Inside the News: Hedge-fund TV News Ownership Coming for 9News in Denver?

Also, the Springs alt-weekly slashes at The Gazette, KUNC ousted a longtime news leader, Colorado's (maybe) first-ever Latino anchor team, and more
  • 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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UPDATE: On Feb. 22, Tegna announced it had sold to Standard General and Apollo.

‘It hasn’t really happened’ (yet)

A top shareholder and a hedge fund might buy Tegna, the national TV station operator that owns Denver’s KUSA 9News, multiple major news outlets have reported, citing unnamed sources.

In recent years, private equity involvement in mergers and acquisitions (read: murders and executions) of major newspaper companies have resulted in deep staff cuts, reduced print runs, sold or leased buildings, and less local news.

A case study could be The Pueblo Chieftain in Southern Colorado, which feels to me like it’s been circling the drain ever since a “monster merger” between Gatehouse and Gannett in a deal made possible by piles of hedge fund cash from Apollo Global Management. That’s the same firm that’s allegedly in talks with Tegna about a TV takeover along with one of its major shareholders, Standard General, which has been described in financial news coverage as a hedge fund.

Now, some who follow the local TV news landscape wonder what kind of fate hedge fund involvement in local TV ownership might mean for local markets, including Denver.

“It hasn’t really happened, so you don’t know what they’re going to do when they come into television,” says Michael Depp, editor of TV News Check, a trade publication that covers the business of broadcasting. “Newspapers are certainly a dark prognosticator for how things might be.”

The impacts of hedge-fund ownership on local newspapers was an under-the-radar story that gained traction in media a little too late in my opinion, so it’s important to be thinking about these kinds of things early.

In 2019, the nation’s two largest newspaper companies, GateHouse and Gannett, announced their plans to merge, and Gannett won the name war. GateHouse owned the Chieftain, and Gannett owned the Coloroadoan in Fort Collins. Last fall, buyouts rolled across the country and hit the two Colorado newspapers that bookend the Front Range, zapping decades worth of institutional knowledge from their newsrooms. Last month, a Chieftain editor resigned, laying blame on its out-of-town owner.

Readers of this newsletter know plenty about what hedge-fund control of The Denver Post by the New York-based Alden Global Capital has meant for its newsroom capacity.

In TV land, Depp, who has covered Tegna closely, says the company has been building a strong news product “brick by brick” for years, filling coverage gaps during the decline of a legacy print press in cities across the country in innovative ways that don’t particularly follow the traditional TV news format. As a high-finance battle in office tower boardrooms wages over ownership of Tegna, there’s likely a feeling of a “sword of Damocles” hanging over their news operation, Depp says.

The Tegna-owned 9News in Denver makes up one of the largest newsrooms in Colorado, and its website has competed with The Denver Post for the most eyeballs online each month, according to traffic analyzing data.

Writing in his Denver Public Relations Blog in October, PR professional Jeremy Story wondered if 9News might get “Aldened.” From the item:

If an investment/private equity firm owning media properties sounds vaguely familiar, that’s probably because of Alden Global Capital’s ownership of The Denver Post, among others. If you are a 9News employee, or someone who just values journalism, you can’t be comfortable with the idea that Apollo might do to TEGNA what Alden has done to the Post – bleed it to near death to maximize the return on investment.

KUSA 9News Director of Content Tim Ryan punted an email on the matter to Tegna corporate communications. The company declined to weigh in.

“A sale would consummate a years-long takeover saga for Tegna, which owns 64 television stations throughout the U.S.,” Bloomberg news reported. “Apollo had been in talks to acquire the company two years ago but ended discussions as the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic upended markets.”

Apollo currently owns 33 TV stations in 20 markets “through its portfolio company Cox Media Group, while Standard General owns four TV stations, according to their websites,” Reuters reported. Last year, shortly after former 9News journalist Lori Lizarraga wrote a column for Westword accusing the station of discrimination in the newsroom, Standard General, calling itself Tegna’s “largest active shareholder,” wrote to the company’s board of directors questioning whether the incident and others had exposed Tegna “to significant liability, damage and reputational harm.”

A new ownership deal might have to clear federal regulators. (If a deal even shakes out.)

Bob Papper, a professor of broadcast and digital journalism at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University who researches the state of local TV news, says when a new owner guts a newspaper’s staff, it can frequently get away with it — at least to a certain degree — because often there’s only one paper in town. 

“That gives you a fair amount of leeway because advertisers and readers have only the one choice,” he says. “A company trying the same tactic in TV is likely to find viewers moving to a competitor because, in TV, there is always at least one other choice — and commonly several other choices.”

I left a message Wednesday with someone who answered the phone at Standard General for an interview request about what viewers in local markets might expect from new ownership but haven’t heard back. Representatives for Apollo, Standard General, and Tegna didn’t comment to Bloomberg and Reuters last week.

Springs alt-weekly slashes at The Gazette

A few years ago, the alternative weekly in Colorado Springs launched an editorial board specifically to counter the conservative commentary espoused on the opinion pages of the dominant daily. The Indy called its new editorial page Voice of Reason.

Since then, it has sometimes used the page to poke at the opinion section of The Gazette, which is owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz. (It’s not uncommon for a paper’s opinion page to reflect the political leanings of its owner.)

This week it got particularly personal. On Wednesday, The Indy used Voice of Reason to skewer its buttoned-down rival under a headline reading “On the not-so-local daily.” The piece, bylined by Indy publisher Amy Gillentine, runs down recent opinion-section items in The Gazette about issues in areas outside Colorado’s second largest city. It asks if The Indy is “the only locally focused paper now?” (That seems a bit much, but point taken. The Gazette, with its new sister publication The Denver Gazette does seem like it’s making a play for more statewide coverage.)

Elsewhere, The Indy accuses The Gazette’s editorial board and leadership of “bad journalism” and spreading “misinformation.” Gillentine specifically references the paper’s editor Vince Bzdek and suggests he needs a lesson in elementary school math.

From The Indy:

In a column originally published Jan. 22, Vince wrote this: “In 2018, we collected about $240 million in tax revenue, but hospitals lost about $500 million over a six-year period in the cost of marijuana-related ER visits, and marijuana-related traffic accidents cost the state another $136 million … So even if you don’t factor in the increased costs of regulation and law enforcement that come with pot, you’re $300 million in the hole.”

Anyone see the mistake? 

I’ll spell it out for you, Vince. The tax revenue is from a single year, 2018: $240 million. The hospital loss is $500 million over SIX YEARS, which equates to $83.33 million a year. The state spent another $136 million over that same SIX YEARS for traffic accidents related to marijuana, or $22.7 million a year. By my calculations, that makes the state $134 million in the black for marijuana revenue. 

That does seem odd to me. I asked Bzdek in an email if he saw the Indy column and if he had anything to say about it, but haven’t heard back. The Gazette, which has angled against cannabis legalization for years, doesn’t take cannabis ads. The Indy does. A cannabis-focused PR firm underwrites this newsletter you’re currently reading and I own stock in cannabis companies, so take that into consideration.

Colorado’s (maybe) first ever Latino TV news co-anchor team is on CBS4

La Voz, a bilingual publication that has served Colorado for nearly 50 years, this week profiled what it said could be the state’s “first ever Latino television co-anchor team.” That would be Denver natives Michelle Griego and Dominic Garcia on CBS4.

From Ernest Gurulé in La Voz:

While most stations were not late to the show with male-female co-anchor teams or even two women as the face of a newscast, seeing two Hispanic news anchors as a station’s brand was rare. You might see it in a Houston or San Antonio, even a Los Angeles, but not in Denver, a city whose Latino population exceeds thirty percent.

“Television news diversity has changed dramatically over the years,” Gurulé writes. “The Griego-Garcia team is just one example.”

The report goes on:

One look at News4’s webpage and its newsroom staff is a light year removed from just a generation ago. There is a cornucopia of hues and surnames that would never have been found not that long ago. But while diversity continues to grow in newsrooms, there remain undercurrents and, in some cases, obvious challenges.

The news anchors told La Voz that having a diverse newsroom “elevates the quality of the news product. It helps illuminate different perspectives and experiences.” Something Griego told the publication she is mindful of in her newscasts, “is having the ‘ear’ for surnames. It’s just respectful, she said, to pronounce them not only the way they should be pronounced but also accepting the way the person themself says it. She just wants to get them right.”

Read the profile at the link above.

KUNC ousted a longtime news leader

Some staffers at KUNC public radio in Northern Colorado were surprised this week to abruptly learn that longtime news director Brian Larson was “no longer with” the news organization.

In 2018, the station honored Larson for his 25 years of work at KUNC with a proclamation from then-Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper that declared Dec. 20 of that year “Brian Larson Day.” Last year he won the Public Media Journalists Association’s award for editor of the year.

But “we had a separation due to difference in vision for our news,” says KUNC President and CEO Tammy Terwelp who joined the station last year after a stint at Aspen Public Radio following a few-year run at KRCC in the Springs. She declined to go into more detail about a personnel issue. I left a voicemail for Larson.

The move comes amid other recent personnel shakeups at the station. Here are some job openings there.

Estes Park newspaper vs. Town of Estes Park

The publisher of the Estes Park Trail-Gazette newspaper is urging readers to vote against an upcoming local ballot measure that would affect the paper.

The ballot question asks voters to decide whether the Town of Estes Park should be allowed to stop publishing its legal notices in the local newspaper. If passed, the measure would allow the town to publish its notices online instead.

“Voters in communities large and small, statutory and home rule, have approved these questions, thereby reducing publication costs to their communities,” wrote Town Clerk Jackie Williamson in a press release published verbatim online at the Estes Park News, a free weekly paper.

The Estes Park Trail-Gazette, one of the dozen Colorado papers controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, could lose its estimated $6,000 contract with the town if the ballot measure passes. Publisher Mike Romero told readers this week the town’s action “will only accomplish one thing: it will make it more difficult for you — the taxpayer — to hold those you elected to represent you accountable for their actions.”

Some small newspapers rely on these public contracts with municipalities as a reliable revenue stream. In the digital age, newspaper advocates have had to lobby governments and fight to keep these notices from migrating online.

Colorado Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is on record with a dim view of our state law requiring governments to print public notices in newspapers. “I’m a free-market guy, I think that’s silly because you can do it online,” he has said.

More from Romero in his Trail-Gazette editorial:

It has been said that a lot of people use electronic media to communicate these days which is true, but ‘a lot’ does not mean everyone.

First, many residents of Estes Park are not comfortable using the internet (we have the highest average age in Colorado), and second, not everyone has the internet readily available to them (many places still waiting for broadband). This does not mean they should not be informed.

Romero also makes a case for the physical print copy of a newspaper readers can hold in their hands. Websites go down, he argues. Links might not work.

“Honest mistakes happen, but when you publish something in the print paper, it doesn’t suddenly disappear or fail to load,” he writes. “It’s there. Even if you turn the page and go back to the previous page, it’s still there.”

Read what other arguments he has for keeping the newspaper as the official printer of town business at the link above.

JournalList founder Scott Yates is running for Congress

A journalism-adjacent candidate has jumped into the Democratic primary for a chance to take on Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert on Colorado’s Western Slope.

Readers of this newsletter might recall Scott Yates, a former journalist and technology entrepreneur, for spearheading some media-scene initiatives in recent years. In 2019, he was behind a movement to combat misinformation with “standards.” In 2020, he founded JournalList, a startup aimed to help news organizations fight online disinformation.

Now, the 57-year-old former Republican who recently moved to Pueblo is running for Congress on a campaign — “almost all of it,” he told one reporter — dedicated to getting rid of daylight saving time. But it was something else in an announcement email this week that caught my eye.

“There hasn’t really been someone elected to Congress with a history of working in newspapers since Margaret Chase Smith,” he wrote. “But the opportunity seems perfect, and you may be interested to know that I will be running a campaign very friendly to the local media, and if elected I will support local media however I can.” (The candidate worked for The Durango Herald and Westword, among other local papers in Colorado and Connecticut.)

Yates said in his email he would remain on the board of JournalList and “will be as involved as I can.” One could imagine Boebert, a Trumpy Republican who sloganeers about “the fake news media,” might appreciate the opportunity to say she’s running against a “JournalList” — however it’s spelled and whatever the candidate’s platform might be.

Also, a tip for those covering the race: Associated Press style is “daylight saving time, not savings,” according to the news wire that promotes consistency.

The Pueblo Chieftain has a new editor

Karin Zeitvogel, “who has family members in Pueblo and has visited the city and read its newspaper for many years,” is the new editor of The Pueblo Chieftain, the paper reported. She comes from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she edited and reported for Stars and Stripes.

In an introductory piece about her, Zeitvogel said she believes the newspaper can bolster its news coverage and “take a leaf out of the press (in Germany) which is still doing pretty well, and grow by focusing on giving readers what they want.”

She also offered this eyebrow-raiser: “As far as the city goes, we should do what they do in even the most industrial, godforsaken cities in France and make our city enviously beautiful.”

Former Pueblo PULP Publisher John Rodriguez said he was disappointed the paper and its owner Gannett “didn’t hire an Editor of Color or a Puebloan to lead their newsroom.”

Boulder Reporting Lab got national ink

The Google-backed Boulder Reporting Lab, which, like Boulder Beat, is trying to fill coverage gaps in a city with a shrinking daily, caught a write-up this week in Harvard’s NiemanLab. Some nuggets from the piece:

  • Newsletter signups “went up 60% following the news startup’s wall-to-wall coverage of the Marshall Fire.”
  • The new outlet “has just three editorial staffers. They’re hiring for another — a climate and environment reporter — now.”
  • “When we publish our newsletter, those are the days we get donations and those are the days we get subscribers,” said founder Stacy Feldman. “When we don’t, it falls off. So we are hoping to go back to daily.”

As for revenue plans, “We’re launching a sponsorship program called Community Leaders. That’s number one,” she said. “Number two, of course, is reader revenue with a focus on building recurring donations. And number three is major donors and philanthropies.” (That numerical order was random, she added.)

More Colorado media odds & ends

➡️ Journalists Wesley Lowery and Julian Rubinstein will have a public conversation at Colorado College the evening of Tuesday, Feb. 15 about covering social justice movements. The Estlow Center for Journalism and New Media at the University of Denver is co-sponsoring the event. Stream it online here.

📰 Arvada Press reporter Rylee Dunn pointed out what she called “one small change” in the paper last week.

✒️ David John Heitz, who covers local news in Denver for Newsbreak, wrote this week: “I never would have become homeless had one of my parents been living.”

📢 A tree stump “stands as a representation of free speech on Colorado State University’s campus,” The Rocky Mountain Collegian reported. “After being purchased by two student media employees and placed on campus, it still occupies space on the Lory Student Center’s Plaza.” Two journalists opined on its significance. (In a separate story, the paper checked in with members of the CSU community about free speech.)

🆕 Lucas High has been named associate editor for BizWest, “adding new editing duties to his current reporter role,” the outlet reported. Meanwhile, Sara Duffert has been promoted to senior account executive, Katherine Stahla joined BizWest as a reporter last month, and Drew Giffin came on as major accounts executive and vice president of digital sales.

🏆 The Oscars: Turning Denver activists into Denver journalists since 2022.

⚖️ Writing for Colorado Community Media, Jessica Gibbs reported how Colorado case law “does not appear to address ‘walking quorums,’ ‘serial meetings’ or ‘daisy-chain meetings’” that public officials might use to sidestep transparency.

💳 “You want news? Pay for it!” said Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reporter Charles Ashby who is covering the Mesa County Tina Peters saga. He added that while he dislikes it “because I think it is a public service, we operate on the free market. Have you heard of that? I have a mortgage to pay and food to put on the table.”

🏡 Rocky Mountain PBS is teaming up with ProPublica to report on Home Owners Associations, a.k.a. HOAs, and wants to hear from those with experiences dealing with them.

🔥 A lawmaker introduced wildfire mitigation legislation after learning about an investigation by Colorado Public Radio, a CPR reporter said.

🎰 Alongside a story about our state’s limited response to tackling legal gambling, Colorado Sun reporter and co-founder Kevin Simpson wondered if the arrival of legal sports betting, “now everywhere with buy-in by sports leagues and the media” would change the state’s approach.

🔎 The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition rounded up recent state-level transparency news.

🗣 University of Colorado Boulder alumnus Tom Costello, who serves as Washington correspondent for NBC News, will “deliver the university’s commencement speech at Folsom Field on May 5.”

⚙️ Denver’s Westword will pay $200 a week to a part-time social media intern. “It’s a chance for you to earn actual, tangible wages and build your real-life résumé by adding a solid bit of experience,” the alternative weekly says.

📈 “There is so much good journalism happening in Denver right now/lately, across so many outlets. It makes me super-happy to see,” Denver Post reporter Jon Murray said on social media this week. “Like, you could queue up multiple stories on TV/radio/podcasts/online/print and just let almost all your senses luxuriate in the rich reporting simultaneously.”

🔗 Adding to that, Colorado-based Jim Clarke, who is managing director of local markets for The Associated Press, said he gets to see “a lot of work from all over the country, and I couldn’t agree more. In lots of ways, this is a golden age of journalism in Colorado. And the willingness to collaborate warms my news cooperative heart.”

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.