Denver’s not a news desert

April 12, 2018 01:30

New York Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet told “Reliable Sources” host Brian Stelter on a recent show, "The biggest crisis in journalism is not Donald Trump's attacks... [it's] the decline of local newspapers." 

His statement came amid another prominent round of cuts at The Denver Post affecting nearly a third of its staff, former editor Greg Moore saying “the watchdog as we know it is being put to sleep.”

Denver is on the verge of becoming a “news desert,” news watchers worry. And the Post is far from alone. “Local news is dying,” headlines scream.

But is it?

RTDNA asked 5 Denver-area broadcast newsroom leaders, 4 with TV newsrooms and one in radio, for their perspectives, and a different side of the story emerged.

RTDNA’s own annual research – the first installment of which is coming April 16 – paints a different picture, too; newspapers are shrinking, but local broadcast news shows strong signs of life.
  • What’s happening at the Post is terrible for the staffers involved, for journalism and for the community.
  • Denver isn’t – and is unlikely to become – a news desert.
  • Denver’s competitive media market means strong investigative and consumer reporting – and some unique partnerships.
  • Broadcast has a leg up on other legacy media, but we all need to innovate to find new ways to monetize news and reach changing audiences.
Post Cuts Hurt Journalism
Colorado has a long history of journalism. The Denver Press Club is the oldest in the country, incorporated in 1877.
The 125-year-old Post is still hanging on, but as longtime Denver anchor Mike Landess pointed out, the Rocky Mountain News shuttered in 2009 just shy of its 100th Anniversary. The now struggling Post hired some of its staffers at the time.
KOA NewsRadio’s Jerry Bell noted that several Post staffers have found jobs at other outlets this time around, too, creating an opportunity for news organizations to recruit top talent, but that the cuts hurt and Denver could become a “‘no-newspaper’ town.”

“There is no doubt that it weakens Journalism in Denver,” says Denver7 News Director Holly Gauntt as the paper loses the bandwidth to do the kind of investigations that have earned it nine Pulitzer Prizes.
And, as with every time a newsroom shrinks, the real shame is that public officials “are no longer under the microscope,” says Rocky Mountain PBS’s John Ferrugia.
Local News Still Strong
But Denver isn’t yet – and isn’t likely to become – “a news desert,” all 5 Denver newsroom leaders told us.

News Director Tim Wieland named more than 20 different local newsrooms.
  • Newspapers that specifically serve smaller cities like Boulder, Aurora, Greeley and Fort Collins
  • Growing online news sites Denverite and the Colorado Independent
  • 4 commercial TV newsrooms
  • KOA NewsRadio
  • Colorado Public TV and Rocky Mountain PBS
  • BusinessDen and the Denver Business Journal
  • Colorado Politics
  • Chalkbeat
  • BSN and the Athletic
  • Alternative weekly Westword
  • Monthly magazine 5280
  • Two Spanish language TV newsrooms
  • Bilingual newspaper La Voz
Landess mentioned the strong, competitive investigative and consumer reporting units at many local outlets, the competition keeping stations on their toes and news consumers informed through several sources.
“We are focusing on bigger issues that impact people’s lives,” says Gauntt, as opposed to “chasing ambulances” or putting too many resources into stories that don’t affect people.
Denver News Innovations
“We are innovating, while getting focused on a specific mission – instead of trying to be ‘all things to all people,’” Wieland says, leading Denver news consumers to develop strong loyalties for their favorite outlets. To achieve its mission to serve Coloradoans, his CBS4 newsroom has recommitted to solely covering local issues, is growing its digital teams, and is focusing on reporters with investigative or topic-specific expertise.

Similarly, Denver7 has launched content pillars “360” and “Our Colorado,” using longer form and in-depth reporting to cover multiple perspectives impacting Denver residents, including growth, gentrification and housing costs. “We aren’t trying to cram a more complex story into a minute twenty story,” says Gauntt.

Another source of in-depth investigative coverage in Denver comes through a unique partnership between Rocky Mountain PBS and KUSA. TV newsrooms are investing in investigative and longform coverage, but still face the pressure of producing traditional newscasts with weather, breaking news and short spots. Rocky Mountain PBS doesn’t produce daily newscasts, and according to Ferrugia it saw an opportunity to fill a growing gap in in-depth coverage. Its investigative unit, formed about two years ago, produces monthly half-hour specials, with plans to expand, and shares them with KUSA to break down for its broadcasts. Ferrugia says there is no other public media relationship like it, but that “public media needs to rethink itself” and look for more opportunities like this partnership.

[The] future will not play out in a “desert;” but rather a growing, changing and even thriving news “ecosystem” in Colorado. – News Director Tim Wieland

Local broadcast news in Denver has an award-winning record, with 20 regional Murrow Awards in 2017. Denver also produced one National Murrow Award winner in 2017: A sports reporting award – to The Denver Post.
Continuing Challenges for Local News
“There’s a bigger question facing all media,” says Bell: how to financially support news operations at a sufficient level to serve journalism’s critical watchdog role, something newspapers, TV and radio have all struggled to answer, with newspapers often the first casualty. “The next multi-billionaire will be the person who figures out how to make multi-platform delivery of news profitable.”  

Local TV remains a dominant source of news and is poised to thrive in a digital world, a new Knight Foundation study shows – and our own research backs up. Radio is still critical particularly during breaking and disaster coverage and through new formats like podcasts. TV newsroom profits are strong.

Premature obituaries for local news aren’t new, and RTDNA has reminded the industry of local broadcast news’s continuing importance before.

However, all news businesses need foresight and faster innovation to avoid going the way of papers like The Denver Post.

Thank you to John Ferrugia, Rocky Mountain PBS; Holly Gauntt, KMGH; Jerry Bell, KOA NewsRadio; Tim Wieland, KCNC-TV and Mike Landess, KWGN, for sharing their insights. Their comments reflect their views only and not necessarily the views of their respective employers.


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