June 30, 2022

Nestled at the bottom of Aspen Mountain in Colorado is a nearly 1-acre parcel of land. It sold for $10 million last July. Just seven months later, the property exchanged hands again — this time for $76.25 million. The buyer, Swedish billionaire Vladislav Doronin, was unfamiliar to the small resort town.

Naturally, the local paper, The Aspen Times, rushed to cover the purchase. After Doronin sued the Times for defamation in April, however, coverage dried up. Now, the paper and its new owner, Ogden Newspapers, are facing accusations that they suppressed coverage of the billionaire developer.

Ogden, which acquired the Times on Jan. 1, denies this. But in the six weeks between the filing of the suit and its settlement, the paper’s staff submitted one news story and two columns about Doronin — all of which Ogden refused to publish. The company also prohibited coverage of the lawsuit itself.

Those decisions have sent the paper — and the town — spiraling. The former editor-in-chief quit. The interim editor-in-chief publicly criticized the paper. The person who was set to take over as editor-in-chief was fired before his official start date, after he published a column condemning Ogden’s handling of the situation. The columnist who wrote that piece (and the two columns that were spiked) quit, ending a 19-year-run at the paper. Four other staff have also quit since mid-April.

Meanwhile, the mayor of Aspen has weighed in on the situation, calling Ogden’s actions a “real disservice.” A city council member called on the community to “save Aspen” by buying the paper from Ogden or funding a different news outlet. And a group of 18 former and current local elected officials are calling for a boycott of the Times.

“Ogden Newspapers chose to side with Doronin’s individual dissatisfaction rather than the community’s need to understand and converse about such a historic real estate deal and to ponder its broader implications for the community,” the officials wrote in a letter to Ogden CEO Robert Nutting last week. “(W)e are individually considering separate reactions as a result, including: directing our individual organizations to pull advertisements and notices from the paper; encouraging local businesses to do the same; refusing interviews with reporters at the Aspen Times; or calling for a community boycott of the paper.”

Pitkin County commissioners have instructed staff to pull advertisements and public notices from the paper, said commissioner Kelly McNicholas Kury, who helped put the letter together. They are also consulting lawyers to determine whether they will need to introduce a formal resolution to strip the Times of its status as the paper of record, meaning the paper would no longer be home to notices or advertisements from the county.

In an email to Poynter, Ogden regional publisher and CRO Cameron Nutting Williams criticized the officials for threatening economic sanctions. Still, she wrote that she believes Ogden and the letter writers have “more in common than it might appear,” including a commitment to transparent and uncensored reporting.

“Everyone who cares about journalism and democracy should be deeply concerned at the specter of elected officials using their positions to expressly threaten a community newspaper,” Williams wrote. “Nevertheless, we recognize that their concerns are based on the importance of local journalism, even if those concerns are based on incomplete and misinformation.”

But Ogden’s critics say that the company’s actions have put journalism and democracy in danger. The blow-up at The Aspen Times has left some to question whether the 141-year-old paper will pursue reporting vital to the community.

“I’ve been a longtime advocate for strong democracies both here and around the world, and a free press is crucial to that,” McNicholas Kury said. “This is a local example, an instance that really hits hard at home about the degradation of journalism around the world.”

The lawsuit

Doronin, who was born in the Soviet Union, sued the Times for defamation on April 13, arguing that the paper had “chosen to weaponize the widespread negative sentiment toward the Russian Federation … and sensationalize a false narrative” targeting him and his Aspen development. The Times had referred to Doronin as an oligarch and called his wealth “corrupt” and “tainted” in its coverage of his purchase.

The Times settled the lawsuit, which was dismissed on May 27, and made several corrections to opinion pieces and news stories about Doronin. During the six-week period before the settlement, Ogden instructed former editor-in-chief David Krause to send any stories about Doronin to group publisher Scott Stanford and regional editorial director John McCabe. He submitted two columns by longtime columnist Roger Marolt that criticized Doronin and a news story by then-managing editor Rick Carroll about Doronin being subpoenaed in a federal court case questioning whether he still has holdings in Moscow.

Stanford said that he and McCabe reviewed the news story and decided it “wasn’t something that needed to run at that time.”

“Then there was this Roger Marolt column critical of Doronin that ultimately we didn’t deem at that moment to be newsworthy or necessary when we were so close to wrapping up this lawsuit,” Stanford said. “The next week, Marolt sent another column criticizing the newspaper. And we felt like, since we didn’t publish the first one, this one doesn’t feel like it should be published either because it assumes facts that just weren’t there or necessarily true.”

Krause was also told the Times could not publish a story about the lawsuit itself. Even after competitor Aspen Daily News covered the lawsuit, Ogden told Krause that they could not write anything until the lawsuit was either settled or finished.

Stanford said he believes this was the “appropriate” way to handle coverage of the lawsuit. “I think you have to make a judgment call on the value of that (the filing of the lawsuit) as a news story,” he said.

Krause, however, took issue with the order and said that coverage of the lawsuit was necessary in order to be transparent with readers.

“Especially when you’ve got a daily competitor in town, and they’re writing a story about it, then, for our community, one of the issues that I struggled with was a level of transparency to our readers,” Krause said. “If you don’t write about it, then they’re like, ‘Well, what are you hiding?’ And if you do write about it, then you can say, ‘Here’s what’s going on, and here’s what our stance is.’”

On May 16, Krause published a farewell column, announcing that he would be stepping down as editor-in-chief. He did not have a job lined up. In the piece, Krause cited a health scare and Ogden’s recent acquisition of Swift Communications — the publishing company that owns The Aspen Times — as reasons for his departure.

Krause told Poynter he had been thinking of leaving since January, when the change in ownership took place. A former journalist at The Denver Post, Krause had witnessed hedge fund Alden Global Capital’s takeover of the paper and knew the potential downsides of a large out-of-state corporate owner. Ogden, which is based in West Virginia and now holds 54 daily newspapers, was much bigger than Swift.

When Ogden took over, The Aspen Times was doing well financially, Krause said. Yet the company started to make cuts. The biggest change was the loss of employee housing, which was crucial to many staffers in a resort town like Aspen. (Williams wrote in an email that the company is working to address this issue and that Swift’s previous owners sold the real estate without offering it to Ogden.) Other changes were smaller, like cuts to certain benefits and a switch to a cheaper but more cumbersome content management system, Krause said. He said they showed that Ogden was unwilling to work with its new employees.

“There’s this mentality that was presented by Ogden of, ‘This is who we are and some people might not like it. And if you don’t like it, you can leave,’” Krause said. “I heard that more than once in meetings from Ogden leadership, and that’s just really discouraging.”

The last straw was Ogden’s handling of the lawsuit settlement. Krause said the company did not consult him or include him in negotiations. Several weeks after the filing of the lawsuit, Krause received an update from his publisher that listed the seven things Ogden was willing to concede.

“I was vehemently opposed to pretty much all but one of them,” Krause said. “And I said, ‘OK, well, that to me shows a lack of confidence that you have in me, and I’m not going to be a part of a company that I don’t feel has my back.’”

‘An obscene and absurd violation of public trust’

One week after the lawsuit was dismissed, Aspen Times publisher Allison Pattillo wrote a note to readers announcing the settlement. In that statement, she wrote that she did not run the columns by Marolt because they were “inadvertently related” to settlement discussions.

“There are now no restrictions on The Times’ coverage of the lift 1A parcel or Doronin,” she added.

The terms of the settlement are confidential. Williams told Poynter that the Times had to remove references to Doronin as an oligarch: “Unfortunately, in responding to Doronin’s concerns, we discovered that we may not have been completely fair and unbiased.”

Meanwhile, arts editor Andrew Travers was preparing to take over as editor-in-chief. In conversations discussing the position with Pattillo, Stanford and McCabe, Travers had stressed that the newsroom needed editorial independence to cover Doronin freely. He also said he wanted to reestablish credibility with readers by writing about the lawsuit and the stories that had gone unpublished.

“I felt that if we could just reckon with it publicly and tell the public about what happened and move forward, that it might be used as a media literacy lesson,” Travers said. “We might be able to reestablish credibility and get back to work.”

So, after getting Pattillo’s support, Travers asked Marolt to write a column explaining what had happened. In the piece Marolt submitted, he included the two unpublished columns, as well as email correspondence between him, Krause and Carroll to give readers additional context about why the columns had been spiked.

“The local press is in trouble,” Marolt wrote. “Only the current threat of litigation to suppress content has passed. The next offended billionaire will learn from this and you can bet their lawyers will find a better way to keep whatever stories they might find objectionable out of print.”

The piece ran on June 10. That afternoon, Stanford asked to meet with Travers and fired him. The Aspen Times took the column down from its website the next day without leaving a note. On June 24, the paper republished the column without the emails.

Williams told Poynter it would be “inappropriate” to discuss “all aspects” of the decision to fire Travers. But she said he was not fired for publishing the columns. Instead, Ogden took issue with the inclusion of the internal emails.

“Andrew Travers did not call to Allison’s attention the nature of the emails to be published. We believe she was intentionally misled and that the emails were not published in good faith,” Williams wrote.

Travers disputed this, saying that in a meeting two days before the column ran, he told Pattillo that the piece would include the column proper, the two previously spiked columns and emails for context. She was supportive, he said. Marolt had sought permission from both Krause and Carroll to include the emails.

Pattillo declined to comment on the firing. She did, however, tell Aspen Public Radio that she “was not aware of the extent of emails that were going to be published” and took the blame for the “misunderstanding.” She also said she did not ask to read the entire column, which she called a “grave mistake.”

After the Times fired Travers, Marolt quit, in part because he found the firing “completely baseless.”

“It’s just not right to work for a paper that’s going to withhold information and spike columns and spike stories that are important to the town. That’s just not the tradition of the Aspen Times,” Marolt said. “I don’t want to do puff pieces and meaningless stories.”

That’s when criticism from the community began in earnest. Elected officials spoke out in support of Travers and threatened the paper. Readers sent in letters to the editor criticizing both the paper for its coverage and the officials for trying to intimidate the paper. The Aspen Daily News — which now publishes Marolt’s column — also ran pieces on the debacle.

One thing that everyone agreed on: Uncensored coverage of Doronin and the property was crucial.

“Ogden has the right to a free press. They’re choosing not to use it, and they’re choosing their own business interests or the business interests of others — but not the public interest,” Travers said. “I think that’s an obscene and absurd violation of the public trust and the mission of journalism.”

Ogden executives deny that they have censored coverage. Stanford said that changes made to stories in response to the lawsuit were an attempt by the paper to do its “due diligence” and ensure that its pieces were objective, fair and accurate.

“If you look at the lawsuit, if you look at the holding of the Marolt column, that is us trying to do our due diligence, and to see a city councilman accuse us of trying to suppress free speech is disheartening,” Stanford said. “I’m trying to understand how we got to a point where trying to make sure our content is responsible came to mean that we are suppressing free speech.”

Stanford added that the Times remains committed to covering development in Aspen “thoroughly and aggressively.”

After Travers’ firing, morale was low, Marolt said — a sentiment Pattillo repeated in her interview with Aspen Public Radio. During the five-year period when Krause served as editor-in-chief, the newsroom saw four departures. Now, six people have left in the past three months.

There are just four people left in the newsroom: two reporters, a photographer and the interim editor.

“Some of it is the lawsuit,” Krause said, when asked about the departures. “I think some of it for other people is just the Ogden mentality, that corporate mentality that changed things in the newsroom. I think people just didn’t like the vision and see where it’s going, and they decided, ‘OK, I think I’m gonna go somewhere else.’”

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Angela Fu is a reporter for Poynter. She can be reached at or on Twitter @angelanfu.
Angela Fu

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