Skiing Just Lost Its Daily Beat Reporter

After 21 years covering the ski industry for the <em>Denver Post</em>, Jason Blevins walks out amid mutiny in the newsroom

Jason Blevins wrote about skiing for the Denver Post for 21 years. PHOTO: Scott D W Smith

Back in the early ’90s, Jason Blevins, a Texas kid fresh out of college, decided to delay law school for a year and moved to Vail, Colorado, to ski. One season of living in a closet in a house with 12 other people and skiing 130 days a year was enough to decide he would never take the Bar exam. Instead, in 1997, Blevins interviewed with the Denver Post and landed a job as a newspaper reporter with a daily deadline. With next to no experience, Blevins learned on the job and wrote about what he knew—skiing.

A nearly $5 billion annual boost to Colorado’s economy, skiing matters to the statewide newspaper. For 21 years, Blevins filed stories daily, often more than one and longer pieces for Sunday’s paper. He never approached his stories with fluff about the best snow or hot chocolate in Summit County. Instead, he dug into Vail’s corporate filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission. He reported on small mountain towns finding solutions to big problems, like housing and income inequality. He was the reporter who scooped everyone else when Aspen and KSL joined forces to buy Intrawest and Mammoth last year. He’s in the corral at the finish line, filing stories in the snow to meet deadline from World Cup ski races, the X Games, and the Olympics. The Ringer called him out as ‘the world’s worst sports reporter,’ but he’s a skier, which is why, at the Pyeongchang Olympics, he recognized that a girl skiing the half-pipe in the backseat and with terrible form—Elizabeth Swaney—was, in fact, news. His story on Swaney became one of the most read pieces in the Denver Post of the year.

And yet, hardly a month after his story on Swaney went viral, Blevins resigned from the Post. His departure came in the middle of a mutiny in the newsroom after the newspaper’s owner, Alden Global Capital, ordered 30 layoffs by July—a thinning of human resources at a newspaper already gut-punched from 150 layoffs and years of cutbacks. On April 6, the newspaper’s editors published a desperate call for action to readers on the front page saying that “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom.” Among those to volunteer themselves to leave was Blevins, who wrote on Twitter, “I can’t work for black-souled owners like Alden’s Heath Freeman who reward loyalty to a vital craft by hurling shit at dedicated journalists.”

It’s not just Denver that deserves good journalism. Skiers are at a loss, too. Personally, many of my days have dawned with Blevins scooping me on the latest news, once again. So, like any editor would do when a good writer has gone rogue, I called Blevins to find out where he will be writing next. This is what he had to say:

Twenty-one years at the paper and I got a lot of reader responses, generally from people who were not stoked. Why did you write about this? I can’t believe you forgot about that! Why did you talk to this guy instead of that guy? And then when I quit, I hear from thousands of people—we loved you! I’m like, why didn’t you tell me that before I quit?

I still haven’t quite graduated beyond the rage realm for those Alden people who own the paper. They are vindictive there. Mean-spirited. I don’t understand how you take an investment and just burn it down. And that’s, like, the plan.

The smaller papers, they’re feeling the same pressure. They’re understaffed and feeling the same budget. They’re primary objective is to tell the local news. It’s hard for them to sometimes stick their head up and be like, ‘This is a problem that’s shared across the entire Intermountain West. We should write a more regional, national story that addresses this issue.’ That was the approach I took.

When I got hired we had 300-plus people in the newsroom. With this latest cut, we’re down below 50. It’s terrible. We got to spend a lot of time on stories, travel wherever we wanted to go, cover the entire West, write about Utah and Montana. And now it’s just like—no.

Luckily, people like me who have been around for so long have the relationships that they can call someone and be like, ‘Hey man, tell me what’s up here.’ Whereas a new journalist who is just starting out and having to make that call to somebody they don’t know, that person is more likely to be like, ‘I don’t know you. I don’t want to talk to you.’

At the Olympics, I wrote 45 stories in 20 days. I was churning and burning and not necessarily giving a lot of thought to how it will be received. I was just turning copy.

My deadlines were such that I’d be writing in the snow and filing over my phone to make the print deadline. As soon as an event ended, I had 15 minutes to get copy in for the print deadline.

The Washington Post guys? There’s like four of them at every event. Man, that drove me crazy. One guy is just running quotes. He’s holding the recorder and sending them over the phone to someone who is writing. Those guys drove me crazy.

The Olympics, it’s a journalism master’s course. You’re there with so many really good reporters. We’re seeing the same things, with the same quotes from everybody. It’s fun to see how people compile their stories and who stands out. John Branch does an exceptional job. Jeff Passan, who writes for Yahoo!, and Rachael over at USA Today. They always have really good perspectives and angles and a lot of that comes from your intuition as well as your history and relationships with some of these athletes.

We’re sitting there and a girl is coming down the pipe and she’s just terrible. She cannot ski. Super wide stance, back seat. You’re like, wow. Is this a joke? Or somebody’s little sister? I start asking around and eventually track her down and I really, really wanted her to be like, ‘Isn’t this nuts? This is so crazy. I can’t believe I’m at the Olympics and I don’t know how to ski!’ But she didn’t do that. She completely owned it and said ‘I am here to represent Hungary.’

Nobody knew about [Elizabeth Swaney], except for all the fellows and women on the World Cup circuit. They’d call her Dizzy Lizzy and they made her go last because she takes so long to go down the pipe and she’d gobble up everybody’s practice time.

I’m sitting there and telling all these other reporters: This is the worst skier in the Olympics. And she’s not from South America. She’s not some cross-country guy from Jamaica or Mexico where they all finish last. That’s one thing. This is a born and bred American girl that used to live in Park City that should be a better skier. And I did not want to be the only one doing it. Like, come on. Everybody write this story. I did not come to the Olympics to tear down an Olympian.

I’d never been in a newsroom. Never written a story. Never done anything. Didn’t work at a paper in college. Just wrote term papers and letters to friends and journals. I impressed the editor. I went on a big six-month backpacking trip in South America and we talked about hitchhiking through Ecuador and Bolivia and he liked my stories and thought, alright, let’s give this guy a shot. There is absolutely no reason this guy should have given me the job. But he did, and turned out I loved it. Next thing you know, I’m a staffer.

I didn’t have somebody showin’ me the way. I created this beat at the Denver Post. It was something that I carved out myself, just looking at mountain communities. I found that the best stories were in these small towns with small-town characters. Some of the brightest minds.

Between deadlines, Jason Blevins always made sure to take full advantage of the perks of his job. PHOTO: Scott D W Smith

You can take a lot of strategies in small towns and scale them up, apply them to major world problems. Local communities—the questions they’re asking, the way they’re addressing some of their problems, can be used to solve a lot of our issues right now.

When I started covering the ski industry, I had a ponytail down to my butt. And I’d go in to Vail Resorts, and technically I would have never been able to work for those guys because of my haircut. So it was funny to go and interview those guys when I wouldn’t have even qualified to be hired as a lift op.

I was a skier. But more, I was a reporter. I still count that. I made a point of skiing with every major resort owner in Colorado. I always felt that if I am going to talk to anyone, it’s always better to get somebody at play. Outside, at least. Not in their office. Not behind a desk. You can see somebody, you get better quotes, you see their real person better when they’re at play. I’d do all my interviews on chairlifts if I could.

Right now might be the most interesting time out there. Vail beat a path that had never been done before. Right around 2002 was the year that Intrawest’s total revenues tipped the scales and they made more money selling real estate than they did from ski operations. It was a valid concern. Skiing is going to become like golf—the reason why it is there is to add value to real estate. People were dropping a billion dollars on a village and it was nuts. Now, look at where Intrawest ended up. That model doesn’t work.

Vail Resorts is the biggest resort company in North America right now, and one percent of their revenue comes from real estate and that’ll be zero soon. They can’t rid of that stuff fast enough. Say what you want about Rob Katz, there probably are a lot of good arguments about what he’s done to skiing. But all of their revenue comes from the mountain.

Either way, Vail has proven itself as a very healthy, financially sound company based on pass sales. That opened up debt markets and capital markets to them, and that has expanded to the entire industry. Vail Resorts created a market that allows ski area operators access to debt and capital that was not there 15 years ago.

The truth is, Vail puts about a hundred million bucks a year into all its ski areas. And Alterra seems to be following that path. If you like riding high speed chairs and having nice new terrain and all the fancy amenities of a nice new ski area, then you can thank the new economic model out there. At least it’s not real estate, right?

There are opportunities for the smaller areas in this. As everything becomes a bit homogenized, a bit consolidated, and individual resort characteristics are fading into a corporate identity, there will be opportunities for the Silvertons and Crested Buttes and Tellurides and Purgatories. The smaller guys harken back to that soul and have that specific identity, that unique, messy vitality and vibrancy that you don’t see in a six-story parking garage and a water park.

I think we’re in an exciting time. The idea of walk-up skiing is going away. I would not be surprised if, in the next five years, just about every resort you want to get to will be associated in the partnership with one of these two corporate giants. That’s the way it’s going to go. Maybe it’s not a bad thing. Ideally, we get in a situation where you spend $2,000 and you can ski wherever you want, for however you want, whenever you want, anywhere.

I have a list of 250 story ideas that I left with. And I’d love to keep writing them. You always have stories going. You keep a bunch of irons in the fire. That’s how you pay the bills. I consider myself lucky doing the job I have. All I need now is someone to publish it for me.

As journalism blows up, there are people who recognize that it needs to be protected. There’s money coming in, not necessarily from billionaires. There is interest and recognition of a need as institutions like the Denver Post are slowly murdered in front of everybody.

As these papers start to whittle away, and it turns into reader-provided content, we’re going to start to see stories produced by the companies. That’s my fear. All of a sudden you’re going to have Alterra and Vail stories coming out instead of actual news.

I had about 20 calls from PR firms that were saying, ‘It’s all about branded content, Blevins! This is your next gig!’ And you know, they pay a ton of money. If I was starving that’s what I would be doing right now. But I really want to give freelance journalism a try.

It’s pretty hard to remain a journalist when you’re writing for a brand. But at the same time, every dollar has an agenda on it. A grant funding from a billionaire, is that any better? Somebody pays me $15 grand to write a story about this or that? I’m pretty transparent about that. But do readers care if this story on public lands comes from Patagonia or the New York Times? Everybody has an agenda and every dollar has an agenda.

It’s disconcerting sometimes when you think that the whole career path I’ve chosen is going away. I still need another 10 years of work, at least.

I’ll write for POWDER. I’ll write for Outside. I’ll write for Ski Area Management. But I’m slowly finding out that no matter how much you bust ass—say I’ve got grants and freelance stories out the wahzoo, where I could work every day, same amount. I will make about half of what I made at the Denver Post. And I will have to pay for health insurance.

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