March 15, 2017

A Colorado media scandal over jail food coverage, Denverite gets a business plan, The New Pot Editor and more Colorado local news & media

10 months later, Denverite found its business model with a cross-country merger

On Friday, with a sloshing coffee mug in hand, Denverite editor Dave Burdick was excitedly showing a group of Colorado College journalism students around his hyperlocal for-profit digital newsroom's small office in Denver. “This is the most job security I’ve ever felt in a journalism job in my entire career,” he told me afterwards for a piece in Columbia Journalism Review. Burdick was talking about Denverite's recent merger with Spirited Media, the company behind Billy Penn, a millennial-focused online news site in Philly and its sister site The Incline in Pittsburgh.

When it launched 10 months ago, Denverite didn't have a plan to make money. At the time I wrote for CJR how the 10-journalist startup was "following the model used by digital publishers and platforms like Medium: Pump seed money into content in hopes of rapidly gaining a loyal, engaged following, and then find a way to monetize that audience later." Now, with this week's merger, it looks to have found that way, specifically by generating revenue through a three-legged model: Advertising, membership opportunities, and live events. 

The backers of this deal hope to add a new city into the mix soon, and then perhaps more. After the brutal collapse of AOL's nationwide hyperlocal Patch.com experiment a few years ago, plenty of media watchers will have their eyes trained on this new partnership as a potential model for the future of local news. 

Lots of people wanted that pot editor job at The Denver Post

And the paper settled on a local— Denver writer and editor Alex Pasquariello. 

From The Cannabist:
“At least 200 people applied for a job that must be one of the most fascinating in journalism right now. We didn’t expect to get — and weren’t looking for — a clone of the one-of-a-kind Ricardo Baca, who helped bring The Cannabist international attention,” Denver Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said. “What we wanted was an editor with the vision and experience to push this special site to the next level. We found that person in Alex and I can’t wait to see all that he has in store for us.”
Pasquariello gave a Q-and-A with The Cannabist, which you can read here. As for #BacaWatch, he still hasn't publicly announced the details of his new venture

The Alt vs. The Daily: A mini journalism scandal in the Springs over a 'lifted' jail food investigation 

I vividly recall the frustration I had as a young reporter at an alt-weekly in South Carolina when the Big Daily Newspaper acted like we didn't exist. Sometimes you'd see an important, exclusive story you broke get picked up the next day without any credit. (Yeah, yeah, cue the Rodney Dangerfield clip.) We made sure to cite the daily when it broke news, often sourcing reporters by name. Eventually things got better and the relationship became more symbiotic. We started getting deserved kudos when we hit a home run. 

So I followed closely some recent criticism by The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly about its daily competitor The Gazette last week. It was kind of a scandal. Here's what happened: On Feb. 1, The Indy published a big investigative cover package about serious problems at the local jail over food portions and a new food vendor. Inmates were losing weight and were ready to riot. For the piece, reporter Pam Zubeck filed open records requests, went to the jail, interviewed inmates and their family members, and also jail staff. The paper even sent its food critic to try out the new jail food. 


More than a month later, The Gazette published its own, very similar story. With no mention of the alt-weekly's previous reporting, The Gazette attributed information in its piece to responses from "a Colorado Open Records Act request." Staffers at The Indy rightly felt slighted. Intrigued, I filed my own open records request, asking for what The Gazette asked of the sheriff's office. I wondered if the paper might have mentioned The Indy. Indeed, this was included in an amended request on Feb. 10 by The Gazette: "All emails sent to Pam Zubeck of the Colorado Springs Independent in response to her recent CORA request." Pretty clear the daily relied on the alt-weekly's reporting for its own story. So why not give a hat tip? 

I reached out to The Gazette to find out, and I heard back from an editor who said it was an editorial omission not to cite The Indy, and The Gazette would update its story with a "first reported by" reference, which it did. "We certainly appreciate it when that is done for The Gazette," editor Jim Trotter told me. It turns out I wasn't the only one with the idea to file a CORA for a CORA. The Indy did it, too, and found what I found. And then the paper published a blog post headlined "The Gazette lifted our jail food story," which blasted the daily and quoted a different editor there giving a different response. 

Students in my journalism class at Colorado College reviewed this as a case study. All of them felt The Gazette should have done more to credit the weekly, even something as simple as linking to the story online. Some even thought the piece should be pulled altogether with an apology. Now that would be a scandal. I suggested a standalone editor's column explaining what happened. 

Department of Don't Read the Comments: A libel suit for a newspaper commenter

There might not be a clear consensus yet for what local newspapers should do about their comment sections, which can get out of hand pretty easily. Some moved to the Facebook model only to find commenters creating fake accounts. Others shut down comments altogether. One website makes readers pass a quiz about the story before commenting. Some use human monitors, others are more laissez-faire. 

Well, a commenter on a news story at The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent got slapped with a libel lawsuit by an oil-and-gas company, according to the paper. (Colorado First Amendment lawyer Steve Zansberg has taken the case and he called the suit baseless.)

Looks like Grand Junction is ground zero for the anti-press in Colorado

First it was a Grand Junction lawmaker calling his hometown paper "fake news" and earning the threat of a defamation suit from its publisher. Now, a Grand Junction resident has posted this on Facebook:
$500 REWARD!!! For anyone that provides with legally obtained materials exposing Grand Junction local media malfeasance. If you have hidden audio recordings, video tapes or documents inside of a news room or media institution, and the material is good enough, an anonymous donor has put up a $500 reward.
It reminds me a little of a local version of James O'Keefe's targeting of CNN with secret recordings. The man who made the post, Tyler Riehl, also appears in this YouTube video as a leader in an effort to distribute "fake news boxes" as a way to "show your support for our President and Republican electeds." 

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel ran a big pullout on the midpoint of the legislative session. The Greeley Tribune fronted a piece about a local university helping a man hear again with implants. The Longmont Times-Call reported how winter sports pair with beer. The Pueblo Chieftain shared a local man's story of heroin addiction. The Steamboat Pilot & Today reported on the rise of snowbiking and avalanche danger. The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered a local protest to save prairie dogs. The Denver Post ran a feature about a school inside a children's hospital. A municipal election package led The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. The Boulder Daily Camera reported on a hospital ending overnight pediatric admissions. The Aspen Times covered local ski instructor reunions. The Gazette reported how an AP review of Neil Gorsuch's record on the environment was a "mixed bag." The Durango Herald had its own take on the legislative session's midpoint

More Colorado newspapers are using Trump's attack on the press to show their own value

Since President Donald Trump called journalists the "enemy of the American people," I've highlighted how some Colorado newspapers have responded to it. At least two—The Coloradoan in Fort Collins and The Pueblo Chieftain— used the opportunity to showcase their own local value to readers. This week we can add two more. Under the headline "As a journalist I risked my life, but I’m apparently an 'enemy of the people,'" The Denver Post published a column by Greg Dobbs, a former war correspondent for ABC News who lives in Evergreen. In his piece he writes about risks he took as a journalist— "beaten at an Islamic cemetery," "death threats from an American arms dealer," "a colleague killed right next to me" just to name a few—and explains why he took them: "So the American people would know what was going on."

Meanwhile, Colorado's preeminent First Amendment attorney, Steve Zansberg, penned a column for The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel headlined "‘Fake news,’ ‘the lying press’ and our democracy." In it he likened Trump's attacks on the press to those of, yeah you guessed it, the Nazis. 

From the column:
This is not the first time that political leaders have used this ploy. Germany’s propaganda minister in the 1930’s, Joseph Goebbels, famously used the term “Lügenpresse” or “lying press” – as did Hitler at his mass rallies – to persuade his followers to disregard what the papers were reporting and pledge their unwavering loyalty to the version of reality (“alternative facts”) that the Führer uttered.
"By all means, government officials should rebut reported factual errors with evidence that disproves those errors, if such evidence exists," Zansberg wrote. "But applying the “fake news” label to the legitimate press should be reserved to foreign dictators who seek to make their voice the only one their subjects will believe. Such Goebbels-inspired tactics have no place in our democracy."

Watch our TV panel about news literacy and 'fake news' tonight

Tonight I'll join a panel on 9News and Facebook live where anchor Kyle Clark will "moderate a discussion of media literacy and new challenges facing news organizations." You can watch it on KUSA’s Facebook page or on the Facebook page of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. I'll be joined by Grand Junction Daily Sentinel publisher Jay Seaton (the guy who threatened the "fake news" lawmaker with a defamation lawsuit), Poynter Institute scholar Bob Steele, Denver Post managing editor Linda Shapley, Complete Colorado columnist Ari Armstrong, Colorado Ethics Watch director Luis Toro, and University of Colorado professor Mei-Ling McNamara. 

Also: Apply to combat misinformation 

Are you a journalist, academic, engineer, librarian, lawyer, researcher, or anyone else with an innovative idea to fight misinformation? The Democracy Fund, which supports CJR's United States Project, has teamed up with the Knight and Rita Allen Foundations to launch a "joint fund to support creative ideas to address the question: how might we improve the flow of accurate information." They expect to award up to $1 million in grants with an average of $50,000. "Good ideas can come from anywhere so we’ll be reaching out to communities and local newsrooms all across the country—in both rural and urban areas, through red states and blue states, on the coasts and from the middle of the country," writes the Democracy Fund's Tom Glaisyer. The deadline to apply is April 3. Here's more on the project. 

Two local TV reporters in Colorado won this year's Walter Cronkite awards

Give a hand to Brandon Rittiman at KUSA 9News, the NBC affiliate in Denver, for winning a 2017 Walter Cronkite Award for Excellence in Television Political Journalism for local fact-checking. 

From SatPRnews:
The jury said KUSA has set a "high standard for fact-checking on a local TV station." The research, writing and presentation serve as a model for how to help viewers cut through the political spin. Political reporter Brandon Rittiman's reports are "clear, concise, well-documented and well-delivered," the jury said.
Rittiman also won his second Cronkite award for his steady efforts to "give voice to and be an advocate for real people," which is at the core of "what investigative and political journalism is all about," the site reported. "The jury praised his reporting on local judicial elections, an issue not usually covered on local broadcast news, which 'set the bar extremely high' for political coverage."

Meanwhile, Marshall Zelinger at KMGH-TV, the ABC affiliate in Denver, got a special commendation for local investigative journalism. SatPRnews writes how he broke "the story of a signature forgery scandal that rocked a U.S. Senate race. His dogged research tracking down voters whose signatures were forged, as well as finding the forgery suspect, triggered an official investigation and eventual policy change. Zelinger, now at KUSA, showed 'the impact that journalism can have on politics.'"

Now for some news on the local media front from CJR's United States Project

My colleague Jackie Spinner wrote about how the Indy Star navigated a public records minefield to break its Pence email story. Danny Funt reported how what happens in Vegas, Norm Clarke knows​. Pete Vernon wrote about how now even high school journalists are getting smeared with ‘fake news’ claims. I pitched in on a piece with Dan Eldridge about the Denverite merger and I also wrote about what happened after a mayor in Washington State tried to bill a newspaper $64 for talking to the city's attorney. (I know, right?)

I'm Corey Hutchins, the Colorado-based correspondent for Columbia Journalism Review's United States Project, a journalist for The Colorado Independent, and a visiting lecturer on politics, ethics, and journalism at Colorado CollegeFollow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.