Inside the News: ‘Big Changes’ at CBS Colorado: ‘It’s Everybody That Is Contributing’

  • 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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Local TV stations can tend to hype things. They need to grab — and hold — the attention of viewers whose eyeballs could drift anytime toward any other nearby screen or device. You’ll notice things on TV flash and spin. Breaking! Developing! Top story tonight!

So this week, when Colorado’s CBS affiliate announced some upcoming programing changes, perhaps some exuberance should have been expected.

“In one of the biggest shifts in local television news reporting, CBS News Colorado announced today that the station is launching a major community journalism initiative,” read an Aug. 31 announcement.

Those shifts include:

  • The station will be adding 10 extra hours of local news each week.
  • The station will create “neighborhood newsrooms” in which every journalist, “including all members of the news team,” will regularly cover “important local news in their own backyards.” The station billed this as “a dramatic shift away from traditional TV news reporting and one CBS News Colorado believes will have a major impact.”

News Director Kristine Strain, who is leading the changes, said over the phone Thursday that the station has been able to add “a couple more people” to sustain and support the additional 10 hours of news and is also moving people around. She added that she foresees the shifts as permanent with “even more hours” in the future. (Find the station’s new schedule here.)

As for how the journalism will change, Strain said the “intent for this is to be very purposefully in our communities that often don’t get the attention unless there’s something negative or awful going on.”

To that end, the station will assign every on-air personality a specific geographic beat where they’ll source up in the community. They’ll need to know the county commissioners, the grassroots organizations, the neighborhoods. “They’re going back to … beat meetings where they’re going and having coffee and getting to know sources and really become an expert in that community so that we’re able to look more towards findings solutions to challenges in the communities rather than just sometimes reporting on problems when something bad happens,” she said.

And while all of those places won’t be as granular as neighborhoods — the beats include large geographic areas like Arapahoe and Douglas counties — the news director does want staffers to get to know neighborhoods within them and the issues at a hyper-local level.

As for why a local TV newsroom wouldn’t be doing that anyway, Strain said what’s different is that the initiative brings in employees who aren’t always part of the editorial process, like camera operators and other tech-side folks. (She equated it to someone at a newspaper who might work on the printing press or in the graphic design department.) They’ll represent teams — Team Aurora, Team JeffCo, etc. — and they’ll correspond via Slack and other modes of internal communication to share intel about what’s shaking there.

“That’s just not how television newsrooms have operated,” Strain said about the shift. “So this way we’re giving credence to everybody in our newsroom — and I use ‘the newsroom’ loosely — it’s everybody in the building … it’s everybody that is contributing.” Strain said she doesn’t know of another station that has delegated its entire staff in such a way.

As part of the new moves, Strain also says the station wants to focus more on solutions to problems. “We’re looking at ways that we can use our megaphone to highlight the problem and then put the pressure on … our city leaders to come up with a solution,” she said. “We can’t create the solution, right? But we can highlight opportunities for solutions.”

National media reporter pans Sentinel newspaper’s potential ‘Green Bay Packer’s model’

When the weekly Sentinel Colorado newspaper in Aurora announced an ownership change and said it was looking at a potential “Green Bay Packers” model where members of the community could own shares in the paper, it turned some heads.

Media watchers from as far away as Seattle (and Green Bay) took notice and wrote about the novel idea. Some of the write-ups might have carried a sprinkling of skepticism, but this week, Joshua Benton who writes about media for Harvard’s Nieman Lab, threw an arctic ocean of cold water on the idea.

“No, the Green Bay Packers are not a realistic business model for your local newspaper,” he wrote in a headline. He followed that up on social media by adding: “no matter how many times you say it is.”

In the lengthy piece, Benton meticulously unpacked how the NFL team’s unique ownership structure works (or doesn’t) and made a case for why that would not transfer apples to apples to the local news business. “The Packers could be run by military junta, constitutional monarchy, or anarchist collective — so long as the NFL lets it play 17 games a season, it’ll be a moneymaker,” Benton wrote. “The biggest problem that community ownership solves — the temptation to relocate to a bigger city — is one local news outlets don’t really have.”

Benton does a fine job of explaining the various reasons why a newspaper should not explicitly follow a Packers ownership model. This one alone ought to do it: Packers shareholders can apparently be fined up to half a million dollars for “publicly criticizing any NFL member club or its management, employees or coaches or any football official employed by the NFL.”

But here’s the catch. I didn’t get the sense that the Sentinel was ever really considering an apples-to-apples comparison with this football team in Wisconsin. I assumed the newspaper and its supporters were using the Green Bay Packers as an accessible example for some kind of community ownership model. (Sure, a trip by the Sentinel’s editor and COLab’s director to Green Bay might have muddled that.)

“If we are successful, people will be talking about ‘the Aurora model’ not the ‘Green Bay Packers model,’” COLab’s director, Laura Frank, told me this week. The reason they went to Green Bay, she says, is to understand what’s driving the commitment to community with that team. “A large part of it is an element of civic pride and that is completely transferable to a high-performing news outlet,” she says.

Here’s how Benton ends his piece:

None of this is to say that community ownership isn’t an interesting option for local news outlets. It’s proven to be a difficult one, time and time again, but in the right place with the right audience, it can work. Maybe, in your community, an “ownership” metaphor will be more fruitful in appealing to your biggest fans than “membership” or “subscriber benefits” would be.

But the prerequisite for a community ownership model is an engaged, loyal fan base. If you don’t have that, well, you’re out of luck — turning yourself into a penny stock won’t help. But if you do have that fan base, a Packers-style ownership model is only one of the ways you can convert that into a sustainable business.

Regardless of how closely the Sentinel sticks to its Green Bay Packers messaging, it’s an important development to track as more and more independent local news outlets seek an ever elusive model of financial sustainability — whether that includes Wisconsin cheese or government cheese. What happens in Aurora could offer a blueprint for others to follow or illuminate pitfalls for them to avoid. So watch this space for how it plays out.

KSUT in the Four Corners: ‘We’re starting a news department’

A local news operation is expanding in Southwest, Colorado. Man bites dog, right?

The NPR station for the Four Corners region, which was one of fewer than 10 tribal radio stations in the country when it launched in 1976, “is reaching a significant milestone,” KSUT reported this week. “We’re starting a news department to cover local and regional stories.”

The station hired Kate Redmond, who previously worked for KVNF in Paonia, as a reporter. Clark Adomaitis, “a Durango transplant from New York City” and recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at the City University of New York, is KSUT’s reporter for its Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau project.

“He’s excited to learn and share stories from underrepresented voices in the Four Corners region, including reports from the Ute tribe, the Navajo Nation, the LGBTQ+ community, and the Latinx community,” the station reported.

Ex-Denver TV journalist slams the medium

This spring, Westword’s Michael Roberts reported on why more than two dozen journalists left two of the city’s TV stations in 2021.

But “it turns out that our math was wrong,” he wrote this week, adding that “amid the myriad exits, we missed Aimee Lewis, a Fox31reporter from August 2020 to the end of October 2021.”

Roberts used the opportunity to check in on what Lewis is doing now. She’s a digital marketing specialist for Winter Park Resort and also the creator of Live at Five, what Roberts describes as “a fascinating podcast that serves as a devastating takedown of local TV news and reveals how and why her dream job turned into a nightmare.”

From Westword:

Lewis declined an interview request from Westword — not surprising, given the prevalence of non-disclosure agreements in broadcasting — and Fox31 isn’t mentioned by name in Live at Five. The podcast’s criticisms of the medium, summarized in an excerpt shared here, are general, but no less powerful for their lack of specificity.

Check out the piece to read those excerpts. Here’s one sample from her podcast:

“You’d be lying to both me and yourself if you think you’d tune in to TV to hear about an apple festival you could attend, or when your food bank is offering giveaways. It’s not sexy. But death and destruction sure is…and you watch it. And they know you watch it, because you share it online, and that gives us article clicks we can throw more ads on.”

As the teaser for the “Live at Five” podcast states: “After 5 years behind the screen, Aimee speaks the truth about local news and breaks down how it works.”

Denver journalist in housing assistance leans on personal experience for an interview

There might be some news managers in the business who believe the personal identity and experiences of their journalists compromise rather than inform and benefit their coverage. (That might also have to do with what particular identity or experiences they are.) But I feel like, increasingly, the orthodoxy is the other way around — particularly among a younger generation in the profession.

But what does that look like in practice? It can look like many things, and sometimes audiences might not even notice it. But this week, NewsBreak Denver journalist David Heitz, who has previously written about his personal experiences with homelessness, interviewed John Parvensky, the outgoing CEO of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. Here is part of the journalist’s lede:

I am a client of Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, in the interest of full disclosure. Parvensky, who is retiring after four decades, has been interviewed by probably a dozen reporters in the past month. But I’m the first person to interview him who also lives at a Coalition property.

Later in the piece, Heitz acknowledges that he’d previously given Parvensky an earful as a client of one of his programs. “I admit [that earlier correspondence] probably was not entirely appropriate, but John accepted my criticisms without being defensive,” he wrote in a preface to his interview. “He treated me the way the manager of a business would treat a customer.”

Some might view the above disclosures as too much of a conflict. Heitz relied on them to inform his questions. I’d be curious about your own take on this if you have one.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🚨 Don’t forget to register for the Colorado Press Association’s 144th annual convention. The conference is Sept. 15-17 in Denver. Same for the Advancing Equity in Local News convening happening around the same time. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa is giving the keynote for both.

💥 Great to see a current Colorado College journalism student’s byline on the cover of this week’s alt-weekly newspaper in the Springs, and a former CC student who stayed in town to work on affordable housing issues quoted in the in-depth feature about gentrification in the shadow of a shuttering downtown coal-fired power plant.

🆕 Zach Hillstrom is the new editor of the Pueblo Chieftain. “He began his career in Pueblo two weeks after completing his final courses at CSU Pueblo [in 2016] and instead of participating in his college graduation ceremony the following spring, covered the event for the Chieftain,” the paper reported.

🔗 Reminder: If you want to share this newsletter on social media, or read any archived editions of it, you can find a link here.

🎣 From an excellent story by Ben Ryder Howe in The New York Times this week about river access, private property, the commons,and our state’s strange water law: “In Colorado, the largest landowners happen to be media moguls like Mr. Turner and Michael Bloomberg, who bought a ranch in the state five times the size of Central Park during the pandemic.”

🌎 The “first Social-change Media company focused on global climate change” is a public benefit corporation based in Colorado.

💵 Following last week’s item saying you might see more sponsorship copy in this newsletter soon, a reader emailed to ask, “Will you continue to be transparent about who/what is sponsoring your newsletter?” Sorry if that wasn’t clear, but yes!

🏫 Regan Foster, who led the Southeast Express in Colorado Springs and taught journalism at CSU Pueblo where she advised the student newspaper, was named director of student media at Central Michigan University.

📸 The National Press Photographers Association is holding its Advanced Storytelling Workshop at CSU in Fort Collins in early October. Anne Herbst, who heads up visual journalism at KUSA 9News in Denver, is running it. Register for the six-day workshop here.

🏒 Kyle Fredrickson left The Denver Post sports desk to become the new Avalanche reporter for the Denver and Colorado Springs Gazettes.

🆕 Lucas Brady Woods says he’s joining KUNC as the Colorado statehouse reporter. He said he looks forward to “serving Coloradans with practicalresponsible news from the Gold Dome.”

🌵 Penelope Muse Abernathy, who is probably the nation’s leading researcher on news deserts, this week published “A path forward: how to fill the gaps in local news” at Northwestern University’s Medill Local News Initiative. There’s no silver bullet, she wrote, but highlighted the work of Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter, and how “nonprofit and nonpartisan organizations, as well as universities, have also stepped forward.”

⬆️ Mark Harden congratulated Dennis Huspeni for becoming city editor of The Denver Gazette.

🤖 Jason Allen, a Pueblo West game designer (or “author” as he describes himself) came in for criticism after he created via artificial intelligence a piece of art that won during a contest at the Colorado State Fair. Former Pulp publisher John Rodriguez said, “the judges were only made aware this was AI art because Mo Valdez and I told them.”

👊 Alison Berg of Rocky Mountain PBS about the subject of one of her latest stories: “This isn’t normal. It’s not debatable. It’s not a ‘different opinion.’ Every piece of scientific evidence debunks his beliefs. And as journalists, the *only* way to talk about this is to call it what it is: hateful, factually inaccurate and deeply harmful.”

📰 This week marked the 45th anniversary of the creation of Denver’s alternative weekly Westword. “It’s also editor-in-chief Patricia Calhoun’s 45th work anniversary, since she created Westword,” wrote a staff writer.

☀️ The Colorado Sun’s Jesse Paul produced an in-depth report on what Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet has done during his 13-plus years in Washington as he runs for re-election. The report stands out in Senate race coverage for its focus on policy and effectiveness.

⚽️ Four members of Denver’s KUSA 9News TV station participated in the Colorado Media Cup, playing with retired Rapids soccer players.

⛔️ Longtime political pundit Eric Sondermann, who writes regular columns for Colorado Politicstweeted this week about being removed from a recent fundraising event for Democratic Secretary of State Jena Griswold who is running for re-election. Following a brief social media dustup over it, Sondermann told his followers that Griswold “apologized not once, but three times, for how I was treated. Which she attributed to a ‘misunderstanding.’ She also invited me to any of a series of other fundraisers. With no donation expected. And with me honoring my off-the-record pledge.”

⚙️ David Mullen announced that he “began a new chapter as the public communication specialist” for the City of Northglenn.

🎙 “Longtime Denver talk radio personality Peter Boyles is returning to Salem Media Group’s news/talk 710 KNUS to host a Saturday program” airing from 9 a.m. to noon, effective Sept 10,” reported Talkers, which calls itself “The Bible of talk radio and the new talk media.” The outlet also reported that Salem announced former Colorado district attorney George Brauchler “has assumed daily morning show duties.”

🖨 The Metropolitan, the student-run newspaper at MSU in Denver, is “in desperate need of a local printer. (Preferably on newsprint!),” says Sara Martin. Help them out of you have any tips.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim 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. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this column, which also 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.