Inside the News: Gazette Editor Accuses Denver Competitors of Bias

  • 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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Vince Bzdek, editor of The Colorado Springs and Denver Gazette, authored an eyebrow-raising column this week that accused a handful of his print, digital, and radio competitors of bias while holding up his own publications as something different.

From the piece:

I actually think people are crying out for more rigorous, agenda-free journalism, even if they don’t know exactly what that looks like now, or remember the days before cable TV and the internet when all news aspired to be unbiased and straight.

Of course, all news before cable TV and the internet certainly did not aspire to be “unbiased and straight.” We can turn to the works of the colonial and post-revolutionary press, Ida B. Wells, the penny papers, Joseph Pulitzer, William Randolph Hearst, Edward R. Murrow, and plenty of other revered news icons to show us that.

But The Denver Gazette sought to do things differently from how the outlet perceived its competitors have been operating. Another excerpt:

The goal was simple: Revive a tradition of strong, balanced local news in Denver. We weren’t seeing much unbiased news in the city. It seemed like every outlet still standing had some sort of lean to it, The Denver Post, The Colorado Sun, Westword, Colorado Public Radio, not to mention national media outlets that were building business models around their partisanship, like MSNBC and Fox News. And all the slanted news was getting sloshed together with opinion and clickbait and even disinformation on social media. It’s gotten pretty confusing out there in the media Wild West.

In the column, Bzdek didn’t describe how these outlets lean, what he meant by it, or offer examples. He also didn’t say they do lean a particular way — just that they seem to be leaning. Or slanting. Somehow.

I imagine readers of his column might want to know specifics — not to mention the reporters and editors at the publications he named. Asked over the phone this week if he thought they deserve that, the editor declined to give particular examples but did say he’s considering taking it up in a follow-up column.

Bzdek did, however, confirm what you might be thinking if you know the history of The Gazette and its orientation in Colorado’s news landscape. What he meant was that he feels the outlets he name-checked lean liberal. (And yes, in their news coverage, he said, not just opinion sections.) “I just think a lot of publications have sort of catered to an audience and have found success in that,” he said, adding that when Denver is something like 80 percent Democratic, “then I think a lot of publications will cater to that audience.”

Elsewhere in the column, Bzdek wrote that The Denver Gazette launched with “the belief that balanced, rigorous journalism is about to make a comeback.” In another part, he wrote: “For journalists at all of our publications — The Denver Gazette, The Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Politics — fairness is our guiding light.” (His column marketing his outlet’s journalism follows the Gazette’s erection of a dozen billboards after it launched in the city that read “Better. Balanced. Denver.”)

Is The Denver Gazette more fair in its news coverage than The Denver Post, The Colorado Sun, Westword, or Colorado Public Radio? I personally haven’t noticed that. Someone else might disagree. Journalists have moved from The Post to The Gazette and have moved from The Gazette to The Post or The Sun, or from The Post to CPR. Has the way they do their reporting changed? Perhaps that’s something one could discover through a content analysis should they have the time.

Left unaddressed in the column was the giant elephant about which anyone who knows who owns The Gazette was likely thinking throughout: How much does being owned by a politically active conservative billionaire (someone who leans some sort of way) matter in what the news organizations he owns decide to do when it comes to being fair to the facts and making sure a plethora of voices are heard?

Case in point: When that billionaire newspaper owner, Philip Anschutz, was suing the state of Colorado in a tax dispute earlier this year, which news organizations didn’t think it was news worth covering? (Spoiler: It wasn’t The Denver Post or The Colorado Sun.)

Bzdek said the point is fair, and declined to go into detail about why his outlets made a news judgment to deprive that particular story from their audience. He did say “our owner does not control or engage with us in news coverage at all.” If so, it seems he might not have to.

In Colorado, news outlets aren’t all owned by the same entity (a good thing) and they don’t all practice journalism the same way (also good.) We’re lucky to have such a variety of options. Not all states do. In response to Bzdek’s column, editors at three of the publications he named in it passed along brief statements.

“CPR News follows the facts wherever they may lead,” said Colorado Public Radio’s executive editor, Kevin Dale.

“The Colorado Sun is nonpartisan and proud of the respect it has earned in our state as one of its most trusted news outlets,” said Founder and Editor Larry Ryckman. “Our growing readership reflects that respect and speaks for itself.”

“Since I’ve always said I started Westword because Denver’s two dailies were boring, and didn’t show the vibrant city Denver was becoming, Vince can say whatever he wants,” said Westword’s Patty Calhoun.

Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo declined to weigh in.

Bzdek appeared on the George Brauchler radio show at KNUS conservative talk radio in Denver to talk amore about his column. Listen to it here. (Starts at 7:13.)

New survey results: News habits of Coloradans

Coloradans turn to their phones to access local news more than anywhere else. Residents here pay for local news because they trust it. And Coloradans think news should be free for everyone to access and supported by advertisers.

Those were just some of the results Corona Insights found when the firm surveyed roughly 1,800 Colorado adults in July. (Find the full results here.)

“Four out of five residents consume information on their phone at least daily,” Corona Insights Director Jim Pripusich said. “Only 10 percent of the state’s residents said that they consume information by print at least once a day.”

Pripusich revealed the results during an in-person presentation at the Advancing Equities in Local News conference last week and again during a Zoom call this Thursday for interested parties. Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter, commissioned the local news temperature check. The last time the firm polled Coloradans about their news habits was pre-pandemic, in 2019.

Why study local news habits in the first place? Researchers wanted to establish an “addressable market” for local news in Colorado, meaning people who are digitally savvy, express interest in state and local news, and engage in news beyond skimming headlines. (Fun fact: Coloradans in the Pikes Peak region are statistically more likely to say they get their news just from headlines, the survey found.)

Nearly half the state — 47% — fell inside that addressable market, showing that about 2.2 million Coloradans have a willingness and desire to consume local news. When asked if those in that segment were currently paying for local or state news, the number fell to 13%, or about 600,000 state residents.

Here were more key takeaways, per the results:

  • “Coloradans said the most important purpose of state and local media was to inform about emergencies, hold leaders accountable, and inform residents about public affairs.”
  • “Coloradans who paid for state and local news did so because the information was trustworthy, the outlet offered relevant information to their community, and covered a topic/issue they cared about.”
  • “Overall, residents were most likely to say they supported an advertising-funding model for state and local news where content was free to access.” (Editor’s note: This is a notable data point considering how last year the Pew Research Center found, for the first time since they began tracking it in 2004, that money made from circulation in the newspaper industry — i.e. print and digital subscriptions — had surpassed advertising.)
  • While 36% of respondents said they preferred ad revenue to support local news, 20% said it should be free for everyone, but those who consume it should donate; 18% said philanthropy should pick up the tab, and 16% said government should fund it. Only 10% of respondents said state and local news should be available only for those who pay for it. (That’s the whole state, not just the addressable market.)
  • Coloradans 55 and older are most interested in an ad-based model for state and local news while residents under 35 are more open to a government-funded model.
  • “While most Coloradans said they trusted local news organizations to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly, fewer residents said this in 2022 than in 2018.”
  • “Residents most frequently said increasing accuracy and reducing bias in reporting were the most important actions local news organizations could take to increase trust.”
  • “Coloradans had a strong preference for state and local media to report facts without taking positions on issues.”
  • “Most Spanish speakers agreed that they could access news about the state and their community in Spanish.”

Find more key takeaways from the survey here, with links that will take you deeper inside the data including a download of the full data table.

Those who were recruited to participate in the survey took about 15 minutes out of their day to do so, were paid for their time, and made up a “nice representative snapshot of the state,” Pripusich said.

At the end of the survey, respondents had the opportunity to say anything else they wished about the topic of local news. Out of the nearly 1,000 comments I read through, this was my favorite, though it unfortunately was not representative: “Local news is very important to the average American and having a source that can be trusted is key. Even if the news that is being covered isn’t as interesting as other issues going on, it is still important to be informed about local issues and have it be reported honestly and in a way that can be understood.”

Cheers to that.

Colorado Daily, ‘no longer profitable,’ shuts down

“The Colorado Daily is no longer profitable and therefore this week will be our final publication.”

That news, written in the tone of a weather report, came over the weekend in a note to readers from the president and CEO of Prairie Mountain Media, the local brand representing the Alden Global Capital hedge fund that financially controls a collection of Colorado newspapers including The Denver Post.

Kara Mason of Sentinel Colorado pointed out how the unfortunate news came as journalists from across the state were gathering for a week of dual journalism conventions where talk about work to sustain local news was plentiful.

The Daily, 130 years old at the time of its demise, was an interesting publication. In the early 2000s it was owned by its employees. “Really sad to see this, especially as a former editor of the Colorado Daily myself,” said Denver Post Managing Editor Matt Sebastian.

“Communities suffer when journalism goes away,” said Colorado Sun Editor and Founder Larry Ryckman. “Remember this the next time Alden Global Capital touts itself as a savior of newspapers.”

Sentinel Colorado unveils new ownership model

The Aurora-based weekly newspaper that earned national ink for its ambition to become a community-owned publication similar to how the Green Bay Packers football team operates, has landed on a structure. They filed the paperwork last Thursday.

“The breaking news is that the Aurora Sentinel is now a nonprofit entity,” said COLab Executive Director Laura Frank during last Saturday’s Colorado Press Association convention. The name of it is Aurora Sentinel Community Media, a hybrid model of sorts that will allow community members to buy shares in it and have a stake in its success.

The nonprofit is not a 501(c)(3); it’s a different kind that allows anyone to own a share. That nonprofit will own a for-profit entity in a way that will allow the Sentinel to still be able to endorse political candidates and sell political advertising, said Sentinel Editor Dave Perry.

“It is an experiment of sorts,” said Joaquin Alvarado of Oakland, California, who runs a consultancy called Studiotobe and is helping oversee the transition after working on previous projects aimed at keeping local news ownership close to the communities they serve. He added that the paper would still need subscribers, advertisers, and philanthropy to succeed, and hoped the model can be replicable elsewhere.

Community shareholders will be able to pay a dollar or million dollars to become affiliated with the Sentinel, Alvarado said, but they won’t be able to influence coverage. They will be able to vote on a board of directors for Aurora Sentinel Community Media, he said.

“What will be happening from here forward is a campaign to engage people in the Aurora community,” Frank said.

At one point in the discussion, Perry referred to his outlet as the “luckiest goddam newspaper in the whole world” because of how close it has come to folding in the past. But something has always happened, at the right time, to save the paper that serves the third-largest city in Colorado. “I’m hoping that we have stumbled onto this idea at a time when we can capitalize on it, too,” he said.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🎙 “We’ve been lucky enough to work with two journalism interns from Colorado College, with more to come,” wrote Colorado Public Radio’s southern Colorado reporter Dan Boyce. He broadcast a … quite interesting audio essay celebrating one year of the Southern Colorado Public Media Center. (The reporter called it “certainly the weirdest piece of audio I’ve ever been paid to work on.”)

🏆 The Colorado Press Association held its annual awards ceremony at Coors Field last Saturday. Find all the winners here.

📢 In union contract negotiations with their hedge-fund owner, Denver Post journalists are asking their readers to “stand with us and tell The Denver Post’s owners that they, as stewards of a community institution, have a responsibility to that community.” (Readers can fill out a form to mail to company execs.)

🎵 KUVO, Denver’s beloved jazz station, is “wrangling with many big changes,” including “firings and forced resignations” and issues that “aren’t talked about on air” that have left some believing that its “merger with Rocky Mountain PBS under the Rocky Mountain Public Media umbrella has corporatized what was once a mom-and-pop shop driven by a pure love of jazz and an authentic connection to the Five Points community,” Kyle Harris reported for Denverite.

🔎 The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, a nonprofit that helps everyone in Colorado with transparency in government, has updated its free online guide to our state’s open records and open meetings laws.

👀 Eric Prock, senior director of journalism initiatives at Microsoft, said during a panel discussion at the CPA convention that the company is trying to help an industry “in crisis”and that a company executive named Brad Smith is concerned about “what happens to the fabric of society and our democracy when trust in information in news is not available.” Prock said Microsoft is looking at what’s effective to rebuild news ecosystems and wants to scale. “We want to bring that not just to a single community or a region but to an entire state,” he added. “And Colorado is one of the places that we think is set up to be as successful as possible in that effort.”

💊 Greta Anderson at The Indy alt-weekly in Colorado Springs advanced the local story about police officers, fentanyl, and dubious exposure experiences.

📺 Denver KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark, who hosts the show “Next,” responded to a viewer who called him “a prime example of a huge liberal bias in journalism.” Every journalist “has biases because every journalist is human and all humans have biases based on lived experience,” Clark said. “A more useful question is whether our reporting is factually correct and whether we hold the politicians we cover to the same standard regardless of ideology.”

🆕 Brooke Eberle has joined The Denver Post’s digital team.

📡 KSUT wrote about the Four Corners-based public radio station’s participation in the Advancing Equity in Local News convening hosted by the Colorado Media Project and sponsored by The Colorado Trust.

🏔 Fired Aspen Times editor Andrew Travers wrote a guest column in The Colorado Sun recapping the tumult at the Times, and offered some new details including where some of the paper’s former journalists have landed. He also urged Coloradans to look past Aspen and keep an eye on the other Colorado newspapers now owned by the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers company.

⚖️ After news organizations, led by reporter Allison Sherry of Colorado Public Radiosued the Adams County coroner, a judge this week ordered the “unredacted release of Elijah McClain’s updated autopsy report.”

🔥 “I, a thirty-year-old man sweating his ass off, was acting as Toasty, an anthropomorphic s’more with great vibes,” wrote Westword reporter Conor McCormick-Cavanagh who spent an evening as the mascot for the Rocky Mountain Vibes minor league baseball team in Colorado Springs.

📚 During “Banned Books Week,” Sept. 18-24, Bucketlist Community Cafe caught up with Dan Danbom, owner of Denver’s Printed Page Bookshop, which is a “treasure trove of banned books, first editions and rare titles.”

🔗 Some stories published about the plight of the Colorado River this week carried this editor’s note: “The Associated Press, The Colorado Sun, The Albuquerque Journal, The Salt Lake Tribune, The Arizona Daily Star and The Nevada Independent are working together to explore the pressures on the river in 2022.”

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 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.