Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Chapter 2: The downward spiral begins

Less than two months after Anschutz purchased The Gazette, morale in the newsroom was in the proverbial shitter.

Major staff changes were ordered by his new lieutenant, editor Joe Hight, with little to no explanation. And one of the biggest and most questionable was to remove Daniel Chacon from the City Hall beat.

Prior to 2013, Chacon had loved working at The Gazette.

"It was like so many other great newsrooms that I had worked at, where you have these very colorful personalities, and journalism is fun. I don't know if people really know how fun journalism really is," Chacon said. "It was like any other great newsroom, where people believed in journalism and doing great work."

Former Gazette reporter Daniel
He even had a nickname, due to his fondness for filing Colorado Open Records Act (CORA) requests with local government officials and agencies, as a way of looking for stories: We used to call him "Daniel ChaCORA."

But he failed to take into account that the new mayor - Steve Bach was elected in May 2011 - might have some real sway with those who controlled The Gazette's newsroom, starting after the purchase by Clarity.

Chacon and Bach had developed a very antagonistic relationship during the 2011 mayoral campaign, in part because of Chacon's dogged reporting and in part because Bach had a thin political skin.

"One of the first big stories about the election, probably the biggest story of the election, was April 1. We broke the story of Mayor Bach allegedly beating his first wife," Chacon recalled. "Leading up to that story, you have to tell the candidate what you're working on, because you want them to respond, and there was a lot of pressure from Bach not to run that story. There was some insinuation that we would be up for a lawsuit if we published it. I remember him calling me, and just trying to convince me not to run the story, that there was no story there, and insinuating that there could be legal action if we ran a story alleging that he had beat his first wife. But we had the story, and so we ran it."

After Bach took office in June 2011, he immediately began trying to influence Chacon's coverage of city politics.

"All of a sudden, you had the mayor trying to tap into the newsroom, with 'We're not happy with the coverage, and this is wrong,' even though the stories weren't wrong," Chacon said. "Another thing that bothered them was that I was doing videos of meetings. Just meetings. And I was doing stuff via social media, where I was giving people these up-to-date 'This just happened, and this just happened,' and I put a lot of attention on these people. And putting the spotlight on people, especially when they're not used to it, like Bach, who came from the private sector, and was just not used to that. I think it turns them off."

Looking back now, Bach's election was probably the real beginning of the end for Chacon. The purchase of The Gazette by Clarity simply sealed the deal.

"It was well known that Steever and Bach were social friends and saw each other socially. That was well known," Noreen said. "It was an unseemly exhibition where you have this embrace. The idea that a newspaper should have an adversarial relationship with government that it covers was completely out the window."

Bach left the mayor's office in 2015, and was replaced by former Colorado Attorney General John Suthers. It's not clear to me if this dynamic between the mayor's office and The Gazette's newsroom has changed at all since then, or if Vince Bzdek, the new Gazette editor, has given more cover to the current City Hall reporter. But I certainly hope so.

But it was too late for Chacon. Although Hight denied it to The Colorado Springs Independent in 2013, there's no doubt in my mind that Bach and Steever - and Anschutz because he empowered the two - were responsible for Chacon being moved off the City Hall beat.

For the record, Hight also denied it again, via email, last September.

"No elected or government official influenced my decisions at any time. I take great offense to anyone who would even suggest that," Hight wrote to me.

In that case, I'll assume Hight will be offended by what I've written here. But there is no other logical conclusion that any of us in The Gazette's newsroom at the time could reach. It was assumed by pretty much every reporter and editor that Bach, through either Anschutz or Steever or both, had been able to get Chacon removed from the City Hall beat. Otherwise, why would Hight pull an award-winning reporter, who was known for breaking great stories and bolstering readership, off the job?

At one point, before Chacon was reassigned in January 2013, he heard from a fellow Gazette reporter that, during a meeting between Bach and Hight, that his coverage of local politics came up in conversation.

"(The other reporter) told me that they went to a meeting for some reason, and it turned into an indictment of me," Chacon said. "And that's not what the meeting was supposed to be about. (Former city attorney Chris) Melcher, and the mayor, and I'm guessing (Bach's press secretary) Cindy Aubrey would have been there, and it turned into a bitch-fest about my coverage."

Bach even at one point canceled a previously-scheduled interview with Chacon, after he put up a blog post online challenging a public statement Bach had made. Bach claimed he had never suggested moving the city's minor league baseball team to a new downtown stadium, from its longtime home on the east side of Colorado Springs. Chacon called him out.
A screenshot of a Facebook post that linked originally
to Chacon's blog post in which he called out Mayor Steve
Bach. The blog has since been deactivated.

"Challenge accepted, Mr. Mayor," Chacon wrote on his Gazette blog, because Bach had suggested the move on more than one occasion. Chacon was easily able to document those statements, proving that Bach was lying when he claimed he never proposed moving the baseball team.

"Within a couple hours, I get a phone call from Cindy Aubrey, and she says, 'The interview is canceled.' And I was like, 'Wait, is it canceled, or are we rescheduling?' 'No, it's done. You don't get an interview,'" Chacon said. "And I said, 'Is it because of the blog post?' She finally fessed up. 'Yes, it's because of the blog post.' So I went back to the editors, and I said, 'Well, we can still do the story, we're just going to have to do it without an interview from the mayor.' And the decision was made to take me off the story and assign it to Barb Cotter."

That decision would seem strange to any given newspaperman or woman. There have been any number of public officials throughout history who have refused to be interviewed for any number of stories, so the standard response from most editors would have been for Chacon to write the story he'd planned on without Bach's input.
Cotter's story after being assigned to interview Bach,
while Chacon was still on the City Hall beat.

But that wasn't what happened. Instead, Cotter was forced to write the story, and the kicker here was that it was for an "anniversary" story, marking Bach's first calendar year in office at the end of 2012. That's despite the fact that Chacon had already written an anniversary story months earlier, he said, that marked Bach's first year in office in June 2012.

In short, he was removed from an unnecessary feature story he was ordered to put together, and he was removed essentially at the behest of Bach. To any good reporter, that would have felt like a kick to the groin.

"By that point, I had just sort of given up," Chacon admitted. "I was so demoralized, and it was like, 'I'm not doing journalism anymore. Why don't we just call ourselves Bach's PR team?' It sucked. It really sucked."

The complaints were steady and ongoing from Bach's office, Chacon said. For months, he would even occasionally receive text messages on the weekend from someone in The Gazette's newsroom, saying that the mayor's office was complaining about one of his stories. And Hight, apparently, caved to the pressure. The only question was where the pressure was coming from.

"It was so sad to see somebody who I thought was this journalism great just bend over and take it from Bach," Chacon said of Hight. "It was like, 'Why are you doing this?'"

Chacon's story in the Jan. 11, 2013 Gazette.
After the jump, Chacon's story continues with the headline
"Tourism: Money used for community events."

At one point, yet another Gazette reporter, Ryan Maye Handy, was ordered to basically rewrite a story Chacon had published in the Jan. 11, 2013 paper, titled "Mayor wants to name members of LART panel." The story focused on what was essentially an ongoing power struggle between Bach and the city council, and in this particular instance, the issue at hand was the Lodgers and Automobile Rental Tax (LART) committee.

"Ryan Handy called me up at one point and said, 'Basically they want me to redo your story,'" Chacon said. "They published pretty much the same story, but with more of Bach's side of the issue. So the story wasn't wrong; there was just more about Bach."

Handy's story ran the very next day, on Jan. 12, 2013. The headline was "Mayor seeks to clarify committee proposal."

Handy's story is still online at gazette.com as of Jan. 24, 2017. In fact, I found it simply by Googling the headline. It came right up, the first result. Chacon's story, however, is nowhere to be found online, or in The Gazette's archives at gazette.com, which are behind a paywall. Perhaps it was removed by someone. (I wonder who would have done such a thing...)

But Chacon's story did appear in the paper, and for the record, the original text is included as a footnote for this blog chapter. I welcome anyone to read the two, compare them, and decide whether Handy's story was necessary, if it really added anything to the context of the situation, or if it was simply another concession to Bach.

It also makes me wonder what other stories The Gazette may have removed from the Internet. I guess we'll never know.

Furthermore, I would argue that Chacon's story does a better job of putting the entire story in the proper and broader context for Gazette readers, while Handy's story simply adds more of Bach's perspective, and even directly references Chacon's article (the one that no longer appears on The Gazette's website). That's not meant as a condemnation of Handy's article or her reporting; only that there was no real need for further explanation of the situation at that time.

Eventually, that same month, Chacon made a mistake: He agreed that it was time for a change during a discussion with some of The Gazette's editors, including Hight.

"It was along the lines of, 'This is just getting ridiculous. Every weekend, every day, it's non-stop, the badgering,'" Chacon said. "I didn't say it that way, but I had reached a point where I felt alone. You just feel like you're out by yourself and nobody supports you and nobody believes in journalism anymore. So I, like a crazy person, say, 'Maybe it's time for a change,' and within an hour, maybe two hours, I was called back into the office, and they said, 'Yeah, Joe thinks that's a good idea, that it is time for a change.' So then I was in shock. At that moment, I thought, 'Why did I say it was time for a change?' Because I didn't want to be moved. I just wanted to convey to them that they weren't helping me."

Chacon was given a choice: He could cover education, or he could take the night cops beat (which is often reserved for brand-new journalists who are still learning the ropes, not veterans like Chacon).

He took night cops, and immediately started looking for another job.

"The day they moved me, I called The New Mexican, and asked if they had an opening. And I started to look around," Chacon said. "I didn't leave right away, because it's not like you can just get hired the next day. But as soon as they told me, 'We're moving you to night cops,' I went outside into the little park and I called my contacts. I was like, 'This just happened to me, and I'm not sure what I'm going to do, but I need to get out of here.'"

Chacon's move did not go unnoticed, and stories about what had happened circulated through city government, where Chacon had been a mainstay for years.

"I began to hear rumors from a Gazette reporter that there was also some influence being placed on the news that was reported, and the next thing I knew, that reporter was gone," former Colorado Springs City Councilwoman Jan Martin, who served on the council from 2007 to 2015, said of Chacon.

"It was clear that when Daniel wrote a few articles that were not necessarily complimentary of (Bach) that he was sort of shunned. He couldn't get people to return his calls. They had basically just put him out to pasture," Martin said. "But Daniel continued to write articles that would be considered critical of the administration, and the next thing we knew, Daniel was gone. It happened that quickly, with no explanation whatsoever. He was actually demoted. I've been told, as I ask around, that the nighttime police beat was the lowest beat at a newspaper. So he was basically moved to the bottom rung of the ladder."

Hight even promised Chacon that he would create a new beat for him, to cover downtown developments in general, Chacon said. 

"Joe expressed some sympathy toward me, like, 'Oh, man, I can't believe you've had to put up with this bullshit for so long, but what I really want you to do is cover downtown,'" Chacon said. "So then there was a downtown beat created, and they didn't give it to me. They never even asked me about it, ever again."

Chacon even asked if he could be assigned to cover county government instead of night cops, but was rebuffed.

Chacon lasted another eight months at The Gazette before bolting back to The Santa Fe New Mexican, where he has since won multiple awards for his reporting, including for his coverage of City Hall.

"Why did I leave? Because I couldn't work for a newspaper that doesn't believe in the basic principles of journalism," Chacon said. "I can't work for someone who doesn't believe in the fundamentals of journalism, plain and simple."

Whether Anschutz can be blamed directly for what happened to Chacon may be up for debate, but not to him, and not to me. It should never have happened, and Chacon - as well as everyone who worked in The Gazette newsroom back then - damn well knew it.

"Of course it's coming down from Anschutz," Chacon said. "He's turned Colorado Springs into his pet project. They should just rename the city 'Colorado Anschutz,' because he's buying everything in sight, he's using the newspaper as his microphone to sell his ideas, and who knows what the future holds? Who knows what else is coming down?"

Martin, the former city councilwoman, has the same concerns.

"I just had a real keen eye on that in my time in office, and had been concerned that there was undue influence being placed on the news, so that Colorado Springs wasn't getting the actual news from actual reporters, but that the news was being directed by a higher power," Martin said.

The effect Chacon's reassignment had on newsroom morale was, to say the least, corrosive. It's hard for me to put into words how disheartening it was to me and my colleagues in the newsroom at the time. The reality in front of us reporters was, if you wrote something the mayor didn't like, you'd be punished. Just like Chacon.

That very idea spits in the face of everything that journalism, that newspapers like The Gazette, are supposed to stand for. Journalists are supposed to be independent truth-tellers, beholden to no one save the ideals of the public good. Laugh at me if you like, but I'm a Romantic, and I believe - as does every other worthwhile journalist I've ever met - in that same idealism.

And those values, of truth and journalistic independence, are nonpartisan.

"Back in the old days, when we had Tom Mullen, he was a conservative old cob," Noreen remembered. Mullen was the editor of The Gazette from 1981 to 1991, and then served as president and publisher from 2000 to 2004. 

"But if the mayor had come in and told Tom Mullen that he didn't like what the City Hall reporter was doing, and 'Get somebody else, move that reporter out of there,' Tom Mullen would have savored the opportunity to tell the mayor, 'Don't let the door hit you in the ass on the way out. And don't ever come here and tell me my business again,'" Noreen emphasized.

That's how a real editor would have responded to Bach.

And there we were, in January of 2013, a company full of intelligent journalists, expected to believe that one of our own was being kicked off a job he was excellent at for no good reason.


I didn't believe it. Neither did anyone else in The Gazette's newsroom that I spoke to. Neither did most of The Gazette's readers. The truth was obvious, and it even became a running joke at City Hall: "Piss off the mayor, and you'll get put on night cops!"

Bach had an in with The Gazette's management. The mayor of Colorado Springs had leverage over the newsroom of the largest newspaper in the county. And he used that leverage. A lot. Future blog chapters will go into more details on this, but Chacon's removal was the beginning of The Gazette's kowtowing to special interest demands, and it marked the real start of the end of The Gazette's newsroom independence.

That should disturb any reader of The Gazette who may rely on the paper for unbiased news coverage. Because unbiased news coverage is absolutely not what Bach wanted, and for whatever reason, The Gazette's management catered to many of his demands.

(In the interests of full disclosure: I was moved off the political beat in January 2013 as well. I was replaced by Megan Schrader, who came to The Gazette from The Oklahoman, the same paper that Hight had come from, and which Anschutz also owns. Schrader at the time had no background in Colorado politics, but to the best of my knowledge, she did a great job, and is now on the editorial board of The Denver Post. I didn't understand why I was being reassigned back then, but was asked by Hight to become the new video editor, despite having no experience at all shooting or editing video. I was never given an explanation in 2013 as to why I was given a job for which I was completely unqualified, though Hight told me in an email in September that he needed someone to fill the new role internally at the company, and I seemed willing to learn. I agreed to the reassignment, mainly because I was scared of losing my job entirely. But that's not nearly as big of a deal as removing Chacon from City Hall was.)

The next chapter will be published Thursday morning.

UPDATE: This story has been altered slightly, since Barry Noreen let me know that he referred to Tom Mullen as a "conservative old cob," as opposed to "conservative old cog." I misheard his original quote.


  1. The day Daniel Chacon was reassigned to the cop beat, I knew the GT was in big trouble, meaning management being in bed with VIPs, be it Bach or corporate interests such as Anschutz, The Broadmoor, developers or HBA. Chacon was an excellent reporter, so excellent. You'd have to be stupid as a newspaper editor to reassign him - but I sensed then it was influenced by Bach or political lobbyists (HBA, Steve Durham, Schuck, and more) who backed Bach and had a hand in this. I learned more about Bach during a four-week period during his campaign when my daughter worked for him - at a desk in a closet, no less - and she quit with my full support. We knew enough about him, his wife and campaign ideology to know this was like (what I would call) Trump claiming he'll save America and make it better - lots of promises, lies and money in the back pocket. The GT was in cahoots with Bach, why else would you undermine a newspaper by transferring Chacun to a cop beat? As for you John, I cannot fathom how Megan Schrader prevailed as the state legislative and political reporter - she was a lightweight. Really! But maybe Anschutz wanted lightweights who just write what they are told, meaning it's editorially shaped. I so appreciate this article as I have long wondered why and what happened. It's such a loss to us in Colorado Springs, Daniel and John. And thanks again for this post. I thank you so much and look forward to more articles from you, John. Dammit!

    1. Thanks for the kind words, and thanks for reading. But I do have to make clear that I have nothing but respect for Megan Schrader, and I wish her the absolute best. But Bach was an egomaniac who didn't know how to work with people. The city is better off with Suthers in office, and I'll say that without even having followed what he's done since taking over.

      And I hope you come back for chapter 3.

  2. When I began to share the damning information about "City for Champions," and calling out Bach for violating City Code regarding the airport, Dan Steever contacted my wife out of the blue to offer her a job. The initial email sounded like he had something in mind, but when she called, he basically said whatever she wanted. My wife of course refused because the Gazette was lying about me, libeling me and attacking my character. But NEVER does it happen that a publisher for a newspaper with a circulation the size of the Gazette, contact a freelance writer and offer them a regular position. Never. This was the publisher pure and simply trying to bribe my silence.