The Press is the Enemy: The Problem of Public Trust in Mass Media

Trust is critical to news organizations.

The classic aspirations of journalism – informing the public, holding power to account, and serving as a shield for democratic principles – depend on public trust. Conversely, cynicism and distrust in journalism become a liability. In a column titled “War on Cynicism,” journalist David Broder declared, “If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no point in trying to stay informed.”

Beyond aspirations, trust affects revenue – a primary concern for the financially troubled industry. An American Press Institute study found that trust in a news source plays a significant role in how consumers engage with the source (click links, read articles, share them with others) and whether they pay for content. The API concludes, “[N]ews organizations that earn trust have an advantage in earning money and growing their audience.”

A Gallup poll recently revealed that America’s trust in mass media – the country’s major newspapers, TV and radio news organizations – sank to an all-time low in 2016. Pew Research came to similar conclusions, while an Emerson College poll shows that 53 percent of American voters believe news media are ‘untruthful’ compared to 39 percent responding ‘truthful.’

Trust in Mass Media Polling Data, 1997-2016. Source: Gallup

So, why do people find it hard to trust the media? What kind of consequences are we seeing because of that lack of trust? What do individual journalists need to do to get that trust back?

The Press is the Enemy from Deepan Dutta on Vimeo.

Why People Don’t Trust the News

Shrinking Revenue, Shrinking Newsroom

One factor leading to dwindling trust is the precipitous decline of traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers.

Pew reports that in 2015, the newspaper industry experienced its worst year since the 2008 recession, seeing a 7 percent drop in overall circulation and an 8 percent drop in advertising revenue. The losses come as the industry still struggles to adapt in the age of the internet.

“The rise of the internet just changed that whole business model and the way that people get their news,” says Jeffrey Roberts, veteran journalist and executive director at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC). “It’s become more difficult for traditional mainstream, credible, [news] organizations and professional journalists to compete with all sorts of other avenues of information.”

The beginnings of the internet’s rise and the newspaper’s fall coincided almost immediately. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the newspaper industry’s peak in 1990 it employed over 457,000 people. In 1991, the World Wide Web became accessible to the public, and newspapers have been shedding jobs ever since. As of February 2017 – the last month data was available – 172,000 newspaper jobs remain, a staggering drop of 62 percent.

Newspaper Publisher Employees over Time, January 1990 – February 2017. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Newsrooms have shrunk at an even more alarming rate. The American Society of News Editors estimates newsrooms lost 22,100 jobs between 2006 and 2014, a loss of 42 percent.

The ASNE stopped reporting newsroom employment numbers in 2016, and the News Media Alliance (formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America) stopped releasing quarterly advertising revenue data in 2013. Media analysts have speculated that both organizations stopped reporting these numbers because they had become too depressing for an already demoralized industry.

The Denver Post is a prime example of a local newspaper hit hard by the crunch. Chuck Plunkett, editorial board editor at the Post, recalls the state of their newsroom when he started working there in 2003.

“We had 350 employees, five mountain bureaus around the state, and a large Washington bureau. They even considered opening bureaus in Mexico City and London.

“Since I’ve been here and times have gotten hard, we’ve scaled back and we don’t have the mountain bureaus anymore, we only have one person in Washington, and not talking about a bureau in Mexico City or anywhere else.”

Plunkett says the shrinking newsroom led to a shrinking product. “When you have 350 people, you can do a hell of a lot more than when you have 100.”

He says longtime subscribers noticed the change, and he frequently hears from critics who believe the Post no longer cares about the community. “I think to some degree that helps feed into the loss of trust.”

Jay Seaton, publisher of the Grand Junction Sentinel, employs 32 people in his newsroom, and wishes he could afford 10 more.

“I think that’s probably true for every newspaper and every news organization in the country,” he says. “We’re headed in the wrong direction in this industry, we got a great need for good, boots on the ground reporting right now, and most of us just don’t have the financial performance to support it.”

Corporate Ownership & the Ivory Tower Problem

After decades of deregulation and consolidation, a handful of corporations own almost all of the media outlets in America. The concentration of news outlets has brought about fears of an increasingly homogenous narrative that caters to a select few interests.

Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post from 2002 to 2016, recently retired from the news business after a distinguished 40-year career. Shifting perspective from newsmaker to news consumer, he has started taking a more critical look at “Big Media,” the term he uses instead of ‘mainstream media’ to describe large, corporate-owned news organizations.

He points out how Digital First Media, the owner of the Denver Post, also owns over 50 other newspapers. He says it makes the Post look more like an appendage of a faceless corporation rather than a local newspaper, leaving them open to cynicism and criticism.

“I think that the Denver Post audience see it more as a big metropolitan corporately owned newspaper, and they fire a lot of shots at it.”

Moore also believes the national news media as a whole has become associated with the ‘establishment’ and elitist cultural values.

“They really concentrate on reporting on the coasts and in big urban centers,” he says. “They don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the hinterlands, or what’s happening in rural America, or what working class people are thinking about.”

Chuck Plunkett believes the news media settled into this “ivory towerish” worldview back in the pre-internet heyday when traditional news outlet were the only game in town and did not have to worry about making money.

“When papers made a lot of money with their advertising pages and their classified sections… there was a certain amount of elitism at papers that was distasteful.”

Even when news media does pay attention to middle or rural America, Moore says they only scratch the surface.

“They write about them, but they don’t really pay attention to their lives, they treat them as sort of implements of policy.”

The notion that the news media as elitist and out of touch is a popular one in the wake of the 2016 election. Many commentators and analysts have made the issue of elitism in the media  a focal point on why it appears news media, and therefore many of its consumers, were apparently so blindsided by the populist wave resulting in Brexit and the “Trump phenomenon.”

“That’s really the biggest indictment of the media,” Moore says. “If you’ve done your job, your readers and your audience shouldn’t be shocked by what’s happened. Clearly, America woke up in a state of shock after the election.”

Moore says that instead of trying to get to know the audience or the issues, Big Media relies too much on polls that treat real people as if they were just pieces of data.

“I think [regular people] want to focus on ‘What do I need to know?’ and it’s a big comeuppance for polling and for the way the media covers communities.”

Jay Seaton agrees with this assessment, and says trust took a big hit because of how the 2016 election was covered.

“We paid too much attention to the polls,” he says, “We all got it marvelously wrong in November… they put too much faith in some polls that weren’t that far off, but certainly didn’t predict the outcome that we have. So I think we got a credibility problem, right there.”

The Internet, Alternative Facts, and “Fake News”

Social media is one of the great revolutions of the information age. However, it has created an environment where facts and lies have become intermingled or indistinguishable, creating misinformation, confusion, and distrust.

As executive director of the CFOIC, Jeffery Roberts is all for the free exchange of information. But he does worry about whether people can properly contextualize all the information and be able to determine what to trust.

“It’s kind of hard to know where all this information is coming from,” he says, “especially if it’s being pushed to you and you’re not actively looking for it.”

With traditional news outlets, he says there should be some faith they did their due diligence and are not presenting outright lies.

“But nowadays, you’ll see something on Facebook or Twitter and you may not even pay attention to where it’s coming from. It’s all kind of mixed together.”

Jay Seaton notes how “everybody’s a publisher now,” giving every user a platform and a voice for their views.

“But much of that information has an agenda. It may not be true, it may be completely fabricated with badges of truth, or otherwise nonsense, or maybe mostly true with a lot spin in it.”

With so many sources of information, he says, it is hard to know where to find the “touchstone of reality.”

“What do we know is real and what is fabricated? What is reliable and what is spin? It is a very hard for consumers of information to know that today, when they got thousands and thousands of sources of information coming to them.”

This, Seaton says, is why someone who reads a so-called ‘alt-right’ website like Breitbart may believe The New York Times is lying about its information.

Greg Moore blames a combination of the ubiquitous information and hyper-partisan politics for a situation “where people can actually turn a channel or type in a website and get confirmation for whatever it is that they believe… and increasingly people aren’t letting facts they disagree with influence what they think in any way.”

Moore says this is how ideas like “alternative facts” have become more and more acceptable to those seeking a narrative in opposition to the mainstream.

Fake News” is also a term that became famous in 2016. While there is no official definition for the neologism, it generally refers to blatantly false information, presented as fact, with the intent to misinform. The purpose may be malicious, but can also be simply a way to turn a profit.

During the 2016 election season, the term was primarily used to describe a wave of purposefully false and malicious articles aimed at the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Commerce City, CO. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

However, the term has been weaponized to discredit contrary or disagreeable information, regardless of actual truth or merit.

“Now it’s just turned into a strange political narrative,” Chuck Plunkett says, “where the definition changes depending on who is using it.”

Jay Seaton’s Grand Junction Sentinel experienced the indignity of the “fake news” label and he his response made waves.

On Feb. 8, 2017, the Grand Junction Sentinel published an editorial calling on state legislators to stop delaying hearings for a bill promoting easier access to government records. The editorial specifically called out State Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, after he canceled a hearing on the bill, and called on him to allow it to go forward.

Scott responded by lashing out against the Sentinel on Twitter.

Seaton, incensed by the characterization of the Sentinel as “fake news,” personally fired back at Scott in another editorial. “I don’t think I can sit back and take this kind of attack from an elected official,” Seaton wrote at the time. “Words have real meaning in this business. Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.”

Seaton ended the piece with a not-so-veiled threat of a libel suit against Scott: “I’ll see you in court.”

Seaton’s lawsuit threat made national news. It was the first time a news outlet really tried to fight back against the now-ubiquitous “fake news” label.

Months later, Seaton stands by his assertion that Scott defamed the Sentinel and believes a libel lawsuit could have succeeded on the merits.

“By referring to the Daily Sentinel as ‘fake news,’” he says, “I felt that was an attack on our credibility and our integrity, and a newspaper’s credibility and integrity are frankly its only real assets.”

However, after considering the cost to the Sentinel as well as to taxpayers, Seaton eventually decided not to pursue legal action.

Seaton was also concerned that a lawsuit might prevent the Sentinel from doing its job while playing into the hands of people who try to discredit it.

“[A lawsuit] would impair future reporting about Ray Scott,” Seaton explains. “If he is engaged in something that is newsworthy and I’ve got a pending lawsuit against him, anything that I would write about him would be viewed through the lens of pending litigation.”

Seaton says he also looked at the bigger picture and realized that the news industry “needs to rise above the petty back and forth” that has invaded public discourse, whether it be from internet trolls or the president.

“We take that kind of criticism, that kind of slam, because that comes from a place of weakness, and I think the institution of a free press is strong… I think we’re bigger than that.”

Seaton he partly came to this perspective a lecture by Marty Baron, legendary editor of “Spotlight” fame and current Executive Editor of The Washington Post.

Baron, addressing President Trump’s claims of being in a ‘running war’ with the news media,’ said:

“The president may be at war, but the Washington Post is not. We’re at work. We’re just trying to do our jobs.”

How the Media Can Bring Trust Back

A simple solution to regain the public’s trust:  Do your job, and do it right.

“The simplest way to build trust is to just do a really good job day in and day out,” Chuck Plunkett says. “Make sure that you’re minding the store, that you’re going the extra mile and you really research your article, whether it’s on the news site or opinion, so that you’re not just assuming what’s going on when it’s really more complex.”

Plunkett also suggests journalists something he has been trying himself: engaging constructively with “the other side,” or others who have a different point of view.

“I’m trying now to once in a while to sit down with a critic at lunch, buy a meal, say ‘Let’s break bread together,’ and ‘I want to more about where you’re coming from,’ and ‘I want to know more of your side of the argument to understand them better.’”

Moore believes the outreach should also go deep into communities, and that journalists should “really talk to the people they’re writing about” to understand them and their concerns better. He adds that he is seeing signs of progress on that front. “I actually think the best news organizations are redoubling their efforts to do that.”

He also says journalists need to “be professional and abide by journalistic ethics and standards,” especially in a time where their integrity is being constantly questioned and they are competing with false narratives that misinform the public.

“The media has to remind people how important facts are and how important truth is,” he says. “They have to be more transparent about how they do their work and what it’s based on, so people can make judgments on their own. That kind of transparency can help rebuild the trust.”

Seaton suggests that aside from getting to know the audience, journalists should also talk about themselves and the job they do.

“I think we need to do a better job of letting our community know who we are as people in the newsroom, whether it’s the reporters, the editors, me. I really want to give people a peek under the tent, and understand that the person who wrote a story about the school board is a graduate of this very school district, and takes his kids to that same school in the morning.”

Seaton also suggests that journalists try to inform their audience about what goes into the editorial process, the ‘sausage making’ side of journalism, to show how much work and care goes into making sure stories are accurate and truthful.

One of Seaton’s favorite movies is the 1976 political thriller All the President’s Men, which told the story of the legendary Watergate investigation. He even has the theatrical poster on his office wall. The film is famous for its accurate depiction of the editorial process, which Seaton describes step-by-step.

The Editorial Process from Deepan Dutta on Vimeo.

He says that this approach will help rehabilitate the profession of journalism in the public’s eye and promote “a First Amendment-driven mission of presenting reliable information that the community can organize their lives around.”

Roberts agrees that it is important to remind people what journalism stands for, and the ideals the profession seeks to uphold. He remembers how the Watergate investigation inspired him to become a journalist, and he hopes more contemporary investigations like Spotlight can inspire the next generation.

“I do think there’s an opportunity to really try to educate people, or just remind them of something that they already know, which is how important news organizations are to our nation and how our government is supposed to work.”

To that end, Moore says he takes heart in the wisdom he sees in young people today.

“I’m encouraged by the next generation of kids who are in junior high or even middle school who understand a couple of things.

  1. You can’t believe everything that’s on the internet.
  2. Check your facts.”

#NoBanNoWall: Tales from the Travel Ban Protests

On January 27, 2017, President Trump signed Executive Order 13769 barely a week after being inaugurated as the nation’s 45th president. The order, titled “Protecting the Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry To The United States,” issued a number of restrictions for entry into the United States. The order:

  1. Suspended for 120 days the entry of all refugees,
  2. Suspended indefinitely the entry of all Syrian refugees,
  3. Suspended for 90 days the entry of all non-U.S. citizens from seven Muslim majority countries: Iraq, Iran, Syria, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen.

The Trump administration argued the so-called travel ban was necessary to prevent terrorism, and was not a religious ban.

The backlash was immediate, and it was overwhelming.

The next day, Saturday, word had spread that several Iraqi refugees had been detained at JFK International Airport in Queens, New York.  Over the course of the day, hundreds of protesters spontaneously arrived at JFK to demonstrate in front of the airport and demanded the release of the refugees and an immediate end to the travel ban. The hashtag #NoBanNoWall became a rallying cry for activists across social media.

The JFK protest spread to airports across the country, including Denver International Airport where protesters initially occupied the main concourse area, demanding the release of anyone who was being detained at the border checkpoint because of the order.

Later Saturday night, A federal judge in NYC issued an emergency stop to deportations and detention of persons who had already arrived in the U.S. legally, but the order did not apply to anyone outside the United States. The chaos and confusion of the sloppily drafted ban caused chaos and confusion around the world, and thousands were stuck in ports of call, waiting to find out if they would ever be allowed in.

On Sunday, the protests continued around the country. Protesters arrived at the plaza outside DIA’s main terminal, as Denver police had banned any protests inside the terminal, threatening arrest for anyone seen demonstrating or even just holding signs. Click here to be taken to taken to the exact spot the protests took place, via Google Earth.

#NoBanNoWall protesters at Denver International Airport. Jan. 29, 2017. Credit: Deepan Dutta

Though fewer in number than the day before, the protesters were still very vocal and very motivated. They chanted and sang peacefully, and there was no interaction with the Denver police or airport security. Facebook Live captured the protests as they happened; including a powerful moment when an man came forward to share the story of his wife, who was being shut out of the country because of the ban.

The Iranian man with the green sign, Mehdi (fearing for his and his wife’s safety, he has asked his last name not be used) had driven down all the way from Laramie, Wyoming to take part in the protests at DIA. He did not know what else to do in his grief, having spent the last day and night crying in anguish.

His story inspired other protesters to open up and start conversations with each other.

A former Tea Party activist brought his two young children along and declared that Trump was a dictator who did not represent him or his values.  He went as far as to apologize on behalf of the country to Mehdi for what he was going through.

Emad Alayoubi, a Muslim American actor with family from Syria, had never taken part in a protest before, and never considered himself to be very politically active. But Trump’s travel ban changed that.  A switch flipped and Alayoubi suddenly became an activist. He resolved not to stop coming out to protests until Trump had resigned or had been impeached.

As perfect strangers got to know each other during the protest, they realized that they cared deeply about the same cause. Ironically enough, President Trump was the single unifying force behind all of it.

Unfortunately for the president, the travel ban was short lived. Several states sued the administration to stop the order, including the state of Washington. On February 3, a week after the ban went into effect, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order on the ban in Washington v. Trump which applied to the entire nation. That meant all travel would continue as normal, and anyone who had already been issued visas would be granted entry to the U.S. The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the order on February 9. The Ninth Circuit uploaded full audio of this hearing to YouTube.

Part of the court’s reason for suspending the ban was based on comments made by none other than President Trump himself, on Twitter of all places.

A large part of the case against the ban relied on the assertion that the ban had a “religious animus” – that it was was targeting a particular religion for hostile treatment. Government lawyers tried to convince the court that there was no religious animus, and that the order was entirely based on security reasons. But the state of Washington pointed out several statements the president had made before the order was issued, including tweets, declaring openly how he intended to discriminate against Muslims.

This may be the first time a president’s use of social media may have played a part in bringing down an executive order, or any action of this magnitude.

The travel ban suspension brought the immigration system back to normal.  Visa holders from the targeted nations were able to safely travel to the U.S. and the protesters left the airports. They had won, for the moment at least.

After the ban was lifted I got in touch with Mehdi, the protester whose wife was stranded in Cyprus, to see how it all turned out for her and learn more about their story.(Click on the location names to virtually tour them via Google Earth)

Mehdi is originally from Tehran, Iran and studied at the Sharif University of Technology, where he received Master’s degree in Physics. He came to the U.S. in September, 2011 on a student visa to study for a Ph.D. oil and petroleum engineering at the University of Wyoming.

Mehdi holds his protest sign at Denver International Airport. Jan. 29, 2017. Credit: Deepan Dutta

However, in 2012 the Obama administration imposed new Iranian sanctions which barred visas to any Iranian national studying in any energy-related field. Mehdi was abruptly forced to end his studies in petroleum engineering and pursue another track which got him at the Wyoming Technology and Business Center, where he now works as a business consultant.

One of the reasons it was important to Mehdi to get that job was to have the right status he would need for his wife to apply for a visa. Mrs. V (the name Mehdi asked I refer to her as to keep her anonymous) and Mehdi had been college friends and would have married before Mehdi left for the U.S., but her father received a cancer diagnosis and she had to care for him.  Their plan was for Mehdi to come to the U.S., get settled and then go back to marry Mrs. V. so that they could come to the country together.

However, due to the aforementioned sanctions and Mehdi’s fear of not being allowed back in if he went returned to Iran, he decided to marry Mrs. V. by proxy. Because of the lack of formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Iran, the couple had to conduct the proxy marriage at Pakistan’s embassies in each country, but once it was done they were legally married.

After the marriage certificate was approved, Mrs. V spent months traveling to U.S. embassies in Armenia, Dubai and Turkey, applying for visas and getting rejected each time for administrative reasons.

In December 2016, Mehdi got a H1-B visa for highly skilled workers, and he immediately made a visa appointment for Mrs. V at the U.S. embassy in Cyprus. Mehdi’s urgency was motivated by Donald Trump’s election the previous month. “I was aware of the situation,” he says.  “I knew who might make these problems.”

Finally, after so many tries and rejections, Mrs. V managed to finally get past the gauntlet of administration and vetting checks and was told that her visa had been approved. She received that e-mail on January 25. She traveled to the U.S. embassy in Cyprus and dropped her passport off to have the visa issued on January 27. Hours later, word of Trump’s travel ban had arrived and the embassy refused to issue the visa or give her passport back. She was stranded, shut out once again, this time maybe forever.

Mehdi went into a deep despair; he spent much of the next day and night crying or watching the news. He believed Trump’s order to be permanent and unchangeable, as that is how it usually went when the Iranian government handed down an edict. His view of America as a generous, welcoming country had been shattered, and started wondering if he should find a new home.

But then he saw the protests on TV. He saw thousands of people spontaneously show up at airports across the country demanding an end to the ban, and it inspired some hope. On Sunday, sick of doing nothing, he decided to get in his car and make the two hour drive down to Denver.

“I came to DIA, I was thinking at least I can be part of this movement,” Mehdi says. “I didn’t know if it would change anything, but at least I could say I did something.”

At DIA, he told the other protesters his story, and lawyers who had set up camp in the airport whisked him away to see if they could help him. At the time, they could not offer much help as the order was still in force around the world, aside from hope that the courts may block the order.

Mehdi went back to Laramie, with some hope, but also cynicism. He figured that if the American government wanted to exclude people like him, surely the Americans around him felt the same way. He decided to poll the students on campus to see how they felt about foreigners and immigrants. Click on the image below to to hear what he found out in an Anchor audio story:

Anchor Placeholder

As it turned out, Mehdi’s rekindled faith in America was validated when the travel ban was suspended by federal courts, and his wife finally got her visa and on a flight to the U.S.

However, even her flight back became a trial of tribulations. A winter storm caused airports to close and thousands of flights to be cancelled, and Mrs. V’s flight got diverted from New York to Washington D.C. Mehdi wound up charging $4,000 to his credit card as he booked, cancelled, and rebooked flights as her arrival destination kept changing.  He was determined to meet her when she landed so that he could make sure he got here safely. Too many things had gone wrong for him to leave it to chance.

But finally, at long last, Mehdi reunited with his wife on February 9.  They are safe and sound together in Wyoming, and for now they have nothing more to worry about.

Executive Order 13769 was suspended on February 3 and was never reinstated. Instead, the Trump administration revoked and replaced it with Executive Order 13780. The replacement is intended to remedy some of the legal problems with the original order, such as allowing people with valid visas to enter the country, but retained language that banned entry to nationals from six of the original seven target countries (Iraq was dropped from the list).

Even with the changes, a federal judge in Hawaii issued a restraining order on the ban the day before it was meant to take effect, and it has also been suspended pending further legal developments.

Regardless of how the travel ban is playing out in the courts, ordinary Americans are still debating the ban in person and on social media.  One such forum is on an app called Countable. Countable allows people to engage with each other about important issues of government and policy in various ways, presenting their arguments for both sides of an issue as well as a way to vote for issues in informal polls. Countable also tracks legislation moving through Congress so that users can easily see what their legislators are up to.

A bill introduced in the House, H.R. 1503 – titled the “Statue of Liberty Values Act 2.0” or “SOLVE Act 2.0” – intends to void the the travel ban as well as withhold federal funds to enforce it. Countable has used the bill as a platform to generally gauge user’s views on the travel ban itself, presenting arguments for and against it. At a certain point a poll will open and users will be able to vote on the issue after having read both sides.

Currently, the most popular arguments in favor of voiding the travel ban are based on compassion and empathy for migrants. The most popular arguments against the bill, or in favor of the travel ban, revolve mainly around national security and the threat imposed by terrorism. The contrasting priorities and attitudes reflect a nation that is deeply divided politically.

What is clear about the reaction to the travel ban is that it inspired a great sense of effusive, spontaneous civic engagement in many Americans – some of whom have never considered themselves political or otherwise engaged with the workings of the system.

The saga also showed how critical social media has become to our public discourse, and will be an implement wielded by both the powerful and the powerless now and in the future.

Whatever happens with the travel ban in the courts, the #NoBanNoWall protests will be remembered as a brief, loud part of American history.

All About Gutters

When potential buyers scout a home, checking the gutters is probably not at the top of their priorities.  But gutters do serve a very important purpose to homes – they carry rainwater that falls off the edges of roofs away from the house, which is vital to maintain the integrity of a home’s exterior and foundation.  Over time they probably save homeowners a lot of money in repairs, provided they’re well-maintained.

In fact, gutters are so important to home maintenance that November 25 has been unofficially declared “National Gutters Day” in the UK.

And as fall settles in, dire warnings about leaf-clogged gutters can be seen all over social media (mostly by companies selling something to deal with the problem):

So what’s the worry? Why do gutters matter and what kind of maintenance do they need?

Having issues with my own gutters, I saw an opportunity to find out more about them by asking my friend and handyman, Wayne Morse, to see if he can find out what’s wrong.  Morse is a general contractor who has spent decades doing all kinds of construction and maintenance jobs, big and small, from building entire houses to something as minor as patching leaky gutters.

Gutters available for sale at a Denver-area Home Depot store. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

When I asked Morse why gutters are important, his explanation is pretty simple. “They carry water away from your house,” he says, “and that keeps your foundation free of moisture and makes sure that it’s not running into your house and damaging your siding, or foundation.”

Morse says a homeowner can tell there’s a problem if they start seeing water leak from under the gutters (like I was seeing with mine) or start seeing water damage outside the home from where roof water drainage is failing.  He put up a ladder and went up to assess what was wrong with mine.

“You’ve got a lot of rust in your gutter,” is the first thing he said after the initial inspection.  He explains it probably got that way because I let leaves sit in there over the years and didn’t clean them out often enough.  The leaves absorbed water and held moisture at the bottom of the gutter, eventually corroding the ‘galvanized’ coating.  It must have been a particularly poor job of maintenance, he said, since these were galvanized metal gutters – which means they are not supposed to rust at all.  Admittedly, I had neglected the gutters over the past few seasons, allowing the corrosion to get worse and worse.

Morse expanded on the possible reasons for the rust, saying water may have also been standing due to an improperly leveled or sagging gutter.  “It could also just be water standing, a lot of times people put gutters in and they don’t put it in with good drainage, and it’s not bad to have two drain spouts, one on each side and that helps keep your water drained.”

Standing water in a gutter. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

Miguel, a Home Depot sales associate who declined to give his last name, agreed with that assessment when I asked him what could cause rust in supposedly rust-proof gutters.

“If you get a lot of leaves, dirt, and other stuff in there, it will sit on the bottom and eventually rust out,” he explains.  Miguel recommended using silicone seals and other products to help with small holes should they appear in gutters, but said that eventually you’ll need to replace all of them if they’re already starting to rust.

To keep leaves and other debris out, he also suggested a product called Gutterstuff, which is basically a foam insert that filters leaves and debris while allowing water to flow through.

With my situation, the rust and neglect resulted in at least one visible hole in the gutter running in front of the house, over the garage.  It was visible as a little rust stain underneath the gutter, where water had been dripping through to the concrete driveway below.

Standing water corroded my gutter, creating a hole.  Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

Morse’s recommendation to fix the hole was to ‘patch it up,’ which basically meant screwing a steel plate over the hole.

First, he measured a piece of stainless steel that would fit over the affected area.

Second, he would drill four holes through the bottom of the gutter where the steel would be placed.

Third, he used a caulking gun to spread silicone sealant over the holes to ensure that water would not leak through.

Finally, he installed the plate in place with four small screws.

Here’s a video of Morse going through these steps to repair the gutter:

The final result will (hopefully) be that the water stops leaking through the gutter.  With Denver seeing its first snow of the season over the past week, the fix couldn’t come soon enough.

Wayne Morse finishes up his patch job of the gutter. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

The lesson for homeowners: Don’t neglect your gutters.  Cleaning them out after the leaves drop in the fall is crucial to water irrigation from roofs. Morse estimates that gutters can last 20 years or more if they are properly maintained.  Otherwise, you may see a needless headache in having to replace gutters all around a house far earlier than needed.

Commuting to Boulder

Union Station in Denver, Colorado. Photo Credit: Deepan Dutta

Lindsay Hahn spends a lot of time on the road these days. “I spend between one and a half to two hours in the car almost every day,” she says. “That means between nine and a half and 14 hours of my week are spent commuting.”

Hahn is a 26-year-old graduate student at CU Boulder who commutes from Arvada, and one of thousands of commuters who journey to work in Boulder every day. According to the U.S. Census, in 2014 over 54,000 people commuted to the City of Boulder from outlying suburbs and cities. They travel from all over the Front Range by car, bus and bike.  And with Colorado seeing a massive population boom, and the increased unaffordability of real estate in Boulder, the number of commuters is sure to rise.

For Hahn, cost is the primary reason she drives all those hours every week. “Commuting saves me a substantial amount of money every month,” she says. “As a student, I simply can’t afford to pay between $800 and $1500 for a studio or one-bedroom apartment.”

Gino Canella, a 33-year-old doctoral student at CU Boulder, bikes from his apartment in Capitol Hill in Denver to Union Station, and from there takes the newly-introduced Flatiron Flyer express bus route for his journey to campus.  In terms of cost, he estimates he saves about “$200 a month, just on rent,” by living in Denver.

Aside from cost, commuters also cite lifestyle choices as a reason they choose to live outside of Boulder. Canella is not a fan of the social atmosphere in Boulder. “Between college students and young families, I didn’t find a good social scene in Boulder,” he says. “Denver is more conducive to young, single people.”

Hahn also cites the “university town atmosphere” and “overwhelmingly liberal political leanings” of Boulder as a significant reason for not wanting to live there, and says the famously liberal city “does not give a true sense of what the rest of Colorado is like.”

“Arvada is located in Jefferson County which is much more representative of the state with its political parties split very evenly between Republican, Democrat and unaffiliated.”

Aside from cost and lifestyle, the convenience of public transport has led many to use the RTD system for their commuting needs. “I think Boulder is extremely commuter-friendly,” Canella says. “The public transportation system in Colorado is excellent in my opinion, and it’s another reason why moving to Denver wasn’t such a hard decision.” He also compliments the Flatiron Flyer, an express bus line between Boulder and Denver introduced this year which picks up passengers every 10 minutes during rush hour.

Flatiron Flyer bus picking up passengers from Union Station bus terminal. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

“Getting to campus in 30 minutes on an express bus – where I can read, relax, not get stressed out in traffic, and save money on gas, tolls and parking – is so convenient.”

However, public transport isn’t always an option for Boulder’s commuters. Hahn considers public transport “extremely impractical” for her own schedule and occupation. “As a journalism student I have no idea what my schedule will be week to week,” she says, “and I’m often running around here, there and everywhere with lots of expensive gear. It makes me nervous to rely on someone or something else to make sure I’m where I need to be at the time I need to be there.”

While the current highway infrastructure and public transport system seems to work for many commuters, traffic continues to be a problem and the growth of Boulder and Colorado as a whole is leading to concerns about future congestion and pollution.

According to an August 2016 report by the CoPIRG Foundation and the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project (SWEEP), Colorado as a whole is not adequately prepared for the growth. The report states that, “[w]ithout significant investments in transit, biking and pedestrian services and infrastructure, Colorado will not be able to meet the demands and challenges of our shifting demographics and growing population, and will miss out on the many benefits transit, walking and biking provide.”


The report also recommends a $1.05 billion per year increase in investment for transit, walking and biking statewide, “to ensure every Colorodan in our towns and cities experiences the multitude of benefits” that comes from a truly modern transportation system. The Flatiron Flyer bus service is the latest sign that the region is starting to take transportation needs seriously, and commuters have been utilizing it heavily. In its first three months, bus ridership along the U.S. 36 corridor increased 45 percent.

As popular as the Flyer has become, it is only meant to be a temporary measure to fill in for a commuter rail line from Denver to Longmont, part of the multibillion dollar FasTracks public transportation initiative. According to the RTD, the ambitious project intends to “build 122 miles of new commuter rail and light rail, 18 miles of bus rapid transit, 21,000 new parking spaces at light rail and bus stations, and enhance bus service for easy, convenient bus/rail connections across the eight-county district.” Four rail lines are planned to open this year, with two of them – the A line from Denver to the airport in the northeast and the B line to Westminster – already open for service.

The A Line train pulls in to Union Station.  Photo Credit: Deepan Dutta

However, commuters to Boulder will need to wait quite awhile – decades, even – before they can experience the speed and convenience of a train. Current estimates project the Northwest Rail Corridor to be completed no earlier than 2042, if it even happens at all.

In an interview with Colorado Public Radio back in April 2016, RTD spokesman Nate Currey attributed the decades long delay and possible cancellation to a funding shortage.

“RTD just doesn’t have the money at this point,” Currey explained. “These rail lines are funded by a sales tax increase that voters agreed to in ’04 but revenues came in way below what RTD forecast in the mid-2000s.” That left the agency “with a $2 billion funding gap.”

So while a train from Denver to Boulder may continue to be a pipe dream, commuters like Gino Canella and Lindsay Hahn will make do with the system as it is. Improvements to the system are coming incrementally, and commuters can only hope that they keep up with the population growth.