Inside the News: Rocky Mountain Media Review

  • 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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This is a special, expanded edition of the “Inside the News in Colorado” newsletter. Occasionally, I’ll try to take a look at local media scenes outside Colorado to offer a more regional perspective. (What region it is might be debatable. In this one we’ll check in from South Dakota to Nevada, so maybe it’s unclassifiable.)

In Arizona, ‘we have a lot of options for news’

Last summer, when the newsletter giant Substack announced it would take applications from a crop of local news publishers and seed them with startup grant funding, two politics reporters in Arizona were among the chosen few.

Since August, Rachel Leingang, who left the Arizona Republic, and Hank Stephenson, who left the Arizona Capitol Times, have been running Arizona Agenda on Substack — and making a splash. When they launched, the duo said in interviews they wanted to cover politics with more of a voice than traditional media. The Substack grant would pay their salaries for a year while they build up a subscriber base to become a financially sustainable enterprise.

In March, the pair wrote an update for Harvard’s Nieman Lab in which they explained their business model:

We do not want to paywall our journalism unless necessary. But we have some ideas we just instituted, like audio files and reading lists related to the behind-the-scenes of stories, that provide paid subscribers a chance to dive deeper into a reported story. The nuts and bolts, like our daily newsletter and original reporting, will remain free unless or until we have to make it paid. If you want this newsletter to remain free for everyone, do your part and pony up $80 for a year’s subscription.

They also candidly discussed how subscriptions had plateaued in the months after their launch and why they thought that might be. “We most frequently hear from people who unsubscribe that it’s just too much news to follow,” they wrote. “Totally fair! Or that they hated a particular thing we wrote or published, and it pissed them off enough to leave.”

My favorite line from the piece, though, was this: “This is probably one of the coolest jobs in journalism: Just fucking around all day on what we want to do, not waking up early to do it, not answering to a corporate overlord with some gimmick of the week.But we’re playing like 10 different roles on any given day, many of which we’ve never done before. We are, in many ways, out of our depths.”

Welcome to … any local news startup, probably.

On April 23, Stephenson appeared on the Cafe con Chico e Isela internet talk show and explained more about the new outlet’s role in Arizona’s information ecosystem. Here were some things that jumped out at me:

  • “There used to be a vibrant press corps that covered Arizona politics, and it is just dwindling,” he said. “And is fracturing.”
  • “We went from a press corps that was three [to] five news organizations that had a lot of people to a press corps that maybe shrunk and is now building out into five [to] 10 news organizations who have a few number of people each. So things are changing.”
  • “For the first time in my life I’m halfway optimistic about where journalism is going, which is weird to say.”
  • “We’re at about eighty-thousand in annual revenue so far. Not enough to survive. … If we can crack six figures I think that is the bare, bare minimum that we need to keep doing this. … If we stay alive to 2024 we’re in a whole new election cycle, things should be good, and we should survive for the foreseeable future.”
  • “Everyone hates the media — I don’t even really like the media. You know,” — air quotes — “The Media. But if you look at individual reporters there’s a lot of great people doing really important work that we as a society cannot function without.”

Watch the whole conversation at the link above. Because these sorts of outlets like Arizona Agenda — smaller, niche-driven, collaborative, reader-supported — are going to increasingly be the local news organizations of the future, it’s important to pay attention to what works and doesn’t, and to learn from them as they sprout and grow.

‘Not objective’: Trans journalist out of a broadcasting job in South Dakota

“The only transgender journalist at South Dakota Public Broadcasting has lost their job, after being told they are ‘not objective and have a problem with authority.’”

That’s the lede in a piece at The Advocate about reporter Stel Kline who said on social media in April that “despite being told there was nothing for me to improve on at a recent quarterly review,” there was no more use for them at the statewide public broadcasting network where they had worked since October.

Kline said they have filed a wrongful termination appeal with the station that is owned by the state of South Dakota.

Here’s some of what they said in their April 18 tweet thread:

  • “A half hour before beginning my first day of work I received a call informing me the head of communications directed the editor of the member magazine to remove all instances of my pronouns from an article set to run announcing my hiring.”
  • “Instead of using they to refer to me in the third person she was told to use my last name, Kline. When confronted, the director said he wanted me to make the best impression with listeners- so they would judge my stories and voice without being clouded by the fact that I am trans.”
  • “The director of journalism content added that it would be a grammar issue for the older readers. Through this first day on the job, it became glaringly evident that unchecked personal bias clouds judgment in this workplace.”
  • “I was encouraged by the comms team to create a twitter and share my experiences in SD. But, bc I am trans I have been verbally harassed. When I have shared this, the director of journalism content tells me I have lost credibility. That I am not objective.”
  • “In my interview I was very clear that as a trans person I am unable to be impartial about attacks on my humanity. Objectivity is not a static identity, but when wielded as such becomes the language of those with the most power.”

Singular pronouns, The Advocate reported, “have been used throughout time, are gramatically correct, and appear in most journalistic style guides.” Plenty of news organizations also respect pronoun preferences in their coverage. Consider this line from an NBC story out of Colorado from last year:

Nelson — who uses the pronouns ey, em and eir — said ey has watched the murder rate for trans people rise as the community has achieved more recognition and rights.

Cory Allen Heidelberger, who runs the reader-supported Dakota Free Press blog (tagline: South Dakota’s True Liberal Media), wrote how the Kline development had echoes of a situation in the Mount Rushmore State from earlier this year.

From his post:

Kline’s complaint about “objectivity” reminds me of Dana Hess’s decision to leave the Legislative press box because there was no way to report “objectively” about South Dakota’s “silly, symbolic, wrong-headed, and cruel” legislation. Of course, Hess voluntarily left the South Dakota press corps; Kline is getting the boot and saying that SDPB is using “objectivity” to participate in South Dakota’s oppression of diversity.

Fritz Miller, director of programming and communications for SDPB, on April 27 declined to direct me to someone who could speak about the matter, citing a state law that limits disclosing certain information. “As this is a personnel matter we are unable to make any further statement,” Miller said.

For broader context about this local development, Lewis Raven Wallace, a trans journalist who was fired in 2017 from American Public Media’s Marketplace after he wrote a personal blog post titled “Objectivity is dead, and I’m okay with it,” published a book in 2020 called The View from Somewhere: Undoing the Myth of Journalistic Objectivity.

As Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel write in their latest edition of their book The Elements of Journalism, the original meaning of objectivity “is now thoroughly misunderstood” — and close to being lost. “Objectivity as a method of gathering, weighing, and understanding evidence does not mean both-sidesism, political stenography, false equivalency, or the denial of self,” they write. “Nor does it mean that the journalist, after conducting sufficient reporting, has no point of view.”

In a subsequent thread a week later, Kline wrote: “to state the obvious: this. is. not. unique. to. sdpb.”

In a nearby state, a journalist who says they were Oklahoma’s “first openly trans television news reporter,” accused a public broadcaster of using an “application for disability leave as an excuse to fire me.”

Reno Gazette-Journal editor: ‘Net positive to see more journalism in Nevada’

Brian Duggan, who edits the daily newspaper in Reno, Nevada, sat down for an episode of the Nevada Newsmakers show recently to talk about the state of local journalism and his outlet’s role in it. Paul Enos, the CEO of the Nevada Trucking Association, hosted the show.

Duggan, who has led the Gannett-owned newsroom for three years, said when he got there a decade ago the Gazette-Journal had 50 journalists — down from 110 seven years prior — and now they have 19.

Notably, the paper last year started a nonprofit fund that allowed it to hire a reporter to cover local government. (Anyone know of other Gannett papers around here doing this? Email me.)

The conversation between the editor and trucking group honcho covered how the paper has adapted to doing more with less, what makes a compelling local news story, charges of bias, and more.

“People ask ‘Are you biased?’ … or ‘Is journalism biased?’” Duggan said at one point. “And I often say, ‘Well, of course. Of course it’s biased because we all come from a certain perspective … it’s biased for me to say let’s do this story and not that story’.”

Some other nuggets from the 30-minute interview:

  • “The RGJ is seen as a newspaper, but increasingly really a majority of our business is now digital,” the editor said. “We have more digital subscribers than print subscribers now. That just happened within the past year.”
  • “It’s been good to see more voices come into Nevada,” he said about a local news scene where startups like The Indy, This Is Reno, The Nevada Globe, The Nevada Current, and others, have sprouted. “It’s a net positive to see more journalism in Nevada … that are doing journalism that wasn’t previously being done. … They’re going to do stories that we’re not going to get to.”
  • “As far as I can tell … we are a static newsroom. We’re not going to get smaller but we’re not going to get bigger, so the only way to actually add more journalism back is to go find the money myself. And to go fundraise, and to go tell the public why supporting journalism directly is important.”

Watch the whole thing at the link above where the Nevada Gannett editor also talks about who donates to the paper’s nonprofit fund, what he thinks about the habits of younger readers, and more.

‘Pretty solid’ statehouse press corps in Santa Fe, ‘especially bad’ in Olympia

In the previous regional roundup about the local news scenes in Colorado’s adjacent states we learned how Wyoming caught some shade in the Pew Research Center’s latest report on statehouse press corps. So this time, we’ll riff on some bright spots.

Nebraska and New Mexico “had the largest increases in statehouse reporters among U.S. states between 2014 and 2022,” according to that report. “Texas and Missouri had the largest decreases.”

New Mexico’s seemed like a particularly high spike, rising from nine to 55 in the past eight years. I checked in with Dan Boyd, capital bureau chief of The Albuquerque Journal, to see why he thought that might be.

“From my perspective, there have been some positive recent trends in New Mexico statehouse reporting, but I’m not sure how they came up with 55 statehouse reporters,” he said.

More from Boyd:

That seems to be a big exaggeration or misrepresentation. I can tell you there are only about 6 reporters based in the Capitol full-time (Journal, AP and SF New Mexican). When the Legislature is in session, that number can probably swell to 15 or 20 on a given day, including TV reporters. There are also some reporters who cover the Legislature remotely by watching the webcast and doing phone interviews, which could be part of the explanation for the inflated number in the Pew chart. But as I type this, there are currently four reporters in the Capitol media office…

Pew’s methodology counted part-timers, students, and “other” reporters as part of its “total” number for states. And that led a reporter in Colorado to also raise an eyebrow at the top-line number.

“We don’t have anywhere close to 30 people at the Capitol on a daily basis,” said Alex Burness, who covers the statehouse for The Denver Post. “I’d be surprised if many more than 30 different reporters had stepped in the building at any point all session. Our Capitol press corps is certainly robust compared to those on other critical beats that get too often neglected, but I wouldn’t want anyone to think that we who cover Colorado state government are in any kind of surplus.”

Still, in New Mexico, Boyd described the reporting crew for the statehouse as “pretty solid” for a state with only 2.1 million residents. In addition to his paper and the AP, which both have two reporters currently based at the Capitol, he noted a “number of high-quality online news outlets” that frequently cover statehouse news. They include NM Political Report, New Mexico In-Depth, Source New Mexico, and Searchlight New Mexico. “They’ve done a great job helping fill the void left by pared-back staffing at the legacy outlets,” he said, “though we still put in yeoman’s work to cover state government and politics.”

In Washington State, where the situation is “especially bad,” Brier Dudley, editor of The Seattle Times Save the Free Press Initiative, penned a column that localized the Pew report.

“Some of the 11% increase came from new outlets, which is great,” he wrote. “But much of it is due to newsrooms using pinch hitters to cover what should be a core beat. If a baseball team cut its pitcher and had other players take turns on the mound, it would technically have more pitchers. But not really.”

What’s important to note about the Evergreen State in particular, said Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network, is that while the full-time capital press corps has shrunk, “the state population has grown by leaps and bounds as has the state budget.”

(*The newsletter version of this item indicated I thought Seattle is the capital of Washington State and I will never live it down.)

Oklahoma Media Center is building collaborative journalism

The Oklahoma Media Center, which launched in 2020 with a mission to strengthen the state’s local journalism ecosystem and to “spur innovation through statewide collaboration,” issued a recent impact report. Some interesting tidbits from it:

  • $70,000 went toward a dozen projects involving 14 news organizations for “revenue and audience engagement.”
  • More than 25 news organizations shared 430 stories in Oklahoma within 11 months about a project called Promised Land that is covering “the aftermath of the landmark 2020 Supreme Court decision reaffirming Indigenous sovereignty. It’s considered the biggest Native American court ruling in more than a century.”
  • The group facilitated nine trainings in as many months on open records, trust in news, diversity, and ethics in social media, and sessions with the Native American Journalists Association.

Find the entire report here, which might be useful for journalists, funders, philanthropists, and others interested in the power of collaborative journalism and how to strengthen information ecosystems in states.

“We help protect a public good to help ensure everyone is well-informed in our information ecosystem,” wrote OMC project manager Rob Collin. “We help minimize misinformation, increase civil discourse and thwart polarization that endangers our sense of community.”

Collaborative journalism supported by ecosystem builders in individual states is something we should expect to see more of — and is taking root outside Oklahoma. As I wrote in “Journalism Beyond Competition” for Columbia Journalism Review in 2020, neighboring Colorado is a place to look and potentially emulate.

More Rocky Mountain media odds & ends

🔥 A Utah reporter used the Cameo service that allows people to hire celebrities to make videos for friends so he could try and interview Roger Stone who was ducking him for a story. Here’s how it went.

🌵 The University of Kansas is holding a hybrid event this fall to “learn how journalism schools can help solve the news and media desert crisis in the U.S.”

🛡️ In Colorado, a newspaper’s lawyer and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press helped avert a crisis over prior restraint when a judge and the state attorney general tried to blockThe Denver Gazette from publishing a news story.

❌ In last month’s roundup I misstated the years when some States Newsroom sites launched in the region. Nevada Current and Arizona Mirror came on the scene in 2018. Kansas Reflector and Colorado Newsline started in 2020.

🆕 There’s a new era and a new team at The Nevada Independent. “I could not be more excited about what the future holds,” said founder Jon Ralston.

🔎 Don’t forget to register for the IRE 2022 conference in Denver this June hosted by Investigative Reporters & Editors. (I’m on the regional conference committee and will be there, come say hi.) We just announced the schedule.

🔪 The Eagle in Bryan, Texas, “is just one of several Lee Enterprise properties undergoing a shift around the country,” KBTX reported. “These moves come amid an attempt to fight investors known for consolidating local news for profit.” Sources told Axios that Lee “has been quietly laying off dozens of employees across its local papers and at the corporate level as it continues to cut costs following the unsolicited takeover bid from hedge fund Alden Global Capital.”

💨 The weekly Kadoka Press in South Dakota has closed up shop after more than a century. “We have created a very bad work ethic that has been the reason for many partial and permanent shut downs,” the publisher said. “We have the need for many more workers on the job than are actually coming forward. Where have they gone and what are they doing?

📰 “The onset of online media and social media, delivery issues, and the decline of people loving that printed version have caused me to reconsider what a newspaper means to me,” writes ‘Oklahoma Joe’ Hight.

🆕 Phoenix, Arizona-based Mouth by Southwest is launching “a new feature on the website – MXSW Insider, a subscriber-only series of posts for readers looking for more in-depth coverage.”

🔎 Despite “limited access to information and tribally controlled media,” Indigenous journalists are persevering, and are gradually promoting transparency and accountability, including in Idaho and Oklahoma, The Center for Public Integrity reported.

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.