Andrew Travers, my editor at The Aspen Times since the principled resignation of David Krause a few weeks ago, was fired last Friday for publishing previously banned columns I wrote. They contained truth, locally important information, and the revelation of issues our community would have been otherwise unaware of.
This was supposed to be my last column for The Aspen Times, but now is my first for the Aspen Daily News. It depended on how delicately I crafted this piece; if I stayed between the company lines in giving the reason for my departure, the new owners of The Aspen Times might have allowed me to say goodbye in their paper last Friday. Alas, it’s three spikes and I’m out. I went down looking, released on waivers to the Aspen Daily News.
“Spike” is the term used when a news story or column doesn’t get published. In May, I had back-to-back weekly columns spiked — not by my editors in the newsroom, but by the suits at The Aspen Times’ new parent company in West Virginia, who feared a lawsuit.
The first column pointed out that the new owner of the Gorsuch Haus site at Lift 1A was unnervingly rude for not stepping up and assuring the town of his plans to go along with the development plans approved by voters. The second was about his big money coming to Aspen and silencing our small-town press through litigation threats, gagging The Aspen Times with questionable claims. We were assured by the executives in West Virginia that the columns would run “eventually”, after the litigation was settled.
The litigation was settled. Andrew ran the columns. He got fired. Everyone else got mad. Intimidation seeped into the newsroom.
There is enough to this story for an upper-level, four-credit journalism school case study to consider over the span of an entire semester. There are ample opportunities for teaching moments and a long list of discussion points. However, rather than recognizing these options, the executives at corporate headquarters determined it was simply better (easier) to fire Travers, a seasoned and talented journalist.
I believe the crux of this controversy boiled down to weighing the universal omerta of keeping interoffice conversations private versus the obligation of newspapers to report honestly on important issues, even if it means disclosing interoffice conversations to do so. Which is the higher law?
My column launched these conflicting objectives on a trajectory of imminent collision. I linked both of the spiked columns chronologically with e-mail discussions about them with my immediate superiors in the Aspen Times newsroom. The story in that format was compelling, revealing and, if I do say so myself, a damn good read. Corporate headquarters disagreed. The columns went live and within 24 hours, the link was deleted and the story went dark.
Even from a purely business standpoint, I don’t see how this made sense. The story was gaining major traction in readership interest and, even though it did not shed the paper in the most favorable light, it wasn’t a hatchet-job attack, either. What the executives missed, in my opinion, is that this was a real-time example of the meaningful work The Aspen Times has a long history of doing that made it an attractive acquisition in the first place.
Above all, the firing of Andrew Travers is the thing I can’t get over. Written words are powerful, even more so when they are disseminated in the public domain. When you deal with them regularly in this arena, it is easy to get complacent. In the heat of battle, there is temptation to use them to exact vengeance, establish authority, even to punish. I can assure you, in talking with Andrew and examining my own conscience, none of this motivated writing and publishing the controversial material that has led to this point. We felt passionately that this was important news that Aspen had to be made aware of. We were backed by contemporaries. It spoke directly to the feeling of intensely accelerating loss of community to big, outside money. It revealed a threat to the degradation of a cherished Aspen institution that is our newspapers.
In the end, it was Andrew’s call to publish. But, they were my words he courageously stood up for. That weighs heavily. I am humbled, honored and grateful. It is not lost on me that my resignation from The Aspen Times is a pittance of recompense for putting his livelihood, career and a passion in jeopardy. I hope knowing the gesture comes directly from my heart makes it worth something. I know his fearless act towards preserving a free press does.
Roger Marolt wonders if the new owners of The Aspen Times see more value in the name on the front page than they do in the people in the newsroom that made the name worth something. firstname.lastname@example.org