Pueblo Dispatch: Crisis and Response in a Storied Colorado Newspaper City
What a struggling Western community taught me about reporting outside the bubble in a time of industry tumult.
By Jill Rothenberg
“Hi there,” I said to the woman pushing a cart through the narrow aisles of the Dollar General. There are 18 dollar stores and counting in Pueblo, the southern Colorado city of 111,000 where I have lived and reported for the past six years.
“I’m writing about dollar stores for the Colorado Sun, a digital news site based in Denver,” I told the woman. “Can I ask you some questions?”
“Who’s this for again?” she asked, not seeming to recognize the name.
“The Colorado Sun. It’s an online news site founded by former Denver Post editors and reporters — after the Post was bought last year.”
“Sure, but I need to watch my daughter over there,” she said, pointing to a young woman placing cans in and out of her cart. “She’s developmentally disabled and I bring her here to be around people and to practice going through the check-out line, unloading groceries, and making change.”
Cheryl was 58 and lived near the Dollar General on Pueblo Boulevard, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Still in her uniform from her job at a nearby nursing home, she explained that the dollar stores are less overwhelming for her daughter than the area’s four Walmarts. Like so many of her fellow residents, she was also drawn by the prices. Pueblo has a poverty rate nearly double the state average of 10 percent.
Cheryl’s story is one of many that I heard reporting on the growth of Pueblo’s dollar stores. But, as with so many other small towns and cities, it is not clear which publications will be around in ten years to continue telling them.
Pueblo is more fortunate than most. Its longtime paper, the Pueblo Chieftain, continues to publish, and yellow Chieftain delivery boxes remain a common site on front yard gates. But it is not the paper it once was. Until its sale to GateHouse Media in May of 2018, it was the oldest family-owned daily in the state, with roots as a weekly founded in 1868 by a local physician; it was later transformed into one of Colorado’s biggest and most respected dailies by businessman Frank Hoag.
After GateHouse purchased the paper from Hoag’s great-granddaughter, the company quickly began reducing staff through early retirement buyouts and layoffs. The casualties included some of the paper’s most beloved bylines, including 30-year veteran reporter Peter Roper and longtime business editor Dennis Darrow. In the first 18 months of the new ownership, the reporting staff was reduced from 30 to 18. (GateHouse owns 154 daily newspapers, most of which are designed out of its hub in Austin, Texas. With GateHouse expected to acquire Gannett for $1.4 billion, this number is set to grow.)
When GateHouse bought the Chieftain, the paper reported on its own sale in a story written by editor Steve Henson, but the staff cuts were not reported. (Henson did not reply to an email for this story.) The instinct in the newsroom was to treat the cuts like any other local story — as they would have been treated under the longtime family owners. Apparently, GateHouse saw things differently.
“The journalists did want to self-report,” said Luke Lyons, a Pueblo native, the Chieftain’s arts and entertainment reporter and the paper’s labor union chair. “We wanted to let the public know that the paper isn’t designed in Pueblo anymore, that there have been layoffs, this is why the funnies look different. But we were told by higher-ups that we couldn’t report it.”
This lack of transparency is a common problem with this new generation of newspaper chains, says Corey Hutchins, Columbia Journalism Review’s Rocky Mountain contributor for the United States Project and Colorado College’s Journalist in Residence, whose weekly newsletter chronicles journalism across the state.
“If local newspapers want to foster trust in their communities, then they have to be honest about what’s happening to them,” Hutchins said. “When a newspaper reports about layoffs at a steel mill or layoffs at a hospital, which is very important news, why do they feel it’s not important news when there are layoffs at their own paper? Why don’t they let readers see that the newspaper is shrinking, and it’s being delivered in fewer places with fewer journalists?”
This past June, Lyons and some of his colleagues protested Gatehouse’s ongoing staff cuts during a lunchtime protest outside the newsroom. Some of the paper’s employees held up signs reading “Gut-house.” The protest and the larger story of the staff cuts were covered in the state media outside of Pueblo, but that, too, is shrinking and struggling to find a footing for the future. Like dollar stores rising in the shadows of Walmart, a new generation of journalism start-ups have begun to pop up in their place.
In 2010, just one year after the shuttering of the Rocky Mountain News, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital bought Colorado’s biggest metropolitan daily, the Denver Post. A vulture firm that preys on financially struggling newspapers, it has since reduced the Post’s newsroom to fewer than 100 staff, from a high of 250. Alden’s “marching orders,” as outlined in an April 2018 editorial in the paper, were to cut another 30 positions.
Not content to wait for more blood to spill, in June of 2018, eight longtime Post journalists announced a new online publication called the Colorado Sun. Its funding model involved a Kickstarter campaign and two years of support from Civil, a blockchain platform intended to allow news organizations to independently fund newsrooms. In September of 2018, the Sun was born, a subscription-based independent online publication that aims to cover all of Colorado. One year later, the website is still going strong.
The city also has a free independent monthly newspaper, PULP, founded in 2007 by local writer Susan Wolf.
“The market still has a big hole for quality and engaging news and coverage, [but] unfortunately the talent level for journalists and the ad base is very limited,” said John Rodriguez, a former U.S. senate staffer and the paper’s current owner. PULP is published monthly and distributed free in local businesses; the website is subscription-based.
PULP has taken on more ambitious long-form stories on the housing shortage for low-income seniors and issues of land use and water rights in southeastern Colorado, where farmers face water shortages. They also do deeper dives into stories that get quick hits on local TV news, such as the ongoing problem of overcrowding and old infrastructure at the Pueblo jail.
Given Colorado’s purple complexion on the electoral map, both the Sun and PULP are covering shifting political winds that now have national relevance. Long a union town and Democratic stronghold, with Democratic state representatives, Pueblo for the first time voted Republication in the 2016 Presidential election.
Denver Post political reporter John Frank, now with the Colorado Sun, wrote a prescient piece in September 2016 out of Pueblo titled, “Where Donald Trump Needs to Make Gains to Win Colorado”. He quoted locals like a retired teacher who told him, “I think [Trump’s] a darn idiot, but we need him. I just think we are due for a change.”
I arrived in Pueblo in 2013, many years into a journalism career that began with a Washington D.C. internship covering the Wisconsin Congressional delegation for the Capital Times. I spent the next year as a general assignment reporter at the Union-Democrat in Sonora, California, where I cut my teeth as a local reporter — covering fires, profiling local businesses and figuring out how to fill 20 inches on the front page with a weather story when it’s a perfect bluebird day. Like everyone else who’s had the same beat on a small-town paper, I spent most of my time covering issues that had real-world consequences for the community, but held little interest to anyone outside of Sonora.
In due time, I worked for several book publishers in Denver until a relationship brought me to Pueblo, a part of the state I knew nothing about.
Like most freelancers, I do more than one thing here in Pueblo. I work with writers one-on-one to help them develop and find homes for their book proposals, essays, Op-Eds and reporting. I also continue to report and write. In a place like Pueblo, outside the Front Range bubble of Boulder and Denver, this means finding under-the-radar stories that deserve local, state and national attention. Pueblo is a city striving to find its place in a booming state without losing its steel mill and union town roots (even if the mill has long closed). My first pieces out of Pueblo were about the shuttering of a beloved, historic restaurant and the closure of Pueblo’s Planned Parenthood clinic.
I soon realized there are no easy sound bites in Pueblo. A diverse city where about 40 percent of the population identify as Latino, I found it to be much more than the wayside stop and string of fast food restaurants many in the Front Range see as they’re headed south on I-25 to Santa Fe or Taos. Its revitalized downtown Riverwalk area is expanding. Groups of concerned citizens fight high gas rates, and non-profits have appeared to help the many new unhoused residents who arrived in the wake of the legalization of retail marijuana in Pueblo County in 2014. Following legalization, streams of out-of-staters appeared, their vehicles strapped with belongings and often-naïve hopes of finding work (or striking it rich) in the new industry.
As Denver’s Front Range has boomed a hundred miles to the north, Pueblo has not shared its explosive growth. Although legal recreational marijuana sales and cultivation are a growing industry, the city’s largest employers are the hospitals, the Vestas wind plant, the now Russian-owned steel mill, and the nearby prisons.
“Up in Denver and now in Aurora, we talk a lot about how to manage growth and gentrification,” said Kara Mason, a Pueblo native who writes for the Aurora Sentinel and the Pueblo PULP. “Here in Pueblo, it’s really the opposite.” Mason has written extensively on rising local homelessness and other social welfare issues, and in June reported a story for PULP on a mobile home park in nearby Canon City where residents have formed a co-op to protect themselves from developers.
Often, I’ve found, it’s the unexpected stories that reveal local complicated truths. When I wrote the dollar store story, I started out with the belief that these stores were garish monuments on the ashes of the old downtown mom-and-pop stores, soulless chains taking advantage of people with limited income to spend on necessities. My assumptions — forged in larger cities — were quickly debunked when I actually went onto the street and met locals who understood the issue better than I did.
“These stores have become our mom-and-pops,” Sister Nancy Crafton told me during one of my dollar store interviews. A longtime nurse, Sister Nancy, as she is known in Pueblo, runs El Centro de los Pobres, a non-profit who helps the poor and many migrant workers who work on the farms to the east of Pueblo.
“Our families have very limited dollars, so these stores are serving a need for them in this diminished economy,” she said. “They are able to buy the tools to fix a car battery or windshield. Artificial flowers for their shrines to commemorate someone passing. A small toy for their children.”
“Go ask the people,” she said. “That’s where you’re going to find the answers.”
Jill Rothenberg is a freelance writer and editor. She has written for the Washington Post, the Guardian, Quartz, Vice, Runners World, the Colorado Sun, and others. Read more at www.jillrothenberg.com and find her on Twitter @ejillrothenberg.
Production DetailsV. 1.1
Last edited: October 7, 2019
Author: Jill Rothenberg
Editors: Alexander Zaitchik, Jeff Koyen
Illustration: Photos courtesy of Jill Rothenberg