Some of the biggest media stories in Colorado during 2018 were also some of the biggest media stories in the country as a whole.
A crisis at the Denver Post drew the nation's attention and led to journalistic protests that resulted in both glory and unemployment. And a baker's refusal to make a wedding cake he saw as conflicting with his religious values way back in 2012 led to what was arguably the year's most prominent U.S. Supreme Court decision.
Meanwhile, the confirmation of a new justice for that same court took an unexpected detour through Boulder. And a shocking tragedy sparked coverage coast to coast, as well as a lawsuit that drew comparisons to one of the last century's most notorious crimes.
The following roundup touches on all of these tales. But also included are several media moments that stayed local. Among them: a gubernatorial candidate who ran away from the press, Monty Python-style; a high-profile contest to tell air travelers that they're delaying the departure of a train; and an unexpected comeback from one of the Mile High City's most popular radio personalities ever.
Tune all of them in below.
The Slashing of the Denver Post
The tension between the venerable Denver Post and its bean-counting hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, is nothing new, as writer Alan Prendergast documented in a 2016 feature titled "Can the Denver Post Survive Its Hedge Fund Owners?" But Alden's philosophy of cutting jobs to maintain a healthy profit margin without concern for the impact on journalistic quality reached a critical point in March, when editor Lee Ann Colacioppo announced layoffs of thirty employees, constituting nearly one-third of the newsroom staff. It was the largest example of downsizing at the Post in recent memory, leaving the broadsheet with fewer than 25 percent of the newsroomers employed during its peak; less than a decade ago, around 300 journalists were on the job. This move helped trigger a slew of ripple effects that became major stories of their own.
Bring Me the Head of Chuck Plunkett
The Post's editorial-page editor, Chuck Plunkett, reacted to Alden's job-cutting mandate by castigating it in print, and his package of op-eds on the subject won praise from media types across the country. But when his counterpart at the Boulder Daily Camera, Dave Krieger, put together his own Alden takedown, Camera publisher Al Manzi refused to sanction it — and after Krieger decided to self-publish the salvo online, he was canned. Shortly thereafter, Plunkett resigned upon being told that an upcoming piece about the Krieger matter had been deemed unacceptable — a new gig at the University of Colorado Boulder softened his landing in a major way — and onetime owner and longtime chairman Dean Singleton followed him out the door. In an interview with Westword about his resignation, Singleton put the blame for the scenario clearly on Alden, saying, "They've killed a great newspaper."
The Dawning of the Colorado Sun
Among the others eager to flee the Post amid the madness were not one, not two, but three Broncos writers and a separate group of staffers and former staffers (notably gifted outdoor expert Jason Blevins, who'd previously accepted a buyout) eager to start a project of their own. The result was the Colorado Sun, an online news source announced on a June day in the shadow of the Post's former headquarters. The Sun went live in September with a steady, serious mix of stories that echoed the best of the Post, and the quality has held firm since then. Questions remain about funding for the operation, much of it provided by Civil, a blockchain booster whose October token sale was a flat-out disaster. But editor Larry Ryckman insists that the Sun is in a strong financial situation and is poised to keep going for years into the future. Even those who can't figure out the dollars and cents behind this prediction are rooting for him and his fellow Post renegades.
Fox31 and Channel 2's Ownership Merry-Go-Round
Employees at sister stations Fox31 and Channel 2 are probably wondering what hit them. The year began with the Tribune properties tentatively headed into the portfolio of Sinclair Broadcast Group, which was believed to have purchased them as part of a plan to start a nationwide group of conservative affiliates capable of challenging Fox News for the hearts and minds of right-wingers from coast to coast. Such a scenario would likely have doomed Channel 2's news operation, especially if Fox31 was off-loaded to 21st Century Fox, the domain of mogul Rupert Murdoch, in an attempt to satisfy federal regulators. But in August, the Sinclair deal fell apart amid a blizzard of charges and counter-charges, as well as a nasty lawsuit. Then, earlier this month, the Tribune stations were purchased again, this time by Nexstar Media Group. Whether or not that transaction actually happens, the future of Fox31 and Channel 2 staffers remains in flux.
Brett Kavanaugh's Boulder Connections
The confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh as a U.S. Supreme Court justice took a major turn when Professor Christine Blasey Ford accused him of sexually assaulting her at a high school party more than thirty years earlier. Two prominent Republican lawmakers from Colorado, Patrick Neville and Chris Holbert, joked about this charge on Facebook, prompting widespread condemnation. But that was just the beginning of the local connections to the Kavanaugh matter. First the New Yorker published more allegations of bad behavior decades earlier made by Boulder's Deborah Ramirez. Then a second Boulder woman came forward, this time by way of an anonymous letter to Senator Cory Gardner, with additional charges of Kavanaugh wrongdoing. These claims didn't end up derailing Kavanaugh's nomination; he squeaked by and is now a full-fledged member of the court. But they also exemplified the political divide in the country seen in the results of the 2018 mid-term election in Colorado and beyond.
A Bright-Red Masterpiece
A Colorado story the GOP embraced rather than rejected involved Masterpiece Cakeshop, whose outspoken Christian owner, Jack Phillips, fought for his right to refuse to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, Charlie Craig and David Mullins, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. When the Supremes sided with Phillips in early June, his supporters — including Attorney General Jeff Sessions, who shouted out the Masterpiece decision during a visit to Denver's Western Conservative Summit — celebrated. Meanwhile, attorney Paula Greisen, who was part of the team that represented Craig and Mullins, declared that while the ruling was bad, it could have been worse. A couple of months later, Masterpiece Cakeshop was back in the news by way of a lawsuit claiming that the State of Colorado was still targeting Phillips, who's likely to be referenced in plenty of future cases involving the intersection of faith and civil rights.
Christopher Watts, Meet O.J. Simpson
Another Colorado story — Christopher Watts's murder of his pregnant wife, Shanann, and two daughters, three-year-old Celeste and four-year-old Bella — went national for much more horrific reasons. As was the case with the 1996 murder of JonBenét Ramsey, the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School and the 2012 Aurora theater shooting, the incident involved people who resided in a wonderful place and seemed to have ideal lives when their world was shattered by horror — and the combination proved irresistible to major cable news networks, among other information purveyors. The attention received by Watts was so great that Shanann's family filed a lawsuit against him that echoed a complaint targeting O.J. Simpson back in the 1990s, in that it attempts to make sure he can't profit from his heinous deeds by publishing a book or taking advantage of other money-making opportunities in a media scene that's made true crime a hot commodity.
Walker Stapleton, Meet a Castration Knife
Meanwhile, state treasurer Walker Stapleton, the Republican nominee for Colorado governor, took an unusual approach to the media. Rather than embracing the opportunity for free press, he did his best to limit his availability to many journalistic organizations and instead focused on bombarding the airwaves with attacks on his opponent, Representative Jared Polis. The situation was particularly acute when it came to Westword . He was the only major gubernatorial candidate to refuse to speak with a reporter for a series of Q&As, instead opting for an email interview that was likely farmed out to an underling. After that, he and his team ignored every other request for comment, with Stapleton even dubbing Westword a phony news organization after editor Patricia Calhoun published an account of what happened when she tried to shake his hand at a public event. According to her, Stapleton looked at her "the way a bull calf must regard a castration knife," then said, "I can't talk to you. I don't do extemporaneous interviews. It doesn't work out for me. Talk to my people" and fled. No telling if this approach cost Stapleton at the ballot box, where he was crushed. But it certainly didn't help.
Train in Vain
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An even more amusing media kerfuffle involved a contest to choose new voices to deliver messages on the trains at Denver International Airport. After a slew of media finalists were announced, a number of local personalities, including several at Denver7, openly campaigned for votes in ways that felt desperate and embarrassing, and 104.3 The Fan's D-Mac, who didn't make the final cut, went after Fox31's Jeremy Hubbard, who did — for laughs, fortunately, although there was definitely an edge to their Twitter war. Other controversy involved announcer Alan Roach, who wanted to retain the gig he seemed likely to lose because DIA personnel thought he'd left Denver, which wasn't the case. In the end, Roach won, along with 9News's Kim Christiansen, who'd made the wise decision to stay above the ridiculous fray.
A Welcome Return
Among the biggest mysteries in Denver media over the past few years was the disappearance from the scene of Michael Floorwax, who took the helm of the morning-drive program at 103.5/The Fox alongside partner Rick Lewis way back in 1990. In early 2014, Floorwax went off the air amid vague allusions to health problems — and that October, he announced that he couldn't return because of his condition. This past July, however, he suddenly resurfaced during a guest appearance alongside KNUS host Peter Boyles and revealed that he'd been suffering from a particularly debilitating case of clinical depression that was finally improving thanks to an experimental treatment called ketamine infusion. Since then, he's continued to get better — so much so that in December, he revealed that he was doing standup comedy again, with private gigs supplemented by appearances at Comedy Works Denver's New Talent Night. After a particularly crazy media year, that qualifies as a happy ending.