If you ask around about Pueblo, a city in southern Colorado built on steel and coal, people from there describe it as proud, resilient, tough. A Latino-majority union town, it’s long been a Democratic stronghold—the area went for Trump in 2016, but in 2020, it flipped back to Biden. People here love their green chile, their heritage, the fact that they’re not in Boulder. Still, there are certain advantages to being in Boulder. Following the crash of the steel industry, in 1981, Pueblo suffered immensely; countywide unemployment peaked at 18.9 percent. By the end of the decade, Colorado Fuel & Iron, or CF&I, the owner of the city’s steel mill, declared bankruptcy. The town’s leaders—including Robert Rawlings, the longtime publisher of the Pueblo Chieftain, the state’s oldest daily—sought to diversify the local economy by imposing a half-cent sales tax and creating a nonprofit called the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, known as pedco, that counsels the city on how to attract new businesses. Some employers brought hope, notably Vestas, a wind turbine manufacturer; others have come and gone. The city of Pueblo now has a poverty rate of about 24 percent, more than twice the statewide average. According to the latest available data, more than 40 percent of the county’s population relies on Medicaid for health insurance.
“This town should be better,” John Rodriguez, who is forty-one and has lived in Pueblo most of his life, told me. “It hurts. It physically hurts. And it’s upon all of us. There’s a way we talk about it, like, ‘We should be better.’ It’s like generational trauma on this town.” Rodriguez has a wide face, swept dark-brown hair, and deep-set eyes lately beset by shadows. He is a journalist who believes deeply that the only way for his hometown to realize its potential is to confront its shortcomings. He claims that for a long time, the town’s media outlets—the Chieftain, in particular—were “not addressing the systemic problems of Pueblo.” He blames that in part on a citywide tendency to gloss over anything uncomfortable. He also blames it on the Chieftain itself, which, he argues, has protected pedco because of Rawlings’s role in forming the organization—an assertion backed up by two longtime Pueblo leaders with direct knowledge of the dynamic. “Bullish optimism is good,” Rodriguez said. “But I think we get into Pollyanna.” Pueblo, he said, has been buffeted by “decades of neglect, failed leaders that came through, and small-town petty infighting that stopped change.” In 2011, when he bought a local monthly called the Pueblo Pulp, he imagined that it might provide an antidote.
The animating idea of the Pulp was to take an unsparing look at the systems and people dictating the lives of Pueblo residents. At the start, Rodriguez knew nothing about reporting; he just knew a lot about southern Colorado. He liked to tell the story of how his father, who was Mexican American, was told to aspire to a career as a janitor, then went on to work as a guidance counselor for decades. The other side of his family was descended from Italian and English immigrants; his maternal grandfather was a chile farmer. Rodriguez carried a chip on his shoulder that was felt throughout the newsroom. “It felt like we all had a lot to prove,” Kara Mason, the Pulp’s former news editor, told me. “That came through from John.” Like many people in Pueblo, Mason grew up having absorbed the idea that staying in town meant failing. She joined the Pulp in part to complicate that view—to shift narratives about home, to point out the mechanisms that created outward flight in the hopes that they might change.
At its height, in 2016, the Pulp was raw and tough and mildly profitable, billing about $18,000 worth of advertisements per month, according to Rodriguez, most of them from the cannabis industry. In addition to Mason, there were three junior employees and a rotating cast of freelance writers, many of them students. Sometimes, when Mason went downtown at night, she’d see the Pulp’s lights on: John alone in the office. He kept wanting to scale up, but growth proved elusive. Rodriguez told me that he could never find the right ad salesperson to realize his vision; Mason suspected that his aggressive editorial approach limited the paper’s income. “It was a lot of people saying, ‘Why can’t you just write something good? Why can’t you just write the good things about Pueblo?’ John and I knew that wasn’t what Pueblo needs.”
Rodriguez made enemies, especially at the Chieftain, a favorite target. In 2018, it was sold to GateHouse Media, the private-equity-backed media conglomerate that would later merge with Gannett; afterward Rodriguez said that the Chieftain had devolved into “a Pueblo newsletter.” (Marcus Hill, who wrote for the Pulp before moving to the Chieftain, told me, “The ideals that the Pulp had, those were good,” but he found Rodriguez’s constant bashing of the Chieftain “pretty outlandish” and thought that, on the sentence level, the Chieftain’s product was superior.) Sal Pace, a veteran county commissioner, had a falling-out with Rodriguez, after which they didn’t speak for six years. Yet when it came to the Pulp, Pace told me, “I never felt like there was any unfair treatment at all.” He added, “The Pulp’s reporting was of such higher quality than the residents of Pueblo were used to getting.” In May, Nick Gradisar, Pueblo’s mayor, told me that, following the Chieftain’s sale to GateHouse, “It’s to the point we will write a story and we can just send it to them and they’ll change a few words and publish it. You know, that’s the advantage of them not having many reporters—we get to write our own story.” The Pulp was a check on power. Of Rodriguez, Gradisar said, “He’s always been fair, tough—hasn’t always agreed with me. But he usually got it right.”
That became harder this spring, when Rodriguez was suffering from the same financial distress as local newsroom leaders everywhere, compounded by the sudden crisis of the coronavirus. He started asking around for help. He applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan and got $5,000 grants from Google and a city emergency fund, which kept the lights on for a while. Corey Hutchins—a journalism instructor at Colorado College and a contributor to CJR—sent some promising student reporters his way. By mid-April, however, Rodriguez had laid off his last full-time colleague and cut the Pulp’s print edition, publishing only online. “I feel like I’m rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” he said.
Then a bold, if slightly desperate, idea came to him. In his brushes with the professional journalism crowd, he’d heard about an increasingly popular school of thought: if the press is a public service, it ought to be publicly funded. That idea had recently been picking up steam in Colorado. Rodriguez figured it was worth making a case for the Pulp’s survival. So he reached out to Gradisar; the county commissioners; the president of the city council; and Jeff Shaw, the chief executive officer of pedco. He suggested that the town’s leaders bail out its media with tax dollars. “We are in a new world,” Rodriguez emailed Shaw, “but I think Pueblo helping Pueblo must be our future.” He acknowledged that the proposal brought potentially awkward complications. “Who wants to fund something,” he later asked me, “which could expose people for doing a bad job?” He wasn’t sure of that himself.
For decades newspapers and magazines rode an advertising wave, floating atop the largesse of American capitalism, allowing customers to pay little for a product—reporting, human travel, vetted fact—that is expensive to produce. Then came the internet. Advertising rates cratered, driving legacy publications online, where Facebook and Google have devoured the delivery mechanisms. Hedge funds like Alden Global Capital bought up vulnerable newspapers, gutting them and turning a quick profit. (Alden owns the Denver Post, Colorado’s most prominent paper, where there have been extensive layoffs.) According to the Pew Research Center, since 2008 American newspaper jobs have fallen 51 percent; last year, news publishers employed fewer people than coal mines did.
The shakeout has coincided with an overdue leveling of the playing field, questions about who the news is for, a reckoning with parachute journalism as an extractive and colonial enterprise. But a more equitable media is not yet a more remunerative one. The donor class has stepped in with philanthropic efforts, as have Facebook and Google, which have administered small grants and are trying, in Rodriguez’s words, “to buy their way into heaven.” But that’s not a sustainable solution.
In 2017, Mike Rispoli, the director of the News Voices program at the Free Press, a nonprofit advocacy group, helped organize a series of community forums in New Jersey, partly to address the homogenization of news as Gannett bought up local papers. The events were well attended, and not just by the ink-stained. “Old-school journalists need to abandon this idea that government funding means undue influence,” Rispoli argued. He helped deliver signatures from sixty community groups to the statehouse; a year later, the legislature passed a bill creating a nonprofit called the Civic Information Consortium. Managed by an independent board with members from five state universities, the consortium was tasked with funding journalism fellowships and issuing grants to media outlets. Since then, the state has allocated the project $2 million. The delivery of that cash has been delayed, on account of budget disputes, but the progress in New Jersey gave hope to those trying to rescue news outlets elsewhere in the country. Craig Aaron, co-CEO of the Free Press, told me that there’s more appetite for the idea of public funding than at any point in the past decade, even if “it’s still an uphill climb.” In the past two years, members of Congress from both parties have introduced five bills to boost local media, via antitrust exemptions, tax credits, and other means. (None has passed—yet.)
Colorado became the next promising target. Early last year, Melissa Milios Davis—a former journalist, now a vice president of the Gates Family Foundation (no affiliation with Bill or Melinda)—reached out to Rispoli on behalf of the Colorado Media Project, a Denver-based effort to plot out a future for journalism in the state. The ideas were only just starting to take shape; the phrase “ecosystem building” was thrown around. Rispoli shared his experience in New Jersey, and the Free Press eventually started a program in Colorado to seek input on the information needs of underserved communities. By the fall, the Colorado Media Project issued a report that called for, among other things, public-private partnerships; the creation of information districts that would allow communities to allocate public funds to journalism; and the extension of a 2.9 percent tax to digital advertising, with the resulting revenue going to media grants. The report was called “Local News Is a Public Good.” According to Davis, staffers in the office of Jared Polis, the governor, read it; she wasn’t sure whether he had. In April, a reporter asked Polis about the idea of public funding for journalism. “We have a free and independent press,” he said. “That is hard to reconcile with government assistance.” He had other crises to attend to.
Polis’s quote lays bare a difficult reality: until this point, conversations about public funding of the media have largely been limited to members of the media and the offices of a few sympathetic legislators. The arguments in favor have yet to go mainstream. In conjunction with its report, the Colorado Media Project held a symposium on this subject at the University of Colorado Denver. Davis spoke first, making the case for an influx of public funds in journalistic outlets—what she called “our big, probably somewhat controversial thought.” Then Hutchins moderated a panel in which Gregory Moore, a former editor in chief of the Denver Post, advocated tax support of public journalism (“I never thought that I would ever get to that point,” he said). Rispoli reminded everyone that PBS, National Public Radio, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had been taking public funds for decades (“To me, this actually isn’t that controversial of an idea”). About an hour in, a voice rang from the back of the room, stopping everyone cold: “Get down to southern Colorado.” It was Rodriguez, looking a little ruffled, the top button of his shirt undone. “We need you to get out of Denver,” he said. “We are in a crisis that is beyond what Denver can even imagine. And we have survived without any real help, without any real notice.” He wanted an injection of capital, and he didn’t know where to turn. “I don’t come from this world,” he continued. “So I will be a loudmouth on this. We need your help.” Afterward, Hutchins’s students flocked to Rodriguez; they made plans. Within a couple of months, the group produced a ten-part Pulp series interrogating claims that Pueblo was “the Napa Valley of cannabis.” It took a close and hard look at the industry that provided his advertising base—and it was exactly the kind of work Rodriguez believed in.
Rodriguez’s parents both worked in Pueblo public schools. (His mother was a teacher.) He grew up instilled with “a belief that you’re trying to make your family, friends, and hometown better,” he told me. “For all we fight about, there’s a sense of trying to make a difference.” As a young man, he didn’t quite know how. He graduated from the University of Southern Colorado (now Colorado State University–Pueblo); he entered local politics, working on ballot initiatives and state campaigns; eventually he got a job with Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat. He knew that to go further in politics he’d need a law degree, so he got a master’s in legal administration at the University of Colorado Denver, with the plan of enrolling in law school. Then he realized he couldn’t stand legal briefs. So in his early thirties, with no clear direction, he returned to Pueblo. When he bought the Pulp—which had previously been a local arts publication—it was sort of on a lark. But Rodriguez saw an opportunity. He learned design, editing, and the business side on the fly. “I couldn’t tell you the lede from the nut graf,” he said. “I didn’t know how to take a photo. Everything was through Google U.”
In January 2012, Rodriguez released his first issue. The Pulp was full of positive news—about a high-achieving middle school, for instance. It also included a fictitious news story, written by Rodriguez, about a massive rally in town calling for “not a change in leadership, but the display of it.” The piece ended, “The official attendance was 149,921”—nearly the entire population of Pueblo County. “Those not in attendance were half of City Council, two County Commissioners, the City Manager and heads of the organizations which receive tax subsidies or public grant money and whose presidents live in Colorado Springs.” In Rodriguez’s first inning as a pitcher, he’d thrown four fastballs under the chin.
The Pulp was unpolished. Story meetings were bring-your-own-beer gatherings in a furniture-less office on South Union Avenue; the paper always attracted college students willing to work for little pay (no more than $150 per article) and happy to stir up trouble. Mason arrived in 2012, as an undergraduate at CSU-Pueblo. She’d moved home after leaving college, in Washington, and was, she said, “salty.” She and Rodriguez got along immediately. “I had never really met anybody else that felt the same way about Pueblo,” she told me. Where Rodriguez had an ability to synthesize big ideas, she was detail-oriented. (“AP style was never John’s strong suit,” Mason said.) They partnered on an investigation into the use of dark money by both pro- and anti-firearm groups to recall a state senator over gun control legislation. The piece had tangles, but showed promise, and announced the Pulp’s ambitions. Rodriguez gave Mason free rein. “I don’t think he ever told me, ‘Don’t do that,’ ” Mason said. “I think that was probably the healthiest and best thing for my career.” She started writing about the systemic flight of the town’s smart young people, attributing it to ineffectual economic development and a civic strategy that focused primarily on attracting manufacturers, in keeping with Pueblo’s blue-collar legacy. “I had big questions of how we used our resources and money,” she said. “I wanted to go hard at them.”
Within a few years, however, Mason became one of those smart young people who flew away—she got a job at the Aurora Sentinel (now the Sentinel Colorado), outside Denver. At the Pulp, she had been making $30,000 a year, with no benefits. “We didn’t have money, but John wanted to do more,” she said. “I felt like he was asking a lot all the time. I couldn’t make the vision work.” Departing was not an easy decision. “I put so much into the questions about people leaving Pueblo and what could be done to prevent that,” she said. In her new job, she expanded her professional network and discovered that journalists trained in corporate news environments sometimes possessed an aversion to ambitious coverage that challenged authority. It was weird. In February of this year, she returned to the pages of the Pulp, writing on Pueblo’s brain drain. “Last month pedco said it was welcoming MissionSide, a Census call center, to Pueblo,” she wrote. “Nine hundred temporary jobs would start at $16 per hour. I’m not sure my friends will return for those jobs. I won’t.”
Rodriguez kept on working. All day and night, through the death of his father, the death of his dog, and then the pandemic. As spring turned to summer, the Pulp published news about anti-police protests, Indigenous affairs, school reopenings, and conflicts over the proposed removal of a Christopher Columbus statue, as well as a devastating video about a Black resident’s childhood experiences being targeted by the Ku Klux Klan. The latter piece resonated widely. “I don’t know how you put an economic value on that,” Rodriguez said. “But it has intrinsic value that can’t be measured.”
Still, he didn’t know how long he could hold on. He asked Davis, at the Colorado Media Project, for cash, but it didn’t work out. (“We really wanted to put things out there for him,” she said, but the project wasn’t designed to offer bailouts. “It’s easier if you just have a sustainable business model.” Which, she knew, was the problem. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking what we could have done.”) Rodriguez joked with Mason, in one of their regular phone conversations, that perhaps the Pulp had existed just to launch her career. “There’s no assistance out there,” he said. “I don’t think we’re serious about saving local news. We’re half in and half out. Everybody wants to play a game where GateHouse is evil, but there’s no money coming into local places outside Denver.” He sighed, then added, “I’m the asshole saying, ‘How many more white journalists can they fit at the capitol?’ ” The only option left, he decided, was to ask for money from those he’d pricked. Perhaps, Rodriguez imagined, Pueblo could emerge as a unique test case, a chance for locals to identify what was needed and to be the saviors of their own story.
In late April, Rodriguez sent a detailed proposal to Dennis Flores, the city council president, outlining a plan in which funds normally earmarked for tourism could be directed to local media, in the form of grants. The Chieftain, the Pulp, and local TV and radio stations would all be eligible. In return, those outlets would provide free or reduced-rate ads to local businesses. According to Rodriguez, Flores said he’d think about it but wondered why public money should fund media, rather than the companies that would advertise. (Flores didn’t respond to my emails.) Rodriguez also pitched Gradisar, the mayor, who was not in favor. “I don’t think taxpayer money should be used to support media,” he said. He had more pressing concerns, like crumbling roads, and was philosophically opposed to the idea of what he called “state-controlled news.”
In May, Rodriguez tried Shaw, at pedco. “This isn’t just about news,” he wrote in an email. “Local media also drives the local economy. A story on a business or a restaurant can drive revenue to that place. Plus quality coverage about Pueblo and the region will drive tourism in the future.” But nothing came of it. Shaw told me, “There’s been initial conversations, but it hasn’t gone further than that.” Furthermore, he was hamstrung by policy: pedco’s mandate is to support only “primary job” creators—which, according to ordinance, means those that export more than 51 percent of their goods. In other words: manufacturing. Local news, by paradoxical definition, does not fit that criterion, because it’s designed to stay within the community.
I asked Shaw what he thought about the prospect of a city funding its news. Was that something Pueblo should consider? “We’d have to look at the economics of it,” he said. “Are other communities doing that? Is it successful? Is it not?” He didn’t seem eager to be a pioneer. He added, “At some point is the public, in a manufacturing sense, are they going to buy the product?” But the value of journalism is not immediately measurable by tax dollars or revenue. Rather, in theory, the return on investment is something like democracy. Maybe that’s the trouble with the business. “There were no takers,” Rodriguez told me. “There’s no forward thought.”
In July he found himself on a Zoom call, organized by Shaw, with town leaders and consultants discussing an ad campaign called Pueblo Shares—an initiative in which local businesses would tell their own stories. Rodriguez was annoyed that the chamber of commerce was willing to fund that, but not journalism. “They’re so upset they get negative coverage,” he told me, “but have no idea how to counteract the narrative.” Later, when I called Scott Stoller, the general manager of the Colorado State Fair, to ask about the meeting, he relayed concerns that seemed to underscore Rodriguez’s analysis. “If there’s anything I can do to prevent me from being included in this story,” he said. “I support journalism, I think the First Amendment’s a pretty important thing, so I don’t want to come across as an anti-media person.”
Rodriguez was stressed, not sleeping well, overburdened. In August, when I visited him at the space he was now using as an office—a garage he shared with a silkscreen print artist who designed the Pulp’s covers—there were two very tall empty coffee cups on his desk. He seemed resigned. “There’s no appetite for government money to save news,” he said. There would be no great rescue of the Pulp.
He would have to get another job. The Chieftain was out. Recently, the City of Pueblo’s longtime communications director had retired; someone was needed in the mayor’s office to handle press relations about the coronavirus. Shortly after my visit, Rodriguez accepted the position. It was decided: he would stop publishing the Pulp and cross over to the other side. He didn’t feel like his work was done; he remained addicted to the news. He told me he didn’t want to see someone else save the news in Pueblo. He had his pride.
Mason wondered how Rodriguez would do in the new role. “I don’t think I could do it,” she said. “I always thought, If I ended up in that position, would I be a superleaker of information? I’d be so beholden to the truth and accountability. I fear I would not be a good person for that kind of job.” But, she said, “I think at its core it’s a way for him to give back to his community.”
It was also a way for him to get a paycheck; to finally get some rest. Most journalists realize, at some point, that the job does not love you as much as you love it. I talked to Rodriguez again, by phone, the weekend before his first day at city hall. He thought back to his first issue of the Pulp and the fictitious story about the rally demanding leadership. “That didn’t make me popular from the start,” he said. “But I thought that’s the media’s job. What I called it was, we lived in a negative space. We’re supposed to be tough equally. You don’t ever lay off of it.” Then he added, “Let’s be real: when I’m communications director Monday, I’m going to have to give you a different answer.”
“There’s no assistance out there,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think we’re serious about saving local news.”
“We were delighted,” Gradisar told me, “that he decided to come work for the city.” The mayor professed a respect for tough old-school investigative journalism. Earlier this year, he spoke to me with proud nostalgia about the fact that, in the early twentieth century, Pueblo was home to more than twenty foreign-language newspapers. But in the current day, Gradisar had declined to fund a particularly formidable editor, and now that editor was working for him, writing press releases and newsletters. “That’ll be part of his responsibility, is putting those kind of stories together,” Gradisar said. “Because, as I say, the Chieftain doesn’t have the reporters to do that kind of stuff.” He added, “It’s sad but true, I guess: if you wanna tell it you gotta write it yourself these days.”
Wasn’t that state-controlled media? I put the question to Gradisar. He paused, considering it. “Well, no.” He chuckled. “Because we don’t have control over if they publish it or what they do to it or anything like that. I mean, we’re just telling our story.”
I found myself in the curious position of reaching out to city leaders to corroborate an uncomfortable account involving their unwillingness to fund local journalism that had been provided by their current communications director. The most forthright source in the story was the PR guy. When I pointed that out to Rodriguez, he loved it. “We’re in comms Inception,” he said, referring to the Christopher Nolan film about the use of dream-sharing technology to infiltrate the minds of the powerful. I wondered what role he played.
Two weeks in, Rodriguez started to type out some of his feelings about the situation—his, Pueblo’s, the Pulp’s. “Working for the Mayor has made Pueblo’s news deficiencies very clear,” he wrote. “There is no denying, I left a sizable voice in Pueblo silent and that’s been the hardest part of the move. Because of the state of news, I had to survive personally but I left Pueblo worse off.” He sent his notes to me from his Pulp email address, which still had the Pulp’s URL in the signature. He wasn’t sure if he was going to put out an official notice about the end of it. That felt like defeat. He wondered if someone else might want to take it over, as an incubator for young journalists. Maybe Colorado College. Or maybe, someday, someone like Kara Mason. (She told me she had no plans to leave her job in Aurora, but added that she’d “do anything” to save the Pulp.) “It’s like a fraction of an idea,” Rodriguez said. “A seed of an idea.” He kept the website up.
TOP IMAGE: John Wark