Sunday, June 18, 2017

Chapter 6: The Cyclical Snake

I'm calling it quits even though I know there's a lot more to this entire story. I just don't have the time.

To the many people who helped and encouraged the work on this blog, and particularly to everyone who agreed to be identified by name by a reporter they knew was going to be poking a wealthy and powerful man in the eye, I owe you all an enormous thank you. 

It is important to me to note here that The Colorado Springs Gazette has a fantastic history full of great journalists who have done world-class work over the decades, including many that still are putting out first-rate stories. I wish them all nothing but the best.

While there are several more stories that would definitely warrant the same attention and time I spent on the first three chapters of this blog, the reality is that I'm too damn busy. Here's hoping more will come to light eventually.

I'm also now curious about how Anschutz thinks his investment in The Gazette is going, given the paper's editorial page crusade that, from what I hear, failed completely in its quest to get a few particular city council members elected in April. Out of the six endorsements still listed on, only two won, and one - David Geislinger - was unopposed on the ballot. A particularly stinging loss for Anschutz in the municipal election is probably returning City Councilman Richard Skorman, who won by over 15 percent of the vote and was on the opposite side of Anschutz, The Broadmoor and The Gazette on the Strawberry Fields land swap.

Amusingly, The Gazette's endorsement of Skorman's opponent focused on an attempt by Skorman to raise money from legal marijuana businesses, and his opponent's opposition to "anything that would result in proliferation of more pot stores lining the streets."

But Skorman won. And he wants to put recreational marijuana on the ballot again in Colorado Springs. Which, I'd be willing to bet, probably irks Anschutz. I wonder how that may manifest itself down the road.

However it does, it may not have a direct impact on The Gazette and its coverage. I would urge every reader to give the paper both scrutiny when appropriate and credit when due.

I'm also wondering if Vince Bzdek is having to fend off Anschutz and Steever, given that the paper also recently revisited the entire topic of marijuana and its effects on Colorado in a multipart series that ran beginning April 30.

The series was evenhanded and represents what Clearing the Haze could have, should have been. It's a fair look at the ramifications of the legal marijuana industry, including the ongoing black market problem that has remained, with many growers shipping illegally out of state. That's a serious problem, and it needs to be addressed. But the reporters also noted several significant upsides to legalization, including the added tax revenue for Manitou Springs that's resulted in major infrastructure investments. Overall, the series is a solid collection of work from five solid reporters. My hat is off to all the staffers who contributed to the series, and to Bzdek for running it.

For me, though, the series' very publication indicates that either Bzdek has had an overall positive influence on coverage or that Anschutz & Co. learned from the blowback over Clearing the Haze. Or both. 

Which brings me back to the beginning. Hence the title, the Cyclical Snake. Because also, just in June, Anschutz acquired yet another Colorado newspaper: The Colorado Statesman.

That news hit home to me, because it's where I began my journalism career. So now the same billionaire owns both newspapers that I've worked for. I spent a total of more than seven years working for publications that the same man now holds in his power.

So The Statesman was merged with, the still-relatively-new political site launched by Clarity Media last year, and where Dan Njegomir, a former Republican state Senate staffer, holds a good bit of sway.

I've heard rumors that the Statesman sale was almost more of a mercy purchase than a strategic acquisition, which may be true. But it's yet more ink that is arguably controlled by one man, who has a deep interest in influencing public policy.

Which brings us back to where we began. Full circle. It reminded me of a snake eating its own tail. The bill always comes due.

Other rumors about the possible sale of The Denver Post also continue to swirl, meanwhile. Most of the intelligent journos I know haven't at all written off Anschutz as a possible buyer. And again, we still have that statement from Bzdek late last year, when he said Anschutz would buy the Post "tomorrow," presumably if the right deal was put on the table by Digital First, the Post's owner.

So this blog will remain, for the public record.

I have to say, now, almost six months after the first installments were published, I wasn't sure what to expect as far as reaction. I'm not sure how many people I've persuaded to be more on their guard when it comes to Phil Anschutz and his possible influence over The Gazette, or if I've reinforced negative stereotypes in an age when the President of the United States has an ongoing active war with journalists. I sincerely hope it was not the latter.

But I'm optimistic that both The Gazette, and newspapers around the country, will be able to find the proper balance between business models and journalistic ethics. One reason I'm hopeful is because journalism and ethics are bound to the truth. And the truth will never be unpopular. It may not be liked by everyone, but truth sells.

As Bzdek reiterated recently, "Journalism's first obligation is to tell the truth."

Bravo, sir. And God speed. I hope your boss agrees with you.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Chapter 5: Billionaires bad for newspapers? It depends

Philip Anschutz isn't the only wealthy businessman who's developed a sudden interest in the newspaper industry. A few years ago, billionaires started snatching up small and large daily papers across the country.

Some did it out of altruism. Some believe there's still money to be made in the newspaper business. But some saw newspapers as a vehicle to drive their own agendas.

But after years of rising news print costs, declining circulations, and whacks to newsroom staff, one thing is now undeniably true: Newspapers are cheap.

In 2013, Jeff Bezos - the CEO of - paid $250 million for The Washington Post, instead of the billions it was once worth. The same year, John Henry - the owner of the Boston Red Sox - paid $70 million for The Boston Globe, compared to the $1.1 billion The New York Times paid for it in 1993. And in 2013, Warren Buffett went on a newspaper buying spree, and picked up about 30 community newspapers. He now owns 54 daily papers. Buffett has said in multiple interviews that he believes in community journalism and the value it provides.

"If it wasn't clear that newspapers have become trophies for the wealthy with an interest in journalism  or power - or a combination of both - it should be now," Andrew Ross Sorkin wrote for The New York Times in 2013 while describing the paper-buying scene.

The upside of billionaire owners is they can be patient with profits and losses. Bezos wrote in a 2013 memo to Washington Post staff that he had no intention of changing the newsroom values of the paper.

"I won't be leading The Washington Post day to day. I am happily living in the 'other Washington' where I have a day job that I love," Bezos wrote to the Post newsroom.

Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst and author of Newsonomics, pointed out to me that recent billionaire newspaper owners have more often than not invested in their papers, rather than making budget cuts to turn a profit. Bezos, he said, is the most astounding example of all, because he reinvested the most.

"You look at how The Washington Post has assumed a new national importance in Trump times, and his addition of staff there has been dramatic," Doctor said.

Doctor further noted that John Henry and The Boston Globe - along with Mankato billionaire Glen Taylor, who bought The Minneapolis Star Tribune for $100 million in 2014 - are two more examples of billionaires being good for newspapers.

"Each of them has bought into the industry within the last two years now, and in general, they are along the better owners," Doctor said. "They also, to a varying degree, have a civic interest. They believe in the value of newspapers for communities. So you put those two things together, and what each of them has done has essentially stabilized their operations."

But when pressed on whether the sudden influx of wealthy owners is always a good thing for newspapers and their staffers, Doctor said the bottom line is really that "It depends on which billionaire you get."

A pair of cautionary tales are billionaire casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and multimillionaire developer Doug Manchester.

Adelson, who is worth approximately $32 billion (several times Anschutz's net worth), purchased The Las Vegas Review-Journal in 2015 for $140 million. And immediately after the purchase, disturbing reports of Adelson's new influence began to leak out of the newsroom.

Two days after Adelson's lawyers lost their attempt to have a judge removed from a contentious lawsuit that threatened Adelson's gambling empire, Review-Journal staffers were summoned to a meeting with the publisher and told they must monitor the courtroom actions of the judges and two others in the city. When the reporters protested, they were told it was an instruction from above and that there was no choice.

Doug Manchester bought The San Diego Union-Tribune in 2011 for an undisclosed sum (though some reports had the purchase amount as high as $110 million), and then sold it for $85 million in 2015 to the Tribune Publishing Company.

But while he owned it, Manchester turned the paper extremely political. A conservative Republican with a distinctly pro-business agenda, Manchester blurred the normal editorial-opinion lines with the Union-Tribune to further his own interests during his tenure as owner, many critics said.

Doctor said from what he heard out of San Diego, the newsroom head was "good at keeping (Manchester) at bay, but it raised a lot of suspicions about the kind of news coverage you would get out of (the Union-Tribune)" because Manchester was "plainly using it for political ends."

In 2012, when Boston investment group 2100 Trust - which briefly owned The Colorado Springs Gazette - bought The Orange County Register and six other daily papers, The Los Angeles Times reported that some Register employees were "relieved that the paper did not go to Manchester."

"Newspapers have gone from the public markets to the hands of a relatively few billionaires who have an appetite for social, civic and financial roles," Doctor said in another 2013 New York Times article.

Anschutz, however, never publicly laid out his vision or motive for The Colorado Springs Gazette. He never called a newsroom meeting. I never met him or spoke to him, and it was the same for most of my colleagues while I was still at The Gazette.

And while he may be media-shy, he's definitely not politically shy. He's been bankrolling conservative causes and organizations for years, trying to shape public opinion, in ways that echo moves by Adelson and Manchester.

Just after Anschutz bought The Gazette, Media Matters raised questions about whether he would mold the paper's content the same way that he'd done previously with The Oklahoman, which he had acquired in 2011, about 14 months before buying The Gazette. (Personally, I think that question has been answered, but maybe it's more of an ongoing tug-of-war with Gazette journalists on one side and Anschutz, McKibben and Steever on the other. Makes me wonder what the atmosphere is these days in The Gazette newsroom.)

Doctor says he doesn't expect to see billionaires racing to buy up more newspapers, but the important thing for Colorado news consumers is that it's not out of the realm of possibility that Anchutz may still snatch up The Denver Post.

Last November, Gazette Editor Vince Bzdek said during a speech at Colorado College that Anschutz had tried to buy the Post but that the paper's owners wouldn't sell, The Colorado Independent reported.

"If they would sell he would buy it tomorrow," Bzdek said. And that was just seven months ago.

From my understanding, the likely scenario was that Digital First Media, the Post's parent company, balked at only selling The Post, as opposed to its entire media empire altogether for a lump sum. That would have driven the price up significantly, and included 13 other papers in Colorado. From what I've heard, Anschutz is only interested in The Denver Post. So the deal fell through.

It's also worth noting here (and because he never responded to my interview requests) that in the same speech, Bzdek said he had been "trying to find out 'Is (The Gazette) going to be a mouthpiece for this guy? Is this something he's going to use to drive his agenda?' I've not found that to be the case. I found he has this ... commitment to the betterment of Colorado Springs."

Well, I certainly hope so. But I know a few more people who could probably use convincing.

Either way, unless there's another billionaire or would-be newspaper owner waiting in the wings to spring up out of nowhere and rescue the cash-strapped Denver Post, it seems like Anschutz could still wind up with it, Doctor said.

"The logical alternative is that there's some other person or small group that has $50 to $100 million," Doctor said, throwing out a range of what the Post could sell for. "Because we're talking about the future of the daily press in Colorado. It's still very, very powerful, and given the politics of the country, it's a purple state. If you control the daily press, even though it is weakening, throughout the state, from Boulder to Colorado Springs to Denver ... that's political power.

"That's what's at stake here."

The price of The Denver Post, however, could be even lower. This is pure speculation, since a deal would be contingent on how badly Digital First Media's primary hedge fund owner Alden Global Capital wants to unload it and how much someone like Anschutz would be willing to pay, but I've spoken to several newspaper veterans who have suggested The Post could go for even less than the range Doctor suggested, based in large part on the state of the industry and its continually declining revenues.

The other rumor that's making the rounds these days is that Alden Global Capital may actually now be willing to break off The Post from the rest of its media empire and sell it as an individual asset to Anschutz. One source of mine even told me the rumor is the company is actively pursuing Anschutz as a buyer. And, as Bzdek confirmed in November, it's common knowledge that Anschutz wants Colorado's flagship daily newspaper.

And what will happen if Anschutz does buy the Post?

Some of the people I spoke to believe he'll immediately break the Denver Newspaper Guild's hold on the Post newsroom, and then lay off a lot of overlapping reporters (why would he need two sports desks that both cover the Denver Broncos, for instance?) Others suggested he'd immediately do away with The Cannabist, a spin-off business The Post began after Colorado legalized marijuana in 2012, because Anschutz is solidly anti-marijuana.

But the more pervasive fear, and the one that I hold, was articulated by former Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jan Martin.

"I have no reason to believe that he wouldn't, because of the experience here in Colorado Springs," Martin said, when I asked her if she thought Anschutz would use his influence as owner to alter the news coverage by The Denver Post after buying it.

"And it's so sad, because the average reader isn't going to even notice, because it's so subtle," Martin pointed out. "It could be something as simple as headlines on Associated Press stories. But the headline drives the story. So it's a real concern to me. It's one thing to live in Colorado Springs and know we're a conservative city and have that be our voice; it's a whole other thing when it moves to Denver. That's millions of people, not just half a million."

What happens when a billionaire with the resources of the largest daily newspaper in the state has control over how it covers city and state politics? Over issues like taxes, the environment, education? Energy regulation, tourism, even zoning for business deals like the Aurora Gaylord Hotel project that his underlings were so hellbent on smearing?

As both Doctor and former Gazette editor Jeff Thomas reminded me, such activism is really nothing new in the news business.

"Find me a city in America where a publisher hasn't tried to use their newspaper to sabotage someone else's competing interest or boost their own," Thomas said. "None of which is to excuse it, but ... I don't regard Phil Anschutz as anything terribly singular, other than the amount of cash he has at his disposal. Nor do I necessarily believe his intentions are nefarious. He may genuinely believe that a 'healthy Colorado Springs is good for everybody,' and that's classic publisher thinking too."

As Doctor further noted, "It's not a new issue. You go back to when most of these papers were community-owned, and they were owned by wealthy people, usually people with other interests. That's a whole can of worms right there."

But just because corruption in the news business isn't new doesn't mean it should be tolerated.

Still, Doctor concluded that there's less of a trend of media companies - both print and broadcast - being bought up by the wealthy as opposed to consolidation throughout the industry. And that could be accelerated this year, he said, by potential changes to federal rules that govern media company ownership.

"I think it is proper to fear it and be concerned by it," Doctor concluded when pressed on whether he's worried by figures such as Adelson, Manchester and Anschutz and their involvements in the newspaper business. "But it's not a major trend right now. I think the major thing to watch in 2017 ... is that the FCC under Trump may rewrite cross-ownership rules."

If owners like Anschutz start buying up TV stations as well as outlets like The Denver Post and The Colorado Springs Gazette after a rewrite of federal regulations under Trump, that could spawn an entirely new era of corporate interests blurring the lines of what's trustworthy in the news and what's not, especially in this age of "fake news" and a commander-in-chief who believes the press is the "enemy of the people."

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Chapter 4: Right up to the line

The front page of The Colorado Springs Gazette on
Sunday, March 22, 2015, with a prominent banner
ad for Clearing the Haze.
Most of the problems at The Gazette documented in the previous chapters here didn't get much attention from the public at large. The paper continued on as one of the largest news outlets in El Paso County, largely unquestioned with regard to its coverage and potential conflicts of interest.

That all changed on March 22, 2015.

That was the day the paper began publishing Clearing the Haze, a so-called "perspective series" of anti-marijuana screeds that blurred the line between traditional reporting and the type of opinionated hot air that had become typical of The Gazette's editorial page editor, Wayne Laugesen.

The paper was hit with a hyper-critical backlash, including negative responses from a number of former Gazette staffers, including myself. Steever even went on the record with the Columbia Journalism Review to defend the project.

The problem was simple: The entire series was unfair, full of reporting holes and unanswered questions. It was researched and written not by Gazette reporters but by the editorial board along with a freelancer, Christine Tatum, who just so happens to be a visceral anti-marijuana activist. She even went so far in Clearing the Haze as to liberally quote her husband, Dr. Christian Thurstone, another prominent marijuana critic.

Which means nothing in the series is trustworthy.

Clearing the Haze was comprised of 18 articles, published over four days that March nearly two years ago. A special website was even set up by The Gazette to showcase all of the articles included in the series, a site that is still active today.

But the March 2015 run wasn't the end of Clearing the Haze; the paper published at least five follow-up pieces over the course of that year, with the last apparently dated Dec. 20, 2015.

It seems unnecessary to rehash a lot of that history, since the project was so roundly lampooned at the time. But there's some important backstory to both Clearing the Haze and marijuana coverage in general by The Gazette that's worth noting here.

First of all, Clearing the Haze seemed to many Gazette staffers as the culmination of months of interference by management on marijuana-related stories. Barbara Cotter, as The Gazette's business editor in 2014 and 2015, occasionally wanted to run marijuana-related news pieces in the business section, but was prohibited from doing so by her superiors, including editor Joe Hight.

"I got the directive, 'No marijuana stories in the business section,'" Cotter recalled. "I was told over and over again that our ownership is anti-pot."

This was also after Cotter had won multiple awards for her 2013 coverage of Charlotte's Web, a marijuana-based treatment for epilepsy that brought serious relief to many seizure-stricken children for whom conventional medicines were not working.

The news of Charlotte's Web, which was first really reported by Cotter and The Gazette, even sparked a wave of immigrants to Colorado, of parents desperately looking for treatment for their epileptic kids. And it was Gazette reporter Dave Philipps, who won the Pulitzer Prize during his time at the paper, who reported on that wave of immigrants.

But those two stories ran in 2013. Something changed at some point, and in 2014, it became obvious to those of us working inside the newsroom, before Clearing the Haze blew the lid in 2015.

There were directives, according to newsroom staffers, that marijuana stories were to be downplayed or kept out of the paper altogether. When the first recreational marijuana shop in the county opened in July of 2014 - which qualifies as big local news, regardless of whether readers were pro- or anti-marijuana - the story was buried in the inside of the paper. On the front page ran a feature story about a summer camp for Jewish children and an Associated Press piece about the CIA.

Furthermore, it's never been clear just how Clearing the Haze came about, especially given that it should have been a project assigned to reporters in The Gazette's newsroom, since it supposedly was exploring legitimate questions about the impact of marijuana legalization in Colorado. There were many serious questions raised about such impacts, which are all still worth exploring, and should be from a public policy standpoint. The public does deserve an honest assessment as to whether marijuana legalization has, overall, been a net positive or negative to the state and to communities. That could definitely have been done by reporters on staff at the time.

Instead, what Gazette staffers heard through the grapevine was that Tatum, a former TV journalist turned public relations pro, had pitched the entire project directly to Anschutz, and gotten his blessing.

"My sources told me that there was some event, and Christine Tatum went up to Philip Anschutz, and had this great idea (for Clearing the Haze)," Cotter said. "That's how I heard it. I don't know if that's how it happened, but that's what I heard."

Tatum's husband, Dr. Thurstone, is an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Colorado School of Medicine, Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. According to one story that was circulating in The Gazette's newsroom in 2015, Tatum met Anschutz at a Christmas party at the medical campus in Aurora, which is where she pitched him the idea of Clearing the Haze.

I heard the same thing from a few other sources. And it sounds plausible to me, though I've never gotten to ask Anschutz if it's true or not.

But however it came about, it was damn weird, and definitely was not typical newsroom protocol.

There was also significant pushback from within The Gazette's newsroom prior to Clearing the Haze's publication. One editor even addressed the situation directly in a meeting with Gazette reporters three days before the first installment was published, according to a source.

"It has been thoroughly discussed by many concerned people. It's running the way it's running," the editor told staffers who were concerned that the series would come across as a product of the newsroom, instead of the editorial board and Tatum.

In other words, Gazette reporters and editors didn't want people thinking they wrote it.

"There have been a few times since Clarity took over that we've walked right up to the line of what is ethical and what is unethical," the editor said at that meeting, according to my source.

But the takeaway here is not that a hack former reporter - namely Tatum - was able to get a pet project approved by a billionaire with a chip on his shoulder when it comes to drug policy.

No, the lesson here is that a major daily newspaper - the second-largest in Colorado - was usurped by a cabal that obviously didn't give two shits about providing the public with a fair assessment of the situation.

In other words, the people behind Clearing the Haze didn't care about news. They cared about giving marijuana a black eye. The series didn't address any of the positive aspects of marijuana, such as those of Colorado Springs military veterans who use marijuana to relieve their symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder.

"You couldn't have a starker example of the disintegration of the firewall (between the newsroom and the editorial department) than that," Noreen said. "It wasn't played like op-ed stuff. It was played like it was a news story."

Noreen, who hadn't heard about the Haze project before it started running, quit the paper for good after that (he'd been taking on fill-in editing shifts from time to time at The Gazette).

"I come in for a week's worth of work on the news desk, and this thing's running, and I look at the paper and I go, 'Jesus Christ!'" Noreen said. "Day after day after day of it. I said, 'I have my reputation to think of. I can't even come back and work part-time for an outfit that's doing this.' ... So I did those last two shifts, and after that, no more."

Jan Martin, the former city councilwoman, told me afterwards that the series "clearly crossed the lines, in my opinion, from news to editorial."

Even Bzdek, the new Gazette editor, told the Columbia Journalism Review that Clearing the Haze was a serious mistake.

"I told them I never would have run that series," Bzdek said.

But here's the kicker: The Gazette tried to influence national marijuana policy with Clearing the Haze.

According to my sources, the original 18 articles were printed and bound professionally, and copies were sent to members of Congress, perhaps all 535 of them.

And there's no logical reason for a company like The Gazette or Clarity Media to pay for such a thing unless it was in the hopes of pushing lawmakers toward anti-marijuana policy stances.

Such a move would have likely cost either The Gazette or Clarity Media thousands of dollars in personnel hours, along with costs for the binding and shipping of the Clearing the Haze articles. That doesn't even factor in however much Tatum may have been paid to write tens of thousands of words for the series, despite the articles being riddled with obvious reporting holes.

Again, I have not had the chance to interview anyone at The Gazette about any of this, which means it's still unclear whether Anschutz himself was directly responsible for Clearing the Haze, or what exactly the intentions behind the series were. If Tatum would care to go on the record about the process behind Clearing the Haze, I welcome the chance to speak with her, and will happily post any response here that she would care to make.

But the possibility of a billionaire owner using a newspaper that he purchased to suit his own political ends - in this case, to seemingly oppose legal marijuana reforms in general - is very real. And that should disturb any reader of The Gazette who puts their faith and trust in the paper's reporting.

The irony here is that The Gazette's editorial page, prior to the purchase by Clarity in 2012, was actually pro-marijuana, to some extent (or perhaps more appropriately, it didn't think marijuana was that big of a deal, and certainly not enough of an issue to warrant an enormous "perspective series").

Even in an editorial written by Laugesen that's still online as of April 15, 2017, The Gazette noted that plenty of political conservatives were in favor of marijuana legalization because it was consistent with the libertarian philosophy of small government and personal freedom.

"City and county politicians may only waste the public's time and money by passing laws counter to legalization," Laugesen wrote. "The drug is here, and it's not going anywhere."

There were also earlier editorials, which Laugesen likely penned as well, that also argued that marijuana is a non-issue for Colorado and that it's been settled by voters.

Which means that the opinion of the paper changed with the new ownership. While there's nothing surprising or questionable about that in and of itself, it's another indication of exactly how much influence Anschutz has wielded over The Gazette.

This was also, aside from Daniel Chacon's removal from City Hall, one of the first times The Gazette faced a sizable backlash from its reader base regarding obviously flawed coverage.

So to be fair, it seems that The Gazette's management may have learned from past mistakes. Although I haven't tracked the paper's marijuana-related coverage very closely over the past year and a half, it seems that the newsroom has readjusted and is approaching the topic in a more even-handed manner, instead of the wild "alternative facts"-style tone that Tatum brought to the pages of the paper with Clearing the Haze.

Also, four of the five follow-up pieces were clearly labeled as "editorials," at least on the Clearing the Haze website (that wasn't true in all of the print versions of The Gazette, such as the July 12, 2015 paper that on the front page advertised another "perspective series" entry). That clearly separates the content from the newsroom and puts it squarely on the subjective shoulders of the editorial department.

What could be more important, though, than how Clearing the Haze was presented was how coverage was directed, as in Cotter's case while she was business editor. If that's the precedent, may that also be the future at The Denver Post if Anschutz gets around to buying it?

Next chapter's coming in another day or so. (I know, I took longer than a week off from publishing. Give a guy a break. Only two more chapters to come.)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Chapter 3: The interference builds

The most dangerous threat to the integrity of the Fourth Estate comes not from obvious missteps by owners such as Anschutz, like the Clearing the Haze debacle in 2015. Those are simple to identify and easy for readers to dismiss as untrustworthy.

No, the most insidious threat that activist newspaper owners present is in everyday news stories. It is in stories that most readers would never pick out as altered or lacking, stories that fail to mention key details or make important connections, that don't paint the full relevant picture for civic-minded news consumers who care, for example, how local tax dollars are spent.

Those are the stories that too often can slip by unnoticed, and therefore, they are the most dangerous.

City for Champions was one such storyline, and it's particularly relevant when considering Anschutz, Clarity Media, and The Colorado Springs Gazette.

City for Champions is a Colorado Springs development proposal to use state tax rebates to jumpstart four city projects - a medical research facility at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs; a U.S. Air Force Academy visitors' center; a U.S. Olympic museum; and a downtown sports stadium and event center.

The project was the brainchild of a select group of elite Colorado Springs businesspeople and stakeholders, including Bill Hybl, Steve Bartolin, (ret) Lt. Gen. Mike Gould, Pam Shockley-Zalabak, and other power brokers. It was unveiled in July 2013 by Bach at a press conference.

Behind the scenes, the Denver-based Anschutz Foundation - a nonprofit organization that awards grants to other nonprofit organizations - put up $75,000 toward the city's $300,000 tab for lawyers to draw up the plans. So did the El Pomar Foundation and the Downtown Partnership, signifying that many city leaders saw the City for Champions proposal as an investment in the future.

The Colorado Springs Gazette's front page on
Feb. 2, 2014.
On Sunday, Feb. 2, 2014, the cabal behind the City for Champions proposal were probably feeling good about the banner headline in The Gazette that blared, "Private donors stepping up," over a story that reported much of the proposal was going to be funded by wealthy philanthropists. (The catch was that there were no such philanthropists, at least at that point, who were willing to be publicly identified.)

The headline was the result of clever manipulation, and was aided and abetted by Gazette management, according to former Gazette City Hall reporter Monica Mendoza. She was hired to take over after Chacon was reassigned to night cops, and aside from also experiencing the same pattern of constant badgering from Bach's office that began with Chacon, she said that City for Champions was a particularly troubling issue.

It wasn't the first time that a coalition of city officials and special interests, including Bach, former city attorney Chris Melcher, and other City for Champions backers were able to coordinate the timing of news articles, Mendoza said.

But not everyone agreed with the City for Champions plans. Immediately, the plan was panned by residents who were angered that the city would undertake a big taxpayer-supported proposal without citizen input.

The biggest critics were from City Hall. Then-City Council President Keith King and then-Councilman Joel Miller blasted the proposal. Other council members also objected. They feared that local taxpayers would be on the hook to fund a downtown sports stadium, and that the stadium would later be turned over to a private owner, who many speculated would be Anschutz.

The idea isn't as far-fetched as it may sound. Anschutz owns a number of sports stadiums across the country, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles and the StubHub Center in Carson, California. He was once dubbed "The man who owns L.A." by The New Yorker, and he's negotiated plenty of complex arena financing deals with other government partners across the country.

And the City for Champions financing plan called for spending about $200 million in local public money on the proposed downtown stadium and events center.

Proponents, including the Sports Corp. - a nonprofit organization that, among other things, organizes The Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb and The Broadmoor Pikes Peak Cycling Hill Climb - launched a massive media campaign to sway public favor in support of the proposal. (Oh, and Steever sits on the Sports Corp.'s board of directors.)

King and Miller set a city council meeting agenda item for Feb. 3, 2014, to talk about the financing of City for Champions. The Friday night before the meeting, City for Champions backers called Hight and said they would reveal information about the private donors for three of the projects in the proposal. Mendoza was asked to talk to them on Saturday for a special Sunday story, she recounted.

"We're getting it exclusively," Mendoza recalled Hight telling her at the time.

But no new information was revealed. The organizers emailed Mendoza a one-page statement and an interview with El Paso County Commissioner Dennis Hisey, who was a de facto spokesman for the City for Champions project at the time. Hisey reiterated that three of the four projects would be paid for with private donations, but provided no details about who would be the financial sponsors.

In other words, there was no news.

Regardless, City for Champions got a banner headline that Sunday in The Gazette, just one day before King and Miller were set to pose questions about the entire project at a public hearing in City Hall.

"It really upset me," Mendoza said. "It seemed that the City for Champions organizers pulled one over on the paper. But what really upset me was that the editor should not have allowed it."

The entire City for Champions story "made me uncomfortable from the beginning," said Mendoza, who left The Gazette in April 2015 and is now a reporter with The Denver Business Journal. "The Anschutz Foundation gave money to the city to hire the attorneys to write the application" for state tax money to fund the City for Champions proposal.

"From there, the city project was pushed by The Gazette's publisher," Mendoza said. "For example, when the City for Champions organizers came into The Gazette's conference room to talk to me and another reporter, they had a Powerpoint presentation. Steever had set up the meeting. He didn't ask the organizers questions like a reporter would. He spoke almost in unison with the organizers about how great the project was going to be."

"I never experienced anything like that in my 20 plus years as a reporter," she said.

After City for Champions became a political football, Councilman Miller became the subject of at least a dozen Gazette editorials that painted him as a naysayer obstructionist. And it all started when he questioned City for Champions, Mendoza noted.

A full-page ad in support of City for
Champions in the Aug. 17, 2014 Gazette.
Then, full-page color City for Champions ads began running in The Gazette - at least eight of them between May and August of 2014. The ads were sold for a huge discount of $250 each under a trade account with the Sports Corp., instead of the more typical cost of $7,000, according to Stacy Brack, a former Gazette advertising sales executive who said she viewed company documentation related to the ads.

Trade accounts are pre-approved and must be something that benefits The Gazette, Brack explained. For instance, the local minor league baseball team, the Sky Sox, often trades for Gazette banners at its baseball stadium.

Brack viewed the ads as public relations for the City for Champions project, underwritten by The Gazette.

"The Gazette has no benefit from this," Brack said. "So basically, one of the red flags about this ad is, typically with trade advertising, if it's a Sky Sox ad or if it's sponsored in some way, The Gazette may request that their logo be placed on the ad. With City for Champions, there's no logo or signage being placed anywhere. So my question is, what is The Gazette receiving as a benefit for running the trade advertising?"

That's one of the many questions I would like to ask Steever. Or McKibben. Or Anschutz. But I've never had the chance. It is also a question Gazette readers may want to keep in mind when evaluating what they're reading in the paper, and whether a particular topic is connected to Anschutz or his business interests.

"It's very abnormal," Brack said of the City for Champions-Gazette ad account with the Sports Corp. "I've never seen this done in the eight years I've been in advertising."

When asked what she made of the ads and the trade account, Brack said the only logical explanation is that it benefits Anschutz directly somehow.

"I think that basically it's significant because City for Champions is a direct benefit to The Gazette's owner, Philip Anschutz," Brack said, but emphasized that she was speculating. "My feeling is that the newspaper has just become a mouthpiece for Philip Anschutz and what his business agenda is. He wants the public to think it's a good thing, that it's a positive change for them, no matter if it affects their taxes or not, no matter how it affects the city. We're changing public opinion by ownership of the paper. And by doing so with advertising, that just promotes propaganda that's his at a very low rate, that's a fairly unethical journalistic thing to do."

Combine the cost of the ads Brack knows were run - and there could have been more - with the $75,000 the Anschutz Foundation ponied up for the original City for Champions proposal, and Anschutz has invested at least $130,000 toward backing the project.

To date there has not been any formal discussion that Anschutz would take ownership or be involved in the City for Champions sports stadium and event center (at least, not in the public record). In fact, the city has been fairly quiet about that fourth project. But the Sports Corp. City for Champions information page says the stadium is projected to cost $92 million and open in 2019.

Whether or not City for Champions will prove a worthwhile investment for Colorado Springs is yet to be seen. It could end up being a solid economic driver, and help create jobs and tax revenue. But if The Gazette's owner, a billionaire with well-documented financial interests in other sports arenas in multiple countries, also has a financial interest in the project, then that's something the taxpayers of Colorado Springs deserve to know.

It's possible, of course, that Anschutz is investing in the project out of the goodness of his heart. But if he is, why give away tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising when The Gazette itself didn't seem to be on solid financial footing? Why not just fund the project directly, since Anschutz himself is worth over $12 billion? If the Sports Corp. is right, and the stadium is only going to cost $92 million, that's peanuts to a businessman with such assets.

It doesn't make any sense. Unless Anschutz saw it as an investment instead of charity. Then it makes perfect sense: Use The Gazette to drum up public support and shout down those who would undercut the deal, just as Brack suspects. Control the flow of information, and control public opinion.

"It's 1984-ish," Cotter said. "It's trying to control information. The good thing is that Philip Anschutz cannot own every publication in the United States."

Mendoza also heard directly from Wayne Laugesen, the editorial page editor, that Anschutz took a personal interest in The Gazette's content.

In August of 2014, Laugesen strolled by Mendoza's desk to ask if she was covering a local ballot initiative that had to do with a city stormwater proposal.

"I've been given a direct order from Phil to write in support of it," Laugesen said. Mendoza recalled it because the incident seemed odd, almost like Laugesen was boasting that he was getting orders straight from the owner. She wrote down afterward what had transpired.

"You get direction straight from Anschutz?" she asked Laugesen.

"Yeah, I get about two emails a week from him," Laugesen told her. "Some are commenting on editorials. Some are giving direction."

He then showed Mendoza some of the emails from Anschutz.

"I remember him saying on at least a couple of occasions, 'I was told to take Joel Miller's head off,'" Mendoza recalled.

Now, a wealthy newspaper owner taking a direct interest in his paper's editorial board stances is nothing new, and there's nothing wrong with a paper taking a clear position on public issues. But what this incident illustrates is two things: First, that Anschutz took a direct and ongoing interest in local issues and what The Gazette was doing about them, and second, that he intervened personally in at least some of the paper's operations.

And if Anschutz felt no compulsion about telling the editorial page editor what to write, who's to say that he would feel there's anything wrong with ordering specific news coverage?

The Gaylord Story

I believe that's exactly what happened with a sizable news story about the Gaylord Rockies hotel in Aurora, Colorado, that was published Sunday, Aug. 10, 2014.

The front page of The Colorado Springs Gazette
on Aug. 10, 2014
Because the story that The Gazette published was not what the reporter originally turned in. What was published was very - disturbingly - different.

The first draft of the story that was submitted by the reporter referred to the City for Champions' proposed sports arena in the third sentence. It drew obvious parallels between the controversial financing structures of the Gaylord hotel, City for Champions, and other economic development projects in Colorado that were essentially attempting to give taxes away to private companies. (The tax money is intended as an incentive for companies to set up shop, and the tradeoff for local governments is more jobs and tax income overall.)

For anyone who cares to read that first draft, I've published it on this blog as a footnote, along with images of the story that was printed in The Gazette that Sunday. And here's the link to the archived version of the story on

To anyone who takes the time to read both the original draft and the published story, several things will be immediately apparent:
  • The first is a better and more locally focused story for Colorado Springs Gazette readers than the one that was published. It took more angles into account, and localized the story by including City for Champions analysis.
  • There are many of the same sources, and even many of the same quotes, in both versions of the story. The main difference is that the published one focuses solely on the Aurora Gaylord project, and does not evaluate any similar policies being used by other cities.
  • There is no mention whatsoever of City for Champions in the story that The Gazette published, let alone any quotes from Colorado Springs City Councilman Don Knight, despite the fact that the city government was at the time considering relying on tax increment financing to pay for the City for Champions sports arena (which it still may do; I haven't had time recently to check on that project's status). But in the first draft, Knight expressed concerns that taxpayer money could be appropriated for City for Champions without a vote of the people, and discussed the issue in depth.
The published story does acknowledge that The Broadmoor, which sued to try to stop the Gaylord project, is also owned by the same parent company that owns The Gazette (Anschutz, in other words). That's proper disclosure of a potential conflict of interest.

But knowing that the original draft was so radically different - and that Anschutz has put money behind City for Champions - raises immediate questions.

Why would a reporter be ordered to so dramatically rewrite a legitimate news story about tax policy? Why remove references to City for Champions? Why remove analysis and quotes from a local city councilman who has been elected to analyze just such policies on the behalf of voters? And why not just keep the original story?

"Most people in the community wouldn't question that Aurora Gaylord project," Cotter said, because it seemed innocuous. "But it was influenced, certainly by the ownership, to do that story."

Cotter said it fit the bill of what she used to call a "command performance." That was when orders came down from Hight or Steever that a certain story was to be played up, or presented in a certain way, or reported on in the first place, she said.

The front page of The Gazette screamed, "Aurora's tax giveaway." But why? What do The Gazette's readers care about what Aurora taxpayers do with their money? And why would Anschutz care about the Gaylord project, or if a reporter believes a story to be relevant to an issue facing a local city councilman?

Even Jeff Thomas, who had been laid off over two years before the Gaylord story ran, remembers being perplexed by it.

"My first reaction was, 'What does this have to do with Colorado Springs? What is it to me, as a city resident, as a taxpayer, or even as a tourist who might want to travel around Colorado, what is this to me?'" Thomas said.

There's the rub: The first draft of the story answered all of those questions. The one published in the paper did not.

And, it's a good story. It's not a great story, or a groundbreaking piece of journalism, but it's solid work, and would be enjoyed by any reader who likes following wonky political stuff the way I do. 

"I didn't even have so much of a problem with the line of reporting in it. It just didn't seem all that relevant to us," Thomas said. "It was the sort of thing you'd read in The Aurora Sentinel, or The Denver Post, or The Rocky Mountain News back in the day. So that one felt to me - and I have no direct knowledge if this was true or not - but it felt like this one came down from the top office, and someone was tasked with having to report it."

That's exactly what I heard happened.

What I heard - from sources that I trust and believe - is the reporter was forced to rewrite the story to accommodate what Hight's superiors wanted to see in the paper. Staffers drew their own conclusions as to why (I actually left The Gazette just prior to the Gaylord story's publication, but was still in contact with many friends and colleagues at the paper).

When wondering why such an order had been given, the consensus among colleagues whose opinion I highly respect was twofold. 

One, Anschutz saw the Gaylord as a possible business competitor, a threat to his beloved Broadmoor, and thought he could potentially sink it by forcing one of the journalists on his payroll to write up some negative publicity. Besides, he tried suing the Gaylord once, and it didn't work. Why not try The Gazette? 

Two, that he didn't want any question marks in readers' minds about whether they should support City for Champions.

Maybe it was one or the other, or a combination. But there's no other logical reason I can think of as to why the first draft of that story would be shoved aside in favor of what was printed. There's no justification for it, from an editor's standpoint. 

I was asked not long ago by a journalist who I respect where the harm is in this particular narrative, in the entirety of this blog. He compared it to Spotlight, the film that tells the story of The Boston Globe reporters who exposed systemic child abuse in the Catholic Church. He asked where the injured party could be, in this story about Anschutz and The Gazette.

This is my answer. This is the potential for harm in this story. Colorado Springs taxpayer money could be directed straight into Philip Anschutz's pocket - by saving him millions in construction costs - if the downtown sports arena is built and one of his myriad companies ends up owning it. If Colorado Springs voters think the cost of City for Champions is worth it, then they should be allowed to make an informed decision. They should be presented with all of the facts. (Not to mention, many Gazette readers hold the Taxpayers Bill of Rights near and dear to their hearts, and this particular story cut straight to the heart of TABOR's ideals.)

But I don't think Anschutz wants voters to have all of the facts. At least, not based on the story that ran on the front page of The Gazette on Aug. 10, 2014, instead of the story the paper could have run.

That's what I was referring to at the beginning of this chapter: The stories that are not told can be more dangerous than the ones we know are false.

The troubling relationship between Steever, Bach, The Gazette and other city power brokers didn't end with the City for Champions coverage, either. 

There will be more to come on this blog about The Gazette and its recent history. I'm going to try to post new chapters and updates here on a weekly basis.