Inside the News: Voters in Estes Park, Colorado Sided With Their Town Over the Local Newspaper

  • 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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‘Bad precedent’

In the months leading up to a recent local election, The Estes Park Trail-Gazette newspaper urged its readers to vote against two town ballot measures that could affect the paper’s bottom line. The paper also said the measures would decrease local government transparency.

The proposed changes to town rules, put forward by the local government, asked voters to decide whether the Town of Estes Park should be allowed to stop publishing in the newspaper the full text of ordinances it passes and “bills and statements concerning contracts and rebates.” If citizens voted “Yes” on both, the town could publish its notices online and would only have to publish the titles of newly passed ordinances in the newspaper. The town said it hoped to save about $6,000 a year if the measures passed.

Since the beginning of the year, the Trail-Gazette’s publisher wrote multiple columns railing against the ballot measures. “Estes Park, this is a serious infringement on your rights to hold your government accountable and a huge transparency issue!” he wrote in January. “This is a perfect example of the ‘fox guarding the henhouse’!”

A month later, the publisher pleaded with readers to vote “No,” and explained why it was so important to have the town’s notices printed in the local paper. The Trail-Gazette even offered to lower its printing costs. In March, the president of the Colorado Press Association joined in with a column warning that if the town got its way, others might follow. “For the benefit of all the citizens of Estes Park and Coloradans across the state,” the paper wrote in its official “No” endorsement, “I encourage you to stand up for transparency and say no to the town’s request.”

On April 5, citizens voted — and a majority of Estes Park residents sided with the town and against the newspaper on both questions. That’s gotta smart.

I’m hesitant to declare official a Colorado election result given our history with mail-in ballots trickling in that can counter early reported tallies. (Remember The Great Denver Mushroom Whiplash of 2019. That’s why I’m hedging here.) And the reported returns in this local election weren’t overwhelming. The Estes Park Trail-Gazette had them at 1,046 to 909, leaving a 137-vote margin on the newspaper notices requirement.

Estes Park town spokeswoman Kate Rusch says the town has 10 days from the election day that allow for overseas voters to get their ballots in; she didn’t know how many were outstanding. The town should have the final election results on April 15.

UPDATE, April 15: The official results were 52.97% to 47.03% in favor of the first measure and 53.23 to 46.68% in favor of the second.

The Estes Park Trail-Gazette, like other papers financially controlled by the New York-based Alden Global Capital, has thinned in recent years at the hands of its cost-cutting hedge-fund owner.

Some small newspapers rely on public contracts to publish legal notices for municipalities as a reliable revenue stream. In the digital age, newspaper advocates have had to lobby governments and fight to keep these notices from migrating online.

Massachusetts journalism educator Dan Kennedy, who runs the Media Nation site, has been writing recently about the future of legal notices in the digital age. In Colorado, Democratic Gov. Jared Polis has said he would one day get rid of a state requirement for them here if lawmakers put a bill to do so on his desk.

Estes Park Trail-Gazette Publisher Michael Romero says he believes the town did a good job of promoting the financial aspect and that along with other ballot measures having to do with the Taxpayers Bill of Rights, “they were able to market all three accordingly as a money play.”

More from Romero:

This played well to the people of Estes Park and in the end, the Towns ability to ensure that the Town was able to operate financially and still support the many non-profits they do in Estes Park won the vote. 

I do not think that many consider the long-term play of losing one of its simplest freedoms; holding government accountable is realized until it is realized often much later down the road. I do not think that many of our voters who are on average above 61 years of age thought of the futures of those we leave behind and their ability to hold those that govern accountable to those they govern. The Fox and the henhouse metaphor was not realized and that is sad for our taxpayers and our freedoms as Americans. Our founding forefathers provided for the 4th estate to hold the government accountable, in regards to legal notices who will hold them accountable going forward in Estes Park?

The publisher adds that a financial benefit to the paper was not on his mind because he offered to do the legal placements at cost.

“I should also add that our owners did not pressure me on this at all, as a matter of fact, the opposite was true,” he says. “My argument was entirely based on the process of full transparency on the part of our local government.”

Jason Van Tatenhove, who worked for the Trail-Gazette and now runs the Colorado Switchblade local news site and podcast, editorialized for a “Yes” vote on the measure and told me he voted “Yes” himself.

Asked what he thinks it means that most of the town’s voters might have agreed with him (and the town) instead of their local newspaper, he said he thought it was indicative of a changing local media landscape. “We have to reimagine what being a newspaper of record for a community is these days,” he said.

Elsewhere in Colorado on Tuesday, voters in the small Western Slope town of Hotchkiss appear to have overwhelmingly cast ballots in favor of a question that said the town can now publish ordinances by title only in a newspaper and instead publish the full ordinance on the town’s website.

According to preliminary results at the Delta County elections site, that measure won by 150 votes to 30. The change allows a new town ordinance to remain published in full on the town’s site for a “minimum” of 60 days.

Colorado Press Association President and CEO Tim Regan-Porter called these local election results “bad precedent,” saying anyone needing to keep up with local government “could be forced to visit hundreds of local websites” that are self-policed and of varying quality and reliability.

In a statement, Regan-Porter said:

Too often this gets framed as a print vs. government website issue, which is unfortunate. Print is an important component, as an indelible record of activity that also reaches many who don’t have reliable internet. But all of these notices from the paper go online and are collected on a statewide website that we run for free for members. The real issue is that these records of official activity need to go through and be maintained by trusted third parties, not self-policed, and they should be readily accessible with full details to everyone in a centralized place. If others follow this precedent, we could end up with notices scattered and effectively hidden on hundreds of websites across the state. That is not good for transparency.

Boulder’s Pocket Media: ‘De-emphasize the advertising revenue model’

Writer Robert Sanchez has an illuminating piece for Denver’s 5280 magazine out this week that examines Pocket Media, run by Boulder’s Robin Thurston, “the multimillionaire mogul of active-lifestyle journalism.”

An excerpt:

Outside, the renowned magazine Thurston purchased in February 2021, is the crown jewel of the enterprise and the namesake of the now rebranded Outside Inc. Today, the company has grown to more than 500 employees and includes 26 magazine titles (such as Yoga Journal and Backpacker), a book publisher, a GPS app, a fly-fishing film tour, and an event-management business. It’s all part of Thurston’s plan: Bring myriad brands from a single industry under one umbrella, anticipate customer needs, charge a subscription fee for all of it, and significantly de-emphasize advertising revenue model that has become so challenging for newspapers and magazines over the past decade and a half.

“Do I think I’m doing something revolutionary?” the 49-year-old Outside Inc. CEO and Colorado native says.  “You know, it’s not like I’m building a rocket going to the moon.”

Some other nuggets from the story:

  • “Outside Inc. would not confirm how many people have already subscribed to Outside+, the service that charges users $99 per year and includes two magazine subscriptions, mapping services, books, reduced entry fees to events, the entire Warren Miller film collection, and discounts on things such as travel, lodging, and gear.”
  • “It’s about personalization,” Thurston told Sanchez about the information Outside+ collects about its users. “It’s about having data to be able to understand and hopefully predict what you’re going to do next.”
  • “The speed with which Thurston has gobbled up media properties over the past two years has bred skepticism, particularly about the quality of journalism the company plans to offer and whether Outside Inc. is growing at an unsustainable pace.”

Elsewhere in the piece, Sanchez offers a history of Outside magazine as the “bible of outdoor media” and details its staff’s efforts to unionize. And he quotes Mountain Gazette publisher Mike Rogge throwing a lawn sail of shade on Thurston’s consolidation moves.

Read the whole thing here.

Big New Pew study: Colorado statehouse and tribal government coverage

Those who closely follow politics are spoiled in Colorado. If you want the latest news out of the Capitol you can get it from a variety of reporters and from perspectives that align with pretty much whatever ideological flavor you prefer from your news, information, and commentary. Not everyone can say that.

In 2019, Jason Salzman of the Colorado Times Recorder, wrote how journalists were making a “miraculous comeback” at the Capitol. He asked at the time:

Could we have arrived at the surreal situation where Colorado has too many reporters at the Capitol, given that other critical beats, like municipal government, education, courts, etc., aren’t getting the attention they deserve–or not attention at all?

I think he might be onto something.

The Pew Research Center released findings of a new study this week that show Colorado’s capitol press corps with its 30 total journalists (find their methodology for that number here) grew since the last time they counted it in 2014.

Axios Denver pointed out “the number of full-time reporters in Colorado is … more robust than most states” and “newfor-profit and nonprofit outlets are driving the gains in Colorado and nationwide, replacing dwindling newspaper staff.”

The same Pew study also looked at coverage for tribal governments and cited a Colorado news outlet:

KSUT was founded in 1976 and became an NPR affiliate in the 1980s, according to Executive Director Tami Graham. The tribe allowed the station to transform into an independent nonprofit and now, “the tribe doesn’t control in any way, our programming or anything,” Graham said. “We do have a lot of in-kind support from the tribe like HR and accounting and things like that. We’re still located on the tribal campus, but we’re an independent nonprofit.”

For years I have written about the woes of diminishing politics coverage in some Western states and about efforts to fill gaps. And now, In Colorado, I actually find myself wondering if there’s too much of it at the expense of other coverage. Then I ask: Is that a good problem to have?

After testing in Denver, NewsBreak expands to focus on ‘news deserts’

In February, I wrote for this newsletter and for Harvard’s Nieman Lab about how Denver was the test market for the national app NewsBreak as it starts paying local journalists to produce more local news.

This week the California-based app announced it is expanding and will “utilize the company’s  technological capabilities to provide local news coverage in communities across the U.S. that are underrepresented by traditional media.”

From the announcement:

NewsBreak has identified news deserts as an opportunity market – more than 200 counties in the U.S. have no local paper and half of all U.S. counties have only one. …

The Contributor Network is currently operating in Denver, Colorado, where NewsBreak reporters have published exclusive stories on local issues. NewsBreak will expand the Contributor Network to select counties in Georgia, Florida, Colorado, and Arizona with plans to build the program to greater scale across the country in underrepresented in media coverage areas.

“There is an immediate need for quality local news coverage in markets across the country that lack a robust media presence,” Xana O’Neill, Head of Original Content, said in a statement. “The Contributor Network will fill that void by empowering local journalists and storytellers to tell the stories that matter most to their communities.”

The news value in covering the pillow guy

Members of the Colorado Capitol Press Corps stepped right up one after another for some verbal abuse Tuesday afternoon.

They had to know what they were in for when they stuck a voice recorder in the face of one of our nation’s most recognizable election conspiracy mongers who brought his traveling roadshow to the steps of the Colorado statehouse.

“Obviously you’re a misconstrued journalist, one of [the other] terrible, horrible journalists in the United States,” Mike Lindell, the CEO of a pillow company, told one of his interlocutors. “Another stupid question by a stupid journalist,” he said to another.

Turns out those particular questions weren’t so stupid after all, given the way the pillow guy answered them. A pair of stories by the reporters, Marshall Zelinger of 9News and Jesse Paul of The Colorado Sun, shows why. They focus on whether indicted GOP Mesa County elections clerk Tina Peters ran afoul of a Colorado ethics law if she accepted money from the pillow guy.

When Zelinger of 9News asked how much money he gave to help Peters’ legal defense, Lindell said up to $800,000. When Paul asked if he flew Peters on his private plane, Lindell said he “never met” Peters.

That could be important as ethics regulators investigate funding that flowed toward the Colorado elections clerk who has gained a reputation among the conspiracy wing of the right and is running for the GOP nomination for Secretary of State.

“Unless you’re a close friend or family member of an elected leader you’re limited in how much you can gift,” Zelinger reported. So was Lindell a friend if he never met her? “You have to believe that that tape is going to get played in the Ethics Commission when somebody asks ‘Were you close friends with her,’” 9News ‘Next’ host Kyle Clark said in a segment on the show.

“Stupid” questions from “terrible,” “horrible” journalists? We’ll see!

Inside a Colorado high-school broadcasting class

A broadcasting class at an Evergreen high school is “helping build a strong foundation for students looking to pursue a career in journalism,” Nick Rothschild reported for ABC’s Denver7 this week.

“The students put together a morning show, a weekly broadcast, they feature activities and sports at the school, and these kids want to learn all they can now – in high school – and then take it to college and then take it to a place like Denver7,” the host of the segment said.

From the piece:

“I really can’t even put into words how much this class has meant to me,” said Jameson Davis, another Evergreen senior in the class. “This is really one of the only classes that gets me into the building. This is why I come to school.”

“This is a big operation, a crash course in all the joys of journalism,” Rothschild says in the charming broadcast.

“It’s actually something that’s made the school a better place,” said Davis, the student. “Because we’re one of the few schools in Colorado or America that actually have [the sort of TV program we have].”

More Colorado media odds & ends

📧 The writer of that anti-TikTok letter to the editor of The Denver Post that The Washington Post reported as part of a broader campaign by Meta/Facebook told Kyle Clark of 9News, “I stand by my letter, I know Meta was involved and that didn’t change a thing.” (Clark has more info here.)

📺 Anyone know what this proposed new law in Colorado would mean for local TV non-compete clauses if it passes?

🍿 Rick Goldsmith, who is in post-production of the documentary “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism at the Crossroads,” has closed his Kickstarter campaign and is hosting on April 14 a “compelling and informative panel discussion on hedge funds in journalism” that features a Coloradan. Sign up for it here.

💨 Esteban Candelaria has left The Gazette in Colorado Springs for The Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico, which he said is his “hometown paper.”

👀 Archival documents “reveal the true origins of a popular Colorado tourist attraction,” wrote Miles W. Griffis in High Country News.

📸Would portrait mode have saved Jesse?

💨 Natalie Haddad is leaving KRDO News Channel 13 in the Springs after a year and a half. “I’ve never stayed in one place for long,” she said. “While some may see this as unsteady, I see this as my way of experiencing a lot of life in the little time we all have.”

👻 Denver police on April 7 said they had no updates about a case involving an assault on a TV photojournalist that happened March 21 at Union Station.

📢 Apparently some Republicans in Mesa County “need a reminder that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects journalism from being regulated or restricted by the government,” Jeff Roberts of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition told The Indy in the Springs.

📻 Rocky Mountain Community Radio is looking for an experienced broadcast journalist to serve “as the first managing editor and producer” for its 18 member stations. This position “will work on location at Aspen Public Radio or remotely, but within the region served by RMCR stations.” ($60k.)

🎙 Colorado Public Radio’s Colorado Matters host Ryan Warner and Race, Diversity and Equity Reporter Elaine Tassy visited Denver Women’s Prison “to interview Amber Pierce and Cynthia Gonzalez, producers of Inside Wire, a new online radio network that launched recently and is run by inmates.”

📰 A newspaper serving Mesa County graded its local governments for transparency.

➡️ Nominate a Colorado “pioneer, leader or mentor” for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists that each year recognizes “individuals who have courageously upheld our mission to expand the number of Latinos in newsrooms and improve coverage of Latino communities.”

📡 KUNC’s Colorado Edition covered the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project.

📲 Beth Rankin is the new head of The Denver Post’s digital operations. “If you know someone who would be a great fit to take over The Know, please reach out,” she said on social media. (Email her at brankin[at]denverpost[dot]com.) Tynin Fries is the new deputy director of audience.

💡 A great idea to use “abandoned dead-tree newspaper boxes,” notes a former dead-tree newspaper journalist.

🇺🇦 Last week, dozens of Colorado journalists got a chance “to join a virtual meeting with several Ukrainian journalists and [heard] firsthand what the past five weeks have meant for them.”

🎙 A Lehigh University first-year student’s podcast, “In search of Home,” which is a finalist for NPR’s College Podcast Challenge, explores the aftermath of a disaster as she “documented what she and her family went through when their house was destroyed in the Colorado wildfires of December 2021.”

I’m Corey Hutchins, interim 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, where I write case studies, 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.