Editor’s Note: This report has been updated as of 8-26-2022 to add corrections and clarifications. For more details on those changes, please see the note at the end of the report.
The Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) is a nonprofit seeking to stop the spread of news deserts in our state. We serve as a local media resource hub and ideas lab that champions high-quality local news reporting and civic engagement as essential to public accountability, and helps communities craft new ways to financially sustain better coverage. Our team works toward the day when all Coloradans see access to unflinching local news as an unconditional right.
In June, Aspen Times reporter and interim editor Rick Carroll reached out to us for help. The paper’s new owner, Ogden Newspapers, had refused to defend the newsroom against a lawsuit brought by a Soviet-born billionaire who, just as Russia invaded Ukraine last winter, bought land for a hotel at the base of Aspen Mountain for seven times what it sold for eight months earlier. Vladislav Doronin claimed Carroll’s story about the land deal defamed him by calling him a Russian oligarch. Times’ executives refused to publish Carroll’s follow-up story debunking Doronin’s assertion that he divested from Russia years earlier. Given that none of Aspen’s three other news outlets stepped in to investigate claims by the city’s most controversial new landowner, Carroll had one question for COLab, and it was urgent: Could we help find somewhere or some way to let the community know what he had learned?
As we were brainstorming, Ogden executives spiked an opinion writer’s column assailing their handling of the Doronin lawsuit and fired the editor who tried to publish it. The company defends those decisions and acknowledges they may not have gone over well publicly.
Word about the Times’ self-censorship spread, triggering local backlash against a newspaper and its parent company critics decried for a lack of journalistic integrity. In the weeks following, Pitkin County government took the unprecedented step of yanking its legal notices and other advertising from the Times. The Aspen Institute and a few other advertisers followed suit. And a group1 of community members that initially gathered to organize an advertising boycott expanded its focus to also explore ways to ensure local news coverage is more independent moving forward.
Aspenites have been talking about press freedoms in the summer of 2022 more than any Colorado community has in recent memory, or maybe ever. Over the course of a month, I interviewed about 50 people2 in Aspen and throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. Most told me they were eager to learn more about Doronin and the land deal, and wanted to know what really happened with the Times’ legal settlement and why most of its newsroom staff since has quit. Most also said they have lost trust in the paper, partly because its owners let a foreign billionaire cow it into silence, but also because they say its broader coverage and that of its competitors haven’t been meeting their news needs.
Aspen is Colorado’s last remaining two-newspaper town. Both dailies are free, as is reporting by a local investigative news site and public radio station.3 All told, about 18 reporters cover a city of 7,100 and county of 17,000 people. And yet most community members I spoke with still find local news coverage lacking – too shallow and vanilla, some say, too hesitant to scrutinize people with power and money, say others, and too unaccustomed to asking hard questions and digging deeply for answers.
These are not critiques unique to Aspen. The news crisis there is an acute version of a crisis nationally: newsrooms operating on shoe-strings, with skeleton staffs, and steadily eroding public trust in news reporting and in commonly agreed-upon facts. A billionaire’s lawsuit simply served to accelerate what was until then a more slow-moving – so slow as to be insidious – crisis happening in many communities.
This report provides a history and analysis of Aspen’s media landscape, a chronicle of the Times’ legal conflict with Doronin and its fallout, a summary of what people I spoke with said about both, and a list of potential ways the community could work to improve the depth, breadth and independence of local coverage if it so chooses. This analysis is intended as a reference point for public conversation in the Roaring Fork Valley about how news media can be strengthened to better serve the public.
History of Aspen’s news landscape
The Aspen Times was founded during Colorado’s silver boom in 1881 and served as the paper of record for Pitkin County for 141 years until this July. It and various incarnations of the Glenwood Springs Post Independent, the paper of record in nearby Garfield County, long have bookended the Roaring Fork Valley in terms of local news coverage.
The Times remained locally owned until December 1999 when the Nevada-based Swift Communications bought it. Though many in the community hated to see it sold to a chain, they continued holding the Times in relatively high regard. Public trust in recent years has stemmed largely from the reporting of staff writers such as Rick Carroll, Carolyn Sackariason, Jason Auslander, Scott Condon and Andrew Travers, and from the leadership of Editor David Krause, whom Swift generally let run the paper without corporate interference. Public trust also stemmed from how the Times has stacked up against its competitor, the Aspen Daily News.
Any telling of the Daily News’s history requires an understanding of a decades-old division between longtime and year-round residents on one side and rich vacation homeowners on the other. Hunter S. Thompson called those part-timers “Greedheads.” The role the late journalist turned literary cult figure played in highlighting and, to some degree, deepening the divide can’t be overestimated. Thompson championed the residents he called “freaks” and “dropouts” who gravitated to Pitkin County in the 1960s and 1970s, many as ski bums. He was a key player in the so-called “Aspen War” involving the 1969 and 1970 elections for sheriff during which he and his buddies tried unsuccessfully to wrest that seat away from establishment politicians they disdained for compromising local color and quality of life for profit. Their so-called “Freak Power platform” called to disarm sheriff’s deputies, discourage them from arresting locals for drug possession or speeding, ban cars in Aspen in favor of biking or walking, and prohibit outsiders from fishing and hunting locally.
“It will be the policy of the Sheriff’s office savagely to harass all those engaged in any form of land-rape,” Thompson wrote in “The Great Shark Hunt,” his 1979 collection of Gonzo essays from that decade.
It was in that context that Thompson’s friend, journalist Dave Danforth, founded the Daily News in 1978 as a single-sheet missive against what he saw as rampant growth and greed. The paper evolved into a scrappier and more literary counterbalance to the more establishment Times. Longtime readers say in its early years, the Daily News produced a fair amount of longform, narrative news features, some of them brilliant, but others poor imitations of Thompson’s style of first-person, to-hell-with-the-facts Gonzo journalism. The paper broadened its readership by publishing some bold investigative stories that held local officials to account. “If you don’t want it printed, don’t let it happen,” the paper’s masthead still reads.
The Daily News has, at times, led local coverage of certain issues. But local readers tell me the quality of its reporting more generally has been inconsistent and its staffing so low4 at times that some Aspenites refer to the paper as the “Daily Miracle.” While the Times historically has run ads for Aspen’s highest-dollar real estate brokerages and other high-end businesses, the Daily News generally has drawn ad-buyers on more of a budget. Both papers took hits during the Great Recession and early months of COVID, but the Times had the slight advantage of being the paper of record in Aspen and Pitkin County – meaning the one in which city and county governments placed legal notices and other advertising.
A rash of community criticism about bias in both papers’ reporting in 2008 prompted three Aspenites to found a nonprofit news site that aimed to produce more balanced and in-depth coverage. They called it Factual Aspen Investigative Reporting, or FAIR for short. “Currently there is an absence of quality journalism and news reporting addressing issues and topics of importance to the citizens of Aspen,” FAIR posted upon its launch. Its founders pledged to fill that gap by “adhering to the strictest standards” of journalistic impartiality and ethics. But the site was mocked for hypocrisy, at first because one of its founders, Roger Marolt, had long been hiding behind a pseudonym to pen letters to the editors of both newspapers. FAIR then was shamed into forcing out its first editor for promising a source that she could read and edit a story before it was posted. Less than two years after launching, the site folded in 2010.
That was the year the Daily News, struggling financially, put some of its staffers on unpaid leave. One of them, veteran local journalist Brent Gardner-Smith, had grown so tired of local news outlets’ instability that he founded Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit news site promising in-depth and investigative stories that it would share for free with other outlets. He says he envisioned the site as a “place to land” for reporters who lost jobs in other newsrooms and as a sort of “journalism nirvana” where they could write with the freedom and depth they weren’t always afforded at other outlets.
Gardner-Smith distinguished himself as one of Colorado’s best water reporters, taking the time and word-count to explain complex developments in the Roaring Fork watershed and greater Colorado River Basin, and the politics behind them. Although even his critics lauded his and others’ water reporting for Aspen Journalism, some questioned the ethics of the news site accepting six-figure grants5 from the Walton Family Foundation and the Walton-endowed Catena Foundation, whose water policy agenda it often covered. Several local readers told me Aspen Journalism is too focused on water and its articles too long and inside-baseball for them to read regularly. Of the community members I interviewed, roughly a third had never heard of the site.
Gardner-Smith resigned in August 2021, and Aspen Journalism’s board replaced him with Curtis Wackerle, the former editor of the Daily News. Wackerle has continued the site’s heavy focus on water reporting, despite the fact that other outlets statewide are now covering many of the same water issues, largely with Walton funding, and, like Aspen Journalism, providing those stories for free to other outlets. Wackerle says Aspen Journalism’s water coverage still stands out for being more local and granular. He says he relishes producing deeper coverage than he could at the Daily News, but is limited by the demands of managing two staffers and a crew of freelancers while raising money and running the business side of Aspen Journalism.
In Aspen’s ongoing game of media musical chairs, Gardner-Smith became news director of Aspen Public Radio, where he had previously worked as executive director. The station has long been respected in the community, but drew criticism in 2020 when it decided to eliminate virtually all music from its schedule and abruptly let go the volunteer DJs who had kept its signal filled with programming. Listeners didn’t understand why Aspen Public Radio was airing mostly national and BBC content and broadcasting some programs two times a day. Gardner-Smith’s charge has been to beef up local news coverage. Of his newsroom’s five full-time broadcast journalists, he said one works full-time as a reporter and others split their time between reporting and anchoring or other duties. Of the work Aspen Public Radio’s news team produced in 2021, station Executive Director Breeze Richardson says she is most proud of a feature story about a local man who is teaching valley kids about his Northern Ute culture and a sports feature about a woman with ALS who participated in a ski program at Snowmass.
Meanwhile, ownership of both Aspen newspapers has changed hands in recent years.
Danforth sold The Daily News in 2017 to local marketing entrepreneur David Cook, his business partner Spencer McKnight and three silent partners, including two co-owners6 of Aspen Snowmass Sotheby’s International Realty, which advertises homes in the paper, and a broker for that office. Cook says that he, McKnight, and climate philanthropist Jill Soffer bought out the three partners connected with Sotheby’s in 2021.
Editor Megan Tackett raves about her job, saying, “I have never worked for better people and I have never had better people working for me at the Aspen Daily News.”
Not everyone is as enthusiastic. Some current and former journalists for the paper, plus some Aspenites who’ve been the subjects of reporting, expressed concerns about lax fact-checking and an unwillingness to correct reporting errors. Publisher David Cook responds: “We literally run corrections every day. When there’s a mistake in the paper, we are quick to run corrections.” Some of the paper’s journalists have expressed concerns with the owners’ business practices, including when Cook made headlines in 2016 for sending what was seen as an I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine email to a city councilman about a city-owned building he was trying to buy.7 In 2020, ex-Daily News photographer Craig Turpin filed a federal lawsuit accusing the paper’s management, among other things, of telling employees to collect unemployment while they were still working. Cook says the federal judge dismissed that allegation and remanded Turpin’s other claims to state court before the paper reached a settlement with Turpin about unpaid overtime.
For its part, Swift Communications sold the Aspen Times and 19 other papers8 to the West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers on December 31, 2021. Ogden currently operates 1159 newspapers and other publications nationally, and its owners, the Nutting family, also own the Pittsburgh Pirates whose fans have fiercely criticized company CEO Bob Nutting for putting profits above players and losing some star team members. They have dubbed him “Bottom-Line Bob.” Nearly 61,000 of them have signed a petition urging Major League Baseball to force him to sell the team. But that petition hasn’t worked and the family has become accustomed to being booed in at least one city where it does business.
Ogden hired Allison Pattillo as publisher of the Times. The company’s Chief Revenue Officer Cameron Nutting Williams (Bob’s daughter) calls her a “natural pick” because she lives in the Roaring Fork Valley and has journalism experience. That experience consisted of freelance writing feature stories,10 including some for special marketing sections of the Aspen Times. But she had no experience on the staff of a newspaper
Pattillo reports to Scott Stanford, a regional Ogden executive who lives 65 miles away in Gypsum. Staffers and community members have voiced their belief that it is he who is really running the paper. He has even rewritten at least one Times’ reporter’s news story about the paper’s recent string of controversies.
Perceptions of local news coverage pre- and other than Doronin settlement
Recent headlines tell us Colorado and the nation are experiencing an affordable housing shortage. That story is decades-old news in Aspen where, despite years of trailblazing efforts by Aspen Skiing Company and local governments, a lack of housing local workers can afford remains what one local social services official describes as a “catastrophe of monstrous proportions.” The median selling price for a home in Aspen was $3.5 million11 in June 2022, and the average monthly rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $6,750 as of this writing.12 News outlets, like other types of local businesses, have been unable to hold on to employees who can’t come close to affording those prices.
The notable exception for many years were Times employees who lived for one-quarter their salaries in the 10 or so subsidized housing units Swift bought for its workers. Reporter Jason Auslander, who was renting one of those units, quit the Times and left journalism all together in April when learning he would lose his lease because Ogden did not buy the housing with the newspaper. I heard conflicting accounts about whether Swift offered Ogden the units as part of the Times’ sale. Swift people say it did, and that Ogden wasn’t interested. Ogden executives have said Swift didn’t offer the units for sale, but have not responded to emails seeking to confirm that assertion for this report.
Several of the veteran Aspen journalists who’ve managed to secure stable housing have spent years bouncing between local news outlets. They love their community and profession, and say leaving either is out of the question. The upside for the public is that these journalists have talent and a wealth of local knowledge and contacts. The downside, as happens in many small communities, is that most have friendships with local leaders that some readers perceive as the reason certain people and issues don’t get covered.
Community members also told me Aspen’s news organizations have a tendency to slant their coverage toward the anti-growth ethos that Thompson and his crowd cultivated a half-century ago. News stories often are framed as us vs. them – us being year-round residents of the valley, and them being vacation homeowners and tourists. Perhaps nowhere is this bias more obvious than in coverage of short-term home rentals, which the Aspen City Council and Pitkin County Commission recently voted to limit to 120 days a year. Second-home owners and the real estate brokers who cater to them grumble that local reporters have not given equal space to their perspective that short-term rental restrictions overstep municipal governments’ role and amount to taxation without representation. Even second-home owners who have no intention of renting out their houses told me local news coverage in general seems so slanted against them that they feel unwelcome in the community.
Rick Carroll at the Times acknowledges that he and fellow veteran reporters could benefit from some newcomers in their newsrooms with fresh eyes to point out reporting bias and help them avoid conflicts of interest. Auslander, who covered the sheriff’s office until spring of this year, insists neither he nor any of his colleagues at the Times ever pulled punches. “If I had seen something corrupt, I would have reported it,” he told me. Former Times Publisher Sam Johnson speaks of “fierce competition” between reporters and newsrooms in Aspen that makes it unlikely, in her view, that important stories were not covered. “That just really doesn’t happen here,” she said. “I’m very interested to see what the community says is missing” in terms of coverage.
Bill Linn, Aspen’s assistant police chief and a former local news reporter, cites an important example. For most of his 28 years as the department’s spokesman, he says he would receive at least two or three calls a week from reporters asking about arrests or other public safety issues. The police beat, after all, is fundamental to local news reporting. But when I met Linn in early July, he said he had heard from only one journalist in more than two months – a Daily News writer asking his best guess on how many people would be in town over the July 4th weekend.
“I think that tells you much of what there is to know about the news landscape here,” Linn told me.
Also largely absent from Aspen’s news coverage are the experiences of the Latino and Spanish-speaking valley residents who power the city’s workforce. This is a point emphasized – in bold, with exclamation marks – by workers who are proud to say that much of Aspen’s food wouldn’t be prepared, trash collected, or homes built, landscaped or cleaned without their labor.
Previous efforts to serve the news needs of the valley’s mainly Mexican- and Salvadorian-descended families have failed. Most notable among them was La Mision, a local Spanish-language monthly newspaper founded in 2001 by Luis Polar, a valley resident from Puerto Rico who ran it out of his home with the help of volunteers. But the paper was unsustainable financially and in terms of workload, and Polar eventually moved out of the valley.
Two community activists I spoke with mocked claims by local news executives that they have tried to hire native Spanish-speaking reporters, but couldn’t find any.
“We have 50 million Latinos and Latinas in this country, so I wonder how hard they’re really looking,” said Alex Sanchez, president and CEO of Voces Unidas de las Montañas, a community group based in Glenwood Springs.
The Daily News has a partnership with the Sopris Sun newspaper in Carbondale producing a Spanish-language weekly publication called El Sol del Valle.
Swift executives had at one point considered publishing a similar Spanish-language publication to insert into the Times, but said they couldn’t sell advertising for it. Ogden’s Nutting Williams told me such an insert in Aspen would “not be a winning business proposition,” despite the high number of Spanish-speakers who work there. She said her company might consider creating a Spanish-language insert farther down valley in Glenwood Springs or along the I-70 corridor.
Local activist Blanca Uzeta O’Leary describes coverage of the valley’s Latinx communities as generally limited to stories about “one of us getting busted for something.” She and others I spoke with hope El Sol del Valle – or, preferably, a Spanish-language news source that comes out daily – can some day hire native Spanish-speaking reporters to cover issues that are of particular interest to their communities. Those include lack of health care for undocumented residents, a dearth of physical and mental care providers who speak Spanish, a shortage of bilingual teachers, local enforcement of immigration policies and racial profiing.
Aspen Journalism and Aspen Public Radio traditionally have taken more valleywide approaches in their coverage than either of Aspen’s daily newspapers, which generally focus more on the city. Yet, of all the stories Aspen Journalism posted in 2021, only three touched on issues related to racial equity, and only indirectly. Aspen Public Radio, for its part, produces stories in Spanish for broadcast on KPVW, 107.1 FM Radio Tricolor in Basalt, which can be heard from Rifle to Aspen. Gardner-Smith also has monthly on-air conversations with KPVW/107.1 FM’s founder and manager Samuel Bernal about “issues disproportionately affecting the Latinx community.”
Several Latinx residents of the valley told me they appreciate Aspen Public Radio’s outreach to their communities. But some are frustrated the station seems to disregard that Bernal’s conservative politics do not represent most of the Spanish-speaking and Latino communities’ views.
Axel Contreras, a popular radio personality at La Nueva Mix13 – a Glenwood Springs station that, like Tricolor, plays mostly Mexican regional music – has tried to fill in gaps in local Spanish-language news coverage during on-air talk segments and on social media. Community members told me they trust Contreras, but that his occasional news dispatches are not an adequate substitute for a steady-stream of professional news reporting.
“We live in a news desert,” Sanchez said. “If you are a Latina or Latino who prefers Spanish content stories and looking for critical information, like if there’s a fire and a need to evacuate, very little exists. If you are trying to read about what local officials are working on in terms of housing in a story that is balanced, that follows journalistic ethics, that doesn’t exist, either.”
The extent to which Aspen outlets are willing to serve those news needs pivots on how they define “community” and how much they figure people living “inside the roundabout” through which you pass driving into the city want news about the issues facing those who work there, but live outside it.
The valley residents who seemed to follow local news coverage most closely said local outlets shine brightest when covering breaking stories and news-of-the-weird such as skiers pushing other skiers off chairlifts. They also say local reporters do a reliable job at attending municipal meetings and reporting what is said in them. But, as a local public relations consultant lamented, “They don’t really look at what’s behind it.”
“Things that take digging or things that make certain people uncomfortable get practically no coverage,” added a former journalist who says he craves coverage of more than the “same six safe issues”: COVID, water, climate change, fire mitigation, bark beetles and dogs.
My review of both papers through the month of July found the Daily News publishing more stories based on press releases and less enterprise reporting on its front page than the Times, even though seven staffers’ recent exodus from the Times has left that newsroom with a skeleton crew. Elected officials and government spokespeople who interact with reporters told me that’s consistent with both papers’ coverage well before this summer.
Daily News Publisher David Cook says he is aware of these criticisms and acknowledges the paper is “really soft on education, health care, and cops.” He estimates that only 20% of news consumers in the Roaring Fork Valley care about hard news. The remaining 80% of valley residents, he says, “don’t have an appetite for hard news” and “really just want arts and entertainment and sports.”
In this context, it is common for both Aspen papers to break news about sensitive or controversial issues via their especially large stables of barely-paid or unpaid freelance opinion columnists rather than staff news reporters. Some of those columnists are insightful, funny, and talented writers. But most are not professional journalists who follow industry standards such as checking facts, correcting errors and avoiding conflicts of interest.
Times’ Publisher Pattillo and Ogden CFO Cameron Nutting Williams lamented the influence local opinion columnists can have on the community. “(We) shouldn’t be giving people a venue to just lie,” Pattillo said, referring to a Roger Marolt column slamming the company for mishandling the Doronin suit. She and Nutting Williams told me they did not realize it is common practice for newsrooms to edit opinion columnists with the same scrutiny as news reporters. And more than six months into Ogden’s ownership of the Times, neither knew if the paper has standards or an ethics policy for its opinion writers.
What news consumers in the valley told me over the past month bucks the conventional wisdom that the more news outlets a community has, the deeper its coverage will be. The fact that Aspen is home to two newspapers and four local news outlets in total has not made those outlets particularly competitive in terms of depth or quality of news coverage, nor has it insured more public accountability.
“That used to be true, but not anymore,” a local government official said.
“It is a commonly held view, and it has been for a while, that the two papers have become merely vehicles to sell real estate ads,” added Paul Menter, a former city of Aspen finance director turned businessman who writes an opinion column for the Daily News.
As Menter sees it, there has been little appetite, at least among the real estate brokerages and companies whose ad revenues largely bankroll the two newspapers, for either to cover how the billionaires who live or do business in Aspen made their wealth. He said local outlets have done little digging over the years into the backgrounds of the arms dealers, drug traffickers, insider traders, Ponzi schemers and slumlords who spend time or money in Aspen. So why, Menter’s argument goes, should a billionaire who built his fortune developing post-Soviet land in 1990’s Moscow be any different?
“There is an undercurrent of unseemliness that becomes more and more important to keep under the radar in this community.”
The Aspen Skiing Company, city of Aspen and local residents have spent nearly two decades discussing what to do with a one-acre piece of land adjacent to the chair lift at the base of Aspen Mountain. Voters in 2019 narrowly approved a plan to build new commercial space and an 81-room boutique hotel on the property. The project, Gorsuch Haus, was proposed by three local developers, including luxury goods merchant Jeff Gorsuch, a cousin of U.S. Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The partners had campaigned for the referendum by touting their deep local connections and promising, as the Times reported, “the public could trust them to build a project that would serve the Aspen community and its visitors.”
After the developers bought the land from Aspen Skiing Company for $10 million last July, most locals seem to have assumed they would start building the hotel. Instead, in March of this year, the Gorsuch group quietly flipped the property for $76.25 million in a deal that Times Editor David Krause called “the biggest little land grab in Aspen history.”
The land deal
Buyer Vladislav Doronin is CEO and chairman of Aman Resorts, operator of some of the world’s most high-end hotels. He has no known ties to the community.
An Aspen hotel executive and an Aspen-based commercial real estate broker both told me the parcel normally would have sold for $20 million to $25 million, at the most. Both figure the $76.25 million Doronin bought it for is close to the value of the land plus a luxury hotel built on it.
“The amount they paid for the project, it’s just way off the charts. Something is wrong there,” Menter, the former Aspen finance director, said.
What raises his and some other community members’ eyebrows most is the timing of the deal. It closed on March 4, eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine. That’s when the West started slapping sanctions against Russian billionaires and Russia started threatening to confiscate assets owned by non-Russian citizens of unfriendly nations.
Doronin sued the Times on April 13 for defamation, objecting to the characterization of him as “Russian” and an “oligarch” in Carroll’s initial story about the land deal and to the description of his wealth as “corrupt” and “tainted” in a letter to the editor written by Bernard Grauer of Basalt.
The Soviet-born billionaire emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1985 and says he renounced his Soviet citizenship a year later. Still, he managed to found Capital Group, a Moscow-based real estate and development company, in 1993 when Russia’s new cash-strapped government was selling off former Soviet state-owned land to private investors. Doronin is now a Swedish national who lives in Switzerland and, in addition to his resort company, runs a real estate and development firm called OKO Group from offices in Miami and New York.
His lawsuit asserted that he divested from his interest in Capital Group in 2014 and has not held assets or conducted any business in Russia since. It argued that the term oligarch suggests a closeness with Vladimir Putin that Doronin says he does not have, as evidenced by his social media posts criticizing the invasion. It accused the Times of choosing to “weaponize the widespread negative sentiment toward the Russian Federation (“Russia”) and sensationalize a false narrative that targets Mr. Doronin simply because he was born in what is today Russia in order to attack the development of a luxury resort in Aspen.”
Ogden executives would not allow the Times to cover the lawsuit against it. They also told some newsroom staffers that they viewed calling Doronin a Russian oligarch as less problematic legally than emails Editor David Krause wrote one of Doronin’s lawyers during the lawsuit.
“We don’t believe it’s libelous to call him an ‘oligarch’ as that word is commonly used to refer to Russian billionaires, whether or not they actually curry favor or influence Putin,” one of Krause’s emails read. “Furthermore, just because someone denounces a government’s actions on a social media account cannot account for what he might do privately. … I’m sure threatening lawsuits on behalf of a Russian-born billionaire is how you do business to disassociate yourself from the political machine currently in Russia.”
Krause went on to write that Doronin and Soviet-born billionaire Roman Abramovich, who owns a home in Snowmass Village, are at the very least, “likely deeply embedded in the kleptocratic culture that emerged after the USSR fell apart, as numerous eager entrepreneurs moved in on a broad range of once-public enterprises, including energy production, real estate speculation and much more.”
“Our community is very, very suspicious of the fact that your group is paying seven times what the value of this land was just eight months ago,” Krause continued. “As well, your threat of a lawsuit against the oldest service business and newspaper in Pitkin County will not help in your attempts to ‘placate’ our community.”
Based on the conversations I’ve had in the valley, I suspect most locals would agree with – and even applaud – Krause’s comments. But Ogden said Doronin’s lawyers could use the emails in court to argue the paper intended to damage the billionaire’s reputation.
Krause told Poynter, a nonprofit media institute, that company executives berated him repeatedly for emailing directly with Doronin’s lawyer, and excluded him from meetings about how to handle the lawsuit and what editorial points might be appropriate to concede. He resigned from the paper in May, publicly citing health issues and a desire not to work for Ogden any longer. Newsroom staffers, who liked and respected Krause and credit him for bringing much needed professionalism to the paper, were crushed.
Even though Pattillo had told Times staffers that Ogden had no fear of losing the defamation lawsuit, the company decided not to defend the paper. Instead, it agreed to a confidential settlement with Doronin that has not been made public. As part of that deal, the company made several changes to online news stories and opinion pieces about Doronin and the land deal, and removed Bernard Grauer’s letter to the editor. Nutting Williams calls those changes “an opportunity to fix things, to correct things that were reasonably unfair in the paper.”
Ogden named Rick Carroll as interim editor right around the time the company spiked his follow-up story linking Doronin to a Moscow-based company called Capital Group Development and seeming to refute Doronin’s assertions that he divested from Russia in 2014.
Stanford told Poynter that he and a fellow Ogden executive in West Virginia decided Carroll’s story “wasn’t something that needed to run at that time.” Their decision, Carroll told me, marked the first time his reporting has been spiked in 25 years of covering Aspen.
Fallout within the Times
Ogden, meanwhile, posted an opening for the permanent editor position and interviewed applicants. It hired internally: Times’ arts and entertainment editor Andrew Travers, who had been passed over for the publisher’s position months earlier.
Naturally, Travers was concerned about corporate interference in the newsroom and says Pattillo and Ogden executives promised him editorial independence. Based on that assurance, he says he told Pattillo about an upcoming opinion column by Roger Marolt blasting Ogden for settling the defamation suit. He says she gave the green light for the column and for Travers’ plan to run with it two previous Marolt columns related to the Doronin deal that Ogden executives had spiked, plus emails between Marolt, Krause and Carroll discussing why the company had spiked them. Pattillo doesn’t dispute Travers’ account of their conversations, saying she was trying to be mindful of his need to set boundaries between the newsroom and publisher’s office. She also acknowledges she didn’t read Marolt’s column nor the attachments to it before they were posted on the Times’ news site and Facebook page on June 10.
Pattillo has said she fired Travers for posting the internal emails, which she calls “a big breach of trust” because she says he hadn’t warned her about their tone. But by three other people’s accounts, including Travers’, it was not Pattillo, but Stanford who drove into town and actually fired him.
Travers put out this statement: “My termination as editor of the Aspen Times resulted from a resort town newspaper columnist expressing opinions about luxury hotel developers. Much of what an Aspen columnist does — and is expected to do — is express opinions about such development. But this speaks to the deepening crisis for American press freedom.”
For his part, Marolt quit his 19-year freelance opinion columnist gig at the Times out of solidarity with Travers and sent the column to the Daily News, which ran it and brought him on as a permanent opinion columnist.
Pattillo, who kept her job, attributes the incident to “unsurprising gaps in communication” so soon after Ogden bought the paper as changes in management were taking place. I asked if she had promised Travers editorial independence when offering him the editor’s job. After prevaricating for a while, she said no. I asked the same question of Nutting Williams, who answered with a question of her own.
“What is editorial independence? That’s not a phrase that I use very often because I’m not sure what that means,” she asked.
I said it means that the editor, not the publisher or parent company executives, decides what gets published.
“Well, no, then,” she said. “We are a company that believes that reporters need editors and editors need the publisher. The publisher has ultimate responsibility.” She did not mention the extra layer of out-of-town intervention from corporate executives like Stanford.
Seven Times staffers – the vast majority of the 10-person newsroom – have either quit or been fired since mid-April. One of them, night copy and layout editor Ben Welch, announced his resignation on July 25, the day Ogden’s newest editor, longtime Swift veteran Don Rogers, started. Morale is extraordinarily low among the three staffers who remain.
“It is a comedy of errors. It’s a Netflix series. You piss off a (foreign billionaire), put in an inexperienced publisher who’s basically a pawn and piss off the entire community by undermining our credibility and columnists’ freedom of expression. I’ve seen a lot of implosions of newsrooms, but this by far takes the cake,” said reporter Carolyn Sackariason.
Nutting Williams is well aware the controversy has hurt the Times’ brand and that its credibility has taken a big hit. “We recognize that us not covering the development makes it look like we’re not covering the development,” she told me.
At least so far, the paper has not in fact resumed covering the development, nor Doronin, for that matter, despite Carroll’s many arguments that it should and despite public comments by Pattillo and Ogden executives than it would once the lawsuit was settled. That agreement was signed in May.
I had asked Nutting Williams if her family might consider selling the 141-year-old paper.
“We just got here. It would make me so sad. It would be such a tragedy. I think we wanted to do this really well. We genuinely want to do a good job,” she answered. “So, no. No. I do not want to.”
The Daily News ran a story in April headlined “Vladislav Doronin opens up about recent Gorsuch Haus purchase.” The interview he granted Editor Megan Tackett sounded more like a reiteration of his legal complaint than self-revelation. Tackett said it’s important to “maintain a working relationship” with Doronin as her paper covers how he develops the hotel. Besides, she added “I haven’t found anything that suggests he’s not being honest about his divestment (from Russia) in 2014.”
Daily News Publisher Cook says the Times libeled Doronon in its coverage of the land deal and deserved to be sued. “They couldn’t have handled it worse,” he said, noting his newsroom hasn’t done further reporting on the billionaire because “there’s no story there.”
For its part, Aspen Public Radio has not carried forward reporting about Doronin’s wealth or the land deal. “That’s a fair enough observation. But that doesn’t mean we don’t want to,” News Director Brent Gardner-Smith told me.
Aspen Journalism also has not carried forward one of the biggest stories in Aspen journalism, at least so far.
As of this writing, The Times has openings for several newsroom positions and no affordable housing units to offer applicants.14
The paper’s newsroom was empty the day I sat down with Pattillo and Nutting Williams, and it was empty when I stopped by the following two days. After my conversation with Sackariason one evening, we walked past the building she has considered her professional home and in some respects her purpose for eight years. She pointed out how dark it was when normally it would be lit and bustling as her colleagues put the day’s paper to bed.
“What a waste,” she said.
The community response
It was a July morning and I was sitting at Aspen’s Jour de Fete café next to the line where customers waited to order. Two of them, a couple in their mid-70s, maybe, had their noses in copies of the Times. I asked if there was big news that day and if the paper is any good.
“No, not really,” the man answered to both questions.
“Maybe that’s true,” the woman added. “But some things you love for what they were, not for what they are now.”
The Times, they told me, covered the first business they opened in the early 80s and their retirements from their last business a few years ago. It had announced their kids’ 4-H awards, their sports achievements and graduations. For decades, they said, it explained what candidates stood for and helped them decide how to vote. A photo of their daughter with a horse she raised, they bragged, once made the front page.
“The Times, well, it’s like wallpaper,” the man said.
“You don’t notice it until it peels,” the woman beat him to his punchline.
This couple, like most everyone I spoke with in Aspen, even randomly, has been following what news they can find about the newspaper and the departure of all but three of its news staffers. They figure there are details about the controversy they don’t know, and they would like to hear the new owners’ explanation. But as much affection as they have for the paper, and as much as it pains them to say, they can’t ignore the things those new owners seem to be keeping from them. And they can’t forgive them for it, either.
Bob Morris, an Aspen hotelier, businessman and avid news reader, echoed their sentiments in a brief phone conversation:
“Long story short, our paper has been taken over by some big corporation. It’s pretty worthless now, as far as I’m concerned.”
Some locals take umbrage about Andrew Travers’ firing on his first day as editor. Others say they have a bigger beef with Ogden for caving into Doronin, censoring itself, and, as a Pitkin County librarian put it, “just kind of stomping all over press freedom and the First Amendment.”
Like many community members, the public relations consultant I spoke with is confused. She wonders how Doronin made his money, whether or not he is an oligarch, and, for that matter, “what oligarch even means.”
“Rick Carroll is the best journalist in the valley in covering complicated issues. These are the questions, this is the time when we need him most,” she said. “It bothers me a lot that when I pick up the Times now I wonder what other issues the company is not letting them cover.”
Others in town say they’re less interested in knowing more about Doronin than about why the voter-approved deal allowing Aspen Skiing Company to sell the land last summer didn’t include a requirement that the Gorsuch group build and operate the hotel rather than flipping the land to another buyer. Five months after that sale, no outlet has reported whether the ski company or the organizers of the ballot initiative sought such a requirement and, if not, why nobody – local elected officials and reporters included – didn’t seem to notice or ask why.
Aspen’s mayor, who goes by the single name Torre, slammed the Times in late May for “withholding and suppressing some news stories that are important to our community.”
A month later, a group of 18 current and former local elected officials wrote Ogden CEO Bob Nutting to say their faith in his company is “shattered.” “Ogden Newspapers chose to side with Doronin’s individual dissatisfaction rather than the community’s need to understand and converse about such a historic real estate deal and to ponder its broader implications for the community,” they wrote.
“To reinstate our trust in the Aspen Times, we would like to see clear action from Ogden Newspapers such as the following: reinstatement of Andrew Travers as the Editor in Chief; re-publication of Marolt’s June 10 column; a joint statement from Travers, Allison Pattillo, the publisher of the Times, and yourself, detailing the editorial freedom and standards of transparency that will be carried forward; and, public clarity about the settlement that was reached by Doronin’s lawsuit.”
The Nuttings didn’t crack. Instead, they penned a letter saying, “Everyone who cares about journalism and democracy should be deeply concerned at the specter of elected officials using their positions to expressly threaten a community newspaper.”
The Pitkin County Commission, in the meantime, has pulled its legal notices and other advertising from the Times and placed them in the Daily News, making it the county’s paper of record for the first time in its 44-year history.
“It’s all I hear about, people saying congratulations on being the only paper in town, (and) people coming to me saying how important we are. I’m honored about that,” Daily News Publisher David Cook said.
Respected longtime Times reporter Scott Condon quit in July to work for the Daily News. Cook says he would also like to offer a job to Travers, but has no opening for an arts and entertainment reporter.
Most people I asked had a hard time saying which, if any, of the four current outlets they figure would be most likely to continue reporting about Doronin, despite the obvious legal risk. Most also struggled to say which existing outlet they can see doing the best job covering other complex and sensitive stories in the future.
“None of the above can do it because their owners won’t let them,” Menter told me. “The community needs a newspaper that understands what it means to be a newspaper. It needs strong leadership, someone to run it who knows how to do this kind of reporting and (is) fearless in making sure it gets done.”
Alyssa Shenk, a member of Snowmass Village Town Council, fears that if such a news source isn’t created soon enough, “the good journalists we have left will find other jobs and leave the community.”
Ward Hauenstein, an Aspen city councilman, doesn’t want either of the local papers to go under. Nor does he want to rely on them for news.
“Below the glitz of Aspen, I think there still is a soul in this community. It’s that soul we’re losing having all the corporations come in and buy local homes for short term-rentals. And this Doronin did nothing else but escalate real estate prices,” he said. “If you worship the all-mighty dollar, you’re missing everything. That’s the soul that I think the local paper or whatever news business could be created here needs to serve.”
Moving forward: What’s next for news in Aspen?
Aspenites like to consider their community a vanguard of progress, a place where forward-thinking public policies come to fruition well before other cities are ripe for them.
Aspen was one of the first cities to ban smoking in public places in the 1980s. Former Sheriff Bob Braudis was ahead of his time in looking at drug use more as a public health problem than a criminal problem. Community leaders tout having the largest public transit system and employee housing program of any rural area in North America. And Aspen’s Climate Action Office (formerly known as the Canary Initiative), those working on it say, has set some of the most ambitious local goals for climate action efforts and environmental stewardship in the world.
“We have some visionary people who’ve made big things happen here that other communities learn from. We’re lucky enough in Aspen to have people with time and money to care about these kinds of things and really do something about it. So I say let’s go. Bring it on,” Hauenstein said about the prospect of the community collectively working either with existing news outlets or creating another to ensure better, more independent and financially sustainable news coverage.
Once news broke of Andrew Travers’ firing in June, a group of concerned community members calling itself “Save the Aspen Times” immediately started meeting to plan a response. The coalition’s roughly 13 active members are educating themselves about the local news landscape and are in the early stages of exploring various strategies, including a broader advertising boycott, a community forum about local press freedom and a citizen campaign seeking more independent coverage. “A lot of work remains to be done before we can take meaningful action…,” says Chairwoman Lara Whitley.
As of this writing the first week in August, some members of that group have been exploring ways to improve Aspen’s media landscape in both the short- and long-term.
COLab recommends an open, community-wide conversation about recent media developments and what, if any, specific changes locals might want to support moving forward. The eagerness with which so many valley residents spoke candidly with me for this report tells us that Aspen is ripe for a discussion about collectively shaping and sustaining the news landscape community members want.
This report aims to prepare the community for that conversation. That’s why it lists, below, a menu of specific actions that people I interviewed suggested and/or that we at COLab see as options for consideration.
- Do nothing. Take Ogden at its word that its settlement with Doronin does not preclude Times reporters from writing about him and/or the land deal. Trust that the Times will hire talented new journalists who can somehow afford to live in the community, dig hard into its most pressing issues, and ethnically and culturally reflect not just Aspen residents, but also its workforce. Trust that Ogden executives will honor those journalists’ editorial independence and maintain an ethical line between the paper’s news coverage and the company’s business operations.
- Try securing a meaningful commitment from Ogden that it will do all of the above in the next year. This could include an assurance from the company that it will hire a qualified local publisher who calls the shots at the Times. This could also include a promise from the company to work with an outside ombudsman who can freely communicate with newsroom staffers and the public in assessing the paper’s follow-through. That ombudsman would report their findings publicly. If Ogden doesn’t fulfill its commitments, the community might explore other options.
- Try to buy the Times from Ogden.
- Support expanding the reporting staff at the nonprofit Aspen Journalism so it can cover more issues and produce a steadier stream of in-depth local news stories, which can then be shared with the other news outlets in the valley.
- Work with Aspen Journalism, if its leadership is amenable, to reboot the nonprofit to better serve the news needs of the community as gleaned through a facilitated public input process. Use innovative approaches to ensure community involvement in the site’s long-term sustainability as the go-to source for independent, in-depth news coverage. Urge Aspen Journalism to expand its staff with a mix of veteran local reporters and new reporters, at least one of whom would be a native Spanish-speaker.
- # 5 (above) with some sort of content sharing/special programming partnership with Aspen Public Radio and other outlets, especially down valley.
- Create a new nonprofit online news outlet in the image the community says it wants and galvanize a movement to keep it sustainable. To do so, draw on the latest best practices from the nonprofit news sector and, if appropriate, business innovations that are specific to Aspen and the Roaring Fork Valley. Go big. That means hiring the very best veteran local journalists as well as journalists new to the community with new skills and fresh perspectives. Include among those at least one native Spanish-speaker and a plan to not just translate stories from English to Spanish, but also to produce a steady stream of original news coverage in Spanish. Provide affordable housing options to staff. Back the new outlet with thoughtful ethics and inclusion policies that are actively discussed, and provide regular opportunities for professional development. Also back the outlet with committed and involved board members and advisors, a strong libel insurance policy and First Amendment lawyers available to review sensitive stories. Partner with other local outlets to pool resources and maximize local coverage and reach. And, perhaps most importantly, create a newsroom culture in which reporters aren’t measuring their work and impact against the local competition, but against the reasons they became journalists in the first place.
- Explore a community ownership model of news, similar to that being considered in Aurora.
- Create some kind of consortium that allows existing and emerging news outlets to share a reporter or reporters assigned to produce accountability journalism for all local news outlets who want to participate.
This list is incomplete and the possibilities for reforms in Aspen’s media landscape are endless. COLab, at this point, remains neutral about options, but recommends that the path forward reflects community input and includes a strong sense of collective, community ownership and buy-in to ensure its long-term sustainability.
If the community wants change, it needs to be driven locally. But our team is available to facilitate the public input and/or planning processes, and/or to advise the community on the mechanics of carrying out whatever options it chooses. COLab was created to work with news outlets and communities that want to up their games in terms of strong, independent local news coverage. Please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts.
1They originally called the group “Free the Aspen Times,” but anticipate voting on a name change.
2They include avid news readers and listeners, journalists and news executives, elected officials and law enforcers, community and business leaders, hospitality workers and construction laborers, artists, activists, teachers, librarians, philanthropists and a parking valet.
3 The Colorado News Collaborative has partnered with all four outlets.
4The Daily News’s newsroom had a staff of three in 2020, but is now up to six.
6Craig Morris and Ernie Fyrwald
8The list of publications included in the December 31, 2021 sale, with those in Colorado highlighted:
- Sierra Sun, Truckee, California
- Tahoe Daily Tribune, South Lake Tahoe, California
- The Union, Grass Valley, California
- Craig Press, Craig, Colorado
- Eagle Valley Enterprise, Eagle, Colorado
- Glenwood Springs Post Independent, Glenwood Springs, Colorado
- Snowmass Sun, Snowmass, Colorado
- Sky-Hi News, Grand County, Colorado
- Steamboat Pilot & Today, Steamboat Springs, Colorado
- Summit Daily News, Frisco, Colorado
- The Aspen Times, Aspen, Colorado
- The Citizen Telegram, Rifle, Colorado
- Vail Daily, Vail, Colorado
- The Park Record, Park City, Utah
- The Fencepost
- Tri-State Livestock News
- Farmer & Rancher Exchange
- Backyard Poultry Magazine
- Countryside & Small Stock Journal
- Goat Journal
10 Health, Men’s Journal, Yoga Journal, Backpacker Magazine, PodiumRunner, Triathlete, Women’s Running (U.S.), Trail Runner, Another Mother Runner, The Aspen Times
11 according to Redfin
13 102.5 FM
14 Publisher Allison Pattillo wrote to me on Aug. 2 to say Ogden is “looking” at housing units it may buy.
Corrections and Clarifications
This report has been updated as of 8-26-22 to add context and corrections, and to address concerns by the Aspen Daily News that its personnel, coverage and assessment of readers’ news needs were not characterized fairly and accurately. Changes in this version include clarifying that the scope of people with concerns about that paper’s fact-checking and corrections practices include people covered by the Daily News; the removal of the word “ethics” because it wrongly insinuated ethics concerns about the Daily News’ newsroom were about more than its perceived unwillingness to make corrections; Daily News Publisher David Cook’s response that the paper does regularly agree to run corrections; Cook explaining in more detail the outcome of a recent employment lawsuit against his paper; and Cook elaborating on his comment that his paper’s coverage is “really soft on” coverage of education, health care, and police by quantifying, according to his own estimate, that 20 percent of Roaring Fork Valley residents care about hard news reporting, and that 80 percent do not. The changes also correct the name of Aspen Skiing Company and remove the assertion that there are currently no native Spanish-speaking journalists in the Roaring Fork Valley.