Aspen is Colorado’s last two-newspaper town.
Four news outlets in a city of 7,100 people may seem an embarrassment of riches to the growing number of Colorado communities without even one news source. But to dozens of Aspenites I’ve spoken with in the past two months, there is growing concern – and strong evidence to back it up – that they are not getting all the news they need.
Aspen’s reckoning with its news landscape started in March when a trio of local developers sold an acre of prime commercial real estate on Aspen Mountain to a Soviet-born billionaire. Three things about that deal raised local eyebrows: the $75 million Vladislav Doronin paid for the land, which the sellers had bought for $10 million eight months earlier; the timing of the deal eight days after Russia invaded Ukraine; and a lawsuit Doronin slapped against the Aspen Times for characterizing him as a Russian oligarch.
Doronin launched his real estate career in the early 1990s largely by buying up previously Soviet-nationalized properties and developing them into some of Moscow’s glitziest malls and tallest skyscrapers. Still, his lawyers claimed that his criticism of Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine proves he is not an oligarch. They argued he is not Russian because he emigrated from the Soviet Union in 1985 and is now a Swedish citizen. And they asserted – falsely, as it turns out – that he had stopped doing business in Russia in 2014. The Times, they said, libeled Doronin by weaponizing recent anti-Russian sentiment against him and the luxury hotel he plans to build in Aspen.
His lawsuit against Ogden Newspapers came only a few months after the West Virginia-based company bought the Times, as well as several other papers in Colorado mountain towns. Ogden refused to defend the Times in court and rushed into a secret settlement with Doronin that entailed, among other things, changing articles on its web site and removing commentary referring to him as an oligarch. Contrary to its public pronouncements, Ogden executives effectively prohibited the Times from running news stories or commentary about the lawsuit or Doronin’s background for about four months. In the meantime, the paper’s editor resigned, most of its staffers either quit or were fired, and Pitkin County government has yanked its advertising and ended the Times’ status as the county’s paper of record, which ends its revenue stream of legal ads from county government.
COLab has chronicled the string of controversies and local residents’ and workers’ views about local news coverage in a detailed report for the community. Most of the 50-something people I interviewed told me they lost faith in the Times for caving into the public relations efforts of a foreign billionaire. Most also said they have little faith in Aspen’s three other news outlets to investigate hard news stories and, when necessary, hold people with money and power to account.
Those concerns turned out to be justified, given that none of those outlets stepped in to investigate Doronin during the nearly four months that Ogden prevented its staff at the Times from covering him. Daily News Publisher David Cook – who has benefited from the flap since the Pitkin County Commission yanked its advertising from the Times and placed it in his paper – went so far as to say in July that the Times deserved to be sued and that Doronin’s background was a non-story. He also said 80% of Aspenites “don’t have an appetite for hard news.”
The latest twist came on August 9 when Times Reporter Rick Carroll and the paper’s newest Editor, Don Rogers, then just two weeks into his job, convinced Ogden executives to publish a story they had killed two months earlier. Carroll’s superbly investigated front-page follow-up debunks Doronin’s efforts to make it seem he divested from Russia years before it invaded Ukraine. Doronin had, in fact, held a major share in a Moscow-based development company at the time of the invasion and his land deal in Aspen, and until he transferred it to his mother in Russia the day after suing the Times for libel.
Ogden’s better-late-than-never publication of Carroll’s story may have somewhat quelled the Times’ PR crisis. Still, Aspenites whose messages keep blowing up my voicemail say their trust will hinge not on that one story, but rather on whether the company allows the Times true editorial independence over the long term.
A longtime civic leader told me this summer’s upheaval at the Times and passivity by its would-be competitors embarrassed Aspenites for having tolerated “local (outlets that) keep burying their heads in the sand” and laid bare the sad reality that “the quantity of local news sources is no guarantee of their quality.”
I told him what my colleagues and I here at the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) tell people in any community at risk of becoming a news desert: If the public collectively wants such a guarantee, our team stands ready to help the community make it reality. That can happen in many different ways. In Aurora, COLab is helping the longtime newspaper of record transfer to a community ownership model. In the Roaring Fork Valley, COLab is helping connect media and the Spanish-speaking population to improve coverage that matters to that community. In Aspen, we hope my analysis will be the start of community-wide conversations about how to make accountability reporting stronger.
Coloradans, by joining together, have far more power than they might think in securing the kind of unflinching, independent news coverage we all need and deserve.
This post was sent as a letter to our email subscribers on Friday, September 2, 2022. Join our email list to learn more about COLab and the work we are doing.