Inside the News: A Reformed Oath Keeper Militia Spokesman Runs a Local News Substack in Estes Park

  • Corey Hutchins is a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to Columbia Journalism Review, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. This column is produced with support from the Colorado Media Project, and is distributed statewide via the Colorado News Collaborative.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

‘Things are ramping up’

Northern Colorado resident Jason Van Tatenhove might be on his way to becoming something of a celebrity in the world of repentant Trump-era political figures.

Ever since the 47-year-old Estes Park resident left his role a few years ago as a spokesman and self-described “propagandist” for the national Oath Keepers militia, he’s been speaking out against extremism.

That includes serving as an unnamed and on-the-record bean-spiller for national journalists, offering the inside scoop on hard-right movements. Soon, he plans to travel to Washington and speak with the U.S. House Select Committee that’s investigating the violent 2021 pro-Trump mob-attack on the U.S. Capitol.

In January, ABC News spotlighted Van Tatenhove in a documentary called “Homegrown: Standoff to Rebellion,” and last month I noted his Colorado Switchblade newsletter after meeting him in a virtual Substack writers group. The brief newsletter mention led to a major profile in last Sunday’s Denver Post.

From the story by Elise Schmelzer:

“I have been trying to make up for the propaganda that I spewed,” he said. He’s returned to art, to writing novels, to journalism. After a time writing for the Estes Park Trail-Gazette, he launched the Colorado Switchblade, a website covering Estes Park and Colorado news and culture. He’s written about working people’s struggles to afford housing in the mountain town, women’s rights activists, the need to address climate change. “Look at what I’ve been doing since then — that’s what I really believe,” he said.

Readers who click on the Trail-Gazette link are taken to an eye-opening item on Van Tatenhove’s Switchblade site about the home economics of his time as a journalist for the Post’s sister paper. He ditched that job to go it on his own as a local Substacker.

Recent Switchblade stories he’s published include a feature about “ghost guns,” a profile of a local professional video game player, and interviews with a chronic pain doctor, an anonymous Denver businesswoman’s gender transition, and three Estes Park locals from Ukraine with families back home. He’s also talking to local candidates in the lead-up to next month’s city election for a podcast series.

“In a small town in any given week, half the town hates you for what you’ve written and the other half loves you,” he told me in a Tuesday interview. “But that flips as the balance of life comes through and you’re just kind of reporting what’s happening.”

I caught up with Van Tatenhove a couple times this week to try and get a better sense of how he sees his role as an independent news publisher in Estes Park, home to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Stanley Hotel — and, of course, the setting for plenty of local stories about which the millions of tourists who roll through each year likely don’t know.

As some legacy print publications struggle in towns and cities — not because of the journalists who work there, but because of their damaging ownership models — we’re bound to see more newsletter writers like Van Tatenhove pop up to try and fill gaps and gain an audience. What follows are excerpts from our conversations, which I’ve edited together for length and clarity (he might do a podcast version on his own site, so look out for that):

How would you describe the local news scene in Estes Park and your role in it?

I would describe the local news climate here as literally in hospice. You can’t call it the old folks’ home of journalism. We’re dying.

I’ve heard these grand stories of the golden years of the ‘80s and ‘90s in media here. That may have been how the world was, but that’s no longer how it is. We’ve got one reporter in town who lives in Boulder. How you can cover breaking news and really get into the heart of a community and get into those real human-experience stories, which is what I really kind of go after, is — you’ve got to be plugged in. You’ve got to know the stories that are going on behind the scenes.

There are still really good people that are working in the trenches, those people that have that burning passion that they believe in what journalism brings to a community, but unfortunately the powers that be just don’t give a fuck. And they are trying to wring out the last bit of profit that they can get before it just dies.

Think about it like this: The bridge is burning. But do we really need the bridge anymore? Are we going back to the old way things are done? I don’t think we are. I think we let the bridges burn and keep moving forward and find a new world that’s better so that we can get paid living wages, and creatives that are really the heavy hitters for local media can really find their value — and the community still has their voices.

You make an important distinction about media ownership. You can’t blame the journalists who work there who do excellent work under some pretty awful conditions. You could have stuck around at the Estes Park paper but I read your piece about your experience and it didn’t look like it was financially sustainable for you. You hear sometimes people put this to journalists at hedge-fund-owned papers: Why not just quit and start something else? For a lot of folks I don’t think that’s really a possibility. Didn’t I read that you inherited a house in Estes Park? Could you actually do what you do with the Switchblade if you had to rent an apartment, or could you buy a house there?

We’re still paying a mortgage. It’s basically high rent. I just can’t be evicted necessarily because it’s my family that owns the house.

So, yes, I am very lucky in that regard, but with the advent of new media like Substack … all creatives, I think, are kind of like … we have crippling self doubt intermingled with soaring megalomania at times: “I just can’t do that. I’m not a publisher, I don’t have printing presses. I don’t have a web presence.” But none of that matters. What matters is the storytelling we’re doing. My whole philosophy about approaching news is, fuck, the world’s upside down, we’ve been evacuated twice this year for forest fires, there have been two times I didn’t know if I had a home to go back to, my wife died for three minutes six months ago, I’m making $12 an hour for 16 hours a week at the local paper and they won’t follow through on the promises they made. What else am I going to do? In times like that I go back to what I do just inherently — make art and write. And at times speak my mind. I did that before this period of time, I’m going to do it after and then if this doesn’t work out I’m still going to be making art and I’m still going to be writing.

But I think we’re at a dynamic point in history where the world is re-thinking itself. We’re seeing mass resignations. People really had a come-to-god moment during the pandemic and … we may be witnessing the end of the world, so why not just try? Why not just see what I can do with this? The future’s not certain and our industry’s not certain. So why don’t we let that old world burn and move towards a new one?

So let’s talk about financial stability. What would financial success actually look like and how do you see yourself getting there?

I’m getting there more and more. This is a long game. I’ve had a podcast up for 28 days and I’ve had 3,000 downloads of just the podcasts. That’s probably not too much on a national level but considering I just launched it 30 days ago it’s moving in the right direction.

I do novels, I have some serial projects that I have up on Amazon, I’ve got books, I sell and show artwork down in Denver and do shows. Just on the Substack journalism aspect I think I’ve made two or three grand since I’ve launched it, but $400 of that has been in the last two weeks, so things are ramping up. I rely on donations. I have a membership base. I have paid members and free members, and I have a “founding membership” that can go from $50 to $100.

I kind of wanted to do it this way because I saw a lot of news stories specifically in this community that were never told.

You’re an interesting figure, given the Post’s profile. You’re a national presence, but also a local. To what extent is your coverage local and who is your target audience?

I live in Estes, so stories that happen in Estes Park intrigue me. But in the end my litmus test for any story I’m writing is: Does that interest me as a human being? Would I read that if I came across it? That’s my whole editorial mission: Just find stories that I think are cool that either A: There’s something really awful happening to people that don’t have a voice about it and are getting screwed, or there’s something really cool going on that I think people should know about, or, even just this movie hit me in this way and it’s dealing with these issues. Writing is about life. It’s about life experience.

Are you seen more by the sources you’re interacting with, particularly around this local election, as a former national spokesman for a right-wing militia, or…

Nah, they know me as a local journalist because that’s how they got to know me. And they’re now, like you are, figuring out what my brief history with that group was.

That was a fantastically horrible decision I made and that I’ve got to live with, but I’m owning it and I’m trying to move forward in ways that we find some positive solutions hopefully to the issues at hand.

What advice might you have for someone looking to do original local news in a newsletter-and-podcast format in a city or town your size?

Just jump in and do it. You can talk about launching projects and you can dream about it, but what it really takes to manifest something from your idea ether to reality is just sitting down and fucking doing it. And then getting better. I’m a hack writer, I admit it openly. But I keep at it and I seem to be getting a little better. And more and more people are reading me, so I must be doing something right.

One of 4 Black Coloradans who ‘shaped Colorado history’ was a Denver journalist

In a piece for Denver’s 5280 magazine this week, two Black historians turned a spotlight on four Black Coloradans who shaped our state’s history. One of them, Carolyn Jones, was a local journalist.

From the piece citing historians Stevie Gunter and Dexter Nelson II:

Jones was born in Georgia, studied education, and spent more than four decades teaching in Aurora, Denver, and Los Angeles Unified school districts, as well as overseas. But in 1978, Jones and her then husband, John Mitchell, did something truly historic: They founded the first and only Black lifestyle magazine in Denver, Odyssey West, to focus on “the accomplishments and contributions of Afro-Americans in the urban west,” Jones said in an autobiographical statement in her collection at Blair-Caldwell. Jones combined her love for education with local journalism by, as she wrote in her statement, “providing opportunities for young writers and photographers to launch literary careers and internship opportunities for journalism students.” Gunter says the photographs from Odyssey are beautiful. “One of the subjects that she captures is a diverse cross section of Black people in Colorado,” Gunter says. “If I could talk to her, I’d want to know what brought her to these people specifically?”

Read about the others at the link above.

Colorado is first with a statewide radio station broadcast from prisons

This week, Colorado became the first state to launch a statewide prison radio station, media reported. The first broadcast beamed out from behind prison walls Tuesday.

Welcome, Inside Wire.

The radio station “is the product of the University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative,” reported KDVR’s Michael Konopasek. “The issue of incarceration affects all of us, even if you feel like you’re far from it,” Ashley Hamilton, who runs the program, told him.

“Inside Wire, a collaboration between the Colorado Department of Corrections and University of Denver’s Prison Arts Initiative, is produced by people incarcerated at Limon Correctional Facility, Sterling Correctional Facility and Denver Women’s Correctional Facility,” reported Olivia Prentzel for The Colorado Sun. Prentzel visited one of the prisons to witness the launch and came back with more about this unique broadcast development.

“At 11 a.m. Tuesday, the six incarcerated producers at Limon Correctional Facility gathered inside the prison’s library to listen to the launch of the program that was also aired on televisions in the cells of thousands of other inmates across the state,” she reported. More from the piece:

The station won’t be broadcast over the air, but its incarcerated producers style themselves after radio DJs, offering music and commentary to break up the monotony of prison life and give new perspectives on the people who are behind bars. And while other prisons have offered low-wattage prison radio programs — available to those living near prisons — Colorado’s online station allows producers from the three participating prison studios to be heard at any facility in the state, where inmates can tune in via prison TVs.  

“I took a man’s life and not a day goes by and anything that I do that I don’t acknowledge that,” Anthony Quintana, the program’s engineer and operations director who goes by DJ Q-VO, told Prentzel. “I want people to know, there are really people that are changing in here.”

“There’s such a wealth of stories and perspectives behind the walls,” Ryan Conarro, DU PAI staff member and Inside Wire’s General Manager and Program Director, told Alexander Kirk of 9News. “Radio is the perfect medium for this environment. We really believe that listening and sharing are essential human acts, both in and out of prison.”

A free newspaper ad program for BIPOC-owned Denver businesses

Three businesses in the Park Hill area of Denver are the first recipients of a “unique program designed to provide sponsored newspaper advertising” in the Greater Park Hill News community paper that’s been around since 1960.

From the paper:

A longtime Park Hill resident is ponying up thousands of dollars to subsidize six months worth of advertising in the Greater Park Hill News for two local BIPOC-owned businesses.

The donor, who has asked to remain anonymous, says he hopes others follow suit.

“It’s a very local action,” he said. “I don’t know that Black-owned businesses have really taken advantage of advertising. I care about the community, and I care about the newspaper, and I just thought that this is an opportunity to have some advertising.”

In a way, the donor said, the action could be viewed as a type of reparation, a creative way to support minority-owned businesses.

The three businesses are MyKings Ice Cream, Mississippi Boy Catfish & Ribs, and Jimmy Johnson Tax Service.

The paper is interested in more participants in the program; those who want to get involved can do so by following the link above.

John Fryar retired after 39 years at the Longmont newspaper

A journalist for half a century is hanging it up. John Fryar, who spent just under four decades at The Longmont Times-Call, retired this week, and earned a big write-up in the paper he’s served for so long.

Current and former colleagues weighed in, as did former public officials he covered during his time at the paper. The recap of his Longmont legacy reads a bit like something out of the late ‘70s TV show “Lou Grant.” The curious old-school reporter in a beard, glasses, tie, and shirt sleeves, sourcing up city council members at the local watering hole and spending the following day covering a festival or parade.

“I would give him very high marks as an objective reporter. He’s always fair … and objective and showing no biases,” said a former mayor and lawmaker. “I have the highest respect for him as a reporter.”

Another former mayor, who called him a friend, said: “He was inquisitive, he was fair, he was caring, and he was friendly … He always seemed to treat people fairly, which isn’t always true in journalism. … I always enjoyed reading his columns because I trusted him. … He was always direct and to the point. I didn’t have to wonder what he was going to say.”

For his part, Fryar, 75, agreed. “I’ll try to be as fair and as objective as possible and try to get as many sides and points of view into the story as space and time permits,” he said in the goodbye story. “That involves getting the people you’re talking to in government, whether appointed or elected, (to realize) you’re not out to get them and also not out to promote their objectives.”

Find the whole write-up here.

A convo about ‘working together to improve local news coverage’

The Colorado News Collaborative and Colorado Media Project is inviting attendees to join them as as they launch an initiative called AAPI Voices⁠.

From the invite of the March 16 online event:

On the anniversary of the 2021 Atlanta shootings Asian Avenue Magazine’s Annie VanDan, Asian Pacific Development Center’s Harry Budisidharta, and Colorado Dragon Boat Festival’s Sara Moore will join us to discuss the importance of engaging with news media on how it portrays Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and community members in the news.

The decline of local news in Colorado has devastating impacts on both civic participation and one’s ability to connect to the community. COVID-19, the 2020 racial reckoning and last year’s mass shootings have shined a light on the ways that communities of color need — and deserve — news that serves their needs.

Register at the link above. Organizers will record the event.

In partnership with other local and national groups, COLab and CMP have been working since early 2021 “to engage members of Black, Latinx, AAPI and Indigenous or Native communities on specific ways to improve access and build trust between communities and newsrooms.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

📰 This Sunday, Feb. 27, marked the 13th anniversary of the Rocky Mountain News printing its final edition. “This is a story of loss and hope. I’m amazed by the journalistic ingenuity that has filled the huge vacuum left,” said Eric A. Anderson. “Colorado journalism today is fragmented (decentralized is better spin) but amazingly resilient, thanks to entrepreneurial reporters and @co_mediaproject @colabnewsco.”

📡 KUNC announced it will “bring more stories from Northern Colorado to the national audience of the daily weekday newsmagazine program 1A through 1A Remaking America,” as part of a two-year collaboration.

🎒 “What should — no, must — separate education journalists from the rest of the pack is the instinct to refocus the debate on the real-world consequences for students,” writes former Chalkbeat Colorado reporter Nic Garcia for The Colorado Sun. (He is now the politics editor at The Des Moines Register.) “The culture wars will get you clicks,” he advised journalists. “But we have to keep focused on the conflicts that matter.”

⚰️ Joe Prentice, longtime Boulder Daily Camera page designer and copy editor, died at 64 this week. “He also taught a journalism class as an adjunct faculty member at his alma mater, CU Boulder, and wrote a monthly ‘Words on Birds’ column for many years for the Daily Camera,” the paper reported.

⏱ 60 Minutes on CBS News tackled the Denver Post’s destroyer owner as part of its look at a crisis facing local news.

✒️ The DU Clarion student newspaper reported how “award-winning journalists Wesley Lowery and Julian Rubinstein engaged in a public conversation about challenges facing the media at Colorado College.”

📢 After Colorado Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert heckled President Joe Biden during his State of the Union address, some journalists were split on whether to give her the media attention she craves.

👀 The media reaction to Boebert’s outburst “once again highlights the weird set of professional norms that permits journalists to be openly critical of rudeness and breaches of decorum but not actions and decisions that materially impact the world,” said Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff following Biden’s State of the Union speech.

👊 “Journalism doesn’t require me to be neutral to elected officials who have repeatedly expressed bigotry,” KUSA 9News reporter Jeremy Jojola told a critic this week. “Undignified behavior doesn’t deserve fairness. In fact, it needs to be called out in a way without feeding the attention she craves. A fine line. That’s journalism.”

⌨️ Colorado College students helped Axios Denver with its Thursday newsletter. Thanks to John Frank for teaching them how to distill a news story to its essence.

🗞 Want to buy the Berthoud Weekly Surveyor newspaper in Colorado? No hedge funds, though. Or big corporation. They want someone who will keep it local. (Of note, according to the publisher: Despite the pandemic, the paper just had its best year ever.)

🎙 Colorado Edition’s Erin O’Toole moderated “a keynote discussion on politics, polarization and the state of journalism, here and abroad, with former NPR journalist and Weekend Edition Sunday host Lulu Garcia-Navarro.”

⚖️ Colorado Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser was “among a group of attorneys general joining a nationwide investigation into TikTok Wednesday, to probe the potential negative impacts the platform is having on Colorado’s children,” Denver 7 reported.

🚔 Westword published the names and mugshots of people police arrested at Union Station. The editor said the paper “made the call to publish mug shots of only those arrested for felonies, with the caveat that we would continue following their cases.”

💵 “We’re looking at making this a kind of cultural rewriting of how we pursue media and media storytelling,” said Regan Foster, an adjunct professor in CSU Pueblo’s department of media communication, about a Colorado Media Project grant of $25,000.

🏝 “Sadly, it seems to me that when newspapers abandon print they simply fade away,” wrote The Colorado Springs Business Journal’s John Hazlehurst as he pondered moving to St. Petersburg, Florida where the local newspaper cut its daily print run. “A website is a website, and that’s the way the world is. And nothing can replace the beneficent clout of a great daily.”

🆕 NewsBreak Denver hired Heather Willard as its full-time public safety reporter, the reporter announced this week. Willard did a brief stint at The Pueblo Chieftain after moving from Ohio.

🔗 Thanks to Harvard’s Nieman Lab for sharing last week’s lead newsletter item with its audience, and to CJR and the American Press Institute for highlighting it.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute, the Colorado-based contributor for Columbia Journalism Review’s United States Project, and a journalist for multiple news outlets. The Colorado Media Project, where I write case studies, is underwriting this newsletter, and my “Inside the News” column appears at COLab, both of which I sometimes write about here. Follow me on Twitter, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.