How a legal notices bid created a newspaper war in Custer County.

Awarding the publishing contract to the Sangre de Cristo Sentinel has caused some upset in Custer County.

Up until this year, the county has always awarded the statutory legal contract, or legal notices, to the Wet Mountain Tribune. However, this year, the Sentinel underbid the historic newspaper for the first time.

“The county had requested bids for legals in late 2014,” said Tribune owner/publisher Jim Little, who has been in the business for about 40 years. “Statutory legals are required by the state legislature, (which) established the rates (between) 30 and 40 years ago. We’ve been working on that same rate structure for the last 30 plus years. The rate we submitted is the same rate we’ve been submitting for decades.”

He said it is not fair to the Tribune because the Sentinel is not a sustainable business model because it runs about 12 percent advertising while the industry’s standard for community newspapers is about 40 percent.

“They’re funded by private families,” Little said. “That’s their main source of funding. They’re losing money every week. I know what printing costs are and so they certainly had the ability to underbid us because they don’t rely on advertising revenue to sustain the work they’re doing.”

However one of the Sentinel owners, George Gramlich, said that Little had been charging the legal maximum rate forever.

“Look up the definition of a newspaper. We not only qualify, we are overqualified to be a newspaper. Remember the Colorado Press Association. We have full legal requirements to be a paper of record in Colorado.” – George Gramlich, partial owner of the Sentinel

“I did a small sampling around Colorado when I was working up our bid ,” Gramlich said. “I couldn’t find anybody who was charging their county the maximum legal rate. The legal rate is 44 cents per line. I did (additional) sampling with people who have owned other newspapers. The average (they charge) is 16 to 26 cents a line. That’s substantially less than the maximum rate. That’s just an example of how Little (was) taking advantage of his monopolistic existence (when he) overcharged the county. I figured out a bid of 16 cents a line. Being in the newspaper business for a year and a half, we’re still making money at 16 cents a line. Forty-four cents is outrageous.”

Little said the Sentinel owners had lied when they put out its bid.

“When the bids were granted to them, they claimed in the newsletter (Sentinel) they are going to be saving the county $20,000 a year,” Little said. “Our total billing to the county last year was less than $15,000. (They will save) less than $2,000, assuming their level of publication is the same as last year. It probably won’t be the case. This isn’t an election year so there won’t be the legals regarding the election cycle and that sort of stuff.”

However, Gramlich said the Sentinel would save Custer County two-thirds of the $15,000.

“The commissioners made a sound economic decision to save the county probably $10,000 to $12,000 in one year alone,” he said. “We’re saving the county about $10,000.”

Of the public’s concern, Little said the Sentinel is simply not a legitimate newspaper.

“It’s a Tea Party newsletter,” Little said. “It does do a little bit of school news coverage. It does (some) press releases, but more than half of it reprints very extreme right wing blogs. (They had) a blog a few weeks ago calling for the extermination of Islam. It’s just very much filled with hate, fear and anger. It’s very extremist. We’ve published letters to the editor at the Tribune from some very conservative Republicans saying the same thing that the Sentinel is totally over the edge.”

Gramlich insisted the newspaper is not a tea party newsletter.

“Look up the definition of a newspaper,” he said. “We not only qualify, we are overqualified to be a newspaper. Remember the Colorado Press Association. We have full legal requirements to be a paper of record in Colorado.”

In addition, the Tribune’s circulation number exceeds the Sentinel’s by about four times, Little said.

“They’ve claimed a level of circulation, which I know for a fact is incorrect,” he said. “Several people have stated they had received the publication for free. They don’t want to receive it. They’ve attempted to stop the distribution, but they still keep getting it. To  qualify for second rate bulk mailing lists, you’re supposed to be paid and requested.”

Gramlich said this is not true.

“We’ve gone from zero to (more than) 1,200 readers in a little (more than) 18 months,” he said. “We had a big sign up at the beginning,” he said. “We sent out a renewal card. We decided for people who didn’t renew right away to continue sending the paper for six to eight weeks. Then we stopped doing it. We were giving them a grace period.”

Little noted there is no way he can underbid the Sentinel for the legals  because the Sentinel is not a sustainable business when they’re supported by private families who are bankrolling it.

On the contrary, Gramlich said Little is upset because that he has competition with a conservative newspaper in town.