Inside the News: Layoffs at Boulder’s Outside Inc. Follow Rapid Consolidation of Outdoor Media

  • 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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A tale of two headlines

Last month, Denver’s 5280 magazine asked in a headline: “Can Outside Inc. Save Outdoor Journalism?”

The story examined Boulder multimillionaire Robin Thurston’s rapid consolidation of outdoor publications that include the Santa Fe-based Outside magazine. Readers learned of the mogul’s innovative efforts to create a sustainable outdoor media empire relying on a “data model” and “personalization” in hopes to wrangle 20 million subscribers over the next five years.

In the article, its author, Robert Sanchez, wrote:

The speed with which Thurston has gobbled up media properties over the past two years has bred skepticism, particularly about the quality of journalism the company plans to offer and whether Outside Inc. is growing at an unsustainable pace. Thurston says this consolidation is good for the consumer, but the history of diminished competition in American business tells a different story.

This week, Sanchez had a new article up at 5280’s website about Outside Inc. that carried a decidedly different headline: “Outside Inc. Makes Significant Staff Cuts, Shifts Away From Print Media Offerings.”

The upshot from the latest piece:

[T]he company told its staff in a video conference meeting that it would eliminate roughly 15 percent of its workforce, shutter some of its print publications, and reduce the frequency of most magazines to one or two print runs per year. The change came as a shock to Outside Inc. employees who had hoped Thurston’s ambitions would result in a rejuvenated era for the company’s publications. …

The layoffs were spread across the company, according to a slide presented to Outside Inc. employees and obtained by 5280. Of those listed as “exits,” 31 were from “content”—or 18 percent of that sector—among them, three editors at Outside magazine, the company’s flagship brand. Sixteen employees were laid off from the sales and marketing departments; 13 positions were eliminated from “commerce,” 12 positions were eliminated from “product engineering and mapping;” another seven were “general and administrative” employees. The company’s “events and experiences” and “customer support” staffs were untouched. …

Thurston told Outside Inc. employees via the video meeting that current economic conditions made it more difficult in the short-term to move the company from private ownership to a publicly traded company and forced the cutbacks. The savings, Thurston said, would give the company more operating “runway” in the meantime.

Thurston also told Ed Sealover of Denver Business Journal that the layoffs were a product of the eventual realization of redundancies that come with fast acquisition and size.

From the DBJ:

[T]he company will eliminate three of its 36 properties — mountain-biking magazine Beta, bike-racing magazine Peloton and health-and-fitness magazine Oxygen — over the next six months because each have suffered consistent losses in recent years.

And except for Outside Magazine, it will cut most of the rest of its print publications down to one or two special issues a year — the kind of issues that subscribers will put on their coffee tables — in order to focus more on video.

The Poynter Institute’s Angela Fu noted how the news comes just months after Outside magazine’s editorial staff “decided to pause their union drive.”

Writing in The Storm Skiing Journal and Podcast on Substack, Stuart Winchester chided Outside’s recent promotion of what it calls the “Outerverse” — the company’s “first NFT and Web3 initiative” — and lamented a “continued degradation of the traditional ski media.”

From the post:

In the last five years, the print ski media, my formative medium, has all but collapsed in the United States. Skiing is gone. Powder is mostly gone (the website lives on). And last week, Ski Editor-in-Chief Sierra Shafer sent the following email to the magazine’s contributors (she re-posted the email in a since-deleted tweet):

“Hi all,

“hope you’ll forgive the mass email; we have some news we want to share with all of our valued contributors as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“Yesterday, Outside Inc. made the difficult decision to reduce print by 80 percent across the company. In addition to our unified Winter Gear Guide, we will only produce one additional print magazine this year and for the foreseeable future. We are just beginning the process of determining what this SKI annual is will look like and what we will be able to include in its pages.

Winchester used the opportunity to pitch his newsletter-and-podcast product as the future of niche industry news.

One Colorado journalist who wasn’t surprised at the unfortunate development in outdoor media is Emma Athena, the senior editor at Boulder Weekly.

Already in 2020, Athena and reporter Amelia Arvesen were tracking Pocket Outdoor Media’s acquisition spree and watching what Athena calls “the current monopoly” take shape one publishing group or title at a time. The pair was looking for an outlet interested in a potential story about it.

At the beginning of 2021, when POM under Thurston bought and rebranded the company to Outside Inc., Athena says their skepticism about the longevity of outdoor media grew. Instances of investor-backed media consolidation that produce negative impacts on employees, contractors, and customers are plentiful, Athena says, adding that Silicon Valley venture firm investors began joining Outside’s board that year.

“We wanted to report on how Outside was following a well-worn path to layoffs and print cuts, but couldn’t find interest in our reporting at the time,” Athena says. “We plan to keep moving the story forward, and welcome any tips.”

Departing Aspen Times editor: ‘I wasn’t feeling the vibe’ after new ownership

Ever since Ogden Newspapers out of West Virginia bought a chain of Colorado ski-town newspapers from Swift Communications in December, an accumulation of names has been sliding off of mastheads like a slow-moving avalanche.

The latest to peace out is David Krause who published an unusually candid goodbye column that didn’t say he wanted to spend more time with his family or offer some nothing-to-see-here smokescreen about wishing new management well. He said the opposite while including that a recent health scare has him thinking more about a life without constant deadline pressures, chaotic work schedules, and the general anxiety of being in the news business.

From the column:

For those wondering, here are my answers to the questions people have had the past few weeks: If you didn’t have this heart thing would you be leaving? Yes, I wasn’t feeling the vibe with our new group before the docs found my condition. (I did write a column after the sale was announced that I would remain cautiously optimistic; I wanted to give it a few months, first.) If you had the old ownership and this heart thing came up, would you be leaving? Hard to say, but probably not.

So here we have an editor saying he doesn’t think it’s all dandy with a new sheriff in town.

Meanwhile, The Aspen Times is ‘settling’ a lawsuit against the paper

The editor’s departure comes at a rocky time for The Aspen Times — amid a lawsuit, a mayor’s accusation of coverage omissions, and the interim editor’s frustration with management.

It began earlier this month when a Soviet-born Swedish billionaire named Vladislav Doronin sued the newspaper for defamation following its coverage of him as he seeks to develop a controversial high-end hotel in the area.

From Shelly Bradbury in The Denver Post:

The Aspen Times’ editorial board criticized the unexpected sale to an out-of-town developer, which happened just months after the original developers bought the property — and rights to build a hotel there — for $10 million.

The Aspen Times published a news story about the sale in March, initially referring to Doronin as an oligarch before later tweaking the story to remove that reference. In a subsequent opinion piece, columnist John Colson compared Doronin to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — who he said also owns property in Aspen — and insinuated that the pair might have worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Bradbury called the lawsuit “the latest escalation in a simmering fight” between the newspaper and the 59-year-old Doronin and wrote that “the billionaire’s public relations team has staunchly fought the ‘oligarch’ label, denied allegations of corruption and emphasized Doronin’s disapproval of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

As of this week, The Aspen Times hadn’t reported on the lawsuit, but its rival, the Aspen Daily News, did — once again showing the importance of a two-paper town. The Aspen Times has not reported on Doronin since April 10. Prior to that, the paper had published roughly a dozen stories about him in the span of a month.

The newspaper’s ownership “would like to get the lawsuit settled before they think we should publish anything else, which is not something I agree with,” ex-editor Krause, who is no longer with the paper, said over the phone last Thursday. He added that he wished the Times had covered its own lawsuit. (Notably, when The Aspen Times once covered a lawsuit against the Aspen Daily News, it forced the ADN to acknowledge it in print.)

Asked about the Doronin lawsuit, Aspen Times Publisher Allison Pattillo said in an email last week that because the paper is in a “settlement phase” she couldn’t discuss it. Asked why the paper wasn’t fighting the lawsuit, she said, “Because we’re settling it.”

On Tuesday, May 24, during a city council meeting, Aspen’s mayor, who goes by the single name Torre, offered some comments about the local newspaper in question.

“I wanted to just make a note here publicly about The Aspen Times,” Torre said at the meeting, adding that there was a reporter in the room for whom he had a lot of respect. “But,” he went on, “it’s come to my attention recently that The Aspen Times, under duress, has been withholding and suppressing some news stories that are important to our community. I find that to be a real disservice to our community.”

More from the mayor:

“I know that the leadership and the ownership of The Aspen Times may be out of town and not understand what is actually going on here, but I would hope that they spend a little bit more time looking into what the local affairs are and what this newspaper means to our community for information.”

Mayor Torre also said he wished the paper would pay some of its columnists more — “maybe they would get some better qualified columnists” — because he said he felt some of them relied on divisiveness and “breeding hate and distrust in our community.”

The mayor finished by saying, “I don’t think that The Aspen Times is acting in the best faith for our community” and “I just wanted to bring that up publicly because I think that sometimes these things need to be talked about.”

Publisher Pattillo said she had a “great chat” with Torre following his comments and said the mayor might have a forthcoming column of his own in the paper.

Aspen Times Interim Editor Rick Carroll’s response was notable.

“I strenuously object to how Ogden has handled the libel lawsuit, and I and other members of the newsroom have indicated as much to company management,” he said on May 27. “Mayor Torre was simply expressing a view held by many residents of the Aspen community, which is that Ogden is suppressing coverage of Vladislav Doronin produced by journalists at The Aspen Times.”

Michael Bennet wants to — in WaPo’s words — ‘interrogate the algorithms’

Colorado’s Democratic U.S. senator, Michael Bennet, who is running for re-election this year, introduced what he is calling the Digital Platform Commission Act. The Washington Post, a national rival of The New York Times where Bennet’s brother James fell from power as an editor of the opinion section, broke the news.

From WaPo:

According to the bill viewed exclusively by The Washington Post, the agency would have the power to interrogate the algorithms powering major tech platforms, and to set new rules to ensure the biggest companies are transparent about how they handle thorny decisions around content moderation on their platforms. …

The commission would be tasked with creating rules to ensure large tech companies are transparent about their content moderation rules, as well as requirements for regular public risk assessments about the violent or hateful content circulating on their services. It would establish a “Code Council” made up of technologists and public interest experts to create technical standards and policies for the commission to consider, as well as a Research Office that would conduct internal research and coordinate with outside academics to study the companies.

WaPo called the proposal “a long shot in a Senate where Democrats have a fragile 50-50 majority.”

Bennet previously introduced legislation that would examine ways in which the federal government might try to help fix our country’s bottomed-out local news business model.

Bennet is not the only member of Colorado’s congressional delegation looking to reform large technology platforms. The office of Congressman Ken Buck says the Republican is in a “war against Big Tech.”

Collaborative journalism and mental health reporting

Colorado journalists and others last week gathered for a 90-minute discussion about the state’s mental health safety net system at the Buell Public Media Center’s Masterpiece studio in Denver.

Laura Frank, who directs the Colorado News Collaborative, said during the event that part of COLab’s mission is to “report stories that are really complicated like this that many newsrooms might not be able to do on their own.” She said the result was “taking collaborative journalism to a new level” by amassing a small team of investigative journalists from “what you might consider previously balkanized news outlets who were mostly competitive with each other” now working together on the project.

COLab investigative journalist Susan Greene moderated the discussion. In a recent email about the event to the COLab community, Greene called it “not one of those scripted forums that politicians and philanthropists sometimes convene to paint the sausage-making process of public policy reform in a pretty light. It was, rather, an act of journalism, of sifting through bullshit and cultivating candor, and of showing audiences both in the TV studio here in the Buell Public Media Center and watching online via live-stream statewide what conversations with our sources on COLab’s ongoing ‘On Edge’ series are like.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

🗺 This newsletter is in out-of-the-office mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual.

📺 Denver CBS4 news anchor Jim Benemann “announced his decision to retire at the end of this year following a total of 44 years in the TV news business and 36 years in local broadcasting,” his station reported. Earlier, Benemann had tweeted, “I’ve been off the air with COVID and yesterday Warren Buffet invested $2.6B in our company. Now the boss is telling me to stay away even longer.” Westword put the latest move in the context of “a time of tremendous churn in the Denver television market.”

👂 The Denver Post wants to hear how Colorado women “are handling the looming Roe v. Wade decision.” The paper is encouraging women “from all backgrounds to submit including trans women, women of color, women with disabilities and from all age groups.”

⚾️ “I took a 95 MPH line drive to my head,” said Kelsey Wingert, who reports on the Colorado Rockies baseball team and showed off her gnarly stitches on Twitter. This wasn’t the first time, either. Westword reported how in 2018 she “suffered a broken eye socket after being hit by a foul ball.”

⚖️ A Colorado judge “has ruled that a defamation lawsuit by a former employee of Denver-based Dominion Voting Systems against a network of far-right conspiracy theorists tied to former President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign can proceed to trial, rejecting the defendants’ motion to dismiss the case,” Colorado Newsline reported.

🗣 Heidi Beedle of The Colorado Times Recorder said far-right conspiracist Joe Oltmann threatened to sue her. “This is at least the fourth time,” she said.

🤦‍♂️ The subject line of this emailed newsletter mistakenly read “Outdoor Inc.” instead of Outside Inc.

🎬 “Given the upset the book has caused everyone from Park Hill residents to the highest echelons of local government, the new documentary has all the makings of becoming Denver’s very own ‘Bonfire of the Vanities,’” wrote John Moore of The Denver Gazette after a screening of Julian Rubinstein’s forthcoming flick The Holly. (Meanwhile, two subjects of the Denver author’s book have sued him, Westword reported.)

⚔️ The Denver Post’s labor union is at the bargaining table with its owners. Along with higher pay, “We’re also asking for language that requires hiring managers to interview candidates from communities underrepresented in journalism,” reporter Elizabeth Hernandez said.

📚 A judge has decided that “people who ask Gunnison County librarians to remove or reclassify books they find objectionable or controversial can remain anonymous” after a civil case “brought against Mark Reaman, editor of the Crested Butte News,” Jeff Roberts reported for the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition.

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

💸 That recent mini First Amendment crisis over prior restraint involving a judge and Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser “cost The Gazette several thousand dollars it was forced to expend to fight a battle of principle and vindicate its right to provide its readers with timely, newsworthy, and truthful information,” writes lawyer Steve Zansberg.

🔗 Axios Denver and PBS12 have “partnered on a short-form weekly video segment that will feature Axios Denver reporters offering ‘smart brevity’ rundowns of each week’s top stories,” the daily newsletter reported.

📖 Dianne Derby, a Colorado Springs TV news anchor, has written a book called “Two Hundred Tuesdays: What A Pearl Harbor Survivor Taught Me About Life, Love, and Faith.”

🔎 Don’t forget to register for IRE22, the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference taking place in Denver June 23-25.

🆕 The goal of the Immunocompromised Times, a new Substack newsletter by Colorado’s Susanna Speier, is to “empower people with weakened immune systems to pursue socially, culturally and civically engaged lives.” We shouldn’t “have to jeopardize safety for salary or have to choose between physical and mental health,” she writes.

☢️ Colorado podcaster extraordinaire Laura Krantz, who cut her teeth in successful radio journalism with her breakout podcast series Wild Thing about Bigfoot (and followed it up with one about UFOs), is out with a new third season, launched May 17. “Going Nuclear” is about the history, science, and culture of atomic energy. Listen to the first two episodes here.

🔥 Former Colorado TV reporter Brandon Rittiman, who now works for ABC10 in Sacramento, California, has gained national attention for his wildfire coverage and is suing the California Public Utilities Commission, asking it to “comply with the California Public Records Act, which says all agencies must release public records ‘promptly’,” The L.A. Times reported.

🎓 The Heterodox Academy conference this year will be in Denver in June where educators and others will “discuss the crisis of trust facing our public institutions and deepen our shared pursuit of knowledge.”

⏸ “The Denver Post will put a ‘moratorium’ on columnist Ian Silverii after Colorado’s primary election on June 28th, meaning he will no longer be allowed to publish columns in the paper according to Denver Post Editorial Page Editor Megan Schrader,” wrote Republican political consultant Matt Connelly on his Campfire Colorado site. (Silverii is married to a candidate for Congress.) Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff posits a more thorough disclosure is warranted for a different columnist.

🤦‍♀️ Aspen Daily News Editor Megan Tackett said she is incredibly alarmed by the “uptick in anti-Semitic rants” that end up in her inbox “with a recent dose of anti-Arab, too,” along with “other next-level unhinged rants in general” such as allegations that a “Haitian witch in Florida is controlling the Aspen Daily News.”

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.