Inside the News: Newspapers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley SOLD to Millennial Wyoming Publisher

  • 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.

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on whatsapp
Share on email

An Illinois company that owned a cluster of eight newspapers in Colorado’s San Luis Valley has sold them to a young Wyoming publisher who has been snapping up community newspapers across the country.

J. Louis Mullen, 37, said in a phone interview that his foray into Colorado brings his newspaper titles up to roughly 40 across nearly a dozen states from the Mountain West to New Jersey.

The sale affects the daily Valley Courier in Alamosa, the Monte Vista Journal, The Del Norte Prospector, The Conejos County Citizen, Center Post-Dispatch, The Mineral County Miner, The South Fork Tines, and SLV Lifestyles. All but the Valley Courier are weekly newspapers. They print their own products at their press in Alamosa.

“I don’t want to change much,” Mullen said about the papers, adding that he doesn’t run a corporate umbrella chain and keeps his papers owned as individual companies. “I am super pleased with the staff that’s there,” he said of his new Colorado properties.

The development marks the second sale this year of a string of rural newspapers in Colorado that did not wind up in the hands of a Coloradan or a Colorado-based group. That’s despite a concerted effort lately among some in Colorado to keep local newspapers in local hands. (In April, a Colorado couple who ran four newspapers in the Central Mountains region sold them to an Arizona-based company.)

This time, twice as many papers changed hands when the Tompkins family of the Illinois-based News Media Corporation offloaded their fleet of southern Colorado papers to Mullen of Buffalo, Wyoming.

While Mullen will own them from across our northern border, he said he’ll largely keep his hands off, as he has elsewhere.

“Every paper is different, every community is different, readership is different, demographics are different, politics are different,” he said over the phone Aug. 4. “And I don’t put my own politics on any of these. These newspapers are supposed to be a reflection of the community that they’re in and serving, not whatever nonsense I believe.”

Despite his age, Mullen, who sits on the board of the National Newspaper Association, said he has been “fairly aggressively” buying small weekly and biweekly newspapers for the past decade. Any newspaper he considers must be financially sound, he said, because he uses debt service from a bank to make a purchase. (He calls the bank he uses, First Northern in Wyoming, “bullish” on newspapers.)

While some newspapers are going out of business, printing presses are shutting down, and conglomerates are retrenching, the millennial newspaper publisher from the Cowboy State said he’s seeing “more opportunity” than any time in his career. His print business, he said, is accelerating, and circulation has been stable for the past 10 years.

“Rural markets have always been an 800-pound gorilla,” Mullen said. “That’s not to say there aren’t struggles and they don’t struggle like everyone else does — we are the last to adopt new technologies, always have been — but these are still viable markets. And there is a large population in these rural markets that need news.”

His latest acquisition in the San Luis Valley is a largely rural area roughly triple the size of Delaware. Last year it was the setting of a well-reviewed book by author Ted Conover called “Cheap Land Colorado: Off-Gridders at America’s Edge.”

Keith Cerny, who has published the Valley Courier in Alamosa for 30 years, said in a phone interview that he will stay on as the group publisher and he expects “total local autonomy” despite the new ownership. Everyone will keep their jobs following the sale, he added.

“He does not micromanage and pretty much said ‘keep everything running as usual’,” Cerny said of Mullen. “We plan to continue covering our six counties of this huge San Luis Valley the same as we always have.”

Colorado’s newest newspaper owner might be something of a contrarian when it comes to the industry.

Asked what it takes for someone to get into the newspaper business in their 20s, Mullen said for his first acquisition the seller financed the deal and he brought in his newspaper publisher father in case things got hairy. For his second purchase, he brought along his two brothers. With some numbers behind him and a bit of a track record, someone offered him money to become a minority partner in a new deal, and then he brought on investors. Now, he said, he either owns outright a newspaper business he buys or he’s a majority partner with minority partners that are his friends. It helps that his wife is a physician.

“I’m 10 years into this, I’m growing, there are not many people in this country that do what I do,” he said. “It’s such a niche market, it makes it easier for me. I’m not some wunderkind.” He said he thinks “anybody could do this” if they’re willing to take the risk.

While he encourages more people his age to think about getting into the rural newspaper business as some of the older publishers reach retirement age, Mullen understands the reticence some might have. He recalls heading out on his own around the time of the Great Recession when jobs were scarce.

“I think that scared the shit out of all of us into not taking risks,” he said of his generation. “So those of us that do take risks, if we’re fairly competent about it, we’ve got much greater reward on the other side.”

So far, he said, becoming a buyer of rural newspapers from coast to coast has been “tremendously fun and rewarding,” but “horrifyingly scary at the same time.” Still, in a way, he’s looking for more competition among his cohort.

“Take a chance,” he said. “I guarantee you can find some old codger who would love to give a kid a chance for next to nothing.”

The Gazette’s anti-Denver Post attack ads led to a Colorado Times Recorder exposé

Allegations about business and political pressures on the newsrooms of Colorado local media outlets that are owned by a wealthy conservative Denver tycoon emerged last week.

Jason Salzman, founder of the openly progressive online site Colorado Times Recorder, which doesn’t disclose its progressive financial backers, is out with an in-depth story that mixes reporting with opinion. Its headline: “Spiked: A Conservative ‘Shadow’ Hangs Over Colorado Newspapers Owned by GOP Billionaire Phil Anschutz.”

In it, former reporters for The Gazette in Colorado Springs went on record saying they believe they had stories killed or gutted because they ran afoul of the business or political interests of non-journalists in management at the for-profit newspaper company.

Among the revelations:

  • Former Gazette politics reporter Megan Schrader, now The Denver Post’s opinion page editor, said Gazette editor Vince Bzdek told her that former publisher Dan Steever watered down a critical 2016 story about a Republican U.S. Senate candidate who lived in the Springs area.
  • Former Gazette reporter Ryan Maye Handy “resigned after a story she wrote was not published at the last minute at the apparent behest of Anschutz and his underlings,” Salzman reported. The story involved the Broadmoor, which Anschutz owns.
  • “We didn’t shy away from stories that had a progressive lean to them,” said Linda Shapley, a former editor of Colorado Politics who is now publisher of Colorado Community Media. “I would say that I felt like that coverage would get a closer inspection than something that came from a more conservative viewpoint.”

There’s more in there, including an anecdote by an anonymous journalist interviewing for a job that bolsters accusations that the news organization slants conservative because of its ownership and management. Others quoted by name in the story said they believed the newsroom was independent and didn’t slant its news coverage to the right.

Such criticism has dogged the growing news operation for years, with former reporters sounding off or journalists at other news outlets highlighting particular incidents.

But the latest muckraking look comes after The Denver Gazette launched an attack-ad campaign against The Denver Post on billboards and online. The Post chose to ignore it, but The Colorado Times Recorder launched its own digital counterattack.

It turns out there’s a direct line from that ad campaign to these latest public revelations and Salzman’s reporting.

“The piece would not have been written if those ads had not been run by the Gazette,” Salzman said over the phone Thursday. He said people started reaching out to him after the ad blitz, and his story stemmed from that. (Bzdek declined to comment to Salzman for his story, and to me for this item about it.)

In his piece, Salzman acknowledges that “it’s true that the Gazette produced great journalism after Anschutz bought the newspaper in 2012.” His news properties sweep categories at annual state journalism awards banquets, and their watchdog work has had impact.

In his piece, Salzman asks what readers should make of it.

“Does all this mean you should stop reading the Gazette publications? No,” Salzman writes, “but you shouldn’t rely on them, and, as Shapley and others say, it again spotlights the elusive necessity of having an abundance of journalists and news outlets to choose from — as long as they are not all owned by the same Republican billionaire.”

Some rural Colorado local news success stories

The nonprofit publication Startup Colorado has taken note of a triad of our state’s local news publishers.*

Founded in 2011 by Brad Feld and Phil Weiser (now our Democratic attorney general), Startup Colorado has since “shifted its mission to focus solely on the foundation and success of the state’s rural-based entrepreneurs,” the publication states on its website.

This week it zeroed in on our rural local news sector.

For a July 26 item, journalist Elise Ertl profiled Durango-based Local News Network founder Laurie Sigillito, Kevin Mahmalji of the recent newspaper startup Florence Reporter, and Gunnison Country Times newspaper owner Alan Wartes.

Ertl recaps the crisis facing local news, and then says this: “It goes to show there are clear benefits to keeping news local, and it’s going to require an entrepreneurial spirit to make it work.”

Here are some nuggets from the piece:

  • Sigillito’s video-based Local News Network uses a model called DOOH — or a “digital out-of-home” network that “brings news content and advertisements into places outside the home, such as the dentist’s office or your local pizzeria.” This scenario, Ertle writes, “works for both news outlets and advertisers as viewers can’t change the channel and have no option but to view the stories and the ads.” (As this newsletter reported in 2020, Sigillito’s Local News Network won a $100,000 grant opportunity from a program of the governor’s office, marking the first time ever the agency gave an Advanced Industries Accelerator Grant to a news publisher.) 
  • Mahmalji “says it isn’t necessarily the content” of the Florence Reporter “itself where he’s found the most success in bringing back the newspaper, but rather through in-person engagement with the community. Once a month, and soon to be twice, he goes door to door delivering the news to every subscriber.” He wears a lot of hats. “They’re like, so you’re like the paperboy too? You’re like the editor and managing editor and writer and owner and paperboy? I’m like, yep! And they get a kick out of it,” he said. “There’s a lot of good that has come out of this doing door to door delivery.”
  • Wartes, the Gunnison Country Times publisher, keeps it simple. “I personally think that the answer … is a lot less about innovation, than it is about getting really good at the traditional mission of the newspaper. Being so good at reporting local news, and so reliable and so trustworthy, and doing our best to cover the broadest possible spectrum of that news is what people have always expected in the newspapers,” he said.

Colorado has plenty of rural news outlets — some are retrenching while others are stable or expanding — so I was curious how these particular three wound up as the face for rural Colorado local news success.

“These outlets were selected based upon the ingenuity of their business structure, the challenge they were seeking to solve, and (in the case of the Gunnison Country Times) how they’re making the traditional newspaper business structure work,” Margaret Hedderman, Startup Colorado’s communications and editorial director, said via email.

*CORRECTION:A previous version of this post and the emailed newsletter version referred to Startup Colorado as “a publication of CU’s Colorado Law Silicon Flatirons center.” It is no longer affiliated with CU Boulder.

Free Press and Media 2070 are ‘drawing inspiration’ from Colorado College students

Colorado often finds itself a place where journalism experiments originate. Consider us a test-tube for local media innovation.

I’ve been keeping track of pioneering pilots and innovative initiatives over the past few years in a rolling document called “What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now” — and this week I’ll add another.

Media 2070, a project of the national media reform group Free Press, has launched a college class, and it started in Colorado.

Here’s an excerpt by Venneikia Williams from the announcement at Media 2070 this week:

“Diagnosing the Media System” was a month-long class I taught in May at Colorado College, a small liberal-arts school in Colorado Springs. Free Press has deep roots in Colorado: We held the National Conference for Media Reform in Denver in 2013, and in 2021 we convened Black and Latinx working groups to examine how the state’s newsrooms could better serve communities of color.

Williams goes on to outline what the 17 students learned in the spring class. The course was possible in large part because of the unique Block Plan at Colorado College where I teach and along with Journalism Institute Director Steven Hayward invited Williams as a visitor. The Block Plan schedule means students take just one class at a time for three-and-a-half weeks of intensive learning, which lends itself to flexibility, experimentation, and teaching journalism differently in a liberal arts setting.

Here’s more from Williams about what’s next following the spring CC class:

The Media 2070 team is hoping to take this course to other college campuses, especially Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). We’re also exploring ways to collaborate with professors to weave some of these teachings into existing coursework and academic programming.

As we contemplate what’s next for the media-reparations curriculum, the Media 2070 team is drawing inspiration from our Colorado College students.

Read the full announcement at the link above.

More Colorado media odds & ends

🗳 This new training program sounds like a real opportunity for journalists and Colorado newsrooms to learn how to better cover elections and politics by, among other things, exploring “how to move away from polarizing or horse-race coverage of elections.” Here’s to hoping newsrooms in Colorado consider applying, especially those that think they might not need it. The training includes a $1,000 stipend for 12 newsrooms that participate. Deadline Monday, Aug. 7.

🎥 Jesse Grace and Steven Weiss, members of Colorado State University’s journalism faculty, have produced a Rocky Mountain PBS documentary on wildfires. Find the 30-minute film, titled “CO-Existing with Wildfire,” here.

🏔 The Aspen Times, owned by Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia, is hiring an editor it will pay up to $120,000. The job listing asks “Do you want to report, edit and ski?” (Sounds fun, but a question one might ask when applying is how many editors has this paper had since being sold to a new owner in 2021, and what do you think that means?”)

📺 Anne Trujillo said she plans to leave her position as an evening anchor in Denver this fall. “It’s time for me to leave Denver7 and pursue the next chapter of my life—one that allows me the flexibility to pursue new passions as well as time with my family,” she posted on Facebook. She added: “I look forward to taking a much needed break from some of the heavy news of the past few years before I make any further commitments.”

💨 Also this week, Rod Mackey left 9NEWS as its sports director after 23 years to join Channel 4 CBS Sports Colorado. Meanwhile, Ira Cronin said he left KOAA TV in the Springs.

⛔️ Ryan Spencer documented for Summit Daily News how hard it has been for the paper to obtain information from law enforcement about the police killing of an 18-year-old named Charlie Foster.

📊 Colorado-based patent attorney Vanessa Otero, who has raised millions of dollars to expand her Media Bias Chart, this week published a column titled “Why I decided to rate the news” in the Poynter Institute journalism think tank. Her company, Ad Fontes Media, has “over 60 analysts on staff,” she wrote.

❓ “How do you know your news is true?” That’s a question a panel of media literacy experts will answer at The Denver Press Club next Tuesday evening.

🆕 The Durango Herald has a new deputy editorMatt Hollinshead, “who looks to emphasize more solution-based and enterprise journalism.”

⚙️ The Denver Post is currently hiring part-time paid interns to produce breaking news on its city desk.

💥 The Denver Gazette and Denver TV station 9NEWS are hosting “Kids in the Crossfire, A Town Hall: Exploring Solutions to Youth Violence in Denver,” Tuesday, Aug. 8, at the Anschutz Medical Campus Auditorium.

🤣 The “lede of the week” goes to Thomas Gounley of BusinessDen for this story, and the “kicker of week” goes to Justin Wingerter of BusinessDen for this one.

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.