The Media War for the I-70 Corridor

Article by Allen Best

Regional Media – February 2001 – Colorado Central Magazine

IT HAD BEEN SHAPING UP as a classic newspaper war, but with a peculiar twist. Living far away, the protagonists were two families, but the battleground was in Colorado, where their warriors were vying for the proliferating riches of the I-70 corridor.

On one side was Morris Communications. Based in Atlanta, this family-owned company owns 40 newspapers, 31 radio stations, and 20 magazines, as well as billboards and other assorted media. Arriving in Colorado’s high country in 1994, Morris first bought a daily, the Glenwood Post, then weeklies in Rifle and Carbondale, followed by Eagle, Snowmass, and Basalt.

Swift Newspapers, a family-owned chain based in Reno, Nev., is smaller, with 31 newspapers, most of them in California and Oregon. In 1993, Swift purchased dailies in Vail and Summit County.

Then, in 1999, it did the unthinkable. Or rather, local owners of the Aspen Times did the unthinkable in that very proud town — they sold out to Swift, which to many seemed synonymous with selling out to Vail. It was like the preacher’s daughter running off with the town hoodlum.

Aside from forcing Aspen to swallow its pride, that purchase put the two newspaper chains head to head in one market: Glenwood Springs. Morris owned the historic daily (35 cents a copy), and Swift owned the upstart daily (free). The old saying in newspaper offices is that you get what you pay for. But that wisdom doesn’t impress anybody in fast-growing resort towns where most of the fastest-growing and more prosperous papers are freebies.

Smarting from that confrontation, Morris began plotting revenge.

Morris planned to start a daily in Summit County, where Swift’s daily enjoyed a monopoly. Like the Swift daily, it was to be free. Morris had even rented office space and hired people. However, before people could get to their front-row seats for this slugfest, shocking news arrived.

Morris had sold out. Despite being bigger, it left in the middle of the night — literally. When employees showed up for work one Friday, they were greeted by Swift. Some got pink slips. The two dailies in Glenwood were merged, and the new daily in Summit County was canceled altogether, (but some believe the Summit daily was never more than a bluff anyway.)

Why did this happen? And what does it mean for nearby areas? Most fundamentally, this reflects the shifting economic vagaries of mountainous Colorado. Even 30 years ago, both Summit County and Salida were largely suburbs to Leadville and its mining based economy. Population figures, property tax assessments, and newspaper ownership all support that conclusion.

But Leadville has now become a suburb to the I-70 economic and cultural order, and that new order is lifestyle and recreation based. From Breckenridge to Glenwood to Aspen, the language is increasingly the same.

Also well known is how the lateral areas, such as Rifle, Leadville, and Kremmling, are more slowly being drawn into that cultural and economic matrix. Leadville’s becoming part of the I-70 telephone network, instead of an area code apart, is both symbolic and literal.

The importance of I-70 is shown in the divergent paths of Summit County and its neighbor to the north, Grand County. Forty years ago, Grand County was more affluent and had more people as well as the already venerable Winter Park ski area. Now, thanks largely to I-70, Summit has four ski areas, twice as many year-round residents, and retail sales nearly four times greater than in Grand County. Wages are also higher in Summit, and rising rapidly, but not as fast as real estate prices.

Managers of newspapers north and south of the I-70 corridor — ironically, they are also family-owned chains — do not feel directly threatened by Swift’s ambitious move. They are, however, nervous.

“If you’re a 50-pound monkey, it doesn’t matter if the gorilla is 400 pounds or 800 pounds,” says Merle Baranczyk, who obviously sees his string of newspapers from Leadville to Salida to Fairplay as the 50-pounder. “It will be interesting to see what changes they make in that market, but I don’t see that it’s going to impact us much more than it has already.”

THAT IMPACT has been real enough, though. Three years ago, Swift created the free-circulation Leadville Chronicle to compete with Baranzyk’s 50┬ó Herald-Democrat. Those who think of Leadville as a mining town remain loyal to the Herald-Democrat, while the Chronicle appeals most strongly to the new wave of it’s-free-it’s-me ski-town refugees. Baranzyk doesn’t expect a stronger challenge from Swift, simply because there’s so little money at stake in Leadville, but he doesn’t reject countering with free circulation of his own. “It’s not out of the question,” he says.

Swift’s growing I-70 presence has already nudged Pat Brower to respond with more free circulation in Grand County, where he manages weekly newspapers in Kremmling, Granby, and Winter Park. All three newspapers cost money, but the daily newspaper — a daily that for several years wasn’t actually daily — is free. At the end of January it became a five-day-a-week daily.

Brower believes Grand County remains an island apart from I-70. Retail sales among the I-70 counties far exceeds those on his turf, which has resort characteristics, but not an abundance of them. Finally, it’s not on an interstate.

Farther down the interstate, in Grand Junction, George Orbanek still sees lots of distance between his newspaper, the Cox chain-owned Daily Sentinel, and the I-70 mountain newspapers. “I know some people in Aspen think we’re part of Utah,” he says. “And we in Grand Junction have a tendency to look at Aspen and think they’re from another planet.”

In other words, he doesn’t expect the evolving high country economy and culture to influence Grand Junction.

MAYBE. But keep in mind that the three largest newspapers between Grand Junction and Denver have all been started within the past 20 years. All are free-circulation. His newspaper is not. Also note that some resort-area stores, such as Glenwood’s Summit Canyon Mountaineering, have expanded to Grand Junction. Each year more refugees from the I-70 ski towns, including retirees, have moved to Grand Junction. Although Grand Junction is now formally a metropolitan area, having surpassed 100,000 population, the population of the ski counties is collectively greater, and growing more rapidly.

Collectively, this loosely defined mountain suburbia over which Swift Communications presides with only marginal competition is redefining the landscape in a way that has not been done since the miners got busy more than a century ago. Nowadays we can barely make out the Ute wickiups that were erected 120 years ago in the Colorado high country. Given another century, lifestyle-based suburbs may have similarly eradicated relics of the mining era.

Allen Best has edited newspapers in Vail, Winter Park, and Kremmling, and now writes from Arvada.