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From AJR,   February/March 2012  issue

Keeping an Eye on Aspen   

A nonprofit startup focuses on accountability journalism in the Roaring Fork Valley. Wed., November 23, 2011


By Romy Zipken
Romy Zipken (rzipken@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.     

There's more to Aspen than meets the tourist's eye. While the humbling, mountainous scenery paints a worry-free picture, even an idyllic town needs a watchdog.

With two competing daily newspapers, a public radio station and a grassroots television station, you would think Aspen had no shortage of local news coverage. But with the downturn of the news industry and the accompanying budget cuts, accountability reporting took a hit.

Enter Brent Gardner-Smith. In January he launched Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit investigative news organization meant to fill the void.

Gardner-Smith is the nonprofit's only paid staffer, although he hires freelance reporters, photographers, copy editors and video editors to help out. The nonprofit posts all of its work at aspenjournalism.org,and other news outlets are free to use its content. Gardner-Smith also teams up with other news outlets on individual stories and projects.

"To date, Aspen Journalism has collaborated with news editors that helped shape and finalize stories, as opposed to using their newsroom resources," says Gardner-Smith, adding that while he'd like to use the local news outlet's reporters, they simply don't have any to spare.

Aspen Journalism is different from the numerous hyperlocal news Web sites that have sprung up to provide blanket coverage of neighborhood life. In fact, Gardner-Smith wouldn't call his operation hyperlocal at all. "I'm not a big fan of the term 'hyperlocal,' " says Gardner-Smith, 51. "I think 'local' is fine." Maybe that's because despite its name, Aspen Journalism doesn't just report on Aspen. Its coverage extends throughout the Roaring Fork River Watershed, including Snowmass Village, Basalt, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs, and, of course, Aspen.

It's also different from the hyperlocal model because it isn't in the business of covering kids' sports and school lunch menus (see "Hyperlocal Heroes," Fall). Aspen Journalism's mission is to report regional investigative stories with significance and impact.

Gardner-Smith, who moved to Aspen in 1982, has been a fixture on the picturesque resort's media scene. He reported at the Aspen Times for three years, spent four years as executive director at Aspen Public Radio and reported at the Aspen Daily News for four years. In 2008, the Daily News was hit with the same economic problems that have plagued the rest of the news industry. Many staffers were forced to take six-week unpaid leaves of absence. "That was a pretty good wake-up call for myself that, OK, maybe Aspen is not insulated from the rest of the world in terms of economics," Gardner-Smith says.

At the time, Gardner-Smith was enrolled in a master's program at the Missouri School of Journalism, where he was learning about the nonprofit model. When he got an opportunity to work as a communications intern at ProPublica, the high-profile nonprofit investigative news outlet, he took a six-month leave of absence from the Daily News and headed to New York City. During his time there, he got a firsthand look at a successful nonprofit and developed ideas about how to replicate it at a local level.

Upon his return to Aspen, Gardner-Smith saw that little had changed at the Daily News. He also had to take a significant pay cut. And so he decided to leave the daily and raise money to make his Aspen Journalism idea a reality.

He received a one-year, $55,000 grant from the Manaus Fund, a foundation based in Carbondale. The grant was meant to "plant the flag," he says, to see if the local media would be willing to work with Aspen Journalism and if local donors and foundations would be willing to fund it.

He gave a couple of months' notice to the Daily News, and on January 18 he launched Aspen Journalism. (Disclosure: AJR Editor and Senior Vice President Rem Rieder is a member of Aspen Journalism's advisory board.)

For now, Gardner-Smith is running the show alone, but with more time and money he hopes to have a larger staff to cover additional investigative stories. But the nonprofit already is having an impact. Aspen Journalism's stories have appeared in the Aspen Daily News and the Aspen Times and on Aspen Public Radio, and recently the startup collaborated on a project with the Denver Post.

Other local news organizations are focused on "feeding the beast" and don't have the resources to devote to pursuing in-depth investigative stories, says Roger Adams, news director at Aspen Public Radio. Gardner-Smith "is offering a resource that we..just can't afford," Adams says. "The kind of investigative reporting that he does, he's able to spend time, track down records and do stuff that we find difficult."

In July, Gardner-Smith was reporting on a running story about the city of Aspen's attempt to expand its use of geothermal energy by building a hydroelectric plant on a small river that runs through town.

Numerous homeowners in the area were opposed to the project. Gardner-Smith, well informed on water rights, delved into the story and worked with Aspen Public Radio to explain the project to its audience in a way that its own staff couldn't, Adams says.

All Aspen Journalism stories are free for news organizations to use so long as they credit the author and Aspen Journalism and link to its Web site. Some news organizations, however, want to showcase Aspen Journalism stories first, before they're posted on the nonprofit's Web site. Gardner-Smith is not opposed to that exchange.

Recently, he gave the Denver Post 24-hour exclusivity with two stories about billionaire Bill Koch by Madeleine Osberger, an Aspen Business Journal reporter who freelanced the articles for Aspen Journalism. Koch is building an "'authentic' Western town in a former pasture at the base of the incredibly scenic Ragged Mountains," according to Osberger's article, "The Price of Privacy." The town won't be open to the public, and while its development will create jobs, it has environmental costs that locals are concerned about.

Osberger, who worked at the Aspen Times for eight years, was glad to freelance for Aspen Journalism. "It was great working with Brent. I had been his competitor for many years, so I was glad to finally be on his team," she says.

Osberger started on the Koch story in the beginning of August and spent about six weeks reporting and researching. She spent time in the valley where Koch owns coal mines and was given the funds and resources to properly produce the story.

"Whatever I needed, I got," says Osberger, who added that the total immersion and extended time to investigate were "every writer's dream." Osberger's only concern with the Aspen Journalism and ProPublica model is its potential to spur layoffs by news organizations that know they can get high-quality investigative reporting for free, rather than paying a staff member's salary.

But she understands that news organizations were scaling back and laying off talented journalists long before Aspen Journalism came along. "If this is the only way this content will be provided, then certainly, but I don't want to make it so easy for management to keep laying people off because there's free content available," Osberger says.

Aspen Journalism received a $50,000 challenge grant from developer John McBride's Sopris Foundation. If Aspen Journalism could raise $100,000 in grants from other donors, Sopris would donate the money and secure $150,000 in funding for two years.

McBride believes in having a competitive and diverse media market and he appreciates Gardner-Smith as a friend, listener and "sounding board" for many of the Sopris Foundation's past projects, films and conferences, says Piper Foster, its executive director.

Aspen Journalism met the Sopris challenge. In addition to the Sopris and Manaus grants, Aspen Journalism has received money from a variety of local donors.

"Every community simply has to have a watchdog, someone who is writing the story about what's really going on in that community," says Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news outlet based in Washington, D.C.

Gardner-Smith might just be that watchdog for Aspen. In October, he wrote a series of investigative stories about "what was supposed to be the biggest project in the county's history," he says. He spent a great deal of time and money investigating the construction of 1 million square feet of condominiums at the base of the Snowmass ski area that was stalled because of the recession.

The Base Village project was expected to sell 600 condominiums with a profit of $1.2 billion. When the economy went sour, project developers defaulted on a $520 million loan and walked away, leaving behind an unfinished eyesore.

Gardner-Smith spotlighted the nitty-gritty details, spending over $1,000 on court documents, which he posted so that readers could see them for themselves. It's that kind of reporting that underscores the need for enterprises like Aspen Journalism.

"I think there's growing evidence that there is a need for nonprofit journalism at a community level in every major community around the country," says ProPublica General Manager Richard Tofel. "You need a number of things: Civic leaders who care Aspen has those, which is a huge plus. And you need an editor who has vision and determination, and in Brent, I think they've got that."