Inside the News: That ‘Local News’ Bill Has Advanced in Colorado — But It Looks Very Different

  • 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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‘Media outlets are not the direct beneficiary’

A panel of Colorado lawmakers this week gave preliminary approval to a bill that would offer tax breaks to small businesses that advertise with local newspapers.

The proposed new law, called “Supporting Local News,” has changed drastically since you first read about it in this newsletter last month.

The original version carried a sweeping mandate that would have required all Colorado agencies and departments to spend at least half of their advertising budgets with local news organizations. It also would have created an income tax credit of up to $250 for individuals who subscribe to local newspapers or donate to local nonprofit news sources.

But when the bill passed out of a business committee Thursday, it was whittled down like a hedge-fund controlled newsroom.

Now, if passed, all the new law would do is offer a 50% tax credit for small businesses that advertise with local media, capped at $2,500. Still, journalists and their advocates cheered the bill and its initial approval — including the Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter.

I’m always interested in the ways those who make our laws talk about the press, so I listened to yesterday’s nearly three-hour hearing. Below are some parts of the debate that caught my attention.

  • The bill’s sponsor, Littleton Democratic Rep. Lisa Cutter, offered statistics she said show 81% of Coloradans read a local print or digital newspaper each month, and that 83% of newspaper readers are under 65.
  • Colorado lost 33 newspapers between 2004 and 2019, Cutter said, and noted the number of reporters here has declined by nearly half in recent years.
  • Democrat Kyle Mullica, who wound up voting for the bill, said he was concerned it might benefit some entities that might not particularly deserve it. “We’re looking at hedge funds,” he said, “and we’re looking at wealthy entities that would be reaping the rewards from this.” (The Denver Post and about a dozen other newspapers in Colorado are financially controlled by a hedge fund, which has gutted its newsrooms. 9News in Denver was recently purchased by private equity firms, and a billionaire owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs and Denver along with Colorado Politics.)
  • Cutter said it would be hard to exempt some local news organizations from the bill and said only about 15% of newspapers in Colorado are controlled by hedge funds.
  • Republican Rep. Mike Lynch asked for clarification that these tax breaks would go toward advertisers and not to newspapers. “The paper just gets the benefit of more advertisers hopefully coming their way,” Cutter said.
  • Democratic Rep. Marc Snyder of Manitou Springs, wondered if a local advertiser or political figure wanted to advertise hate speech in a paper if that means the government would now be rewarding that. A publisher responded that a newspaper has the right to reject any ad.
  • Linda Shapley, publisher of the Colorado Community Media string of local newspapers in the Denver suburbs, testified in support of the bill. “Subscription prices are going up, paywalls are going up,” she said, adding that a bill to help advertising might mitigate that in an age of increased reader support.
  • Amy Gillentine, publisher of several papers in Colorado Springs, spoke in favor, saying when businesses need to cut costs they often cut advertising.
  • Bee Harris, publisher of Denver Urban Spectrum, said she believed the bill could benefit some 400 Black-owned businesses in Denver.
  • Chris Fresquez, CEO of Denver’s The Weekly Issue El Semanario, called the bill necessary and added that it “must be the start of a bigger picture.”
  • At least two lawmakers recused themselves from voting because they’re involved in businesses that might advertise with local newspapers.
  • Steven Waldman, the chair of the national Rebuild Local News Coalition and founder of Report for America, testified in favor of the bill, calling it a “really shrewd way” to solve the problems of helping small businesses while also helping “save local news.”
  • Justin Sasso, head of the Colorado Broadcasters Association, offered some stats he said he got from a Nielsen research study from January that showed 94% of Coloradans use local broadcast TV each week, and nearly 1 million Coloradans “do not use social media.”
  • Tim Regan-Porter, head of the Colorado Press Association, said his members reach 84% of Colorado voters in local elections. “Every day is a struggle for our members,” he said, adding Facebook and Google have sucked up a lot of advertising dollars.

Following public testimony on the bill — only one member of the public spoke out against it — lawmakers discussed the legislation amongst themselves.

“We can all agree on the importance of local news,” Cutter said as she wrapped up the meeting. She added what she called “a reminder” that “media outlets are not the direct beneficiary of this credit … it is the small businesses.”

In an emotional coda to the business affairs committee hearing, the panel’s vice chairman, Democratic Rep. Tom Sullivan, broke down as he talked about his son Alex who was murdered in the 2012 Aurora theater shooting.

“I would rather be the most anonymous person on the planet,” he said about his role as the subject of mass media coverage over the past decade. “And through all of that,” he said, his voice shaking, “the people that have really understood, and really get what happened that day and how the people in my community were impacted, has been the Aurora Sentinel.”

More from Sullivan:

“And that’s because they’re right down the street. They drive by that theater every day. They live with the people who are surviving that day. And if they weren’t around, people wouldn’t understand what we go through each and every day. So it is imperative that our local journalists and our local publications have the ability to continue to tell the stories of the people in their communities who are impacted by the day-to-day things that happen. And with that, I am an overwhelming supporter for this.”

By a vote of eight to three with two excused and others abstaining, the bill passed out of the panel and will head to another committee for more debate. If it passes, forecasters estimate its impact on the state budget next year could be around $8.8 million.

Denver DA: No murder charges for 9News security guard who shot a rally goer

Denver District Attorney Beth McCann’s office said it would drop a second-degree murder charge against a former KUSA 9News security guard, Matthew Dolloff, who shot and killed a local hat-maker, Lee Keltner, at a 2020 “Patriot Muster” rally in Denver.

“In line with our ethical obligations, we cannot overcome the legal justifications of self-defense or defense of others,” a spokesperson told media in a statement. “We are not able to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

  • Rewind: The dramatic transformation from journalists on the job into witnesses for the police in that broad-daylight fatal shooting at a downtown Denver protest took only moments.

“Under Colorado law, a person can use deadly force in self-defense only if that person reasonably thinks using less force won’t be sufficient, and the person reasonably believes he or someone else faces an immediate threat of being killed or seriously hurt,” reported Elise Schmelzer for The Denver Post. “There is no duty to retreat under state law, but the action taken in self-defense must be generally proportionate to the attack, experts have said.”

‘Without the filter of the mainstream media’

A Republican political consultant this week unveiled a news and commentary site he says will offer information that mainstream media ignore.

More than that, Matt Connelly, founder of the new Campfire Colorado site, says the new venture will shine “a light on the politicians and members of the media who drive their own agendas at the expense of everyday Coloradans.”

More from Connelly in his announcement:

While big tech tries its best to silence conservative voices, Campfire Colorado’s opinion pages and original blogs will serve as an online gathering place where conservatives can freely share their ideas without the filter of the mainstream media.

Connelly has served in media-liaison roles on multiple GOP presidential campaigns, for California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, closer to home, former Colorado U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner. His site launched March 7 with columns by Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl and Colorado’s House Minority Leader.

  • “We believe that there is a need for a true, online, conservative media outlet in Colorado,” said Colorado Republican Party Chairwoman Kristi Burton Brown in a separate item Connelly penned. “Campfire Colorado,” Connelly wrote, “hopes to be that media outlet.”

In a write-up about this new site, Axios Denver cast the development as an “alternative media landscape targeting conservatives” that is emerging in Colorado alongside Steve Bannon’s Denver-produced War Room podcast and CaucusRoom, a conservative social media platform founded by a Coloradan.

Colorado news sources trying to cleave off a conservative audience aren’t new; the most recent big one is the opinion offerings of Colorado Politics and the Denver Gazette. In the nonprofit news and information world, Complete Colorado and Center Square try to appeal to Coloradans on the right, and talk radio is still a place where conservative audiences can get a daily dose of chatter that appeals to their points of view.

  • In 2017, when media reported how a conservative foundation based in Wisconsin was funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars into Colorado to help shift the state to the right, one of the documents included The Franklin Center for Government being interested in creating a “bureau for online journalism in Colorado.” (Center Square is a project of the Franklin News, which was formerly the Franklin Center.)

Colorado’s statewide offices are held by Democrats who also control both houses of the legislature and the governorship. Last month, Colorado’s 1,070,029 registered active Democrats outnumbered Republicans by about 115,000. In recent primary elections, the 1.6 million-plus unaffiliated voters who make up the majority of the state’s electorate have chosen more Democratic ballots than GOP ballots.

Register for this Denver journalism conference

The Society of Professional Journalists western chapter is putting on a conference next month called “Face to Face: Local Journalism in a Virtual World.”

From the registration announcement:

The conference kicks off Friday afternoon, April 8, with sessions featuring local journalists who know what it’s like to deeply cover their communities and will discuss freelancing, starting a podcast, social media reporting and more.

The conference will be at the Auraria Higher Education Campus at Metropolitan State University of Denver on April 8 and 9. Find the full program here.

Panels include: Mental health in journalism, solutions journalism, and a resume workshop. I’ll be on a panel called “social media reporting + shameless self-promotion.”

➡️ Students can attend for free.

A 7th grader interviewed our governor

Former Colorado news anchor Rodolfo Cardenas is looking to inspire a new generation of journalists with a “Reporter of the Month” program.

From Laura Casillas at KUSA 9News:

The program consists of inviting bilingual students to participate in his radio newscast and win prizes. Students learn how to write a news story and how to record interviews, and they are provided with ideas on topics that could be developed. They then present those news stories on his radio show “Hablemos Hoy” on KNRV 1150 AM.

February’s Reporter of the Month was 12-year-old Sylvia Kehm, a seventh grader at Denver’s Escuela de Guadalupe dual-language school. The Spanish-language publication El Comercio de Colorado profiled Kehm last month as she was working on a series of three stories.

Who was the subject of one of her first big interviews? Colorado’s Democratic governor, Jared Polis. Watch it here.

‘Sunshine Week’ is next week. So, panel.

Every year, journalists and other transparency advocates celebrate Sunshine Week; this year it’s March 13-19.

On Tuesday, March 15, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition will host an in-person panel at The Denver Press Club, also streamed live on Facebook.

  • Panelists will explore “the recent trend among some school boards in Colorado to disregard or evade the Colorado Open Meetings Law by discussing public business — including the replacement of district superintendents — outside of public view.”

Three journalists and two attorneys will take part. Find out who they are and more details about the event here.

More Colorado media odds & ends

👀 A city councilman turned the tables on local media in Boulder this week by offering an assessment of the local news landscape and interviewing journalists.

🆕 Welcome Lacretia Wimbley as Colorado Public Radio’s “second Justice Reporter.” She comes from the the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh.

🗣 Another week, another Colorado journalism panel, this one hosted by Colorado State University’s department of political science. Journalists and others participated in a discussion about “the state of local journalism and its impact on the flow of information and civic engagement across an increasingly diverse and complex civic ecosystem.”

→ 🗞️ “The Foundation for Sustainable Urban Communities has become the new owner of Front Porch newspaper,” the foundation said last month. “The transfer was prompted by the retirement of the current publishers, Carol Roberts and Steve Larson, who donated the paper to the Foundation.”

🎙 If you enjoyed last week’s newsletter about an ex-Oath Keeper spokesman who runs a local news Substack newsletter in Estes Park, Jason Van Tatenhove has released a podcast about our conversation.

👟 Need a hoodie or pair of sneakers featuring the Colorado flag? Behold The Denver Post … store?

🇯🇵 Student journalists in Colorado got some ink in The Japan Times this week in a story about high school newspapers. “There is something special about journalism,” Highlands Ranch Rock Canyon High School senior Kira Zizzo, who edits the Rock, said. “It truly amplifies student voices.”

📡 Nathan Heffel has left his position as station manager of KRVG/KRGS in Glenwood Springs and said he will become Colorado Public Radio’s “next All Things Considered host when the wonderful and iconic” Jo Ann Allen retires “on March 18th.”

🛡Colorado Newsline reporter Faith Miller took umbrage at Axios Denver for indicating the site produces “partisan content” on par with The Colorado Times Recorder. “I work my butt off every day (as do my colleagues) to produce journalism that is balanced and nonpartisan,” she said. “Please let me know how I can do better!”

🗳 The Denver Press Club’s annual members meeting and board election takes place March 23.

👻 A Colorado Public Radio report by Sam Brasch spotlighted how some guest columns wind up in your local news publication: “We can help you write it. We can help you get a place with the paper or whatever you want. We can do as little or as much as needed,” Brasch quoted a communications consultant telling attendees who work in a specific industry, adding that the firm was ready to ghostwrite opinion pieces in the future.

📰 “As a reporter with disabilities, writing stories like these feels incredibly important for my community,” said Olivia Jewell Love about a recent piece for the Canyon Courier.

🎥 A new Boulder documentary “cracks open the conversation on race, place and belonging in ‘the happiest city in America’,” and the Boulder Reporting Lab has an interview with the filmmakers.

😮 Items from this newsletter made CJR’s notable stories for the second week in a row.

🔪 “Capitalism has been having its usual effect of misdirected priorities on the newspaper business for a long time,” said a letter writer in Colorado’s Glenwood Springs Post-Independent and The Aspen Times.

🆕 The University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication has launched a “new 10-week entrepreneurial journalism program for content creators, entrepreneurs and media executives.”

📧 Colorado College students are publishing newsletters for a class called “Inbox Journalism: Writing for Newsletters.”

🖇 The Donald W. Reynolds Journalism Institute at the Missouri School of Journalism has “reached an agreement to collaborate with the nonprofit JournalList Inc. to expand its automated system designed to elevate and monetize trusted news outlets and their official social media feeds.” JournalList is run by Coloradan Scott Yates, a Democrat hoping to run against Republican Lauren Boebert for Congress.

🚔 Darren Whitehead, digital desk lead at Denver’s 9News, told TV News Check that Colorado police scanners are “encrypted,” but monitoring Twitter helps him learn what’s what.

🔢 The Colorado Times Recorder said its most popular post of the week “featured original reporting on a host of southern Colorado candidates spouting election fraud conspiracies.”

↗️ Cumulus Media announced this week it promoted Ryan Kaufman “to Program Director of News/Talk radio station AM 740 KVOR in Colorado Springs.”

🤡 George Orbanek, the former editor and publisher of The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel who retired in 2008, published a guest column to President Joe Biden in his former paper saying his representative in Congress “beclowned herself by shouting at you from the back seats at your State of the Union address — a display so gobsmackingly appalling that I and tens of thousands of other West Slope voters really don’t know what to say.”

⬆️ Reporter Jessica Gibbs has “moved into a senior reporting position” at Colorado Community Media.

📺 “One of the longest running news personalities in Colorado has announced her retirement,” 9News reported. “April Zesbaugh of 850 KOA will retire in the upcoming months, ending a 30-year broadcast journalism career, iHeartMedia announced Wednesday.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. 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.