Inside the News: A Brewing ‘Newspaper of Record’ War in a Tiny Colorado County. ‘I Really Don’t Want To Sue’

  • 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 simmering dispute could boil over between Colorado’s oldest weekly newspaper and the local government of the state’s second-smallest county.

At issue is two out of three Gilpin County commissioners voting in late December to revoke The Weekly Register-Call’s distinction as that county’s “newspaper of record.”

In a resolution, the commissioners had harsh words for the paper, saying it was being sloppy in its responsibility of publishing notices on behalf of the mountainous county just east of the Continental Divide. Commissioners accused the paper of failing to publish some notices, and introducing errors and typos into ones it did publish.

In dismissing the Register-Call, the county chose to keep the Mountain-Ear newspaper, whose mailing address is in Nederland in Boulder County, as its lone paper of record.

A newspaper with such a distinction is one a county pays to place required notices to keep residents abreast of county business. Being a county’s paper of record also can give it some gravitas in a community. Losing that distinction can cost a newspaper some reliable revenue. (The county paid about $24,000 to publish notices in 2022, with about $19,000 going to the Register-Call and about $4,500 going the Mountain-Ear after deciding to anoint a coveted “newspaper of record” status to both papers in January of last year.)

Register-Call owner Bob Sweeney, who bought the subscription-based newspaper in 2021, says the county has it all wrong. He accuses county staff of mishandling their end of the legal notices deal, says his paper has tried to work out a smooth system with the county for publishing their notices, and argues that there’s more behind the paper’s dismissal.

“The situation is all political,” he insisted over the phone last week. Though the paper is old, its owner is new, and he describes the Register-Call as “the newcomer conservative paper in town.” His paper endorsed a Republican for an unsuccessful bid for county commissioner, and with two Democrats controlling the three-person board, Sweeney says he believes he is being pinched. Since he bought the paper, he says he has increased its circulation from 800 to 1,200 and has filled its pages with more “hard” local news than the feature stories the paper published in its previous incarnation.

“It’s been going very well,” he said about the paper. “And then the election comes up.”

Sweeney says he believes the majority members of the county commission have a soft spot for the Mountain-Ear and want that paper to succeed. (In 2021, the county commissioners awarded the Mountain-Ear a $25,000 grant from federal American Rescue Plan Act funds to promote Gilpin County businesses in the newspaper.)

Complicating the issue is Sweeney’s contention that his newspaper is the only one in Gilpin County with a U.S. Postal Service periodical permit. He argues that the county isn’t allowed to only run its notices in a paper with a postal address across the county line in Boulder. “It’s a pretty nice regional weekly paper,” Sweeney says of the Mountain-Ear — which he said he doesn’t think of as a competitor — “but it’s a Boulder, Nederland paper.” He flat-out accuses Gilpin County of “breaking the law” by running public notices in Boulder County. “I really don’t want to sue the county,” he said. “I’d just as soon get it settled.”

Mountain-Ear Managing Editor Barbara Hardt says her paper does have an office in Nederland, which is its post office, but also has an office in Central City, which is in Gilpin County, and one in Black Hawk, also in Gilpin County.

“We didn’t write a letter to the county asking for these public notices,” she said in a phone call this week. “We were awarded them without asking.”

Gilpin County Attorney Brad Benning says dismissing the Register-Call was “nothing personal, nothing political, just a business decision.” He said he has researched the law and is confident that his county can legally award a paper-of-record status to the Mountain-Ear. He also questioned the Register-Call’s decision to carry a slogan on its front page that refers to it as the “official newspaper for Gilpin County,” saying he worries it could lead to confusion among readers.

“For a year we paid two papers,” Benning said, adding that doing so was expensive. But after evaluating how the two papers managed their obligation to publish the county’s notices, the county decided to dismiss the Register-Call. “Our job is to be stewards of our fiscal obligation,” he said in a phone interview Wednesday. He added that nobody wanted to see the oldest paper in Colorado go by the wayside, and said the county hopes the newspaper stays in business. “I think we gave them a fair shot,” he said of the Register-Call. “Things could change in the future, we’ll see.”

The friction between this historical newspaper and a county named after the first territorial governor isn’t just playing out behind the scenes.

In December, the Register-Call’s managing editor, Beck Osterwald, penned a lengthy editorial taking the county to task for what she called a “reckless deed” in dismissing it. “Now it’s time for the good folks of Gilpin County to decide what happens next based on FACTS, not some personal grudge against WRC,” she wrote, imploring residents “to follow the Colorado Revised Statutes and the United States Postal Code.”

The Register-Call followed that up with a Jan. 19 news story headlined “Longtime mayor, attorney support WR-C blasting two county commissioners’ decision.” In it, reporter Don Ireland quoted the mayor and city attorney of Black Hawk taking up for the Register-Call. In the same edition, Sweeney penned an opinion piece for his “Barbwire Bob” column, saying, “We hope the legal issues will be resolved soon and the publishing laws will prevail over politics.” And he took a swipe in the process. “How ironic that the first ordinance under Gilpin County’s decision to use a Boulder County-based newspaper for its legal notices (a dog ordinance) had the wrong date listed, and the hearing had to be postponed.”

That did happen. Call it the “dog flap.” Hardt says the county sent the Mountain-Ear a notice about a dog ordinance with an incorrect date and the paper printed what it received; she also says she didn’t charge the county for it since it was wrong. (Ironically, a post on Gilpin County’s website about the resolution to dismiss the Register-Call states: “On December 20, 2023, the Board of County Commissioners approved Resolution 22-44, Discharging Weekly Register-Call from All Duties as Legal Newspaper of Record for the County of Gilpin.” Obviously, December 20, 2023 has not happened yet and that date is a mistake. So it sounds like maybe typos, errors, and goofs aren’t exclusive to newspapers in Gilpin County.)

Colorado has recently become a hotbed for spicy action involving newspapers, county governments, and public notices.

In 2021, after the small Ouray County Plaindealer called out the county on a government transparency issue, the county decided to stop publishing its meeting agendas in the newspaper, something it paid about $200 a week to do and had done for the past decade. Last summer, members of the Pitkin County Commission yanked advertising from The Aspen Times and made its rival, The Aspen Daily News, the county’s paper of record. (At one point prior to a vote, a commissioner said the goal was to punish the newspaper’s owner, Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia.) Most notably, a couple months ago, The Wet Mountain Tribune won a settlement after its publisher filed a First Amendment lawsuit against the Custer County Board of Commissioners when they revoked its paper-of-record status and gave it to the Tribune’s partisan rival in what the Tribune publisher called an act of retaliation.

Sweeney himself is no stranger to public-notice controversy. A majority of Greenwood Village’s City Council voted in 2021 to yank the $10,000 a year it budgets for legal notices in his Denver-area paper, The Villager, and give it to another one. That move came after an April Fool’s article in The Villager that included stereotypes of Asians and prompted a swift backlash, a barrage of critical local news coverage, and an advertising boycott.

Back in Gilpin County, Sweeney says he just wants to put out a good newspaper, keep an important piece of local history alive — part of the Colorado Constitution was written in the newspaper’s front office in 1862, he says — and find a way to work it out without having to go to court.

“I’ve got to defend Gilpin County, the taxpayers of Gilpin County, and the newspaper,” he said. “And if they don’t change it, I will definitely have to file a lawsuit against them.”

Speaking of the Mountain-Ear, it has a new owner

Nederland entrepreneur Christian Vanek, who has a background in software development, marketing and business, is the new publisher and owner of the small local Mountain-Ear newspaper.

From a Jan. 12 story about him:

When asked what Vanek’s dreams for the paper were, one of his responses was, “Well, I think a Pulitzer Award for Local Reporting sounds nice.”

The new publisher also plans to grow the newspaper’s staff, and create a new website, mobile app, and a new advertising platform.

Vanek, who moved to the Nederland area a few years ago, said on a recent episode of the paper’s podcast that he was surprised there was still a local print newspaper around. “I love newspapers,” he said about why he decided to buy the Mountain-Ear.

The Mountain-Ear, which has been around for nearly 50 years, has been for sale for a while. Barbara Hardt, who has been its owner and publisher since 2007, has previously said she wanted to keep it in local hands.

“I think it’s one of the major institutions that every town and region needs in order to thrive,” Vanek said on the podcast. “So when I heard that Barbara was exploring her options, I realized ‘Hey, maybe this is a chance for me to get involved, maybe this is a chance for us to make sure that we keep this paper local and still give her all of the optionalities to run it the way that she wants’.”

Vanek founded the Boulder-based company SurveyGizmo in 2006 where he served as CEO and sold the company last year. Now, he said he considers himself the “managing partner, technically,” of The Mountain-Ear where he’ll run the business operations while Hardt will continue to run the newsroom as its managing editor.

9News debuts ‘Culture Report’ to focus on marginalized communities

A Colorado TV news outlet with one of the largest audiences in the state has a new program.

“The Culture Report is a new opinion-based streaming show on 9NEWS+ that explores stories that impact underrepresented communities,” Denver’s NBC affiliate announced this week.

From KUSA 9News:

Four journalists from different backgrounds come together to have bigger conversations on the stories and events impacting marginalized communities. Weekly topics range anywhere from national, local, to entertainment stories. In the show, each host gives their opinions on issues based on their own personal experiences and the information on the topics. Their opinion is not a reflection of 9NEWS. The show is hosted by Ashton Brooks, Laura Casillas, Jamol Simon, and Alexia Carrasco.

The new programming with a focus on underrepresented communities comes as the broader journalism industry has undergone a reckoning in recent years over diversity, equity, and inclusion. It also comes as some newsrooms seek to move beyond an often misunderstood belief in “objectivity” and a time when younger journalists seem more comfortable sharing their personal opinions.

This move at 9News in particular comes two years after former 9News journalist Lori Lizarraga blew the whistle on troubling interactions with management at the station and the departure of three Latinas, leading to national changes in the industry.

Gillentine exits as publisher of new Sixty35 Media project in Colorado Springs

Just a few months after shepherding a major transformation and consolidation of The Indy alt-weekly newspaper and its sister publications into one nonprofit weekly magazine, Amy Gillentine is leaving the operation.

The publisher “announced her resignation Thursday, Jan. 26, to pursue other opportunities,” the new media organization, Sixty35, announced last week.

“We applaud Amy for all she has done through the years, but especially her tireless efforts in helping create Sixty35 Media and a promising new product with a fresh online presence,” Ahriana Platten, Sixty35 Media board president, said in a statement. “We wish her nothing but the best going forward, and this does not deter us from continuing to pursue our new mission.”

More from the un-bylined announcement:

Platten and longtime local journalist Ralph Routon, former executive editor of the Independent, Business Journal and Pikes Peak Bulletin, have been named by the Sixty35 Media board to serve as interim co-publishers while the board instigates a national search for Gillentine’s replacement.

Fran Zankowski, who some years ago was CEO of the Springs Indy and the Business Journal, and who currently serves as Sixty35 Media board member, will join in to help the sales department, the announcement read. He will remain as publisher of the Boulder Weekly, a separate publication.

Colorado Press Association launches ‘Local News Matters’ podcast

Colorado Press Association President Tim Regan-Porter told members in an email last week that 2023 is “shaping up to be, at a minimum, our most ambitious year yet.”

As part of it, the head of the local media advocacy group has launched a podcast called “Local News Matters.” (Last week, you read in this newsletter about the origin and appropriations of part of that slogan.)

From the teaser on the new podcast’s page:

Local News Matters highlights the interesting and innovative work of local newsrooms—as well as the crucial questions they face—as they endeavor to evolve their organizations to produce more meaningful journalism, to better serve their communities and to enhance their organizations’ financial sustainability for long-term results.

The first one features Todd Chamberlain and Raleigh Burleigh of the nonprofit Sopris Sun newspaper in Carbondale. Regan-Porter says the podcast “is national in scope because a) we can learn from examples all over the country and others can learn from what’s going on in Colorado, 2) we want a national audience to learn about what’s happening here, and 3) we want to attract sponsorships, grant dollars, and benefits for members from national players.”

Check it out at the link above. CPA asked me on the show this week, so that should air soon.

The Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project has a birthday

A year ago, a deliberative journalism movement began to take root in Northern Colorado.

At the heart of the initiative is a partnership between the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper and an academic program at Colorado State University called the Center for Public Deliberation. Together, the two Fort Collins institutions created the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project. The American Press Institute, a national organization that seeks to help sustain local news, backed the effort with grant support. Also involved in the effort are other CSU departments, the Rocky Mountain Student Media Corp., KUNC, the Poudre River Public Library District, Fort Collins Public Media, and the League of Women Voters of Larimer County.

Coloradoan Content Strategist Rebecca Powell described deliberative journalism as “focused on improving local journalism and the local information ecosystem with a specific focus on helping community members address shared problems more effectively.”

This week, Powell wrote an update on the initiative:

One of the projects to come out of it so far is Coloradoan Conversations, our new opinion forum where we ask a question each week on an important community topic, invite anyone who wants to participate to join the online conversation, and then highlight a broad range of those voices in a recap of the conversation a week later. Example: Time to get …constructive on Fort Collins land use code. Here are a few ideas. Poudre River Public Library District also hosts a monthly community conversation on local topics, called The Scoop.

To showcase what they’ve done in the past year, The NoCo Deliberative Journalism Project will host a Feb. 19 Zoom, to “provide the community with an update on the project and various programs that have been initiated, while also providing participants a chance to discuss relevant issues in small groups facilitated by CPD student facilitators.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

💨 After 14 years at The Denver Business Journal, Ed Sealover, who was named 2020’s Colorado Journalist of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists, announced this week he is leaving. “I can’t say exactly where I’m going, as my new employer plans to make an announcement when I start there on Feb. 21,” he wrote, adding, “but I can tell you that the leap I’ll be taking is one from being a scribe for this business community to trying to be a leader in it.”

💲 “Press advocates are proposing state legislation that would make exceptions for journalists in the fee schedule of Colorado’s public records law,” wrote Quentin Young at Colorado Newsline.

🗣 Colorado Community Media Publisher Linda Shapley will “speak to the Adams County League of Women Voters on ‘The Role of Community News in our Democracy’ from 6:30-8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 13. The public may attend in person.”

🚰 A Douglas County politician has accused another of leaking classified materials to a local newspaper published by Colorado Community Media. The news organization’s South Metro Editor disputed claims that reporters “received any such documents or materials” and said the reporters wrote stories based on a public meeting “and through interviews and research.” The editor, Thelma Grimessaid on social media: “I really hate when we have to be part of the news, especially for something like this.”

❌ The emailed version of this newsletter misspelled the surename of Christian Vanek.

⬆️ Brady McCombs is now “the assistant news director for the Rockies (Colorado, Utah, Montana and Wyoming)” for The Associated Press. “Brady has been the Rockies News Editor since 2020.”

🤒 “I am among the few, we lucky few, who not only dodged COVID so long I thought I was immune, but who had almost no symptoms when I got it and then fell among the mere 4% who have rebound symptoms and a measurable infection,” wrote Sentinel Colorado Editor Dave Perry this week. “If you think COVID is gone, it very much hasn’t.”

👀 Current state of local news: The new managing editor of a local newspaper in New Mexico will do the job from Denver while holding a public relations job with Denver’s Office of Emergency Management.

🆕 Dan Boniface, formerly of The Denver Post and 9News, has joined The Denver Gazette as its digital director.

📱 “Two members of Colorado’s federal delegation are taking action in an attempt to block TikTok from U.S. devices due to security threats the app poses,” Lindsey Toomer reported for Colorado Newsline. “Last week, Republican U.S. Rep. Ken Buck proposed a bill that would prohibit TikTok from being downloaded on U.S. devices, while today Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet sent a letter to the CEOs of Apple and Google asking them to remove the app from their app stores.”

📺 “You gotta manage finances, have a side hustle, and love what you do,” said Brian Bledsoe, the chief meteorologist and climatologist for 11 News in Colorado Springs. “The biz certainly isn’t for everyone.” (His take came in response to a social media conversation about local TV meteorologists and other anchors being “overworked and grossly underpaid for the service they provide to communities.”)

🤦‍♂️ “Homeless fire” … really?

📱 “Is Big Tech a big threat to free speech?” was the headline of a column by Gazette Editor Vince Bzdek who reviewed a new book by Colorado Republican Congressman Ken Buck. Buck “believes it’s time for some serious trust-busting,” Bzdek writes. “Like the big monopolies of the early 20th century … Buck thinks today’s tech companies need to be busted.”

🎙 “At least 18 graduates of Colorado’s most prominent conservative training program are media figures who, over the decades, have mostly dragged the Republican Party to the right, initially helping energize Tea Party Republicans to win elections but now contributing to the party’s current isolation, infighting, and increasing irrelevance,” wrote Jason Salzman at the progressive Colorado Times Recorder. “Graduates of the training, called the Leadership Program of the Rockies (LPR), mostly populate right-wing talk radio shows and podcasts.”

🙏 Thanks to CJR for linking to this newsletter this week.

I’m Corey Hutchins, co-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 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.