Our Approach to Reporting in 2021

Bolstered by a staff that grew to three full-time journalists in June, Aspen Journalism published stories on a diverse array of topics in 2021. It was also a year of transition at the top of the organization.

Our water desk, staffed by Heather Sackett, produced 42 stories as Sackett covered 61 water meetings across the state of Colorado. It was her third year on the beat. Her work has been distinguished by its analysis on the impact that ongoing drought is having on water users and water policy. Sackett also broke important stories about a mining company’s violation of the Clean Water Act, a state legislative effort to develop new policy on investment water speculation and the city of Aspen’s efforts to create a new integrated water plan that includes new storage sites.


Curtis Wackerle, hired in July 2020 as editor overseeing all aspects of the newsroom, as well as editor and reporter on the Connie Harvey Environment Desk, added executive director of the organization to his title in August. This was precipitated by Brent Garnder Smith, AJ’s founder who since 2020 had been serving as executive director, stepped down to become the news director for Aspen Public Radio .   

The environment desk published 16 stories in 2021. Focus areas included grappling with the impacts of surging recreational use, by OHV drivers on the Lead King Loop near Marble and overnight hikers in the Maroon Bells Snowmass Wilderness. The desk also published stories about land conservation initiatives.

Aspen Journalism established a data desk, staffed by Laurine Lassalle. Lassalle began working part-time for AJ in May 2020, when she took over our Tracking the Curve local COVID-19 data project; since then and through all of 2021 she updated our local coronavirus info post five days per week. Lassalle began working full-time for Aspen Journalism in June, and has put out a weekly Data Dashboard since then, sharing updates on a revolving suite of metrics focused on local environmental and quality of life factors such as stream flows, traffic, precipitation, air quality and Lake Powell water levels. She has also conducted investigations into public health and environmental issues that have resulted in stand-alone news stories. 

Aspen Journalism also launched a social justice desk in 2021 that published three stories, including an investigation written by freelance journalist Hector Salas, with data analysis by Lassalle, into the racial disparity in local COVID-19 vaccine uptake rates. 

Our history desk published two stories in 2021.

We also enhanced our weekly newsletter, The Roundup, to include insights from our newsroom about the stories published. And we launched a redesigned website in February. 

By the numbers, we published: 

42 Water Desk

15 Environment Desk

3 Social Justice Desk

2 COVID-19 Desk 

235 Tracking the Curve updates

2 History Desk

3 Local Public Data Desk

29 Data Dashboard

41 Roundup editions

61 Water meetings attended

For a complete list of the stories published and meetings attended in 2021, click here

Organizational capacity

Besides our full-time staff, Aspen Journalism worked with 11 freelance journalists in 2021: Luna Anna Archey, Daniel Bayer, Allen Best, Tim Cooney, Lindsay Fendt, John Herrick, Catherine Lutz, Natalie Keltner-McNeil, Hector Salas, Sarah Tory and Dale Ulland. 

We also worked with a part-time marketing and web production contractor, Claire D’Larbre. 

While there was fluctuation in our staff size with Gardner-Smith’s departure, we estimate our annualized total staffing capacity for the year at 3.7 FTE. 

Media Reach

We continued our collaborative partnership with The Aspen Times and its sister papers across the Colorado high country owned by Swift Communications: Vail Daily, Glenwood Springs Post-Independent, Steamboat Pilot & Today, Craig Press, Sky-Hi News and Summit Daily News. Each of our water, environment, social justice and data stories ran in the Times. Most were picked up by at least one of the other mountain town papers — with some stories running in each publication. Our history desk stories ran exclusively in the Aspen Daily News.

Aspen Journalism also saw our work published by a variety of other news organizations, as we invite any and all to share our work. When our work touches on an issue relevant to a specific location, we often reach out to the editors of the local paper and offer them the story. We also posted our work to the AP StoryShare platform, where it is made available to media organizations statewide. And we worked directly with KUNC, a Greeley-based public radio station, on a story about investment water speculation. In total, 18 media outlets published our work in 2021. They were:

The Aspen Times
Vail Daily
Steamboat Pilot & Today
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Aspen Daily News
Sopris Sun
Craig Press
Rio Blanco Herald Times
Summit Daily News
Sky Hi News
Colorado Sun
Ouray County Plain Dealer
Telluride Daily Planet
Gunnison Country Times
KUNC Greely
Aspen Public Radio
KDNK Carbondale
9News

Revenue and expenses

We were supported by 230 individual donors and foundations in 2021, a record for Aspen Journalism. For a complete list, see here. Aspen Journalism also was the beneficiary of the federal Paycheck Protection Program implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic and saw a $42,000 loan forgiven in January.

In total, we had $398,734 in revenue and $405,991 in expenses in 2021.

Awards Won in 2021

Colorado Press Association, three awards, more information here.

Society of Professional Journalists, 11 awards, more information here

Aspen Journalism Staff

Curtis Wackerle, Editor and Executive Director

Heather Sacket, Managing Editor and Water Desk Editor

Laurine Lassalle, Data Desk Editor

Aspen Journalism Board of Directors 

Mark Harvey, President

Tim McFlynn, Vice President

Denise Jurgens, Treasurer

Cristal Logan

Pete McBride

Michael McVoy

Jane Pargiter

Harry Teague