“I’m not dead.”
That’s the answer I’d hoped to hear — and did — from Trevor Hughes when he picked up the phone around midday Monday.
Hughes is a senior national correspondent for USA Today based out of Denver. We hadn’t meaningfully spoken or interacted in years, but I rang him up, hoping he’d answer.
When he did, his deadpan tone made it clear he’d been expecting my call. But why would I think Trevor Hughes was dead?
In my weekend research of items to write about for this newsletter, I came across his “obituary” published online at a handful of websites.
These death notices, all published Saturday, Aug. 5, were posted on sites I’d never heard of with names like PKB News (headline: “Who Is Trevor Hughes? Trevor Hughes Obituary And Death”), Dehk News (“Trevor Hughes Death Reason?”), or GeniusCelebs.com (“Colorado Trevor Hughes Obituary And Death Cause: Family Mourns The Loss.”) Another post, at Ambrsoft.com, which calls itself a “trending news portal,” came with this typo in a headline: “Trevor Hughes Death and Obituary: How Did He Died?”
Many of these were the kinds of pages that explode with pop-up ad vomit and chumbox sponsored content and seem designed to splatter data-tracking cookies all over your web browser. Amid all that, they displayed multiple (maybe copyrighted) photos of the Hughes I knew.
Worse, they stated as fact that he had “passed away,” “is no more,” or that he “died in August 2023.” One item, in PKB News and bylined by Prakash Israni (if such a person actually exists), even stated: “His death news was officially announced by USA Today. The family of the reporter is in a big shock now. They are grieving the loss right now.” (Hughes told me that’s not true.)
The biographical information about him seemed scraped from his various bios on social media or from his employer. And to me, the items looked like they were written by robots, or perhaps by people who speak English as a second language.
For instance, here was a line from one of them:
Trevor Hughes has a great experience in journalism. he first did the job of a reporter in the State House’s new service. Then he worked for the Longmont Times call, then he worked in Fort Collins Coloradoan. Then he finally joined USA Today. He totally worked in USA Today for 15 years 4 months till the end of his life.
So there was reason to be skeptical.
Beyond the items at those fake-news-looking sites, nothing credible indicated Trevor Hughes of USA Today had died. No news story in a known outlet quoting family members or his news organization, no obituary posted to the website of a legitimate funeral home.
But he hadn’t posted anything on social media since the alleged obituaries popped up, either.
Unfortunately, I’d seen this before. In the information economy of our digital age, death news has become a commodity.
Two years ago, Ben Weiss reported for Wired magazine how online “obituary pirates” were scraping websites and re-writing death notices to generate traffic, and even “reaping commissions on flowers and gifts.” Meanwhile, at least one tech company is offering funeral homes obituary-writing services powered by artificial intelligence. (Philadelphia Magazine reporter Victor Fiorillo tried it out on himself and instantly got back a “playful” version and a “witty” version memorializing his life.)
But what happened to Trevor Hughes of USA Today is different. How was it that the Internet gremlins determined he was dead? Perhaps a hint might be found in some of the language from the write-ups.
“After the unfortunate demise of Trevor Hughes, his name has become a widely searched topic across various online platforms,” noted one in Current-Affairs.org. “People are hugely searching for his cause of death,” mentioned Dehk News. “Trevor Hughes’s death news is the most trending topic on the internet,” stated PKB News. “His death news has been searched as the ‘Colorado Trevor Hughes’.”
Indeed, Google Trends, which publicly tracks what people are searching, shows that searches for “Trevor Hughes” jumped on Aug. 4 — a day before the bogus obituary items posted. People were searching from Colorado, but also in Indiana, and, more than anywhere else, Ohio. Notably, a YouTube video of a man speaking another language popped up on Aug. 5 titled “Trevor Hughes Death Reason? Colorado,” and another titled “Trevor Hughes Ohio Obituary USA” posted around the same time.
Are content farms using artificial intelligence or cheap labor to monitor search engines and then prematurely posting obituaries to harvest clicks and data?
I reached out Monday and Tuesday to one of the dubious sites that inaccurately published news of Hughes’s death seeking to talk to someone about how they conduct their work. I haven’t yet heard back.
Years ago, it was a best practice for journalists not to report a death unless the coroner had made an official announcement. The past decade or so of social media and mass shootings pretty much made that dinosaur behavior, but there are still some standards.
Regardless of the methodology used by the sites that knocked off Trevor Hughes of USA Today, you don’t have to consult a journalism ethics professor about how this is outside the bounds of responsible media. We’d probably better start thinking more about how we deal with these kinds of things as advancements in technology make them cheaper and easier to do.
For his part, Hughes, who previously worked at a local newspaper where he actually wrote legit obituaries, told me he doesn’t know why this happened to him. At the time we spoke, the inaccurate news of his demise hadn’t made many ripples outside a circle of close friends, one of whom had spotted an item before even Hughes himself caught it through a Google alert. (He’d been on a plane.)
Hughes said the bizarre situation is a reminder that media literacy is increasingly important, and consumers in the digital age need to check and verify a source before they take it at face value.
“As a journalist who covers a wide variety of topics, I often find myself coming across what appear to be computer-generated obituaries that have been created to generate traffic,” he told me. “So I kind of have gotten to a point where I sort of ignore them. They feel a little bit like noise.”
For my part, I didn’t want to start my own rumors about Trevor, so I was vague when emailing someone in the USA Today Network on Monday and asking if they had time for a sensitive phone call.
While I waited for a reply, I noticed Hughes had posted something on Facebook since I’d last checked — photos from a reporting trip in Florida. So I called his cellphone and held my breath.
When he answered, I was glad at least one creepy corner of the Internet was wrong.
Allen Best’s Big Pivots tackles ‘changes made necessary by our rapidly warming climate’
Dave Marston, who publishes the syndicated column Writers on the Range, is out with one this week about Colorado journalist Allen Best who “edits a one-man online journalism shop he calls Big Pivots.”
You should read the whole thing, but here are some takeaways:
- “Best is based in the Denver area, and his twice-a-month e-journal looks for the radical transitions in Colorado’s energy, water, and other urgent aspects of the state’s economy. These changes, he thinks, overwhelm the arrival of the telephone, rural electrification and even the internal combustion engine in terms of their impact.”
- “A major story that Best, 71, has relentlessly chronicled concerns Tri-State, a wholesale power supplier serving Colorado and three other states. Late to welcome renewable energy, it’s been weighed down with aging coal-fired power plants. Best closely followed how many of its 42 customers — rural electric cooperatives — have fought to withdraw from, or at least renegotiate, contracts that hampered their ability to buy cheaper power and use local renewable sources.”
- “Best also vacuums up stories from towns like Craig in northwestern Colorado, home to soon-to-be-closed coal plants. He says he finds Farmington, New Mexico, fascinating because it has electric transmission lines idling from shuttered coal power plants.”
- “His biggest donor has been Sam R. Walton’s Catena Foundation — a $29,000 grant. Typically, supporters of his nonprofit give Big Pivots $25 or $50.”
There are plenty more interesting nuggets in the column, so give it a read at the link above.
Denver sports broadcasters get a look from columnist John Moore
Earlier this year, when CBS Colorado named Romi Bean as the primary sports anchor at KCNC, the station and others described her as the first female main sports anchor in the history of Denver TV.
Last week, longtime 9NEWS sports director Rod Mackey bolted the station after a 23-year run to join Bean across town at CBS.
Denver Gazette columnist John Moore used the occasion to take a look back at the Mile High City’s “storied roster of TV sports broadcasters.”
In it, he recalls notable local anecdotes about a roster of people who some Denverites might recall as household names back in the Anchorman days of appointment TV news viewing. (Caveat: mustache count in the photos accompanying the column: 1.)
As for the current TV sports news scene in Denver, “no one has taken a more circuitous route to history than Bean, twice a Denver Broncos cheerleader who paid her dues and is quickly becoming one of the great stories in local sports TV annals,” Moore wrote.
Now, with Mackey alongside her, Moore wrote, the development “leaves 9News vulnerable in a way it never has been before simply because of the enormous amount of institutional knowledge that leaves with him.”
Ex-Denver Post editor: Let taxpayers ‘have a whack’ at supporting local news
Greg Moore is extolling once again the potential benefits of public funding for local journalism.
The former newspaperman who spent 14 years as editor of the Denver Post appeared this week with conservative pundit Jon Caldara for his “Devil’s Advocate” Internet video show produced for the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute think tank.
“It doesn’t scare me,” Moore said about the prospect of more public support going to produce the news.
For the past several decades, he said, corporations and businesses that a newspaper covered subsidized the coverage through advertising, and there were guardrails in place to keep them from compromising or influencing the reporting.
“I don’t think it’s that much different to let taxpayers have a whack at supporting the journalism that they need and care about,” he said. “So we’ll figure out a way to do it.”
Some more nuggets from the conversation:
- When Moore started there were 309 journalists on staff at the Post. “I would say it’s probably around 60,” he said about the staff now. “Dramatic drop.” (He and Caldara spent the first 10 minutes or so talking in detail about what it was like to lay people off in a newsroom. Grim stuff all around.)
- Asked to look into the future of news in 10 years, Moore said, “I think we’re going to see a bunch of different models, but I do think we’re going to see more narrowcasting” — meaning more niche coverage of topics and even sports teams. “Technology is going to make it much easier to get into the game … you just need a fertile mind and a lot of energy, and hopefully, if you’re credible, you’ll have a pretty good audience and you may be be able to monetize it.”
- Moore is serving on Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s transition team. “When I got out of journalism I was sort of able to reclaim my citizenship,” he said, adding that the mayor’s race was the first time he ever gave money to or endorsed a politician, or held an event for one at his home. “It’s not a time to be on the sidelines,” he said.
The two also spent plenty of time talking about Johnston’s approach to mitigating homelessness in Denver. Watch the full conversation here.
Changes at ‘leaner’ Coloradoan newspaper include a new newsroom location
As the retrenching newspaper company Gannett tries to sell the Pueblo Chieftain’s newsroom building, the paper the company owns a few hours north in Fort Collins is also moving into a new office.
Coloradoan Editor Eric Larsen told readers this week about changes coming to the paper, including the relocation.
“Personally, as someone who has called 1300 Riverside my work home for 11 years, I’m excited for the move,” Larsen wrote. “The ghosts of Coloradoan past are abundant on Riverside, where even the artwork reminds us of a time when hundreds of coworkers clocked in and out of the building across all hours.”
Here’s more from the editor about what the move represents:
The new space will reflect the needs of a leaner, more mobile operation that spends most of its time out in the community. Today, the office for many of our journalists and ad representatives is wherever they open their laptop.
That’s happening elsewhere, too, and it’s hard to talk about the news business with some journalists over 40 these days who don’t bemoan the loss of buzzing newsrooms that fostered camaraderie and helped young reporters learn in a collaborative in-the-trenches environment. That’s probably not coming back any time soon.
Elsewhere at the Coloradoan, “longtime Coloradoan editor Rebecca Powell will take over our important city government watchdog reporting position, formerly held by Molly Bohannon,” Larsen wrote.
The paper is also “recruiting to hire a new reporting position to cover the nexus of Northern Colorado’s urbanization and how decisions by local government leaders impact livability and the environment, including issues of water supply, air quality, transportation and affordability.”
More Colorado media odds & ends
🌲 This newsletter is hitting your inbox early this week as I’ll be out-of-the-office and might not be as quick to reply to emails, voicemails, or DMs.
📡 Alex Forsett, Western Colorado Regional Director at Rocky Mountain Public Media, and Obed Manuel, an editor at Colorado Public Radio and Denverite, are among a cohort of public radio employees recognized by Current magazine “for making a mark on their organizations and communities.”
✅ The Journalism Trust Initiative introduced the first 100 newsrooms the project hopes can help “bring back trust in news.” Some of them are from Colorado where the global organization is testing out a pilot.
✍️ Journalist and author John Fayhee, co-founder of the Mountain Gazette and “a familiar byline to readers of The Aspen Times, Aspen Daily News and the first reporter for the Summit Daily News, is set to embark on a homecoming tour,” Taylor Cramer reported for The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent.
📺 Rocky Mountain PBS is hiring a managing editor it will pay up to $80,000 a year. They’re looking for someone to support members of the team “in story ideation and community engagement, while cultivating community partnerships and supporting audience-integrated content models.”
📗 Craig Silverman, a podcaster, lawyer, and former Denver prosecutor, calls Denver journalist and author Alan Prendergast’s book “Gangbuster” the “best book of 2023.” Prendergast, who teaches crime reporting at Colorado College, spoke with Silverman about the book on his podcast.
➡️ Contribute to this GoFundMe set up by a Pueblo Chieftain reporter to help those who are losing their jobs as Gannett shuts down the newspaper’s printing press. “Some workers who are losing their jobs with the Pueblo Chieftain are single moms,” she said. “Others recently bought a house and are worried about making mortgage payments. Some people have been working at the press for decades and need to find a new source of income to make ends meet.”
🗞 Colorado’s new state historian, Colorado College English professor Claire Oberon Garcia, says her go-to news sources are the New York Times and the Gazette. “We generally have a leisurely breakfast where we go through both the papers and just discuss what’s going on,” she told Esteban Hernandez of Axios Denver.
💨 Katie Eastman spent her last day reporting for 9NEWS in Denver this week. “Man, I’m a wreck,” she said. “I love this team so much. It’s been such an honor to do what I love alongside them. And I’m so grateful to the Coloradans who have let me into their lives, and trusted me to tell their stories.” (She’s heading to KOTV in Oklahoma.) Coloradoan photojournalist Lucas Boland is leaving for New York City.
❌ Last week’s newsletter referred to Startup Colorado as “a publication of CU’s Colorado Law Silicon Flatirons center.” It is no longer affiliated with CU Boulder. In the same newsletter, I thought I corrected a typo in a press release by changing South Fork “Tines” to South Fork “Times.” But that’s actually the name of the newspaper. The South Fork Tines. What a sense of humor.
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.