Ryan Maye Handy knew she was taking a risk when she decided to write a story that an executive at the Broadmoor hotel, which is owned by Republican donor Phil Anschutz, had told her not to publish.
Handy had been in journalism for about five years and was still learning the ropes, but fellow journalists who worked with Handy at the Colorado Springs Gazette, which is also owned by Anschutz, had warned her that her story about the Broadmoor would “very likely” get spiked at the last minute and never be seen in the newspaper.
“So I wasn’t totally surprised that it did happen,” she said, reflecting on a late-night call she got from her editor in March, 2016, informing her that her Broadmoor article was killed.
Handy had jumped on the story after she got a tip that the Broadmoor was preparing to file a “notice of intent” to sue Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) because, according to the Broadmoor as Handy tells it, a leak in a water pipe had triggered a landslide that wiped out part of the Broadmoor’s golf course and caused nearby homes to buckle. But, in fact, the landslide had snapped the utility’s pipe, according to Handy’s source.
“And so that was going to be my story,” said Handy, who’s now an urban planner. “I got this notice of intent and was going to report it. And I had all these other sources saying, ‘This is a massive landslide that the Broadmoor is partially sitting on, that was triggered across this region. It’s not CSU’s fault.'”
She asked the Broadmoor for an interview, and then she got the phone call from the executive at the hotel telling her not to write the story.
She forged ahead anyway and submitted her piece.
What happened next was predictable to Handy.
“When you wrote a story that mentioned Phil Anschutz or any of his businesses or interests, it went up to the publisher fairly quickly,” she said. “So that evening, before it was supposed to go to print, [Gazette Publisher] Dan Steever came out to talk to me and wanted to know why we were writing this. His contention was that it wasn’t an actual lawsuit. It was just a notice of intent to file, so it’s not a real lawsuit. And, why should we write a story?”
After a discussion, Steever agreed that the story could be published if the word “lawsuit” was not used, Handy recalls. Handy says the compromise was “absurd,” but she went along with it.
Not long after she left the newsroom thinking her story would run, she got a call from her editor, the late Rob Johnson, saying the story was spiked.
“Something happened between the time I left the newsroom and when my editor called me,” she recalled. “I don’t know what it was. I don’t know that anyone knows what it was.”
Efforts to reach Steever, who’s left the Gazette, were not successful.
About a week after her story was spiked, late on a Sunday night, Handy cleaned out her desk at the Gazette.
“I walked into the newsroom on a Monday and handed in my resignation and walked out,” she recalls.
Her letter was two sentences long because, she says, most everyone in the newsroom knew why she was resigning.
“I was lucky,” she says. “I wasn’t married. I didn’t have kids. I told my parents, ‘I’m going to quit.’ And they agreed to help me make ends meet. So I was able to walk away.” Others, she says, were unable to.
“I was advised [by mentors] to go gracefully and not damage myself in the process,” she says.
As it turned out, the story of Handy’s exit from the Gazette helped her get her next job, because it impressed the Houston Chronicle’s Al Lewis, who’d worked at the Gazette and, according to Handy, had “a lot of beef” with Anschutz himself.
“When I applied, Al was like, ‘Hey, you left the Gazette. Why?’ And I told him why. And when I got to Houston, everyone knew the story when I walked in the newsroom on the first day,” said Handy.
It wasn’t just journalists in Houston who knew at least bits and pieces of Handy’s story.
The Colorado Springs Independent’s Pam Zubeck wrote an article in March, 2016, with much of the same information that Handy says was in her spiked story. The following month, in April, Zubeck reported that the Gazette had published in March a partially completed “test story” about the Broadmoor and the landslides. The Gazette‘s test story was removed, she reported. Zubeck also noted in her April story, titled, “Why did the Gazette hold a landslide story?,” that Handy had “abruptly resigned” in March after the planned publication of the landslide/Broadmoor story. Zubeck wrote that she reached out to Gazette Editor Vince Bzdek, who started at the Gazette just after Handy’s story was spiked, and Publisher Dan Steever, but didn’t hear back.
Journalist Corey Hutchins said he reached out to Handy at the time, but she didn’t respond.
The other local media outlet that knew something about Handy’s story was The Denver Post. About a month after she resigned from the Gazette, Handy sold The Post a freelance story about the Colorado Springs landslides. It was a broader story and more newsworthy, in terms of the landslides, than the one that was spiked by Steever at the Gazette.
But the important journalism story running beneath it was not published by The Post.
What’s amazing to me is, with so many journalists — from Colorado Springs to Denver to Texas — knowing bits and pieces of Handy’s story, if not the whole ugly thing, you wouldn’t think that I’d be publishing the details here for the first time. You’d think some outraged journalist would have found a way to publish it a long time ago.
Or maybe not? Do Denver journalists consider it their job to hold media outlets like the Gazette accountable?
“There are no stories that are out of bounds for the Colorado Sun,” said Colorado Sun Editor Larry Ryckman. “And if we became aware that any newspaper was spiking stories for political or business reasons, I would consider that a story.”
Before co-founding the Sun, Ryckman was an editor at The Denver Post, where he edited Handy’s freelance piece in 2016 about the Colorado Springs landslides. It ran about a month after she’d resigned from the Gazette. She told Ryckman about the spiking incident, she says.
“I honestly don’t think there was ever any discussion of us doing the story about the story, about, ‘Did they spike it? Didn’t they spike it?’ We just asked, ‘Is this a story or isn’t it a story.’ I don’t recall us talking about whether there was a media story about whether they spiked it. … In general, I’ve been more focused on the stories themselves than writing about fellow journalists. But none of this is out of bounds. That’s what we do in journalism, is hold powerful people and powerful institutions accountable. News outlets are powerful institutions.”
Former Gazette reporter John Schroyer, who published a 2017 memoir containing multiple allegations of newsroom interference by the Gazette’s ownership from 2012 to early 2016, said that in 2016, he pitched his reporting of interference in the Gazette’s newsroom mostly to national publications but locally as well. He got a few nibbles, including a bite from Westword, but no one wanted a story at the time. So he self-published it.
Schroyer thinks Denver media would be more likely to cover a story today about Anschutz or his underlings interfering in news coverage at the Gazette than they were in 2016.
“The media environment has changed dramatically because of Trump, and the fake news allegations that he used,” said Schroyer. “The entire country has become more polarized and partisan. And that’s what the Gazette and Anschutz story comes back to. He was basically trying to use a media outlet for his own business and political ends.”
The Colorado Springs Independent’s Pam Zubeck said a number of factors would come into play in a decision about whether to cover a story about ownership interference at a Colorado newspaper.
“It would depend on the egregious nature of it, number one; number two, our staffing situation, whether we had someone available; and then whether it was of a nature that it would have reader appeal, honestly,” Zubeck said. “I think sometimes the media get caught up in themselves so much that they think something’s important and readers don’t find it that way.”
Asked if he thought a story about ownership interference at a news outlet would get significant coverage in Colorado, Hutchins said maybe.
“I don’t see a lot of in-depth stories about one news organization covering another,” said Hutchins, explaining that perhaps some news editors don’t cover journalism stories because niche publications like his own newsletter do it. “I think you’d probably see it more in years past when you had these newspapers and these news organizations that were viciously competing against each other. That’s not really the case. Collaboration has supplanted competition as an orthodoxy in Colorado journalism. Maybe that has something to do with it. I’m not sure. If it’s a major media scandal, you might see it in Westword. It might get covered. I’m not saying it won’t.”
Whatever the reason, Colorado media outlets don’t dig into each other’s business much. But with a Republican billionaire creating a Colorado media empire (Colorado Springs Gazette, Denver Gazette, Colorado Politics), and calling it even-handed journalism when it’s not, it’s time for Denver media outlets to make sure collaboration or misplaced priorities don’t stop them from informing the public about the trustworthiness of local news platforms.
If Handy’s story repeats itself today, news outlets should descend on it together — as they might a political scandal — and give it wide attention, please. And do so immediately, not seven years from now.