Inside the News: ‘We Had To Lay Off About Half of Our Staff,’ Says Major Colorado Springs Media Outlet

  • 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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Call it Bloody Wednesday.

“March 15 is going to be a hard date to forget here at Sixty35 Media,” read an announcement to readers from the alternative weekly in Colorado Springs that recently converted into a nonprofit and consolidated its sister papers into a news magazine.

“We had to lay off about half of our staff today,” the letter went on. “It was devastating.”

Last fall, the alternative weekly, then called The Indy, rolled The Colorado Springs Business Journal, Southeast Express, a pair of military papers, and The (Manitou Springs) Pikes Peak Bulletin into one weekly publication. The whole outfit changed its name to Sixty35, a nod to the elevation in the Springs, and paid for a new website. The move to a nonprofit made a splash but there were signs of turbulence behind the scenes; just a few months after the transition Publisher Amy Gillentine abruptly left to “pursue other opportunities.”

Now this.

A list of laid-off staffers I obtained included the names of four reporters, a photographer, a podcaster, a graphic artist, a food critic, an art director, someone in editorial, and the front-desk receptionist. Three others are listed as contractors or freelancers, including Business Journal columnist John Hazelhurst who has publicly announced his departure. “I was among the layoffs,” Matthew Schniper, who long covered the city’s culinary scene, wrote on Facebook. Senior Reporter Pam Zubeck, who writes much of the paper’s public affairs and accountability coverage, remains on staff as the only reporter left in the newsroom.

The destabilizing development comes five years to the week after a hedge fund that owns The Denver Post laid off a third of that paper’s newsroom in a now-legendary bloodletting. And the implosion of this important local media institution comes smack in the middle of what could be a transformative April 4 municipal election in Colorado’s second-largest city. Ballots are already out.

More from the announcement:

What happened? Our board of directors recently discovered $300,000 in unaccounted-for debt that carried over during our transition last October from a for-profit company to a nonprofit. Like many other independent, locally owned media, we’ve also fallen victim to a perfect storm of stunning print-cost increases, dwindling advertising dollars in the post-COVID world, and an increase in overall supply and operational costs.

In the face of this, the news organization chose not to shut down and is asking Springs residents and anyone else for financial support. “Our focus now is to work our asses off to make sure 30 years of local, independent journalism lives on in this community,” the paper wrote. “This is vital.”

Fran Zankowski, who previously served as CEO of the company for 10 years and came back on as the new nonprofit’s board treasurer following its transition, said over the phone Wednesday he doesn’t know who to blame for what happened. He said he thinks those involved in the transition tried to do too much too fast and weren’t prepared — but he does think the paper can survive.

“We’re going to, as a board, make sure that the paper is profitable and can grow again, and if possible rehire these people. It’s no fault of theirs,” he said. “It’s the fault of being too ambitious.”

If all advertisers pay their outstanding bills, he said, it would go a long way to sustaining the operation. (Off the top of his head he estimated that alone could account for up to 70% of the shortfall.)

In the meantime, he implored what he called an “incredibly loyal readership” to turn out and give what they can to help save a crucial local media outlet.

“It is essential that Colorado Springs has two newspapers,” he said.

The Indy launched in the 1990s in large part to “make Colorado Springs a more informed, tolerant, sustainable, authentic, vibrant and welcoming community,” its founder, John Weiss, has written. The plucky weekly’s opinion offerings have long acted as a counterweight to the conservative Colorado Springs Gazette, which was one of the few newspapers in the country to endorse Republican Donald Trump for president.

In recent years, alternative weekly newspapers, where I got my own start in journalism, have been disappearing from cities across the country. Those in Colorado — Denver’s Westword, Boulder Weekly, and Sixty35, née The Indy — have stubbornly held on. (Cannabis advertising didn’t hurt.)

As someone who lives in the Springs, I often feel like its media scene is already not adequately serving what is our nation’s 39th largest city. The Colorado News Mapping Project I helped create identifies 54 news and information sources in El Paso County — but really, news about civic information is dominated largely by The Gazette, Sixty35, KRCC, and four TV stations. (In January, a weekly newspaper that had operated since 1958 in the town of Fountain, just south of Colorado Springs, went out of business, calling itself a casualty of the post-pandemic economy.)

A major story in The Wall Street Journal last year reported the Springs has grown 6.5%, or by around 47,000, over the past five years and pushed “El Paso County’s population to overtake Denver County’s population in 2020.”

But the city has nothing like Denver’s robust media ecosystem of digital sites, podcasts, and neighborhood publications. (Daily Dose 719 is trying to fill a gap by seeking to “highlight and amplify the diversity of Colorado Springs.”) When national franchises like Axios, CityCast, or NewsBreak have moved into Colorado they have overlooked the Springs for Denver.

Looking forward, the next two print editions of Sixty35 will be focused on appealing to readers for support, executive editor Bryan Grossman told me Thursday.

He expects next week’s cover to read “Do or Die,” and under it, “Help, or forever lose 30 years of local independent journalism.” The issue will carry information about what the community can do to help along with stories about what happens when communities lose a local news organization (spoiler: it’s bad) — interspersed with blank pages to illustrate what readers will miss should the paper disappear.

“There was a lot of thinking that went into that: Do we do a regular paper around this? Part of the reason that we said no to that is that now we don’t have the staff,” Grossman said.

“We want this to be the central message … we want it to be sort of a gut punch,” he said, adding, “we have two weeks to sort of turn this around.”

To help financially support Sixty35, click here.

Colorado journalists talk democracy and the press

A handful of Colorado journalists convened last week for a panel discussion about the role of democracy and local media.

Kyle Clark, the anchor and managing editor of the nightly news show “Next” on 9NEWS, said at one point, “I am deeply biased in favor of democracy.”

On the panel with Clark was Colorado Public Radio News Director Andrew Villegas, El Comercio de Colorado Editor and Publisher Jesus Sanchez, and Elizabeth Green, founder and CEO of Civic News Company.

The conversation, which I moderated with Melissa Davis of Colorado Media Project, was part of the Herrick Roth Community Seminars on Democracy and took place at the University of Colorado Denver.

It was a wide-ranging discussion, but here were some nuggets from it:

  • “I think that journalists who are very comfortable saying that they want an informed and engaged public should not be shy about saying that they support the pillars of democracy and that they should be concerned about it backsliding,” Clark said.
  • “Our mission is like teaching the 101 of democracy,” Sanchez said of his bi-lingual publication that serves multiple generations of readers. “We are biased,” he said,” about defending democracy.
  • “We were talking about if we should be supporters of democracy, and I will say ‘Yes, and’: that we are skeptical supporters of democracy always because we really want to be aware of the pillars of power that prop up some of the less great things that actually do exist in our democracy,” Villegas said.
  • In 2021, Clark made national news when he challenged journalists to have a public conversation about how best to cover polarizing politicians who traffic in “cruel, false, and bigoted comments” that pay off “in terms of attention and fundraising.” On the panel last week, he said that challenge “was met with complete silence. … I couldn’t find another taker interested in having it, and I still haven’t found the solution of how to deal with folks who see it as a reward when they’re called out for saying something false or bigoted.”
  • On that subject, Villegas said: “We do have the charge to speak truth to power but we also have the charge to tell other people what everybody is saying.”
  • Green said her Civic News Company is among the several U.S. newsrooms to have created a “democracy beat.”
  • I wondered if a major newsroom in Colorado created a democracy beat if perhaps another one might create a “constitutional republic” beat to capture a certain audience. “I can tell you as an outlet that has very prominently and loudly covered extremism for a couple of years, I think that silence is the opposite beat on it,” Clark said.
  • Villegas: “Practicing democracy, which is really what journalism is and the kind of journalism that we try to do in public media — we talk about having a democracy beat and each of our reporters I think is on that beat in a lot of ways because we’re looking at how society functions and the way that it, quite frankly, doesn’t function in a lot of ways. And so one of the things we’re always trying to get at underneath it is who it’s not functioning for and why it’s not functioning for them.”
  • Clark implored as many media outlets as are willing to make clear that “the United States is not magic, that it’s not forever, that we have systems because people believe in them and they participate in them and they protect them, and it involves pointing out — by name — the folks in Colorado that are trying to dismantle that. Yes, that will alienate part of the audience. … So being given the choice between telling the truth about the dangers to democracy or losing the audience, I know where my choice is. And I would love for more local journalists to get into that space.”

As we gear up for another national election, it wouldn’t surprise me if a narrative starts to build around whether the United States is a democracy or if it should be — so it’s useful to talk about the role of the press in that conversation.

Alfonzo Porter, ‘amplifier of Black voices,’ has died at 60

Metro State University journalism professor Alfonzo Porter, an “amplifier of Black voices” who edited the Denver Urban Spectrum, died unexpectedly on March 12, media reported.

From Sara Martin for The Metropolitan at MSU:

Porter stepped into his role at Met Media in the summer of 2021 after university layoffs during the pandemic that had left a gap in leadership for students. Before his time as director, Porter was also the adviser to The Metropolitan, helping young students find their way into journalism. … Porter was each student’s biggest cheerleader, never batting an eye when someone was in need of a source, a reference call or even just a friend

From Bruce Finley in The Denver Post:

Beyond teaching journalism students, Porter during the pandemic stepped in amid staff cuts to run a weekly magazine, in addition to overseeing the Metropolitan school newspaper. He also worked since 2016 running the Denver Urban Spectrum, a monthly news publication where, back in 1987, he produced a report about gang violence for its first issue.

“This wasn’t expected at all. And we still don’t know what caused it,” Denver Urban Spectrum Publisher Bee Harris said in the story. “Alfonzo wore so many hats. He did so many different things,” Harris added. “Journalism was his first love. He was a social justice advocate. That was his main focus.”

Colorado Times Recorder ads ‘punch back’ at Denver Gazette’s attacks on The Post

A progressive nonprofit online news outlet in Colorado has gotten into the mix after The Denver Gazette launched an attack ad campaign on The Denver Post.

From Jason Salzman, founder of the Colorado Times Recorder:

We aren’t picking up the fight against Anschutz to defend The Denver Post, which has apparently decided not to comment on the attacks.

Instead, our ad campaign is saying that the Gazette‘s attack on The Post conceals a bigger threat facing Colorado journalism.

That’s the Gazette itself.

It’s owned by a conservative donor with bizoodles of money who’s building a media empire with serious potential — especially as we look ahead — to spew forth lethal propaganda across Colorado, undermining elections, government, and progressive ideas and leaders.

The thrust of the Times Recorder ads focus on The Gazette’s politically active billionaire owner, Phil Anschutz. “We’re not owned by a Republican billionaire,” one ad reads while another says, “We didn’t endorse Donald Trump in 2020.”

Another reads “Nobody on our staff said the insurrection mob was ‘probably Antifa’.” That’s a reference to The Gazette’s editorial page editor, who said he was at the Capitol on Jan. 6 for work and posted on Facebook about the riot: “They looked nothing like members of the typical Trump rally crowd. Probably Antifa.”

The Colorado Times Recorder is openly progressive, writing on its “About” page that it emphasizes “coverage of Colorado stories that advance or illuminate the progressive values of freedom, justice, responsibility, opportunity, and equality.”

While readers might know who funds The Gazette, they don’t know who funds The Times Recorder, which doesn’t disclose its progressive donors.

In his write-up about the ads, Salzman said the effort is in “hopes of starting a newspaper war,” which is unlikely — or just tongue in cheek — given the disproportionate size and audience of the outlets.

Colorado lawmakers trying to define ‘news media’?

This week, some journalists and their advocates debated on social media the efficacy of draft state legislation that attempts to define news media in Colorado. The language comes in a potential proposed new law to reform the Colorado Open Records Act.

One provision would allow for a 50% reduction in fees for members of the “news media” who request open records from governments. (Colorado Press Association CEO Tim Regan-Porter says a bill hasn’t been introduced, language in the draft proposal could change, and there aren’t any guarantees that a CORA bill will even be introduced.)

But this is from the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition about how to define what counts as news media in the draft legislation:

“News media” is defined as a broadcast outlet licensed by the Federal Communications Commission or a news organization that has regularly published in print or digital format “in each of the four calendar quarters preceding” a records request, “primarily services the needs of the public by providing news information” and has content primarily “derived from primary sources relating to news and current events.” To qualify for the reduced research-and-retrieval rate, a news organization must also be covered by media liability insurance, disclose its ownership to the public and employ at least one full-time journalist for at least 30 hours a week who reports on “matters of local public interest.”

Excluded from the “news media” definition are 501(c)(4) and 501(c)(6) organizations and 527 political organizations.

Having a press pass from the Colorado Press Association or Broadcasters Association is likely to get a fee reduction, and the current draft says that would be sufficient, Regan-Porter said.

“While I appreciate that journalists are known for making open records requests, the intent of open records laws is transparency for everyone, so I’m not a fan of having a special discount for some and not others,” wrote Colorado Community Media reporter McKenna Harford on social media. “Just lower the fees.”

I spoke with Regan-Porter about the bill on his Local News Matters podcast this week and asked him about that. Among other things, he said the intent is to weed out bad actors who “weaponize” CORA by filing open records requests that slow down the work of government. He said Colorado defines parts of the news media in other portions of law, and that he and others who gave input on the language are trying to be thoughtful about it.

Jeff Roberts, who runs the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition and was also on the podcast, said there has been just no legislative appetite for lowering fees across the board.

“And given the realities of how CORA is being used it’s not as if I think the entire industry writing editorials and filming segments about it and doing TikToks and tweets – that’s just not going to change that,” Regan-Porter said. “So, if we could at least get this, hopefully it … allows some journalists to get some information that they just would not have paid for before.”

If lawmakers do indeed introduce the legislation, the committee hearings should be interesting.

More Colorado media odds & ends

📝 The Colorado Pro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists is seeking nominations for its annual Top of the Rockies awards that include Journalist of the Year, Keeper of the Flame, Educator of the Year, and the First Amendment Award.

🐘 Dave Williams, who the Colorado Republican Party recently chose as its new leader, “went scorched earth on the Denver Post this week after the paper ran a scathing editorial on his election to lead the state’s GOP,” Mediaite reported.

🔎 The Seattle Times ran a Q-and-A with Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition Director Jeff Roberts who also now heads a national transparency advocacy group.

➡️ CLARIFICATION: The emailed newsletter version of this post reported The Colorado Springs Gazette was one of the few newspapers in the country to endorse Republican Donald Trump for president. That’s correct for 2020. For more context, the paper in 2016 didn’t endorse either Trump or Clinton.

🗻 For Women’s History Month, the City of Boulder is highlighting “some of the women who are working to share our community’s stories in various ways.”

🗣 “A year ago, the Coloradoan brought life back to the opinion page by launching the Coloradoan Conversations platform with some assistance from collaborators with the Northern Colorado Deliberative Journalism Project,” wrote Martin CarcassonEric Larsen, and Rebecca Powell, and they offered an update on the project.

💩 Joshua Benton at NiemanLab had a scorcher of a piece about the destruction at Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain that operates papers in Colorado. The company, he wrote, has “increased local ignorance at a scale no other company can match” with its cost-cutting retrenchment. It also comes with this description of the hedge fund that owns The Denver Post: “No. 2 Alden Global Capital.”

⚰️ Patricia Schroeder, a former federal lawmaker from Colorado who was a feminist force in Congress, died this week at 82. She had once “asked the Justice Department to investigate whether Soldier of Fortune was recruiting mercenaries.” The probe “turned up nothing illegal” but Schroeder still criticized the magazine for its “romanticization of war,” Time reported many years ago.

🎥 The state press and broadcasters associations, along with the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition, are asking the State Supreme Court to revise a proposed chief justice directive “to allow the livestreaming of criminal trials and evidentiary hearings in Colorado courtrooms and permit virtual access to civil proceedings.”

📺 Anusha Roy, an anchor and reporter for “Next” on 9NEWS, is “saying goodbye” to the show to do mornings at the station. She quoted a colleague, saying “a decision made for family, is a decision you will never regret.”

🪓 This week marked the five-year anniversary of that hedge fund dropping the ax and laying off a third of The Denver Post’s newsroom. “Some thought the Post would be gone by now. Some thought ⁦ @ColoradoSun ⁩would not last when we launched a few months later,” wrote Sun co-founder and editor Larry Ryckman on Twitter. “I’m glad to see that we’re both still standing and fighting the good fight today.”

🗳 A former owner of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Tim Hoileshad this to say about the newspaper’s opinion side as the city’s residents vote for a new mayor: “The Gazette’s Editorial Board is full of folks who like to paint rosy pictures of people they might need something from. The newspaper won’t necessarily need anything but alas, the Broadmoor might.”

🔎 The national nonprofit investigative journalism powerhouse ProPublica touted its impact of its journalism this week, including its work in Colorado. “Colorado lawmakers are considering two bills that would reform the way family courts handle cases involving allegations of domestic abuse,” wrote editor Charles Ornstein.

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.