Last week, Mike and I took a moment for lunch at a local restaurant, sitting in a daze while we began planning the next edition. Thursday is a day of recovery, a day I feel hungover from the exhaustion of getting the weekly miracle finished, somehow, again.
The proprietor stopped by our table and asked me if I brought my flak jacket with me. Needless to say, it’s been a bit of a rough patch lately.
While we were waiting for our meals, I watched a group of older men sitting at the bar. They seemed to be solving the world’s problems, as many do at these kinds of establishments, and one passed a newspaper down the bar to another man.
“I hate that thing,” he declared, flinging the newspaper back across the bar to its owner.
Witnessing this disgust, the recoil from this offensive object, reminded me of kids taunting each other with a toad threatening to pee on them, squealing and tossing it away.
At first I was a bit amused. To have a grown man react so intensely, even jokingly, to a newspaper was fascinating.
“Did you see what just happened?” I asked Mike, who didn’t have as good of a vantage point.
I later found out the man had a long-held grudge against the paper, dating back two owners. If you do the math, that was more than a dozen years ago, at least. Apparently he didn’t like the owner and his politics.
We laughed about it, imagining ridiculous scenarios in which people reacted similarly to other businesses.
“Ugh. I would never, ever go to that ice cream shop. The lady who owned it has been dead and gone for years but that one disappointing pistachio cone I had 20 years ago still bothers me.”
“I hate that T-shirt shop. My brother’s ex-girlfriend’s aunt went in there once and they didn’t have what she wanted and I’ll never give them my business.”
Can you imagine? What is it about newspapers that elicits such a visceral reaction, such negativity that it clings for decades, long after the smell of cigarette smoke from newsrooms has faded?
The grudges held against newspapers are stubborn, like stains that just won’t come out long after repeated launderings, or transitions to new owners over the decades. No matter how many times there’s a fresh start, they’re not going to budge in their disdain for “the paper.”
That much is clear, after the recent happenings with our reporting on sex assault cases here in Ouray County and the snafu with our newspapers being stolen by a thief who didn’t want the community to read the paper.
Critics who have a grudge against the Plaindealer for one reason or another, dating back decades, came out of the woodwork to criticize the coverage and band together in an angry mob, emboldened by the distance between their keyboards and the people they were attacking.
One declared us the “scourge of Ouray County,” and another said the Plaindealer had ruined his family members’ lives with its reporting.
Curiously, the keyboard jockey who held the paper responsible for ruination didn’t detail the stories published about his grandfather, the former Ouray County sheriff who was indicted on federal charges back in 1999 and resigned in disgrace. He was convicted of embezzlement and theft. This came to fruition at the same time the sheriff’s daughters were arrested in a sting operation on a meth trafficking ring – being run by the undersheriff.
That happened 25 years ago. So that’s why he hates the paper now, which we’ve had for five years in April.
Never mind the fact that we featured this same person in an article in 2021, at which time he didn’t seem to have a problem with the paper. The article was about how he was having a hard time finding housing, living in his mother’s trailer, and we wrote it in an attempt to illustrate the issue and help him out.
Yet what oozes out at these times are fickle, deep-held grievances that rise to the surface and join with others, like blobs of oil forming a slick.
We know at least one person acted on his grudge against the paper recently – he cited it as the reason he stole our newspapers to prevent others from reading them.
He called it a “boycott of sorts” against our coverage, and named stories dating back four years.
The oldest of those stories led to the removal of former Sheriff Lance FitzGerald in Ouray County’s first recall election. It was a story that raised its ugly head during the first year we owned the paper.
“I don’t understand why you did what you did to Lance,” the newspaper thief said, in three separate conversations the day he returned the papers to our office.
I suspected they were probably friends, maybe drinking buddies who saw each other at the familiar haunts around town.
Sure enough, FitzGerald had responded to one of the newspaper thief’s rants on Facebook about the paper, back in 2020. This post was criticizing our coverage of the Ouray KOA, whose previous owners flouted restrictions during the pandemic and continued to operate while other establishments followed the rules and shut down. This was another story the newspaper thief cited in conversations with us the day he returned the papers, saying he didn’t understand why we wrote about the KOA four years ago.
“Hey Plaindealer, what’s the next business your (sic) going to try to destroy during these unprecedented times?” he taunted on social media, accusing the paper of “exploiting the situation” and “scare tactics.” One responder wrote, “The worst thing is a local business calling out another local business.”
“I’m not a fan! Gee, I wonder why,” wrote FitzGerald.
I thought back to one of my last conversations with the former sheriff.
It was after one of his deputies arrested him for DUI.
It was after he emailed me a blurry selfie photo and instructed me to use the image in all instances in the newspaper, instead of his mug shot. I responded and told him the rules applied to him, too, and we’d be using one of his mug shots (I had a few to choose from by then) in stories about his ongoing legal battles, just as we used the mug shots of those his deputies arrested in the paper.
It was after I asked him what happened at a Loveland hotel, where he and his girlfriend called the cops on each other amid another drunken fight during a law enforcement convention — a trip funded by taxpayers.
This much is clear – I didn’t do anything to Lance FitzGerald. He did it to himself. I just let the community know what the man they had elected to uphold law and order in Ouray County was doing.
I confronted him once, after the hotel incident, and asked him when he thought enough was enough.
I told this story to some veteran newspapermen at the Denver Press Club bar once. FitzGerald asked me why I had to keep writing about him, and I explained it was because he kept doing things that warranted me writing about him.
“Don’t make me write about you again,” I told him. “At what point do you think you have a problem and should get some help?”
One of the veterans jumped on me at that point in the story.
“I would have written you up for that,” he declared.
“What? Asking him if he needs treatment? Telling him I don’t want to write about this again?”
“All of it,” he said, taking a drink. “For being human?” I said. “Yes. I’d fire your ass,” he said. “Good thing it’s not your paper,” I told him.
These words, “I’d fire your ass,” flung back at me, came to mind after I saw the man at the bar toss the paper away, like it would give him cooties.
These are the things our colleagues in larger places don’t experience. While the veteran newspaper man (who would have fired me) enjoyed a level of anonymity and a buffer between himself and his subjects over the years, I didn’t have the same luxury.
Doing journalism in small places is not for the faint-hearted. It’s what another veteran journalist friend calls “close to the bone” journalism. We have chosen a profession where we act independently, seek truth and report it, and try our best to be accountable and transparent.
But we also live here. We’re part of this place. And we can’t get away from the stories we cover, like reporters who parachute in from other places and won’t make corrections when they’ve made mistakes.
We are journalists. We are the caretakers of this institution, part of the glue that holds this community together. We are human.
That last part gets forgotten.
Erin McIntyre is the co-publisher of the Plaindealer. Email her at email@example.com.