Ex-WaPo editor tries out Bezos model in Colorado Springs

Photo by Corey Hutchins

Question: When local newspapers are scaling back and laying off journalists, how does The Gazette in Colorado Springs expand its public affairs reporting statewide with a handful of new hires?

Answer: “It helps to have a billionaire own your paper.”

That’s how Vince Bzdek, The Gazette’s new editor and former online politics editor of The Washington Post, explains his hiring spree including the poaching of two statehouse reporters from rival papers for a new digital team and website called ColoradoPolitics.com.

At the Post, under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, Bzdek helped launch Post Politics and other online verticals, along with an app for tablets and phones. Bezos has turned the Post into a digital behemoth in the three years since he bought it. Bzdek, who joined The Gazette in the spring, is trying to bring some of the Post’s digital magic to a local market, aided by the financial backing of another wealthy benefactor.

The Gazette’s wealthy backer is Phil Anschutz, a publicity-shy Denver businessman and Republican donor who owns the paper and has bankrolled Christian conservative causes, and who The New Yorker once dubbed “The Man Who Owns LA.”

‘A business within a business’

Bzdek, who grew up in Colorado watching his parents run a small weekly newspaper, has written books about Nancy Pelosi and the Kennedy family. In April he moved back to his old college town—he graduated from Colorado College—and took over as editor of The Gazette.

Before a recent speech at his alma mater, the new editor winced through a joke from an old professor about how years ago The Gazette was the morning paper locals read on the way to the bathroom because it was so thin. But Bzdek was there to talk about how he believed the paper would grow amid the economic forces buffeting the bottom lines of most other dailies.

“The best thing about Bezos or Anschutz is they’re willing to give the evolution of journalism some runway and look longterm, and try to figure out where it’s going and the business model that will sustain it,” Bzdek says.

ColoradoPolitics.com, which launched in late October and is led by Gazette editors, is a product of Anschutz’s Clarity Media. Bzdek told me over coffee last week that he wants the site to act as its own brand, not as the Capitol bureau for The Gazette, but to have the institutional credibility of its newspaper partner. “It’s like a startup but with some cushion,” he said.

The website, which runs anywhere from six to 10 items a day and, unlike The Gazette, does not have a paywall, breaks some news and is heavy on aggregation, hot takes, and analysis. Since its launch, writers have been bird dogging the potential field for governor in 2018, reporting on committee chair assignments (and staff shakeups) for the upcoming legislative session, and looking at campaign disclosures. Two separate posts in November were about bumper stickers a writer spotted on the road or on social media. The site’s reporters also publish standalone stories for The Gazette; the items from the blog will sometimes appear in the paper or be mined for in-print followups.

“One of the things we’re doing with this is posing questions on the blog first and then following up with hard stories down the line,” says Peter Marcus, 35, who was hired away in November after two years on the statehouse beat for the regional Durango Herald and two years at The Colorado Statesman.

Marcus and the blog’s two other writers live in Denver and have an office in the Clarity Media office building there, an hour north of Colorado Springs. They are overseen by an editor back in the Springs, Jim Trotter, 69, a legendary newsroom leader at the defunct Rocky Mountain News who recently left as an investigations editor at Rocky Mountain PBS to join The Gazette’s expansion.

The new writers, who are drawing considerably higher salaries than at their former papers, are being paid from a separate budget than The Gazette. Anschutz and Clarity media added “a substantial amount” of new money for the project, Bzdek says, but declined to say how much.

Leading the new political unit is Joey Bunch, who spent 14 years at The Denver Post, the last three covering government. The pitch from Bzdek was attractive largely because of a chance to help build a journalistic enterprise amid an atmosphere of retrenchment, he told me. He bolted the Post for the opportunity in September.

Indeed, the spinning blades of budget cuts, buyouts and layoffs have been slicing into newsrooms of The Gazette’s chain-owned competitors up and down the spine of the Rocky Mountain Front Range.

Consider: In one week in October cutbacks hit Digital First Media-owned dailies in the cities of Boulder, Longmont and Loveland. At the same time, a nationwide round of layoffs at Gannett picked off a reporter at The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. Meanwhile, the newsroom of The Denver Post, also a Digital First property, has been slashed so deeply its reporters in June picketed outside the building. And The Statesman, which has been around since 1898 and was revamped last year into a Politico-like subscription-based trade journal covering state politics, effectively wiped out its editorial department just 12 weeks before the election.

Amid this journalistic bloodbath in Colorado, The Gazette is making a major play. “I haven’t had this much ownership of a project since I was a small-town newspaper editor in Alabama 25 years ago,” Bunch says. “So far it’s been just drawing plays in the dirt, trying to figure it out, and it’s just a lot of fun.”

Bunch admires his former colleagues at The Denver Post who are doing great work under shrinking staff. But “everybody knows what’s going on there,” he says. “That New York hedge fund”—Alden Global Capital—“is just bleeding the place dry, and it just wasn’t a fun place to be.”

 

‘Very concerned’

Rounding out the ColoradoPolitics.com team is Dan Njegomir, a former editorial page editor for The Gazette who later served as a GOP staffer at the legislature and as a political consultant. He says if anything his political jobs after a first career as a daily newspaper reporter makes him more qualified than he otherwise would be to cover politics.

But Njegomir’s hiring drew a public jab from John Frank, the indispensable lead politics reporter at The Denver Post. Speaking on a media panel a few weeks ago, Frank said he was “super excited” about ColoradoPolitics.com, “but their lead writer … is a former Republican staffer.” Frank said he was “very concerned” about politics reporting in Colorado “moving toward that partisan side of news,” and cited Pew’s study about political polarization and media consumption habits.

Frank’s remarks track a familiar critique in Colorado, where media ownership and management has been a kind of white noise in the background of the state’s political journalism for years. Newspaper owners, including a former owner of the Post and others, have been political players, and some, like Anschutz, still are.

Because of this, writers and editors of ColoradoPolitics.com understand they will have to overcome some initial skepticism about the project. At the heart of it is Anschutz’s ownership and whether he has influence over news coverage.

There is reason to question that—and I have—and there is also reason to believe Bzdek and his writers when they say—which they have—they would leave the paper if they felt journalistic pressure from above.

In June, I wrote for CJR how The Oklahoman, also owned by Anschutz, ran a full-fledged puff piece bylined by the paper’s watchdog reporter about a luxury hotel on the Georgia coast. That might have been odd enough for the pages of a landlocked newspaper, but it turns out Anschutz had bought that particular hotel one month before. (At least the relationship was disclosed.) Anschutz also owns the five-star Broadmoor hotel in Colorado Springs, among other area businesses and attractions, and the paper has been criticized locally for its coverage of it.

“Definitely there’s concern about articles we do on The Broadmoor and there always will be,” Bzdek tells me. “But I’m not being told what to print or how to handle those things.”

The Gazette has also shied away from robust coverage of marijuana since it came in for deserved criticism last year following its publication of a “perspective series” on legal pot produced by its editorial page team and a freelance anti-legalization activist that wasn’t clearly labeled as opinion. But that was a year before Bzdek took over. “I told them I would have never run that series,” he says.

Bzdek says he insisted on a high wall between news and opinion, and if Anschutz wanted to pitch something to the paper it had to be in the editorial section; it would hurt the paper’s credibility to have it in news. He says he wouldn’t have taken the job if there were any sacred political cows. Those were the terms of his hiring, and so far they have been met, he told me, and he has been educating ownership about what is sacrosanct in the newsroom.

Back in Denver last Friday evening, Marcus was busy running down his latest story for the site—the ultimate insider item looking at who could be in the running for US attorney in Colorado under a President Donald Trump.

“That’s pretty wonky,” he says about the piece, which cited unnamed sources.

Nearly a week later, the story had generated around 450 views. Not a blockbuster in the metrics of online politics reporting, but a good showing so far compared to viewership of other items on the blog. ColoradoPolitics.com is still new, the team says, in a “soft-launch” phase. A publicity rollout will come later, along with panel events hosted by its reporters to preview the upcoming legislative session, which begins next month.

“I have one job and that’s to scoop everybody else right now and cover things that other [outlets] aren’t interested in,” Marcus says. “And so far we’ve been doing that.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR's correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.