In late April, Jim Richerson, the chief executive officer of the Sangre de Cristo Arts and Conference Center in Pueblo, Colo.,
emailed Blake Fontenay, the editorial-pages editor at the town’s newspaper, The Pueblo Chieftain.
Richerson and Fontenay occasionally discussed happenings at the Arts Center, which had temporarily closed
and laid off most of its staff because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Richerson hoped Fontenay, a 54-year-old newspaper veteran from Tennessee, might be interested in a story
about the center’s virtual dance classes.
Since the paper — the oldest daily in the state — had laid off its business editor the previous spring,
Fontenay had written a local business column.
His editorial voice was often optimistic, counseling positivity during a recent spate of layoffs in town.
But when Fontenay replied, he said he could not produce the story; he had been laid off himself.
His last Chieftain column, titled ‘‘A Journalist’s Final Whistle?’’ invoked his father and grandfather,
both of whom had been journalists, and reminisced about the paper he started himself in elementary school.
‘‘I guess I could be bitter,’’ he wrote, ‘‘but that’s just the way life is in the newspaper business these days.’’
Pueblo is a city of about 112,000 on the Arkansas River, just east of where the Rocky Mountains drop into the vastness
of the Great Plains.
The Chieftain first published in 1868, shortly before the founding of Colorado Fuel and Iron,
the company that gave Pueblo the nickname Steel City.
Immigrants poured in to work in CF&I’s coal mines and the steel mill in Pueblo, forging the rails that wiped out the buffalo,
violently displaced tribal societies and begot the modern American West.
There were about 20 foreign-language newspapers in Pueblo during the early 20th century.
Most did not last, but The Chieftain endured.
It covered the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, in which National Guardsmen killed striking coal miners;
the mill’s midcentury glory, when the company employed more than 22,000; and the brutal 1980s,
when the steel industry crashed.
CF&I eventually went bankrupt and was sold to Oregon Steel Mills, which was later acquired
by the Russian conglomerate Evraz.
Around the time of Fontenay’s departure, The Chieftain covered the temporary layoffs of more than 200 workers
at the Evraz mill.
The story was written by Tracy Harmon, a reporter who has worked at The Chieftain for three decades.
She wondered if she might find herself in a similar plight.
‘‘I feel like we’re in a battlefield,’’ she said, ‘‘and we’re watching our colleagues drop one by one right next to us.’’
Between March 15 and May 16, 476,613 people in Colorado applied for unemployment benefits
— nearly as many as applied in all of 2009 and 2010, according to the state Department of Labor and Employment.
The unemployment rate in Pueblo County jumped to 11.7 percent in April from 7.6 percent in March.
(Some tourism-reliant communities had rates above 20 percent.)
Nick Gradisar, Pueblo’s mayor, expressed concern given the town’s pre-Covid-19 poverty rate of 24 percent.
It is The Chieftain’s misfortune to be navigating these local conditions at the same time that a pandemic-driven collapse
in advertising rates has further gutted the media, old and new alike.
Condé Nast, the publisher of glossy legacy publications, announced nearly 100 layoffs;
the digital-first Quartz is cutting about 80.
In The Chieftain’s own neighborhood, the hedge-fund-owned Denver Post has laid off 13 employees;
the family-owned Santa Fe New Mexican reported 19 cuts.
The Chieftain’s newsroom is a one-story brick building near the river.
On the floor is a well-seasoned carpet.
‘‘The best part about the carpet,’’ says Anthony Mestas, a reporter who grew up in Pueblo, ‘‘would be to look up.’’
But, he says, ‘‘it shows you the past.’’
Mestas, 44, delivered The Chieftain as a paperboy in high school.
When I asked him which writers he grew up admiring, he named only Chieftain bylines:
Harmon, Peter Roper, Steve Henson (The Chieftain’s current editor), Peter Strescino and Larry Lopez.
‘‘That’s what I did,’’ he said. ‘‘I read The Chieftain.’’
The paper was owned by the same family for nearly a century.
Then in 2017, its chairman, Robert Rawlings, died, and shortly thereafter, The Chieftain was bought by GateHouse Media,
a company that has been accused of gutting local newspapers.
Mike Reed, the company’s chief executive officer, once called that characterization ‘‘garbage.’’
But in Pueblo, some leaving staffers went unreplaced.
Last June, layoffs led to a protest outside the newsroom.
In the fall, GateHouse’s owner, New Media Investment Group, acquired Gannett, forming the
nation’s largest newspaper chain.
Following the Covid-19 outbreak, the company announced furloughs of one week per month for those making more than
$38,000 a year, according to The Chieftain’s union representative, Austin White, a 24-year-old sports reporter.
Then came more layoffs, which Gannett attributed to restructuring following the merger.
Fontenay and five others were let go.
An editor resigned and was not replaced.
The newsroom now had a staff of 11, down from about 30 at the time of GateHouse’s purchase,
according to staff members.
(Henson, the editor, declined to comment.
A representative for Gannett said, in a statement, ‘‘The moves, while imperative, are tough.’’)
‘‘When the new owners took over, they said, ‘Don’t worry, nothing’s really going to change,’ ’’ Fontenay said.
‘‘And in the end, everything changed.’’
The full measure of the economic devastation in Colorado is not yet understood.
Eric Ludwig, the president of a local steelworkers’ union, insisted that none of the workers he represents were surprised by
the mill’s layoffs, as it produces pipe for the volatile oil industry.
‘‘Just business as usual,’’ he said — though he did allow,
‘‘This one I think’s going to take a little longer to come out of.’’
Gradisar and other leaders suggested that Pueblo is well situated for a post-Covid-19 recovery
— especially should the nation focus on onshoring manufacturing.
In 2010, after the last economic catastrophe, the Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas
opened a large tower factory in town.
An Idaho company will soon open a factory to build affordable housing units, and a $250 million solar array is slated
to power an expansion of the steel mill’s facilities.
Those projects are still moving forward, according to Xcel Energy, which will buy power from the solar project,
Evraz, and Jeff Shaw, president of the nonprofit Pueblo Economic Development Corporation.
Shaw argued that Pueblo could ‘‘come out of the Covid crisis, in the long term, stronger than had it not happened.’’
It’s the job of the local press to assess such bold predictions and provide a sober record.
But multiple reporters at the paper acknowledged it can’t currently produce the sort of journalism it once did.
Gradisar, the mayor, told me that, since The Chieftain’s sale, ‘‘The quality has just gone straight downhill.’’
When it came to holding those in power — like himself — to account, the mayor said, ‘‘There’s not a lot of that going on.’’
Ludwig told me that The Chieftain ‘‘sold out from being a local company.’’
‘‘I don’t want to imagine there is a world where there isn’t journalism,’’ Fontenay told me.
He had applied for jobs elsewhere, and was fortunate to receive an offer from The Boulder Daily Camera.
He was planning for the move north, to Colorado’s far economic pole.
His former colleagues, meanwhile, picked up the slack.
Harmon described her mood as “demoralized, and at the same time sort of panicked.”
The staff had been forbidden to report during furloughs.
Before the layoffs began, White started a GoFundMe page to support his furloughed colleagues.
It raised $775.
Still, Harmon and Mestas looked for signs of optimism.
Harmon wrote a story about a woman who played bells at a church to lift spirits.
Mestas wrote about a young woman with cancer whom the community had honored with a motorcade.
‘‘The things we’re writing,’’ he told me,
‘‘are recorded for people to look back and see how Pueblo dealt with this pandemic.’’
He was responsible for the proverbial first draft of history.
He would write it once his furlough ended.
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