Mayor Steve Bach met with local media Tuesday morning, ostensibly to answer questions and address issues.
We came away realizing that we have a problem. Bach is on one side, and Colorado Springs media are on the other. No gray area.
There are times when it's more important than usual to make a compelling case in a column. This is one of those times.
We in the media are at odds with Bach regarding open-records requests, a mechanism provided within state law to preserve the spirit of open government. Bach thinks it's appropriate now to fulfill media requests and — immediately — share that same information with all other media.
We think that's wrong. And we've tried to explain our reasons to city leaders. So far, they aren't listening.
To his credit, Bach did agree Tuesday to meet with management from media outlets to hear our side. But he didn't sound like he would change his mind. Instead, he invited us to "engage legal counsel and come after us."
This column is the next step, even before that meeting. We can't let this drop. It's far too important. A huge part of the role of a newspaper, going back more than two centuries in this country, is to hold government accountable. It's our job to serve our readers and defend the public's right to know. If we let down, or run into roadblocks that prevent us from doing our jobs properly, the real loser isn't the Independent, Gazette or Colorado Springs Business Journal. The loser is you.
Our open-records requests aren't random attempts to find problems or corruption. Some media do those, but we don't. Typically, we notice unusual situations or hear about them from trusted sources. We uncover as much as possible, to determine whether a story is worth pursuing. We don't write stories ahead of time, then try to confirm preconceived notions.
If we can't find out enough answers through interviews and research, we can take the "CORA" route, filing a specific written request for government records, invoking the Colorado Open Records Act. The law requires timely responses, or plausible explanations for delays and refusals. When the material comes, we thoroughly examine it and decide whether we have a story. Only then do we proceed — or not.
But now the city is hampering our ability to do our jobs properly, giving requested records to everyone and calling it transparency. Never mind that other media don't know why the request was made, and might draw very different, misguided conclusions. Never mind that, as happened last week, the city gave us a long-overdue CORA response on Thursday — meaning we couldn't publish it for another week — then provided the same information to other media the next day, allowing others to scoop us on our own reporting.
Digging out exclusive stories is often how media outlets distinguish themselves and earn readers' trust. If this policy continues, media will have less incentive to pursue investigations, which is not in the public's best interest.
This has also happened recently to the Gazette, so the city is not being selective. Media leaders involved with the Colorado Springs Press Association have exchanged messages about a group letter voicing our concerns. Unfortunately, we're not unified. Two entities believe all of us should flood the city with open-records requests until Bach changes his mind. We feel that would be just as wrong.
Therefore, knowing that most other media share our desire to take the high road, I'm asking Mayor Bach to consider going back to how the city handled CORA requests for years until recently. If any media outlet made a CORA request, it was held open until follow-up questions were answered and a story was published or aired. Then it was made available to other media.
Those guidelines worked. But now they're being forgotten. Our standards are being compromised.
We aren't asking for special treatment. Just for the same protocol that worked for years and still works across the country. In fact, none of us media veterans can recall dealing with anything like this, anywhere. And if this continues, especially on sensitive stories, we'll have to try other tactics.
We hope that, after further conversation, Mayor Bach will rescind his new policy. This doesn't have to be a battle. We honestly don't want it to be.
But we're ready for that, if necessary.
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