Snow job leads to a reporter's exit
There's an old saying in Colorado's ski country regarding weather reports and predictions of snowfall: "I'll believe it when I'm shoveling it."
That's what I was thinking to myself several weeks ago as I sat on my couch, sifting through some ideas for a weekly opinion column in the western Colorado-based Summit Daily News, where I was, until recently, employed as a reporter. Little did I know that my musings on the weather would lead to the sudden end of my reporting career with that newspaper.
As I often do when I'm writing, I turned on The Weather Channel. Like many avid skiers, I'm always on the lookout for snow as the season approaches.
On this particular weekend, a wicked upslope storm was pounding the Denver area and the foothills with snow. When The Weather Channel zeroed in on Colorado, I looked up to see a former colleague at the Summit Daily doing a stand-up interview with weather reporter Mike Seidel. These days, the ex-Summit Daily reporter works public relations for Vail Resorts, by far the biggest ski company in Colorado.
So I set down my laptop and watched, getting the distinct impression that Vail Resorts was trying to create a perception of widespread snow in Colorado. In my mind, the simple fact that Vail Resorts was represented in the interview was part of that effort; otherwise, why not interview a weather expert who might present some fact-based information?
I understand that The Weather Channel is as much about entertainment as it is about the weather. But many people still rely on the station for accurate information. So it irked me to see that there was no mention of the fact that on my side of the Rockies – the western side -- it was warm, dry and sunny. No snow at all, no boon for skiers at Vail Resorts. That glaring omission seemed another sign that truth in weather reporting was at risk. I wouldn't call it a conspiracy to sell more season passes, but then again, those passes are a key source of revenue for Vail Resorts these days.
About that same time, the chairman of Vail Resorts sent out a photo of snow on the deck of his house near Boulder -- on the eastern side of the Rockies. That's when I decided to write a column about the weather; how it's reported and how it's sometimes subject to a bit of massaging by the ski resorts.
The first part was easy. I explained the conditions that lead to an upslope storm. Then I gently chided Vail Resorts for its spin on the weather and suggested that the ski areas and the mountain communities nearby would be better served in the long term by honesty and transparency.
Apparently, I hit a nerve, because Rob Katz, the CEO of Vail, called me a few hours after the column was published to complain that I had questioned his personal integrity. I told him that I've lived in the mountains for a long time and that I recognize a snow job when I see one. Katz replied that the column called into question his company's ability to work with me and my newspaper.
A few days later, I was called into the publisher's office. I was told that the ski company had pulled its advertising and that as a result it would be difficult for the newspaper to make up a quarterly budget shortfall. I was also told that I had a lot of groveling to do if I wanted to repair the situation. I was shaken at first, but a few days later, I asked my editor to back me up. Wishful thinking on my part.
I was fired a week later, for reasons "not directly related to the column," according to an e-mail from the editor, who claimed that my termination was the consequence of a long record of issues that had been documented in annual reviews. As icing on the cake, the paper offered me about $3,000 not to talk about the termination. I didn't take it.
This whole thing leaves me still shaking my head. Not that I've given up reporting the facts as I see them. These days, I write stories for my new Web site, the Summit County Voice. I'm planning to set it up as a nonprofit, grassroots community news source, published only on the Web. I may even take some time out to enjoy some skiing -- when it snows.
Bob Berwyn is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Frisco, Colorado.