The annual Colorado Press Association awards ceremony is usually a feel-good affair for the state’s newspapers, a recognition of the quality journalism coming out of publications of all sizes, from the Front Range to the Four Corners.
Normally the event and the association’s annual convention is an occasion for back-patting and journalistic pride. It’s a chance for the association’s 150 news outlets to celebrate the best reporting, writing, photos and design of the previous year. It wouldn’t typically be the venue to highlight a historic newspaper’s destruction.
But that is exactly what is unintentionally on tap for the awards ceremony tonight at Coors Field, where the Aspen Times is due to win nine awards for five journalists. None of the five are working at the Times today. All of us were forced to resign on principle, or fired, since West Virginia-based Ogden Newspapers bought the Times in January along with the rest of Swift Communications’ papers in Colorado, Utah and California.
The ghost ship Aspen Times is currently down to one working full-time reporter.
The award-winning Times staffers were notified that we’d won something from the press association back in May (they don’t reveal what piece of work or what category until the public ceremony).
Word came during a particularly tumultuous period at the paper. The expected disruption from the ownership change had devolved into a disturbing new phase of corporate censorship. The editorial team was under orders from 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 bought an acre of land earmarked for the divisive Gorsuch Haus ski base area development, purchasing 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 got word we’d won prizes, the Times editorial team had a contentious newsroom “town hall” meeting with two Ogden representatives who came to Aspen to discuss the muzzling of coverage. Word of the awards before the meeting offered a fleeting moment of pride amid much degradation under Ogden.
Times Editor David Krause (today a team editor at The Colorado Sun) had already resigned and was a weekend away from his last day. Talented photographer Kelsey Brunner, the paper’s lone staff photographer, would soon put in her notice, too. I was hired to replace Krause — and then fired in June for publishing an opinion about Ogden spiking columns related to Doronin. Veteran reporter Scott Condon, who had been writing for the Times for 35 years, resigned in late June and took his vast experience to the rival Aspen Daily News. The hard-working young reporter and food columnist Kaya Williams left soon thereafter; she recently took a post at Aspen Public Radio.
Our names will be on the awards from the Colorado Press Association on Saturday, but aren’t on the Times masthead.
I don’t know what Ogden-paid functionary might be at the ceremony today to claim the award certificates, or if they’ll bother to show up at all. I won’t be there, but I hope the discomfiting recognition of the Times’ good pre-Ogden work will provide a moment for the state corps of journalists assembled at the banquet to recognize what’s been lost here and the fragility of local news institutions.
And, more importantly for the public, I hope it might serve as a catalyst for action to find new models or better owners for the papers telling the story of Colorado communities and holding the powerful accountable.
This 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 strange and became very public this summer after my firing. Less public have been struggles of journalists at the 10 other Colorado newspapers bought by Ogden across ski country and the Western Slope.
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 national press coverage of the fallout, as we did. But their communities are still losing out as the papers have undergone reporter and editor turnover and attrition since the Ogden takeover, as they’ve given up their workforce housing and prepare to leave their newsroom buildings (Ogden did not buy them when they purchased these newspaper businesses).
Without reporters on the local beat, readers and the public interest can’t be adequately served. So tonight, let the Colorado media toast what they had in 2021 — and then let’s get back to work on finding a way forward for local news.
Andrew Travers, of Aspen, is a journalist and former Aspen Times editor.
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