spring of 2019 to quietly discontinue the magazine’s “Writers on the Range” column after 20 years and how Marston revived the popular syndicated opinion column with her son the following year. While she might be leaving the magazine, she isn’t done influencing coverage of the West. “The opinion service is what I want to focus on,” she said in a recent email. “Plus it’s a ton of fun.”
🚡 “For the first time in the history of these websites, I’ve added funding buttons in order for readers to contribute to my work via PayPal,” writes Real Vail journalist David O. Williams. He adds: “I’m part of what I hope becomes a growing trend in journalism – one of writers, reporters and editors controlling their own platforms and not being subject to the failed media models dating back decades that have in many ways contributed to the demise of the Fourth Estate.”
📼 “Months after they were removed from public view by YouTube, a trio of our video clips were returned to” The Colorado Times Recorder “courtesy of YouTube and the Bill of Rights.”
💸 The Boulder Daily Camera newspaper lifted its online paywall during its coverage of the Marshall Fire. (The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan argues newspapers should do the same for their pro-democracy coverage.)
💩 Read this West Slope newspaper owner’s nastygram reader response.
🔎 “It’s been unscrutinized because it’s so damn complicated. And it does take like six months … for a reporter to get to the bottom of it,” COLab investigative reporter Susan Greene said on City Cast Denver about her reporting on the state’s mental health safety net. “And we don’t live in a time when there are a lot of reporters out there who have that kind of resource.”
🙄 “Two (!!) people have commented on a three-paragraph story about county dog licenses saying it’s communism,” said a Sky-Hi News reporter. “I’m tired.”
💰 Denver-based MJBiz, which includes the cannabis publications MJBizDaily, Hemp Industry Daily, and MJBizMagazine, was acquired by Emerald X, “a wholly owned subsidiary of Emerald Holding, a New York-based business-to-business event and media company, for $120 million in cash plus potential earnouts.”
🏔️ Nicole Miller “has been named publisher for Summit Daily News after serving as the paper’s editor since May 2019,” the paper reported.
🖊️ The Gulch is “a home for stories past and present, told by passionate writers, photographers, and artists roaming the Four Corners region” published quarterly and distributed “throughout southwestern Colorado and beyond.”
☄️ Denver’s David Sirota, who co-created the breakout Neflix hit “Don’t Look Up,” says the film shows a “pent-up demand” for media about climate change.
🗳️ “This November, vote,” wrote First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg who represents many Colorado news outlets. “Please. And do so in a way that will ‘stop the steal’ and preserve our democracy.”
⚙️ Sentinel Colorado hired Max Levy away from The Loveland Reporter-Herald where he’d helped lead a successful union drive.
📚 The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel profiled Hotchkiss journalist Tom Wills as “someone who is a professional artist and owns a store selling used books in Hotchkiss while also owning and writing for the North Fork Merchant Herald newspaper” and is living his dream job.
🤦 Newsweek’s Twitter account declined to adequately correct inaccurate information it published about the fire in Boulder County.
💭 A new paper co-written by a Colorado journalism academic about resistance journalism “notes that discussions among reporters tend to focus on its ‘lack of verification’ and ‘truth-bending,’” wrote Josh Benton at Harvard’s Nieman Lab. “But you can’t evaluate resistance without also looking at what it’s resisting.”
🔗 A former student journalist appreciates when a newspaper cites student reporting.
💼 The Colorado Times Recorder, “a progressive news site in Denver,” is looking for a “reproductive justice reporter who will cover issues related to abortion and bodily autonomy in Colorado.” ($35k-$45k.) The Colorado Sun is hiring a marketing and events coordinator. ($45k-$60k.) BoardHawk, “an independent advocacy news site focused on Denver Public Schools,” is hiring an education and government reporter. ($40k-$50k.)
I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of 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. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.