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for people who care about the West

As the influence of newsprint erodes, Westword prevails

Despite the state of the media, Westword Editor Patty Calhoun maintains hope.

Patty Calhoun is ready to rumble. The founding and current editor of Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, just walked through the paper’s annual Tacolandia festival in front of Denver’s Classical-style City Hall to watch a lucha libre match. Around her, over 3,000 people enjoy the delicias of more than 40 Mexican food vendors on an overcast but balmy August Sunday afternoon.

Nearby, Westword publisher Scott Tobias talks with vendors to make sure they’re happy. (They are.) The photographer snaps pictures of attendees that will appear the next day on Westword’s website as a slideshow; the social media team tweets and Instagrams and shoots video.

Calhoun, meanwhile watches masked Mexican wrestlers leap off top ropes toward their opponents as a multicultural crowd cheers.

 

“Last time I saw them, I thought, ‘I so want to do this,’ ” Calhoun says, biting into a sweetbread taco. “It’s just like fighting an editor or writer or publisher. It’s all performance. It’s a foregone conclusion, but you have to do it.”

She returns to Tacolandia’s VIP area to grab a margarita with friends, but the crowd keeps stopping her. “Love your work, Ms. Calhoun!” shouts one man along the way. “Keep killing it!” says another. Another woman congratulates her on running Westword for 30 years.

“It’s actually been 40,” Calhoun responds.

It’s actually been 41.

In an era where alt-weeklies are dying and daily newspapers continue to see their influence erode, Westword occupies a special place in American journalism. Its mix of investigative stories, cultural coverage, snarky humor and articles that frequently go viral has created something almost unheard of in the industry today: stability, and a widespread respect bordering on civic reverence. (Disclosure: Westword ran my OC Weekly syndicated column “¡Ask a Mexican!,” and I have had a working relationship with Calhoun and Westword over the years.)

It’s healthy even as its ostensible daily rival, the Denver Post, publishes editorials begging its “vulture capitalists” owners to sell the paper to local buyers. Westword remains “very, very strong” with “a big profit,” according to Tobias. That’s thanks in part to Colorado voters, who legalized marijuana in 2012 and opened a spigot of cash that doesn’t show any signs of stopping — cannabis-related ads now comprise about 35 percent of the paper’s revenue.

Marijuana posters line the walls of a Westword ad designer’s work area. Although Westword’s coverage of the topic is minimal, marijuana ads provide a lot of the ad revenue.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
“We make jokes about how we should put bumper stickers on our cars that show everyone what feeds our families,” says a Westword staffer. “Early on, it was ‘Futon sales feed my family,’ then ‘Sex ads feed my family.’ Now, it’s ‘Marijuana ads feed my family.’ ”

That’s despite the fact that Westword’s marijuana coverage is fairly modest: a weekly product review, an advice column, and occasional news coverage — all of which tend to get lost in the daily wave of news, food and music stories. Nevertheless, marijuana industry leaders know that if they want to connect with the Mile High City, they need to go with Westword.

That’s because in an era where many publications skew partisan or go niche to survive, Westword still tries to cover everything and anything in greater Denver. In the process, it appeals to the multiple strata of the city in a way few other metro papers in America can claim.

Calhoun and two of her former Cornell University dorm-mates started Westword in 1977, as the winds of Watergate blew through the nation and stoked the alt-press along the way. The partners soon departed, leaving Calhoun as the sole boss until she sold it to what eventually became the largest chain of alt-weeklies in the United States. At first, Westword was ostracized for publishing outrageous stories deemed inappropriate by journalism schools and politicians alike. But eventually, Calhoun and her crew — with their prodigious knowledge and output on everything from sexual assault cover-ups at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs and environmental racism to the history of Buffalo Bill’s Mexican restaurant and the rise of Colorado’s craft-beer industry — forged a publication that told the tale of Denver in all its breathtaking highs and embarrassing lows.

“I was already interested in the West,” Calhoun says; in high school, she wrote a paper on Montana that inspired her father to buy land there and build a cabin that the family still owns. “I liked Cornell, but I didn’t like the East Coast obsession with pedigree. The West has that promise for people who wanted to do their own things. You are what you do, not where you came from.”

“Patty Calhoun embodies what journalism used to aspire to become.”

– Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper

“Patty Calhoun embodies what journalism used to aspire to become,” says Colorado Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, a longtime friend who, when he was mayor, appeared on Westword’s cover dressed in a zoot suit. “Relentless and principled, she (can) also be ruthless in the pursuit of the truth, especially if she smelled a cover-up or just simple lying.”

That kind of respect comes from some former targets, too. “It doesn’t go into a stereotype into what an alt-weekly should be,” says Tom Tancredo, a retired Republican congressman, who describes the paper’s coverage of his long, controversial career as “fair.” “I think that the Denver Post has maybe three or four years, and it’ll be gone. And I bet you Westword will still be there.”

A cutout of Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper looks out from the office of Westword Editor Patty Calhoun.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“THIS IS HOW MUCH CONTROL I HAVE,” Calhoun cracks over the phone a couple of weeks after Tacolandia. “I’m cancelling our staff meeting today. My managing editor is already running late. The layout editor has to leave because her chicken just died, and she has to deal with the chicken.”

From her small office, crowded with back issues, bullhorns, an empty tequila bottle shaped like a Tommy gun and local art that includes a sawed-off mannequin, she is editing a column on marijuana. You can hear the quick keyboard clicks as she rewrites a sentence. Then, silence.

“I have to tell my pot critic that what they wrote makes no sense, which is usually the case,” she finally says. “Or, it can be me. I’m still into Cheech and Chong jokes. That’s no longer current. That’s a beat I get schooled in all the time.”

Calhoun is tall, with long blond hair and piercing blue eyes. The 64-year-old always wears long skirts, cowboy boots or flip-flops, and some form of turquoise jewelry, and carries herself like a cross between legendary journalist Nellie Bly (a personal hero) and Annie Oakley — crusading, but not showy, with the personality of a cool aunt who never married because she’d rather travel the world. She gets up at 5 every morning and, for three hours, edits stories scheduled for the web that day, then spends the rest of the day working on the print edition and her own articles. She tries to write at least one story a week, across different sections, but ultimately follows her own breaking-news clock. In an eight-day stretch in September, for instance, she penned 1,000-plus word pieces on the Colorado gubernatorial race, the closing of a dive bar, a quick profile of a nonprofit, and a review of a just-opened hiking trail on top of a former nuclear power plant.

Managing editor Ana Campbell is a new recruit, with just two years onboard.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
“One time, I asked Patty to look at a cover story I was editing,” says Westword’s managing editor Ana Campbell, who’s been at the paper for two years. “All of a sudden, she said, ‘Don’t you just love it when you fall asleep, and see how editing a story will come out?’ And I said, ‘Patty, only you would dream that.’ ”

Or only a Westworder. The paper’s editorial staff hoards over a century of Denver newspaper experience in three people alone: Calhoun (the Denver Post has had 14 editors-in-chief during her reign), staff writer Michael Roberts (who joined as a music editor in 1990), and Alan Prendergast, who has written for the paper since 1984. He brought Westword acclaim with his coverage of the aftermath of the Columbine massacre and his deep dives into Colorado’s federal Supermax prison.

“The production manager has been here 25 years,” Calhoun says. “The business manager, I hired him 37 years ago. Where would you rather be than in Denver, Colorado? And if you’re there, where would you rather be working than at Westword?”

But the paper isn’t an ossuary, either. It maintains a reputation as a launching pad for young writers; the Washington Post just hired one of its former interns.

“People still come up to me and ask me about stuff I wrote at Westword,” says Adam Cayton-Holland, star of TruTV’s Those Who Can’t and a staffer from 2004 to 2009 who wrote a humor column called “What’s So Funny.” “To come up in an environment like that is incredible. Rarely was I just handed assignments. I was expected to bring stuff in.”

Not bad for a paper that, like its city, has known boom-and-busts with the regularity of the Broncos in the Super Bowl.

Two alt-weeklies were already in town when Westword put out its first issue, a debut that saw most of the issues piled in Calhoun’s garage because no one knew how to do circulation. Their first office was on the second floor of a Victorian-era building where prostitutes once plied their trade. (“Even without taking inflation into account, they made more money than we did,” Calhoun commented in a 20th anniversary reminiscence in 1998.)

“It was a smaller city then,” she says. “You would go knock (on) the door at a business for a sale, and there would be a sign that said ‘Gone skiing.’ I have not gotten a ‘Gone skiing’ message for a long time.”

In 1983, Calhoun sold the paper to Jim Larkin and Michael Lacey, owners of the Phoenix New Times, because she wanted to focus on writing and was tired of the business side of things. The new owners upped publication to a weekly and allowed Calhoun to hire staffers. “We were a hard-drinking, hard-reporting crew,” says Prendergast. “The dailies were contemptuous of us. It was difficult to get respect or recognition, but that was okay. We weren’t following daily rules, or taking a story and turning it into mush.”

With the Post and the Rocky Mountain News locked in a newspaper war, Westword grabbed attention with stories that its rivals didn’t dare report. In 1986, Calhoun revealed that the president of a group of suburban newspapers had killed his mother, father and sister as an 18-year-old, yet never disclosed his past to readers or mentioned that he had changed his name.

Staff writer Michael Roberts started in 1990 as Westword’s music editor.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
Newspapers across the country and local leaders tut-tutted about the piece’s relevance. They howled three years later, when Westword published a bombshell: Sal Aunese, the University of Colorado Buffaloes’ star quarterback, who was dying of cancer, had had an out-of-wedlock child with the daughter of head coach Bill McCartney, who had built a cult of personality, not just around his powerhouse program but also his unapologetic evangelical Christianity.

The story seems tame nowadays, but back then, it created a nationwide scandal. Editors for the Post and News blasted Westword in the national press, which parroted their disgust. “It was ugly and sensational,” the Miami Herald wrote. “If there was a way of treating the matter in a tasteful way as a significant news story, (Westword) did not find it.”

McCartney was even less charitable. In his 1994 biography, he confessed that biblical verses given to him by a stranger just before the article hit “arrived just in time to save two lives. They saved mine from a possible death penalty or life-sentence in prison. And they saved the life of the (Westword reporter) I would surely have tried to kill.”

Advertisers pulled out; the paper received multiple bomb threats. (During one, Westword staffers crossed the street to drink beers. That’s where Calhoun met Hickenlooper, who complained to her about the regulations the city was imposing on his brewpub.) To this day, Calhoun defends the Aunese story.

“That was a story that had been talked about in newsrooms around the state but never published,” she says. “The media was an old boys’ network. Question then became, ‘Why didn’t they report it?’

“More importantly, we never got a request for a retraction. Not one.”

Respect and revenue came as Denver roared into the 1990s with the redevelopment of its downtown and the debut of the Colorado Rockies, its baseball team. Long-vacant warehouses became concert venues, apartments, restaurants — and they needed a place to advertise.

“It was a great time to be a sales rep,” says Tobias, who started in 1993. “We sold Westword as a lifestyle resource. As salespeople, we killed it.”

That cushion allowed the paper to continue to pursue ambitious stories. It discovered that the Department of Justice had ignored a secret grand jury’s finding of environmental crimes at the former Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant. Reporter Michael Roberts — who, while serving as the paper’s music editor, once had a music promoter “threaten to throw me through a glass plate window” for writing a negative calendar pick — earned praise for a media criticism column. The paper won a James Beard award for restaurant criticism in 2003, thanks to Jason Sheehan’s sprawling, acerbic reviews.

At its height in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Westword had an editorial staff of about 20, and regularly clocked in at 160 pages a week, making it one of the fattest alt-weeklies in the country. It ran two features a week, along with a full-page editorial cartoon and Calhoun’s own column, simply titled “Calhoun,” which saw her opine on everything from political corruption to badly planned municipal New Year’s Eve festivities. But the rise of the internet began to chip away at Westword’s revenue stream, just as it did with every newspaper.

“It was a slow slide until 2008,” she said. “But it was a very fast slide after.”

Patty Calhoun, founder and editor of Westword in Denver.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News

“SO YOU'LL TOTALLY LOVE THIS,” Calhoun tells her colleagues on the James Beard Journalism Awards Committee during a meeting this fall in New York City. “So I’m on the bus (into Manhattan), and Roberts calls me. ‘Hey, I want to do a story on Deborah Ramirez,’ ” the second woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual harassment last fall. “And I think, ‘Fuck, she’s from Colorado. There goes my day.’ Thank God the bus had WiFi.”

Calhoun travels a lot nowadays — to awards committee meetings, luncheons and panel discussions around Denver, road trips with friends (she and her friends own World’s Wonder View Tower, a Depression-era roadside attraction in eastern Colorado said to be the highest point between Denver and Chicago). But with her laptop, she never stops working. So she can’t imagine retirement.

“First, I’d have to clean my office,” she says. “I’d have to find out what I’d like to do next. And I still don’t know that.”

Westword has weathered its past decade better than its peers. It made national news again in 2009 after putting out a call for a pot critic (“Our first applicant replied within five minutes — fast work for a stoner,” Calhoun wrote soon after. “Our first media response came a few minutes later — really fast work for a journalist.”)

Alan Prendergast had been with Westword since the mid-’80s, writing some of the paper’s biggest stories, before leaving last year when his job turned into a web-first writer slot.
Luna Anna Archey/High Country News
But soon after, the paper got caught up in the controversy surrounding Backpage.com, a website owned by its then-parent company Village Voice Media that critics accused of abetting human trafficking. National and local advertisers dropped the paper, and Westword had to lay off staffers. The shrinkage hasn’t stopped; it combined its music and arts editor position two years ago. Last year, Prendergrast left after his job was turned into a web-first writer slot. There are now 10 full-timers left in editorial.

The paper itself has also shrunk; an October issue was 72 pages, with 31 devoted to marijuana ads. Circulation is now 50,000, down from 110,000 just a decade ago. While the Rocky Mountain News closed in 2009, nonprofit news agencies like the Colorado Sun and Colorado Independent are now nipping at the hard news Westword once had a monopoly on.

“It’s not as robust as it used to be, but I don’t think people pick up Westword and shake their head at the memory of what it used to be,” says David Milstead, a business columnist for Canada’s Globe and Mail and president of the Denver Press Club, which elected Calhoun into its Hall of Fame in 2007. “But there are more media voices now. That will make things tougher on Westword to be the alternative voice. That’ll be a challenge.”

Westword remains unfazed. During a fundraiser last summer, Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Walker Stapleton denounced it as “phony news.” Calhoun had recently confronted him at a public event for not responding to Michael Roberts’ repeated requests for an interview; she wrote that Stapleton “looked at me the way a bull calf must regard a castration knife.”

“I find the news about journalism in the rest of the country incredibly depressing,” Calhoun says. “Papers that started when we started are closing. We grew up together. So I’m focusing on what we’re doing, because we have more control than the forces around the country. Westword, I’m hopeful.”

Note: This story has been updated to disclose a prior working relationship between Westword and the author. 

Gustavo Arellano is a features writer for the Los Angeles Times and the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.

This story was funded with reader donations to the High Country News Research Fund.