It’s been many years since I covered town council or planning committee meetings in places like Breckenridge and Frisco as a reporter for the Summit Daily News. But there were quite a few times when I was one of the only people in the audience. Sometimes those long-ass meetings would yield very little in the way of news, but I always stuck it out because to have no press in attendance would mean even the most well-intentioned council could skirt some rules or breeze over stuff that needed more attention. Or they’d go into “executive session” whether it was kosher or not.
What, I used to wonder, would the world look like if no one from the media showed up at the multitudinous meetings going on all around the country?
Well, we’re seeing it now. Thousands of newspapers have closed across the country in the last decade, and many more had already died before that — helped in part by a guy named Craig Newmark who started offering online classified ads for free. (It was, for my paper at the time, the loss of about 35% of our revenue.) Today, many of those aforementioned meetings are being conducted without any media present, which means that a lot of potential news the government entity in question didn’t like could be discovered only by reading the minutes of the meeting – which many of us like to do in our spare time, right?
For every big story about crazy red-state legislatures stripping voting rights or the latest pandemic polemic we read online, there’s a million little stories not being told about pothole repairs or zoning ordinances or school board policies that affect us much more on a local level. When the local paper folds or unloads a significant portion of its reporting staff, guess what? Local TV stations won’t cover it. Radio? No way. Maybe there’s a Facebook page like “Word of Mouth Highlands Ranch” in my neighborhood, but the news there is limited to things like what that new building going up is going to be or screeds about dog poop and speeding teenagers.
It’s a much, much bigger problem than people realize. Even if you dismiss “the local rag” as not worthy for wrapping fish, even if you never read it, if they have at least some reporters left attending meetings, they are working for you. When elected officials know there’s media in the audience, there’s much less chance for mischief. That sunlight helps us all.
And while the travails of all those little papers are a rolling disaster, many big papers are in trouble too. The Denver Post, in many ways, is a case study for today’s media landscape, where newsrooms are eviscerated, owners are filthy hedge-funds looking to bleed any remaining revenue out of the paper, and readers turn away as the rich lineup of content that used to grace the pages is winnowed down to a handful of local stories, a shit-ton of wire copy and a few mattress ads.
All this is what inspired Castle Rock filmmaker Brian Malone to put together a documentary called News Matters, where over the past two years he interviewed many of those Post staffers who either jumped ship or were shown the door. The ones remaining watched in dismay as the once-proud paper was reduced to, I dunno, whatever it is today.
Brian Malone is behind the camera here at a ‘Save the Denver Post’ town hall.
I’ve worked with Malone off and on for the past eight years or so on projects mostly related to my day job at a tech company. In between all of his paying-the-bills gigs, the former TV news producer was always working on another project — the kind where he would spend plenty of time and money to create with no guarantee he’d make much from it. With News Matters, (which I had a tiny role in as a reviewer of earlier versions of the film), Malone was challenged to tie a bow around a finished product by constantly shifting developments he felt obligated to add in.
A timely insurrection
But just around the time he thought he was about finished, the Jan. 6 insurrection happened. There was, Malone told me, no better example of how dangerous misinformation can be. Indeed, as many formerly trusted sources of news have evaporated and the media landscape is splintered into a thousand blogs, Twitter rants, bullshit Facebook posts and even more odious players like Parler and Signal, one could argue that the demise of newspapers played a big role in all of it.
With images of the Capitol riot now serving as a tentpole for many of the points being made in the film, Malone was able to finish and release the film through a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS.
News Matters is the kind of film you wish everyone could see. As the Washington Post’s motto declares, “Democracy dies in darkness,” but many of our fellow citizens (the kind often referred to as “low information voters”) don’t know or care about what, exactly, that means. Wouldn’t it be great if high schools required media literacy classes to help our kids understand the role of the fourth estate, and why the First Amendment specifically calls out the importance of a free press?
Any Journalism 101 class could show the film as a wakeup call to the important work there is still to be done for journalists. They could hear in the film people like former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who penned the now-infamous “News Matters” opinion piece calling out the newspaper’s owner, Alden Global Capital, as a heartless money-grubbing entity with no regard whatsoever for the quality of the paper.
Denver Post employees staged a walkout to protest repeated cuts to the newsroom staff.
Larry Ryckman, the former senior editor at the Post who went on to lead a group of former Post staffers to found the online Colorado Sun, also appears in the film. As someone forging ahead with a new publication in a time when more are dying than being born, Ryckman provides some more rays of hope about what the future could look like for local news.
And there are some more reasons to feel something other than utter gloom when it comes to news in Colorado. The Sun recently announced it had negotiated the purchase of a group of community newspapers in Colorado in partnership with the National Trust for Local News. (Sorry Brian, too late to get in the film!) A number of other online publications have sprung up in recent years in Colorado. They range from Denverite(now owned by Colorado Public Radio), theColorado Times-Recorder, the Denver Gazette (an offshoot of the Springs Gazette) and quite a few others. (John Moore has a good roundup of them in his story about News Matters.)
How this all adds up to something better than what we had 20 years ago remains to be seen. In the case of the Colorado Community Media papers the Sun is taking over with NTLN, it’s tough to imagine the long road to respectability that must be paved to restore community interest in what are some seriously shitty newspapers. (One of them, the Highlands Ranch Herald in my neighborhood, often sits in driveways until the newsprint inside the little bags is ground into pulp by car tires and the elements. I rescue it on delivery day just so I can pore over it to marvel at its awfulness.)
In the meantime, stories like those told in News Matters are essential toward understanding the rampant misinformation we see on the national level through the prism of the situation here in Colorado. It will be available free for streaming on Rocky Mountain PBS through the end of May. Where it goes next is still up in the air, but hopefully it finds its way into journalism classes around the country very soon.
Alex Miller is editor/publisher of OnStage Colorado and former editor at the Summit Daily News, the Vail Daily, the Vail Trail, the Summit County Journal and a few others along the way.