Colorado paper settles billionaire’s defamation suit, then it got ugly

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Andrew Travers thought he had assurances that his beloved newspaper, The Aspen Times, would let him do his job.

That job: Rebuild the paper’s credibility by publishing two opinion columns that had been withheld by upper management as the Times negotiated a settlement with a Swedish billionaire, who sued the newspaper in April over its characterization of his past business dealings in Russia.

So Travers, the newly minted editor-in-chief, published the columns along with a series of internal emails about why the articles had been killed. The Times’ publisher, Allison Pattillo, had supported his decision, Travers said. He said he only agreed to take the top job believing there would no further restrictions on what he could and couldn’t publish.

But a day after publishing the columns and emails, they were removed from the Aspen Times’ website.

Scott Stanford, regional publisher for the Times’ parent company, Ogden Newspapers, asked Travers last Friday to meet him in the conference room.

The conversation was brief. Travers said he was fired and told to leave the building.

“If people with the money or the power to intimidate a news organization can do that and silence public discourse over something as small as this, what does that say about the state of press freedom in the U.S.?” Travers told The Denver Post.

The editor’s firing marks the latest upheaval in a tumultuous time for the 141-year-old mountain newspaper. News staff already had been highly critical of management’s handling of the lawsuit, including the decision not to publish a story about it.

Last month, the paper’s top editor, David Krause, resigned, citing new management in addition to a health scare. Travers? Gone after less than a week on the job.

And the columnist at the center of all this? Roger Marolt resigned after Travers’ firing — and the paper didn’t run his farewell column Friday.

“It makes me sick,” Marolt told The Post on Thursday. “It’s terrible.”

The lawsuit, and the subsequent fallout and editorial shakeups, prompted one Aspen City Council member this week to sound the alarm over the paper’s management. The city’s mayor previously expressed dismay at the paper’s decision to withhold stories about developer Vladislav Doronin and his controversial plans for land he bought at the base of Aspen Mountain.

“If something is wrong, you all must do something to stop it,” Councilman Ward Hauenstein said during a Tuesday night meeting, pleading with Aspen’s wealthy residents to put in an offer for the paper. “The owner of one of our newspapers may be a bad fit for Aspen. We value truth and freedom. These values are being stolen from us. They were sold to the highest investor.”

Allison Pattillo, the Times’ publisher, said in an email that she “approved the concept” of Marolt’s story last week but didn’t read it before publication.

“Me not asking more questions or asking to read the piece was a mistake I regret,” she wrote.

Stanford said he couldn’t comment on Travers’ firing, but he defended both the decision to kill Marolt’s columns and the handling of Doronin’s lawsuit.

“As a newspaper, we have a responsibility when someone raises a concern about our content to take that concern seriously, review it and, if it is unfair, inaccurate and not based on facts that are already established, then we should evaluate what steps we should take,” Stanford told The Post on Thursday.

That might include “editing, modifying or, in some cases, deleting content that we deem doesn’t live up to those standards,” he said. “That’s not suppressing free speech — that’s ensuring we do our jobs responsibly.”

Doronin, a Swedish citizen living in Switzerland, sued the Aspen Times last month in federal court, saying the paper defamed him by wrongly portraying him as a corrupt Russian oligarch amid that country’s war on Ukraine. Doronin was born in the Soviet Union and built his fortune in Moscow’s real estate scene, but previously renounced his Soviet citizenship and later divested his dealings in the country.

At the heart of the controversy is a nearly one-acre parcel of land that Doronin’s company, OKO Group, purchased in March for $76.25 million at the base of Aspen’s ski mountain.

The Times’ editorial board skewered the unexpected sale to an out-of-town developer. The paper published a news story about the purchase, initially referring to Doronin as an oligarch before later removing the reference.

In a subsequent opinion piece, columnist John Colson compared Doronin to Russian oligarch Roman Abramovich — who he said also owns property in Aspen — and insinuated that the pair might have worked with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

As the Ogden Newspapers negotiated a settlement with Doronin, Stanford and the paper’s attorneys opted against publishing two Marolt columns that discussed the Aspen Mountain development as well as the columnist’s concerns over what he viewed as the paper capitulating to wealthy interests.

“What demoralizes me is not that I worked for hours on a piece to get it right, that I was proud of, that will never see the light of day,” Marolt wrote in the May 4 column that got blocked by management. “It’s because there was no reason it shouldn’t see the light of day other than because it might raise a rich guy’s eyebrows who has a team of attorneys on speed dial.”

In 19 years as a columnist, Marolt said, he only had one other story pulled — and that it was ultimately his call. Now he’s had three canned in a month.

“That’s three spikes and I’m out,” Marolt told The Post.

Stanford said he viewed Marolt’s columns as “disruptive to our talks with Doronin’s team” as they negotiated a settlement. The pieces, he said, were not viewed as essential.

“It was a continuation of the fruit of a poisoned tree,” he said.

Ultimately, the Times reached a settlement with Doronin. Stanford said the newspaper agreed to tweak a few stories.

After learning Travers had been fired, Marolt said he couldn’t in good conscience write again for the Aspen Times, a paper he used to sell for a dime as a 12-year-old growing up in the mountain town. He will soon be publishing his weekly column in the competing Aspen Daily News.

“I cried several times over the weekend,” Marolt said. “I think my wife thought I was having a nervous breakdown. It was a punch in the gut to me.”

For Travers, who’d been at the paper for eight years, this all goes beyond his own job.

“This is a columnist in a resort town writing about hotel development,” he said. “It’s not the Pentagon Papers. This is pretty basic stuff in terms of what a newspaper columnist expects to do in a town like Aspen.”



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