Inside the News: Colorado’s Wet Mountain Tribune Newspaper Sues County Leaders Over Legal Notices

  • 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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Jordan Hedburg, who publishes the weekly Wet Mountain Tribune newspaper in Custer County, made good on a threat to sue two members of the county commission.

A federal lawsuit he filed this week comes after the county board of commissioners voted 2-1 to revoke the Tribune’s status as the county’s “paper of record” and instead give that designation to the rival partisan Sangre de Cristo Sentinel newspaper. Doing so makes the Sentinel, not the Tribune, the newspaper the county pays to place required legal notices. (This newsletter previously reported on the brewing local newspaper war in Custer County. Now someone has literally made a federal case out of it.)

Prominent First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg is repping the Tribune.

Over the phone this week, Zansberg said while there are previous court decisions involving local governments and newspapers in Colorado, “This is like the most open and shut, clear-cut case I’ve seen.” He says he plans to prove retaliation was a “substantial motivating factor” in the commissioners’ decision making process, and believes he can simply rely on what’s in the public record to do so.

As this newsletter reported in January, one of the commissioners named in the lawsuit said before voting, “I don’t know why I would support a paper that doesn’t support the county,” and accused Tribune publisherHedberg of a “witch hunt” against the county’s health director. That same public official also said he couldn’t imagine supporting a paper that would “bad mouth the process of how we do business as a board of commissioners,” adding, “I don’t have an issue with being criticized because nobody’s perfect.” Another commissioner said he found it hard to give the county’s bid to a newspaper that is “for lack of a better term combative.”

I left a phone message Tuesday with a county administrator seeking to speak to Custer County Attorney Clint Smith and hadn’t heard back by the time this newsletter went out; I’’ll update this if I do. The Wet Mountain Tribune reported “Smith stated that the matter would be referred to the County’s insurance company CTSI.”

Battles nationwide over public notices in local newspapers have “intensified,” according to a report this week by Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative. In her piece on those battles, author Susan Chandler wrote, “the fight over legal notices in newspapers also has come up repeatedly in Colorado.” Indeed they have.

Last year, Greenwood Village city leaders voted to yank the $10,000 a year it budgets for legal notices in The Villager and give its business instead to The Littleton Independent. The move came after the Villager published an April Fool’s article that included stereotypes of Asians. Villager owner Bob Sweeneytried in vain to keep the local gravy train running, and mused about what might happen if someone tested the issue in court.

After the small Ouray County Plaindealer called out the county on a government transparency issue last fall, the county decided to stop publishing its meeting agendas in the newspaper, something it paid about $200 a week to do and had done for the past decade.

Most recently, as this newsletter reported last month, county commissioners in Aspen straight-up said they were pulling their public advertising from The Aspen Times in order to punish those who run the newspaper. (I haven’t heard yet about any lawsuit in Pitkin County. Interestingly, The Aspen Times re-published the Wet Mountain Tribune’s column about its lawsuit against the Custer County commissioners.)

Zansberg says he is asking for Custer County to compensate the newspaper publisher for revenue he lost because of the county’s decision, as well as punitive damages. Asked what those damages would look like, he said it would be a for a jury to decide and hopes it would send a message to other public officials elsewhere not to do something similar.

Watch this space for how Custer County decides to deal with the suit.

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Watch the Pueblo Library move a linotype machine

More Colorado media odds & ends

🏜 This newsletter was out of the office for two weeks. Here’s a roundup of what happened on the local media scene since then.

📡 Colorado College students “shine” at their internships for KRCC, wrote Julia Fennell for Colorado College. “CC’s journalism minor requires an independent study, which consists of a practicum in journalism and a journalism capstone. Both [Eli] Jaynes and [Will] Taylor are satisfying the practicum requirement with their KRCC internships.”

📝 Don’t forget to register for the Colorado Press Association’s 144th annual convention. The conference is Sept. 15-17 in Denver. Same for the Advancing Equity in Local News convening happening around the same time.

🔪 Fired Aspen Times editor Andrew Travers published in The Atlantic magazine a blockbuster first-person account of the whirlwind that engulfed the legendary town’s local news scene following the sale of his newspaper to a West Virginia company called Ogden Newspapers. It is titled “How to Kill a Newspaper” and “End Times in Aspen.” (Travers told this newsletter in June that the Aspen Times saga was “not a one-day or a one-week story” and there is likely even more percolating in the Aspen media scene keeping that assessment on point.)

🆕 Renata Hill says she is launching Mood Fuel in October. The outlet will offer “inclusive mental health reporting for folks who struggle in Colorado.” (This effort is a reboot of Allies.Care which you read about here last year.) Hill said in an email she will be pitching “Founding Donors and local businesses” in the next six weeks in order to show the outlet is a viable product that has engaged people before it launches.

💨 Natasha Verma announced she is leaving KUSA 9News in Denver as a morning anchor after three years. Her morning news broadcast colleague Gary Shapiro announced he is retiring after nearly 40 years at the station.

✂️ Gannett’s nationwide layoffs affected Colorado where the nation’s largest newspaper chain operates The Coloradoan in Fort Collins and The Chieftain in Pueblo. The Chieftain’s union “told us that our only customer service representative is getting laid off,” said the paper’s politics reporter Anna Lynn Winfrey. “She’s been working for 16 years and was making <$1 more than minimum wage.”

🆕 Jess Hazel will be KRCC’s new local Morning Edition host, moving to Colorado Springs from Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana. “Their passion for being a morning host and speaking with the listeners is really clear, and I know they’ll be a great addition to the news team,” said KRCC managing editor Andrea Chalfin in a statement.

🗞 The former owner of Steamboat Pilot “leaves a local legacy that extends far beyond the newspaper,” the paper reported this week.

💊 Following this newsletter’s recent critique of the way some local news outlets are covering part of the fentanyl story in Colorado, a local TV station updated its reporting. (See the update at the end of this first item.) Meanwhile, Seth Klamann, a Colorado newspaper reporter credited in that item with offering necessary context on fentanyl reporting, announced this week he will be leaving The Denver Gazette to join The Denver Post as a statehouse reporter.

🎙 Colorado Public Radio’s May Ortega, who hosts the podcast “¿Quién Are We?” turned the program’s focus on herself this week. Growing up in Texas, she “thought she had a pretty good idea of who she was,” the show teased. But, “when she became a journalist, she realized that to report on other people, she had to figure out her own story.”

⚙️ Jessica Gibbs, formerly of Colorado Community Media, has joined The Denver Gazette. “I’ll be serving up lots of Aurora news but you can catch some Denver coverage from me as well,” she said on social media.

👎 Denver Post journalists represented by the Denver Newspaper Guild were not happy with management’s latest proposed contract. And they said as much on social media. “It not only didn’t include raises to allow us to live in an increasingly expensive city (and hasn’t since 2016), but it actually proposes further cuts to benefits,” tweeted reporter Saja Hindi. “The reason you hear so much about the fight of the @denverpost newsroom pushing for better is because our journalists are not afraid to demand accountability & fairness in the same way we report,” said reporter Elizabeth Hernandez. She added: “This is a rowdy newsroom in the name of good & we will not back down.” Reporter Joe Rubino said: “I’ve been insulted by the Denver Post’s hedge fund owners before. But today’s contract proposal from management with no raises (0%) was despicable. Newsroom staffers served 7 weeks of furloughs to keep this ship afloat in 2020-21. It’s time to #DoBetter and #PayJournlists.”

🆕 Welcome Nina Joss to Colorado who is “excited to announce that I moved to Denver this week, and will soon be starting a reporting internship” at Colorado Community Media.

🔎 The Gazette is looking for a journalist to fill out its three-person investigative unit and will pay $80,000 for the role. Evan Wylοge recently left to become a data reporter for He says he plans to still contribute to The Gazette as a freelancer. The Colorado Sun is hiring, too. They’ll pay $60,000 to $80,000 for a political reporter and a general assignment reporter.

🔘 Westword’s Michael Roberts rounded up Denver’s most and least popular radio stations. “Despite technological changes that have revolutionized communication over recent decades, traditional radio remains a going concern in metro Denver, the country’s eighteenth-largest market,” he wrote. “But as demonstrated by the latest report from industry leader Nielsen, a relative handful of stations owned by media conglomerates dominate the scene, leaving most other signals to scramble for the scraps — and in July, many of them failed to generate enough listeners to even register in the ratings available to the public.”

📺 Departing Denver Post reporter Alex Burness accused local journalists at CBS Colorado of “teaming up” with police to “alert the public that some guy in a parking lot who says he needs money isn’t a real violinist.” He called such news judgment “ridiculous.”

🚫 A year after the legislature passed a law on police radio encryption, “Denver-area news outlets are still blocked from listening,” Jeff Roberts reported for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

⭐️ The nonprofit Pueblo Star Journal celebrated six months in operation this week.

🗣 Eight local media organizations in the Roaring Fork Valley are looking to bridge a language gap in coverage. “Facilitated by the Colorado News Collaborative, or COLab, and bolstered by a $25,000 grant from the Colorado Media Project (a COLab partner), a professionally developed survey is now live, until Sept. 2,” wrote Megan Tackett in a piece published in multiple outlets this week. “The goal is to garner as many responses as possible, from as random, representative of a sample as possible in order to hear directly from the Spanish-speaking Latinx community about what news coverage is most important — and currently missing — from the media landscape and how best to deliver it.”

📢 Christopher Reen, who is president and CEO of Clarity Media Group, publisher of the Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Gazette, and the Washington Examiner, which is owned by the conservative Denver billionaire Philip Anschutz, is urging the public to “Contact your member of Congress to support” the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act “and ensure Big Tech doesn’t cancel local news.”

💸 “A Colorado Springs resident has settled a lawsuit against the city of Woodland Park and its former police chief for $65,000 after he was blocked from the police department’s Facebook page,” Andrew Kenney reported for Colorado Public Radio. “It’s one of the largest settlements in a case where a public official blocked someone on Facebook, according to plaintiff’s attorney Andrew McNulty.”

💼 Robert Davis is joining Business Insider as a real estate fellow working from Denver. Scott Weiser joined The Gazette as a reporter, coming from Complete Colorado, the news arm of the libertarian Independence Institute.

📙 The Denver Press Club will host a Sept. 8 event featuring Denver journalist Julian Rubinstein and Terrance Roberts, the subject of his book and documentary The Holly. “Journalist Tamara Banks will moderate the conversation, which will include clips from the film, soon to be released in Denver,” the Club announced.

😬 Colorado Politics reporter Michael Karlik said it’s worth asking why his newspaper company’s columnist, Jon Caldara, “apparently has not read the outlet he contributes to.”

🚔 The Colorado Springs Police Department stated publicly this week that it was “extremely disappointed” in two local TV stations after they published details from an autopsy report of a 17-year-old victim in a murder case. “New orgs should weigh news value of graphic public documents, especially documents that can be seriously alarming. How granular should you go in your reporting? There is a line. That’s up to news managers, not police,” said Denver’s 9News investigative reporter Jeremy Jojola.

🆕 Jacob Factor will be a part-time breaking news reporter for The Denver Post, he announced July 27. “I will work remotely for the Denver Post from Tulsa until we can move to Colorado in late October, so I’m sticking around Tulsa World for a while longer and will be working for both until we move,” he said, adding, “I’ve never lived outside of Oklahoma — and as a Mvskokvlke, part of me will always stay in northeast Oklahoma — but I am so excited to start this new journey in Denver.”

🎸 “I grew up in Colorado with press credentials and a backstage pass,” says James Pagliasotti in the trailer for his book “What it Was: Growing Up When the Music Mattered.” The author was The Denver Post’s first rock ’n’ roll columnist. “

🌤 Denver’s 9News meteorologist Kathy Sabine, who Westword’s Michael Roberts called “one of Denver’s favorite TV news personalities for nearly thirty years,” has returned to the airwaves “just over a month after surgery for skin cancer — a medical odyssey she shared in order to increase awareness about the disease and save lives.”

🔥 A new CU Boulder college course created by the Boulder Reporting Lab and the Center for Environmental Journalism, called “Marshall Fire as Living Lab,” will examine health impacts from the Marshall Fire. Graduate students “will report on the effects on water, air, soil and more from the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history, as residents rebuild their homes and lives.”

✅ Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff says “Nothing in journalism is more fraudulently branded than local news Fact Check™ segments, 95% of which are just excuses for reporters to smuggle a bunch of opinions and unsubstantiated assertions onto the air,” pointing to a recent CBS4 segment as an example.

🏆 Denver’s KUSA 9News won the National Edward R. Murrow Award for Overall Excellence in Large Market Television.

🏒 Kyle Fredrickson left The Denver Post sports desk to become the new Avalanche reporter for the Denver and Colorado Springs Gazettes.

🆕 Lucas Brady Woods says he joining KUNC as the Colorado statehouse reporter. “I look forward to following his example, and serving Coloradans with practicalresponsible news from the Gold Dome,” Brady Woods said.

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim 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.