COVID-19 has had a profound impact on pretty much every aspect of life on the planet since early 2020 — and Rocky Mountain PBS, Colorado's largest public television network, is no exception.
Veteran journalist John Ferrugia recently left Rocky Mountain PBS for a position with COLab, aka the Colorado News Collaborative, billed as a "nonprofit, statewide media resource hub" that's currently working with more than 100 news organizations across the state — including his former employer. Although Ferrugia stresses that his departure from Rocky Mountain PBS wasn't acrimonious, he says a focus shift in terms of news coverage necessitated by tight resources influenced his decision.
For her part, Amanda Mountain, president of Rocky Mountain Public Media, which incorporates Rocky Mountain PBS, as well as radio stations KUVO Jazz and The Drop, acknowledges that pivots took place during the pandemic. But she sees the result as a positive one.
"In a nutshell, I know change can be difficult, but Rocky Mountain Public Media continues to evolve to meet our community where they are and to forge a future for public media in true partnership with those we aim to serve," Mountain notes. "This is the pathway to expanding the public trust in a time when media has lost the trust of the majority of the population, according to many recent surveys."
Ferrugia built his reputation as an investigative journalist at CBS News, where he served as a principal correspondent for West 57th, a prime-time news magazine program, among other assignments. In 1992, he arrived in Denver, where he served as an anchor and investigator at Denver7 for fourteen years before being named news anchor and managing editor at Rocky Mountain PBS in 2016. There he developed a signature show dubbed Insight With John Ferrugia and also worked closely with Arts District, which was devoted to Colorado's cultural scene — and both projects were earmarked for growth.
"In February 2020, we put out jobs for a TV producer for Insight, a correspondent for Insight and a digital producer, because we were doing a lot of digital content, as well," Ferrugia says. "Insight had definitely given Rocky Mountain PBS a national reputation. We were doing stories for PBS NewsHour; we were working on Frontline projects."
Things changed in a big way shortly thereafter. "When COVID hit in March, the roof fell in for all of broadcasting and media," Ferrugia continues. "People were losing their jobs, people were getting sick, and we were getting these heartfelt notes from members of Rocky Mountain PBS: 'I've always supported you, but I've just lost my job. Sorry, I can't contribute this year.' So the question was, 'Where is the budget going to be?' The station budgeted month to month to figure out what we were going to be doing, but we didn't know how we were going to do Insight and Arts District, because you couldn't travel and you couldn't do in-person interviews."
These factors necessitated what Ferrugia describes as "a move to the digital platform, where we did significant stories about mental health, the economy, banking, small businesses. And on the Arts District side, we looked at the huge hit taken by the arts community, because all of a sudden, the money dried up for museums and artists. We continued to do that through the fall, hoping that by December, maybe we could start getting on planes again. But COVID didn't allow that, and at a certain point, we couldn't hire the people we needed to hire. So Rocky Mountain PBS decided that we weren't going to do Insight and Arts District anymore. It was a business decision about where the resources were and what projected resources would be, and they wanted to do more web content — which is fine, but not really what I do for a living."
At that point, Ferrugia began to look for other options — and COLab turned out to be a perfect fit. "It's really important to support journalists in local communities, especially now," he says.
Mountain insists that the cancellation of Insight and Arts District doesn't mean "we're moving away from investigative reporting." The remaining members of the investigative team are "currently in the midst of a months-long investigation about some of the inequities that have been created or exacerbated by COVID," she reveals, which should debut soon.
In the meantime, Rocky Mountain PBS is trying to "make more of an impact on daily stories and digital content rather than sporadic episodic programming," Mountain says. "The episodic television wasn't making the consistent impact on the community that we wanted it to — especially on communities of color. We've produced three vaccination town-hall events specifically focused on engaging communities of color, and created educational programming intended to ensure equitable access to distance learning in the absence of broadband access. We've also grown our social platforms by thousands and told more stories in the year 2021 than in the seven years prior combined."
As time moves on, Mountain is hoping to use Rocky Mountain PBS's new headquarters in the Buell Public Media Center, at 2101 Arapahoe Street, to further this mission. The facility just opened last year, and many news organizations that will share the space have yet to move in. "Our essential staff has been in the building almost the entire time," Mountain notes. "But we have allowed the majority of our other staff to work remotely to protect our essential employees, many of whom are in vulnerable categories. We've made an impact in helping keep those folks safe. But engineers and on-air talent in radio have been in the building, and we've also hosted a dozen other media facilities in our building — and some of them are starting to come back, with the Associated Press leading the way. And we've produced some commercial programming in the studio during COVID, helping the Denver Ballet and Opera Colorado to grow their audiences."
For all the challenges of COVID, Mountain — who's served as CEO for four years and been with Rocky Mountain PBS for eight — sees at least one positive: "We're much closer to our community now than we ever have been in my tenure. When the shutdown happened over a year ago, we mobilized volunteers and staff and made over 1,000 calls to the community, asking, 'What do you need? What do you want from your public media?' We identified some key gaps, and we've been developing content around that."
At 7 p.m. tonight, April 13, COLab is hosting a discussion of the new documentary film News Matters, which will premiere on Rocky Mountain PBS at 10 p.m. April 27 prior to its expected airing on PBS stations nationwide later this spring. Panelists include former Denver Post editor Greg Moore; ex-Denver Post editorial-page editor Chuck Plunkett; Larry Ryckman and Dana Coffield of the Colorado Sun; the Knight Foundation's Paul Cheung, Newsonomics publisher Ken Doctor, News Matters filmmaker Brian Malone, and COLab executive director Laura Frank, who'll moderate the discussion.
Click here to register for tonight's free program.
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