Clarity Media’s push to dominate Colorado politics coverage

A postcard rendering of Denver, Colorado. Image via Wikimedia Commons

IN A TWIST ON THE BILLIONAIRE-OWNER business model of journalism, two Colorado news outlets—each one committed to state politics coverage and owned by a different conservative billionaire— are “joining forces.”

But the move is closer to a takeover than a merger, and marks a further consolidation of the media presence of Denver industrialist Phil Anschutz in the purple swing state.

On May 31, ColoradoPolitics.com, owned by Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group, announced its acquisition of The Colorado Statesman, a subscription-based weekly print journal and website, and a stalwart of state politics coverage for more than 100 years.

Anschutz bought The Statesman from billionaire homebuilder Larry Mizel, who was co-chair of Donald Trump’s Colorado campaign; the sale price was not disclosed. Last week, The Colorado Statesman’s website began directing readers to ColoradoPolitics.com, which now hosts the Statesman’s archives.

The deal means Coloradans can expect more day-to-day public affairs coverage in a bellwether state with an outsized role in national politics. Insiders, meanwhile, will have a new way to get their fix, from a for-profit state politics model that resembles Politico’s presence in Washington, DC.

 

For years, media watchers in Colorado have speculated that Anschutz’s strategy might be, ‘If you can’t buy ’em, beat ’em.’

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THE STATESMAN‘S NAME WILL EVENTUALLY be stripped from the paper’s masthead and replaced by “ColoradoPolitics.” The existing ColoradoPolitics staff, augmented by a full-time a reporter and temporary business-side manager of The Statesman, will report to Ryan McKibben, Clarity Media’s CEO, who also serves as chairman of The Weekly Standard, a national conservative magazine and blog.

Since its launch, the site has covered granular politics with an insider’s tone. ColoradoPolitics’ three-person staff dedicated to editorial will grow by one full-time staffer, ubiquitous Statesman reporter Ernest Luning, and a handful of potential contributors. Reporter Peter Marcus, who wrote for The Statesman as recently as four years ago, says he sees efforts to expand ColoradoPolitics as one to “corner the political market” in Colorado.

Lead writer Joey Bunch tells CJR an expanded ColoradoPolitics could yield a greater statewide strategy, in which the site provides its content to smaller papers. “We could become the de facto wire service of the state,” he told me. “That’s my goal.”

 

I will say our ownership really wants to be a statewide voice.

 

THE EDITOR OVERSEEING THE EXPANSION is Vince Bzdek, editor of the Clarity-owned Gazette in Colorado Springs, who came from The Washington Post last year. I asked him how much of the expansion strategy is coming from him and how much is coming from Anschutz, a publicity-shy Denver businessman and Republican donor who owns Clarity Media and has bankrolled conservative Christian causes, and who The New Yorker once dubbed “The Man Who Owns LA.”

He told me ColoradoPolitics was his own idea, not Anschutz’s, but he found a warm reception. The idea to buy The Statesman, he said, came from Clarity’s CEO, McKibben.

Bzdek says the Statesman acquisition had been in the works for months. He describes the deal as a way for ColoradoPolitics, which launched without a revenue stream, to build on a financial base with The Statesman’s subscribers.

“I will say our ownership really wants to be a statewide voice,” Bzdek told me. He has a budget for a statewide network of freelancers, and plans to add bill-tracking data and verticals for industries like energy, healthcare, and the environment, in a model similar to Politico Pro.

Capitol Watch, a subscription information and analysis website, already tracks bills and votes, and also provides data on lobbying. There’s also a separate legislation-tracking service called State Bill, which promises subscribers information on “bill summaries, sponsors, committee calendars, voting records and much more.”

“I don’t know if there’s room for a third,” says Paula Noonan, who runs Capitol Watch. “But I don’t know what their business model would be. Colorado is a small state.”

 

THERE IS ALSO SOME GREATER MEDIA business context for the ColoradoPolitics deal: a public perception that Anschutz has designs on The Denver Post, owned by Digital First Media.

“He tried to buy The Denver Post…but The Denver Post would not sell to him,” Bzdek said, referring to Anschutz, during a talk last fall. “If they would sell he would buy it tomorrow.” Bzdek tells CJR he does not know of any current discussions on that matter.

For years, media watchers in Colorado have speculated that Anschutz’s strategy might be, “If you can’t buy ’em, beat ’em.” In 2014, he floated the idea of reviving the defunct Rocky Mountain News. After the paper folded in 2009, Anschutz purchased the paper’s URL and intellectual property, and his Clarity team created an online prototype of a print product. Nothing came of it, but Clarity’s control of the Rocky Mountain News brand gives it beaucoup institutional political memory.

Clarity’s acquisition of The Statesman “makes it harder for The Denver Post,” says Lynn Bartels, a longtime political reporter for The Rocky Mountain News and The Denver Post who took a buyout in 2015. As Clarity Media and The Gazette have attracted attention for expanding ColoradoPolitics, the Post has made headlines with its plans to sell its building and move its newsroom into a neighboring county to cut costs.

In a recent meeting with staff, Denver Post publisher Mac Tully said he planned to invest more in the paper’s politics coverage. A late May memo to Post staff, obtained by CJR, laid out how that might look. Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo wrote in the memo that the paper’s politics team is “reimagining” how it covers politics. The crew is focusing on who the Post’s audience is and how to better serve it, while also setting aggressive online traffic goals. An email newsletter is in the works, wrote Colacioppo, along with a new vertical for the website.

Colacioppo declined to discuss the Post’s plans in greater detail, but wrote in her memo that she has “every confidence that this team has the variety of skills and ideas to push our politics coverage to a new level and make it the envy of metro dailies from coast to coast.”

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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 In vestigation 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.