Inside the News: Colorado Springs Indy Alt-Weekly Is ‘Shutting Down, Going Dark in January.’ Then What?

  • 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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Colorado’s second-largest city, which is about the 40th largest in the nation, seems poised to lose its alternative weekly newspaper — at least in the form the Indy has served Colorado Springs for the past 30 years, anyway.

“We’re shutting down,” a glum Fran Zankowski, the paper’s publisher, said over the phone this week. “Going dark in January.”

The historically funky and free tabloid-style paper couldn’t turn things around after it converted into a nonprofit earlier this year, changed its name, discovered an unexpected $300,000 accounting shortfall, laid off half its staff, changed its name back, and made an appeal to the community for financial support.

“There’s no money,” Zankowski said. “We’re laying everyone off.”

In a note to readers in Wednesday’s edition, however, Zankowski hedged about the paper’s future. The publication is “taking a break,” he wrote, and “hopefully a short one.” He also signaled a return. “With great hope, optimism and resilience, our plan is to eliminate our debt, reorganize and return in February with a financially stable, successful and revitalized publication. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, our mission must endure. The hope remains, and the dream lives on.”

Behind the scenes, a group of local businesspeople have expressed interest in helping resurrect the publication in some capacity after the new year. (While I’ve been in talks with someone involved in the effort, I’m vague on specific plans but hope to know more in the coming weeks.)

For a story about the Indy’s imminent closure, Abigail Beckman of KRCC detailed the publication’s troubling year:

In September 2022, the Independent announced plans to migrate to a nonprofit model. The change coincided with the exit of ownership by local publisher John Weiss. At the same time, the paper’s leadership announced that the Indy, and many of its handful of sister publications, would combine to become Sixty35 Media, a nod to the altitude of Colorado Springs. As part of the changes, all operations were set to take place under the direction of a board called Citizen-Powered Media. The paper also underwent a redesign of its publications and website and relaunched. Less than six months later, in March of 2023, the organization laid offall but one reporter from the newsroom. The paper’s photographer, cartoonist, critics and columnists were also let go. That same month, the rebranding plan was pulledand the storied news source again became the Colorado Springs Independent. A week later, executive editor [Bryan] Grossman made the decision to print a newspaper with 32 blank pages. In May, the organization went fully remote.

The local development tracks with an unfortunate national trend.

Alt-weeklies, which served as punky counterculture organs of the American underground in cities of a certain size since the 1970s, have been blinking out in recent years for a variety of reasons. (For the chapter on media in the latest edition of the once-every-10-years book “American Decades,” published last year, I wrote how “the 2010s can be remembered as the hospice-care decade for America’s alternative weekly newspapers.”)

Chase Woodruff, a journalist for Colorado Newsline who was laid off from Denver’s alt paper Westword in 2020, wrote on social media this week about a particular aspect of the decline.

“The slow death of the alt-weekly is awful and it’s important to say why,” he said. “It’s not just about losing local reporting. It’s no coincidence that powerful people in this country feel less accountable than ever as we lose places where they can be profanely told they’re full of shit.”

Writing in the Colorado Sun, Olivia Prentzel explained what set the Indy apart in Colorado Springs:

The scrappy, progressive newspaper served as a diverse source of news, appealing to an audience of readers who didn’t see themselves or ideals represented in the conservative views portrayed in the editorials in the daily newspaper, The Gazette. 

The Gazette, which endorsed Donald Trump in 2020, is owned by the conservative politically active billionaire Phil Anschutz who owns large local institutions like the Broadmoor hotel and a sprawling array of other interests.

Earlier this year, Kara Mason, a former reporter for the now defunct PULP alternative news magazine in Pueblo, wrote for Southwest Contemporary about how the Indy, like other alts, filled a gap in arts and culture coverage.

In her story, Robert Gray, president of the Pikes Peak Arts Council, said, “I feel like the demographic that reads the Gazette doesn’t really care about the art scene as much as the Indy does. Maybe the Gazette could catch up [if the Indy folded], but I don’t really feel like that’s their MO.”

On social media, Mason noted that the Indy’s exit “marks two alts folding in southern Colorado since 2020, and a printing press closure” on top of that. “It’s bad down here, folks,” she said.

The loss of an alternative source of news and commentary in the Springs also comes at a critical time for a rapidly growing and changing city. Voters recently elected a new mayor who is not a Republican for the first time in a generation. New apartment buildings and condos are popping up all over downtown. As someone who has lived in the city for a decade, Colorado Springs feels to me like it’s on the verge of something.

“My hope is that this news galvanizes someone with money or ideas to try a new media experiment in a growing American city that could really use it right now,” I told Prentzel for her Sun story.

Indeed, as a large national investment from the philanthropic sector ramps up this year to support local news and innovative projects, Colorado Springs should be an area worth a look.

🐺 Wolves are here. But not without a major press slip up and some frustration

Before the Colorado Supreme Court ruled that Donald Trump shouldn’t be on the state’s GOP primary ballot because of his role in the Jan. 6, 2021 mob attack on the U.S. Capitol, the big news in the state was the government’s reintroduction of five wolves to Colorado.

News that it could happen, however, was pre-mature. The Associated Press on Dec. 15 published a wire story without attribution and a “voice of god” lede that stated a judge had cleared the way for it to happen. The headline read “Judge denies cattle industry’s request to halt wolf reintroduction in Colorado.”

While newsrooms with AP contracts across the state and country were posting the story on their websites, Colorado Public Radio reporter Sam Brasch posted on Twitter/X questioning whether the story was right. Shortly after, Denver Post reporter Elise Schmelzer posted this:

Reporting that a judge has ruled in the Colorado wolf reintroduction lawsuit is incorrect. The judge has not yet ruled — there is nothing in the docket and a rep from several of the groups involved have told me there is no ruling yet.

Around that time, in a rare move, the AP, a high-standards news organization known for its fact-based reporting and attention to detail, took its reporting back.

The national ABC news website changed its headline to “STORY REMOVED: US–Gray-Wolves-Colorado,” and deleted the story text of it, replacing it with this:

The Associated Press has withdrawn its story about a ruling in a lawsuit regarding the reintroduction of gray wolves in Colorado. A judge has not yet ruled on a request that would delay Colorado’s plan to begin the program this month.

The withdrawal exposed just how hard it can be to effectively clean up inaccurate reporting for a newswire that syndicates breaking news quickly onto various separate platforms. One journalist posted on Twitter/X that he’d “never thought about the absolute mess that retracting/correcting AP stories would be once distributed.”

So, what happened?

“The story was withdrawn because we reported the judge had made a decision when the decision hadn’t yet been made,” AP spokesperson Lauren Easton said in an email. (I asked how the reporting SNAFU happened, but haven’t heard back.)

On social media, Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul offered a potential explanation.

“There were proposed orders being filed by plaintiffs and defendants,” he said. “This happened after the first proposed order from defendant. They look identical to court orders except for the PROPOSED designation at the top. Big mistake, but easy to make.”

Denver Gazette reporter Dennis Huspeni noted on social media that “journalists are human” and “sometimes mistakes happen.” He added that it’s “just that everyone gets to see ours. Good lesson to always verify info.”

Later that day, the judge did officially allow the reintroduction of wolves, lessening the impact of the premature reporting.

‘We aren’t there to do public relations’

Days later, when Democratic Gov. Jared Polis joined the state’s parks and wildlife department in releasing wolves captured in Oregon to an undisclosed location in Grand County, one journalist was frustrated by press restrictions of the event.

The Colorado Press Association had organized pool coverage of it, and provided photos and video shot by Colorado Parks & Wildlife, not by an independent photojournalist.

Erin McIntyre, publisher of the Ouray County Plaindealer newspaper, said she had concerns about that.

“I realize images have been provided for our use, but I don’t accept government PR as ‘pool coverage,’” she said. “We aren’t there to do public relations for the governor or a government agency.”

Photojournalists and reporters “need to be allowed to do their jobs and be impartial observers for the public,” she added. “We should not be content with filtered ‘pool coverage’ from government agencies — it’s important for the Fourth Estate to have access.”

State court spox asks journalists to sniff out ‘rogue’ reporter he wants off the trial beat

Rob McCallum, a longtime spokesman for Colorado’s Judicial Department, was on the warpath this week, seeking to identify a reporter who he accused of approaching a juror in the ongoing Elijah McClain death trial.

What’s more, he implored other journalists covering the high-profile court proceedings to help.

Sentinel Colorado reporter Max Levy published details of the judicial dragnet Monday in a story about the judge in the case prohibiting “photography and media activity in the hallway outside of the courtroom” where two Aurora paramedics were on trial for their roles in the 2019 death of the Black teenager.

From the story:

The expansion of an order which barred cameras and other electronic devices inside of the courtroom came after journalists allegedly tried to ask the defendants and other parties to the case questions in the hallway. An unknown journalist also allegedly approached a juror who was shopping and invited them to talk once the trial has concluded.

“This action is a direct invitation for the juror to ignore the Court’s repeated order not to speak with anyone about the case and (is) an invitation for contempt proceedings,” the order from 17th Judicial District Court Judge Mark Warner reads in part. “If the Court becomes aware of an intentional act in violation of the orders and instructions to the jury, the Court may initiate contempt proceedings.”

In case you missed it, Colorado is already dealing with one contempt case involving a local reporter in a completely different legal setting. Here’s more from the Sentinel:

Rob McCallum, a spokesman for the Colorado Judicial Department, also scolded news outlets in an email sent Monday morning to journalists that included a copy of the order.

He asked the recipients to share any information they had about the alleged inappropriate conduct and encouraged the unnamed individual who may have approached the juror to take responsibility for their actions.

“I find this to be egregious behavior, and am surprised and concerned. You all know jurors are off limits until released from service, and even then they rarely want to discuss their jury service,” McCallum wrote.

“This is completely unacceptable, and whomever made this rogue decision either knows better and didn’t care about potentially causing a mistrial, or didn’t know better and needs to be assigned to a beat not involving anything as sensitive or serious as a trial. So, one rotten apple spoils the lot.”

I find it hard to believe many journalists would take him up on his offer to tattle. In an email Thursday, McCallum said he didn’t have an update on the situation.

In his 18 years on the job, he said he could only recall a journalist approaching a juror during a trial once before — during court proceedings after the Aurora theater shooting. “I never understood why he did it, and I never truly found out as he never returned to the courthouse for the remainder of the trial,” he said.

“Is getting a scoop worth the possibility of causing a mistrial, and maybe picking up a contempt citation along the way?” McCallum asked. “Not by a longshot, at least from where we sit. Our courtrooms are open to the public, and you are always welcome, but please learn and follow our rules.”

Colorado Sun joins Trust Project, acknowledging a ‘lack of trust in news’

The Colorado Sun, a statewide nonprofit newsroom, now in its fifth year, is the latest to join a global initiative called the Trust Project that seeks to help newsrooms build greater trust with their audiences.

From the announcement:

For the past six months, we’ve been working closely with the organization to implement its 8 Trust Indicators to help readers and viewers easily recognize trustworthy news. Those indicators are a widely accepted integrity and accountability standard developed by The Trust Project in collaboration with the public and news organizations worldwide. 

Danika Worthington, the Sun’s social and presentation editor, reported that the newsroom strengthened policies and training among its staff and restructured its site for greater transparency.

More from the item:

Now you’ll see a link to our editorial practices on every story. You’ll find all of our corrections in one place, plus an explanation of how you can request your own. Our long investigative stories will also include our methods and a reference list to show what goes on behind the scenes.

The Trust project officially awarded the Sun a “Trust Mark” for its work.

Last week, the Sun reported that when a recent statewide survey of 652 likely 2024 general election voters in Colorado asked whether respondents trust or distrust Colorado journalists to do the right thing, 38.7% said distrust and 36.4 said trust.

The Sun also invited readers to write in with suggestions about what else the local news source might do to improve trust.

‘Journalists, with all due respect, are going to be lazy,’ says speaker at think tank event

During a keynote speech at a Free Enterprise Summit luncheon hosted by the Common Sense Institute, a conservative political commentator had some choice words about Colorado’s press corps.

Here’s a quote attributed to Guy Benson that ran in the Colorado Sun’s subscription-based Unaffiliated newsletter this week:

“One of the most beneficial things about a lot of people in the media, from the perspective of the Common Sense Institute, is that a lot of journalists, with all due respect, are going to be lazy.” …

“You can come to (journalists) with a report that is relevant, that will be plugged in easily into a graphic,” Benson said. “They’re like ‘great, thank you, let’s put that on the air.’ Newsrooms have been decimated, newspapers are closing — they don’t have people able to do this kind of work.”

Here’s how the Sun described the group in question:

The Common Sense Institute is a conservative-leaning policy nonprofit that doesn’t disclose its donors. Its influence has grown in recent years through the publication of reports that have been widely cited in news media stories, including in The Sun.

Indeed, when the Institute issues a new report, some outlets will simply slap up a quick story relying only on the think tank’s analysis, which certainly furthers the organization’s goal. (They’re obviously not alone in that regard.)

The Sun added this in its dispatch: “When we use the Common Sense Institute’s studies, we always try to provide disclaimers about the nonprofit’s background. The Sun also opted against citing one of the group’s reports in a story earlier this year on Proposition HH when the organization would not provide information on its methodology prior to the article’s publication.”

Westword tackles a Denver sports-talk radio station

Last week’s cover story for Denver’s alternative weekly newspaper was something of a classic in the alt-weekly genre: an informed takedown of another local media property.

In a smashmouth style, writer Michael Roberts ripped into personnel changes at a popular local sports-talk radio station and painted a picture of an outlet in free fall.

Here was the lede:

Denver Sports Radio 104.3 The Fan is on fire — but not in the sense of a quarterback who’s hitting every target or a basketball sharpshooter downing twenty shots in a row. More like burning to a crisp.

Some more choice nuggets from the story:

  • “Just weeks into the revised lineup, program director Raj Sharan, the man most associated with the changes, was given the ax, too. His successor, Amanda Brown, isn’t eager to discuss the damage that The Fan’s brand has suffered. On November 28, the Denver branch of Bonneville International, the station’s Utah-based owner (it’s affiliated with the Mormon church), announced Brown’s arrival. When Westword asked to interview her about the job ahead, however, the request was rejected. The leader of a talk-radio station refusing to talk? That’s the sort of red-flag warning that hints at more fire danger ahead.”
  • “On The Fan, [former Broncos player Derek] Wolfe lauded hunting whenever possible, and he was engaged when dishing about football as well. But he was less enthusiastic when talk turned to the Nuggets and Avs, obviously a specialty of Altitude Sports Radio; on occasion, he didn’t even bother to watch their games. And then there was his tendency to slip in right-wing political observations that alienated a portion of the audience. One example: When Broncos strength-and-conditioning coach Loren Landow was being blamed for so many players getting hurt last season, Wolfe suggested a possible link between the injuries and the COVID-19 vaccine.”
  • Host Zach Bye “was moved into the afternoon driver’s seat alongside Phillip Lindsay, another alum of the Buffs and Broncos who is beloved in these parts. Unfortunately, Lindsay is struggling to come up with interesting things to say and isn’t meshing with Bye, rendering their airtime all but unlistenable.”

Read the whole thing at the link above.

Colorado’s League of Women Voters advocates for the ‘health’ of local news

Following what it called a “careful review,” the League of Women Voters of Colorado this week announced it has adopted a position “that will be vital in advocating for the health of Colorado’s news ecosystem.”

From a news release:

LWVCO members throughout Colorado overwhelmingly agree that everyone should have access to information necessary for casting an informed ballot and that credible local news sources are integral to this pursuit.

To that end, this local news position will allow our 19 chapters throughout Colorado to advocate for:

  1. Barrier-free access to news that is an accurate third-party account of government activities;
  2. Control of content remaining with news publishers; and
  3. Media literacy training for all.

LWV is nonpartisan in that it does not support political candidates or parties, but it does take positions on issues. Those positions are adopted following a grassroots process involving in-depth study, member education, and member approval.

This local news position was recommended after careful review by the News Access and Literacy Task Force (NAL) of LWVCO. It is based on the local news position of the League of Women Voters of Washington.

The League describes itself as a nonpartisan nonprofit that provides education and advocacy to empower voters and defend democracy.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🇦🇹 This newsletter is in out-of-the-country mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual and I might not be as quick to respond to emails, voicemails, or DMs.

🗳 For his Media Nation site, Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy looked at “How Denver’s media are reporting a ruling to keep Trump off the Colorado ballot.”

📈 The Axios Denver team said this week they were roughly two dozen people shy of hitting 600 memberships. “If we reach our goal, we’ll top our colleagues in Chicago as the Axios Local city with the most members,” the daily newsletter outlet reported.

🤔 Denverite, the hyper local digital news site, reported how reader curiosity “shaped our reporting this year.”

📺 Jason Salzman at the Colorado Times Recorder talked to 9NEWS anchor Kyle Clark about why the “Next” newscast, in Salzman’s words, “downplayed” video of Republican Congresswoman Lauren Boebert “groping her Beetlejuice date.”

👀 Former Denver Post investigative reporter Miles Moffeit was the subject of a Washington Post story this week after his “sudden exit” from the Dallas Morning News left colleagues alleging a “culture of fear” in the newsroom.

🌿 DGO, a cannabis lifestyle magazine in Durango, Colorado, said this month’s edition “marks the end of an era as our final monthly printed issue.” The publication said it’s rolling out “a new cannabis-centric publication that dives deep into the heart of the modern cannabis scene in our region.”

⚙️ Luke Lyons, former editor of the Pueblo Chieftain, has had bylines in the Gazette in Colorado Springs for the last month.

💥 University of Colorado Boulder journalism professor Elizabeth Skewes “recently returned from an official visit to Serbia, where she was invited to discuss an area where the U.S. truly leads the world—mass shootings,” CU Boulder reported.

🎧 Check out this growing list of roughly 70 Colorado-based podcasts from around the state.

🚐 The Alden Global Capital hedge fund that owns and gutted the Denver Post and other newspapers is now snapping up Greyhound stations and selling them to real estate developers, CNN reported. The closures are “the latest pressure point for intercity bus travel, which has been neglected for decades.”

💨 Thelma Grimes is leaving as south metro editor for Colorado Community Media. for a job with Colorado Politics. “It was a tough decision, as I am seeing my vision for our south metro team come true in so many ways,” she wrote. “We have strong reporters who are working hard to bring readers news no other organization is covering.”

📱 Englewood Public Schools “offer many different career pathways, including a well rounded media literacy program,” Elisabeth Slay reported for Colorado Community Media.

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 Threads, reply or subscribe to this weekly newsletter here, or e-mail me at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.