Inside the News: ‘Who Are We Punishing?’ — Government Yanks Ads From Aspen Newspaper To Make a Point

  • 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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Politicians who run the local government in Pitkin County, Colorado, this week sent a message to the new out-of-state owners of The Aspen Times: The gravy train is over until you regain trust in the community.

On Wednesday, the members of the county board of commissioners voted to make the paper’s rival, The Aspen Daily News, Pitkin’s official newspaper of record. That means under state law the county will redirect certain required notices it must publish in a local newspaper to a different one for the first time since 1993.

The measure follows another, even more detrimental, action. In late June, the county moved to choke off its advertising spending to the Times, which is likely to cost the paper more than the required notices.

The one-two punch makes good on a threat local political leaders leveled at the daily paper following months of drama after West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers bought the Times from Nevada-based Swift Communications in December.

“We started looking into this because of actions that happened at The Aspen Times that really caused kind of a loss of faith in many members of the public and of our board,” said Commissioner Steve Child prior to Wednesday’s vote. He and another commissioner said they hoped over time the community would regain trust in the paper.

Child was referencing turmoil at the Times following its sale to Ogden, which went into effect at the beginning of this year. Since then, the paper has been battered by bad publicity that stems from a billionaire developer’s lawsuit (and later settlement), the paper’s editor quitting while citing the “vibe” under new ownership, Aspen’s mayor accusing the paper of suppressing news coverage, an interim editor “strenuously” objecting to management decisions, and the paper promoting a new editor and then immediately firing him after he published a guest column that included internal emails and was critical of how the paper has handled some of the above developments. Just this week the paper itself reported that it’s been “reeling from a mass exodus of employees” and “reader complaints.”

The official switch to Aspen Daily News as the county’s “newspaper of record” takes effect this week.

During the public comment portion of Wednesday’s meeting, Aspen Times Publisher Allison Pattillo told the commissioners they were lucky to have a choice between two competing daily newspapers. (She’s correct. Aspen is one of the few U.S. cities left with two daily newspapers in competition.) She also mentioned the area’s other news outlets, like the nonprofit Aspen Journalism and Aspen Public Radio. She suggested the county’s political leaders request bids from each of the outlets, but commissioners essentially said they weren’t required to and declined.

Pattillo was the only one to offer public comment on the measure. She earlier had rebuked a slate of current and former public officials for making their threat in the first place, saying it was “frankly shocking to see elected officials so brazenly threaten to use their positions of power to control a community newspaper.”

This week’s vote capped roughly a month of consideration.

During a June 29 meeting, the county board discussed what they could do within their power to make a statement to The Aspen Times, which has served the community for 141 years and has been referred to in local media as the oldest continuously operating business in the county.

Commissioners learned from a staffer that the county spent plenty of money in advertising with the Times and also spent money to place required public notices in the paper. (I have asked the county how much exactly they have spent in recent years with the Times and will update this when I find out.)

Board members in the June meeting also talked about officially re-directing their notices to the Daily News, which calls itself “the valley’s only independently owned newspaper.” Doing so would require an on-the-record vote, they learned, and would take anointing the Daily News as the county’s new paper of record. But deciding to cut off their county ad spending to the Times wouldn’t take a vote. Commissioners indicated they could do so administratively — willy nilly at their discretion whenever — and without having to draft a formal resolution. Done and done.

“It’s no secret that our board wasn’t happy with what happened at The Aspen Times recently and I don’t think the community has received necessarily a satisfactory answer from the new owners of the newspaper at this point in time,” Commissioner Child said during that June 29 meeting.

“The genesis of this conversation was a political motivation and I think our board had a good conversation related to that about the real dissatisfaction with The Aspen Times’ decisions and a lack of commitment to free and fair press in this community,” said Commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury at the same meeting. She added she believed yanking advertising for some time would be “meaningful” while calling it a “powerful tool that we possess.” She said the board could always later re-think its decision, saying, “This doesn’t have to be a permanent boycott.”

Board Chair Patti Clapper said she was concerned about the actions of the Times, but was also concerned about how some in the community were accusing the commissioners of using their political power to “stifle freedom of speech or whatever.” Child suggested the commissioners might write a guest column in one or both papers about why they made their decision and to respond to those who think the public officials are abusing their government power to punish a private enterprise. “We need to speak out strongly in favor of free and open speech and not having this specter of censorship hanging over us,” he said.

At one point in the June meeting, Commissioner Greg Poschman asked, “My question would be who are we punishing? It’s punitive.”

“Ogden news,” responded McNicholas Kury.

At another point in the meeting, Poschman said he wasn’t sure he could trust the Times anymore and said it’s all been personally painful for him since he used to sell the paper at a local pub as a kid. He grew up reading it and even shot photos for it. His mother worked at the paper. “It’s an emotional, nostalgic thing,” he said, “but it isn’t the same thing anymore. These aren’t the same publishers or the same people. And one thing … we can do is decide where to direct funds.”

Pitkin is not the only county in Colorado to make the ‘ole switcheroo with its newspaper of record in a dramatic way this year. About three hours southeast in Custer, the county government there did something similar — and seemingly in a way to punish one weekly newspaper at the benefit of a rival. The losing paper’s publisher has vowed to take members of the county commission to federal court over it.

back in Aspen, the Daily News reported on this week’s decision to designate it the new county paper of record — a feather in its cap, for sure. (The Times had reported the county had made its decision before Wednesday’s official vote.)

That coverage from the Times came when it announced on Monday that the paper has a new editor, Don Rogers. The staff report cited Rogers, who is the former editor and publisher of the Vail Daily, saying “he is eager to help turn around The Aspen Times newsroom.” Looks like he has his work cut out for him.

Villager newspaper’s front page under scrutiny

The Villager newspaper in Greenwood Village is no stranger to controversy.

An April Fool’s story that included stereotypes of Asians, which appeared during a time of increased anti-Asian hate, prompted a major backlash, a barrage of critical local news coverage, an advertising boycott, and more.

This week, the paper came in for criticism when it published a large headline “Cherry Creek boys swim team ranked 7th in the nation” and under it in smaller type “CCHS girls swim team ranked 5th nationally.”

A local Democratic state representative, Meg Froelich, posted a photo of the front page along with this commentary: “Let me know when you see it 🙂 Hint: Title 9.”

Critics, including local journalists, piled on the obvious disparity — that the girls team was ranked higher than the boys yet earned smaller recognition.

Close readers of the Villager pointed out that last week’s paper had given the girls team top billing and featured them on the cover with the boys team getting second-tier real estate in that edition. Representative Froelich later posted a photo of both issues side-by-side saying she still thought this week’s front-page was a “goof” and a “bad headline.”

At least one reader argued it felt like sexism on the paper’s part and was unnecessary to publish a similar front page for the boys who ranked lower just because they previously did one for the higher-ranked girls.

The incident to me underscores the fragmented way audiences get their news and information these days, which is increasingly atom by atom, item by item, fragment by fragment from various social media streams and peer-to-peer networks. Many who saw this week’s Villager headline never saw last week’s, and without that context it looked, correctly, bad. A Villager subscriber who saw this week’s headline and who did recall last week’s front page likely consumed and processed the latest one in a much different context. Those who recall the Villager’s previous tone-deaf incident were also likely to process this week’s headline differently than those who were unaware.

News outlets should be aware of this new consumption environment just as they should be aware of, say, making sure programmatic advertising like for T-shirts mocking those who dislike guns or advertising a local gun sale, don’t appear next to an online story about the latest mass shooting.

I was quick to retweet Rep. Froelich’s initial tweet, and then undid the RT moments later once I saw the context. I later re-tweeted her take that showed both papers side by side. If there’s a lesson for the newspaper here, I’ll take a lesson, too.

Sentinel Colorado: Dateline Green Bay

As the for-profit weekly newspaper in Aurora seeks to determine whether a Packers NFL team ownership model might keep the paper sustainable and in local hands, two of those involved in its transition recently visited Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Richard Ryman wrote about their trip in the Green Bay Press-Gazette:

This week, Dave Perry, editor of The Sentinel, and Laura Frank, executive director of Colorado News Collaborative, attended the Packers annual shareholders’ meeting at Lambeau Field so they could see up close what drove 539,062 shareholders, many from them outside of Wisconsin, to invest in the Packers. …

The Packers are publicly owned, but their stock is not traded. The team has had only six stock sales in its 103-year history. The stock does not pay dividends, so all revenue stays with the organization. Shareholders vote on a board of directors and other matters that might come up, but much of the organization’s decisions are made by the president/CEO and executive committee.

This works for the Packers because football is hugely popular, and lucrative, and the Packers are the NFL’s most successful franchise, with the best story. The team has a loyal and driven fanbase.  

One of the challenges the Sentinel owners will have, should they choose the Packers’ method, is to convince citizens of Aurora that the news they get is worth paying for with more than subscriptions alone. 

Colorado, the author notes, “is something of [an] innovation lab for reporting.” Indeed. Read the whole piece about the trip to Green Bay at the link above.

Colorado’s two large newspapers focus on the Colorado River

Seven states, including Colorado, that rely on water from the Colorado River Basin “are drawing too much,” reported Conrad Swanson in a major story in The Denver Post last week. “Hydrologists warned this would happen generations ago, though politicians and government officials failed to listen or decided not to.”

Meanwhile, we’re in a megadrought that’s “expected not only to continue but to turn worse.” Swanson’s front-page story details how leaders ignored red flags a century ago when they created a multi-state compact over water use that was essentially the Big Bang for development and population growth in the West.

Here was a particularly dystopian section of the July 21 piece:

Cities in California sank as much as a foot as people pumped more from groundwater reserves, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. Forests burned through by wildfires are likely now to be replaced by grassy savannahs, the Arizona Republic reported. Colorado is expected to lose half its snow by 2080 and — alongside Utah and Wyoming — shift toward an ecosystem more closely resembling Arizona. And the United States lost ground on its battle against climate change during former President Donald Trump’s administration, the New York Times reported.

A couple days later, Vince Bzdek, editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, published a column that began with this:

What if Pearl Harbor happened and we didn’t do anything about it? For the Colorado River, Pearl Harbor is happening now, and Colorado, for one, is saying “Not my problem.”

A 22-year-long drought has dropped water levels in reservoirs along the lifeblood of the West to record lows, prompting the federal Bureau of Land Reclamation in June to demand an emergency plan for massive usage cutbacks from the seven states along the river.

Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff, who covers climate and the environment, said on social media: “The more appropriate metaphor for this column that doesn’t mention climate change (!!!) would be ‘What if Pearl Harbor happened and newspapers refused to acknowledge the existence of Japan?’”

For its part, The Gazette has embarked on a seven-part special series, launched July 16, called Tipping Point: The Colorado in Peril. The project examines “how the drought and aftermath of recent wildfires are affecting farmers and ranchers, tourism, dams, tribal reservations, politics, conservation and average citizens.”

Top-billing coverage this month from the state’s two largest print newspapers augments continued reporting by The Water Desk, a project of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder that focuses on the Colorado River Basin. The initiative launched three years ago with a $700,000 two-year grant from the Walton Family Foundation. Over the years, this newsletter has tracked the Waltons’ funding of local media to specifically report on the Colorado River, and also skepticism of that funding.

Meanwhile, Colorado audiences have Fresh Water News, by Water Education Colorado, and reporters at outlets like KUNC — and others — that are dedicated to water issues. If you or someone you know is doing great work on the water beat in Colorado, which is bound to become increasingly more important than, say, horse-race politics coverage, send me the info. I might round up those on the beat and their work in a future newsletter.

Coloradoan updates its readers on newsroom diversity

This week, newsrooms across the USA Today Network were “releasing the third year of diversity census information, making good on our 2020 pledge to better reflect to the communities we serve.”

That’s from a column by Eric Larsen, editor of The Coloradoan in Fort Collins, which is part of the Gannett-owned network. Larsen said he was proud to work for a company that’s “leaning in to address issues of inequitable representation in our organization and our coverage.”

More from the Larsen column:

But let’s not pat ourselves on the back and claim “mission accomplished.”

That racial reckoning of 2020 is just as pertinent today, and in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade, millions of women are grappling with the repercussions to their reproductive rights. Hate crimes continue to surge across the U.S., and the specter of action against same-sex marriage looms over the LGBTQ+ community.

Real change can seem as slow as ever, even in these rapidly changing times.

The same can be said of diversity efforts in hiring at the Coloradoan. Since that initial release of our 2020 census, we’ve had only three staff members leave — retired columnist and reporter Kevin Duggan, photojournalist Bethany Baker, who is now a Report For America fellow at the Salt Lake Tribune, and most recently city reporter Jacy Marmaduke, who is making her way toward a new life in Germany.

In their place we’ve hired extremely talented and dedicated colleagues in Molly Bohannon, now our lead city reporter, photojournalist Jon Austria and newly hired growing communities reporter Bethany Osborn.

We continue to focus on recruitment and retention of diverse talent of all stripes in our hiring practices, and will do so as we seek Molly’s replacement on our critical education beat primarily covering Colorado State University and Poudre School District.

Read the whole thing at the link above.

More Colorado media odds & ends

😢 Alex Burness is leaving The Denver Post and taking his indispensable and enterprising political reporting chops to Washington, D.C. “I’ve had nine thrilling years in Colorado and I’m feeling really grateful for this place and its people,” he said. “I’m also excited about what’s coming next — more on that soon!” He previously reported for The Colorado Independent where we worked together, and The Boulder Daily Camera prior to that.

👀 KUSA 9News ‘Next’ anchor Kyle Clark said it’s “wild” that The Gazette’s editorial page “allowed a political candidate to write a column falsely denying the newspaper’s own reporting of the candidate’s verified statements.”

🆕 Josue Perez has joined The Pueblo Chieftain as a general assignment reporter. He comes from The Montrose Daily Press on the Western Slope.

💯 “This year marks 100 years since the University of Colorado created a Department of Journalism,” said CBS4 VP/General Manager Tim Wieland. “Today, I’m proud to sit on the Advisory Board … which includes a journalism program that prepares students for the future of our business.”

⬆️ Gretchen King is now executive editor of High Country News.

🗣 Thanks to the Colorado Health Foundation for hosting a panel about local media at its annual Colorado Health Symposium in Keystone this week. The panel included Tatiana Flowers who reports on equity for the Colorado Sun, Jesús Luis Sánchez Meleán, who edits El Comercio de Colorado, H. Malcolm Newton of Afrik Digest, and myself.

📺 KUSA 9News Director of Special Projects Chris Vanderveen explained the Denver TV station’s “VERY non-traditional” concept with its “ORIGINALS” team. Part of it involves “taking day-to-day reporters and taking them off the day-to-day grind” and “something a little different here in this newsroom,” he said.

🐺 Wildlife advocates are criticizing a ban on recording and livestreaming gray wolf advisory group meetings, the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition’s Jeff Roberts reported.

🎙 Charles Homans relied on a Colorado Public Radio interview with a pro-Trump rally organizer for his New York Times magazine story “How ‘Stop the Steal’ Captured the American Right:The movement to reinstate President Trump has gone far beyond him — and now threatens the future of American elections.”

➡️ “I don’t think it’s journalistically inappropriate for me to say that,” a Rocky Mountain PBS journalist said about a tweet she posted about Republican U.S. Rep. Lauren Boebert. “Those are just facts. That is what she believes, and that is a thing that happened.”

⚙️ The Colorado Press Association is hiring “a full-time Workforce Development Coordinator” it will pay $60,000 to $65,000.

🎣 A favorite use of recent source protection goes to Ben Goldfarb in a great High Country News feature about an important water rights case that carried this line: “Although few fish were rising, he tied on a dry fly of his own making — the design of which, he informed me, was strictly off the record — and coaxed a bite from a lovely brown trout freckled in vivid red and black.”

🥳 Megan Ulu-Lani Boyanton launched her first Denver Post newsletter on her birthday.

🏛 The Denver Post is looking for “an experienced reporter to join a two-person team covering the state legislature and state government” and will pay $19.03 to $33.28 an hour. Colorado Politics is hiring a digital editor.

🙏 Thanks to the American Press Institute for highlighting this newsletter in its morning “Need to Know” email last week, and to CJR for highlighting it in ‘The Media Today.’ (If you like this newsletter about local news in Colorado, you’ll love theirs about local news everywhere. Sign up for them at the links above.)

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 column, 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.