Inside the News: Promising Projects – Colorado Media Initiatives Aimed at Reimagining the Public Square

  • 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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Last week’s newsletter offered the first installment of a series here at Inside the News in Colorado called “Reimagining the public square: What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now.”

The whole document is too long to post in a single newsletter, so I’m breaking it up over the coming weeks and feeding it into each Friday edition in parts. You can find the entire roundup here. The latest one examined our state’s “Ecosystem Builders.” This one, “Promising Projects,” showcases some interesting individual initiatives by some of Colorado’s local news providers across the state.

Promising Projects

Alongside those helping build a sustainable local news ecosystem, often with their help or in collaboration but also on their own or with national partners, are individual local media initiatives aimed at reimagining the public square. They include:

Support for ethnic media and equity initiatives 

In the spring of 2022, the Aurora-based African lifestyle magazine Afrik Digest, along with the City of Aurora’s Office of International and Immigrant Affairs, hosted what it called the Colorado Ethnic News Media Exchange at the local municipal center. The goal was to “begin a dialogue between the African media organizations and the numerous ethnic media outlets in Colorado.”

Just a few months earlier, Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter, offered nearly $1 million in grants to strengthen and advance equity in local news. Several of them went to news organizations that serve communities of color, including Denver Urban Spectrum, El Comercio de Colorado, Entérate Latino, Afrik Digest, Mile High Asian Media, and Hablemos Hoy. Other grants went to news organizations and nonprofits to bolster efforts around diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) at outlets large and small and aided Colorado newsrooms, journalists, and media entrepreneurs “in launching new projects and strengthening existing efforts to serve communities across the state.”

Other projects included a COLab/News Leaders Association-led survey of diversity of Colorado newsrooms, and a collaboration with eight local newsrooms to “explore solutions for meeting information needs of Spanish speakers in the Roaring Fork Valley.”

A newspaper’s answer to Facebook and Nextdoor

On the Western Slope, a Wick Communications-owned newspaper became the first in its Colorado chain to test out a way to try and bridge a gap “between local news and social media.” The Montrose Daily Press newspaper instituted a platform it calls NABUR, standing for Neighborhood Alliance for Better Understanding and Respect, and Neighborhood Assisted Bureau Reporting. 

Begun last February and backed by a Google News Initiative Challenge fund, the effort seeks to “help provide an alternative social media platform where the journalists can help facilitate dialogue,” according to Sean Fitzpatrick, digital director for the Press’s parent company Wick Communications. 

Dennis Anderson, publisher of The Montrose Daily Press and Delta County Independent, calls NABUR “basically a safe place to have a conversation.” He has described it as a combination of a Facebook group and Nextdoor. “If you look at the site,” he says, “it kind of feels a bit like Reddit.” (NABUR users cannot be anonymous.)

Here’s what the local newspaper’s NABUR project is up against locally: On Facebook, a group called The Montrose Message Board has racked up 21,500 members in its near-decade in existence. For context, that’s about half the size of the population of Montrose County, according to 2020 census data. When unveiling the project to the newspaper’s audience, the Press’s managing editor said, “We think that this will be a really good way that we can fight misinformation within our community.”

Tribal Media in Southwest Colorado

Understanding the powerful ability for native people to control their own narrative, Rocky Mountain Public Media and KSUT Tribal Radio in Southwestern Colorado created a platform to do just that. Called Native Lens, the effort helps indigenous storytellers create and share mini-documentaries. 

“Holding a platform for Native and Indigenous people to tell their own stories, we can create discourse about how to address systemic issues we face as individuals and as Native nations, which will also allow us to exercise visual storytelling as a medium that can increase respectful growth and ethical change,” student Charine Pilar Gonzales told the Tribal College Journal of American Indian Higher Education.

Meanwhile, in a first-of-its-kind collaboration between KSUT and KSJD Community Radio in Cortez, the two stations created “Voices from the Edge of the Colorado Plateau” that seeks to “elevate voices from underserved communities. The multi-year project will cover Native, Indigenous, Latinx, and other communities across southwest Colorado.”

Backed by a $135,000 Colorado Media Project grant over three years, KSUT, which runs a Tribal Media Center, and KSJD will hire and share a full-time Indigenous affairs reporter to develop and produce “citizen-driven enterprise journalism.” A multi-year grant from The Colorado Health Foundation will support a news director for the new center.

Statewide prison radio

Colorado is home to the first statewide prison radio station in the United States. Inside Wire, started in 2022, “beams music, stories, news and entertainment into prisons across Colorado—and broadcasts its sounds to listeners outside facilities as well, across the U.S. and beyond.” The initiative is a collaboration between the state’s department of corrections and the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative. 

“This is one more stake in the ground on our mission of transforming prisons to be a place of humanity, to have purpose, intentionality and to bring the men and women behind the walls not only on that mission, but to have them lead the mission of making prisons more intentional,” Colorado Department of Corrections Director Dean Williams told The Colorado Sun.

Prison journalism “provides a window into the concealed world of mass incarceration, gives a voice to the incarcerated, and sheds light on the politics of the carceral state,” reported the magazine Jacobin. “Free and uncensored prison journalism is essential to criminal justice reform.”

Rocky Mountain Public Media’s ‘Colorado Voices’ and The DROP

With a mission to “help build a Colorado where everyone is seen and heard,” Rocky Mountain PBS uplifts the stories of Coloradans from underrepresented stories through a series of broadcast programming. 

Since 2020, RMPBS, now housed in the new Buell Public Media Center in Denver, has produced more than 500 episodes including what it’s like being Black in Denver, high-school artists confronting issues like guns and climate change, inequalities in the state’s cannabis industry, immigrants taking sanctuary in churches, racial bias in transportation, homelessness and housing in mountain towns, native students helping heal “generational wounds left by Indian Boarding Schools,” Latino craft brewers, and how houses and ballroom culture is “more than just ‘glitz and glam’ for LGBTQ+ and BIPOC communities.”

Meanwhile, the state’s largest membership organization is also expanding its reach into Denver’s radio space with the launch of The DROP, which is “one of just five ‘urban alternative’ public radio stations in the country” and where Program Director Nikki Swarn is “the first female African American radio station general manager in Colorado history.”

~OK, here’s where we’ll cut it off and LINK TO THE WHOLE BIG THING , which includes sections, similar to the one above, about “local news startups,” and “civic dialogue and democracy.” At the end you’ll see this: “Have we missed something you think should be included? Email me.”~

Now, onto what happened this week in the news behind the news in Colorado…

Harassment charges dropped against rural Colorado newspaper publisher

Last month, the Colorado Supreme Court unanimously ruled that part of the state’s 7-year-old cybersecurity law could violate someone’s right to free speech.

From the site Governing Technology:

The state’s harassment laws were tweaked in 2015 to strengthen protections for victims of cyber-bullying — a measure named for a Highlands Ranch teenager who attempted suicide after being cyber-bullied — but the justices … said the law was overly broad.

As their ruling trickles down through the state court system, it seems to have already affected a case against the publisher of a small rural newspaper in Custer County.

Wet Mountain Tribune Publisher Jordan Hedberg has publicized documents he says show a county judge dismissed a year-long harassment case against him. Those documents indicate a prosecutor suggested the case be dismissed “based on the recent Supreme Court ruling affecting the elements of statute that the defendant is charged under.”

On social media, Hedberg said he felt local law enforcement was attempting to curtail his “right to disagree with another citizen over a public matter” after he sent text messages to a resident asking if the person was visiting various public spaces without a mask while “infected with Covid.”

The publisher added that his case was not the one that led to the High Court ruling that scrapped part of the harassment statute, but that he had positioned his own court battle as a “First Amendment case” and would have appealed to try and get it before the State Supreme Court. “Somebody else was luckily ahead of me and willing to fight up to the Colorado Supreme Court,” Hedberg said.

Over the phone recently, Custer County Sheriff Shannon Byerly described the case as a “pissing match” and said the person the publisher messaged “wasn’t completely innocent” either.

Byerly’s office provided incident report records stating deputies issued Hedberg a summons after reviewing a text message and a Facebook post. A deputy also said he’d reviewed a voicemail in which Hedberg told the woman to grow up.

The sheriff said he thought the case didn’t go anywhere because it wasn’t a high priority for the district attorney. “We get cases like that from time to time,” he said. “They’re difficult to sort out.”

Asked about the extent to which he felt he was acting in his capacity as a journalist when he sent the messages, Hedberg says he did not send them as a journalist and he did not publish anything about them in the paper. But, he says, he believes he caught the charge in part because of his role as a local newspaper publisher who was outspoken about the threat of the pandemic in his coverage of a rural conservative community.

Rocky Mountain Public Media CEO throws down the gauntlet to ‘most media organizations’

The day after Politico published a leaked draft of a conservative majority U.S. Supreme Court opinion poised to strike down Roe v. Wade, the CEO of Colorado’s largest public media outlet sent a notable memo to staff.

“Times like these compel me to call out a fundamental difference between RMPM and other media organizations,” Amanda Mountain wrote in a May 3 email to employees.

Here’s the rest of the the memo in full:

“Most media organizations create an effective ban on staff engaging publicly in ways that might potentially be perceived as biased. They think it is policies like these that protect the public trust and, more specifically, their brand. They believe that media staff, and journalists/on-air staff specifically, should disassociate from their own personal identities and face any issue with total objectivity. If they speak out about any cause, even one that is deeply tied to their own personal safety and freedom, they risk being fired and discredited in their profession.”

This is not only an impossible expectation to sustain, I argue that it is immoral to even ask. This practice does harm by dehumanizing the very people we rely upon to build trust through information-sharing, community conversation and public accountability. Ironically, holding fast to practices like these hasn’t stopped the massive, steady erosion of public trust in journalism/media organizations.

So, we aim to change public media and create a Colorado where everyone is seen and heard in part by calling out these harmful and immoral practices and acknowledging that when/if your rights and personal safety are at risk, RMPM stands within our diverse communities, not on the outskirts looking in. We don’t pull back, we step inside and stand beside those we serve, in recognition of the fact that everyone has culture, and therefore innate value to share as we strive for a more just world.

I write this today as a woman, raising a daughter in a world I desperately want to be full of possibility. I also write this as the daughter of a trans father who ultimately died keeping his identify hidden from a world that cared not for his safety or innate human right to exist in whatever his chosen form. I also write this as an ally, seeking a fairer world for my friends and colleagues of Color who work harder than anyone should have to in order to achieve their rightful piece of the “American Dream” in spite of rampant systemic inequities and near constant threats to your personal safety.

I want you to know that you are good at what you do because of who you are, not in spite of it. Please know that RMPM stands alongside you, and our diverse communities, in the fight between right and wrong.”

The Rocky Mountain Public Media leader’s memo is a local example of how national media companies have weighed in this week to remind their staff about their values. How they did so differed from newsroom to newsroom.

A memo sent to Axios staff, for instance, said that while abortion is a “human-rights issue,” it seems “impossible” to “tweet opinions” about it because it has become “a highly politicized topic” and could lead to the perception of “picking a political side in public,” according to Washington Post media reporter Elahe Izadi.

Likewise, Scripps sent a reminder to staff that journalists should steer clear of expressing views “not grounded in verifiable fact, which could be interpreted as your personal opinion or views.”

More in line with RMPM, Izadi’s colleague Jeremy Barr reported that Rolling Stone told its staff: “Unlike so many other newsrooms, you don’t have to stifle your beliefs around here. This is a place where we can champion our convictions, where we can be our fullest selves.”

Journalists convene panel on mental health

Next week, Colorado journalists will gather at the Buell Public Media Center in Denver to host a statewide conversation about mental health. Susan Greene, an investigative reporter for the Colorado News Collaborative, will moderate a panel.

On it will be Mental Health Center of Denver CEO Dr. Carl Clark, Colorado Public Radio investigative reporter Ben Markus, State Behavioral Health Commissioner Dr. Morgan Medlock, Summit County Commissioner Tamara Pogue, Lauren Snyder, who is vice president of government affairs for Mental Health Colorado, and Russell Goodman, a Coloradan with mental health challenges and father of a child who has “been denied” care.

“The event builds on reporting from Greene’s investigative series, On Edge, produced in partnership with dozens of Colorado news media outlets including 9NEWS,” the station reported.

Register for the May 17, 5 p.m. event here. Submit questions for the panel if you have them here.

West Slope student journalist “schools” his county over press freedom

Colorado is one of 15 states with a law that protects student speech in public schools, and in 2020 lawmakers expanded it to protect academic advisors.

That helped Travis Cantonwine, 18, who is a senior at Delta High School on the Western Slope where he edits the Delta Paw Print student newspaper. His school chilled his writing, he told Catie Cheshire this week for Westword, after he reported on his school’s sex-ed curriculum.

From Westword:

Cantonwine reported about the controversy in the Delta Paw Print and penned an opinion piece from his perspective as an LGBTQ writer. The school didn’t like the column, he recalls. “There’s no real evidence I have to corroborate that it’s a direct response to that article, but immediately after the article was posted, the [school] wanted to start putting a prior-review clause in our policy,” Cantonwine says, adding that the school cited a district policy that allowed review of controversial articles by school administrators. He worked with the Student Press Law Center over the summer and put the Paw Print on hiatus until the school board revised its policy to remove the threat of censorship.

Read the rest of the piece at the link above to get a sense of the student paper’s role as a news and information source in the community and the soon-graduating editor’s take on the dominant local newspaper in town.

More Colorado media odds & ends

📰 ⚰️ With this year’s lawmaking session over at the Capitol in Denver, state-level politicians in the Democratically controlled House and Senate did not eventually pass a bill aimed at helping financially struggling local news organizations by offering tax breaks to small businesses that advertise with them.

📱Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet introduced the federal Digital Platform Commission Act, “legislation to establish a new five-person commission responsible for protecting consumers in the age of Big Tech,” The Washington Post reported.

📺 Nicole Vap, who recently left 9News in Denver, is joining CBS News as one of the first four investigative journalists “who will be based at its local news innovation lab.” Vap will be executive producer of content development and will work from Denver.

💨 Colorado Inside Out’s Dominic Dezzutti, who hosted the Denver public affairs TV show on Colorado Public Television since 2013, has moved on. He hosted his last show this Wednesday, May 11. (Dezzutti started as an intern for the show in 1996.)

❓ An alternative weekly reporter in Denver this week had a classic question for a local TV reporter about news judgement.

Dominik Stecula, who studies the intersection of political communication and media at CSUspoke to KUNC about how to combat misinformation. Using local news is “just a good way to avoid the national level, polarizing things and focusing on things in your community that really matter to your life as well,” he said.

🙏 Staff of The Ouray County Plaindealer newspaper said this week they are “thrilled to announce we have another reporter joining our staff on June 1 – through the nonprofit Report for America program.”

💥 This newsletter you’re currently reading got a shoutout this week from the American Press Institute’s ‘Need to Know’ newsletter.

🆕 Jonathan Shikes announced he will be “sliding over from my role as Westword’s Colorado Beer Man into a new and incredibly exciting job at the Denver Post” where he’ll oversee The Know.

⬛️ A multi-year dispute between Altitude and Comcast means “so much of Colorado” can’t watch on their own TVs Denver Nuggets player Nikola Jokić who is the NBA’s MVP, said KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark who called the situation a “shame.”

🆕 New Outdoor Journal just dropped.

🛩 After a dozen years in the TV news biz, Michael Konopasek of KDVR is leaving the journalism business to become corporate communications manager for Frontier airlines. (Not an easy job!)

📡 Colorado State Athletics and its “exclusive multimedia rightsholder, LEARFIELD’s Rams Sports Properties,” announced a contract extension “between the Rams and Townsquare Media NoCo and a new relationship with Bonneville Denver / ESPN Denver 1600.”

🎙 KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark wrote about how an unsupported claim about a candidate “smeared as an ‘abortionist’” emanated on talk radio and on social media.

💨 Wayne Heilman said this week he’ll be retiring after more than 40 years at The Gazette in Colorado Springs. “I will continue writing on a free-lance basis with The Gazette, but on a less frequent basis,” he said on Facebook.

🏆 Dave Philipps of The New York Times, who lives in Colorado, this week won his second Pulitzer Prize.

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.