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An old-fashioned newspaper war inspired by modern politics is raging in Westcliffe and dividing readers

While many Colorado communities are losing their local newspapers, Custer County readers are divided between a traditional, 100-year-old paper and a right-wing newcomer
Westcliffe’s Main Street, Sept. 8, 2023, in Custer County. The town on the west side of the Sangre de Cristo Range has approximately 400 residents, according to the 2022 Census. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

WESTCLIFFE — Main Street of this postcard-pretty town not far from the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains is just six blocks long.

Yet there are two weekly newspapers — both thriving, both making money, both all in on a newspaper war.

The Wet Mountain Tribune, its rose-red door in a line of art galleries and coffee shops, has been around for more than 100 years, dating back to the days when the town was bustling with silver miners. The Sangre de Cristo Sentinel is written in what was once a home on the opposite side of Main Street, where a banner proclaims the 10-year-old newspaper offers “a different view from the same mountains” and a “Trump Won” sign is staked in the grass.

Expect a strong reaction if you bring up the fact that Custer County, with only 5,000 people, has two newspapers, while some other towns have none at all.

“Unfortunately,” some say, shaking their heads. Others roll their eyes and sigh. Some are thrilled a new paper came to town.

“It’s toxic,” said Angela Arterburn, who has lived in Westcliffe for 26 years, owns a gallery filled with fine-art pottery and reads The Tribune.

“It creates so much division, and it’s childish sometimes,” said Stacy Fite, who sells guns, ammo and fly fishing equipment on Main Street and reads The Sentinel. “But it was super nice to get the other paper in here because the other one was so left-leaning.”

“One is gossip. One is news,” said Eileen Boughton, a Tribune subscriber who lives in Wetmore, just up the road by the Wet Mountains.

People prefer one or the other, although some read both. A few local businesses will advertise only in the paper that aligns with their political views. The Tribune sees itself as just-the-facts, traditional journalism, though some in town say it leans liberal. The Sentinel, the “Voice of Conservative Colorado!” is proudly right-wing, with a page every issue dedicated to the Second Amendment and a newsroom where reporters and editors carry sidearms.

County politics are at the center of all of it.

The Sentinel pushed for a recall of all three of the county’s commissioners in 2017, calling them “liberals posing as Republicans” who stopped going to Custer County Republican meetings and snubbed the annual Republican Lincoln Day Dinner after their elections. Two were ousted in the recall, and one of their replacements was recalled in August in an election again backed by the Sentinel.

In 2020, the Tribune wrote an investigative piece that exposed the questionable credentials of an optometrist hired by commissioners as the county’s top public health official during the height of the COVID pandemic. And when county commissioners subsequently voted to designate the Sentinel — replacing the Tribune — as the new “paper of record,” meaning it would get the estimated $5,000 in monthly revenue for printing required legal notices, the Tribune sued the county and won.

The conflict between the two papers has gotten so ugly that coffee shops have taken sides and the Sentinel owner calls the Tribune owner names in his columns. “Ol’ Jordy ‘Red Bug’ Hedberg caused Custer County a LOT of money and trouble again,” went a recent column questioning the Tribune owner Jordan Hedberg’s reporting on the causes of the recall election. The Sentinel has poked fun of Hedberg’s “over-the-top COVID phobia,” calling him “Red Bug,” the term for the virus, first detected in China, that has circulated on the internet.

Now, much of the town calls Hedberg “Red Bug,” too.

Locals say that while each newspaper has contributed to a resurgence in interest in local politics, the battle has mainly served to further polarize Westcliffe. And for some, the negative vibes are too much — they won’t buy either paper.

“It’s a small town,” said Dwayne Chambers, while enjoying a coffee at the Sugarlump Co. and energized by a recent community potluck on Main Street. “Everybody knows everybody and we all know what’s going on.”

“Give the people what they want”

Custer County is an 8,000-foot plateau dotted with cattle ranches and hay fields. It has, on average, the oldest population in Colorado, and comes in second nationally behind a county in Florida.

It leans conservative, Christian and retired.

The newspaper that has served the county since 1883 was not conservative enough for the likes of George Gramlich and a group of fellow retirees and ranchers who got together 11 years ago and decided to make their own. The final straw came after the Tribune refused to publish some of their letters to the editor, Gramlich said.

He sums it plainly: “The Tribune was run by a liberal guy. The paper was slanted liberal. Let’s start a conservative one with a conservative, Christian slant and hopefully give the people here what they want.

“The thing took off.”

Gramlich, 73, said the Sentinel prints 1,300 copies every week, and its subscription base is gaining on the Tribune, which has about 2,000 print subscribers in a county of about 5,300 people. “We are probably just a little behind them,” he said. “That’s going from nothing to a brand-new newspaper against a 100-year-old paper.”

The Sentinel has attracted readers in Pueblo, Fremont and Chaffee counties who were craving a conservative voice. It prints 24 pages every week, in color, and has three employees and several freelancers. None of the founders have journalism experience, and Gramlich is nothing but open about the paper’s political bent.

“We didn’t want to BS our readers at all. We tell them exactly who we are up front,” he said. “I’ve been reading newspapers since I was 12 years old and I’m an old man — there ain’t a paper in the country that is unbiased.”

The newspaper not only caters to conservatives, but also to older people. While a page toward the back of the paper is dedicated to gun news, another page each week is filled with full-color memes — the same ones younger people already saw on social media. An edition this summer included a photo of mountaineers trudging up Mount Everest with the caption, “A rare photograph of my parents on their way to school.”

“Our readers literally laugh out loud at the memes,” Gramlich said. “The paper gets passed around a lot, neighbor to neighbor. To them, it’s almost like old-style cartoons coming back.”

Some compare the Sentinel’s style to the sensational and inflammatory journalism of the 1800s, when dozens of one-page or two-page “newspapers” were handed out in the streets of Westcliffe and next door in Silver Cliff during the silver and gold boom.

Tribune owner Hedberg accused Gramlich of egging on a “mob” that cussed at and ridiculed county commissioners at a meeting in July. And Gramlich wrote in 2018 that the Colorado Press Association was part of the “progressive deep state that is destroying our once free society and replacing it with a soon-to-fail socialistic nightmare” because the trade group supported a national request that newspapers fight back against former President Donald Trump’s “enemy of the people” rhetoric targeting journalists. (The Colorado Sun is an association member.)

The Sentinel’s politics, though, are attracting subscribers, Gramlich said. It saw a boost during the pandemic, when the paper published stories making fun of masks and calling vaccines dangerous, and referred to the coronavirus as “WuFlu.” The commissioner recalls also have brought in new subscribers.

“It was big-time politics here for five or six months,” he said. “We successfully recalled two of them and just missed the third guy by 60 votes.”

Gramlich, who said he retired in Westcliffe after running an international insurance software company and raising cattle in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, said that having two opposing newspapers keeps the town energized and engaged.

“I think it’s a healthy thing,” he said. “It’s been a fun adventure. We love poking fun at the lib paper and they love poking fun at us.”

“I do have an agenda. It’s called the truth.”

County commissioners who voted to strip the Tribune of its status as the “paper of record” didn’t try to hide why. They stated during that public meeting in January 2022 that they were tired of owner Jordan Hedberg’s negative stories.

Hedberg not only exposed the questionable credentials of the public health director, but published an article in 2021 noting that one commissioner showed up to a meeting knowing he had COVID and infected four others during the “super spreader” event. Then there was the story revealing that commissioners voted in March 2021 to end all COVID restrictions, declaring the county was “going off the grid,” despite that state officials had not approved the move.

Commissioners voted to make the Sentinel the official paper of record even though the Tribune’s bid, at 9 cents per printed line for legal notices, was half the cost. Clearly, Hedberg said in his lawsuit, public officials were retaliating against his small-town paper in violation of First Amendment rights to a free press.

The lawsuit was settled in December, with the Tribune retaining its decades-long status as the paper of record — for at least the next four years.

Since then, local politics and the newspaper war in Westcliffe have not calmed down. The sole commissioner to vote against awarding the bid for legal notices to the Sentinel was the one who was just recalled.

The contentiousness, and particularly the way the other newspaper covered the pandemic and emboldened its readers to ignore safety precautions, can get depressing, said Hedberg, who grew up in Westcliffe. “I expected people in this community to come together and try to protect the vulnerable and the elderly, and instead it turned into ‘I can get whoever I want sick. I can kill whoever I want. If you don’t like it, you can stay home,’” he said.

Hedberg, 36, said a few former subscribers got so nasty, calling him a communist, for example, that he canceled their subscriptions.

“I’m like, ‘Well, it’s great that you believe that. You’re not welcome to subscribe to The Tribune,’” he said. “Some people are always going to hate you.”

Hedberg doesn’t consider the Sentinel a legitimate newspaper, and the war between the two isn’t a traditional one based on which paper gets the most scoops. During the first few years of its existence, the Sentinel didn’t cover much local news, instead running reprints from other publications, including gun magazines. It was during COVID, when Gramlich began writing columns, that the conservative paper started to gain a greater following.

“I didn’t see them as competitors. I still kind of don’t,” Hedberg said. “But, you know, I’ve got to deal with a full-on MAGA publication and we’re a two-paper town. Their main business, that they claim, is to put us out of business.”

Hedberg, who bought the Tribune in 2018, majored in history and wrote for his college newspaper for fun. He worked as an investment broker in Denver, drove a ski shuttle, and moved back to the country to raise grass-fed beef and organic vegetables. Then he added a job as a reporter for the Tribune in 2015, making $11 per hour.

When the long-time owner of the Tribune wanted to retire, and didn’t want to sell to a newspaper chain, he asked Hedberg if he would take over. Hedberg runs the newsroom while his wife, Alyssa, handles the layout and bookkeeping, and they manage a staff of part-time employees and freelancers.

The paper has almost 2,000 print subscribers, plus 310 digital subscribers and 4,000 followers of its Facebook page. That’s in a county with 5,300 people “on a good day,” Hedberg said. “Wintertime it gets pretty quiet, because there’s no skiing, there’s no river,” he said. “There’s a lot of wind.”

He sees himself as a curator of history, recording what’s important now and for the future. His news stories are straightforward, listing who voted for what in the county commissioners meeting and what they said.

“You know, I do have an agenda. It’s called the truth,” Hedberg said, “and I’m extremely biased about it.”

The Tribune picked up about 50 new subscribers as it reported on this summer’s commissioner recall election because it focused on fact-checking and covering the issues — the opposite strategy of the other paper, Hedberg said. “You couldn’t really tell what the truth was if you were reading them,” he said. “Do you want the paper that literally insults people on every page in every edition?”

Herberg feels a sense of duty to provide what he says is the only real newspaper left in Custer County. When moved to Westcliffe as a kid in 1999, locals could get The Denver Post, Rocky Mountain News, Pueblo Chieftain, Cañon City Daily Record and Wall Street Journal delivered to their doors. Not anymore.

It’s exhausting at times, and tough writing critical pieces about people he is bound to run into on Main Street, but Hedberg refuses to portray Westcliffe as the fictional Mayberry.

“You’re very careful about how you write things. You are going to see him on the street,” he said, referring to a county commissioner or anyone else he writes about. “You might see him at church or the liquor store or whatever. But over time, people start to realize that they might not agree with what we write, but they know that we did it because it was the truth.”

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