Inside the News: ‘Can’t Explain It’ – Dem Candidates Vanished From Ski-Town Newspaper Search Engines

  • 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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Voters in Colorado’s left-leaning ski towns who last week turned to the search engines of their local newspapers to research some Democratic candidates stumbled into a mystery: There were no stories to be found. 

The same search engines did turn up stories about Republican candidates.

The number of voters who research candidates using the internal search functions at individual newspapers is likely small, and the search malfunction has since been fixed, but the development has left a lingering enigma for a string of newspapers under the brand of Swift Communications, which Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia bought at the beginning of this year.   

As early as Oct. 21, a Democrat running for a commissioner seat in northern Colorado’s Yampa Valley flagged an issue for The Steamboat Pilot: When she searched her name on the site, nothing showed up, but when she searched the name of her Republican rival, plenty of stories surfaced.

Democrats elsewhere soon realized similar issues were affecting their candidates in the internal search systems on the home pages of the Swift papers Vail Daily, Summit Daily News, The Steamboat Pilot, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Sky-Hi News, and others.

In a pair of phone conversations this week, Scott Stanford, Swift’s group publisher overseeing the newspapers, said his papers fixed the problem over the Halloween weekend by re-indexing. He said it had affected search engines at all Swift sites. Stanford acknowledged how the issue and its timing looks, and while it’s still unexplainable on his end, he said he was told by the tech side that his papers underwent a software update, which might have contributed to a glitch. “It just seems weird to me,” he said. He also realizes that’s not a particularly satisfying answer.

“I understand why the Democrats, specifically, are upset,” the publisher said. “And it is unfortunate. I hate that it breeds some perception that, you know, we’re trying to put our thumb on the scale in some way. That’s just not true. As far as we can tell, there’s no evidence that anybody did anything intentional here to cause this problem.”

So what was the problem at the Swift papers?

On Oct. 21, Sonja Macys, a Democrat running for Routt County Commissioner, emailed employees at The Steamboat Pilot saying she could not find stories about herself on the newspaper’s website when she searched her name, but she could find stories about her Republican challenger, Kathi Meyer.

According to emails Macys shared and that were confirmed by Stanford, the paper’s assistant editor told Macys the paper would investigate. A day later that editor said she didn’t think the issue affected the way many people read stories about candidates, and said most people find Pilot stories through the home page or through an outside search engine “as opposed to searching internally on our site.” 

In a later email, Macys said she wanted to know how long her campaign had been “dark” on the Pilot’s search engine. “This type of suppression of information can impact a campaign severely,” she wrote.

“I can assure you the issue [you] are experiencing was not done on purpose,” Swift’s director of technology replied, according to an email chain Macys shared. He added: “This is not suppression, as you state, but merely a technical issue that arose from a recent upgrade of our search engine service. We are working with the developers of this search engine to come to a resolution as quickly as possible.” 

Stanford said he was able to see how many times someone typed each candidate’s name into the Pilot’s search engine for that particular commissioners race before Oct. 21 and it was around a half a dozen times for each. 

“This was a problem that existed for a week to 10 days and I’m not aware of any lay person — voter — who tried to do an internal search and was unable to get the results they wanted,” Stanford said. “And certainly looking at the numbers there was no indication that happened.”

Democrats found issues at other Swift papers…

As it turns out, Macys wasn’t the only Democrat in Colorado’s ski country going ghost in searches on Swift newspaper sites. 

Jennifer Filipowski, chair of the Eagle County Democratic Party, recorded multiple videos on Oct. 28 that show her searching the websites of Vail Daily, Summit Daily News, The Steamboat Pilot, and others in Colorado and Utah. 

In the videos, she types in the names of local Democrats and Republicans into homepage search bars. The Democrats show up “Sorry, no results found.” When she searches the names of Republicans it surfaces a list of stories. In one video, when she searches for “Polis” at The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent newspapers, no stories show up. When she searches for his Republican challenger, Heidi Ganahl, several stories show up, including one with Polis’s name in the headline. “It just seems awfully strange that it would only be affecting one party’s candidates,” Filipowski said over the phone Sunday. 

While she said she hadn’t heard from local voters about the issue, Filipowski said she was upset that it happened and would like a clear explanation from Swift.

As of Wednesday, Nov. 2 it was still a mystery, according to Stanford. He said he learned about it Friday, Oct. 28, and the company disabled search functions at their papers while they worked to fix it. The company uses a third-party provider called Elastic, he said. An Elastic spokesperson said Monday they hadn’t heard from Swift.

Matt Riley, a vice president of products at Elastic’s Enterprise Search who reviewed some of Filipowski’s videos, told me Monday that it seemed whatever happened took place at the Swift side, not on Elastic’s. Riley said when he sees search results not coming up for a particular keyword it’s typically a “misconfiguration of a relevance algorithm,” or, more commonly, the content is missing from a website’s search index. 

“I wish I could tell you we were hacked, and [some] guy did it, but we haven’t found any evidence of that,” Stanford said Saturday, Oct. 29. “I can’t explain it.”

No public response from the papers themselves

While discussions among Swift employees and at least one local candidate bounced around email inboxes, I didn’t see affected Colorado papers publish notes to readers or mention on social media what was happening.

Stanford said the company didn’t want to put out anything because they were still working on it.

“The last thing I wanted to do was draw attention to something that we didn’t have a good explanation for,” he said. He said he believes the company had been transparent by adding a note to its search function stating it was experiencing problems and redirecting users to Google. On Wednesday he said he didn’t mind if affected papers covered it.

In this void, and as some journalists reached out to Swift for comment, David O. Williams, an independent journalist who publishes the Real Vail site, posted an Oct. 29 item under the headline “Ogden steps in it again with political search disparity on Colorado ski-town newspaper websites.”

Williams dubbed the saga “Search-Gate,” and he framed it as another misstep by the West Virginia company since it acquired Colorado’s Swift papers, starting with a highly publicized scandal involving a Soviet-born Swedish billionaire and his lawsuit against the Swift-run Aspen Times that had made national news.

More from the post:

Then came the decision in Vail to stop doing political endorsements due in part to what they called “intense partisanship and political extremism, including a significant rise in threats of political violence,” which in my opinion is basically capitulating to the angry mob. I was told it was a companywide decision handed down from on high.

Stanford told me there was no company-wide decision about endorsements. An editor at one Swift paper said he had not been told anything by the company about endorsements.

Williams updated his Real Vail post Oct. 29, after publication, to include a comment from Vail Daily Publisher Mark Wurzer who said: “We did an upgrade to the search software last week which caused issues on a wide range of searches.  Our IT team took the search function down while work was done to fix the problem. It has now been fixed.”

Allegations against tech platforms elsewhere this election

Concerns by Democrats over these local newspaper search malfunctions come as Republican Joe O’Dea, running for U.S. Senate against incumbent Democrat Michael Bennet, has accused Google of censoring advertising by his campaign. 

Similarly, the Republican candidate for governor, Heidi Ganahl, has said her campaign advertising is “being blocked by Facebook and Instagram.” KUSA 9News reported both candidates didn’t offer evidence about a pattern of censorship.

My own thoughts

I don’t fault Democrats for having concerns and raising them with members of the media outside the Swift papers. I would have liked to have seen Swift papers address it before reading about it elsewhere. As I wrote on social media Oct. 29 enough people had been emailing and talking about it by the time Williams published his item at Real Vail. Some readers in the valley might have learned about it for the first time from his post. Not ideal, really. Newspapers are sometimes slow to cover themselves — or they just don’t — which leaves audiences to read about them elsewhere, and I’m not sure that helps build trust and connection with their communities. 

I wish I’d been able to independently search all the names at all the papers before Swift fixed the problem — and checked it beyond just political candidates. (Stanford said he couldn’t surface searches for his own name when many should have come up, but they were also in the process of re-indexing around that time.) Would the search functions have hidden stories mentioning Mercedes but not Volkswagen, Coke but not Pepsi? What about the names of other Democrats and Republicans? (I did search the name of Democrat Dylan Roberts at Vail Daily at one point Oct. 29 and got no results, but later it looked like it was working. So I do know that was indeed happening.) The Democrats have a point even if the issue goes beyond their complaint. I would still like to know how widespread it was and everything it was affecting. And how and why of course.

If this was a politically agnostic glitch, it’s certainly unfortunate given the timing. People are still voting. I agree with Stanford that voters probably aren’t flocking to internal search engines of individual newspapers looking for candidates when researching their ballots — local newspaper search engines are notoriously bad, anyway — but if this problem denied a single voter information then that’s one too many. I got the sense Stanford is genuinely baffled by the ordeal and is unsettled about not having a clear explanation.  

Writing about this gave me some pause as I understand the power of anecdotes in sowing broader skepticism or mistrust of institutions, from our elections to our media. But I hope I presented this local story in a way that’s proportional and comprehensive, and I see this newsletter as a place for such discussion. Is what happened here the end of the world for democracy? Maybe not, but it’s notable, and hopefully instructive for any local media source if something similar happens. And — now it’s something to watch out for elsewhere. 

CBS Colorado is covering this election ‘in a different way than ever before’

The station that earlier revealed big changes to how it is covering local news announced this week it will be covering election night in a “different way than ever before with neighborhood reporters covering local issues that directly impact the people who live there in order to represent communities throughout the State.”

From the statement:

Neighborhood newsrooms where every journalist, including all members of the news team, regularly covers important local news in their own backyards is a dramatic shift away from traditional TV news reporting and one CBS News Colorado has recently initiated. On November 8, 2022, Election Day, CBS News Colorado’s community journalists will cover not only the big races, but also races that directly impact individual geographic areas.    

“We are leveraging our team of community journalists to not only cover the candidates, but the community,” News Director Kristine Strain said in a statement. “We will be looking at the issues on your ballot that impact your wallet, your sidewalks, your schools, fire departments and even your open space. Casting your vote matters and we want to make sure that our coverage matters to you.”   

Colorado accountability stories from the week

  • “The Colorado courts have suspended a well-known custody evaluator and launched a review of the entire state-approved roster, following a ProPublica investigation that found some evaluators had continued to work after being disciplined by state regulators and accused of domestic violence,” ProPublica’s Hannah Dreyfus reported this week.
  • An investigation by Shaun Boyd of CBS News Colorado revealed how state attorneys general are “attending lavish events funded, in part, by companies they’re suing and investigating.” The station got the former executive director of the National Association of Attorneys General on record denouncing the bipartisan practice. (Meanwhile, Colorado Attorney General Phil Weiser’s campaign said it would return some campaign donations to people tied to Dish Network following reporting by David Migoya of The Gazette.)
  • Jennifer Brown of The Colorado Sun reported Medicaid denials for Colorado children with severe disabilities have set off “sheer panic” among parents.
  • A Denver Public School ban of an outspoken parent, “which district officials acknowledge is unprecedented, raises questions about what constitutes proper boundaries for criticism and free speech,” reported Melanie Asmar for Chalkbeat.

To submit a local accountability story for consideration in the future, send me an email.

More Colorado media odds & ends

💳 Colorado Media Project, which underwrites this newsletter, has released the names of 33 Colorado newsrooms that will “aim to collectively raise at least a quarter-million dollars to strengthen and sustain their coverage of local governments, businesses, schools and communities — and they need your help.”

🗳 Some ballot guides I’ve found useful while researching ballot measures before the Nov. 8 election include Colorado Public RadioColorado Newsline, and The Colorado Sun.

🏆 Olive Van Eimeren, a Colorado Springs teen, won the top award at “the biggest youth film festival in the world” for her 15-minute documentary film “Skinned Knees” that chronicles her confronting her father “about the domestic disputes she witnessed as a child between him and her mother.”

📌 Check out the Colorado News Mapping Project and fill out the form to add a source to the map or let us know if we should update something already on it.

📰 The Denver Gazette is running a Twitter ad campaign saying “Are you wondering what happened to real journalism? You’re not alone.” The ad’s narrator says, “What sets the Denver Gazette apart from the rest is that we have one agenda: The truth.” (Note: The slogan of the nonprofit digital Colorado Newsline site is “Start with the Truth.” The Colorado Springs Indy alternative weekly uses the slogan “Truth matters.”)

🤺 Josh Moody, who covers business, finance, and leadership at Inside Higher Ed, called a CBS4 Denver report about furries in schools “Perhaps the worst education journalism I’ve seen.”

📍 Bookmark this: “Reimagining the public square: What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now.”

🐦 A former Colorado lawmaker’s question regarding Twitter after Elon Musk’s purchase of it sparked some conversation among Colorado journalists about the platform.

⏸ The new editor of The Aspen Times, Don Rogerstold readers the paper — one of the ones bought by Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia — is taking a “hiatus” from endorsements. That will set it apart from its rival, the Aspen Daily News, this cycle.

📺 PBS12 in Denver has partnered with Aaron Harber “to produce a series of nonpartisan television programs highlighting key races and statewide ballot issues,” according to an announcement. The shows are here.

🗣 The Gazette’s “offensive and disingenuous editorial doesn’t just besmirch valuable work done by journalists at the Gazette, it sullies all of journalism,” wrote Dave Perry, editor of Sentinel Colorado.

🚫 KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark said a candidate knows his station can’t pull an untruthful commercial from the air “due to FCC rules.” But, he said, he can “point out the lie” on his show.

📖 Journalist and author Ted Conover is starting to get local reviews for his new book “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-gridders at America’s Edge” for which he “spent the last five years as a sojourner in the San Luis Valley, living off and on among off-gridders who have chosen to reside, disconnected and far away from others, on the remote, isolated flats … east of Antonito in Costilla County.” He’s on a Colorado book tour.

📨 Letter to the editor in The Steamboat Pilot this week: “Thank you, Jaxon Patch, age 9, for mentioning the fact that we no longer have comics in the Steamboat Pilot & Today. I am 64 and 1/2 years old and I too would welcome the return of some humor amongst the political bickering and negative news we are bombarded with on a daily basis.”

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. 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.