We reported a few months ago that in neighboring Custer County, a newspaper war has erupted between the historically-local news organization known as the Wet Mountain Tribune, and the highly partisan Sangre de Cristo Sentinel newspaper. When county leaders pulled their county’s legal notices from the Wet Mountain Tribune it responded this week, suing county leaders over their stated reasons for the decision.
Legal notices are the small-print legal announcements that local, state, and federal governments are required to publish to ensure that the public has been informed of government action. To be clear, legal notices are usually not the most scintillating content in a newspaper. In fact, most people go right past them and they take up valuable print space on paper.
Municipal and county entities are required to issue public notifications of their actions as legal notices, reflecting our democratic commitment to transparent government.
But increasingly, the decision on where those notices are carried, is becoming weapons of war; used by these government entities to express their displeasure with press coverage of their procedures, stances taken (or not taken) on issues important to constituents, and both their news coverage and their editorial positions regarding social and cultural issues.
Those who run legitimate news organizations in this state have been watching this phenomenon for the past 18 months. Corey Hutchins, who writes a blog/newsletter called ” The news behind the news in Colorado,” noted this week that Wet Mountain Tribune Publisher Jordan Hedberg filed a federal lawsuit against two members of the county commission after a 2-1 vote revoked the Tribune’s status as the county’s “paper of record”.
The second half of that motion instead gave the newspaper of record status to the entity that those who follow legitimate news in Colorado identify as the partisan Sangre de Cristo Sentinel newspaper. The Sentinel runs news stories with titles such as, “The Progressive War on Our Children: Cañon City Is Ground Zero in the Fight,” Other articles kicking off 2022 included ones equating Dr. Faucci’s leadership during the COVID-19 pandemic to cult leader Jim Jones, who directed his followers to drink poisoned Kool-Aid.
The Tribune is only the latest Colorado publication pulled into an increasingly fractious battle over the advertising that has been a traditional source of revenue support for local news. The prominent First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg is representing The Wet Mountain Tribune.
Zansberg told Hutchins in a phone conversation that there are previous court decisions involving local governments and newspapers in Colorado and “This is like the most open and shut, clear-cut case I’ve seen.”
It was not non-performance, but retaliation says Zansberg that motivated the shift. Hutchins reported in January, that one of the Custer County commissioners named in the lawsuit said before voting:
“I don’t know why I would support a paper that doesn’t support the county.” He accused Tribune publisher, Hedberg of a “witch hunt” against the county’s health director, after the qualified public health director was let go during the COVID-19 pandemic. Hedberg had pointed out that the newly-appointed Dr. Clifford Brown had dubious credentials for the role of public health director (he is an optometrist).
That same public official also said he couldn’t imagine supporting a paper that would “bad mouth the process of how we do business as a board of commissioners,” adding, “I don’t have an issue with being criticized because nobody’s perfect.” Another commissioner said he found it hard to give the county’s bid to a newspaper that is “for lack of a better term, combative.”
This situation, in which a more than 100-year-old fact-based news organization finds itself at odds with a local political shift is not unheard of. In fact, it is growing across the country, and in Colorado specifically, where legal notice changes have been made in Arapahoe County, Estes Park, Ouray, Aspen, and now in Custer County.
As reported this week by Northwestern University’s Local News Initiative, written by Susan Chandler, “notices, which cover everything from rezoning requests to sidewalk café permits, are a vital stream of revenue for U.S. newspapers at a time when other traditional advertising revenue continues to decline.” She went on to add that “the fight over legal notices in newspapers also has come up repeatedly in Colorado.”
In her article (Battle over Legal Notices Intensifies) Chandler quotes Richard Karpel, Executive Director of the Public Notice Resource Center ( which tracks the status of legal notices in all 50 states) as saying, “I don’t think the concept of legal notices is controversial. There needs to be a nonpartisan way to officially announce what the government is doing. What’s controversial is how it happens. We’ve seen it become more of a partisan issue in the last five or 10 years.”
- Last year, the Greenwood Village City Council voted to pull its $10,000 legal notice budget from The Villager and give its business instead to The Littleton Independent. It was an interesting move for the increasingly conservative council, and came after the Villager published an April Fool’s article that included stereotypes of Asians. Villager owner Bob Sweeney tried but failed to smooth over the incident.
- The Ouray County Plaindealer called out the county on a government transparency issue last fall, and in response, the county decided to stop publishing its meeting agendas in the newspaper, something it paid about $200 a week to do and had done for the past decade.
- Pitkin County commissioners also announced that they were pulling their public advertising from The Aspen Times in Pitkin County in order to punish the publisher.
The requirement for publishing legal notices in print publications has been under pressure across all fifty states, as the number of people actually reading print newspapers has fallen and aged, and the number of print publications has fallen. (The nation has 2,500 fewer print publications this year than last year.)
At the same time digital and multimedia forms of news media such as Ark Valley Voice are growing, the role of nonprofit news organizations is gaining momentum, and they often have much larger audiences.
In Florida, come Jan. 1, 2023, government is allowed to bypass local media and publish its own legal notices; not exactly the best idea in the world. Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis, a critic of the media, signed the measure in May, but David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance commented, “It’s a bad idea to expect the government to put out notices about itself. There’s a component of self-interest where the government deciding where to post is just not sound public policy.”
In Colorado an interesting dilemma has emerged: while state law says government legal notices must be run in print publications, the Colorado Press Association (CPA) which has both print and digital news members (including Ark Valley Voice), continues to support a position to the legislature that legal notices remain with print publications. At some point this situation will need to be addressed, which would give legitimate fact-based digital news organizations the opportunity to at least be considered for legal notice distribution.
In the meantime, the question of governments’ thin-skin over media fulfilling its role as a watchdog of democracy continues.
Editor’s Note: Ark Valley Voice is all digital, provided free to readers, and is now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that encourages membership.
It’s almost impressive how republicans are constantly finding new ways to reinforce their anger.
Why only have two minutes of hate each day when you can have hate all day, every day? All it takes is someone with such a deficit of character that they’re willing to use their position of authority to corruptly undermine the local news, and the modern Republican Party has so many people of such character that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting one, so of course it is no surprise that these small town tyrants feel free to do as they please.