Dean of statehouse press corps Ashby laid off by Pueblo Chieftain

View of the Colorado Senate Chamber from the visitors' gallery (Photo/writetomikek, Flickr)
View of the Colorado Senate Chamber from the visitors' gallery (Photo/writetomikek, Flickr)
The number of reporters covering the Colorado Capitol continues to drop as Charles Ashby, Denver bureau chief for The Pueblo Chieftain, received word Tuesday that he would be laid off.

Ashby will continue reporting from the statehouse through the legislative session, Chieftain managing editor Steve Henson told the Colorado Independent on Tuesday afternoon. He has covered the Capitol for the Chieftain since 2005 and was the Durango Herald’s state legislative reporter for seven sessions before that.

The Chieftain plans to “keep our presence there (in Denver)” after Ashby’s departure, Henson said, but he wasn’t sure whether the newspaper would use stringers or send reporters up from Pueblo on occasion. “It’s up in the air,” Henson said. “We’re in freefall right now.”

Ashby is the sixth employee laid off since the beginning of the year at the family-owned Chieftain, though his is only the second editorial position cut, Henson said. The newspaper has cut eight newsroom positions through attrition the last few years years, he said. “We’re about 20 percent down, and I don’t see an end.”

Circuit City’s demise last week could have been the last straw. “The timing is driven by some advertising issues,” Henson said, mentioning the electronic retailer’s announcement Friday it would liquidate after failing to find a buyer while in bankruptcy. “That’s very significant when we lose a big box store in a town the size of Pueblo,” he said. “It wasn’t the only reason, but we have seen a significant drop in ad revenues.”

Shuttering the Denver bureau was strictly a matter of economics, Henson said. “(Charles) has been a very good bureau chief for us.” He said the layoffs are among “a number of cost-savings measures we’re looking at in a challenging environment.”

In recent months, the Fort Collins Coloradoan did away with its full-time political reporter position, instead relying on 9News reporter Adam Schrager to cover the Capitol. Last month, the political news Web site, which based its lone reporter at the Capitol, shut its doors. News outlets across Colorado have taken unprecedented hits as the tanking economy crossed paths with a changing media landscape.

The Coloradoan’s executive editor, Bob Moore, said Tuesday that the dwindling number of reporters covering the Capitol and statewide campaigns could have serious repercussions. “The key issue is local newspapers are focusing increasingly local, but the challenge with that is a lot of what shapes those local communities happens in Denver and Washington,” Moore told the Colorado Independent. He noted that “it’s not a new trend,” and that statehouse coverage has been dropping across the country for years. Moore said the tough economy, which has hit newspapers particularly hard, isn’t the only thing to blame. “One of the things that has to shake out is some kind of new model for covering state government, especially as it affects local level,” he said.

“In 2010, we might just have one institution, probably The Denver Post, providing regular coverage of the governor’s race,” Moore said. “That is a significant issue.”

E.W. Scripps Co., owner of the Rocky Mountain News, put the Denver daily up for sale in December and is examining offers this week. Scripps officials said if a buyer isn’t found, the 149-year-old newspaper could be shut down, leaving the Post as the sole newspaper that even attempts to cover the entire state.

Ashby’s wife works at the Rocky and faces a future no less uncertain than her husband’s. That fact played a part in the Chieftain’s plans to notify Ashby on Tuesday while keeping him aboard until the General Assembly adjourns in May, Henson said. “We’re family owned,” he said, “so we could say, let’s wait untl the end of the session.”

“The timing is horrible,” Henson said, “but the timing is always horrible when someone is laid off.”

Former reporter Jeremy Pelzer, who served on the Colorado Capitol Press Association with Ashby last year, posted this assessment of Ashby on his blog, Mile High Politics, Tuesday afternoon:

Ashby was better-sourced and was more well-known in state government than perhaps any other Statehouse reporter. He broke several major stories last year alone, including a explosive statement from Republican presidential nominee John McCain that he wanted to renegotiate the 1922 Colorado River Compact.

Ashby has reported for newspapers in Boulder, Colorado Springs, Montrose, Longmont and Sterling in Colorado, as well as newspapers in Virginia, Nebraska and Florida, according to a an online Q&A he did with the Web site Colorado Pols.

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