Dumpster fire, clown show, a glitch in the simulation, whatever you want to call it, 2020 was a kind of something else we should have seen from the start.
In Colorado, think of how it began: Around this time last year, residents and law enforcement were reporting troubling nightly sightings of mysterious lights in the sky over the Eastern Plains. The phenomenon sparked an anxious investigation among 70-plus agencies that included the military and FBI. So unsettling and unaccountable were these swarms of “mystery drones” that our governor dispatched the state plane to hunt them down and determine their origin. “I struggle to see how this could turn out in a way that is not concerning,” one of Denver’s most popular news anchors said at the time. “I think this is going to reset both how your world operates and my world operates when this thing finally does draw to a conclusion,” a sheriff’s captain in Lincoln County told me around the height of the hysteria. “We’re going to learn lessons from this.” But a massive mobilization of our state and federal government (along with state and national media) eventually ended in a collective shrug. Authorities and journalists walked away determined the whole thing had really all just been a nothing-to-see-here mass delusion.
A few months later there was more to worry about than our privacy, the vulnerability of our nuclear arsenal, or extraterrestrials — so we kinda sorta just let that one go. Looking back at it now, my goodness, if that was the most unbelievable thing to happen in 2020 it would have been fine by me.
On the local media front, where this newsletter is concerned, the year was transformative. The state’s journalistic establishment underwent a foundational recalibration toward more collaboration. A pandemic underscored the essential nature of the local press while highlighting the economic fragility of its business model. Newsrooms looked inward and reckoned with themselves about race. We lost some news outlets and new ones cropped up.
Here’s a roundup of 2020 on the local news beat in Colorado. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but here were some high-and-lowlights:
January found our Democratic congresswoman, Diana DeGette, offering a prescient warning against a newspaper merger between the nation’s two largest newspaper chains that would affect The Coloradoan and Pueblo Chieftain. She worried it was a bad idea that would lead to retrenchment and less local news. On the radio waves, Colorado Public Radio continued its statewide expansion by gobbling up KRCC in the Springs. iHeartMedia layoffs rocked Denver radio, Aspen Public Radio bumped music for more local news, and a canceled 710 KNUS conservative radio host who joked about a “nice school shooting” to break up the monotony of impeachment coverage planned a podcast future. Showing some pitfalls of the digital age, a fake Twitter account impersonated a Colorado political journalist, and 9News started letting robots help write some of its news coverage. On the transparency front, someone leaked a copy of finalists for the presidency of the University of Colorado to The Colorado Independent as the school was trying to keep the names secret. The secrecy had confounded local media and open-government advocates and eventually led to an open-records lawsuit ruling in a newspaper’s favor. In the digital news space, a former owner of The Gazette pledged to stir the pot with a new digital news site in Colorado Springs, and an advocacy group took over StreetsBlog Denver. When The Denver Post canceled a columnist whose writing, the columnist said, was “too insensitive,” the conservative Gazette’s editorial page snapped him up. A Denver Post delivery driver got shot in the hand.
In February, there were little hints of the whirlwind to come. The hedge-fund-controlled company that owns The Denver Post bought The Greeley Tribune from Nevada-based Swift Communications. Denver’s CBS4 started a 24/7 streaming news service. The Colorado Independent hinted at its new mission as a kind of ProPublica collaborator at the local level. High Country News celebrated 50 years in business. Colorado Public Radio’s Vic Vela turned his personal story of drug addiction recovery into a podcast called Back From Broken. Highlighting what can fill the void when reporter jobs disappear from local newsrooms, a dozen small newspapers across Colorado ran publicity content about the elected politicians who run our elections. In Saguache County, The Crestone Eagle announced it would turn into a nonprofit to sustain itself, a small-scale version of what The Salt Lake Tribune did to survive in Utah. Reflecting a national trend, at least one Colorado newspaper decided to start covering crime more responsibly in the digital age by re-thinking how it publishes mugshots.
March, typically thought to come “in like a lion and out like a lamb,” reversed itself this year. The month began normal enough with the Democratic U.S. Senate minority leader, Chuck Schumer of New York, browbeating the Alden Global Capital hedge fund for gutting newsrooms it owns like The Denver Post and a dozen other papers in Colorado, and a 9News reporter courageously pledging he wouldn’t stop reporting on hate — even when hate showed up at his door. (Shame that’s normal these days.) At the Capitol, Colorado lawmakers sided with police over media outlets about whether to allow cops to keep radio chatter secret, and more reporters seemed comfortable testifying in hearings about their work. In Colorado Springs, a major newspaper editor wrote how he came away with a new perspective on journalistic objectivity after hearing Lewis Raven Wallace speak at Colorado College. Things were relatively calm as The Denver Post instituted a “hard paywall.” As a media reporter, my mind wandered to such pressing issues as suggesting to move exhibits from the defunct Newseum in Washington, D.C., to the Union Printers Home in Colorado Springs. By the middle of the month, the first ripples of a novel coronavirus started disrupting local media. Reports that a deadly and contagious new disease had made its way to Colorado brought shutdowns and stay-at-home orders. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition canceled its Sunshine Week panel. Initially, some newspapers with subscription content lifted their online paywalls for COVID-19 coverage and then opened all stories for free. TV reporters started anchoring news desks solo, Capitol reporters donned masks and stood six feet apart at news conferences. Open-government advocates worried about secrecy creep in a time of virtual meetings. The words “Coronavirus” or “COVID-19” in large font took over the home pages of news sites or as new verticals. Some of the first announced newsroom layoffs hit, beginning at The Durango Herald. Things looked dire: One newspaper company executive with papers in Colorado suggested revenues could fall by as much as 75%. Press advocates asked Democratic Gov. Jared Polis to make members of the media essential emergency personnel, and the governor did it. Editors and publishers started explaining their coverage and role in their communities during a kind of breaking news story that hadn’t gripped the nation’s complete attention since Sept. 11, 2001.
By April, the local news industry was reeling from the “COVID-19 economy.” Some newspapers stopped printing physical copies, others that had never before asked readers for money began to do so. In a disorienting new normal, the way some newspapers disclosed their new financial arrangements to readers differed. Some newsrooms offered their audiences behind-the-scenes looks at how they were coping. Facing a financial crunch from lost advertising, newsroom managers cut pay and put print and TV journalists on furloughs to save money — a brutal irony at a time when communities needed reliable local news and information more than ever. One journalist learned of her layoff while on assignment. “I couldn’t cry,” she said. “You can’t get masks wet and it’s dangerous to touch your face.” Asked if there was anything the state might do to assist the battered local news business, the governor threw cold water on the idea. Philanthropy stepped in, offering grant money to some Colorado newsrooms to cover the virus. Reflecting other broader industry trends, an ex-newspaper reporter in Northern Colorado started her own thing called The NoCo Optimist and the Google-funded Longmont Leader launched in Longmont. On TV, as CNN’s Chris Cuomo and his New York governor brother, Andrew, attracted much attention with their split-screen interviews, a Colorado TV reporter and his doctor brother did the same in Denver. In some good news, The Denver Press Club got a $500,000 donation from a former journalist and paid off its mortgage. The ongoing pandemic pressed the gas pedal down on a unique-in-the-nation statewide effort among formerly competing newsrooms to collaborate and share resources, and The Colorado Independent changed its mission to become part of it. Nearly 100 journalists from more than three dozen newsrooms partnered on a massive project called COVID Diaries Colorado orchestrated by the new Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab. Outlets shared their work with an Associated Press tool called StoryShare. As journalists called on state government to be more transparent, one small-town newspaper wasn’t being transparent itself about a government-employee writing something the paper presented as news.
May found more newspapers asking their readers for money — even those that were already charging for subscriptions. The New York Times Magazine profiled The Pueblo Chieftain for a story subtitled “In the rural West and around the country, newspapers are stuck at the intersection of a shrinking industry and crumbling local economies.” As the coronavirus continued to wreak havoc on the local news business, former Denver Post editor Greg Moore said he worried about outlets becoming less diverse, explaining, “a lot of times, those people tend to be the last ones hired and the first ones to be laid off.” The state’s press association revamped its mission to become more collaborative, leading its director to say, “while the COVID crisis is proving how critical local journalism is to our democracy, it also is magnifying cracks in our industry and highlighting years of decay that we can no longer ignore.” The Colorado Media Project gave $50,000 in grants to newsrooms with underrepresented audiences. The Boulder Daily Camera issued a rare front-page correction. Independent Castle Rock filmmaker Brian Malone released the trailer for his documentary News Matters: Inside the rebellion to save America’s newspapers.
In June, protests were raging over the filmed police killing of another Black man in America, and newsrooms reckoned with their overwhelming whiteness. Multiple Colorado newsrooms pledged to combat racism. But it shouldn’t have taken “a national crisis on race for newsrooms to have a discussion on race and gender inclusiveness in their organizations,” said Pueblo PULP publisher John Rodriguez. Philip B. Clapham, project manager of the Colorado Media Project, published a post at Medium titled “Let’s Talk: Journalism’s Race Problem Is in Colorado, Too.” Out in the streets, during demonstrations in Denver, police shot pepper balls at the press and sprayed reporters with tear gas. Westword published the names and mugshots of arrested protesters but later removed them after a backlash. For the first time ever, Colorado’s economic development office offered a $100,000 grant to a local news publisher. House of Pod hosted the first podcast incubator of its kind for women of color. Former Rocky Mountain PBS VP of journalism Laura Frank became COLab’s inaugural director, and to house the initiative the Buell Public Media Center became a new “one-of-a-kind hub for Colorado’s leaders in public media and journalism.” Colorado College students and faculty (myself included) launched The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project, a daily newsletter about the pandemic’s impact on higher education. Tina Griego told her readers “You may notice that my byline on this piece reads ‘Colorado News Collaborative’ rather than ‘The Colorado Independent.'” A millennial media entrepreneur from California who “helps brands share their stories” pledged to revive the once-mighty Mountain Gazette magazine.
July showed us how much the federal Paycheck Protection Program provided to Colorado’s local news producers. Millions in pandemic relief money flowed to more than a dozen media outlets that do business here, giving them the “breathing room” needed to stay afloat. As pre-orders of Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan’s book Ghosting the News about the nation’s local news dystopia started hitting mailboxes, readers found Denver made a cameo in the first four pages. Colorado Newsline, a new nonprofit digital site covering politics and policy staffed with a handful of young journalists and led by former Boulder Daily Camera opinion page editor Quentin Young, came on the scene. That move made Newsline the 17th state-based site of its kind under the auspices of the States Newsroom, a national initiative that says it began disclosing donors just as it launched its Colorado site and is seeking to set up similar sites in 25 states by next year. While there was “deep introspection” inside Colorado Public Radio’s newsroom about race and racism, The Colorado Sun hosted a “first-in-a-series of statewide discussions on race, relations and bias in Colorado.” Marty Coniglio, a 9News weathercaster, left the station after he caught flak for tweeting “Federal police in cities…now where have I seen that before?” along with a photo of German Brownshirts in front of a Nazi flag. (Three months later he explained why he did it.) After 47 years with KUNC, Neil Best announced he would retire as CEO.
August found multiple fires raging across the state and Colorado journalists talking about why they were or were not mentioning climate change in their wildfire coverage. In Pueblo, PULP publisher John Rodriguez wound down his feisty independent news outlet after he accepted a job for the city coordinating communications around COVID-19. A rural Western Slope newspaper owner spoke out about local retaliation for bad pandemic press. Students working on The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project made The New York Times for their coverage in The Colorado Sun. Denver7’s general manager said he hadn’t seen a photo of his station’s staff without masks and not social distancing until Westword sent it to him, and then acknowledged a “disconnect between the image and best practices promoted by Denver7.” A columnist for Complete Colorado dug into our state’s haunted history of newspaper connections to the Ku Klux Klan. The Coloradoan in Fort Collins and The Pueblo Chieftain, both now owned by the Gannett newspaper chain, pledged to better reflect their communities with newsroom diversity. Colorado Inside Out Host Dominic Dezzutti gave panelist Dave Kopel a two-week time out for what he called “harmful” comments. KGNU public radio started a fellowship for journalists that included “in-depth training over 9-10 months from nationally-recognized experts on structural, systemic, and historical issues, particularly those linked to racism and discrimination.” Rocky Mountain PBS launched “Native Lens,” where Indigenous people can tell their own stories. Denverite journalist Donna Bryson wrote about what it’s like covering people experiencing homelessness. Colorado got a pro bono press freedom attorney as part of the national Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press’s Local Legal Initiative. A Colorado journalist who had a big story talked about why he decided to go for a podcast deal instead of writing a book. KKTV news anchor Don Ward died suddenly while hiking. Two Colorado cities paid up in settlements for First Amendment complaints. The Colorado Springs Gazette’s owner announced the launch of The Denver Gazette online newspaper. The Colorado Press Association, which took on a new mission with COLab, said its director, Jill Farschman, planned to retire early citing medical issues. In the feedback department, an inmate sent a Colorado TV news anchor a homemade dollhouse in the mail while a different Colorado TV reporter got a scary email that said “You, the media Will be the target. That day will come.”
In September, Colorado earned national attention for its move toward unprecedented newsroom collaboration, and our Democratic U.S. senator, Michael Bennet, introduced a federal bill to help save the local news. Desk-bound reporting during the pandemic led to charges of dateline abuse. The Colorado Sun turned 2 and launched a daily podcast. The venerable Colorado-based High Country News told its readers about how it was evolving. Boulder Beat, a local newsletter and site started by an ex-newspaper reporter, went to court for open records. Rocky Mountain PBS formed a “partnership between Rocky Mountain Public Media, Gov. Jared Polis, the Colorado Department of Education and the Colorado Education Initiative.” Westword celebrated 43 years as Denver’s alternative weekly with a new headquarters that is “a far cry from the space where we created our first weekly issue, which hit the streets on September 1, 1977.” Tina Griego wrote about how “a larger conversation is happening among journalists and the public around coverage of communities that long have gone uncovered or not been covered well, the result of ignorance or arrogance, of newsroom blind spots and deaf ears, of the subjectivity that disguises itself as objectivity in largely white newsrooms.” Diamond Hardiman of News Voices: Colorado, a Free Press Initiative, wrote about “a window of opportunity for Coloradans to conceive a new path forward for journalism.” Acknowledging white privilege, The Steamboat Pilot & Today newspaper embarked on a six-week series called “Indivisible” that focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion in Routt County. The owner of a ski mountain swooped in to save the struggling Silverton Standard & the Miner newspaper from the San Juan County Historical Society. Earning a write-up in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel, Colorado Parks and Wildlife hosted the “2020 Women in Media Shootout.”
October brought national scrutiny to a then-largely-unknown practice of local journalists hiring private security when an armed guard hired by KUSA 9News shot and killed a man at a Denver rally. The killing became a “super-spreader of online misinformation,” turned employees for two Colorado news outlets into witnesses for the police, and spotlighted just how indispensable professional photographers are for a publication during major events. As an election neared, CBS4 in Denver scrambled to figure out how a major local TV station could adequately correct misleading election information it published in an environment where a credible news outlet’s mistakes can become weaponized for partisan gain. The inside-the-Beltway political news site Axios announced plans to start a newsletter in Denver. Brian Calvert stepped down as editor of High Country News. Kaiser Health News rounded out a Mountain States Bureau, including journalists in Colorado, to focus on health care coverage. The Colorado Press Association hired Tim Regan-Porter as its new director. (He was the “founding executive director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism, a former Knight Fellow and a regional editor at McClatchy.”) KUNC revealed Colorado’s tourism office was paying for Texas travel journalists to come write about Colorado. A newspaper lawsuit in Aspen underscored the benefit of a (rare) two-paper town. A Colorado reporter spent seven months haggling with the state Department of Labor over his furlough weeks. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition advocated for a “proper balance” for the costs to process open-records fees. The Global Disinformation Index found Colorado had around 20 websites “that look like local news.” A conservative Colorado group’s founder “threatened to dox journalists who report negatively about the group.”
In November, Colorado Community Media, which bills itself as “the largest local, family-owned media group in Colorado,” bought a cluster of suburban Denver-area newspapers from a Kentucky-based company called Landmark Community Newspapers. The move was in line with a broader national trend of small-deal newspaper purchases during the pandemic, and CCM publisher Jerry Healey said advertising was coming back and things were starting to turn around for newspapers business-wise. But a wave of buyouts across the Gannett newspaper chain following its merger with GateHouse wiped decades of institutional memory out of The Coloradoan and The Pueblo Chieftain. (Remember what Congresswoman Degette said in January about fears of impacts from the merger?) Cindi Andrews announced she was leaving as Denver Post politics editor, continuing a cycle of turnover on the desk in recent years. Susan Gonzalez, social media strategist at Chalkbeat, who lives in Denver, was elected to the Online News Association’s board of directors. The New York Times gave a shout out to The Colorado College COVID-19 Reporting Project. In editorial land, a journalist who rounded up editorial board endorsements could only find one newspaper of note that endorsed Republicans Cory Gardner and Lauren Boebert: The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Calling it “an unconventional way to report the news,” Boulder Weekly crowdfunded money from its readers to pay for an open-records fee to investigate Xcel Energy. We learned a former Colorado journalist-turned cannabis PR guy was a co-owner of The News Station, a new digital site angling to become a “national alt-weekly.” A Colorado Springs TV anchor who caught the coronavirus said symptoms felt like “standing atop a 14er.” Local media called out state government secrecy surrounding COVID data. Photographic evidence emerged showing how small-town newspaper publishers in Colorado really “do it all.” The Public Relations Society of America named CPR’s Vic Vela its Media Person of the Year.
December saw journalists at the small Alden Global Capital-controlled Loveland Reporter-Herald newspaper organizing the first viable newsroom union drive in more than a decade. Meanwhile, Canada’s Village Media, which operates digital community news sites in Ontario, was eyeing Loveland and looking to hire a publisher. The company said cryptically that it doesn’t “have the baggage of the legacy newspaper industry and the large corporations that may run it.” While some newspapers were shedding their workforces, The Colorado Sun announced the addition of its 14th full-time staffer, reporter Thy Vo, after hiring reporter Lucy Haggard earlier in the year. Two Coloradans appeared in a documentary about how the pandemic changed the local TV news. The state foundation for Delta Dental, of all entities, started spending money to help support the local news. (2020 wasn’t weird enough?) The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly’s editorial board filled its op-ed space with a single word: “Concede.” A battle between satellite companies and the owners of local TV stations left some viewers in Colorado with fewer channels to watch — including the local news. Stacy Feldman, who co-founded Inside Climate News, launched The Boulder Reporting Lab. Colorado journalists talked about what they did on forced furlough. COLab unveiled a new website and embarked on another statewide collaborative series, this time called “On Edge” about mental health. Report for America selected The Colorado Sun as a newsroom that will host a full-time photographer. Lawyers and security experts convened a virtual roundtable about best practices for news organizations hiring private security. The Colorado College Journalism Institute and DU won a grant from the Online News Association to map our local news scene. Journalists and their allies worried a Republican lawmaker might have put two Denver Post reporters at risk when he posted images on social media that showed where the reporters live in response to a story he didn’t like. As the Poynter Institute highlighted some of the biggest moments for women in media this year, it’s worth noting that the Colorado Press Association, Colorado Media Project, COLab, and The Colorado Independent, which all helped lead a transformative movement in 2020 toward greater collaboration, were all led by women at the time, and so is RMPBS whose new building houses the space. As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough, squeaking in just under the wire in the final days of the year news broke that the Alden Global Capital hedge fund “known for cutting journalists at local papers to maximize profits” asked to buy out the Tribune Publishing company where it already owns a 32% stake. Axios wrote about news first reported in The Wall Street Journal: “Given Alden’s history, a takeover is expected to result in a restructuring of the company that could result in more local news jobs being cut.” Finally, let’s close out our doom-scrolling year with a data point: The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition received 710 inquiries made to its open-records hotline in 2020, “exceeding last year’s record of 675.”
This column was updated at 5 p.m. on Jan. 2, 2021, to correct that The States Newsroom started disclosing donors this summer.
Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post and other news outlets. Sign up here for his weekly emailed newsletter for an insider’s look at the news behind the news in Colorado.
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