Podcast #98: 'Colorado Sun' Reporter Jason Blevins
Talking Vail, Alterra, megapasses, $275 lift tickets, housing, traffic, and the evolution of journalism with America's best snowsports reporter
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Jason Blevins, ski country (and more) reporter at The Colorado Sun
September 13, 2022
Why I interviewed him
Over two decades starting in 1997, Jason Blevins built the best local ski beat in America at The Denver Post. That he was anchored in Colorado - one of the fastest-growing states in America and home to expansion monster Vail Resorts, the atrocious I-70, America’s greatest ski towns, and the largest number of annual skier visits in the country - also made his coverage the most consequential and relevant to a national audience. By his own account, he loved the Post and his colleagues, and was proud of what he had built there.
“I created this beat at The Denver Post,” Blevins told Powder in 2018. “It was something that I carved out myself, just looking at mountain communities. I found that the best stories were in these small towns with small-town characters. Some of the brightest minds.”
But in 2010, the paper started a slow decline following its acquisition by New York-based Alden Global Capital. The newsroom shrank from a high of 250 reporters to approximately 70. This still wasn’t enough for Alden, as The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan documented in March 2018:
Jesse Aaron Paul could hardly believe his good fortune when he started his internship at the Denver Post in 2014 not long after he graduated from Colorado College.
“I felt like I had reached the end of the yellow brick road,” Paul, now 25, said, describing his first day at the paper with its history of Pulitzer Prizes, its beautiful downtown building (“like a beacon”), and its nationally regarded top editor, Greg Moore, who hired him at summer’s end and who dubbed him “Super Jesse.”
That all came crashing down on Wednesday when newsroom employees were summoned to an all-staff meeting at the paper’s headquarters, no longer downtown but at the printing plant in an outlying county.
After round after round of cutbacks in recent years at the hands of its hedge-fund owners, the staff thought there might be a small number of buyouts offered. There wasn’t much left to cut, after all.
Top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who has been at the paper for almost 20 years, gave it to them straight — and the news was far worse than expected.
The Post, already a shadow of its once-robust self, would be making deep layoffs: another 30 jobs.
“Sobs, gasps, expletives,” was how Paul, who covers politics, described the stunned reaction.
“The room went silent — we were blindsided by the numbers” said Aaron Ontiveroz, a 33-year-old photographer who has been on that award-winning staff for seven years, watching its ranks drop from 16 photographers to six.
Blevins, fed up, resigned shortly, as The Ringer documented:
In March , Blevins got back from [the Olympics in] South Korea and settled into his routine. (He also wrote about business and other subjects.) The next few weeks turned out one of the grimmest stretches in The Post’s history. On April 6, The Post adorned its “ultimate visitors guide” to Coors Field with a photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia—a mistake so egregious that one Denver radio host joked it was a strapped staff calling for help. The same night, The Post ran an editorial denouncing the paper’s owner, Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s decimating the Post’s newsroom.
But what got Blevins was Alden president Heath Freeman’s order that The Post lay off 30 more employees. “I couldn’t really reconcile the fact that I was working so hard for such a shithead,” Blevins said.
Asked whether he’d ever seen Freeman, Blevins said, “No one’s ever seen him. There’s like one photo of him out there. He’s more like a mystery serial killer, just hiding in the shadows and slowly murdering newspapers.”
Blevins decided to add himself to the 30-man headcount voluntarily. He sent an email to his editor and a resignation letter to the HR department. He kissed off the paper’s “black-souled” owners in a tweet. And with that, The Post lost a good sportswriter, a newsroom character, and 21 years’ worth of institutional memory.
Here’s the tweet:
Blevins wasn’t the only Post reporter to bounce. Over the spring and summer of 2018, the paper continued to lose talent. Instead of scattering, they formed into a sort of Rocky Mountain Voltron called The Colorado Sun. Per Corey Hutchins,* writing in Columbia Journalism Review:
The politics desk at The Denver Post has imploded. Starting in April with voluntary exits that included Brian Eason, a Statehouse reporter, and climaxing this month with a new round of departures, four of the political writers and an editor have gone. John Frank and Jesse Paul, who also covered the Statehouse, resigned in recent weeks, along with other colleagues, in defiance of Alden Global Capital, the New York-based hedge fund that owns the Post and other newsrooms—and has set about shrinking their ranks dramatically. But there is some hope for readers who still want to see the work of these journalists in Colorado: Frank and Paul are headed to The Colorado Sun—a Civil-backed platform staffed entirely, so far, by 10 former Post employees, who will be ready to cover the midterm elections in November. (Eason will also contribute to it.)
Larry Ryckman, an editor of the Sun, who left the Post as a senior editor in May, says he’s not in a position to recruit anyone, but receives calls “practically every other day from people at the Post who want to come work for me.” The Sun—which raised more than $160,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, doubling its goal—will be ad-free with no paywall, and reader-supported, and will focus on investigative, narrative, and explanatory journalism. Founding staff members own the company, an LLC, which also received enough startup funding from Civil to last at least the next two years.
Now the Sun, which hopes to start publishing around Labor Day, is poised to be a kind of post-Post supergroup.
Four years in, The Colorado Sun is thriving. Blevins tells me in the podcast that the publication is approaching 20,000 paid subscribers and has 27 reporters. Morale and output are high. Profitability is close. They feed content to every paper in Colorado – for free. How, in this age of media apocalypse, did this bat-team of super-journalists conjure a sustainable and growing newsroom from the ether? Will it work long-term? Is The Sun’s template repeatable?
Let’s hope so. Hurricane Alden’s damage is not localized – the fund owns approximately 200 American newspapers and is trying to devour more. The company repeats its cut-and-gut strategy everywhere it lands. It works because locals’ decades-old brand allegiance often persists even as the quality of the product declines. This was especially true in Denver, a city that had lost its other daily newspaper – The Rocky Mountain News – in 2009. Where 600 reporters once competed across two daily papers to deliver the most urgent local news to the residents of Greater Denver, somewhere between 10 and 15 percent of that number do the job today.
Fortunately for skiing and the high country, one of that number is Blevins. His work has always been important in a hyper-specific way, exploring skiing’s impact beyond its traditional branches of stoke-brah Red Bull flippy-doozers and ogling mansion-porn materialism. But in our current mass media extinction event, a Texas kid who spent his formative years living in a Vail laundry room has become an unlikely general in the battle for journalism’s soul. His platoon is small and outgunned, but they have more spirit and better ideas. Frankly, they could win this thing.
*I highly recommend Hutchins’ Substack newsletter, Inside The News in Colorado:
What we talked about
Skiing as a Texas kid; the ‘90s ski bum; Vail 30 years ago; living in a laundry room; getting a chance at The Denver Post with no reporting experience; inventing the Colorado business ski beat; the great Charlie Meyers; the ‘90s heyday and slow implosion of mainstream American newsrooms; the nefarious impact of Alden Global Capital’s gutting of local newspapers across America; leaving The Post to found The Colorado Sun; the Sun’s journalist-led business model and whether it can be replicated elsewhere; why The Sun doesn’t cover sports; the I-70 tipping point; pandemic relocators; Back-in-’92 Bro coming strong; Vail locals as the great liftline generators; the midweek business resort communities always wanted has arrived and no one was ready; the trap of basing long-term policy decisions on the anomaly of Covid; Colorado as short-term-rental laboratory; how ski towns created their own housing crisis; the new Mountain West, “where the locals live in hotels and the visitors stay in houses”; the housing scuffle between Vail Resorts and its namesake town; does an old Telluride lawsuit tell us how this ends?; the sheep defenders; the centuries-old problem of the company town; why developers give up and would rather build mansions than affordable housing; density is not the enemy; the elusive NIMBY; whether Vail’s employee pay bump and lift ticket limits will be enough to prevent a repeat of the complaint-laden 2021-22 ski season; why the Epic Pass keeps losing independent partners; the most well-kept secret in skiing; why comparing Vail and Alterra’s business models is so difficult; the inevitability of Alterra going public on the stock markets; perhaps the best reaction I’ve ever heard to Vail and Beaver Creek charging $275 for a one-day lift ticket; and why independent ski areas are thriving in the megapass era.
Why I thought that now was a good time for this interview
Any time is a good time to talk to Blevins. He is wired on virtually any story impacting Colorado’s ski industry: Vail’s financial performance, leadership tumult at the National Ski Patrol, patroller unionization, Keystone’s expansion oopsie. Incredibly, skiing is just part of his beat. His Sun author page is an eclectic menu of stories ranging from the drama upending crunchy thinktanks to novel collaborations between ranchers and the Bureau of land management to crises in Colorado trailer parks. But we didn’t talk, explicitly, about any of these things. We focused, instead, on adding context to stories I’ve been covering in The Storm: multi-mountain passes, mountain-town housing, traffic, the evolution of media. We could have had a different conversation the next day, and an entirely different one the day after that. Blevins is the best kind of journalist: observant, curious, prolific, devoted, and unapologetically honest. And also extremely busy. I took more of his time than I deserved, but his candor and insight will be enormously valuable to my listeners.
Questions I wish I’d asked
You could ask Blevins about any issue of consequence to hit the Colorado ski scene in the past 20 years and he would have a ready answer, so we could have gone just about anywhere with this interview. Our focus was the evolution of media in the digital age, I-70, housing, the megapass wars, Vail Resorts’ operating adjustments ahead of next ski season, and the resilience of independent ski areas in this consolidation era. But I had backup questions prepared on the tumult roiling the National Ski Patrol, the proposed mega-development at tiny Kendall Mountain, the comeback of Cuchara, resort employee unionization, and much more. Next time.
Why you should read The Colorado Sun
There is a whole subset of journalists who write about journalism. This beat is surprisingly robust. If you want to keep up, I suggest subscribing to Nieman Lab’s near-daily newsletter, which aggregates the day’s best media coverage of itself.
But even if you’re not paying attention, you understand that journalism, like everything else, has gotten its ass kicked by the internet over the past 25 years or so. The world I grew up in is not the world we live in now. Newspapers, dropped daily on a doorstep and acting as a subscriber’s primary source of information about the local community and outside world, no longer exist principally in that form or serve that function. They are one source of information in a universe of infinite information, most of it bad.
Many people, it seems, have a hard time telling the good information from the bad. “The media” is a four-letter word in many circles, cast as an agenda-driven force puppet-mastered by diabolical unseen elites. Besides, why bother reading the work of trained journalists when you can find online groups who validate any kookball idea you have, from the notion that the planet is flat (surely these knuckleheads are trolling us), to the conviction that the government is pumping toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.
Certainly there are ideologically driven news organizations. But “the media,” for the most part, is individual journalists – educated middle-class workers – seeking the truth through a methodical process of fact-finding. Unfortunately, as the world migrated online and the information gatekeepers lost power, traditional media business models collapsed, opening an enormous void that was quickly filled by every moron with a keyboard.
Big, legacy media was slow to adapt. But it is adapting now. Journalists are finding a way. The Colorado Sun, like the Texas Tribune before it, has established a sustainable template for high-quality, community-supported journalism. They have no central office, no printing costs, minimal advertising. Every dollar they earn goes into reporting. Most of those dollars come from citizens grateful for the truth, who pay a monthly subscription even though The Sun has no paywall.
It’s an appealing alternative to the minimalist business model of Alden Global Capital and The Denver Post. And I think it will predominate long-term, as journalists migrate from low-morale dens of aggressive cost-cutting run by opaque hedgemasters to spirited corps of locals engaged with and invested in their communities. In 50 years, we may be looking back at The Colorado Sun as a pioneer of digital-age journalism, one that established a new template for what a local news organization could be.
Alden Global Capital’s hilariously useless website.
The Texas Tribune is considered the OG of modern public-service journalism, and it comes up throughout the podcast.
In our discussion on the current housing-development dispute between the town of Vail and Vail Resorts, Blevins referred to a recent column he had written comparing this situation to a similar situation in Telluride:
When a deep-pocketed investor proposed luxury homes and a village on Telluride’s pastoral valley floor in the late 1990s, the town moved to block development, citing damage to the region’s rural character. Town voters approved a decision to condemn the 572 acres on the valley floor in 2002. The case eventually landed in the Colorado Supreme Court, which ruled that Telluride had the power to condemn that acreage outside its boundary.
The valuation proved spicy. The town offered the developer $26 million. The developer wanted $51 million. He forced a jury trial to move to nearby Delta County where the jury in 2007 ordered Telluride to pay $50 million, which was twice what the town had set aside to protect the parcel. A massive fundraising effort followed and the valley floor remains a bucolic stretch of open space on the edge of downtown Telluride.
In Telluride, the value boiled down to the developer arguing the “highest and best use” of the 572 acres, where he envisioned multimillion-dollar homes, shops and restaurants. At Vail, that could come down to whether the parcel could ever be used for high-end homes.
“The Vail corporation will argue that the land should be valued for its higher and best use,” said Collins, who penned a legal paper analyzing the Telluride valley floor case. “Assuming the ski corporation wants to fight this, that will absolutely be their argument. Highest and best use. That’s just good lawyering.”
This, Blevins thinks, is where the Vail dispute is headed. Tens of millions in public money spent and no new housing built. For more insight like this, sign up for The Sun:
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