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Hutchins’ year in review: Here’s what happened in Colorado’s media world in 2021

New startups and ownership changes could reshape our local news landscape, Colorado media critic Corey Hutchins writes

If 2020 was a bruiser for the local media business with layoffs, furloughs and deep cuts from COVID-19 thinning our news scene, 2021 ushered in a kind of “new normal.”

The local media industry tentatively bounced back as the year produced a bumper crop of digital news startups from Boulder and Denver, Broomfield and Franktown, to Pueblo and the San Luis Valley. Colorado once again became a groundbreaker in the battle to help save local news — this time with a unique, first-in-the-nation effort to keep a string of Denver-area newspapers locally owned and thriving, which earned our state national attention. 

In Loveland, a successful union drive brought collective bargaining rights to a Colorado newspaper for the first time since the 1940s. By the year’s end, The Colorado Sun, where you’re reading this column, had doubled its staff since its launch three years ago. And a collaborative spirit among formerly competing journalists that had sprouted in 2020 established firm roots in the past 12 months all over the state. (The Colorado News Collaborative, known as COLab, swelled to include more than 160 newsrooms by the end of the year.)

Corey Hutchins

Meanwhile, attention to diversity, equity, and inclusion in Colorado newsrooms was top of mind for media reformers and some members of the press. Journalists of color pushed news organizations to do and be better — and they had an impact.

Some things didn’t change.

The blood-sucking vampire hedge-fund owner that notoriously gutted The Denver Post sunk its fangs into more newspapers nationwide. Some local outlets trying to build trust with their audiences still couldn’t wean themselves off unseemly sponsored content. And as long as the month of April appears on a calendar, a publisher somewhere will make a fool of himself.

Here’s a roundup of 2021 on the local news beat in Colorado. It’s certainly not comprehensive, but here were some high-and-lowlights:

In January, members of the press across Colorado were publicizing their early vaccine shots after the state deemed front-line journalists essential workers. (Not everyone took the offer.) Following a pro-Trump mob’s violent Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, The Gazette newspaper in Colorado Springs brought in an expert to teach its reporters how to dodge bullets. At the Alden Global Capital hedge-fund-controlled Loveland Reporter-Herald newspaper, the newsroom voted to unionize. In Denver, a battle sparked over Brutalist architecture when the owners of Denver7 TV wanted to sell its iconic downtown building to a developer but had to fight off becoming a city landmark first. (The city chose not to designate it one.) When the national news organization Axios launched a daily newsletter franchise it chose Denver as one of its inaugural cities, hiring Alayna Alvarez away from Colorado Politics and John Frank from The Colorado Sun. A reporter got fired after tweets, and The Colorado Sun’s staff grew. 

February found a COVID-19 outbreak ripping through a TV station’s newsroom in the Springs and journalists battling the state’s unemployment office over pandemic-related claims. A new national daily podcast franchise called City Cast chose Denver as an inaugural city and hired Bree Davies as its host. The Five Points Atlas, a newspaper launched by a Denver mayoral aide, pledged to “tell our story and foster Black journalism,” and a Canadian local media company took over The Longmont Leader. A third Denver TV newscaster (making it a trend) quit the broadcast business to get into a booming local real estate market. Problematic “sponsored content” was polluting local news sites. CBS4 in Denver launched a project dedicated to elevating Black voices. Boulder-based Pocket Outdoor Media bought Outside Integrated Media, which owns Outside magazine. Jason Salzman, who founded the progressive Colorado Times Recorder, explained how he responds to critics of its coverage. On the Western Slope, a newspaper launched its own social media platform to try to compete with Facebook and Nextdoor. 

READ: Hutchins’ year in review: Here’s what happened in Colorado’s media world in 2020

In March, another mass shooting rocked the nation, this time at a Boulder King Soopers. On the scene broadcasting the chaos that left 10 dead was a YouTube live-streamer who captivated an audience of thousands, but whose work was largely ignored in real-time by credentialed media. (“Who says I’m not a journalist?” he asked his followers as he filmed.) In the aftermath, some journalists questioned the potential long-term impacts of immediately identifying eyewitnesses to gun violence in an age of conspiracy mongers, bad actors, and online harassment. Later, asked what advice she would offer newsrooms covering mass shootings, Denver Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo gave CNN a very American answer: “My message is to make sure that your staff is ready. Because sadly, it is probably coming.” Also in March, the Colorado polling firm Magellan Strategies released a survey showing 38% of Coloradans said they had “no trust at all” in local media to report news and information “in an unbiased and objective manner.” A Western Slope local government sued a local reporter. The Colorado Media Project published a report about what Colorado journalists think about Colorado journalism. Republican state lawmakers tried to filibuster a media literacy bill. Some of Colorado’s media moguls got richer during the pandemic. In a widely read personal column in Denver’s alternative weekly Westword headlined “LatinXed: 9News Got Rid of Three Latina Reporters This Past Year, Including Me,” reporter Lori Lizarraga accused her ex-employer of discrimination in the newsroom. 

April, the cruelest month, saw journalists at The Denver Post saying they weren’t allowed to publish a letter in their own paper about internal efforts to examine their newspaper’s role in “perpetuating systems of racism and inequality and to seek solutions.” Three Colorado newspapers reevaluated their comments sections. A Colorado College student won NPR’s national podcast challenge. Our state government re-wrote our open records laws. 285 Hustler, the print publication with perhaps the best name in Colorado, went through its third owner in six months. Colorado Newsline columnist Trish Zornio questioned why some opinion-page editors would let incorrect information onto their pages. The small Crestone Eagle newspaper told readers it would try to convert into a nonprofit to save itself. In the wake of Lizarraga’s Westword column, multiple Latina public officials in Denver said they were no longer talking to 9News. The two dominant newspapers in Colorado Springs both struck out with their endorsements in a five-candidate race for a downtown city council seat, indicating how the editorial boards either don’t have their fingers on the pulse of the community or just don’t have the juice to move the needle. On a podcast discussing coverage of mass shootings — Colorado journalists said they had too much practice — a former editor of The Rocky Mountain News talked about the “limits of journalism.” A “dinosaur” printing press in Grand Junction went extinct. A Denver-area newspaper’s attempt at an April Fool’s article led to local boycotts, the city of Greenwood Village’s Twitter account calling it “racist content and poor taste,” and later wound up costing the paper a government contract. Independent Castle Rock filmmaker Brian Malone released a documentary called “News Matters: Inside the Rebellion to Save American Journalism” that heavily features Colorado. A Denver Post story about Lizarraga and her colleagues headlined “How three Latina women let go from 9NEWS are helping change the journalism industry” noted how the Denver TV station’s parent company changed the language its journalists use when reporting on immigration.

In May, Colorado once again became the center of the universe in an effort to save local news with a first-in-the-nation initiative to keep newspapers sustainably in local hands. (The Colorado Sun bought two dozen community papers owned by Colorado Community Media in partnership with state and national groups. A co-owner is the National Trust for Local News.) Colorado Public Radio’s Dan Boyce won the $10,000 Mattingly Award. (It was the second time in two years the national award went to a Colorado journalist.) HBO’s John Oliver punked a Denver TV station. University of Denver journalism professors found the state of local news in Colorado was both good and bad. A 9News journalist explained why he wouldn’t use the word “grandfathered” in coverage anymore. A trans Colorado Springs journalist said while it “might seem like self-censorship … I try to refrain from offering negative comment on the actions of my fellow transes.” Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet (again) introduced the federal “Future of Local News Act” while one of our Republican Congressmen, Doug Lamborn, tried (again) to defund NPR. High Country News sought an indigenous affairs editor. Author Julian Rubinstein published The Holly: Five Bullets, One Gun, and the Struggle to Save an American Neighborhood that showed how slow journalism can challenge local media narratives that form through daily news cycles. The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner, known as a “destroyer of newspapers,” got its claws into even more newspapers, and Gov. Jared Polis signed Colorado’s media literacy implementation bill into law.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

June found KUSA 9News ‘Next’ anchor Kyle Clark emerging from his famous pandemic-era home studio basement as vaccinations brought COVID cases under somewhat more control. During the trial of a STEM school shooter, a Denver Post reporter covering it and his prosecutor-spokeswoman spouse explained how their personal-and-professional relationship works. Lori Lizarraga, Kristen Aguirre and Sonia Gutierrez, the three journalists referenced in that March column Lizarraga wrote for Westword, earned Dale Awards from the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. The Boulder Daily Camera published a letter to the editor ripping its owner. Denver’s Westword reported how throughout 2021, an increasing number of local reporters and anchors were “leaving TV to start over in an entirely new industry.” The new Southern Colorado Public Media Center opened in downtown Colorado Springs, housing KRCC, Colorado Public Radio, Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, and Rocky Mountain PBS’s Regional Innovation Center.

In July, some thoughtful and forward-thinking Colorado newsrooms were considering new policies for how they covered crime. (The arrest of a Hispanic man in Westminster, and how some Colorado newsrooms covered it, became a case study for how unfortunately typical and thoughtless “crime coverage” can cause lasting harm.) Rachael Johnson, Colorado’s pro-bono lawyer at the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, took on a police department for its annoying practice (also found at other police departments) of demanding IDs from journalists who request public records. Colorado broadcasters blistered the FCC over regulatory fees. A sports editor, quitting the rapidly shrinking and distressed Durango Herald, published a brutally honest goodbye column (without the approval of his managers). Colorado’s own U.S. Supreme Court Justice, Neil Gorsuch, signaled he might be open to revisiting the seminal Civil Rights-era press ruling New York Times v. Sullivan, which set a high bar for winning defamation cases. Westword’s editor said investigators probing sexual assault allegations against a local public official asked the paper to reveal its sources. (The paper rightfully declined.) Worse than that, a woman barged into the press room at the Colorado Capitol and assaulted a Colorado Politics reporter. “This was just a woman who’d heard what the former president said about journalists and took that to heart,” the reporter said about the incident. Burnout among journalists had become so prevalent in some Colorado newsrooms that some organizations convened a panel about it at The Denver Press Club. The Colorado Sun launched an inaugural Rise and Shine summer camp for young journalists, “especially students from underrepresented backgrounds, such as BIPOC and/or LGBTQ youth, rural and those who would be first-generation college students.” Linda Shapley left Colorado Politics to become publisher of Colorado Community Media, the string of papers purchased by the Sun. The newspapers owned by conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz conspicuously chose not to report on a consequential tax lawsuit their powerful owner filed against the state, underscoring the ways ownership can impact news judgment and coverage. The nonprofit Colorado Newsline celebrated its first birthday.

In August, as Denver residents choked on smog and smoke, a reporter’s tweet thread offered some of the best context about how our policy makers chose (or chose not) to respond. Some Colorado news leaders discussed how they were implementing “right to be forgotten” policies that can allow sources the opportunity to have their names removed from previously published stories. The Denver Post shuffled up some major beats at the paper. The scramble included moving longtime environmental reporter Bruce Finley onto the education beat and led one reporter to quit. The Pueblo Chieftain, now owned by Gannett, had to apologize for causing “harm” with its outsourced coverage of chiles. (A local lawmaker called the unforced error an indication of “how you know your local paper is no longer locally owned.”) A judge made what Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg believed was the first ruling in a media case that relied on a 2-year-old law meant to make it harder to sue members of the press for defamation. Colorado Press Women celebrated 80 years as an organization. The Alamosa Citizen, a for-profit local news startup, launched with a promise to “provide information and build civic involvement in the San Luis Valley.”

September saw Colorado as a hotbed for a certain sect of the election-denying ‘Big Lie’ set, and at least one newspaper faced “threats” for its reporting on local figures involved in that delusion. Meanwhile, a right-wing talk radio host in Colorado who had urged a boycott of COVID-19 vaccines died from the virus. The Denver Gazette turned 1, and The Colorado Sun turned 3. The Denver Post eliminated its federal government beat. Westword reported broadcasters had been “leaving Denver television station jobs at an unprecedented pace.” News organizations produced 9/11 remembrance pieces on the 20th anniversary of the attacks — and the Boulder Daily Camera had to retract its own contribution. Jim Sheeler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning former Rocky Mountain News journalist, died at 53. A news site called Allies.Care launched from the small Douglass County town of Franktown to cover mental health issues statewide with a solutions-oriented approach.

In October, three nonprofit local news sites launched in Colorado. One was The Pueblo Star Journal, which called itself the city’s “first community-owned, not-for-profit news publication” and “not your grandma’s evening newspaper.” Another was The Boulder Reporting Lab founded by Stacy Feldman to “fill a gap in Boulder-local, public interest, modern daily journalism.” A third was The Broomfield Leader, the second site in the United States run by Canada’s Village Media. Following a year of conversations, Black residents and Black journalists in Colorado released five recommendations “focused on how to improve access to trustworthy news and information for Black residents throughout the state.” The Colorado Sun hired Tatiana Flowers to cover inequality. Susan Greene of COLab and Priscilla Waggoner of The Kiowa County Independent won a Best Investigative Journalism award from the Institute for Nonprofit News for their collaborative coverage of a rural police killing. Investigative reporter David Migoya left The Denver Post for the rival Gazette. The Colorado Media Project announced its 2021 newsroom grantees for its unique-in-the-nation #NewsCOneeds fundraising campaign. Two conservative Colorado Springs talk-radio hosts lost their jobs following workplace vaccine mandates at their stations. Some high-profile election-denying Trumpworld figures appeared in a Denver courtroom for arguments in a defamation case a Dominion Voting Systems employee brought against them. A new pay-transparency law illuminated how much journalists are getting paid in Colorado.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

November brought the National Association of Black Journalists to Denver for the group’s annual meeting. According to one attendee, representatives found newsroom leaders in the Mile High City saying they were “eager to further diversify their newsrooms, but that their low numbers have turned off potential applicants, who would prefer to go places where more diversity already exists.” Later that month, Latinx Voices: Colorado released a report titled “Think Big. Act Now: A Call to Action from Latinx Coloradans for Equitable and Just Local News.” The group offered four recommendations including “holding newsrooms accountable for increasing Latinx diversity on staff, among sources and in stories.” The Colorado Media Project committed nearly a million dollars from a collaborative of local and national funders “who recognize the important role that local journalism plays in ensuring that Coloradans are well-informed and civically engaged.” The Gannett-owned Coloradoan in Fort Collins teamed up with CSU’s Center for Public Deliberation on an effort they called the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project. The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition created an online version of its useful Sunshine Guide about our state’s open records laws. Newspaper editorial boards urged citizens to get vaccinated. The Eastern Colorado Plainsman newspaper published a blank front page in support of the Local Journalism Sustainability Act. The Heart of NoCo labor union at The Loveland Reporter-Herald went to City Hall to wrangle support for the newspaper from the local government. Empowering Colorado, the nonprofit news site that wanted to be like the Chalkbeat of energy journalism, said it would shut down. The Colorado Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists named The Denver Business Journal’s Ed Sealover as its Journalist Of The Year.

In December, the West Virginia company Ogden Newspapers announced it would buy the Swift Communications newspaper chain that runs about a dozen papers in Colorado. (The deal closed Dec. 31.) Meanwhile, CherryRoad Media, a “New Jersey-based technology company,” bought The La Junta Tribune, The Fowler Tribune, The Bent County Democrat, and Ag Journal. In other chain newspaper news, “My good friends at Gannett have laid me off,” said that company’s group publisher and regional sales manager for Southern Colorado. Colorado Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter co-sponsored a resolution “Expressing the sense of the House of Representatives regarding the importance of local print and digital journalism to the continued welfare, transparency, and prosperity of government at every level and the continuation and freedom of the United States as it is known today.” Colorado earned a handful of mentions in Harvard’s annual Nieman Lab predictions about the near-future of journalism. One of them, about fundraising campaigns for local newsrooms, noted how “regional matching campaigns and collaboratives have taken off in Colorado.” Another prediction name-checked The Colorado Sun among “the next generation of local news organizations.” (Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman penned his own Nieman Lab prediction, writing, “we’ll see more media consolidation in 2022, with more newspapers falling into hedge-fund hands. But I’m also sure we will see more digital startups popping up to offer alternatives in town after town.”) The Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition rounded up what happened this year on the transparency and open-government beat. Gazette editor Vince Bzdek wrote a column about how the pandemic is “taking a toll on journalists.” As 2021 came to a close, Netflix said “Don’t Look Up,” a star-studded comedy co-created by Denver journalist David Sirota and Denver native Adam McKay, was the streaming service’s most-watched release over the Christmas holiday. Writing about it in The New York Times, Ben Smith said the film “nails” our “media apocalypse.” 


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. Interested in an insider’s look at the news behind the news in Colorado? Sign up here for Corey’s weekly email newsletter.


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