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Aspen’s Tangled Summer Saga: The Wealthy Developer vs. the Local Newspaper

ASPEN, Colorado – Summers in Aspen are typically a breezy idyll of sunny hikes and frosty evenings, a season when wealthy tourists arrive to attend jazz festivals and soak up mountain views from their hotel rooms. hotel at $1,000 a night.

But, lately, a tangled saga of wealth and a free press has become Aspen’s summertime obsession. It erupted after a wealthy real estate developer sued The Aspen Times, the city’s oldest newspaper, for defamation last spring, claiming the paper defamed him and falsely called him a Russian oligarch in the busy days following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

A lawsuit by a powerful out-of-town developer could have been big news for the 140-year-old Aspen Times. The newspaper is a beloved institution that chronicled scandals and feuds from Aspen’s silver mining days to its transformation into a golden mecca of skiing and culture in the Rockies.

But former staffers say the owners of the newspaper, a West Virginia-based newspaper chain, did not allow The Aspen Times to write about the libel lawsuit and prevented further reporting about the developer, Vladislav Doronin, to appear as the two sides negotiated a settlement. . The lawsuit was settled in May.

The Aspen Times publisher and company bosses say they didn’t censor any coverage. But the episode demoralized the newsroom and sparked criticism around Aspen that the newspaper’s owners had been bullied by a developer. An editor resigned. Another editor was fired after publishing opinion columns about what happened.

In Aspen, the dispute has left residents and officials wondering if local journalism can still speak the truth fearlessly and independently in a city with such outsized wealth gaps, where an average home costs nearly $3 million. dollars, small stores are being supplanted by the likes of Gucci and Dior and local workers are being pushed out.

“If we lose that, we feel like there’s nothing left for us,” said Roger Marolt, a longtime columnist who left The Aspen Times.

On Wednesday, The Aspen Times provided a response to that criticism by publishing a long-delayed story that delved into the finances of the developer who had sued the newspaper. The article, based on public records and court documents, raised questions about the promoter’s claims that it stopped doing business in Russia in 2014.

The whole story began in early March, when a veteran Aspen Times reporter doing routine checks of county real estate records came across a blockbuster: Mr. Doronin had quietly grabbed a acre of hotly contested terrain at the base of Aspen Ski. mountain through his Miami-based company, the OKO Group.

Even in a city with eye-popping real estate values, people were stunned by the price. Mr Doronin paid $76million, more than seven times the $10million the property sold for less than a year earlier when a group of local developers bought it from Aspen Skiing Company, records show of the property.

The property is part of an ambitious effort to build a new luxury hotel and lodge, ski lift and ski museum that voters narrowly approved after a contentious referendum.

The local developer team had a public face in Jeff Gorsuch, a first cousin of Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch. The team had spent years developing plans and studies and had gone door to door to win voter support. Aspen residents and leaders said they were shocked to read in the local newspaper that the developers had sold out.

In an interview, Mr. Gorsuch said the sale had been a business decision. “That’s how the world works,” he said, adding that he still has high hopes for the future of the property: “I still think it’s going to be great.”

Almost immediately, residents around Aspen began asking questions about the deal and the new owner, Mr. Doronin.

According to court documents, Mr Doronin was born in what was then Leningrad, now St Petersburg, and renounced his Soviet citizenship after leaving the Soviet Union in 1985. He is a Swedish citizen who lives in Switzerland and never had Russian citizenship, his lawyers say.

In 1993, Mr. Doronin founded a real estate development company in Russia that has built dozens of residential, commercial and office buildings in Moscow, according to court records. In the libel suit against The Aspen Times, lawyers for Mr Doronin said he earned his money legitimately, without bribes or corruption, and had no affiliation with the president Vladimir V. Putin.

After the Russian invasion, Doronin posted a statement on LinkedIn decrying “Russia’s aggression against Ukraine and fervently wishing for peace.”

In an email, Mr Doronin said Aspen’s ‘special energy’ had led him to seek investment and development opportunities there after years of visiting to ski and attend summer cultural events . He said he planned to build a hotel on the property and would travel to Aspen to meet with local officials and others.

He said he sued the newspaper in April “to remedy factual inaccuracies that had a negative impact”.

In the defamation suit, Mr Doronin accused the newspaper of stoking anti-Russian sentiment and launching “inappropriate Russophobic attacks” against him. He took issue with articles calling him an ‘oligarch’ and a letter to the editor suggesting he was laundering money through Aspen real estate – all false claims, his lawyers said.

Rick Carroll, the Aspen Times reporter who uncovered Mr Doronin’s land purchase, was also among the first to notice the libel lawsuit on the public record. He spotted it before the newspaper’s owners were even served, according to former staffers.

It was another big scoop, only now The Aspen Times was in the uncomfortable center.

The Aspen Times is one of several resort newspapers that were acquired last December by Ogden Newspapers, a family business that owns more than 50 newspapers across the country. General manager Bob Nutting also owns the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Ogden newspaper officials decided not to cover the lawsuit while the two sides sought a settlement. Two former editors say Ogden also refused to publish a news article and two opinion columns linked to Mr Doronin.

Eventually, The Aspen Daily News reported that its competitor had been sued. There was no public scrutiny from The Aspen Times before the lawsuit was settled in May.

Under the settlement agreement, the newspaper made what an Ogden official described as “small changes” to two articles. He withdrew a letter to the editor and agreed to make a good faith effort to solicit Mr. Doronin’s comments on future articles.

A headline changed from “Oligarch or not, Aspen’s new investor has Russian ties” to “Aspen’s new investor has ties to luxury hoteliers.” An editor’s note now on the article says it failed to meet the newspaper’s standards for “accuracy, fairness and objectivity”.

The paper’s Aspen-based editor, Allison Pattillo, disputed criticism that the paper had been muzzled.

Although The Aspen Times did not cover the lawsuit against itself, it said, there were no restrictions against further reporting about Mr Doronin or the land deal. She said the libel suit had “no effect on our coverage”.

“The idea that we were bullied by Doronin or that Doronin has any input in our newsroom is ridiculous,” Ms. Pattillo said in an email. “We have not acted and never will act to suppress the truth.”

Some former staffers say newspaper officials canceled mentions of Mr Doronin after he filed a lawsuit. When David Krause, a former editor, emailed management in April discussing an article delving into Mr Doronin’s business dealings, an Ogden Newspapers executive replied: “No report on these issues for the time being.”

The aftermath led to an exodus from newsrooms and shook public confidence in the paper, according to interviews with more than a dozen local reporters, officials and Aspen residents. The Aspen Institute, a nonprofit powerhouse that organizes the annual Summer Ideas Festival, said it had “paused” its advertising in The Aspen Times for the time being.

“People have lost faith,” said Marie Kelly, 72, who walks every day from her rented room in a former ski lodge to collect a copy. “They didn’t emulate Aspen’s attitude, which is, we’re going to air it, good or bad.”

Mr. Krause quit as the paper’s editor in May, citing health issues and disputes with the newspaper’s ownership.

His replacement, Andrew Travers, a respected local journalist, has made restoring public trust his top priority. To that end, he decided to publish two columns that had not been published after the lawsuit was filed as well as a series of internal emails that showed the uproar inside the newspaper.

Mr. Travers said he discussed his plans with his editor, Ms. Pattillo, before publishing the articles in June. But within hours of their publication, he said, he was called into a meeting and fired by an Ogden official. He said he felt caught off guard.

“I had worked through the system to do the right thing for the newspaper and the public interest,” he said. “We were going to reckon with that. It was going to be a black eye, but we were going to move on. Clearly, I was wrong.

Ogden newspaper officials declined to discuss Mr Travers’s dismissal, calling it an internal human resources issue.

Pitkin County officials, reeling from the turmoil, recently voted to designate Aspen’s youngest local newspaper, The Aspen Daily News, as the “official newspaper” that publishes all county legal notices. A handful of other advertisers backed down.

In June, 18 current and former elected officials signed an open letter saying they had lost faith in the management of the Ogden Newspapers newspaper and raised the idea of ​​boycotting the paper or refusing to speak to Aspen Times reporters. . The letter caused its own backlash, with Ms Pattillo, the editor, calling it “real censorship”.

Today, the newspaper has only one journalist left. Mr. Travers, the fired editor, is looking for another job that could support his young family.

This week, The Aspen Times published a column from its latest editor, who said he hoped to rebuild the staff and “rise from the ashes”. Two days later, he published his article investigating Mr. Doronin’s finances. The byline was Rick Carroll, the reporter who broke the story in the first place.

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