Last month, Colorado Politics, a print and online political news site, published a story about conservatives who submitted signatures to the Colorado Secretary of State to place an anti-tax initiative on the ballot.
The ballot-measure story quoted a leading Colorado conservative activist, Michael Fields, but no information or opinion from Fields’ progressive opponents appeared in the article, which was produced by Colorado Center Square, a “news service” that offers stories for free to “media companies” and is, according to the biography of the board chair of Center Square’s parent organization, “competing with The Associated Press.”
In contrast, back in August of last year, another Center Square story appeared in Colorado Politics about a progressive initiative that made the ballot, and it included detailed arguments by conservatives against the proposal.
The committee opposing the progressive initiative was quoted as stating that the measure, which aimed to establish a family-leave program in Colorado, was “economically risky at any time and especially dangerous when the economy is just beginning to recover.”
The Center Square story noted that the “state’s fiscal note says it could ‘influence hiring decisions made by employers,’ affecting jobs.”
The two ballot-initiative stories were written by Derek Draplin, who came to Center Square after being an associate editor at the Daily Caller, a hard-right media site whose website states, “PATRIOTS, fighting for you.” Other Center Square writers have long worked for right-wing publications, according to The Denver Post.
14 Center Square News Stories
The two ballot-measure stories are among 14 Center Square news articles posted on Colorado Politics since May of 2020.
Another story by Draplin, which appeared in Colorado Politics in January and was headlined “Colorado Governor Receives ‘C’ Grade in Fiscal Policy Report Card,” didn’t contain a response by Polis or any statement that one was sought, though the report was produced by a conservative think tank, the CATO Institute. Neither did the story provide any critique of the conservative report, or information from a Democratic or progressive perspective.
But in the story, Draplin promotes the CATO Institute’s broad conservative agenda: “This report discusses ways that states can respond to today’s budget challenges, including tapping revenues from marijuana legalization and cutting costs by prohibiting public-sector collective bargaining.”
Another Draplin piece, which ran in Colorado Politics in June and was headlined, “Colorado Public Pension System’s Unfunded Debt Up to $31 billion,” quotes the Denver-based Independence Institute, a conservative think tank. A PERA official is quoted but no progressive voice is included to counter the broad attack on state government, which is controlled by Democrats. “The employee exodus as a result of the state government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 pandemic meant both fewer people paying in and more receiving benefits, and the legislature’s unnecessary withholding of the general fund line item last year only made things worse,” the think tank is quoted by Draplin as stating.
Center Square’s Funders/Political Leaning Not Disclosed
Per Center Square’s republishing guidelines, all Center Square articles appearing on Colorado Politics‘ site have a tagline reading, “The Center Square is a nonprofit media outlet that reports on state politics.” Mostly, this links to Colorado Center Square’s website, which states that Center Square is a “project” of the Franklin News Foundation, headquartered in Chicago.
The Franklin News Foundation, a nonprofit organization, doesn’t identify a source of funding — or admit to a conservative-leaning perspective — for Center Square or for the Franklin News Foundation.
One right-wing contributor to the Franklin News Foundation was revealed in a Columbia Journalism Review article. The donor, DonorsTrust, reported that it gave the Franklin News Foundation just under one million dollars in part “to balance the liberal media with conservative & libertarian media.”
Instead, Franklin’s website states, “Franklin News Foundation has a diverse base of donors that includes contributions from private citizens and foundations with a passion for non-partisan, non-political state-based coverage of taxation and government’s spending of tax dollars.”
Conservative Taxpayer Sensibility
Center Square’s mission is to deliver “objective, balanced” news stories with a “taxpayer sensibility” to all 50 states, according to its website.
“A taxpayer sensibility distinguishes our work from other coverage of state and local issues,” states the group.
But the Center Square articles that appeared in Colorado Politics could not fairly be described that way.
Of the 14 articles that appeared in Colorado Politics, four had no discernable focus on “taxpayer sensibility,” including one story in April headlined, “Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey signs gun sanctuary bill into law in Arizona” and another from July headlined, “Colorado GOP argues change to election committee meeting rule would impede transparency.”
Two of the 14 articles focused on tax-related reports from conservative think tanks, like the Independence Institute, while none of the 14 stories covered publications from Colorado’s progressive tax-focused research organizations, like the Bell Policy Center or the Colorado Fiscal Policy Institute.
So Center Square’s “taxpayer sensibility,” judging from the articles that appeared in Colorado Politics, would be better characterized mostly as having a “conservative taxpayer sensibility.”
Center Square Covers More of the Conservative Agenda
Six of the 14 stories were on neutral topics such as, “Park Service announces plans to reopen Sand Dunes in early June” and on sports betting, which is a popular topic on Center Square.
An additional six of the 14 stories were written on topics associated with the broad conservative agenda (arguably they were loosely related to taxes) while only two stories were tied more closely to the progressive agenda, and one of those two stories (about the family leave measure making the ballot) was cast in a one-sided negative light.
Koch-Funded “Watchdog.org” Became Center Square
Chris Krug, the publisher of Center Square, became CEO of the Franklin Center for Public Integrity and Watchdog.org in 2017. The Koch-funded Watchdog.org produced news stories on political topics and was widely seen as conservative.
Watchdog.org generated headlines in Colorado in 2016 when Capitol journalists in Denver barred Watchdog writer Arthur Kane from receiving press credentials after Watchdog refused to identify its donors and denied evidence, provided by then-Denver Post reporter Joey Bunch and then-Rocky Mountain Public Radio reporter Bente Birkeland, that Watchdog was funded by the Koch brothers. Kane called the evidence of Koch funding “thinly sourced and dated” but did not deny it.
In 2019, Krug renamed Watchdog and the Franklin Center, respectively, as Center Square and the Franklin News Foundation.
Progressive analysts have called this a re-brand, arguing that Koch money is likely still behind the organization and pointing to other evidence that Center Square has a conservative bent. A spokesman for Gov. Jared Polis (D-CO) got pushback from local journalists when he argued that Center Square is conservative and asked rural papers to remove Center Square articles from their platforms. The articles were accurate and ostensibly fair–as were about a third of the Center Square stories published in Colorado Politics. A thorough analysis of the Center Square articles that have been used in those rural newspapers was never conducted.
Franklin’s current board members have ties to the Koch network. In his bio on the Franklin News Foundation site, Board Chair John Tillman boasts that he received the Roe Award and Bob Williams Award, both from State Policy Network (SPN), which is a Koch-funded network dominated by right-wing think tanks and advocacy groups. Among the right-wing recipients of the Roe Award, given to those who “greatly advanced free-market philosophy,” is Colorado’s Jon Caldara, president of the conservative Independence Institute. Another Franklin board member, Charles Mitchell, is president of the conservative Commonwealth Foundation, also includes an SPN award in his bio.
Krug, who’s worked as a marketer and in journalism, including a stint at The Denver Post sports desk, denies that his outfit is conservative, instead writing in one op-ed, “To suggest The Center Square’s work is not objective is woefully inaccurate” and characterizing his content as having a “taxpayer sensibility.” He came to the Franklin Center from the Illinois Information Network, which produced conservative content and had ties to the Franklin Center, according to one investigation posted by the Southern Illinois University Journalism School.
“Competing with The Associated Press”
Center Square sees its news service, which offers stories like the one about Heidi Ganahl’s campaign launch to rural and other news outlets, as a success. But there is no evidence to substantiate the board chair’s statement that its news service is competing with The Associated Press, a storied organization supported by journalism professionals. The notion that Center Square, which claims to operate in 44 states, competes with the AP is a wild aspiration — or fundraising-related — that’s not real at this time.
No Comment from Center Square
Despite being “dedicated to the principles of transparency” and the “highest standards” of “accessibility,” neither Krug himself nor Center Square responded to multiple calls and emails to discuss why readers should trust that it’s not a conservative media entity when evidence shows that it is, when it won’t release the names of its donors or say if they are conservative, when it has ties to Koch organizations, and when it was, prior to a name change, a conservative organization, funded by the Kochs. A comprehensive content analysis of Center Square’s articles has not been conducted.
Colorado Politics advising editor Vince Bzdek, a respected journalist who served as an editor at the Washington Post and The Denver Post, didn’t respond to calls over two weeks seeking comment. Colorado Politics Publisher Jared Wright also did not return a call. Colorado Politics and its affiliated publication, the Colorado Springs Gazette, which had a publishing agreement with Watchdog before it became Center Square, are owned by billionaire businessman and GOP donor Phil Anschutz.
Other Free News Content?
One unanswered question for Colorado Politics is whether it would publish news content from Colorado Newsline, which names its funders, including major progressive donors, and produces journalism that’s credentialed by the Colorado Capitol press corps, or the Colorado Times Recorder, which has undisclosed progressive donors and writes from an openly progressive perspective. Both news sites offer their content for free, as Center Square does.
UPDATED 10/14/21 with the citation from the Columbia Journalism Review.