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Good Company: Public Media Leader Puts a Premium on Trust

Rocky Mountain Public Media's Amanda Mountain works to enhance the free flow of information


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It seems fitting that Amanda Mountain named her daughter after Freyja, the Norse goddess of love and war, since she herself is a champion of an industry under siege. As head of Rocky Mountain Public Media, Mountain works to enhance the free flow of information across Colorado at a time when public trust in media is low and the First Amendment seems more important – and more embattled – than ever.

A military brat and the first in her family to attend college, Mountain earned a degree in media management from the University of Colorado and dove instantly into newspaper management with Freedom Communications. She came to Rocky Mountain Public Media seven years ago as the first female CEO in its history and one of the youngest public media
CEOs in the country.

Her vision for Colorado’s public media includes shoring up resource-starved traditional media throughout the state with localized investigative journalism from five “innovation centers” and turning a blighted block of downtown Denver into the $30 million Buell Public Media Center, slated for completion by 2020.

All that, along with growing and maintaining public television’s audience and its trust, might seem daunting, but Mountain welcomes the challenge.

As for budding warrior Freyja, who is just 2, Mountain believes she’ll grow into her name.

“It definitely arms her well,” she says, “to go out into the world and take control.”

COLORADOBIZ: WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE ROLE OF PUBLIC MEDIA IN THE CURRENT CLIMATE?

AMANDA MOUNTAIN: According to the latest Pew research, only 26 percent of the public actually trusts the media. At the same time, PBS has been named the most trusted public institution in the country 14 years running. So I see the role that we play as a vital one, really leveraging the public trust people have placed in us consistently throughout the years to create more opportunities for civil discourse around issues that are difficult to talk about and may not be talked about at all in a productive way at the community level and then also for us to play an even more bold and aggressive role in telling stories that would otherwise go untold. We have a really unique statewide model. We are not just a Denver-based organization serving the entire state. We have actually invested in what we call Regional Innovation Centers. These are extensions of our organization located in five different areas around the state, usually embedded on college campuses or at universities, where we have regional producers and engagement managers who work directly on the community level to surface issues that are particularly salient for that community.

CB: DO YOU THINK THAT MIGHT BE A KEY TO HELPING TO RESTORE PUBLIC TRUST IN MEDIA?

AM: First and foremost, there’s a lot of consolidation happening in the broader national media that is really threatening our local media ecosystem. When you have players like Sinclair Media that could ultimately be the largest owner of local television stations, that are then aiming to consolidate reporting at a tristate-regional level, and then dictate what that content is going to look like from the corporate level that is highly editorialized, and is being passed off as true news content – there are a lot of reasons why trust in media is low. That is an issue we absolutely have to address; we have to engage the public in developing media literacy. Three to five years ago, media literacy just seemed like a given, where it was clear what information was factual and what wasn’t. But obviously, that is changing, radically. Second, the traditional separation that can sometimes happen between the community and the media could be reconciled to build trusting relationships and ultimately increase the overall trust in media.

CB: SO WHAT DO YOU SEE AS THE GREATEST THREAT TO A FREE PRESS RIGHT NOW?

AM: I see the greatest threat to the free press as an increasing ambiguity around information delivery and the level of professionalism put behind that information. To put it in a different way, the biggest threat is that it is harder than ever for a regular person to look at something and know if it’s real or not. I think it’s going to get even harder, the technology is getting so sophisticated, where people can look at video and it can seem entirely seamless, yet both the video and the audio have been edited.

But I also think here in Colorado, what I call ‘information islands’ are a huge threat. We are really geographically dispersed as a state, and then being divided up into three DMAs at the commercial media level, really puts those Coloradans on information islands where when they turn on the television, they don’t see images of their community reflected back to them. That’s where I see our statewide organization truly being able to better reflect the experience of Coloradans no matter where they live through our Regional Innovation Center model.

CB: WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR PEOPLE ABOUT HOW THEY CAN PROTECT THEMSELVES AND THEIR FAMILIES FROM SO-CALLED FAKE NEWS, SINCE AS A COUNTRY, WE'RE NOT DOING MUCH TO FILTER THAT?

AM: My advice first and foremost is, do not get your news or information strictly from social media. Then I would encourage people to get involved, help shape traditional media in a way that can better serve your needs, whether it’s serving on the editorial board of a local community newspaper, or if it’s sending a letter to the editor, or just calling a reporter up and having a conversation. You’d be surprised how accessible people in media are.

CB: YOU'RE YOUNG, YOU'RE A WOMAN AND YOU'RE A CEO. HOW DO THE FIRST TWO INFORM YOUR LEADERSHIP STYLE?

AM: The biggest thing that’s informing my leadership style right now is my 2-year-old. I’m a new parent, and it’s a real struggle to try to figure everything out. Two and a half years ago, I was a workaholic. I was putting in 80 hours a week and happily so. The perspective I get from having a fully formed personal life and a family life that is just as fulfilling as my work life actually allows me to bring even more to the leadership of the organization and gives me a better perspective, more time to think on different angles on an issue, so that I can really contribute a unique voice to the national public media landscape.

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Lisa Ryckman

Lisa Ryckman is ColoradoBiz's managing editor. Contact her at lryckman@cobizmag.com.

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