Inside the News: Hedge-Fund Takeover of Denver TV News Station Implodes

  • 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 more than a year, a sword of Damocles has been hanging over a leading local TV news station in Denver.

A hedge fund called Standard General was poised to take over Tegna, which owns the local NBC affiliate known as KUSA 9NEWS.

In recent years, hedge fund and 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.

Those devastating impacts were an under-the-radar story that gained broader attention too late. So it was notable that as a hedge fund tried to buy a chain of local American TV stations, groups like Common Cause, the United Church of Christ, and the NewsGuild-CWA labor union raised a flurry of red flags. Nancy Pelosi, who was the Democratic speaker of the U.S. House at the time, also criticized the attempted purchase.

But this week the deal fell through — and NewsGuild-CWA President Jon Schleuss said it was “public interest advocates” who deserve credit for helping tank it.

“This is a major victory for our union members, who have been fighting the hedge fund takeover of local news for more than a decade,” he said in a statement. “For too long, hedge funds like Standard General, Alden Global Capital and Chatham Asset Management have taken over local newsrooms, taken on massive amounts of debt and cut jobs and local news coverage to service that debt.”

Alden Global Capital is the hedge fund that notoriously gutted The Denver Post and other newspapers.

Last February, when Standard General was first making moves to buy Tegna, this newsletter quoted Michael Depp, editor of the broadcast trade publication TV News Check, saying hedge-fund ownership of TV stations “hasn’t really happened [yet] so you don’t know what they’re going to do.” Newspapers, he added, “are certainly a dark prognosticator for how things might be.”

In Denver, observers had takes about what might happen if the sale went through.

“If I am the GM at CBS4, Fox31 or Denver7, I am preparing to open my wallet to poach as many of the 9News journalists as I can in an effort to end 9News’ ratings dominance,” said public relations professional Jeremy Story at the time.

But the TV deal eventually ran into a buzzsaw at the Federal Communications Commission. Here’s how Yahoo!Finance reported it:

The TV broadcaster said it terminated the $5.4 billion transaction because the deal didn’t receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission by Monday’s deadline. … The FCC stymied the deal, sending it to a lengthy hearing that itself was put on hold, without public discussion or a vote by the agency’s four commissioners.

Standard General had sued the FCC earlier this spring, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia dismissed it.

Standard General’s Managing Partner Soo Kim indicated to NBC earlier this month that he believed the acquisition should go through smoothly, and some “strangeness” was afoot. “I would only assume that someone somewhere doesn’t want this thing to get done,” he said.

Last October, the FCC, which was vetting the deal as a telecom regulator, requested documents from Standard General about “editorial control,” “potential consolidation of news operations,” “staffing or conditions of employment,” and more. Despite Standard General telling media its plans did not involve “station-level layoffs,” it wouldn’t have been a stretch to wonder whether newsroom employees at Tegna were a little freaked out about the possibility of a hedge fund owner.

“In every takeover, the first fear is that the new owner will come in and slash jobs,” reported TV news guru Al Tompkins at the Poynter Institute last year.

Now, it’s moot. And the hedge fund “is expected to pay $136 million in termination fees to Tegna” because it fell through, according to reporting from Reuters.

This week, Tegna announced its local stations won 84 regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. Denver’s 9NEWS, hauling in nine honors, took home the second-most of the 23 stations. (KARE in Minneapolis, Minnesota won 12.)

Asked what the collapse of the Standard General takeover means for 9NEWS, Mark Cornetta, the station’s president and general manager, declined to say. But we know the station won’t have to deal with whatever comes from a new owner.

At least for now.

No ‘respect’: Denver media call out national coverage of their hometown NBA team

The Denver Nuggets basketball team made history this week when they swept the Los Angeles Lakers and headed to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1976.

The result led some in hometown media to castigate those in the national sporting press.

Denver7’s sports reporter Troy Renck was so “annoyed” by the national coverage he went on an extended on-air rant about it.

The Nuggets, Renck said, took first place in the Western conference in December and never let up. “They’ve been good for months,” he complained. “And it’s a crime that people really just don’t want to see that, or they haven’t watched it.” Renck specifically called out ESPN for featuring graphics that didn’t include anyone from the Nuggets before a big game. Such “slights,” he said, get “tired.” But he gets it, Renck said, “we’re a flyover state, we’re a cow town, people miss us, they’re in their own time zone, I understand all that. But just pay attention … maybe watch them a couple of times before you get on the national broadcast … just show them a little respect.”

This isn’t new.

“For years, Nuggets fans have been complaining about the lack of attention the team receives,” James Merilatt reported for DenverSports. As an example, he cited an acknowledgment by NBA Sportscaster Lisa Salters that she hadn’t been paying enough attention to Nuggets player Nikola Jokić, who earned the most valuable player nod for the Western Conference Finals.

Arielle Orsuto of Denver’s 9NEWS pointed out that the “national disrespect” for Denver doesn’t stop with the Nuggets.

“The DU women’s lacrosse team is the only undefeated team in the entire nation and is still being slept on as we enter the final four this week,” she said on air. Denver, she added, “has a chance to take home quite a bit of hardware in the next month, and it would be quite the story to see two teams make history. But if these teams win and no one hears about it, their impact will only be a blip on the national radar.”

On social media, arts columnist John Moore of The Denver Gazette described what he called “national media bias” as being seemingly unaware of how some of the NBA’s audience “actually exists outside the L.A. bubble.” He tagged individual national sportswriters, saying, “Y’all are missing one hell of a story.”

Katy Winge, a reporter who covers the Nuggets for Altitude, said she was “infuriated” after hearing a senior writer for Sports Illustrated say, “frankly, the Nuggets aren’t very interesting” while arguing that the team doesn’t get as much attention as its lesser rivals because it lacks “drama.”

“Have you even taken the time to get to know these players and coaches?” Winge asked. “Have you even tried to learn and tell the stories?”

Kyle Clark, who anchors the nightly newscast ‘Next’ on KUSA 9NEWS, said he felt the national media who seemed “quite disinterested” in the Nuggets now look “foolish.”

Tracking what some Nuggets fans, and the team’s coach, have said, some local media personalities called out a national media narrative that the Lakers “lost” to the Nuggets after the Denver team swept them.

Jon Mitchell, an editor at The Gazette, used the opportunity to draw attention to his newspaper’s local coverage, saying, “So when ESPN decides to focus on the Lakers losing, we have seven — repeat, SEVEN — full pages of coverage of the Nuggets” in that day’s paper.

Jeff Domingues, who calls himself a “recovering journalist,” appeared irked by some of the chatter.

“Always annoying when local news media act as PR voices for perceived grievances of the teams they cover,” he said. “The ‘no cheering in the press box’ maxim has never been acknowledged in Denver.”

Gannett plans to ‘save local journalism’

The nation’s largest newspaper chain is promising to “transform the growth trajectory” for its hundreds of local newspapers, which include two regional papers that bookend Colorado’s Front Range.

“We are going to save local journalism, and we’re going to do it by working together with absolutely clear eyes about the challenge and tremendous speed toward the solution,” said Gannett’s chief content officer, Kristin Roberts. (Editor’s note: If the company does that, someone should make sure someone at Gannett earns the Nobel Prize.)

What is this plan? It’s called Project Breakthrough, and here’s how Sandy Mazza of the Gannett-owned Nashville Tennessean described it:

Roberts’ strategy, “Project Breakthrough,” focuses on key growth areas to increase nationwide audience, including opinion columns, newsletters, service journalism, breaking news and audience engagement. … The fresh perspective is designed to attract larger paying audiences to local journalism by being more responsive to readers.

The project comes amid a shakeup of Gannett’s upper editorial staff.

So, what might readers of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins or The Pueblo Chieftain expect from Project Breakthrough?

“In my opinion, any effort to save local journalism comes down to producing high-interest work that is essential to the communities we serve and maintains a laser focus on their needs,” said Coloradoan Editor Eric Larsen, who was speaking only for his paper. “It’s what we’ve always been about at the Coloradoan, which has helped us maintain our overall subscriber base as it’s transitioned to more than 75% digital-only readership.”

More from Larsen:

“It’s also what this effort is about – putting the reader (not our sources or our own ambitions) at the center of every decision-making process. I think we’ll see a continued focus of reaching out to our next generation of readers with short/alt-form service journalism, along with continued experimentation with our content mix, like what we’ve done with our opinion offering and Coloradoan Conversations.

Watch this space for how this new national development winds up affecting Colorado. Meanwhile, see some immediate reactions to the news from media watchers here.

What I’m learning about higher-ed journalism internships in Colorado

This year, three media advocacy organizations in Colorado have partnered to “tackle some of the most pressing challenges facing our industry,” they announced last week.

The groups include the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Media Project, and Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). The problems include digital strategies for newsrooms, the future of printing, increasing the public’s role in accountability, advertising for ethnic media, and workforce pathways for “inclusive, sustainable newsrooms.”

I’m helping do research on the last one, and in recent weeks have been talking to some of my journalism instructor colleagues at colleges and universities across the state.

In those conversations, some themes have emerged.

Three journalism professors in a week told me, unprompted, that one trend they are seeing is students in their programs wanting to do internships in public relations, advertising, or marketing rather than in a newsroom. Why this might be the case is so far unclear. Is it because those internships are easier to get, or is it because students might rather go into a communications career with a potential higher salary, steadier hours, and more sustainability?

What I’ve also heard is that students typically come up with internships on their own by seeking them out themselves, or will approach a specific professor for help setting them up with one. College and university journalism programs tend to have partnerships with local newsrooms in Colorado and individual faculty members often rely on their personal networks to place students.

One question a professor had was how some Colorado newsrooms tailor their internship schedules and whether some Colorado J-schools might benefit from those schedules more than others.

As for pay, when a student is getting college credit for an internship, whether a newsroom is willing to pay seems like it’s up to the individual newsroom. Some pay, others don’t. One internship director at a Colorado J-school said, however, that it does seem like more students lately are getting paid for internships than have been in recent years.

💡IDEA: One thing some higher-ed journalism faculty said might be beneficial is an online clearinghouse of newsrooms that offer internships including their schedules and how to apply.

Denver Post journalists win newsroom awards

Last week, I mistakenly reported that Conrad Swanson had won The Denver Post’s award for Journalist of the Year. He was actually a runner-up, along with R.J. Sangosti.

Reporter Sam Tabachnik was the paper’s top award winner.

This was the fourth time The Denver Post held an annual newsroom award ceremony, according to reporter Noelle Phillips, who shared with me a full list of winners. There are three categories, and colleagues nominate each other, I’m told, meaning the journalists are recognized by the people who know them and their work the best. 

Here are this year’s winners and the categories, according to Phillips:

Colleen O’Connor Award (For the person who is so helpful to others on staff and named in honor of a reporter who was killed in 2016 by a drunk driver. She was a wonderful writer and person.)

Runner-up: Joe Rubino

Winner: T.J. Hutchinson

We ❤️ Readers Award (For a journalist whose work really considers the audience and resonates with readers)

Runner-up: Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton

Winner: Sean Keeler

Journalist of the Year 

Runners-up: Conrad Swanson and R.J. Sangosti

Winner: Sam Tabachnik

Editor’s Choice: Tynin Fries

Journalists collected their awards at The Denver Press Club earlier this month.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🙆‍♀️ Hannah Hickman, a TV anchor for KKCO in Grand Junction, was this week representing Miss Western Slope 2023 in the Miss Colorado class, saying she was “excited to talk about women’s role in journalism and the importance of equality in newsrooms.” (Watch her explain to a colleague about it on air here. Whoever wins Miss Colorado goes on to compete in Miss America.)

🏆 Colorado Public Radio won eight regional Edward R. Murrow awards including for overall excellence.

📰 🗞 Farmington, New Mexico became “a rare two-newspaper town” this week when Colorado-based Ballantine Communications launched the Tri-City Record. Its publisher is David Cook, a Ballantine board member who owns The Aspen Daily News.

☂️ Tyler Brown of the Ballantine-owned Durango Herald wrote about the new newspaper news, saying, “The startup newspaper might come as a surprise to some industry watchers as the number of print media outlets have slowly dwindled in recent years.” In the piece, Ballantine CEO Carrie Cass threw some shade at the current newspaper serving Farmington, saying, “Their paper doesn’t have sufficient local news to provide the residents with the kind of information they deserve, so we need to fill the gap.”

➡️ Want to sponsor the Colorado Press Association’s convention this year? Find out how here. The convention runs from Sept. 21-23 in Denver.

🤦‍♂️ The Arkansas Department of Transformation and Shared Services — an official government agency of the state — posted tweets inviting tourists to visit the state for its trails and rivers. One problem: they used photos of Colorado.

💨 Jim Mimiaga, a longtime reporter for The Cortez Journal in Montezuma County, is retiring. “It is impossible to replace Jim, with his years of community knowledge and tight relationships,” wrote Sean Dolan. “But we can only hope thatThe Journaland Ballantine Communications will invest in hiring a full-time reporter to cover local issues in Cortez and the county.”

🏈 One sports writer believes “that some people in the media are ‘wishful reporting’ about the Buffs and Coach Prime,” the nickname of University of Colorado football coach Deion Sanders. “Fox Sports Radio’s Dan Patrick recently discussed the notion that people are essentially hoping Sanders does well for the content it will provide.”

🙏 This newsletter got a shoutout from City Cast Denver last week (17:33 in), which led to a segment about one of the items spotlighted in this roundup. Thanks, Bree Davies.

💨 John Stroud, who is listed as the interim managing editor and senior reporter at the Glenwood Springs Post Independentwrote a “not retiring” goodbye column this week. “I’m leaving the day-to-day doings of the Post Independent and plan to try my luck at working (or shall I say, selling myself) as a freelance journalist, along with a few other endeavors that might come as a surprise,” he said.

🎥 FOX21 brought viewers “behind the scenes of Colorado Springs’ largest media production facility.”

🪳 Ben Conarck, now a reporter in Baltimore, remembers how the former Colorado Statesman’s newspaper building where he interned had a “signed picture of Nick Nolte next to my desk and live roaches crawling around in the drawers.”

🎙 StoryCorps, “the national nonprofit organization dedicated to recording, preserving, and sharing the stories of people from all backgrounds and beliefs,” will be in Colorado Springs from June 1-28 “to record interviews, in-person and virtually, as part of its Mobile Tour.”

📊 Colorado-based Ad Fontes Media has updated its Media Bias Chart. In the past two weeks, the team of “politically diverse professional analysts” expanded its list of rated sources to include 143 more sites, seven podcasts, and 15 TV shows.

🏅 CBS News Colorado reporter Rick Sallinger will be “inducted into the Silver Circle at the Heartland Emmy Awards” later this year, the station reported. “The Silver Circle honors members of the media who have achieved 25 years or more in the television business and have made outstanding contributions to the industry and their community.”

🤑 Thanks to those who emailed, texted, or otherwise offered feedback on last week’s newsletter about my adventures in online sports betting and taking a newspaper’s advice along the way. (Spoiler: I lost $32.55 placing $30 to $60 bets each day based on a sports writer’s column called “Best Bets.”) This week I tried something new. I took a friend’s advice instead to drain some of what was left of a $150 sign-up bonus. I lost on the Celtics game, but made money on the Mariners. Go figure.

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.