Estes Park, CO

An open letter to the Estes Park community about protecting local journalism—opinion

The Colorado Switchblade

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Jason Van Tatenhove for the Colorado Switchblade

My name is Jason Van Tatenhove, and I have been a member of the Estes Park community for the past four years. My family inherited our house from my aunt and uncle, who owned Longhorn Liquors in the '80s before it became Rambo Liquors. I have three daughters and a granddaughter who have come with me to Estes Park. 

I have been a journalist for the Trail-Gazette for the past year and a half now. During that time, I have written two to six articles a week for the paper, including breaking local news, social equality issues (the first to ever write on LGBTQ+ issues in Estes), in-depth investigative pieces, local government, school district news, crime, feature articles on the arts and coverage of last year's fires which was shared globally. I also have designed the majority of magazine covers over the past eight months or so. 

Today it was announced on the Trail-Gazette's Facebook page that I had stepped down from writing. 

I wanted to explain why I made this decision on ethical and equality issues and give the background as to why. 

 My tenure with the paper began as a freelance reporter covering the BLM rallies in Estes Park because the paper did not have the available staff to cover these critical events, and I stepped up to fill the gap. 

I was in short order, asked to write several articles a week. This position then transformed into a writing and delivery job, as it was the only way to secure a staff job, which paid every two weeks instead of monthly as a freelancer. The position was offered with the intention that it would lead to a full-time job with medical benefits and a significant raise from the minimum wage of $12.32/hr., and an increase from 15-20 hours a week to full time. 

Whenever that period came past, there was always some new reason why the paper could not adequately provide a living wage for a team member creating so much valuable content, even after landing some very lucrative digital advertising contracts with major players in the Estes Park business community. The Trail-Gazette has been enjoying one of the largest digital footprints in the entire state. 

We had put together a fantastic news team that was moving mountains in town, and I would like to stress here, I believe that those former team members in the trenches, writing local news are some of the best I have ever worked with, and I was honored to be a part of that team. 

I was asked to make due and repeatedly endure this situation, even during a family crisis when my wife had a major heart attack, multi-system failure, and possible colon cancer. When I reached out for help, the powers that be were still unable or unwilling to help go to bat on my behalf and help get me hired on in a fair and equal way to my co-workers. One that would help with critical medical care for my wife and daughters (two of which also have significant health conditions.) 

This past week I could not go back and tell my family yet again that we would not have the benefit of a fair wage and critically needed health benefits. 

This past week I could not go back and tell my family yet again that we would not have the benefit of a fair wage and critically needed health benefits. 

So I left my position in protest. 

I will note, there was an offer of a fifty-cent raise or maybe even a dollar an hour, made along with some token hours and the possibility of ad trade out (but not digital as it is much too valuable.) 

It is hard to understand how a company making so much revenue, mostly from digital ads digital could not help out a key employee in a time of crisis. But it makes more sense once you know more about the ownership structure of the Trail-Gazette. 

All we have to do is look at what other journalists have written about those companies that own the Trail-Gazette and what they have done to the industry, both regionally and nationally. 

A cascade of several companies owns the Trail-Gazette, Prairie Mountain Media, which Digital First Media owns (MediaNews Group Enterprises, Inc., doing business as Digital First Media), a Denver-based newspaper publisher owned by Alden Global Capital.

MediaNews Group is a known cost-cutter in the news industry with a reputation for buying smaller local newspapers and slashing jobs. Many journalists formerly employed by the group have said that the group's focus is on profits to the detriment of good journalism. (According to the article "There are two sides to this publishers story" by Joseph Menn, in the LA Times March 22, 2006.)

At the top of this hierarchy is Alden Global Capital, which has a well-deserved reputation of cutting costs by dramatically reducing the number of journalists working their papers. This policy can be seen at work here in Estes Park, with the Trail-Gazette, which at one point employed three advertising positions, six reporters, and a photographer. Now there is only one reporter and one ad person. 

The Washington Post has said Alden is "One of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners, seemingly intent on destroying local journalism."

The Washington Post has said Alden is "One of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners, seemingly intent on destroying local journalism." The Editorial Staff has even called out these practices at the Denver Post. (Yes, also owned by the Alden Group.) Who described their owners as "Vulture Capitalists" after multiple staff layoffs. 

I would implore local advertisers who have recently been so supportive of local journalism to reconsider their investments, especially if they thought that money would improve the lives of those hard-working journalists and staff on the front lines of local news. 

I firmly believe in the essential benefits of local journalism. We need to protect those benefits from those trying to wring out the last bits of profit from an industry they are actively destroying. 

I was left asking myself, what do I do now? There was never a question that I would continue with the same writing I have been doing for the paper. Just where and how.

I have had the idea to start a new local news outlet here in Estes Park for years now (one that I even pitched to the powers that be at the paper.) 

My vision was for a local and regional website covering breaking local news, culture, business, and government. But not by relying on advertising but rather a small monthly subscription that goes directly to local journalists doing the work. 

I have recently launched The Colorado Switchblade, an independent, online subscription-supported website and newsletter that will include a weekly podcast every Sunday. Memberships will cost only five dollars a month.

 Every week I will write at least 3 to 6 articles covering local topics. At least two of those articles will be accessible regardless of membership. But more in-depth articles will require a subscription. I will also be including some serialized fiction and short stories.

 One of the aspects of this new venture I am most excited about is that I am in the process of seeking out Spanish-speaking writers in the community so that I can also offer a news outlet to those who do not read English. 

 One of the aspects of this new venture I am most excited about is that I am in the process of seeking out Spanish-speaking writers in the community so that I can also offer a news outlet to those who do not read English. 

The podcast will be posted each Sunday (starting in a week or so) and will include a recap of the week's top news stories and feature an in-depth conversation about local issues with guest hosts who are knowledgeable in those areas. This podcast will always be free. However, there will be opportunities for local businesses to sponsor these shows.

If you also value local journalism as I do, I would ask that you help support this initiative with a $5 monthly membership, $55 yearly membership, or founding membership donation between $55 - $100. You can help support this grassroots effort here.

Would you please help protect local journalism and spread the word about this new project? 

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Welcome to our brave new world. It is becoming more difficult to support oneself, much less a family (including three daughters, a granddaughter, and the family wolf) in the ways a writer used to before the age of the vulture fund media conglomerates. I am local to Estes Park, Colorado, where I write for several outlets in Northern Colorado, including the Estes Park Trail-Gazette. As much as I love what I do for a living, it is challenging to make just a living wage writing for a newspaper, not to mention securing some perks like basic health care. So I have been looking for ways that I can continue writing while supplementing my income. Many writers around the world are now turning to subscription-based platforms like Substack to supplement their incomes. I hope that by giving my readers a direct portal to all of my writing, including articles and serialized fiction projects, they find enough value to help support and join me in continuing this journey. Some of my pieces will be editorial, and sometimes I will include some of the fine artwork that I show in contemporary galleries I will also be sharing some of my political satire art from time to time. Writing is the most powerful tool that we as human beings have to change the world for the better. It gives voice to the most vulnerable of our neighbors, shines a light on the injustices we must fix, and plants the seeds of change and hope for the future. I sincerely hope you will join me on this journey. ~Jason Van Tatenhove

Estes Park, CO
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