Circuit Media's Don Knox sees capitol press room as ethical conflict

Categories: Media

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Don Knox (pictured), the former Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post business editor who now runs Circuit Media, isn't happy about how the media is handled at Colorado's State Capitol -- and one area of concern for him is the press room, which is provided at no charge to reporters from credentialed news agencies. In his view, that's ethically questionable. "I think actually accepting something of value from the very entity you cover is problematic," he says.

With that in mind, Knox has asked for a Friday meeting of Colorado Capitol Press Association members and applicants to suggest alternatives, and released a letter, available below, that outlines a couple ideas of his own. One calls for news firms to pay something akin to rent for the space, while the other suggests transforming the area into the equivalent of a press box at a sports stadium, where reporters would use the facilities temporarily rather than setting up camp for the long haul.

This isn't the first time Knox has griped about credentialing at the Capitol. Last year, as originally reported by the Colorado Independent, he was able to score press credentials for one of his news operations, Law Week Colorado -- a publication that recently hired former CI scribe Cara DeGette as its managing editor. However, his credentials request for State Bill Colorado, a news-and-info website focusing on the doings of Colorado's General Assembly, was rejected because "it had not been in operation for 52 consecutive weeks (which is one of the CCPA's stated rules)." And this year, State Bill Colorado was denied again. According to Knox, the latest excuse is that the site is essentially a service for lobbyists rather than a legitimate news operation. In his view, that's an incorrect assumption -- lobbyists make up only a small percentage of his subscribers, he insists -- that reflects lawmakers' bias against credentialing non-traditional online news operations.

At this point, the CCPA's stinginess with credentials is getting harder and harder to figure out. After all, the number of reporters from accredited news operations is falling fast. A January report in the CI revealed that Pueblo Chieftain correspondent Charles Ashby will be laid off at the end of the current session, and other media outfits are cutting back. For instance, the Fort Collins Coloradoan no longer assigns its own reporter to cover the state legislature. Instead, the paper draws from info provided by Adam Schrager, a reporter for Channel 9, which, like the Coloradoan, is owned by Gannett.

As for Knox, he says he was using an extra desk among those provided to the Rocky while at the Capitol, but he was evicted last week for allegedly "using it to run a business" -- an accusation he sees as patently absurd. But this move is only tangentially related to his promotion of press-room changes. The willingness of newspapers, TV stations and so on to accept the state's largesse when covering the legislature has bothered him for quite some time, he notes, and he finally decided to make his thoughts known. Given how tight money is these days, he doesn't expect many of his peers to embrace the idea of paying rent for the press room -- but he believes that something needs to be done even if the number of correspondents using the space continues to shrink. "I don't want to speed that along," he says. "I just want to deal with the ethical questions."

Here's Knox's letter to the CCPA:

Feb. 4, 2009

DENVER

Dear Fellow Media Member:

As you may know, I've called for an open meeting Friday of the 100 or so members (and non-credentialed applicants) of the Colorado Capitol Press Association to discuss various issues relating to press coverage in the Capitol. (Time 3 p.m. Venue: TBD. It will not be the media press conference room, as previously stated).

One of the most pressing issues and, in my opinion, ethically challenging, is the acceptance by the media (including myself until recently), of free, year-round office space within the Capitol building. This arrangement without compensation to the State of Colorado violates certain provisions of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, particularly these under the section exhorting us to "Act Independently:"

1. Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

2. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

3. Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.

In my mind, there are a couple of ways to resolve this ethical conflict, and you may have others I haven't thought of. One is to pay a market rate year-round for the space we use. Another is to come up with a system that allows us to use space temporarily, when news occurs, but to relinquish that space when news isn't happening. For simplicity's sake, I will refer to this as the "press-box option."

Idea 1: Pay a market rate

For discussion purposes, I suggest payment options of between $300 and $600 per desk per month with an additional payment of $25 to $75 per file cabinet per month. I have not independently studied market rates for desk rentals in the downtown area, but I do have some knowledge of the downtown rental market, which is anywhere between $10 and $30 per square foot, depending on building "class." At my suggested prices, a year-round rental would cost between $3,600 and $7,200 per year - a reasonable rate, in my estimation. If the desk were used during the session only, the total payment would be much lower: $1,200 and $2,400 per session. However, the desk would have to be relinquished at the end of the session.

Idea 2: "Press-box" option

The press-box option is a much more short-term situation. I believe we're all familiar with the press boxes at Mile High Stadium and Invesco Field. These boxes allow us to view games in a mostly uninterrupted manner, permitting us to do our jobs effectively without creating a long-term perception of conflict between the team owners and the media. The same option could be created at the Capitol. Any day when the legislature in a session, a desk could be "checked out" by any credentialed member (first come, first serve). At the conclusion of the day's events, the desk would be turned back in to the state. The next day, the same desk could be used by another member of the credentialed media - whoever arrived first. The benefit to the state is that it picks up additional, usable space during the summers and falls when the legislature is not in session. I propose that the issue of books and equipment be dealt with by the creation of a rented "locker system" (yes, like school) whereby media members could store a limited amount of their belongings throughout the session. Again, these lockers would be relinquished when the General Assembly concludes its 120-day session. An advantage of this "press-box" system is that it would not require a desk payment because of the short-term nature of the arrangement: day by day. However, as mentioned above, lockers would be paid for because their rental is more permanent. The press-box option does have one complication: telecommunications (telephone and Internet). This could be resolved if all telecommunications equipment were brought into a central point into each media room, and the phone or Internet could be delivered to each desk via wireless or cords. (A shared telco service is another
possibility). Desktop computers also would be problematic, but I note that the vast majority of us use laptops, which are portable and can be stored in the locker overnight - so can a desktop. Another issue is Denver's two competing newspapers ending up possibly having to use desks in close proximity to each other, potentially jeopardizing their competitive efforts. Perhaps there's a work-around for this; perhaps they are in a position to address this potential problem.

I don't think that on Friday we'll reach the unanimous agreement of all committee members on these ideas, so I'd suggest we write a letter to the House speaker and Senate president that lists the various options and includes which options each media member supports. (No change to the current system can also be an option.) The speaker and the president then could determine the option they prefer.

Do you think you will be in a position to know your outlet's desired option by Friday? If not, what's a good deadline for making your preference public?

I look forward to discussing this issue, and others, with you on Friday.

Sincerely,

Don Knox
Editor
Circuit Media


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