Inside the News: A West Slope Colorado Newspaper Nearly Died. Then This Happened…

  • 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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The email came — notably — on Friday the 13th. In October. The spooky season. When ghouls and ghosts and goblins haunt the dusky twilight of our western autumn.

“Crisis Alert: Save your community paper.” That was the subject line sent from Caitlin Walker and Niki Turner of the Rio Blanco Herald Times, a small but mighty newspaper in a rural part of northwest Colorado.

“Dear community,” the email began. “Today is a very bad news day.”

After balancing the books following its latest print run, the newspaper discovered it only had enough money in the bank to publish two more editions. “If something doesn’t change,” the authors wrote, “October 26 will be the last print issue of the Herald.”

The newspaper, unlike others in the past, was candid with its readers about its financial troubles and what was going on.

Here’s an excerpt from the email:

Advertising is the primary income source for newspapers. It’s about 85% of revenue, and it’s been steadily declining for years. Because of this, two community newspapers have closed in the U.S. every week since 2005. Now, we’re in the same situation.

September was the worst month for advertising we have ever had. Like most small businesses, we operate on a shoestring, so this was a critical and sudden hit. We know the traditional ‘advertising model’ doesn’t work anymore, and we’ve been working hard to diversify, pivot, and ‘be scrappy.’ That is not happening fast enough.

Then something happened. The community responded. Tens of thousands of dollars poured in through online fundraising.

By this Friday, Oct. 27, the paper had raised more than $33,000. Nearly 200 people had contributed with 95% of donations coming from the Meeker community where the paper is based. Contributions ranged in size from $5 to $5,000. (Editor’s note: The Meeker area includes a ranch owned by billionaire Michael Bloomberg. Someone get this on his radar if you can.)

The monetary influx will sustain the paper to the end of the year, Turner said in an interview, adding that she will pare down some circulation and end single-copy delivery outside Meeker except for mail subscriptions.

When we connected over the phone Wednesday, I mentioned that I wasn’t sure whether to say sorry or congratulations about the situation.

“It’s kind of like after someone has a massive accident, ends up on life support, and then the doctor comes out and says ‘Oh, you’re going to live,’” Turner said.

Part of what led to the advertising crash, Turner said, is two-pronged: Some advertisers have said they are just too busy with clients and work that they don’t need to advertise; other businesses have moved their advertising to Facebook where they can post and share ads on community message board pages for free.

She also has heard that some people like to say “print is dead,” “no one reads the paper,” or some variation of it. But “if I’ve learned anything in the last two weeks it is that is a lie,” Turner said.

The Rio Blanco Herald Times isn’t the only hyperlocal Colorado paper encountering headwinds with advertising.

David Sabados, who founded the North Denver Star, recently wrote to readers about how he was “struggling with decreased revenue and increased costs.” The note about its troubles generated roughly $3,000 in donations. “To keep a community paper going in a digital age requires innovation too,” he wrote. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.”

As for the Herald, Turner said moving forward the newspaper will do more to explain itself and its own issues to its audience and be more transparent about how things are going as a business. Particularly as the paper considers the possibility of, say, converting to a nonprofit as other Colorado papers have, or launching a foundation — or something else.

“I don’t know why we don’t do this,” she said. “Journalists are really bad at telling their own story.”

Some advice Turner has for other small newspaper publishers who find themselves in a similar position is to get out ahead of it with their audience. “Reach out to the community and remind them of what you do and why you do it,” she said.

As for the publication itself, Turner has a refrain she’s been telling locals who have been stopping by the paper recently to inquire about its situation or to show support: “We’re not out of the woods, but we are at least back on the trail.”

Colorado’s High Court weighs in (kind of) on ‘reverse-keyword warrants’ and free expression

In 2020, after authorities said masked arsonists set a house on fire that killed five Senegalese immigrants, Denver police were initially hard pressed to finger a suspect.

Months went by and the case grew cold. So they tried something novel — and went fishing.

Figuring that the fire starters might have searched online for the address of the home prior to burning it down, court records say investigators sought a warrant from Google. They asked the tech company to provide the names, birthdays, IP addresses, and other identifying information of people who searched for versions of the address in the weeks prior to the firebombing.

Google initially balked, citing its privacy rules, but after some back and forth, eventually coughed up enough information for police to make an arrest, according to court records.

Last week, in a 5-2 ruling that said the Denver police could use the evidence because they acted in “good faith” despite the warrant being “constitutionally defective,” Colorado’s Supreme Court justices noted the remarkable stakes.

“The constitutionality of reverse-keyword warrants presents an issue of first impression in Colorado,” wrote Justice William W. Hood for the majority. “Indeed, to our knowledge, no state supreme court or federal appellate court has addressed the constitutionality of such warrants.”

Here’s another excerpt from the ruling:

In reaching these conclusions, we make no broad proclamation about the propriety of reverse-keyword warrants. As is often true when we examine what is reasonable under the search-and-seizure provisions of the federal and state constitutions, much is fact-dependent. Our finding of good faith today neither condones nor condemns all such warrants in the future. If dystopian problems emerge, as some fear, the courts stand ready to hear argument regarding how we should rein in law enforcement’s use of rapidly advancing technology. Today, we proceed incrementally based on the facts before us.

Still, a majority of the court signed on to a ruling that stated a suspect’s “search history implicates his right to freedom of expression,” and also: “until today, no court had established that individuals have a constitutionally protected privacy interest in their Google search history.”

The court found, according to one concurring opinion from a justice, that because there wasn’t yet a “well-established law in Colorado—or anywhere else, for that matter—concerning the constitutionality of reverse-keyword searches,” that police therefore couldn’t know if such a warrant was problematic.

Justices Monica Márquez and Carlos Samour dissented, writing plainly: “Today, the court blesses law enforcement’s use of a powerful new tool of the digital age: the reverse-keyword warrant.” They also wrote: “after today’s decision, [we] anticipate that reverse-keyword warrants will swiftly become the investigative tool of first resort. Because, why not? It’s a tantalizingly easy shortcut to generating a list of potential suspects.”

They further warned: “Keep in mind that, even under the majority’s narrow view of the search here, law enforcement’s dragnet ensnared two people officers easily ruled out as suspects, not to mention three additional accounts from outside Colorado.”

And they concluded: “At the risk of sounding alarmist, [we] fear that by upholding this practice, the majority’s ruling today gives constitutional cover to law enforcement seeking unprecedented access to the private lives of individuals not just in Colorado, but across the globe. And [we] fear that today’s decision invites courts nationwide to do the same.”

Some in civil liberties circles, privacy spaces, the tech industry, and elsewhere took notice of the Colorado court decision.

Writing for the libertarian magazine Reason, J.D. Tuccille called the ruling “odd.” The decision, Tuccille added, is “chilling for anybody who has ever pondered their online history in the hands of a stranger—or who just cares about privacy.”

Jennifer Lynch and Andrew Crocker of the digital privacy nonprofit Electronic Frontier Foundation called the ruling “weak and ultimately confusing.” They added: “Dragnet warrants that target speech have no place in a democracy, and we will continue to challenge them in the courts and to support legislation to ban them entirely.”

For its part, Google told the Associated Press that it was important that the ruling recognized the privacy and First Amendment interests involved in keyword searches.

“With all law enforcement demands, including reverse warrants,” the company said, “we have a rigorous process designed to protect the privacy of our users while supporting the important work of law enforcement.”

Watch Justice Melissa Hart, who joined with the majority in the ruling, talk about the decision during Thursday’s Denver Democracy Summit on the campus of the University of Denver:

Howler alert: Grand Junction newspaper prints ‘several pages’ of the previous day’s edition

“The articles printed in newspapers are quite literally yesterday’s news.”

So said everyone’s favorite media critic, Elon Musk, this week.

Who knows what the billionaire was on about this time, but the missive from the guy who bought Twitter and then did … whatever it is he is doing with the once powerful platform, seemed like another fist-shake at mainstream, credentialed journalism.

For readers of Sunday’s Sentinel newspaper in Grand Junction, Colorado, though, Musk was actually right. And literally.

“As most readers of The Daily Sentinel print edition undoubtedly noticed on Sunday, there was a major printing error,” one of the paper’s journalists, Dale Shrull, reported. “There were several pages in the Sunday edition that were pages from Saturday’s edition.”


“Missing in the print edition were stories about campaign donors in the 3rd Congressional District race and about the Mesa County Coroner’s Office announcement that remains discovered near Whitewater in 2011 have been identified,” the piece went on.

Double ouch.

“In the sports section, unfortunately, there was only a single correct page.”

To rectify the situation, the paper reprinted two entire sections and inserted them into Wednesday’s edition.

In Colorado, the state’s printing industry has had a rough year. Just last month, a working group of journalism advocates released a report on the dire future of our printing presses. So this kind of SNAFU doesn’t do anyone any favors.

COLab’s new journalism project exposes ‘rogue’ Colorado cops

“Sometimes journalism takes a village.”

That’s the opening line in the story-behind-the-story of how Colorado News Collaborative’s latest journalism project came about.

Here’s more:

Brittany Freeman, then an executive producer at Rocky Mountain Public Media, started wondering last fall about police discipline in Colorado. More specifically, she wanted to know what never-before-seen data the state’s Peace Officer Standards and Training (POST) board made public starting in 2022 shows about how officer misconduct is addressed statewide.

Hers was a question that no single newsroom could answer alone. So Freeman and RMPM Reporter Alison Berg teamed up with Andrew Fraieli, an investigative reporting fellow at The Sentinel newspaper in Aurora and Susan Greene at the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab), a nonprofit that works with more than 180 newsrooms statewide. Together, they spent three months and $3,832 – $2,000 of which funded by grants from the Colorado Media Project’s Watchdog Fund – requesting internal affairs reports and other public documents about disciplinary actions against nearly 200 officers POST listed from January to December 2022. Zack Newman at 9News and Allison Sherry at CPR also contributed to that effort.

Greene and Fraieli then sorted through the piles of records and synthesized their digging with news clips and “other information” they used to create a database that any reporter — or anyone — in Colorado can use to learn about specific officers.

“They also reviewed dozens of misconduct cases POST hasn’t recorded, at least publicly,” COLab reported. “They then spent several more months reviewing legislative testimony and interviewing officers, their supervisors, misconduct victims and witnesses involved in those cases, speaking with state officials, police watchdogs and criminal justice scholars about police discipline, and analyzing what it all means for public safety in Colorado.”

What followed is a series, which took 10 months, called “Undisciplined” — the latest multi-newsroom project to grow out of Colorado’s new orthodoxy of collaboration.

What the Crestone Eagle learned from an ‘active community listening project’

In recent years, the small newspaper that serves one of Colorado’s quirkiest mountain communities has been reinventing itself.

The Saguache County paper kicked off a trend in Colorado when it converted to a nonprofit last year. Since then it has changed editors, revamped its web presence, and for the past few months has engaged in “an active community listening project” that included interviews with locals.

In a recent email, the newspaper told readers what it learned. Some highlights included an appetite for coverage of local government and town issues. (The paper’s previous longtime editor sat on the town board while running the Eagle and was the town’s former mayor — not particularly ideal conditions for accountability coverage.)

Here is some more of what the paper heard:

  • “Several interviewees emphasized the need for diversity in coverage. This suggests a desire for the newspaper to represent the various facets of the community, including different cultural backgrounds and perspectives.”
  • “Some interviewees expressed a desire for the newspaper to inspire action and provide solutions to community challenges. They want the paper to play a proactive role in addressing issues.”
  • “The interviews show that Facebook and word of mouth are prevalent sources of information in Crestone. While these sources can be valuable, they are also seen as having drawbacks, such as misinformation, emotional charge, and limited coverage.”

“Overall,” the paper wrote, “The Eagle is seen as a valuable resource for the community, with commendations for its inclusivity and role in representing Crestone. However, there are also suggestions for improvement, such as more in-depth local news coverage and a focus on essential community issues.”

Moving into 2024, the paper said it plans to “tackle the topics that are most important to our community and to provide information that helps makes sense of the events and challenges happening around us.”

Frank Mungeam, the chief innovation officer for the Local Media Association, responded to the Eagle’s project on social media, saying, “Love to see newsrooms big AND small doing this kind of authentic community listening!”

More Colorado media odds & ends

🏆 Pam Zubeck, senior reporter for The Indy alternative weekly in Colorado Springs, was this week named Journalist of the Year by the American Advertising Federation Colorado.

🧀 Sentinel Colorado editor Dave Perry offered an update about the weekly Aurora newspaper’s innovative community ownership model inspired by the Green Bay Packers. The 116-year-old news media company “brought in its first 168 shareholders into the fold,” he wrote. Click here to join.

❌ When Republicans in Congress this week elected Louisiana’s Mike Johnson as the Speaker of the House, it might have been inevitable that a Denver-based news outlet would write “Mike Johnston” in the headline. That’s because Denver voters recently elected Mike Johnston as mayor, and Colorado journalists who have chronicled his many races for public office have conditioned themselves to tap out the unusual spelling on their keyboards. Colorado Politics broke the seal with a Thursday newsletter headline reading “Colorado Republicans line up behind Mike Johnston.” A similar typo is likely to “catch a lot of people,” predicted Denver PR pro Jeremy Story.

📺 Danielle Grant left 9NEWS as a meteorologist this week, saying on air, “I’m in the business of predicting the future and I never, never thought that I would leave my dream job, but here we are making hard decisions, but the right decision for a multitude of reasons.” She spent 10 years at the station. “While I may not be on your TV screen now, I believe God is preparing my next chapter,” she said on social media. “And you’ll be the first to know what it is.”

📖 The Tattered Cover bookstore chain “has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, three years after the iconic local business was sold to an investment group,” Kyle Clark reported for 9NEWS. Multiple stores are closing. Colorado Sun columnist Mike Littwin wrote about his history with the store.

🆕 Eduardo Leon is the new executive director of Free Speech TV, which is based in Denver. He comes from Arkansas PBS where he served as deputy director and chief operating officer. “I’m incredibly excited that the network is bringing on such accomplished leadership as we roll out our national Multiracial Democracy Initiative,” said co-founder Jon Stout in an email. “Good things, big things, ahead!”

📡 KVNF community radio on the Western Slope welcomed Drew McCracken and Brody Wilson as its newest board members during the station’s annual meeting in Delta.

🥇 El Commercio de Colorado and its journalist Sofia Marquez won a José Marti Award for the story “Seeking to Limit Abuse of Homeowner Associations.”

☀️ When the Colorado Sun asked its team “What Sun stories from the past five years are the most meaningful to you?” here’s how they answered.

⚖️ Jenna Ellis, the Colorado-based “Salem Media host who served as one of Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign attorneys, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to a felony charge of aiding and abetting false statements in the Georgia election subversion case,” CNN’s Oliver Darcy reported.

🗳 Watch the panels and presentations from this week’s Denver Democracy Summit if you couldn’t make it in person — including a discussion in which I took part titled “The Critical Role of Local Media in the Democracy Ecosystem.”

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