Roger Marolt: An old, small newspaper no match for new, big money
Editor’s note: “This was originally published on June 10 and removed June 11. We have republished them with some edits.”
I sat down with my coffee and opened The Aspen Times, my 5:45 a.m. daily ritual. It’s not the rooster, but my dog that is to blame. I flipped the virtual pages and was suddenly confused. My column was missing. It’s not that I normally read it once it’s in print, but subconsciously it reminds me it’s Friday as I speed past it to letters to the editor.
I thought, is it only Thursday? I checked my watch. Nope, it is definitely Friday. Ugh. Did I forget to hit “send” after I finished it yesterday? I might be going crazy. I checked my email. There it was, in the “sent” folder. There was a mess-up somewhere and I had no clue.
I glanced at my inbox and saw an email from Dave Krause, one of my bosses at the paper. He said he tried getting hold of me the night before without any luck. There was a situation. The Aspen Times was being sued and my column got spiked because what I wrote might upset the person legally threatening the paper. It was the guy who recently bought the Gorsuch Haus lot for $76.5 million.
What? I got canceled because what I wrote might make someone mad? That’s part of my job. I am a columnist for The Aspen Times, not some formulaic puff-piece writer for a high-gloss magazine paid to go out of my way to write feel-good pieces that stimulate the urge to buy expensive local real estate.
I was miffed, but took it like a pro, at first. Never mind the waste of time, I tried to convince myself, it means you wrote something good. But, you know what? It doesn’t matter if it was good or not if nobody reads it. I used to write for myself when I was starting out, but I don’t do that anymore. I write for the local audience, whether it likes it or not, whether it reads it or not. I put it out there, because that is the juice in this job and, without the juice, there is no energy to keep up this weekly exercise.
Then I got mad, really mad — agitated, angry, frustrated and then livid, the stages of getting good and pissed off. This was an assault on freedom of the press. This was more money coming into Aspen and taking over another thing that locals used to be able to trust, if not enjoy. It was, perhaps, the step too far. And, the worst thing was that nobody in town could possibly know this was happening as they went about their Friday morning routines. It presented a serious possibility that the two local newspapers had just entered a new normal of suppression under the weight of big money, with their decades of priceless accumulated community tradition being wiped away.
It is hard to see it as anything other than a threat to a cherished Aspen institution. I am talking about our two local newspapers, and I am speaking of them in the singular, as if they are one thing, because they truly are stitched together as a seam in our community fabric. Together they are uniquely synergistic in informing, entertaining, and energizing our small town.
The local press is in trouble. 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.
I stumbled into a controversy while trying to be provocative in my weekly Aspen Times column. The takeaway is that big money, with the inherent power and influence that comes with it, can wield incredible sway over the local press. You might believe this to be a hypothetical possibility. I am sorry to tell you a real precedent has been set — wealth can impair the integrity of local news content and can do so without us noticing.
This happens in two ways: Big money can litigate the hell out an issue all the way to the financial breaking point that neither Aspen newspaper can withstand, or it can strike enough fear of litigation so that content becomes milquetoast in order to avoid conflict.
I want you to read my banned columns and make your own assessment of this situation.
Roger Marolt doesn’t know how to protect the local papers any more than he knows how to build more affordable housing or enjoy a reasonably priced meal in town. Email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don’t let the door hit you on the way into town
They don’t care what we think. They are indifferent to the importance of the plan. They couldn’t care less about historical significance. Are they clueless? How else to explain the silent treatment we are getting since they plopped down $76.5 million to buy an acre of land on the shores of Norway Island like we’re all playing a game here?
It’s an awkward silence, to say the least. It’s creepy. It’s weird. It’s just plain rude.
Has anybody heard so much as a yawn from this new captain of the flagship for the Lift 1A corridor? Where is the spokesperson? Have they hired a PR firm, a project manager, an architect? Do they have any local connections? Are there more questions than answers? Yeah, like by a ratio of 76 million to 1.
After the deal went down a few weeks back, the local sellers of this focal point property went out of their ways to assure us that the buyer has honorable intentions in this shotgun marriage with Aspen and is committed to carrying out the plan according to the prearranged proposal blessed by half of Aspen’s voters. Talk is certainly cheaper than downtown dirt. Even still, did the buyer back them up on this guarantee? Nope, not so much as two peeps for “yes” or one for “no.”
It’s more than odd. Even Snowmass Base Village, the most ill-conceived, poorly timed, out-of-place disaster of a development this area has seen since the Highland Bavarian Lodge, had Jim Crown stepping out front as its ringleader. Gerry Hines was the ubiquitous promoter of Highlands Base Village. Mohamed Hadid stuck his neck way out building the Ritz Carlton, which he later unloaded for cents on the dollar and which became the St. Regis Hotel. Even Mark Hunt acts as if he’s proud of his local projects.
At this point, I would be happy to hear third-hand gossip about somebody who heard somebody else met another person who overheard a conversation between the buyer and a barista and said something as simple as “boy, I’m glad to be here!” and left a nice tip. I would even settle to talk with a ski instructor who gave this buyer a private lesson to learn all Aspen Mountain has to offer. Wouldn’t it be something if they ran down Tony Vagneur to get a visual, visceral dose of Aspen history tour?
Does the new owner have any history with Aspen? Did they come here as a teenager and fall in love with the place? Does part of them admire the ski bum lifestyle? Did they get engaged to someone here? Is there anything deeply personal about Aspen for them? Or are they here for what it offers according to their team’s spreadsheets and financial modeling?
We’ve got nothing, man. This buyer, who is allegedly excited to execute the approved plan to redevelop the west side of Aspen Mountain, appears more content to kill time than shoot the shit making local friends and acquaintances. Nothing like coming out with a bang. I don’t know about you. I’m super excited.
What in the Bizarro World have we gotten into? What kind of a developer interested in becoming part of the community makes it a point to give that community the silent treatment colder than the Shoulder of Bell Mountain on a January morning? Or have they even arrived yet? Nobody knows.
Are the secret developers afraid to tell us what their plan really is, or are they simply so indifferent that they haven’t even considered that we might care? Maybe they don’t realize real people live here who depend on this for more than a boost in the Forbes 500 ranking.
It’s maddening. It’s insulting. It’s condescending. Like I said, it’s just plain rude.
It’s not so much the surge of obscene amounts of money lately arriving that drives locals crazy. It’s the garish attitude that carries it. Who comes to town and buys a project for more money than possibly makes sense based on what anyone believes that plan can return financially, that the town sweated and fought over for months to get right, then throws a shroud of secrecy over the project that fragilely contains a cherished part of our town’s history and is seen as one of the last parts of Aspen that has authentic local flavor, that any casual visitor would know means so much to this town, and doesn’t even have the decency to say, “Hi, my name is ___”?
Roger Marolt may never be mistaken for Mr. Manners, but he knows when you walk into someone’s house, it’s only decent to introduce yourself before you use the restroom. email@example.com
Just trying to do my job the best I can
I missed you last Friday. I wrote a column. It wasn’t published. I hope it doesn’t happen again, but no guarantees. The more Aspen changes, the less control it seems we have over such matters.
By now you have read about some legal issues at The Aspen Times. The paper is getting sued for upsetting the buyer of the Gorsuch Haus parcel. My column was inadvertently and tangentially related to that, so it got spiked.
Initially, I took it like a man. I stuffed my disappointment and said I understood and had every intention to move on and grab the next topic on the conveyor belt of ideas filling the silo of local opinions that is the right side of my brain.
But, it ate at me. The decision to can my column plucked the stuffing out of me. Over the course of almost 1,600 columns the past 19 years, only one other was pulled at the last minute. My editor pushed a little, but ultimately I did the pulling. Sure, I wish a few others hadn’t made it into print, but that isn’t the point. The point is that The Aspen Times has allowed me to 100% tell it like I see it. Like a baseball umpire, I have made some lousy calls, but oddly enough, I think even the missteps made the paper better or at least more interesting. It is the essence of local flavor.
The beauty of small-town newspapers has been that they have been, to a large degree, impervious to the cyber forces that have severely cut into the economic domains of big city newspapers. Massive amounts of free competing content swamp the internet and take huge chunks of readership from them. Meanwhile, small town newspapers remain the main source of information for local citizenry. Nothing digital has emerged as a match for the reporter on the street telling it like everyone in town sees it.
Last week made me wonder if the foundation the hometown paper has stood solidly on for hundreds of years in this nation is finally cracking. In Aspen, anyway, the town papers seem no match for the insulted billionaire who can outspend them a thousandfold. Even in a lawsuit lacking substance, a wealthy litigant can make the legal battle so painful that the papers are better off just avoiding potentially sticky news topics all together. The New York Times may be able to go toe to toe with those who prefer litigation over simply airing grievances in a letter to the editor, but the local papers haven’t a prayer. People who don’t even live here can control the content of our papers. That sucks!
What demoralizes me is not that I worked for hours on a piece to get it right, that I was proud of, that will never see the light of day. It’s because there was no reason it shouldn’t see the light of day other than because it might raise a rich guy’s eyebrows who has a team of attorneys on speed dial.
It wasn’t slanderous. It wasn’t a screed of libel. I didn’t call anybody a name. I made no disparaging remarks about mothers, relatives or friends. There was no foul language. I didn’t make a moral judgment or offer a political opinion. All I said is that the billionaire was rude for not introducing himself to the town and reassuring us about his plans for the new hotel at the base of Norway Slope above Lift 1A relative to what was approved by Aspen voters. I would say every single thing I wrote directly to the billionaire’s face.
The billionaire couldn’t successfully sue me for what I said. But, what I said could make him madder and, in turn, he could make things harder for The Aspen Times in their current litigation. The powerful tentacles of wealth can reach a lot further and squeeze a lot harder than what most imagine. That’s what is discouraging.
As bad as I feel, I feel worse for The Aspen Times. They are doing what they need to do to survive, seemingly like everyone else in Aspen these days. We are all just surviving, trying to hold onto something intangible that brought us here and made us stay and that is harder and harder to find. It’s so rare that few of us can describe it anymore much less figure out how to preserve what’s left of it.
Anyway, last week I wrote a good column. I think you would have liked it.
Roger Marolt tried to write about something else this week, but he just couldn’t get this off his mind long enough to let it go. firstname.lastname@example.org
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