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February 11, 2019

Show don’t tell: continuing a legacy in journalism

How the Colorado Media Project will work to strengthen local news

Sanford “Whitey” Watzman at his desk at The Cleveland Plain Dealer, sometime in the 1950s.

This post first appeared on Trust, Media and Democracy on Medium

by Nancy Watzman, acting director, Colorado Media Project

At one dinner toward the end of my Dad’s life, he turned to me and said, “I’m glad I’ll die before the last newspaper does.” He was a reporter after all — he thought the word “journalist” was too fancy — and he could see where this story was going.

His beloved Cleveland Plain Dealer, where he spent some 20 years working himself up from the police beat to national political correspondent, was a hazy reflection of what it once was. In his adopted home in Colorado, he had seen The Rocky Mountain News close its doors and was witnessing The Denver Post hemorrhaging reporters.

To my Dad the importance of the press was not some academic matter. The son of Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, he knew what happens to powerless people living in an autocracy without basic freedoms and rights. To him, working as a reporter meant being a good democrat with a small “d,” representing the people in holding government and private institutions accountable.

My Dad did not believe in any kind of afterlife, other than living on through his children and their children. So I know that he’d feel I am continuing his work in my new role as acting director of the Colorado Media Project. Last week, we announced the project, launched in 2018, would continue investment in strengthening trustworthy local news throughout the state, with a three-year commitment from the Gates Family Foundation, support from Democracy Fund, and in partnership with Denver University’s Project X-ITE.

The mission of the Colorado Media Project will be continuing to work with local news organizations on innovation, sustainability, and collaboration, as well as advocating the importance of local news in our communities and for democracy. This mission dovetails with recommendations recently made by the Knight Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy — for which I’ve worked as outreach editor. Commissioners spent a year collecting research, listening to experts, and deliberating on what we can do collectively to improve trust in the media.

But, my Dad was also a reporter, so he would have given me the third degree on what that all actually means. What will the Colorado Media Project actually do? Will it actually make a difference? What is there to be done anyway?

We’re planning to encourage collaboration between the state’s higher education institutions and journalists, connect local news organizations with resources to develop capacity financially, provide opportunities for training and talent development, and more. But also important will be the way we’ll strive to do the work.

  • We’ll listen. In our work to date, we conducted research, interviews with journalists, and emplooyed other means to learn about Coloradans’ needs for news and the challenges journalists face in meeting them. We’ll continue to learn and listen, and develop our program accordingly.
  • We’ll fight for resources for local journalists. Our goal is to increase funding, resources, and capacity for local news organizations. The Gates Family Foundation will continue to support local news organizations directly and urges other philanthropists to do the same. The Colorado Media Project will not compete with them for funding, and it will be be a lean operation, leveraging contractors, existing resources, and partnerships with local and state programs to do our work.
  • We’ll share what we learn. We’ll stand on the shoulders of local journalism projects in other parts of the country that have begun this work, such as the Center for Cooperative Media in New Jersey, the North Carolina Local News Lab, The Lenfest Institute, and more, building on what they’ve learned. We will try some new things and undoubtedly make some mistakes. Along the way we’ll share what we learn so all may benefit.
  • We’ll promote local journalism relentlessly. We won’t shut up about the importance of local journalism in our state’s democracy. We’ll shout it from the rooftops and mountain tops.

“That all sounds fine,” my Dad would have said. But I can also imagine him quoting me one of his favorite adages on good writing: “Show, don’t tell.”The Colorado Media Project will be rolling out our program specifics for this next phase of its work in coming weeks. The proof is in the work, and he’d accept no less. Stay tuned.