Gannett buyouts hit Colorado newspapers bookending the Front Range

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

The Gannett-owned Pueblo Chieftain newspaper in southern Colorado (Photo by Corey Hutchins)

In the 1997 film Men in Black, there’s a scene where Tommy Lee Jones wants to prevent some local officials from remembering a particularly newsworthy event. He pulls out a small metal device with a red light at the tip. “This is called a Neuralyzer,” he says. “It’s a gift from some friends from out of town.”

When the Neuralyzer flashes it wipes their memories clean.

This week, we learned buyout offers from some friends from out of town, namely the Virginia-based Gannett newspaper chain, will mean a kind of neuralyzing for two of our state’s larger newspapers that bookend the Front Range. Longtime journalists at the Chieftain in Pueblo and a veteran journalist at the Coloradoan in Fort Collins are leaving with buyouts— and with them, a whole lot of institutional memory is getting zapped from their newsrooms.

These voluntary Colorado retirements are part of a nationwide program. As the Poynter Institute recently reported, about 500 people throughout the Gannett chain are accepting buyout packages. “The buyouts include about 60 editors, 19 photojournalists, seven managing editors, three executive editors and 124 reporters,” Poynter reported Nov. 12.

In Pueblo, the Chieftain’s top two editors, Steve Henson and Karen Vigil, are retiring Monday. Henson has been at the paper for 40 years; Vigil has worked there since 1988. Kevin Duggan, who has covered city government for a quarter century at The Coloradoan, is also leaving as part of Gannett’s buyout plan.

“I am just so proud of the crew that we have now. We’ve dealt with the pandemic and staffing challenges as so many businesses have, and I think that it is remarkable that we are still reporting important news,” Henson said in a weekend Chieftain story about the retirements. “I admire so many people that I have worked with throughout the years, but I I love the group that I work with now. I’m going to miss them tremendously.” (Henson wrote a separate first-person Sunday swan song.) Vigil told the paper she plans to “take a deep breath and enjoy everything,” and added she wants to “thank everyone who has been supportive of the mission that we have in the free press.”

Tony Mulligan, administrative officer for the Denver Newspaper Guild who represents union employees at the Chieftain but not the Coloradoan, says Gannett did not threaten layoffs if the company doesn’t get its “bodycount” through volunteers. “It’s voluntary, but its net effect is diminishing news coverage for our communities,” he says. He added a Chieftain reporter also recently left the paper to work for a local school district without a buyout package.

For his part, Duggan told readers he doesn’t blame the newspaper company. Here’s what he wrote in a goodbye column about his retirement:

In hopes of quashing conspiracy theories before they start, let me be clear. I am leaving of my own accord. I’m not being pushed out by the Coloradoan or its corporate owner, Gannett. I have no gripes or grudges with the company or anyone who works here. My colleagues are like a second family to me, and I will deeply miss them, just as I will miss connecting with the many people I have come to know around Northern Colorado.

My coworkers, and this community, have treated me exceedingly well, especially during the last couple of years as I went through treatment for multiple myeloma. The disease is in remission and I am feeling quite well, thank you. That’s one of the motivators for calling it quits now. Experiencing cancer, covering the COVID-19 pandemic and seeing all the crazy random things that happen in life, I’ve learned one’s time on this planet is short. And I hope to enjoy the rest of mine without the stress of reporting the news of the day.

Last year, the nation’s two largest newspaper companies, GateHouse and Gannett, announced plans to merge. GateHouse owned the Chieftain, and Gannett owned the Coloroadoan. The mega-company — Gannett won the name war — owns six other publications in Colorado and is part of the USA Today network.

This week, as the buyouts rolled out across the country, local outlets from OhioOklahoma, Tennessee, and elsewhere published goodbye items to and from longtime editors, publishers, writers, and photographers. One East Coast editor had “an unmatched institutional memory of Rhode Island history,” his paper reported. In Indiana, six veteran journalists at The Indianapolis Star are taking buyouts— “including the investigations editor who oversaw the newspaper’s exposé of USA Gymnastics that led to the arrest of the team doctor who molested more than 100 girls.” The Florida Times-Union is “losing at least four staff positions through voluntary buyouts.” In Illinois, this month marked “the end of an era” for state government and political reporting after the buyout retirements of two longtime journalists from the Gannett-owned State Journal-Register.

In 2018, Columbia Journalism Review reported in a piece titled “The Bought-Out” that newspaper buyouts “seemed rare and relatively novel” a decade ago. Not anymore. “Many of those who have taken buyouts point out that when newspapers lose their more experienced workers,” CJR reported, “they also lose institutional memory.”

‘An unconventional way to report the news’

In the latest elections, voters in Boulder voted in favor of a two-decade agreement with a local utility provider, Xcel Energy, temporarily putting on ice a movement to create a locally owned utility in Boulder, or, as Colorado Public Radio described it, “a city takeover of [the] electric company’s power lines and poles.”

What voters passed Nov. 3 was a settlement agreement, the result, according to Boulder Weekly, “of a year’s worth of negotiations between City officials and Xcel, instigated, last year, by Council members Bob Yates and Sam Weaver and Xcel representatives.” The talks, BW goes on, “involved settling a lawsuit the City filed to ascertain how much it would cost to assume Xcel’s assets in order to push forward on the muni. Once a settlement agreement was reached, City Council elected to put the franchise agreement to voters, and they approved it.”

But along the way, community members and advocacy groups “have reached out to Boulder Weekly with concerns about the transparency of the process,” the alt-weekly wrote in a recent GoFundMe crowd-funding appeal. The paper filed a Colorado Open Records Act request asking for emails and correspondence between Yates, Weaver, Boulder’s city attorney, and Xcel representatives.

More from Boulder Weekly:

But, as is often the case in Colorado, the price-tag associated with accessing these documents is high: $1,050 (estimate found here ). Like other small businesses, BW has had to become exceptionally frugal in order to employ the journalists, production team, delivery drivers and other staff that ensure you get quality, local, in-depth news every week.

So the paper asked its community to help raise money for the CORA records fee. The paper said if it met its goal, editors would “review the documents and publish them in full, in concert with a story that provides context for what they mean.” The community stepped up, and Boulder Weekly met its fundraising goal.

“We realize this is an unconventional way to report the news, but we also think this provides an opportunity to engage with our community of readers in a novel way, and may offer a blueprint for our news organization and others for future investigations,” Boulder Weekly said on its GoFundMe page.

Matt Cortina, the paper’s editor, says they raised the money in four hours— and people continued to send in checks after they met their goal and closed the fundraiser. “Others have stopped by to tell us how they rely on BW to cover stories like this,” Cortina says. “Their trust in us and in independent journalism is humbling, and we may use this model for future projects on issues that our community tells us matter to them.”

Appeals Court: No libel for Denver Post and 9News for reporting on 2016 case

Colorado’s two largest news organizations could rely on the fair report privilege and therefore did not defame a man who sued The Denver Post and 9News after they reported inaccuracies when covering his 2016 trial, the state appeals court ruled this week.

The case involved a man named Eric St. George whom jurors found guilty for, as one Denver Post headline put it: “groping stripper, shooting at Lakewood police officers.”

Michael Karlik at Colorado Politics this week scooped the rundown of the ruling:

Following his 2018 conviction, The Post, 9News and the First Judicial District Attorney’s Office wrote about the outcome. St. George told the organizations that what they published was false and libelous. He filed suit in January 2019. The Court of Appeals on Wednesday dismissed St. George’s defamation claim against the news outlets because the statute of limitations expired. The three-member panel also agreed with a Denver District Court judge’s ruling that the fair report privilege provided a defense to the outlets when they reported inaccurate details from a government document — in this case, a press release from the district attorney’s office.

The fair report privilege can protect journalists in libel and defamation lawsuits if they “report on or republish defamatory statements made during the official affairs of the government or governmental meetings,” wrote David L. Hudson Jr. in the Free Speech Center at Middle Tennessee State University.

In this case, Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg, who represents the news outlets, told Colorado Politics “the court’s finding that the two news organizations’ reports are absolutely privileged, as ‘fair reports’ of the District Attorney’s press release, is consistent with numerous precedents (outside of Colorado) that have applied that common law privilege to official public statements of government agencies.”

9News investigative journalist back from COVID quarantine

Nicole Vap, who directs investigations for KUSA 9News, learned she tested positive for the coronavirus just after Election Day, and is back to work this week.

Around Nov. 7, she said she learned she and others in her household had the virus. “Our symptoms so far are flu like, not anything too serious,” she said at the time.

Vap is the second Colorado TV journalist this newsletter has reported publicly saying they had the coronavirus so far. Recall how a TV journalist in the Springs said a couple weeks ago that having COVID-19 felt like “standing atop a 14er.”

Bennet bill critique: ‘Imagine the worst’

Last week, Colorado Democratic U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet sat for a roundtable Zoom discussion with journalists and publishers about his Future of Local News Commission Act. He was there to get input from some in the local media business and answer questions they might have.

This week, Complete Colorado columnist Ari Armstrong raised his own questions about any potential federal legislation. From the outlet of the libertarian-leaning Independence Institute, which also produces original reporting:

Who is to decide what is “critical information” and what is not? Who is to decide which “inequities” merit correction? Does this mean publications will be tax-funded only if they hire more conservatives, who are woefully underrepresented in Colorado’s news media landscape? Of course we know that is not what Senator Bennet means. In practice, this probably means tax-promoted affirmative action for “critical studies” graduates who happen to be members of racial or gender minorities.

Who is to decide which media outlets shall receive tax subsidies? The local equivalent of Fox News? Breitbart? InfoWars? Every day I get an email from the anonymous producers of the red-meat conservative “Citizen Press”—will they be eligible for tax financing if they jump through the right hoops? What about this overtly conservative-libertarian publication, Complete Colorado (which, I hope, wouldn’t accept the funds anyway)? What about the hard-left Colorado Times Recorder?

The federal legislation, which groups in Colorado like the Colorado Media Project and national groups like the Society of Professional Journalists support, seeks to create a 13-member commission to examine a host of issues facing the local news industry and offer recommendations.

“When we imagine politicians (indirectly) handing tax dollars to journalists, we should imagine not only our favored politicians and our favored journalists in ideal times; we should imagine the worst possible politicians and the sort of ‘journalists’ who excel at gaming the political system,” Armstrong warned.

Watzman: Pay due attention to that platform behind the curtain

Facebook has come under increased scrutiny in recent months about the extent to which the social media platform is grappling with the immense power it has over the flow of information.

This week, The New York Times exposed how the company’s employees and executives “are battling over how to reduce misinformation and hate speech without hurting the company’s bottom line.” A separate Times story from the opinion side looked at “What Facebook fed the baby boomers.” Meanwhile, United States senators in both parties took Facebook to task in recent weeks, from accusing the platform of not cracking down hard enough on anti-Muslim content to wanting to “control all news in America.”

The social network came in for criticism this week in our state from a different front. Nancy Watzman, who consults in the media-funder-democracy-misinformation-fighting sphere, published a guest column in The Colorado Sun that urged Facebook not to block what she called a “journalist tool revealing how political ads are targeted,” namely, a product of the NYU Ad Observatory project at New York University, which Watzman supports as a consultant.

From the piece:

This team of intrepid NYU cybersecurity researchers provided journalists, researchers and the public with information on how campaigns and political spenders were using Facebook strategically across the country. … Specifically, the targeting information comes from the Ad Observer tool, a browser plug-in that allows Facebook users – 16,000 and counting – to volunteer data on what ads they see on the platform.

Ad Observatory does not collect nor does it reveal any personal data about these volunteers or their friends. But Facebook does not approve of this accountability tool and has issued a cease-and-desist letter to the project, demanding it shut down the tool and delete all the data collected by Nov. 30.

Dozens of groups and individuals have signed onto a recent letter urging Facebook to drop its cease-and-desist, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Institute for Nonprofit News, Online News Association, SPJ, and others. Lynn Schofield Clark, the chair and director of the Estlow Center for Journalism & New Media at the University of Denver’s Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies, also appears as a signatory.

“The Ad Observatory project’s data has fueled stories and research showing how political campaigns use Facebook’s ad-targeting systems in manipulative ways to reach voters,” Watzman says in her column. “It has provided information on ways foreign governments have reached U.S. voters with questionable content. It’s been the basis for showing how dark money groups of different political stripes use Facebook to spread misleading messages. It’s fueled analyses on how Facebook still sells discriminatory ads — despite promising to stop after a lawsuit from civil rights groups.”

More and more, Watzman says, she hopes news organizations or individual reporters will pay more attention to the way information is being mediated in our disrupted digital age.

“I think you’ve got to be looking at exploring ways to use new techniques of reporting — tech-supported reporting, various tools like this Ad Observatory tool — to help you in kind of watchdogging and holding the platforms accountable and looking at what they’re doing as opposed to just what they say they’re doing,” she told me over the phone recently.

Facebook has been giving financial grants to local news outlets across the country including here in Colorado — and including to The Colorado Sun. So it was especially nice to see Watzman’s column appear there.

A Colorado journalism professor on Substack

No, that headline isn’t about your humble newsletter printer— yet, anyway.

Columbia Journalism Review quoted Nathan Schneider, a journalist and professor at the University of Colorado in Boulder, in the magazine’s big recent piece about the role of Substack in our evolving national media landscape. Here’s an excerpt of the story by Brooklyn freelancer Clio Chang:

The founders don’t claim that Substack will “save” media—a promise that’s bound to disappoint—but they argue that their model is a core part of a better, more worker-centric and reader-friendly future for journalism.

And here’s what Schneider, who focuses on “models for democratic ownership and governance for online platforms and protocols” as the founder of CU’s Media Center and Design Lab, said for the story:

“Substack is not the sort of thing that is going to create a sustainable next phase, but it can open the door to things that we don’t have doors for yet.”

If you’re in the business of understanding publishing and the changing relationships between journalists and audiences, you should be following Substack’s rise. The CJR story comes after big profiles of the platform in The New York Times and The Washington Post. High-profile journalists like Andrew Sullivan, Matt Taibbi, and Glenn Greenwald turned heads when they left their perches at institutional media outlets to go it alone on Substack where they’ll write their own direct-to-subscriber newsletters (and maybe even make more money). Last week, Matt Yglesias left Vox for Substack.

When Colorado College colleagues, students, and I launched The CC COVID-19 Reporting Project this summer, we used Substack and found it incredibly easy to use and an all-around great experience for us and our readers.

Substack, where, full disclosure, this newsletter might one day end up, reminds me in a way of what was happening in U.S. media nearly 100 years ago when some of the big-name newspaper columnists like Walter Lippman, Ernie Pyle, and Dorothy Thompson joined syndication services. When writing about the rise of syndication in the years between 1929 and 1941 in his book Covering America, Christopher Daly explained that “aside from their talents, what these journalists shared was access to methods of distributing their work that amplified their voices and thus opened new possibilities for individual journalists.” What was different then, though, was that syndication “made it possible for a newspaper writer to become wealthy without becoming a business owner.”

These days, if Substack is the new third-party syndicate connecting journalists to new audiences, these new journalists aren’t remaining untethered to the business side even if they don’t own the business.

More Colorado local media odds & ends

📺Kerry O-Connor is the new producer for the Denver CBS affiliate for the 6 p.m. news, “a solid journalist with great energy and creative production ideas.”
📰How the University of Kansas J-school in our neighboring state is helping bring back local news.
⚰️Randy Bean, a “celebrated broadcast journalist and film producer,” died suddenly at 72 in Loveland. She worked on The Bill Moyers Show, and her most recent project, “American Creed,” which aired on PBS in 2018, was “an exploration of what it means to be American at a time when the nation is so divided.”
📡How an “unexpected issue at home” for a 9News ‘Next’ anchor led to “one of the best episodes in the history of the show.”
🍔Hands down the best coverage of the opening of a Colorado In-N-Out burger.
🗞️That’s what you call a “ringer.”
🔥KUSA 9News ‘Next’ anchor Kyle Clark roasted the mayor for leaving town over Thanksgiving: “This is the last time Denver needs to hear public health guidance from Mayor Hancock,” Clark said. “If the city has a leader who actually follows the advice they give the public, we’ll put them on instead.”
🔫Colorado Parks and Wildlife hosted the “2020 Women in Media Shootout” this fall, earning a write-up in The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
💸Throughout the pandemic, CBS4 in Denver says its investigative team has “helped several people get their unemployment benefits – more than $50,0000 collectively – after months of [the claimants] calling the agency with no answer as to why their claim wasn’t being paid out.”
🛡️A newspaper photojournalist in neighboring Arizona recounted a troubling experience while on the job. (His newspaper, The Arizona Republic, published a list of recent attacks on Arizona journalists.)
❌’Steve’ who?
🐦Twitter “intends to expand its media presence in Boulder, Colorado, as it contracts its footprint in the pricier West Coast,” reports commercial real-estate information tracker CoStar.
🌲In CJR, a reporter says The Denver Post’s hedge-fund owner Alden Global Capital “buys up newspapers and chops them down to stumps.”
🚓Denverite reports “new body cameras would automatically start recording when officers draw their weapons.”
⚙️Here’s photographic evidence that small-town newspaper publishers in Colorado really “do it all.”

*This column appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE


  1. Thank you for keeping this high school journalism teacher up-to-date on the happenings in the field. Your reporting helps me guide my students as they embark on fledgling careers. And on that topic, what is a journalism teacher to say when a student’s love of the newsroom leads to a journalism major? When a former student lands that great job at the Chieftan and then I read about the cuts in staff with each new buy-out? My heart breaks for Austin White, sports reporter at the Chieftan and former sports editor at the Wheat Ridge Haystack.

    Once again, your excellent reporting of the news world is greatly appreciated!

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