Inside the News: A Colorado Legislator Pushes a Law ‘Supporting Local Media’

  • 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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Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter, who was responsible for our state’s relatively new media literacy program, had an idea for a bill this year aimed at boosting the bottom line for struggling local news outlets.

The law would be two-pronged.

One part of it would require all Colorado agencies and departments to spend at least half of their advertising budgets with local news organizations. Another part would create an income tax credit of up to $250 for people who subscribe to local newspapers or donate to local nonprofit news sources, and $2,500 for small businesses that spend advertising money with such local news outlets.

The public relations consultant from Littleton filed her bill two weeks ago.

But one of those prongs is “in peril” Cutter says. After introducing the legislation on Jan. 21, she says she got a call from the governor’s office. Cold water, meet The Bill for an Act Concerning Supporting Local Media. Part of it, anyway.

The first part of the measure that would direct so much state advertising toward local news outlets is under some “severe duress,” and “at risk” Cutter said over the phone Wednesday, adding that she is likely to move forward without it. For now.

An approach directing more public ad dollars to help support financially faltering local news organizations doesn’t come out of the blue. In 2019, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio signed an executive order requiring all city agencies spend at least 50% of their print and digital ad budgets with local community and ethnic media outlets.

Colorado’s law would do so on a statewide level.

But “the governor doesn’t love it,” Cutter said about what she heard from the office of Democratic Gov. Jared Polis. “We may need to table it and work on it more this summer.” She said the executive branch had concerns about meeting metrics and goals to reach advertising audiences. She says she plans to talk with state agencies and see what she might be able to do to make the bill more palatable down the line. Polis spokesman Conor Cahill said “the governor will review any bill that makes it to his desk.”

Cutter says she is still hopeful about the tax credit portion of her bill. (A proposed law in Wisconsin that would create tax credits for small businesses that advertise in local news outlets is moving through that state’s GOP-controlled legislature with bipartisan support.)

Because of the First Amendment, government getting in the business of news and journalism can be sticky. Journalists and non-journalists tend to be wary when the two intersect.

Since it deals with news organizations, Cutter’s media bill had to define what news organizations are. The bill does that by using a catch-all term, “local newspaper,” and defines that as a print “or digital” (that’s important!) publication that:

  1. Primarily serves the needs of the state of Colorado or a regional or local community within the state.
  2. Primarily has content derived from primary sources relating to news and current events.
  3. Employs at least one journalist who lives in Colorado and “who regularly gathers, collects, photographs, records, writes, or reports news or information that concerns local events or other matters of local public interest.” (The legislation does not define “journalist.”)

This legislative initiative to help the local news business comes at a time when many local news outlets across the country (and in Colorado) are suffering. Ad dollars are flowing to large tech companies, print subscribers are aging out, hedge fund newspaper owners could be accused of vandalizing their own properties, and whatever stage of capitalism we’re in is just no longer supporting the production of original local news to the extent it used to. “I don’t think everyone really realizes how many hits the media has taken and how dramatic it’s been over the last couple of years,” Cutter said. “And I’m keenly aware of that.”

The Colorado bill also comes as conversations about the efficacy of increased public-sector support for local news have been happening here — perhaps more than anywhere over the past couple of years. (Click here for a run-down of those conversations, including the ways state government has offered financial support for news gathering during the Polis administration.)

Regardless of which portion of the bill survives and makes its way through this year’s legislative sausage grinder, a big question could be how state government decides which news organizations count and whether they employ a journalist. (The tax-credit portion of Cutter’s bill uses the same criteria for defining “newspaper,” and part of that criteria uses the word “journalist.”)

Our local news scene is not as simple, easy to navigate or understand as it once was. Would Boulder Beat or The NoCo Optimist count? How about Complete Colorado, which calls itself the “original news” arm of a nonprofit libertarian think tank? The progressive nonprofit Colorado Times Recorder? Axios Denver? The public benefit corporation Colorado Sun?

“That is sort of a tricky needle to thread,” Cutter said. “And that’s something we need to be concerned with for sure.” Those are the sorts of things she hopes to hash out before the bill gets to a committee.

Colorado Press Association CEO Tim Regan-Porter says his organization is backing the bill, and so far it’s the only media advocacy organization he knows of doing so, though he hopes others will join as the legislation progresses and changes. He says he expected the advertising portion of the bill might not make it and agrees with tabling that part until its supporters can have more discussions with state agencies and the executive branch. (He does support the concept.)

For this year, “we really like the tax credit portion,” he said, adding that it’s modeled after the federal Local Journalism Sustainability Act. Congress members and supporters who crafted that bill, he said, “wanted to make sure it went to real news organizations and not advocacy websites or people that might pop up just to take advantage of the credit.”

Regan-Porter said the CPA plans to talk with Cutter about provisions like, say, having media liability insurance be contingent for consideration as an applicable publication or journalist. (For an individual, that kind of insurance can run about $1,500 a year in Colorado.)

As for defining journalists, he said, “we’ve always been very hesitant” but it’s not without precedent. The judicial branch might choose to allow someone to bring a camera into a courtroom but not anyone, he said, public notice laws define news outlets for certain purposes, and an open records law might try to define what news is to an extent. (A judge in a South Carolina case I wrote about once said “courts must exercise caution in labeling a media outlet as legitimate or illegitimate” and likened the challenge to trying to decide “what constitutes a valid religion” when determining religious protections.)

But “for something like this you almost have to,” Regan-Porter said. “If you’re really trying to bolster news then you’re going to have to define it. We want to make sure, though, that it can’t be weaponized, it can’t be a partisan thing. But I think there’s some legitimate concern that an average person could start a blog and call themself a journalist for the purposes of this act.”

  • 💡Now, here’s something to think about: This newsletter is free because of its underwriters. If it weren’t and you paid to subscribe to it — and I might ask you to one day — should you get a tax credit in Colorado?

I look forward to such a debate. And, if anything, a broader conversation about the efficacy of increased public sector support for local news in a state sometimes viewed as a policy pioneer.

“Much like many of the problems we face, this is … not one big solution,” Cutter says about why she filed her bill. “But just a lot of little solutions — a lot of things that we can do along the lines to help support local journalism.”

As a streets blog shuts down, its founder has some words for local journos

Former Colorado journalist David Sachs founded Streetsblog Denver in 2015, then joined Denverite three years later before moving overseas last year.

“A news site founded on the proposition that Denver streets aren’t just for cars is losing its only employee,” Donna Bryson wrote for Denverite in 2020 and reported how a group called Denver Streets Partnership would take the site over. This week, the site announced that the group would shut it down so it can focus more on “direct advocacy.”

In a goodbye column this week, Sachs, who now lives in Barcelona, published a broadside at Denver journalists that challenged them to report on transportation differently in the Mile High City.

“It is common for some news outlets to cover transportation with either a windshield bias — automatically taking the perspective of a driver — or false balance, also known as bothsidesism,” Sachs wrote, and linked to pieces he’d written that tore into coverage by outlets like Denver7, The Denver Post, Colorado Politics, and the Denver Business Journal.

From the column:

If journalists need more reasons to cover Denver’s urban transportation landscape without the windshield bias, there’s always the matter of fairness (which should not be confused with bothsidesism). It’s a simple equation: Denver’s streets belong to everyone but are not organized in a way that lets everyone use them. Local journalists should elevate the voices of the under-served and the more vulnerable street users who don’t drive because of age, disability, income or choice, not the ones protected by steel cages, airbags and wealth.

Sachs also notes that his own site might have had some impact on the way some journalists have covered transportation in Denver in recent years. Read the entire thought-provoking column at the link above.

Denver’s Dan Petty bolts Alden for ProPublica

In the spring of 2018, Dan Petty, who was at the time director of audience development for Digital First Media, was on a panel at The Denver Press Club.

The timing wasn’t great. He was essentially the public face of a company, owned by the newsroom-gutting hedge fund Alden Global Capital, that had abruptly laid off 30 people from the Denver Post’s newsroom.

“A lot of people, I think, look at somebody like me representing Digital First Media and think, ‘Oh, you must be the spawn of Satan,’” Petty told the crowd. “I beg to differ.” He said he cared passionately about journalism and the news business. (He still caught an earful.)

This week, Petty announced he is moving on. He’ll join the powerhouse investigative nonprofit newsroom ProPublica as its director of audience strategy.

Petty joined the Denver Post as a 22-year-old intern and ended as a senior editor. He spent about the past five years in a corporate role at Media News Group based in Denver working on building loyal audiences and growing digital subscriptions. “We’ve seen tremendous growth since we kicked off the effort in late 2017,” he says.

He says he’s excited about ProPublica particularly because it has expanded its footprint with local investigative journalism across the country. “Partnering with local and national orgs are a huge part of ProPublica’s model,” he says, “so I expect there will be opportunities to collaborate with news organizations here in the future.” He’ll stay in Denver with his family for now.

More Colorado media odds & ends

👀 “My newsroom has lost 20 people in just over two years, and almost half of them were people of color,” Colorado Public Radio’s May Ortega said on social media this week. “This is math I did myself, btw. Went back several months to find each announcement departure. As far as I know, staff outside of leadership have not been given any data about turnover,” she added. “The people who make up CPR are incredible at their jobs. That’s why we’re such a force in local news. And I love my job and our listeners. But I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t had a negative effect on me. It’s really sad! And frustrating!”

🔀 Journalist Heidi Beedle is leaving The Indy alt-weekly in Colorado Springs to join the Colorado Times Recorder with a focus on reproductive justice. “You can keep up with my adventures on Twitter, and if you miss my stories about UFOs, psychics, bigfoot and ghosts you can listen to my podcast, Western Fringe,” Beedle wrote in a goodbye column.

🔗 News organizations strive to remain independent from those they cover. How do we feel about a local TV station in the Springs helping raise money for the local police department? (The telethon was in 2019 and 2021.) A local TV station in Denver did it, too. Would local news outlets partner with local organizations to help them raise money for ballistic vests and helmets for their members who plan to protest police injustice in the streets? If no, why not?

🐺 “The media was powerful in getting out the campaign slogan to ‘restore the balance,’” an Aspen Times reader wrote in a letter to the paper about the successful statewide vote to reintroduce wolves to Colorado. “Now it’s time to actually begin to understand the challenges of living with wolves.”

🚓 “It is possible that Colorado Springs officers violated a man’s First Amendment rights when they arrested him for screaming obscenities at police, a federal judge decided,” according to reporting from Michael Karlik of Colorado Politics.

💈 Denver’s alternative weekly Westword revived its “Best Hair on a Denver TV Personality” awards and “supersized” its list of winners. This time the paper’s Michael Roberts offered “tributes to two on-air staffers at each of the city’s five major stations.”

📡 Four Corners Edition is a newish weekly newsmagazine at KSUT exploring issues important to southwest Colorado and the Inter-Mountain West. “We’re airing a lot of partner news content from Colorado Capitol Coverage, Rocky Mountain Community Radio, and the Mountain West News Bureau,” says the station’s Mark Duggan. “But we’re also hiring a reporter to boost our own local news coverage.”

🆕 Welcome Elaine Tassy as Colorado Public Radio’s race, diversity and equity reporter.

🎥 A documentary airing on PBS portrays Durango’s Mountain Middle School as a “media literacy success story” amid “an avalanche of misinformation and disinformation driving polarization in the U.S. and abroad,” The Durango Herald reported.

💨 Amy Golden is leaving Sky-Hi News in Granby. “Come live in the most beautiful place on earth and work with an awesome, supportive, award-winning team,” she says. “I couldn’t have asked for a better place to start my journalism career and I’m happy to also answer any questions.”

⚰️ Les Shapiro, a popular sportscaster who was “a fixture in Colorado sports broadcasting for decades on the radio and television,” died at 65 after a battle with lung cancer. Shapiro, “who didn’t drink and never smoked in his life, chronicled Denver sports for more than three decades,” KUSA 9News reported.

🎬 Colorado artist and writer Jason Van Tatenhove, who worked for The Estes Park Trail-Gazette newspaper and now runs the Colorado Switchblade site, was once a national spokesman and a self-described “propagandist” for the Oath Keepers militia. He is now speaking out against extremism and was featured in a new ABC News documentary called “Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion.”

🖋 “For four years I watched this newspaper improve, providing ever more local coverage for its readers throughout Northern Colorado,” a reader wrote in a letter to a local Colorado newspaper. “I have no doubt that this coming year will be an exciting time of growth and expansion for North Forty News.

📈 Vanessa Otero, the patent attorney from Westminster, Colorado who founded the Media Bias Chart, saw her company Ad Fontes Media leading Bulletin’s list of early-stage companies that “are poised to disrupt, innovate and grow in 2022.”

🔎 “So last week, I kinda went off on the @FCC ’s site that offers access to political TV ad contracts,” said Colorado data journalist Sandra Fish, “and on Saturday, the RSS feeds were fixed!!! And I was soooo excited!!! Thank you!!!”

⚖️ The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit, which covers Colorado, “found a college student in Denver had clearly alleged a First Amendment violation when a school administrator prohibited her from talking about her professor with other students,” Colorado Politics reported. “Although Metropolitan State University of Denver will get the chance to explain why the administrator acted the way he did, one 10th Circuit judge felt the student’s communications about her professor were ‘perfectly appropriate.’”

😬 The former Trump official who in 2017 uttered the cringe-worthy phrase “alternative facts” has signed onto the campaign of a Republican hoping to challenge Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, reported Ernest Luning of Colorado Politics.

⏎ Nick Coltrain, once a reporter for the Coloradoan in Fort Collins, then for the Des Moines Register in Iowa, has returned. “I’m thrilled to be back in Colorado and at its statehouse, where I’ll be covering governmental goings on for the Denver Post,” he said this week.

🤺 The right-wing site Breitbart has been hammering Republican Colorado Congressman Ken Buck over his support for a federal law “aimed at helping news publications compete economically with Google and Facebook,” Politico’s Emily Birnbaum reported.

📺 Reporter Marc Sallinger of 9News appeared in a broadcast of a rival local TV station this week. Why? He was shoveling the driveway of his father, Rick Sallinger, who is a reporter for CBS4 and was doing a live shot from home. “The best first 23 seconds of a story I’ve produced in quite some time,” said another 9News reporter in a clip about the … scoop.

📢 Maria Lynch, a faculty journalism adviser at the Regis Jesuit High School in Aurora, spoke to the National Catholic Reporter’s Brian Fraga about being fired over a student journalist’s pro-choice essay.

⛔️ A prominent Colorado journalist said this week about certain coverage subjects: “journalists have to stop normalizing aberrant behavior.”

❄️ A pickup truck “lost control and swerved into” a KRDO reporter in the Springs covering inclement weather this week, news anchor Bard Bedsole reported. “Doctor says I’m fine,” the reporter, Spencer Soichersaid about the hit. “Guy who spun out is ok too.”

✐ The Daily Poster, founded by Denver’s David Sirota, is changing its name to The Lever and is expanding. The outlet has job offers here. “When we started out, we really were daily posters, but we now do much more than that,” Sirota wrote to readers. “We have live events, exclusive features, and a Citizens’ Guide, and we are planning to relaunch a regular podcast in the coming weeks. All of this work is designed to hold the powerful accountable — which is why we believe The Lever is a much more accurate moniker for our work.”

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.