Colo. Independent denied Statehouse credentials but encouraged to reapply after rules revised

By Jeffrey A. Roberts
CFOIC Executive Director

For now, journalists working for The Colorado Independent still won’t have access to the floor of the Colorado House or Senate when the General Assembly is in session.

But in a letter dated Friday, denying the online newspaper’s latest request for Statehouse press credentials, legislative leaders encouraged The Independent to ask again after the credentialing criteria have been “updated.”

“We are going to honor the recommendation of the (Colorado Capitol) Press Association at this time based on the current criteria,” wrote Senate President Morgan Carroll and House Speaker Mark Ferrandino. “However, we believe the criteria need to be updated. We intend to work on updating the criteria used and would encourage you to re-apply at that time.”

Colorado IndependentCarroll and Ferrandino did not elaborate as to why or how they believe the process should be revised. But their letter says they are committed to working with the Colorado Capitol Press Association, as well as news organizations that aren’t members of the association, to review the current standards for membership.

The Independent touched a nerve among both mainstream and nontraditional Colorado news organizations when the newspaper’s attorney, Steve Zansberg, sent a Feb. 4 letter  to legislative leaders and the Capitol Press Association asking that Independent journalists be issued floor credentials immediately. Depriving The Independent of the same access given other news media raises First Amendment concerns, argued Zansberg, who also is president of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

While legislative leaders have the final say on floor access at the Statehouse, the Capitol Press Association has been making recommendations on press credentialing since 2008. The association’s Standing Committee on Correspondents had recommended that The Independent be denied credentials based on rules requiring that nonprofit applicants work “independently of any government, industry, or institution” and “not engage, directly or indirectly, in any lobbying, political activity or other activity intended to influence elections or any matter before the General Assembly or before any independent agency, or any department or other instrumentality of the Executive branch.”

“The Press Association has indicated that its recommendation for denial is based on The Independent’s status as a nonprofit organization and its past and current affiliation with institutional funders and donors that engage in political advocacy,” the letter from Carroll and Ferrandino states.

Originally known as Colorado Confidential, The Independent has received much of its funding from foundations connected to Democratic Party backers Tim Gill and Pat Stryker, and was overseen by a Washington, D.C.-based organization that once shared office space with another progressive organization.

But the online newspaper re-launched last year as its own nonprofit and is no longer operated by the D.C.-based American Independent News Network, said Editor Susan Greene, a former Denver Post reporter who joined The Independent in January 2013. She said The Gill Foundation and Stryker’s Bohemian Foundation are still significant funders, but overall funding is now much more diversified.

The new staff includes former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post columnist Mike Littwin, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist Mike Keefe and former Rocky Mountain News writers Dave Krieger and Robert Denerstein.

Greene, in an email to the CFOIC, said she disagrees with the legislative leaders’ “conclusion that our request for floor credentials doesn’t meet the criteria as presently written,” but she’s glad they want to revise the credentialing system.

“From the outset, one of our goals has been to update the legislature’s criteria in credentialing new media,” she wrote. “…we’re confident that we can resolve any outstanding issues amicably and as quickly as conditions allow. We embrace leadership’s willingness to update the criteria and allow us a role in drafting new standards that, hopefully, will give non-profit media organizations the same access to legislative proceedings as for-profit news outlets.”

Greene added that she hopes legislative leaders “will reconsider the current practice of allowing the corporate media (to) ‘gate keep’ which news competitors do and do not have access to legislators as they make laws in Colorado.”

Revising the rules won’t be easy. After the CFOIC wrote about the credentialing issue on Feb. 6, we heard a lot of different opinions on what should or could happen.

Some feared that Carroll and Ferrandino would throw up their hands and deny floor access to all journalists, as has happened in some other state legislatures. Others said an “everyone or no one” policy is fairest. Some said the current system works just fine; others are uncomfortable having journalists make recommendations about privileges given to other journalists.

(Note: The Colorado Independent is a CFOIC member organization, as are most newspapers in the state through their membership in the Colorado Press Association.)

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