Inside the News: The Denver Post Is the Latest Colorado Newspaper To Kill Off Its Comments Section

  • 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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After years of trying to disinfect what it characterized as a toxic swamp of an online comments section, Colorado’s flagship newspaper decided to simply drain the damn thing.

Comments on stories have become just too uncivil, editor Lee Ann Colacioppo wrote in a note to readers this week.

“The Denver Post has tried a variety of approaches over the years to counter that, including encouraging our journalists to engage with commenters and adding layers of controls around our moderation with professional full-time moderators,” she wrote. “None of it managed to make our commenting section the productive space for engagement we envisioned.” Meanwhile, she added that the paper’s “resources need to be devoted to bringing you news that matters and makes us worthy of the trust you put in us when you subscribe to The Post.”

So the paper will kill off its commenting sections on July 1.

Mark Zohar, the CEO of Viafoura, said via email that his company has been providing comment moderation for the Post. And he said he takes issue with the “main reason” the hedge-fund-owned newspaper stated for its decision to remove the ability for users to post comments.

“I’ll simply point out the obvious — when a private equity group buys local news organizations it is generally the case that cost optimization, not investment in growth, is the main business objective,” he said via email, adding, “there were other issues besides moderation that were as or more paramount for their decision.”

Asked about that, Colacioppo said she “didn’t face financial pressure” but was “swayed by the hope it would improve the speed at which our site loads.”

Site-performance speed was the main reason that the Boston Herald, controlled by the same hedge fund as the Post, gave this week for endings its commenting section. (The Post didn’t mention site speed in its note to readers.)

Every time another newspaper scraps the ability for readers to comment on stories — the Boulder Daily Camera killed off its comments in 2016 only to resurrect them last year — readers will have differing views on the decision.

One county Republican Party in Colorado called the Post’s move “woke logic” and opined that the paper “doesn’t want readers to challenge their narrative so they switch to ‘nah nah nah can’t hear you’ mode.” “Perfectly fine move. No one will miss it,” stated the Twitter account for the Northeastern University School of Journalism’s “What Works in Community News” initiative that includes a forthcoming book with a chapter on Colorado. “Reader engagement is difficult, but online comments have long since ceased to be a useful tool.”

Some of the paper’s own journalists grappled with their personal views about it this week.

“I’ve got mixed feelings,” wrote Denver Post reporter Jon Murray on social media, which started an online conversation about his paper’s latest change. He added that he has seen “plenty of constructive criticism” of stories he’s published or “comments that point out an error that needs fixing” — but often it’s a swamp.

Another Post reporter, Tiney Ricciardi, said the vast majority of online engagement and conversation is no longer happening in the comments sections of newspaper websites, but rather on social media.

“We grappled with this at my old newspaper, too, but realized killing the comments section isn’t killing the conversation,” she said via email. “It’s removing our role as host of these conversations, though we remain participants alongside our readers on platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, etc.”

Don Colacino, a Colorado-based filmmaker who is currently at work on a journalism documentary called Trusted Sources, seemed startled by the paper’s decision.

“Exactly the OPPOSITE of what news outlets need to be doing to rebuild trust with their readers,” he said upon learning the news. “I mean, really? Even a full-time moderator couldn’t maintain civility? They’re just giving up?”

The move follows multiple experiments at the Alden Global Capital controlled paper whose newsroom union once pleaded with its cost-cutting owner to do something serious about improving the paper’s comments section or consider “removing it completely.”

Six years ago, the paper acknowledged that its comment section had become a “cesspool” of “rich manure” that fostered “fertile battlegrounds for all manner of trolls, racists and spam artists.” The paper tested out a moderation service called Civil as I reported for Columbia Journalism Review at the time. But that was short-lived. Last June, the Post announced it was trying out a new comment-taming platform powered by Viafoura. Now a year later, poof.

Beth Rankin, the newspaper’s director of audience, said on social media she hoped the move to eradicate comments would “make our site a safer place.”

As for Denver Post commenters themselves, some of them sounded off in the comment section of the paper’s story about its decision. Views were split there, too.

One frequent commenter who was responsible for nearly 850 comments said it had turned into a “junk and graffiti section.” Another poster who was responsible for more than 4,000 comments, wrote, “there will be no reason to subscribe anymore. It was always fun to civilly discuss stuff with all of my many friends here.” A commenter who had racked up roughly 2,250 comments said: “Agree or disagree, this is a community for sure. Each commenter had their own personality and quirks. Some provoked some good conversation; others drove you crazy. At the end of the day, I learned what others thought, thought about a lot of points of view and learned something about human nature.”

Dealing with comments is a perennial battle that reached something of a boiling point about two years ago in Colorado.

The Swift-run Steamboat Pilot scrapped its comments with its then-editor saying that keeping them just didn’t align with the paper’s mission. The Gazette in Colorado Springs chose to make commenting a privilege for subscribers only, something its editor said at the time was a “direct response to requests from those same subscribers, many of whom have complained to us about the level of conversation they sometimes must endure.” But just this April, the billionaire-owned Gazette told readers it had to eliminate online comments “due to various technology issues” that had “not worked seamlessly.” (Commenting is still encouraged for subscribers on its E-editions, the paper stated.)

Lest anyone think comment sections are a product of the digital age for newspapers, consider this: the nation’s (arguably) first newspaper, Publick Occurrences in 1690, kept pages blank at the end so readers could jot down thoughts before passing their edition along to others.

Man bites dog: Journalists got raises at a Colorado newspaper

The newsroom union of the Loveland Reporter-Herald was able to negotiate a contract that includes raises for its journalists.

“We have finished our bargaining and one of the agreements are raises for the news staff,” reporter Austin Fleskes said this week. “It’s not as much as we had originally bargained for but we are happy that our reporters can now be paid better for the hard work they do.”

In 2021, organizers at the Alden Global Capitol controlled paper successfully formed a labor union, becoming the first newspaper to do so in Colorado since the 1940s.

Journalists at the paper wrangled support from the community and even appeared before city council to air their plight. Meanwhile, they negotiated with ownership behind the scenes in countless bargaining sessions.

“The contract is definitely not perfect, and there were plenty of things we had to sadly concede on,” Fleskes told me. “But one thing we fought tooth and nail for was raises for the staff.” And they got it.

“This has been an incredibly long process, and we have seen people come and go throughout the whole thing,” Fleskes added. “But we are so happy to say that the Loveland Reporter-Herald news team has successfully stood up for all the hard work we do to provide Loveland with news every single day. We are proud of our work and think it should be recognized, that is why we started this in the first place. And we hope that this shows just how important the work of local journalism is.”

And, it should be said, the work of union organizing in newsrooms.

Journalism Institute of San Luis Valley launches with internship

Two years ago, a for-profit local digital news startup sprang to life in Colorado — this time in the San Luis Valley.

The Alamosa Citizen at the time said it was also launching The Rural Journalism Institute of the San Luis Valley, a nonprofit that would train early-career and aspiring journalists “to work and perform their craft in rural communities with populations under 20,000.”

This week, the RJI introduced readers to three interns who are honing their digital skills this summer and publishing their work in the Citizen.

From the item:

“We recognize the need to train more young people to fill these critical roles in the emerging world of digital journalism and social media,” said MaryAnne Talbott, CEO of Zepol Media. “It is particularly important that small markets and rural communities aren’t left behind in the digital age and young people growing up in small towns have the opportunities to develop these skills and perform the work. The Valley has stories to tell.”

The RJI has a five-member board of directors. The organization says it emphasizes story development focused on agriculture and farming operations, water and environment, small town economies, local public officials and governments, arts, culture and history, education, health equity, and infrastructure.

Because of its “unique and culturally and economically diverse setting” in the San Luis Valley, the RJI says early-stage journalists get “first-hand experience reporting on small towns in rural settings, and facilitates and encourages the employment of journalists in small communities.”

More stories about summer journalism interns in Colorado

That’s just one news organization hosting local news interns this summer and sharing their stories.

Bucket List Community Café published an item this week about its own Denver-based local news outlet’s interns. From the piece, referencing publisher Vicky Collins and editor Madison Lauterbach:

“Our students put their skills into action across all platforms in an entrepreneurial journalism start-up. They are part of a vibrant ecosystem of innovators in community journalism. Their experiences help us do things differently than they’ve been done in the past,” says Collins. 

“We give the next generation of journalists who don’t have an Ivy League diploma or newsroom connections an opportunity to learn how to be the storytellers in their communities. We’re setting the next generation up for success,” says Lauterbach.

Read more to find out what those interns are up to here.

This week, I had the opportunity to sit in on a Zoom call with Colorado journalism interns at multiple news outlets as they heard from The Colorado Sun’s equity reporter Tatiana Flowers. I was impressed with their questions and look forward to seeing what they produce this summer.

As someone taking part in a working group involving Colorado journalism internships this summer, I’d love to hear what interns are doing at your local newsroom in Colorado. Send me an email or a link to a story you might have published about it.

Why The Colorado Sun finally got an app

Let’s back into this one. Why wouldn’t a digital local news pioneer have an app?

Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun’s chief technology officer, answered that question this week when announcing that The Sun finally got one. First, here’s what he said about the hurdles:

The reasons why an app presented a risk for a young upstart newsroom like ours were all practical:

  • Apps can be expensive to build.
  • Apps can be expensive — and time-consuming — to maintain.
  • Designing an app that lives up to The Sun’s standards can be — you guessed it — expensive.

But now The Sun has one “thanks to an evolution in the way mobile apps are designed, developed and kept up-to-date,” Lubbers wrote.

But there was another element to The Sun’s decision that caught my eye: “Social media is on a downward spiral.”

While it pained Lubbers to write it, he said, “there’s no denying that Twitter, Facebook and many other online gathering places are being hollowed out, hamstrung and pumped full of misinformation by powerful forces.”

More from The Sun’s reasoning:

So rather than simply give up, diversify your scrolling options by getting an app that’s full of ethically reported, verified news written by real Colorado journalists — and one that won’t ever track you, hoard your data or otherwise violate your privacy. And because we don’t have a paywall for our news, you can stay up-to-date on all things Colorado for free without having to deal with trolls.

Read the whole thing at the link above.

Pueblo Chieftain editor says Gannett will sell its newsroom building

The past two weeks have been a whirlwind for dozens of local newspapers affected by a decision by the nation’s largest newspaper chain to shutter its printing plant in Pueblo.

This week, Pueblo Chieftain editor Zach Hillstrom published a column after seeing what he called “some inaccurate information.” From the item:

Some of the local rumor mill has proclaimed that the Chieftain is shutting down. Unfortunately, another news outlet reinforced that with a headline that has since been corrected.

One piece of news in the item was that Hillstrom confirmed the iconic downtown building that houses the paper’s newsroom “will be put up for sale.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

🇪🇺 ✈️ 🇺🇸 This newsletter was produced largely in out-of-the-country mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual. (And also that certain Colorado news outlets were blocked on my devices because they don’t comply with the European Economic Area’s data protection regulations.)

➡️ Colorado newsrooms can start applying for this year’s #newsCOneeds matching grant challenge that “helps newsrooms ranging from hyper-local digital outlets and locally-owned rural papers to nonprofit newsrooms and a big-city alt-weekly to expand their community-based fundraising.”

🗞 Colorado Press Association is hoping newspaper publishers respond to this survey about the future of printing in Colorado by 5 p.m. today.

📼 A judge last week agreed with a half a dozen local news organizations that last month sued Denver Public Schools over access to footage from a March meeting that they allege board members held in violation of Colorado’s open-meetings laws. “This is a huge win for the First Amendment and Denver journalists,” said Denver Post journalist Noelle Phillips. “The school board is being held accountable for violating open meetings laws.” But, Denver’s school board is “doing everything in its power to prevent the public from listening” to the private meeting in question, Alayna Alvarez reported for Axios Denver, adding that DPS had appealed the ruling this week.

📈 “We started with zero subscribers at the beginning of the year, but now we have 147, and secured almost two dozen advertisers since launching,” said the Florence Reporter newspaper’s general manager Kevin Mahmalji on LinkedIn.

📢 Denver-based Free Speech TV, “the only national, independent news network dedicated to advancing racial, economic, and environmental justice,” is hiring an executive director it will pay $175,000 to $195,000. FSTV says it “lifts up the stories of those historically excluded in media and political power, including people of colorLGBTQ folks, poor people, folks with disabilities, women, elders, and youth.”

🎤 Colorado Public Radio’s “Colorado Matters” host Ryan Warner recently took part in a “Mortified” event in which “adults muster up the courage to read from their adolescent diaries on stage.” What did his coded diary entries reveal? Find out by listening to it here.

⚖️ Complete Colorado reporter Sherrie Peif is taking Colorado’s state health department to court after it withheld records from the news and commentary arm of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute think tank. “Complete Colorado retained Jackson Kelly, a well-known Denver law firm that specializes in government relations and open records laws,” Peifreported.

🗣 “After Colorado’s second-highest court decided that lawyers and law firms can be held liable for making inflammatory statements when publicizing certain class action lawsuits, the state Supreme Court agreed to look at whether the new rule went too far,” wrote Michael Karlik for Colorado Politics. “The case examines whether attorneys who publicize their lawsuits are shielded from accusations of defamation.”

💻 Heavy Ed, “an offshoot of Seaton Publishing Company,” this week touted a “digital marketing expansion” for the local family owned news company behind the Sentinel in Grand Junction.

🔗 “Another round of earthquakes in Colorado’s Raton Basin, another round of news stories that don’t mention the extensive body of seismological research linking them to natural gas production,” wrote Chase Woodruff of Colorado Newsline.

📲 Gazette editor Vince Bzdek argued this week that lawsuits against social media companies from school districts, including in Colorado, “may mark a tipping point.”

📰 Colorado newspaper publisher Bob Sweeney shared some Father’s Day thoughts on newspapering in his “Barbwire Bob” column and wrote that “being somewhat old-fashioned at our newspapers we still like to cover events and report on local people.”

🔩 Michael Roberts at Westword has a story about what Brad Jones, who ran the early 2000s Colorado political blog Face the State and the “short-lived print publication” The Capitol Call, is doing now.

💸“A year from now, on July 1, 2024, inflation will likely boost the maximum hourly rate governments are allowed to charge for processing Colorado Open Records Act requests from $33.58 to around $41.34 — an alarming 23 percent increase,” Jeff Roberts reported for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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.