Inside the News: ‘Bigger Picture, Slower Stuff’: A Rural Reporting Experiment in Southwest Colorado

  • 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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For the past six months, a journalist for the Daily Yonder, a national nonprofit news outlet focused on rural America, has been reporting stories from Colorado’s Four Corners region based out of Montezuma County.

While her pieces publish in the Daily Yonder, reporter Ilana Newman encourages local outlets in the area to re-run her work so the journalism can connect with a local audience. And, when she can, she sometimes works with local news organizations directly to meet their needs.

The development is an example of a national publication connecting with a local funder to fill news gaps in a rural area, and it highlights a collaborative approach to local journalism. Newman isn’t a parachute reporter from elsewhere who dropped into the region, but someone who has lived there for three-and-a-half years and knows the area and its communities.

Over the past few years, print outlets in Southwest Colorado have retrenched; the largely rural area has nothing of the sort of robust news and information ecosystem that exists in other parts of the state like its Front Range. (For years, two of its counties were “orphan counties,” meaning residents who got their local TV news via satellite had it beamed in from neighboring New Mexico instead of Colorado.)

Enter the Daily Yonder’s Rural Reporting Fellowship program, which is financially supported by the LOR Foundation, a nonprofit with offices in the Mountain West that is dedicated to rural quality of life issues. LOR has a presence in Cortez and has been studying the region in recent years.

So far, a handful of local outlets have been running Newman’s work, from community radio stations like KSJD to the Four Corners Free Press monthly print publication, and more. The statewide Colorado Sun digital site has also partnered. Recent stories she reported include efforts to protect the Dolores River, hurdles to broadband adoption in rural communities, the role of rural creative districts, solar energy development for agricultural use, an affordable housing “dilemma” in Cortez, and more.

Beyond just sharing what she’s already written for the Daily Yonder, Newman will sometimes act as a utility player for a local outlet directly, reporting one-off stories if a publication is in need of specialized local content.

“Basically, my position is just to be of service to the local news environment,” Newman said over the phone this week. “And then also taking what’s happening locally and giving it national rural context with the Daily Yonder.”

She also has adapted her journalism to fit a specific medium.

One of the participating outlets, for instance, is the Local News Network, which runs a newsletter and produces local broadcast news and information segments on digital screens placed in public spaces in Southwest Colorado. The LNN has repurposed some of Newman’s reporting into brief video clips. For a recent segment about a Colorado Parks & Wildlife kokanee salmon giveaway, Newman conducted the interviews, shot the B-roll, and wrote the script, while LNN’s production team packaged and anchored the report.

“Working with the Daily Yonder is a win/win for us both,” Local News Network CEO Laurie Sigillito said via email about the partnership. “They provide great journalism and we provide a strong local distribution platform and viewership.”

Adam B. Giorgi, director of planning and program development at the Daily Yonder and the Center for Rural Strategies, who is based in Minnesota, recently spent some time in Southwest Colorado meeting with outlets involved in the pilot project. One thing he learned is how some local news organizations could use help beyond simply more reporting capacity. Some might benefit from editing, for example, others with digital strategy and distribution.

“One of the things that we talked about — and granted it’s very early days for this — but … if we were going to do this in other regions, it does not have to be just reporting,” Giorgi said. “We think of it as sort of like a rural extension model with a focus on information and media environments.”

Six months in, the initiative is still in an experimental phase, figuring out what works and what could be better, what needs might be singular to Cortez or potentially replicable elsewhere.

Something Giorgi said they heard in the early stages was some initial pushback from some local outlets who wondered why a funder wouldn’t just support a local outlet directly with a reporter position.

“We like building the connective tissue between local, regional, national,” he said. “We felt like we could play a unique role. We’re not going to be doing day-to-day beat coverage … we want to do slightly bigger picture, slower stuff.”

For Gary Wilmot, the executive director of the LOR Foundation, which is funding the effort, the nonprofit’s hope in supporting the fellowship was, in part, to help serve Cortez’s information needs by adding a collaborative reporting resource.

“We also believe that shining a light on these essential, vibrant parts of America outside the region will help drive some attention and resources to them,” Wilmot said in a statement. “We’ve been thrilled to see the partnerships between the Daily Yonder and local outlets — and to also see stories produced by local media shared with national audiences. We believe sharing the innovative solutions communities like Cortez develop can help others and build understanding about places that are often overlooked.”

Looking ahead, Newman hopes to broaden the Daily Yonder’s partnerships — the local print Cortez Journal isn’t yet a collaborator — and expand more into audio journalism.

In the next six months, Colorado’s Cortez Rural Reporting Fellow said she also hopes to document what’s worked and what she’d want to change, including “how I can better serve this area and how it could potentially be expanded to other areas with people doing similar things.”

National press freedom group weighs in on Colorado journalist’s contempt case

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press this week filed a legal brief in support of journalist Justin Wingerter of BusinessDen on behalf of a Colorado media coalition.

First Amendment attorney Rachael Johnson, who is the Colorado-based lawyer for RCFP’s Local Legal Initiative, drafted the document, which is known formally as an amici letter.

From the filing:

Here, Wingerter and BusinessDen have a First Amendment right to retain and publish the contents of court records Wingerter obtained legally. An order that restrains the press, either directly or indirectly, from publishing or possessing lawfully obtained, truthful information is an unconstitutional prior restraint. …

On November 27, 2023, attorneys for the plaintiffs in Farb v. Spay, Inc., No. 2023CV33477 asked for their complaint and exhibits to be suppressed on the asserted grounds that the filings contained “Confidential and Proprietary Information.” On November 28, 2023, before this Court ruled on that motion, Wingerter sought the duly filed pleadings and exhibits in that case from the court clerk. The records were disclosed to Wingerter and BusinessDen on November 29. However, later that day, this Court granted plaintiffs’ Motion after the records had already been disclosed to Wingerter and BusinessDen and ordered Wingerter and BusinessDen to return and/or delete all documents on threat of contempt.

The letter, citing precedents, goes on to argue that it is well-settled that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information, absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

The letter concludes:

In sum, since there is no dispute that Wingerter and BusinessDen obtained the court records at issue by lawful means, and that the information contained in those court records concern a matter of public interest and concern, amici urge this Court to grant the petitioner’s Motion to Vacate November 30, 2023 Order Re: Requests for Suppressed Filings. Lastly, because each minute an unconstitutional prior restraint remains in place constitutes a separate and distinct First Amendment violation causing ‘irreparable harm’ to BusinessDen and its readers, we urge the Court to lift its prior restraint order immediately.

Johnson filed the letter on behalf of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, Colorado Press Association, Colorado News Collaborative, Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, and the National Freedom of Information Coalition.

“I am both heartened and a little disturbed by the number of people who have volunteered to visit me in jail,” Wingerter said on social media. “Very normal week!”

Last week’s newsletter has the background on this case.

Speaking of the RCFP’s Local Legal Initiative…

The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press rounded up its impact for the year, and included work from its Local Legal Initiative in Colorado.

From the review:

In Colorado, Local Legal Initiative Attorney Rachael Johnson helped six local news outlets obtain the recording of a closed-door meeting where board members unlawfully crafted a policy reinstating armed police officers to local high schools the day after a school shooting.

On behalf of her clients, she also appealed two high-profile cases to the Colorado Supreme Court: one concerning whether a public library can shield the names of people who seek to ban books, and another concerning news organizations’ efforts to access data about the certification, training, and personnel changes of law enforcement officers in Colorado.

Johnson is also currently litigating several other cases on behalf of local news outlets, including one matter involving access to the disciplinary records of a town’s former police chief and another challenging secrecy in a high-profile criminal case against a cardiologist charged with drugging and sexually assaulting 13 women he met on dating apps.

Needless to say, Colorado newsrooms are lucky to have Johnson in their corner.

Nuggets from new book ‘Last Paper Standing’

A digital review copy of “Last Paper Standing: A Century of Competition Between the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News,” landed in my inbox recently.

Here are some nuggets from the book authored by Pittsburg State University professor Ken Ward:

  • In the 1970s, a Rocky Mountain News editor’s “positive influence on the newsroom was diminished by a cocaine addiction that dramatically affected his ability to lead.” But those “limitations” were offset by gains for the Rocky “on a different front: plant automation.”
  • The Denver Post would later publish an investigation into the police and a “system in which city and state officials helped powerful Denverites” including the former Rocky editor who played a “starring role as a powerful cocaine addict” in the coverage. The author says multiple Post reporters said the paper’s 1982 exposé was a “proxy through which the Post could bloody the reputation” of the Rocky.
  • The labor union that represented the Post’s mailers once held a candlelight protest on the porch of a “tyrannical” and “despotic” publisher’s home in response to pay cuts.
  • “In some instances,” Ward writes,” hyper competition between the Rocky and the Post “actually hindered innovative reporting, with journalists at both papers afraid to pursue unique stories for fear of missing bread-and-butter news their counterparts would catch.”
  • In 1999, “area residents overwhelmed by telephone offers flooded the Colorado attorney general’s office with complaints and newspaper and magazine solicitations became the top consumer grievance in the state.” (These days, it might be subscribers complaining about their inability to easily unsubscribe.)
  • In the 1990s, single copies of the Sunday newspapers cost 50 cents; “area residents could subscribe to either paper for roughly eight cents per copy, at an annual rate of only thirty dollars.” Eventually the papers were selling for a penny a day.
  • After they entered into a Joint Operating Agreement, why did the Rocky close in 2009 and not the Post? Ward says there is “no bombshell” in his book, and while he agrees the decline of the newspaper industry paired with the Great Recession were major factors, it was also because Post owner Dean Singleton “was more committed to the Denver market” than Rocky owner E.W. Scripps, “which had no attachment to the city, the [Rocky], or newspapers generally.”

The book was published by The University Press of Colorado.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🇦🇹 This newsletter is in out-of-the-country mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual and I might not be as quick to respond to emails, voicemails, or DMs.

📉 A new statewide poll from the nonpartisan Colorado Polling Institute conducted by the Republican firm Cygnal and Democratic Aspect Strategic surveyed 652 likely 2024 general election voters in Colorado, the Colorado Sun reported. One question asked was about people or organizations they trust or distrust to do the right thing. When asked about Colorado journalists38.7% said distrust, 36.4% said trust, and 22.1% said neither trust or distrust.

🤦‍♂️ Responses to a post on Twitter/X by Sun reporter Jesse Paul about the above survey results show just how little understanding exists among some about the role of journalism in society.

🎁 The Denver Press Club’s annual holiday party is Dec. 21 at 5 p.m. Register here.

🗣 In last week’s newsletter, I wrote, “Last year, a judge, along with Colorado Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser, tried to stop Denver Gazette reporter Julia Cardi from publishing a story; they quickly backed off when the paper went to court.” First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, who handled the case on behalf of the Gazette, disputed the characterization that it was quick, pointing to a column he wrote at the time that read in part: “The attorney general’s error cost The Gazette several thousand dollars it was forced to expend to fight a battle of principle and vindicate its right to provide its readers with timely, newsworthy, and truthful information.” That item also misspelled the name of the judge who issued the order against BusinessDen and Justin Wingerter; it is Kandace C. Gerdes.

🌞 Sol del Valle has launched as a publication to serve Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley.

📂 Jeffrey A. Roberts wrote about “12 ways to improve Colorado’s open government laws” at his Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition site.

🗞 A recent accountability story by Pam Zubeck of the Indy alt-weekly in Colorado Springs about county expenditures is “a good reminder of why we continue to fight for public notice requirements [in newspapers] and will be focusing on this in the upcoming legislative session,” read the newsletter of the Colorado Press Association this week.

📖 “I’ve nearly finished my manuscript and I can’t wait to share this project with you,” Colorado Public Radio journalist Vic Vela posted on social media with a tease to the written work.

📰 The liberal semi-anonymous ColoradoPols blog offered a rundown about the Colorado Springs Gazette’s Trumpy editorial board jettisoning its support for Lauren Boebert after the MAGA Republican member of Congress got kicked out of a performance of Beetlejuice in Denver for vaping and disruptive behavior. The blog asked, “what real impact might the Gazette’s endorsement [of her GOP primary opponent] delivered six months before the primary have on the outcome?”

🎙 Check out this growing list of roughly 70 Colorado-based podcasts from around the state.

📡 Public radio is “making the best of the limited resources it has, according to Medill,” reported Inside Radio about a new report on local news. “Of the 400 public stations in the U.S. originating content – many of which operate on multiple signals, giving them close to 1,100 AM and FM stations in total – only 213 are currently producing original local journalism. Four states – California, Alaska, Colorado, Florida – account for more than one-fourth of these stations.”

📚 The Colorado Sun asked writers recognized by the Colorado Book Awards “to offer their best literary gift ideas” and said they “did not disappoint.”

⚙️ Brian Sherrod is leaving KKTV in Colorado Springs as a weekend morning anchor and reporter to become a First Alert Traffic Tracker Reporter for CBS Colorado in Denver. “I will be out in the field during CBS Colorado Mornings doing everything traffic related,” he said, adding that he starts Dec. 19.

👨‍👦 Journalist Marc Sallinger offered a touching on-air tribute at 9NEWS to his dad, Rick, who is leaving the rival station CBS Colorado.

📞 “It is hard as an editor when you interrupt a game or conversation with your kids because you must ‘take this call,’” wrote Colorado Community Media’s south metro editor, Thelma Grimes.

🪦 Former Denver Post crime reporter Kirk Mitchell — “who contributed to Pulitzer Prize-winning breaking news coverage of two mass shootings in Colorado — has died of prostate cancer at 64,” the Associated Press reported. “For years, he wrote the Post’s cold case blog, which drew strong readership and sometimes led to tips that helped detectives solve the cases, The Denver Post reported.”

📕 Florissant author Tarah Benne has published her 30th book, Marianne Mogon reported for the Pikes Peak Courier.

⚖️ “A lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court by one Denver Public Schools father alleging his two children have been denied their First Amendment rights to have a ‘straight pride’ flag in school may stand a chance in court,” Gabriela Vidal reported for CBS Colorado.

⚾️ SB Nation’s Renee Dechert at Purple Row asked: “What will happen with the Colorado Rockies television broadcasts?”

🎤 “Longtime Denver radio host D-Mac sounds off,” Doug Ottewill reported for Mile High Sports.

🏟 “Colorado has a vibrant prep sports journalism scene and it’s an honor to be a part of that,” Daily Sentinel prep sports reporter James Burky said this week.

📺 Rocky Mountain Public Media’s Native Lens Media Fellowship is returning for a second year, “amplifying Indigenous voices in film.” Andrea Kramar spoke with the project coordinatorColleen Thurston, about Native Lens.

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