Inside the News: Colorado Mountain Papers SOLD to Arizona Group Pledging Anti-Hedge-Fund Strategy

  • 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 Colorado couple who ran a string of mountain town newspapers under the banner of Arkansas Valley Publishing has sold them to an Arizona-based company.

The new owners are O’Rourke Media group, which owns papers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, Vermont, Delaware, Virginia, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Now, the Mountain Mail in Salida, the Chaffee County Times in Buena Vista, the Herald Democrat in Leadville, and the Park County Republican & Fairplay Flume join the roster.

“I feel like I’m taking over newsrooms that are well resourced,” company CEO Jim O’Rourke said through intermittent cell service from the side of the road Wednesday as he drove through the mountainous terrain of his new place of business.

“I like that, because that gives us an opportunity to come in and work with this team on things that we can do differently moving forward — things that we could do to help,” he said. “And it’s better starting from a position like this versus going into a totally distressed situation where the previous company gutted the place.”

Coloradans have seen plenty of gutting. From the “vulture” Alden Global Capital to the Grim Reaper of Gannett. And those major newsroom field dressings came before Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia bought a fleet of ski-town newspapers here and left a puddle of bad blood on the floor.

So it probably wasn’t unexpected for some in Colorado’s media scene to initially look askance at another out-of-state outfit snapping up a venerable local newspaper chain. Especially when word got around about language on the new company’s website stating its business strategy is to “roll-up” local community newspapers and “profitably transition them to a digital media enterprise.”

Jordan Hedberg, publisher of the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe, says his newspaper has used the Mountain Mail’s printing press in Salida for 40 years.* He said he was stopped cold when he looked up the new owner online.

“I basically shit a ton of bricks when I read that part,” he said over the phone Monday.

O’Rourke says not to worry; the Mountain Mail’s printing press is one of the few left in Colorado.

“The print business is still a healthy part of this Arkansas Valley Group,” he said, adding that they print all of their own papers and have a handful of commercial clients. “I plan to continue to do that here,” he said. “There’s a good team of people and unless something radically shifts that mindset — it would have to be a pretty compelling reason, but I don’t see it — I kind of like being in the printing business here.”

According to a news release about the sale, the company plans to hire all current employees who work for Arkansas Vally Publishing, and advertisers and subscribers shouldn’t expect any interruptions.

During his roadside interview, O’Rourke said he does plan to beef up the online presence of the Colorado papers with website redesigns, and, notably, will take down the paywalls. He expects the paper’s journalists will get stories online faster and not hold them for print.

When his company takes over an existing paper, they don’t do anything to damage the reputation and print presence, he said. But at the same time, “you’ve got to be in the digital game now for these businesses to make it longer term.”

O’Rourke has been successful in creating new digital marketing services, he said, and added that print advertising revenue is up substantially in many of their markets. “We’re an advertising business when it comes to monetization,” he said, and part of what attracted him to the papers in the central mountains region was the potential for digital growth.

I spoke with one journalist at an O’Rourke-owned paper who worked there through an ownership takeover. He told me the transition was smooth, he hasn’t seen any signs that the company is a ruthless cost-cutter — no layoffs or buyouts — and has even seen some decent investment.

Roughly a week into his new venture, Colorado’s latest newspaper company CEO bristled at the welcome he’d received by the Ark Valley Voice, a nonprofit digital newsroom that serves the area. The outlet’s managing editor, Jan Wondra, penned a March 31 piece about news of the sale that questioned whether it might lead to diminished local news in the area.

A second, longer story under the headline “Media Consolidation and the Threat to Democracy,” by Wondra and Merrell Bergin, laid out reasons to be wary of “conglomerate purchases of local media” and “the mass buy up of so many legendary newspapers and broadcast entities by massive hedge funds and private equity groups.” And it pointed out how a unique-in-the-nation effort is afoot in Colorado to keep local newspapers in local hands.

The stories didn’t show an attempt to reach anyone from O’Rourke Media Group (though Wondra told me they tried), and the most recent piece stated the Voice “has not been able to find a single reference in the O’Rourke Media Group’s communications to journalistic ethics, fact-based news coverage, investigative reporting, or any mission related to news. There is a reference to ‘hyper-local community news publishing’.”

Jim O’Rourke did not hold back when asked if he had seen the item and what he thought of it. “You can print this if you want,” he said: “I really don’t give a flying fuck what that lady says about my company.”

He went on to say his “corporate office” is an office next to the kitchen in his house and said he takes pride with what his media group has been able to do for the past five years with 31 newspapers. “I’ve actually built a nice-sized company doing the right things by people and communities we serve,” he said. “We’re actually doing the opposite of what hedge-fund-run companies and private equity-run companies are doing. The opposite.”

We should all certainly hope so. And it’s officially on the record.

Plunkett: Five years after Denver Post rebellion ‘the news ain’t so bad’

April 6 marked the five-year anniversary of when Denver Post Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett led an internal revolt against the newspaper’s hedge-fund owner.

The rebellion sparked after owner Alden Global Capital chopped down the once-mighty newsroom by a third. The trauma galvanized those who care about civic news and their advocates and has made Colorado one of the most important states in the country when it comes to local news innovation.

Five years out from what became known as The Denver Rebellion, Plunkett penned a column in The Colorado Sun assessing its legacy. “In the new world — the post Rebellion world — the talent is rich,” Plunkett wrote, “but it’s decentralized and can lack the punch of earlier years.”

Some excerpts from the April 2 column:

  • “…happily, The Post is still alive and kicking. The city benefits from the upwards of 60 serious journalists its hedge fund owners still employ. As before, and hopefully for always, The Post’s journalists are a supportive and protective bunch.” …
  • “We asked Colorado to stand up for local news, and enough Coloradans answered to make these green shoots possible. We should continue to thank them with stellar journalism, innovative delivery, and nimble responses to their need to know.” …
  • “Five years ago, 10 brave Denver Post journalists struck out on their own and started what many thought of as a hare-brained scheme. And thank God they did, for their Colorado Sun is brighter than ever now with two dozen full-time journalists, offering top-quality news and opinion day in and day out.” …
  • “Colorado Public Radio is on fire as well. Their newsroom acts like a state paper, with Colorado’s only Washington bureau, and a new investigative team that’s been a powerhouse. The Gazette’s publications benefit from a serious investigative desk also.”

Read the whole thing at the link above. (This newsletter even gets a shoutout.) My personal take on the column is to agree that there is some optimism, but it’s largely concentrated on Denver.

In Colorado Springs, where I live in the state’s second-largest city, there is just nothing like the “green shoots” Plunkett finds sprouting from the rubble in Denver. It’s actually trending in the opposite direction here where a major media organization is on life-support. Go South just a bit to Pueblo and it’s even worse. A feisty newsmagazine there has shuttered, a nonprofit print startup had to reboot, and since its purchase by Big Corporate with a pile of hedge-fund cash, The Pueblo Chieftain, compared to its former self, has had to do more with less for too long.* (The newsletter version of this sentence carried a description of the newspaper that on further reflection might not have come off as intended; I’ll consider addressing it next week.)

Those areas need help, as do others across the state that aren’t called Denver.

CBS News Colorado stealth edits a story

The practice of “stealth editing” — making significant changes to portions or the tone of a piece of published journalism without alerting readers about those changes or why they were made — has been a thing for years.

Two different public editors at The New York Times took up the topic up in columns beginning as far back as 2013.

This week, CBS News Colorado made major changes to a headline and story after multiple journalists in the state flagged relevant caveats in the reporting and sought corrections. The story, ostensibly about the level of crime in Colorado, came as voters were still casting ballots in city elections that were dominated by narratives around public safety.

Colorado Newsline’s Chase Woodruff wrote about how the story swelled before the station changed it:

As voters in Colorado’s two largest cities returned their ballots on Tuesday in pivotal municipal elections, a news story containing a major factual error about the state’s crime rate was shared widely by Republican leaders, police officials and other political figures.

The story from Denver’s local CBS [station] initially falsely claimed that a new Department of Justice analysis showed that Colorado “has the highest rate of violent crime victimizations in the country.” In fact, while the report suggests that Colorado’s violent crime rate may be higher than reported, 28 states and Washington, D.C., were entirely excluded from its analysis, which came with a range of other caveats and limitations.

The story was quickly shared far and wide by Colorado Republican politicians and law enforcement officials. The Twitter account of the Colorado House Republican caucus shared a link to the story, which it said showed “it’s time to lock up criminals and uplift our law enforcement so that our communities our safe.” Former state GOP chair Kristi Burton Brown said it was “what happens under too many years of (Democratic) control.”

“After a Newsline reporter asked a station representative for comment, CBS4 partially edited the story and its headline on Wednesday to clarify some of the data’s limitations,” Woodruff wrote.

“Chase reached out to me yesterday noting the headline and first graph needed additional context that this was a study of the 22 largest states,” CBS News Colorado General Manager Tim Wieland said. “We agreed and made that change. We have no additional comment.”

More Colorado media odds & ends

🙀 “A press war has been waged over the past week and a half on Colorado’s most famous big cat, with the newest verbal barrage coming courtesy of CNN and a March 27 story dramatically titled, ‘Mountain lion claws man’s head while he sits in hot tub’,” wrote Benjamin Neufeld in Westword in a piece headlined “Is the Media Being Too Harsh on Colorado’s Mountain Lions?”

❌ CLARIFICATION: *The newsletter version of this post stated “Jordan Hedberg, publisher of the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe, has printed his newspaper at the Mountain Mail’s printing press in Salida for 40 years.” Hedberg wasn’t even born 40 years ago. The Mountain Mail has used the printing press for 40 years, including by the previous publisher.

📻 Michael Roberts at Westword rounded up Denver’s “most and least popular radio stations,” and found “a new leader in the race for Denver radio ratings.” (Spoiler: it’s “KOSI 101, an adult-contemporary powerhouse.”)

🚪 “It is a clear-cut violation of the open meetings law,” Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg told The Denver Gazette’s Nicole C. Brambila about what the Denver Public Schools board did during a secret, closed-door meeting that lasted for hours and ended with “a memo reversing its policy on no cops in schools.”

🌹 The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel published a tribute to Mary Louise Giblin Henderson, a legendary journalist “known for her integrity and credibility,” who died at 101 in California last month.

💨 Joshua Short is leaving as a weekend co-anchor for KDVR FOX31 in Denver at the end of the month. “I’ll be returning to WNDU,” he said of the station in Indiana.

🏆 The Lever, run by Denver journalist David Sirotawon an Izzy Award. Judges said: “No news outlet is as thorough & relentless as The Lever in exposing the corrupting influence of corporate power on government & both parties.”

⚖️ “A publication owned by Colorado billionaire Phil Anschutz has been hit with a copyright lawsuit for allegedly using a headshot of JonBenet Ramsey, the Boulder child beauty pageant queen who was killed in 1996, without the permission of a New York photo agency that said it owns the rights to the image,” Daniel Ducassi reported for Law360.

🎥 Colorado filmmaker Don Colacino has partnered with the Society of Professional Journalists for his upcoming documentary “Trusted Sources” about “solutions to declining trust in news.”

🎙 Parched, a new podcast at Colorado Public Radio “about people who rely on the river that shaped the West – and have ideas to save it,” begins April 18 hosted by climate and environment reporter Michael Elizabeth Sakas. “In addition to the podcast, ‘Parched’ will feature online stories and social media with rich visuals made around the region,” CPR said in a statement.

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. 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.