Sunday, January 22, 2017

Preface: Phil's Gazette

Philip Anschutz is dangerous.

The stories I'm going to tell on this blog all lead back to that one fundamental message. I don't have all the facts, and I've never gotten to speak to Anschutz himself, but I've seen and heard enough disturbing things about his management style that I can reach no other logical conclusion. 

And I think everyone in Colorado who cares about journalism, about receiving unbiased news about what's going on in their communities, or about the futures of The Colorado Springs Gazette and The Denver Post, deserves to be warned.

That's the raison d'ĂȘtre for this blog. I tried shopping this story around to a few outlets, but nobody was that interested in publishing a memoir written by an ex-Gazette staffer. So I'm going to put the tales here. I am not being compensated by any news outlet for this blog. It was compiled in my spare time, over the last two and a half years, because it's a story I think is worth telling.

Anschutz's management team - if not Anschutz himself - were directly involved in massaging, organizing, and altering news stories published by The Gazette while I worked there, and at least through early 2016 (I resigned in July 2014; Clarity Media Group, which Anschutz owns, purchased The Gazette in November 2012).

For a span of over three years, Anschutz's management team that led the newsroom - including Publisher Dan Steever and Clarity Media CEO Ryan McKibben - repeatedly violated traditional journalistic ethics principles. Such moves tainted news stories that focused on local politics - including the controversial City for Champions proposal - as well as business issues that Anschutz had a direct interest in - such as The Broadmoor hotel, as well a supposed competitor, the under-construction Gaylord Rockies hotel in Aurora. And as the Columbia Journalism Review has reported on, The Gazette in early 2015 ran a "perspective" series on marijuana, called Clearing the Haze, which drew harsh backlash from many readers, other journalists, and former staffers, including myself.

The interference was not total. For example, the sports department was essentially unaffected, as was the features department, from what I could tell. There are also many solid journalists still working at The Gazette who are, in my opinion, above professional reproach when it comes to reporting the news. They've been forced to carry on as best they can since the purchase in 2012, and many of them are still doing so to this day. My indictment on this blog is aimed squarely at the upper echelon at The Gazette and Clarity: Anschutz, Steever, McKibben, and a few others.

Also, there are signs that perhaps Anschutz has learned from past incidents, and from the reception of Clearing the Haze. The Columbia Journalism Review published another story about the recent "hiring spree" at The Gazette, which includes comments from the new editor, Vince Bzdek (who, incidentally, is the fifth head of the newsroom in as many years). Clarity Media has hired other good journalists to cover the Capitol and state politics, and they work hand-in-hand with The Gazette. And Bzdek in particular has his defenders within the newsroom, who say that a new era has begun at the paper. I've spoken personally to several, one of whom even described him as "inspirational."

Maybe Anschutz has realized that good journalism can also be good business. I certainly hope so, and I wish Bzdek and all the staffers at The Gazette nothing but success in their future endeavors.

But it remains to be seen if Anschutz will hold up his end of the deal he supposedly made with Bzdek, to maintain the traditional wall between the newsroom and, in this case, influence from the owner. I hope he does. I hope that the good journalists still working at The Gazette - of which there are many - can rely on Bzdek to protect their reporting from Steever and his superiors. They, and The Gazette's readers, certainly deserve it.

Even if the ship has been righted, however, that doesn't negate years of systemic news manipulation by Anschutz's management team at The Gazette.

Billionaire Philip Anschutz, owner of The Colorado
Springs Gazette
But why should anyone care about this story? Because the same thing could happen just about anywhere that has a local paper. Anyone who cares about receiving reliable information from their local news outlets should care that there could be a trend in coming years of billionaires with political agendas purchasing newspapers and using them for their own ends. And because if Anschutz purchases The Denver Post - as he has long been rumored to be interested in doing - there's no reason that this disturbing history couldn't repeat itself at the most influential newspaper in Colorado. That's why.

There are things that Anschutz doesn't want you to read about. There are things he doesn't want you talking about, or liking, or supporting at city council meetings. He has shown very little interest in protecting, or even respecting, the Fourth Estate. Even if Anschutz hasn't interfered personally, he has empowered shot-callers such as Steever who do, and my guess is they're frequently carrying out his wishes.

This is not a secret. It's been apparent for years to anyone in Colorado Springs who was paying attention. It's a storyline that's been whispered about in The Gazette newsroom, and that has made the rounds among Gazette readers, threading its way through observers of the city council and political activists and competing journalists (cough, cough, Pam Zubeck).

But not many have publicly connected the dots, to tell the story I plan on telling. Readers of Daniel Chacon, who now covers City Hall for the Santa Fe New Mexican, still remember his senseless transfer at The Gazette, from covering city politics to a night cops beat. That happened in January 2013, less than two months after Anschutz bought The Gazette. Why? Chacon thinks he knows. So do a lot of other people.

That's one story I'm going to chronicle on this blog. But there are so many more.

The interference ostensibly began with the very first story The Gazette ran after Clarity Media - owned by Anschutz -  purchased the paper, in November 2012. 

I didn't write or edit the story The Gazette ran announcing the sale to Clarity, but Anschutz was described as a "businessman" in that story. Not as a "billionaire," as the original story draft identified him (contrast that with The Denver Post's story about the sale, which identified Anschutz as a billionaire in the first sentence). That was a change ordered from the higher-ups in management, according to the word around The Gazette's newsroom campfire. And it seems to hold true among other journalistic circles in Denver that Anschutz doesn't like to be called a billionaire.

That may seem like small potatoes to most readers, and it arguably is, except that it presaged a much larger trend of orders from above regarding how news stories were written, presented, and even what information was included. Most who worked in the newsroom, myself included, still have no firm grasp on whether all of the orders came from Anschutz directly, or McKibben, or Steever, or (during his tenure) former editor Joe Hight. Hight, who ran The Gazette's newsroom from December 2012 until his departure in September 2014, often simply passed on orders that he'd received on how news stories were to be handled or presented, with no explanation of why. And he typically accepted no resistance from reporters or editors beneath him.

The interference continued for years, and it infuriated many of us newsroom staffers as it was happening in front of our eyes and under our fingers, while we could do nothing. Editors and reporters were ordered to comply with certain news policies that they privately reviled, but were forced to carry out.

The choice was obvious immediately: Another round of layoffs was implemented on the same day the sale was announced, likely to pare down the newsroom in preparation for the transition. More respected and capable newsroom staffers, some of whom had been at The Gazette for years if not decades, lost their jobs. Some of those were hired back, but many were not. The survivors (I was one) knew we were all expendable.

To be clear, such is the state of the newspaper industry - and journalism in general. That's why Anschutz is so dangerous. Journalists, including the dedicated ones who have worked at The Gazette under Anschutz, have very few job options in the current industry nationwide. And the choice between swallowing abhorrent ethical violations and losing a valuable paycheck became a reality for many of us.

This is not an isolated incident. If left unchecked, the state of the journalism industry - and possible intervention from agenda-driven owners - could turn into a serious problem for newspapermen and women across the nation who value government watchdog journalism. Billionaires are purchasing newspapers across the United States at an increasing rate, as those papers have had their overall values driven down by plunging ad revenue and an inability to convince the public to pay for online content. 

Casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who is worth over $30 billion, bought The Las Vegas Review-Journal for a meager $140 million in December of 2015. Since then, there's been a small exodus of staffers from the paper, amid questions about Adelson's influence and management style.

The same has happened at The Gazette, but with much less fanfare. There have been at least 20 staffers I can think of who have left in recent years, including me (the number is far greater for the entire company, including the advertising and marketing departments). Some retired. Some took better job offers. Some were forced out. Many were not replaced. Some have even left and later returned, for various reasons.

Furthermore, the purchase amount of The Gazette was never released, but it's a pretty safe bet that Anschutz paid less in 2012 than Adelson coughed up for the Las Vegas paper. Even if Anschutz did pay a pretty penny for The Gazette, he's given far more than $140 million to charity, meaning the purchase of a resource like The Gazette wouldn't exactly be a major investment.

Or was it?

The famously media-shy Anschutz has never commented on why he bought the paper. I've never had the opportunity to ask him. And I won't believe any motive that comes from the mouth of Ryan McKibben. But I'd really like to hear Anschutz explain why he bought it. Because it sure seems to me that he did it so he could use it. For his own agenda. Or maybe it was a vanity project. The point is, no one knows. It appears to me that this is not a man who believes in transparency.

But if Bzdek, or anyone else from Clarity Media, wishes to respond to anything I write, I will post their response on this blog, in full. I have requested interviews with Bzdek, Steever, McKibben, and Anschutz, and have received no reply. By all means, I would love to hear them defend some of The Gazette's moves, even if only those made between December 2012 and when I finally found another reporting job and was able to quit. I don't really know who's fully to blame for some of the things that happened.

I intend to publish an ongoing series of blog posts, as chapters of the stories I have to tell, throughout the coming months and beginning on Tuesday. Details of all of the stories I mentioned above will be outlined in coming chapters. If I could, I'd take this message door to door throughout Colorado. Of all the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution, one of the most vital is that of the press. And Anschutz has been undermining that freedom for years. And I'm sick of people not knowing about it.

This is a memoir, and for whatever it's worth, it's also a public service message. Because Philip Anschutz is dangerous.

If anyone wants to throw some more fuel on the fire, by all means contact me at 

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