United States Project

The Durango Herald on covering itself, and why the paper didn’t move faster on offensive-voicemail story

September 21, 2015

You might have heard about this one: A local newspaper reporter in Colorado, going through her office voicemail, finds a recording of a handful of sheriff’s deputies making derogatory and objectifying remarks about her appearance, left unwittingly after one of them called her with a message and forgot to hang up the phone.

That story blew up online after it was reported on Aug. 28 by the popular women’s culture website Jezebel, which picked up a YouTube clip of the recording that had been gaining traction on social media. The story quickly snowballed, with the news carried on local TV stations, feminist blogs, The Denver Post and other newspapers, and tabloids from New York City to London. The reporter who received the voicemail was interviewed on The Today Show, and she made news when she criticized a Colorado TV report about the episode as “sexist.”

Practically lost in the flurry of coverage: a 550-word report about the deputies’ comments in The Durango Herald, the paper where the reporter, Chase Olivarius-McAllister, worked. That story, bylined as a staff report, went online the evening of Aug. 28, after Jezebel broke news of the recording, and after other news outlets in and near Colorado picked it up. The Herald report leads with an apology from the sheriff for his deputies’ comments. It’s about as low-key a treatment of this material as you could imagine, and for what it’s worth, the middling social sharing stats for the story reflect that.

There are some differences in the accounts of how the Herald, which knew about the recording before any outside news organization, approached the story. Olivarius-McAllister believes the Herald wouldn’t have covered the incident at all without the outside attention, a result she says would have been “unacceptable.” Amy Maestas, the Herald’s editor, says that’s not the case; the story required discussions among the paper’s leadership, she said, and that took time.

What does seem clear is that the episode highlights the very different publishing ethos still at work in the news business, and some of the consequences of those differences. In this case, a news story with viral potential and particular relevance to the Herald’s local audience practically fell into the paper’s lap. That story ended up being told first by, and by all indications far more widely read in, other outlets in part due to how online audiences work, but also in part because of the rules that papers like the Herald set for themselves.

In a pair of interviews, Maestas acknowledged that other news outlets had moved more quickly on the story, and that the other coverage “made us ask some different questions” and “made us react a little sooner than we would have.”

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She described the factors that she said contributed to the Herald’s more deliberate response, some of which had to do with the paper’s role at the center of the story.

“We don’t insert ourselves in the news. We as newsmakers are not out there looking to make news,” she said. “We aren’t sources for ourselves, and we’re not trying to make those headlines. So there was a lot of discussion that had to take place before we were going to react to that.”

The paper’s relationship with the sheriff’s office—and the question of how the sheriff would respond—were on the minds of editors, Maestas said. “It’s a little bit different because we wanted to make sure that we aren’t sensationalizing the story about ourselves.”

Maestas described moving more slowly almost as a point of pride. “Newspapers have an obligation to their staff to have longer discussions about this,” she said. And:

“The Durango Herald is a community newspaper that is not interested in writing stories quickly. We are a storied newspaper with an enormous amount of credibility, we take our journalism seriously, we write stories that are important for the community and watchdogs of government to inform our readers and subscribers to inform our community. We are not in the business of writing a story to get as many clicks as possible for this to spiral on the internet or social media. If we were that type of organization we would have immediately done what other news outlets chose to do. And that’s not what we were doing.”

Setting aside the question of how effectively the Herald met that mission here—I would have liked to see more in both the paper’s initial story and a Sept. 4 follow-up—that’s an approach that, whatever its merits, is likely to leave you with a circumscribed online audience.

For her part, Olivarius-McAllister, 28, has since left the Herald—she had already put in her notice before the voicemail incident— which was her first job after graduating from Yale. Being the subject of a viral sensation has her wondering what it might mean moving forward. Google algorithms are sure to rank this incident higher than her awards or her inspired reporting about small-town government.

“It’s very awkward to go from being a local reporter who took terrific pride in doggedly producing good work in a small town to a tabloid avatar,” she said.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.