Colorado newspapers need new models, better owners

The annual Colorado Press Association awards ceremony is usually a feel-good affair for state newspapers, a recognition of quality journalism from publications of all sizes, from the Front Range to the Four Corners.

Normally, the event and the association’s annual convention are an occasion for back-patting and journalistic pride. This is an opportunity for the association’s 150 media to celebrate the best reports, writings, photos and design from the previous year. This would generally not be the place to mark the destruction of a historic newspaper.

But that’s exactly what’s unwittingly planned for tonight’s awards ceremony at Coors Field, where The Aspen Times is set to take home nine awards for five reporters. None of the five work at the Times today. We’ve all been forced out of office, or fired, since West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers bought The Times in January along with the rest of Swift Communications’ newspapers in Colorado, Utah and California.

The Aspen Times ghost ship is currently down to a single full-time reporter.

Award-winning Times staffers were told we had won something from the press association in May (they don’t reveal what job or category until the public ceremony).

The news came during a particularly tumultuous time at the newspaper. The expected disruption of ownership change had turned into a worrying new phase of corporate censorship. The editorial team had been ordered by Ogden not to write about a controversial development on Aspen Mountain on the heels of Soviet-born billionaire developer Vladislav Doronin suing the paper for its coverage of him. Doronin two months earlier had purchased an acre of land for the development of the Gorsuch Haus ski base, buying it from Jeff Gorsuch and his partners for $76 million. Gorsuch had paid $10 million for it less than eight months earlier.

The day we learned we had won awards, the editorial staff of The Times staged a contentious newsroom meeting with two Ogden representatives who had come to Aspen to discuss the muzzling of coverage. News of the awards ahead of the meeting offered a fleeting moment of pride amid much degradation under Ogden.

Times editor David Krause (now Colorado Sun staff editor) had already resigned and was a weekend away from his last day. The talented photographer Kelsey Brunner, the only photographer on the newspaper team, was soon to post her opinion as well. I was hired to replace Krause – then fired in June for posting an opinion on Ogden’s leading Doronin-related columns. Veteran journalist Scott Condon, who had written for the Times for 35 years, resigned at the end of June and brought his vast experience to rival Aspen Daily News. Hardworking young journalist and food columnist Kaya Williams left soon after; she recently took a position at Aspen Public Radio.

Our names will appear on the Colorado Press Association awards on Saturday, but do not appear on the flagpole of The Times.

I don’t know which Ogden-paid official might be at today’s ceremony claiming the award certificates, or if they’ll bother to show up. I won’t be there, but I hope the disconcerting acknowledgment of the Times’ good work before Ogden will provide a moment for the corps of state reporters gathered at the banquet to recognize what has been lost here and the fragility of local news institutions. .

And, more importantly for the public, I hope it will serve as a catalyst for action to find new models or better owners for the newspapers telling the story of Colorado communities and holding the powerful accountable.

These will be the last Colorado Press Association awards covering the pre-Ogden media landscape in Colorado.

The decimation of the Aspen Times newsroom was dramatic and eerie and became very public this summer after I was fired. Less public were the struggles of reporters from the other 10 Colorado newspapers Ogden bought across ski country and the West Rim.

They may not have had their reporting silenced by Ogden to appease a billionaire developer, as we did at The Times. And they may not have invited the national press to cover the fallout, like we did. But their communities are still losing out as the papers have suffered turnover and attrition of reporters and editors since Ogden’s takeover as they gave up their housing for the workforce and prepare to leave their newsroom buildings (Ogden did not buy them when they bought these newspaper companies).

Without journalists on the local beat, readers and the public interest cannot be properly served. So tonight, let Colorado’s media toast to what they had in 2021 — then let’s get back to work finding a way forward for local news.

Andrew Travers of Aspen is a journalist and former editor of the Aspen Times.

About Michael B. Billingsley

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