Inside the News: Battle for Aspen – The Daily News Overtakes Aspen Times As ‘Paper of Record’

  • 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.

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Following what one city staffer called an “extensive review,” city leaders in Aspen this week anointed the locally owned Aspen Daily News as the city’s “newspaper of record” over the Aspen Times.

While the vote among council members on Wednesday might seem a mundane bit of municipal action just west of the Continental Divide, it follows a year’s worth of newspaper drama in the legendary mountain town.

Aspen is one of the few cities left in the United States with two daily newspapers. And as they doggedly battle for scoops (and loyalty from readers), they also compete behind the scenes for this coveted status from the city.

The Daily News is owned by two locals, David Cook and Spencer McKnight; each edition of their paper carries the slogan “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen.” The Aspen Times is owned by Ogden Newspapers, a West Virginia company that bought it in 2021. (A smooth transition it was not.)

A newspaper war over headlines will always be more sexy than one over requests for proposals, but who wins a procurement fight for public dollars is important nonetheless.

Newspapers that earn a city’s “of record” stamp means they are the ones a city pays to place legal notices and advertising. State law requires governments to publish certain things in local newspapers in order to keep residents abreast of public business. Being a city’s paper of record also can give a newspaper a sense of gravitas in a community.

“Ultimately the Aspen Daily News was determined to be the best fit,” a city communications staffer said during the July 25 presentation to the city council.

The timing is notable.

A year ago this week, politicians who run the local county government in the Aspen area voted to make the Daily News Pitkin County’s paper of record. County leaders had made that particular decision in order to punish the Aspen Times over how the newspaper handled a lawsuit from a billionaire developer. (That saga became grist for a powerful Atlantic essay last summer titled “How to Kill a Newspaper” written by a fired Times editor.)

But compared to that public meeting from last July among county commissioners about switching to an independently owned newspaper of record, this week’s deliberation among city leaders was prosaic. Staff and council members kept their reasoning limited to a “clear set of criteria,” between the two rival papers including experience, efficiencies, and cost.

Still, there were some moments, according to a video of it posted to the city’s website.

“I support this and I understand why we’re doing it, but I can’t help but feel a little sad that the Times is no longer our paper of record,” said Councilman John Doyle, a local artist. “But time marches on.”

The Times has served the community for more than 140 years and has been referred to in local media as the oldest continuously operating business in the county.

Doyle’s comment didn’t make it into coverage of the meeting by the Daily News, while a comment by another councilman praising the paper’s two owners did.

Councilman Ward Hauenstein, the president of a company called Forward Computer, said he was “happy” about the change. “I think it’s good to do our business with a local business instead of a conglomerate out of Pennsylvania,” he said, mistaking the mid-Atlantic state where Ogden Newspapers has its headquarters.

Four members of the city council voted unanimously to make the switch with a fifth member absent.

How big was this news in Aspen itself? Beyond the Daily News coverage, Aspen Public Radio chose it as one of Wednesday’s “top stories.”

Partisan newspaper founded to change Westcliffe politics is at it again

Take a step back in time. To, say, the late 1700s when partisan newspapers hitched their wagons to political factions, championing their political heroes and sliming their enemies.

You won’t need a time machine if you go to Westcliffe, a southern Colorado town in small, rural Custer County at the base of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.

There, a band of activists galvanized by the Obama-era tea party movement founded a weekly newspaper called the Sangre de Cristo Sentinel in order to reorganize politics in the region.

George Gramlich, who runs the paper, once boasted on a radio show that he took credit for changing the political makeup of the county commission by using the paper to attack incumbents he called RINOs — Republicans in Name Only — for their “liberal bullshit.”

A successful 2017 recall election had shown the new newspaper owner the power of local media, he said, adding that when he started the Sentinel, “we wanted to make a difference but we had no clue of the influence a local newspaper has on the local politics and culture.”

Furthermore, “we’re not journalists, we’re partisans,” Gramlich said on the show. “And we make no bones about it. We don’t pretend to be journalists. But it’s working for us.”

Now, the paper is at it again, urging voters to recall another county commissioner.

The Sentinel’s move caused Jordan Hedberg, publisher of the rival weekly Wet Mountain Tribune newspaper, to issue his first political endorsement in the paper since he purchased it five years ago, he told readers this week. He is urging voters to reject the recall.

This newsletter has chronicled the newspaper war between these two publications in Custer County before, but this development seems to have escalated it.

For a taste of what that looks like in the pages of these two papers with offices just down the main road from each other in Westcliffe, read this July 20 editorial from Hedberg in the Tribune, and this one from Gramlich last month in the Sentinel. As Hedberg said on social media this week: “A reminder that local politics is a blood sport.”

And, apparently, small-town Colorado newspaper publishing.

Journalist arrested on ugly charges has a Colorado connection

Turns out there’s a Colorado angle to the story of a 73-year-old newspaper editor in Washington State who authorities arrested this week.

The Associated Press reported the septuagenarian journalist faces “10 counts of first-degree possession of depictions of minors engaged in sexually explicit conduct.”

Reporter Pam Zubeck of The Indy alt-weekly in Colorado Springs has this:

News of [Steve] Smith’s arrest and charges raced through the local journalism community, where many who worked for him still live and work.

Smith was known for his unconventional newsroom management style while at The Gazette in which he reassigned journalists into roles where they hadn’t served before, such as moving the features editor to business editor, and other shakeups.

Smith “declined a jail interview” with his former paper, The Spokesman-Review, the paper reported, and cited his public defender arguing he has no criminal history and has a stable life in Spokane.

“It’s painful to have to break a story like this, especially when it involves a former colleague with a long and distinguished record,” that paper’s publisher, W. Stacey Cowles, said in a statement.

Zubeck wrote that Smith left the Colorado Springs Gazette in 2000.

Chieftain building listed online for $3.6M

When The Pueblo Chieftain’s large out-of-state owner Gannett announced in June that it was shuttering its printing plant, some wondered about the building that houses it.

Responding to a whirlwind of coverage (and, apparently, some misreporting), Chieftain Editor Zach Hillstrom wrote a few weeks later that the building would be “put up for sale.”

Last week, a listing popped up on the real estate website LoopNet with the firm Bell Cornerstone offering $3.6 million for the newspaper building.

One of the paper’s reporters, Anna Lynn Winfrey, opined online that such a price was “bold” for Gannett “when GateHouse bought it for $2.2 million in 2018.”

She further reported that Gannett executives “said the run down building/press was part of the reason for stopping printing in Pueblo” while also “telling workers they were losing their jobs.”

Eastern Colorado Plainsman to stop publishing

Speaking of Gannett mothballing the Chieftain’s printing press, aftershocks are still emanating across the local news landscape since the company’s June decision.

Newspapers that currently use the Chieftain’s press to print their papers have just two weeks to figure out what they’ll do. (Readers of this newsletter will recall how they at least have some help.)

The move has put at least one newspaper out of business so far.

“We are stopping publication of the Eastern Colorado Plainsman,” the paper’s business manager, Catherine Thurston, said this week via email.

The publication has a sister paper in the Limon Leader, and will continue to publish in it some news that formerly might run in the Plainsman, but “we expect to lose some subscribers and advertisers anyway,” she said. The Leader will switch to a smaller format.

“I have pared down our circulation to bare bones so we are not wasting papers or resources,” Thurston said. “We are increasing our prices for single copies and advertising and hoping it doesn’t irritate too many of our supporters.”

Cherry Road Media will print the Leader out of Hutchinson, Kansas, and deliver the paper to Limon, she said.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🪓 As this newsletter was going out today, Jason Salzman of the Colorado Times Recorder published a story headlined “Spiked: A Conservative ‘Shadow’ Hangs Over Colorado Newspapers Owned by GOP Billionaire Phil Anschutz” about the Gazette and its editorial leadership. Among other things, Salzman quotes journalists on the record saying they had stories killed or gutted. “I couldn’t work under those conditions where I didn’t ever know if I was going to step on some kind of a sacred cow that I couldn’t criticize,” said Megan Schrader who is now opinion-page editor of The Denver Post and detailed why she left the newspaper.

➡️ Make sure you’re reading The Latest from the Journalism Institute National Press Club to keep up with what’s going on in the U.S. news scene. (They didn’t pay me to say this, but they linked to this newsletter last week. So if you like what you’re reading here, you might follow them, too.)

📻 Aspen Public Radio is looking for a news director the station will pay up to $78,000. “Coverage areas include local governments, arts & culture, education, climate and the environment, public lands, the resort economy, affordable housing, equity and the wealth gap, immigration, and so much more.”

🎙 The Albuquerque Journal profiled Colorado Public Radio host Vic Vela about his “Back from Broken” podcast focused on recovery.

💬 Denver Gazette columnist John Moore gave this newsletter a shoutout this week.

🗞 The Montrose Business Times newspaper launched in April as a “mindful business publication that supports its local community and tells stories that matter,” which it says means “while we are a newspaper with journalistic integrity, we are also a champion for our community.”

💡 Denver-based journalist Amalie Nash, who serves as executive director of the Colorado News Conservancy for the National Trust for Local News, shared “thoughts on expanding audience.” For local news to be sustainable, “we need to ensure we have the right business model, content strategy and revenue streams,” she said. “These won’t be the same for every organization — some may see success with membership models, while others may lean into philanthropy, for instance. But what is true for all is that sustainability includes an intense audience focus, and content and advertising solutions that ensure the outlet is a relevant part of people’s daily lives.”

📲 A local college student is helping create a “new application for social-media users,” Audrey Ryan reported for the Aspen Times.

📼 “The Denver school board voted unanimously [last] Friday to release a recording of a March closed-door meeting at which board members discussed returning police officers to schools,” Chalkbeat Colorado reported. “A coalition of news organizations, including Chalkbeat, sued Denver Public Schools to release the recording of the five-hour executive session. That lawsuit was still underway when the board voted Friday.”

🏛 The Greeley Tribune’s Anne Delaney reported a Highland High School student learned “other options for writing” at a recent media and journalism conference in Washington, D.C.

📺 The Pikes Peak Bulletin, back as a nonprofit newspaper serving Manitou Springs after a group of locals wrangled to save it, earned local TV coverage from FOX21.

🔗 The 127-year-old Times-Independent newspaper in Moab, Utah, will convert to a nonprofit and be “donated” to the nonprofit Salt Late Tribune newspaper. Tribune Editor Lauren Gustus said in coverage about it that the Times-Independent is sustainable, profitable, and is “doing essential local reporting that the community appreciates.” (Gustus once served as editor of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins.)

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-director of Colorado College’s Journalism Institute. For nearly a decade I’ve reported on the U.S. local media scene for Columbia Journalism Review, and I’ve been a journalist for longer at multiple news organizations. Colorado Media Project 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.