The Aspen Times Is Making News for All the Wrong Reasons

  • 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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Six months after Ogden Newspapers of West Virginia bought The Aspen Times, the 140-year-old paper has become the subject of negative local news coverage.

In recent weeks, the newspaper has been reeling from a billionaire developer’s lawsuit (and later settlement), the paper’s editor quitting while citing the “vibe” under new ownership, the town’s mayor accusing the paper of suppressing news coverage, and the interim editor “strenuously” objecting to management decisions.

“I’m not going to lie, morale is not great right now,” Publisher Allison Pattillo told Aspen Public Radio in a newscast this morning.

The latest shoe to drop came this week when Andrew Travers, who had just accepted the job as the newspaper’s top editor, said he was “unexpectedly dismissed” for publishing a guest column critical of the paper. That column detailed what Travers called “self-censorship at the Times imposed by owners Ogden Newspapers.”

Here’s a statement from Travers, who had been at the paper for nearly a decade:

“My termination as editor of the Aspen Times resulted from a resort town newspaper columnist expressing opinions about luxury hotel developers. Much of what an Aspen columnist does — and is expected to do — is express opinions about such development. But this speaks to the deepening crisis for American press freedom. If we are at the point that someone with enough money or aggressive enough lawyers — like the Gorsuches or Vladislav Doronin — can sue and intimidate media organizations into silence on something as basic as this community issue, then the First Amendment and press freedom have been bought and sold at a tragically cheap price.

For a recap on the players mentioned above, Megan Tackett at the rival Aspen Daily News offered some context in a June 13 story she wrote about the Travers ouster:

On Saturday, plenty of social media chatter about The Aspen Times was already circulating, about a Friday column written by Roger Marolt regarding his experiences with the editorial team over the course of two weeks, when he had back-to-back columns go unpublished. Both columns commented on Vladislav Doronin’s March $76.25-million purchase of the near-acre parcel on Aspen Mountain on which a 26-voter majority had granted development entitlements, then to what would have become the Gorsuch Haus. But at the time, the Times was a defendant in a lawsuit filed by Doronin alleging defamation and libel about its coverage of him. 

Some more nuggets from the Tackett piece, which details how Marolt’s column, published online and then removed, included internal email exchanges between the columnist and his editor about a topic the paper couldn’t cover.

  • “Based on the decision from my bosses at Ogden, I have been instructed to hold this column because currently we are being sued for defamation by Doronin’s people,” then-editor David Krause wrote to Marolt in an April 28 email. “There’s a lot to this drama, including the fact Ogden will not let us write about being sued, the fact that I have another story on Doronin that we can’t publish until the lawsuit is settled, per the orders of my boss.”
  • “The column was shared dozens of times on social media, garnering dozens more comments,” Tackett wrote. “And then on Saturday evening sometime, the column and the email exchange disappeared from the website. Screenshots and web archives continue to circulate, but the original online publication is no longer live, as of Sunday night.”
  • “Public statements issued by Ogden assured that newsrooms would remain largely intact,” Tackett wrote. “But there were a few factors that impacted many employees almost immediately, as a result of the nature of the business deal: mainly that those who relied on their employer for employee housing would be losing it by the end of June. That’s because Swift sold its media assets to Ogden, not its real estate holdings.”
  • “I think the development in Aspen — once again — shows how much ownership matters when it comes to local news,” I told Tackett when she called me for context about the situation.
  • “I’m disappointed with what’s been going on there. It’s sad to see what we really built up in the past five years, when I was editor, is slowly getting dismantled one way or the other,” ex-editor Krause told Tackett. “And it’s really disappointing.”

The group publisher for Swift Communications and Ogden, Scott Stanford, told Tackett he wouldn’t comment on personnel matters and said his interest was in focusing on “covering the community and what’s happening in Aspen and the surrounding area.”

Stanford told Aspen Public Radio’s Dominic Anthony Walsh the paper will continue to report on Doronin. Walsh interviewed Stanford, publisher Pattillo, former editor Krause, and Travers about the situation. Travers told Walsh he published the Marolt column in order to clear the air about concerns over coverage suppression and to rebuild community trust. (What followed likely did the opposite.)

Publisher Patillo confirmed to Walsh she green-lit the concept of the column but didn’t read everything and wasn’t aware of the internal email correspondence in it. She called its publication a “communication breakdown” and owned it. “Ideally, I feel like us not being part of the news would help,” she said about trying to move forward and focusing on reporting the news. “But I know that we are, which is why I agreed to do this [Aspen Public Radio interview] … so we could try to answer more questions.”

Even in tumult and with reduced staff, Walsh reported The Aspen Times “does still have some of the most experienced reporters in the Roaring Fork Valley and it remains one of the largest newsrooms in the valley.” (The newsy broadcast starts seven minutes in.)

On Wednesday, an Aspen city councilman, Ward Hauenstein, became the latest local government official to weigh in on the developments at one of the town’s two daily newspapers.

“The fabric of our community is compromised — if a man is offered a promotion, and he reportedly conditioned his acceptance of that position on the ability to exercise honor, integrity and transparency, he’s showing character,” the councilman said.

More from the council member in the Daily News:

“Now it appears as though we have an out-of-state business that controls the Aspen press,” he said, in clear reference to West Virginia-based Ogden. “You all must do something to stop it. …We’re blessed to have many people living in Aspen with great means — I’m appealing to them now. Help save Aspen by funding the purchase of freedom and truth by buying the Times or funding a new paper for truth.”

The Aspen Daily News published Councilman Hauenstein’s comments, and in its story chronicled some history about the two papers serving Aspen. (Two rival daily newspapers is a rarity in U.S. cities these days.)

From the piece:

The Aspen Times was founded in 1881. Bil Dunaway, a U.S. Army 10th Mountain Division veteran, purchased the newspaper in 1956 and ran it for the next 35 years before Swift Communications purchased it in 1995. Ogden acquired Swift in December. 

Dave Danforth started the Aspen Daily News in 1978 as a single-sheet “missive.” He sold the publication, after growing it into a full-blown newspaper, to his publisher David Cook and Cook’s business partner, Spencer McKnight, in 2017. The two had compiled an investment group to make the purchase a reality. 

“I can assure the Aspen community every one of my partners were men of integrity and never once tried to interfere in the business of news. I have nothing but respect and admiration for each and every one of them,” Cook said. 

Still, he and McKnight bought out their ownership group in September last year. Part of the challenge — and a sacred one, he said, especially in the midst of extensive “news deserts” across the rest of the country — is having a meaningful daily competitor.

“I respect and admire our entire media community. In fact, my media career started with The Aspen Times family here in the Roaring Fork Valley,” he said. “But it needs to be said that there are independently owned and operated voices and media companies.”

On Thursday, Travers said in a statement that he still loves The Aspen Times, its talented news team, and columnists. “I took great pride in working there for eight years and in the opportunity to lead the newspaper with integrity out of its current tumult,” he said. “The ongoing muzzling of coverage and commentary is a black eye on the paper and its 141 years of telling Aspen’s story.”

Travers said Friday it has been a full-time job telling the story of what happened at the paper in recent weeks while fielding calls from concerned community members. “My job right now is telling that story,” he added, and indicated there might be more to come. “It’s not a one-day or a one-week story.”

🛩 This newsletter is in out-of-the-office mode, meaning content might be lighter than usual.

🎙 Colorado Public Radio “convened a group of mostly Latinx journalists … to come up with ways our work could reach more Latinos,” said CPR-owned Denverite’s Ana Campbell who wrote about a new podcast that grew from those discussions. “I don’t know how to fix this broken industry of ours,” she said, “but this feels like a step in the right direction.”

💨 Pueblo Chieftain Editor Karin Zeitvogel says today is her last day after joining the paper just four months ago from Kaiserslautern, Germany, where she edited and reported for Stars and Stripes. The paper has been bleeding out ever since its merger between Gatehouse and Gannett in a deal made possible by hedge fund financing. “The Chieftain needs competition,” Zeitvogel says.

🗣 The Denver Post will get a new commenting platform, “powered by Viafoura,” next week. “An added benefit of Viafoura is the increased moderation that will ensure the high standards we have set for our community continue to be applied consistently and without prejudice,” the paper wrote. “The system will reduce hate speech and harmful language in our comment section by automatically disabling comments that include profanity and includes the ability for users to flag comments they believe violate our commenting rules.” (The paper has been battling how best to clean up its “cesspool” comment sections that had become “fertile battlegrounds for all manner of trolls, racists and spam artists” for years.) The Post’s new rules will “prohibit the use of vulgar language, personal name-calling or attacks, impersonating another commenter and publishing personal information, spammy links or content.” Meanwhile, commenters “must treat each other with respect and stay on point. Those who violate the rules will be banned from commenting.”

📻 Colorado Public Radio this week welcomed three new members to its board of directors. They are: Amy Blair (senior vice president and Chief People Officer for Liberty Global), Carlos P. Hipolito-Delgado (professor in counseling at the University of Colorado Denver), and Brandy Shultz (founder of national staffing service Adventure Nannies). “They each come to CPR with a strong passion and belief in its mission, backed by diverse professional and personal experiences that will contribute greatly to the board’s efforts,” Board Chair Brad Greenwald said in a statement.

🆕 Amelia Allen is joining The Indy alt-weekly in Colorado Springs. “I’m hoping to develop as a writer and a thinker during my time here,” she wrote an in introduction to readers. Sara Martin will be joining Colorado Community Media for the next eight weeks as a summer intern and is looking for news tips or story ideas.

💼 Chris Walker, a former staff writer at Westword, has started a new job as associate editor of Denver’s 5280 magazine. “After a 3 years in the freelance wilderness,” he said, “I’m excited to be writing and editing stories about Denver again.”

🎤 The Colorado Sun reported this week that Republican gubernatorial candidate Heidi Ganahl “is making the interview rounds with nonpartisan media outlets.” Citing a spokesperson, the Sun reported in a June 14 subscription-only newsletter that “the candidate did interviews with The Denver Post, Axios Denver and Westword last week” and “is scheduled to speak with The Colorado Sun, CBS4, Colorado Public Radio and The Associated Press this week.” The Sun added that “she will not, however, do an interview” with Kyle Clark of 9News. The Sun had earlier reported that Ganahl hadn’t done an in-depth interview with a nonpartisan media outlet “and turned down our request that she appear at a primary debate.”

📢 Here are two recent quips about media from Ganahl in those interviews. To The Denver Post’s Alex Burness when he asked about which candidate she supports as the nominee in the GOP primary for Colorado secretary of state that pits — Burness’s words — “two election deniers” against a candidate who “does not believe” the election was stolen: “This is how we go wrong in these interviews … This is why the people of Colorado, or a lot of them, don’t trust the media.” And to Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio when he said he felt she made an unfair comparison in response to a question about whether she thinks Joe Biden was “duly” elected: “This is how we get into trouble and why people don’t trust the media right now, because it’s important to listen to all sides of the conversation.” (“Russian meddling happened. Widespread election fraud did not,” Warner told the candidate. “As a journalist, it’s very important to me to say one of those things is a fact and one of those isn’t.”)

🕶 Journalists at The Denver Post have their own bomber jackets. The newsroom held its annual awards ceremony this week. Here are the winners.

❌ An item about Chris Reen, chairman of Colorado Politics, being named president and CEO of Clarity Media Group in last week’s newsletter made it seem like it happened recently. It did not. A news story about it in The Gazette actually appeared a year and a half ago from the day I published last week’s newsletter. “I’m guessing you might need to check your newsletter flux capacitor to determine what caused the story to pop up on your radar for today,” a reader wrote me. (I was writing that newsletter from a country in a time zone seven hours ahead, but I still can’t figure out how it happened and am embarrassed by the flub.)

📡 “Your ears will perk up at these new Western podcasts,” Kylie Mohr reported for High Country News.

🤖 KUSA 9News host Kyle Clark, who often engages with critics on social media, called out one of them this week for using a stock photo in a Twitter profile. Asked by a reader why he engages with “obvious bots,” the news anchor said, “It’s a good way to get to know them before they run for office in Colorado.”

🏔 Writing about the Ogden takeover of Swift Communications newspapers, former Swifty Alison Berg, who recently left The Steamboat Pilot for Rocky Mountain PBS, said this week: “I’m not really sure what else to say except that Ogden has lost some of its best employees since it took over. So much institutional knowledge and community connections is gone. And in small towns where those papers are, connecting the community is vital. It’s a huge loss.”

📰 Dan Kennedy at Media Nation picked up on the new ownership deal at Sentinel Colorado, writing, “Media activists in Colorado have stepped up once again to save a newspaper from either closing or falling into the clutches of corporate chain ownership.”

✂️ Standard General, which is in the process of buying TEGNA, the company that owns Denver’s 9News TV station, responded to an FCC query about whether it would reduce staff if the purchase goes through. “Standard General does not intend to reduce station-level staffing following the Transaction,” the company wrote, adding it “has always placed a high value on local journalism and has no intention, and has not had any intention, of reducing news or news staff at … the TEGNA stations.” (Common Cause and the NewsGuild-CWA are opposing the takeover, Poynter’s Al Tompkins reported; he also wrote about Standard Media CEO Deb McDermott trying to “calm rumors and concerns” about cuts.)

🔎 Don’t forget to register for IRE22, the Investigative Reporters & Editors conference taking place in Denver June 23-25.

➡️ Former Colorado journalist Nic Garcia will leave as politics editor of The Des Moines Register to become the new regional editor of the powerhouse nonprofit Texas Tribune newsroom. Garcia said on social media he learned a lot in Des Moines, and “perhaps the most important lesson is how much your life outside the newsroom matters. While I love politics, my heart is in Dallas.”

💬 Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet appeared on the Pivot podcast with journalist Kara Swisher and NYU Professor Scott Galloway to talk about his his Digital Platform Commission Act.

🏆 The Gazette in Colorado Springs “took home a tall stack of awards” in the 2022 Society for Features Journalism Excellence-in-Features contest.

🎉 On June 23, The Pueblo Star Journal is hosting a community celebration and fundraiser to benefit the new nonprofit newspaper serving the southern Colorado city. “You may have already noticed that at the end of every article in the print newspaper, you will discover a little shovel,” part of the announcement states. “We have asked a group of local artists to use their creative genius to transform ordinary garden trowels and large shovels into works of art for a very special live auction at the fundraising event. … You won’t want to miss this fun and unique opportunity to own your own PSJ shovel.”

📍 Bookmark this: “Reimagining the public square: What’s happening in Colorado’s information ecosystem right now.”

⚙️ Colorado journalism job board: Rocky Mountain PBS is looking for a digital media producer it will pay $52,000 to $55,000. The Gazette will pay a reporter $50,000 to $60,000 to cover Aurora. It will also pay a managing editor $90,000 to $95,000. The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel will pay a full-time reporter $30,000 to $35,000. Sky-Hi News in Granby is looking for an editor it will pay $45,000 to $55,000.

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.