The labor union representing workers at the Pueblo Chieftain ripped into the paper’s owner Gannett this week when the nation’s largest newspaper chain announced a decision to shutter its printing plant in Pueblo.
Colorado’s oldest daily newspaper is not going out of business, but the last paper will roll off its own presses on Aug. 13. The southern Colorado paper will now print hours north in Denver and truck the product down to the city of more than 100,000 on the banks of the Arkansas River.
“The decision to eliminate 51 jobs in our community and outsource that work to Denver is indefensible,” read a statement from the Pueblo News Guild, shared on social media by at least one of the paper’s journalists.
“To clarify, Gannett isn’t making any additional cuts to the newsroom. We have just 5 news reporters, 1 sports reporter and 1 photographer to write for the 170,000 people who live in Pueblo County,” wrote Chieftain reporter Anna Lynn Winfrey.
Here’s more from the Guild:
The Chieftain’s headquarters is joining dozens of other [newspaper] properties around the country that Gannett has scraped off for quick cash from real estate sales. Since Gannett merged with GateHouse in 2019, half of all of the jobs across the company have been cut.
Pueblo employees have felt that and more at the Chieftain, where the newsroom used to have more than 30 journalists but is now down to five news reporters and one sports reporter.
The move comes as the paper’s parent company “faces a daunting number of costly capital improvements to the presses in Pueblo,” the Chieftain reported.
The Guild said the Chieftain’s journalists “won’t have that well-known downtown location, that big blue home base of operations where reporters, photographers and editors can meet with each other and their news sources.”
The Guild further stated the labor union “understands that Gannett’s decision is driven by the bottom line but the Guild believes Gannett’s decision will further degrade the newspaper’s reputation in the community.”
The timing of this announcement feels particularly cruel.
Just last month, Ben Cason penned a lofty glow up about the Chieftain’s “powerhouse” printing press in the pages of the recently launched nonprofit Pueblo Star Journal newspaper. The Chieftain’s commercial press, he wrote, publishes five daily papers, 46 weekly papers and 10 monthly ones. “This includes the Pueblo Star Journal, which is printed in the heart of Pueblo,” he wrote.
Welp, it was, anyway. Here’s more from that piece:
The process and people behind the printing press are often overlooked. Coloradoans value the paper in our hands, but are often unaware of how it gets there. The Pueblo Chieftain newspaper and printing press has been a staple in Pueblo, and the work that has been done over the years to print the paper—and many other news outlets— has been colossal.
The profile mentioned multiple employees by name and detailed their important roles, including Preppress and Mailroom Manager Todd Albo who has worked at the Chieftain since he delivered its newspapers when he was 12. Another press team member, James Deren, worked at the paper for 40 years. Like the rest of the newspaper, the press team has seen its ranks thinned in an era of newspaper decline. “We used to have a pre-press department of 13,” Albo told the Star Journal. “Now there’s only four of us.”
Reading the piece now — only a month later — each new paragraph hits like a gut punch.
“Despite being corporate owned, it’s good to have the press here to help the smaller towns,” Albo said in the Star Journal profile. “If this press wasn’t running, the smaller town papers would be out of business. These little towns wouldn’t have a newspaper.”
The Star Journal story also carried this kicker that had a whopping shelf life of a matter of weeks: “In 2023, southern Colorado relies more than ever on the Chieftain commercial press to run its news.”
Gannett snuffing out its Pueblo press is likely to send papers across Colorado scrambling for a new printer.
“Dozens of publications from around the region are printed at the Chieftain and we also worry about their future printing availability and costs,” the Guild wrote in its statement.
There aren’t many printing presses left in Colorado. Two years ago, The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel mothballed its three-story Goss Headliner “dinosaur” printing press — and literally turned it into a museum.
That move fit with a broader trend of consolidation as printing presses have started to age out across the country. Mechanical parts for the massive machines, built at least as far back as the 1980s, can be hard to find — and sometimes so, too, can the people who know how to fix them if and when they break.
Last year, Nick Yetto wrote in The Smithsonian about how the publisher of Colorado’s Saguache Crescent, who uses a steampunk Mergenthaler Model 14 linotype machine, might be the last of his kind in the entire country.
Besides The Denver Post, the Montrose Daily Press runs a printing press, and so does the small Mountain Mail in Salida. Prairie Mountain Media, a local cluster of Alden Global Capital hedge-fund newspaper brands, operates a press in Berthoud, and there could be some others like a small printing facility in Pagosa, and more. A press in Gypsum run by the Swift-branded Ogden ski-town papers is “probably the most capable in the state but plants — in general — are disappearing fast, no doubt,” Aspen Daily News publisher David Cook told me. (Some of the larger Colorado papers print at The Denver Post facility or use a newspaper’s plant in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Durango Herald prints its papers at The New Mexican across the border.)
When Arizona-based O’Rourke Media Group bought a string of central mountain town papers in April that include Salida’s Mountain Mail, the company’s CEO noted the dearth of printing plants left in the state.
“The print business is still a healthy part of this Arkansas Valley Group,” he told this newsletter at the time in an interview, 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.”
Already, one rural Colorado newspaper is worrying about its future.
Catherine Thurston at The Limon Leader and Eastern Colorado Plainsman, which prints 1,400 papers each week at the Chieftain, told me Wednesday that news of the upcoming closure caught her off guard.
“There are other options for us to be printed but the prices are much higher than what we have been paying the Chieftain,” she said via email. “Very well may sink us. Another news desert in the making thanks to Gannett.”
Thurston said she has contacted a few people and they are are looking at “working together to come up with something that might help all of us.” (She is open to solutions if anyone has any.)
The Pueblo News Guild said it feared the Chieftain printing roughly two hours north in Denver “not only impacts those soon to be laid off employees and their families but could very likely result in a delay for our readers in getting their newspapers,” especially because of weather or traffic events that can tie up I-25.
The print deadline for journalists at the Chieftain is (wait for it) 3 p.m. to get anything in the next day’s paper.
How did it come to this for the once-mighty Chieftain where a small band of journalists continue to do solid work under severely-less-than-ideal circumstances?
Following the death of its 92-year-old local publisher Robert Rawlings in 2018, the Pueblo Chieftain went up for sale. A mystery swirled as buyers courted the family, including the conservative Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz who owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs. Other potential buyers included Digital First Media, the brand that runs The Denver Post. Adams Publishing and GateHouse Media were also in the running.
GateHouse, then the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, won out, and its executives trotted out the usual happy talk about being a partner in the thriving future of local journalism. Not long after, Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, merged with GateHouse using a bundle of private equity cash to create a monster conglomerate that wound up going all Texas Chainsaw Massacre to cut costs.
A year after the merger, buyouts rocked the Chieftain (and the Coloradoan in Fort Collins). A “whole lot of institutional memory is getting zapped from their newsrooms,” this newsletter reported at the time, likening Gannett’s actions to that of a “Neuralyzer” from the movie Men in Black.
Writing in Harvard’s Nieman Lab this March, Joshua Benton said the “scale of local news destruction in Gannett’s markets is astonishing,” opining that the company “has increased local ignorance at a scale no other company can match.”
When news that Gannett would shutter its Pueblo printing press landed this week, former Pueblo reporter Kara Mason said she was noticing a lot of people commenting on social media who were “appalled” by it. But, “I have to wonder where they were when the Chieftain was selling,” she said, when Gannett and editors “promised this wouldn’t happen, when there was no saving another local pub. This is what happens when you look away.”
Just this month, Gannett was still talking up a big game. The company revamped its upper management, launched an initiative called “Project Breakthrough,” and brought on a new executive who said, “We are going to save local journalism.”
As for the latest development in Pueblo, “We are making the challenging but strategic decision to shift production at our Pueblo printing facility to a partner facility,” an unnamed Gannett spokesperson told the Chieftain in its own writeup of the news.
As for the Chieftain’s current journalists on staff, they “remain committed to telling Peublo’s stories in spite of the short-sighted decisions made by Gannett,” this week’s Newspaper Guild statement read.
News of the press shut down drew stories in local newspaper and TV outlets Wednesday.
Here was a head-shaking excerpt from coverage by FOX21 in Colorado Springs:
FOX21 had interviews scheduled with employees who wanted to speak out against this decision until they received a call from a Gannett representative. According to employees, they were told if anyone spoke to the media, they would be terminated immediately, losing all compensation, and severance pay.
State politicians also weighed in.
In an online public statement, Colorado’s Democratic attorney general, Phil Weiser, called the closure a “painful end of an era, a blow to workers, and less resilience in our economy.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet called it “a blow to the Pueblo community and Colorado journalism,” adding, “local news is foundational to our democracy, but it’s at risk. Major news organizations should reinvest in regional outlets rather than shutter operations in local communities.”
On a personal note, a few years ago when I took a class of Colorado College students on a field trip to the Chieftain and they saw the grand old printing press, I sarcastically remarked how it felt a bit like a field trip I once took in school myself where we saw the woolly mammoth exhibit at the New York State Museum.
I really didn’t think it would be this quick to go extinct.
Eyes (but mostly ears) on KOTO FM in Telluride
Axios Denver’s John Frank this week put together a mini-profile of the community radio station in Telluride with the picturesque West Slope mountain town’s Bluegrass Festival as a hook.
- “Founded in 1975, KOTO is one the few remaining community-supported radio stations left in the country, and the festival probably gives it a broader reach than any other of its size.”
- “We have people listening all over the world,” station executive director Cara Pallone said, adding that at least 25,000 people listen in through the internet over the weekend and plenty more listen via the station’s FM signal.
- “Outside the festival weekend, it broadcasts local news segments and council meetings, and offers a free on-air lost and found, job line and community carpool.”
“KOTO is as old school funky as it gets,” Pallone told Frank. “We are one of the last bastions of old school Telluride and people love that.”
Grand Junction newspaper looks to federal law to help sustain it
Jay Seaton, publisher of the Sentinel in Grand Junction, runs one of the few family owned regional newspapers left in Colorado.
This week he became the local face of what federal legislation might mean for his business in the event Congress decides to get in on the effort to help mitigate the nation’s local news crisis.
Katharine Crane published a guest column in The Colorado Sun arguing that Congress should “ease antitrust restrictions so that news organizations can bargain collectively for payment for their labor reporting the news.”
Seaton made the lede:
Grand Junction’s Daily Sentinel is the largest circulation newspaper between Denver and Salt Lake City. When its owner and publisher, Jay Seaton, assumed his post in 2009, there were 210 employees. Now there are 67, including staffers at radio stations Grand Junction Media also owns. The paper’s existing revenue model, he tells me, “broke under my feet.”
Seaton is trying to make the transition from an advertising-based model to an audience- or subscription-based one. He thinks a bill recently introduced in the United States Senate might facilitate the shift. “I do think it could help in the short-term to bridge from the model we’ve had over the last 100-plus years to a new revenue model,” he said.
The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act was re-introduced in the U.S. Senate on March 30 by Sens. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., and John Kennedy, R-La. No one has introduced a companion bill in the U.S. House of Representatives yet. The proposed law would allow those with fewer than 1,500 full-time employees to negotiate collectively with technology platforms over the pricing, terms and conditions for accessing their digital news content. Publishers can demand final-offer arbitration if their joint negotiation with a platform doesn’t result in an agreement after six months. The bill also creates a limited safe harbor from federal and state antitrust laws for eligible news outlets.
Elsewhere in the column, Crane writes: “The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act has detractors on both sides of the political spectrum. Progressives argue its benefits will accrue to large media holding companies; conservatives claim right-leaning sites could be censored by publishers. The technology platforms remain fiercely opposed.”
Read the whole column at the link above.
More Colorado media odds & ends
🗺 This newsletter is in out-of-the-country mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual and I might not be as quick to respond to emails, voicemails, or DMs.
📞 In last week’s newsletter I wrote “Colorado is a ‘one party state,’ which means as long as one party to a conversation consents to the conversation being recorded it’s OK to record it without the other party knowing.” A reader pointed out I should have noted that both parties also should be within Colorado at the time.
🏀 If you’ve seen the hometown coverage of the Denver Nuggets basketball team’s historic NBA championship title, you might have seen some local journalists get quite personally emotional about it. Colorado sports journalist vet Terry Frei had some words about it. “I think anyone wearing a media credential round neck should at least PRETEND to be professionally objective,” he said. “Slight grace, but only to a point, if you work for owner. Or let’s just pronounce sports journalism dead and fanalism its official replacement.”
🚫 Elected officials in Colorado “can now ban people from their private social media pages for any reason under a bipartisan bill signed into law … a first-of-its-kind statute that’s prompted criticism from First Amendment advocates,” wrote Seth Klamann for The Denver Post, republished at Governing magazine.
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.