What’s going on at The Aspen Times?
The following transcript has been edited for clarity. To hear the broadcast version of this story, tap the audio above.
Halle Zander, host:
The incoming editor of The Aspen Times was fired last week, shortly after he had accepted, but not yet started, the top job in the newsroom. He made one decision before he officially started that appeared to have cost him his job. Andrew Travers was let go after eight years as arts and culture editor at the Times. His departure comes six months after the paper’s ownership changed. It has been a tumultuous period for the Times. Here’s publisher Allison Pattillo:
Pattillo: Yeah, I’m not gonna lie. Morale is not great right now.
Zander: We’re joined now by our own arts and culture editor and reporter, Dominic Anthony Walsh. Hi, Dominic.
Walsh: Hey, Halle.
Zander: Andrew Travers is a well known name in Aspen. He’s a respected reporter and editor. Why was he fired?
Walsh: Yeah, everyone I’ve spoken with has described him as incredibly talented. His firing is a complicated story, and we need to back up a bit. It was triggered by the publication of a slightly unusual column that his boss’s boss found to be problematic. That would be Scott Stanford — he’s the group publisher for Swift Communications, which is now owned by The Ogden Newspapers, out of West Virginia. Backing up, the Times was sued by a real estate developer for defamation earlier this year. That case was settled recently. While it was ongoing, Ogden held back coverage of and commentary about the lawsuit. Here’s columnist Roger Marolt, who says he had columns about this developer held back, talking about a conversation he had with former Times editor David Krause.
Marolt: My editor informed me that he liked my column, but he said, unfortunately, they couldn't publish it — because they were in a lawsuit — and they needed to settle that before they could publish the column.
Walsh: By the time the lawsuit settled, Krause had resigned — and he pointed to Ogden’s ownership as the reason, in addition to a health scare. Travers was offered and accepted the editor’s job last week but had not officially started when he was fired. After he accepted the position, he took over edits of Marolt’s column. Marolt’s most recent piece included the two columns that had been held back, and email correspondence about the decision to hold them back. Travers was fired — unexpectedly, he says — after it was published. The other daily paper in town, the Aspen Daily News, first reported that story, and we have confirmed it.
Zander: So, there are a lot of moving pieces here.
Walsh: Yeah. Aspen Public Radio has confirmed that Stanford, the regional group publisher, is the person who made the call to fire Travers. We reached out to Stanford, who declined to comment on personnel matters and didn’t want to have a formal recorded interview — but he did say the Times will continue to report on the real estate developer at the heart of this story, meaning there is, apparently, no editorial hold. And he said, “We have no problem with Roger Marolt.” Again, that’s the columnist who wrote the piece that Travers was fired for publishing.
Zander: You say Travers was fired unexpectedly. He didn’t expect this column to get him in trouble?
Walsh: Yeah, he says he was assured — by his publisher and by Ogden officials — that after the lawsuit was settled, the Times would be able to continue covering this real estate developer, whose name is Vladislav Doronin. By the time Travers accepted the editor job, rumors about this suppression were making the rounds. The mayor of Aspen had even publicly criticized the Times for suppressing stories. Travers says he thought it was critical to tell the story of what happened with Marolt’s columns in order to maintain — and regain, really — trust with the community. We spoke a few days after he was fired.
Travers: The assurance that I was given was that when the settlement was done — some discussions were still underway at that time — that we can get back to work and start doing the reporting and commentary that we always do.
Walsh: And, he says, he got clearance from his boss at the Times, Pattillo, to move forward with Marolt’s hybrid column. But he says that on Friday, a few hours after the column went up, Stanford came into the office and informed him that his employment was terminated, and Pattillo did not back him up. We spoke with Pattillo, and she says she was aware of the general concept of the unusual column but not all the details. The only part she had read was the previous two pieces he included in this new column — not the new copy.
Pattillo: I did not read Roger’s new column that introduced them, and I was not aware of the extent of emails that were going to be included. That was a misunderstanding on my part. And the fact that I didn't ask — not asking to read the entire entire column was a grave mistake, and I own that. It was a communication breakdown, and that is something I truly regret.
Walsh: I have to ask: Do you agree with the decision to terminate Andrew Travers?
Pattillo: I'm not going to talk about — yeah, it's not appropriate for me to talk about personnel matters.
Walsh: Marolt’s Friday column was removed from the Times website. Again, Stanford and Pattillo say there is no editorial hold, no censorship, and that they just cannot get into specifics about why exactly Travers was fired because they cannot discuss personnel matters.
Zander: So, editor David Krause resigned last month because of Ogden. The incoming editor of the Times, Andrew Travers, was fired before he really even started the job, although after making one significant decision. This is a 141-year-old Aspen institution. What do you think lies ahead for the Times?
Walsh: Krause and Travers aren’t the only people who left. Other staff members have left because Ogden didn’t keep employee housing and hasn’t found new housing yet — that’s a benefit that several staff members had taken advantage of before the buyout. Pattillo says they’re working on housing, but for Travers, the biggest concern here is what he describes as suppression of news by Ogden.
Travers: I think it's clear that Ogden is acting in interests other than the public interest, and that's gravely disappointing.
Walsh: Again, Stanford, the group publisher, says there is no censorship — that the editorial hold is done — and that Ogden is focused on allowing quality community newspapers to operate. But the firing of Travers is a blow to the paper. Like you mentioned, he is a longtime reporter in this community. He also worked at the Aspen Daily News before joining the Times. Here’s Marolt.
Marolt: Andrew Travers is a true professional. He is one of the most talented people in the newspaper business I have ever met. … To me, that was the biggest shame of all of this. Andrew was just trying to do the right thing.
Walsh: Travers says the newsroom at the Times wants to get back to the news and that they’re pained by the current situation. Rick Carroll is the interim editor, and he declined to comment. Pattillo also says she wants the paper to focus on reporting the news.
Pattillo: It's a challenging time, and it's just going to take time to work through it. Truly. To go back to what I said earlier: Ideally, I feel like us not being part of the news would help, but I know that we are, which is why I agreed to do this — just so we can try to answer more questions.
Walsh: And she’s talking, at the end there, about agreeing to do an interview with Aspen Public Radio. She says the paper is having trouble hiring, at the moment, but that she’s working to raise benefits, including pay and employee housing. Even with recent departures, the Times does still have some of the most experienced reporters in the Roaring Fork Valley, and it remains one of the largest newsrooms in the valley. In the very short term, Aspen Times Weekly, which Travers also edited, is remembering the late Bob Braudis — the former Pitkin County sheriff — this week. Travers’ byline is on the cover story. It will most likely be his last for The Aspen Times.
Zander: That’s Dominic Anthony Walsh with our Edlis Neeson Arts and Culture Desk. Thanks, Dominic.
Walsh: Yeah. Thanks, Halle.