MEDIA: Bloodbath at The Denver Post— what can be done?

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

MEDIA: Bloodbath at The Denver Post— what can be done?

On WednesdayDenver Post journalists learned the budget ax would fall hard on their newsroom cutting deeper than previous layoffs and splintering roughly a third of their ranks.

The news, tweeted out by reporters during an all-hands-on-deck meeting led by top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, reached near media saturation in Denver given the scale of the bloodletting at Colorado’s flagship paper. All job categories will be affected, said senior news editor Dana Coffield, meaning editors, reporters, copy editors, designers, photographers, and more. Speaking to The Washington Post, politics reporter wunderkind Jesse Paul described “sobs,” “gasps,” and “expletives” upon learning the news. The cuts slash 25 union employees and five non-union employees, said newsroom union leader and reporter Kieran Nicholson.

By now, Denver Post staffers are used to news about themselves and their paper’s secretive corporate hedge-fund owner Alden Global Capital, known for its bloodthirsty cash-harvesting and its control of Post parent company Digital First Media. Two years ago, journalists rallied outside their own building in protest of this havoc-wreaking overlord. One week in 2016, both Denver’s alt-weekly Westword and the city’s lifestyle magazine 5280 were running cover stories about Alden and the effects of its staff reductions. It was only four months ago when the latest layoffs— about a dozen— lashed the broadsheet with four of them coming from the newsroom. Cuts have already sliced deeply into the paper, which Colacioppo acknowledged in a memo to staff released Wednesday.

It gets messier.

About two months ago, The Denver Post’s local management decided to put up a digital paywall for the first time since it dropped its pay-to-read strategy five years ago. The paper’s journalists made an impassioned plea for readers to subscribe and pay between about $7 and $12 a month for access. Editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett pointed out how the move came as employees were leaving the white-and-green curved building by the Statehouse for a printing plant in Adams County to cut costs. Reporters at the Post, he wrote, were “so over working for free.” But even then, some readers were conflicted about knowing where their money would go. “I’ve had multiple people tell me, ‘I don’t want to buy The Denver Post because I don’t want that hedgefund to get any of my money,’” one reporter said. “I understand wanting to punish them,” she said of the paper’s owner, “but you’re hurting me. They’re not going to hurt. I am.”

When I asked Colacioppo about that for Jan. 19 story in Columbia Journalism Review, she said there wasn’t anything in writing from corporate saying revenue generated by the new paywall would stave off future newsroom cuts, though she said she was hopeful they would. “The best I can say is: If we meet our subscription goals, we would expect it would stabilize our business and would allow us to stop the bleeding,” she said. “That’s the entire intent, that’s what we’re doing it for.” She declined to specify the Post’s subscription goals, but said she believes they are “absolutely achievable.”

Two months after the big paywall push, she announced these latest layoffs, which represent the most devastating blow to the newsroom in recent years and  left one new subscriber feeling “like a sucker.” Shock registered across the public radio airwaves and on the nightly broadcast network news in Denver— and beyond. “Is this strip-mining or journalism,” asked Margaret Sullivan in The Washington Post. There are clashing views on the topic of reader support in this atmosphere: Some say subscribing helps; others see it as rewarding bad behavior.

Ire at the situation quickly turned to Alden Global Capital and Digital First Media, which have been hacking away at their other properties across the country.

So … can anything be done?

In the days following The Wednesday Massacre, talk has turned to how The Denver Post might be saved. The Denver Newspaper Guild, for one, is calling on Alden Global and Digital First to sell the newspaper to a local owner who will respect it.

Denver Post contributor Thomas Ryan Murphy wrote a letter to the governor describing Colorado as being in a “state of emergency” and imploring his help to do … something. Another local writer suggested state government actually seize The Denver Post under a public use argument in eminent domain law. Colorado Independentcolumnist Mike Littwin outlined some other ideas.

From his piece:

The governor needs to call on Alden/Digital First to sell the Post. Now. This is his job. He’s the leader of the state. The leading news site in his state is under what could well be a fatal attack. 2. Those people running for governor need to say the same. And say it a lot. Jared Polis, who once got himself in trouble for a nasty piece of glib talk when the Rocky folded, could redeem himself here. And enough of the “enemy of the people” talk from Trumpists. The enemies of the Colorado people are those who own the Post. 3. [Phil] Anschutz, who doesn’t talk publicly, should send out a representative to talk about the situation publicly. He could make this a real cause. He won’t. It’s not how he does business. And I’m too old to ever learn that newspapers are just another business. 4. The Post employees could strike. I know. It could cost them their jobs. It would be a brave and bold thing to do and probably a desperate and foolish one, too. But if I were still there, I’d argue that it may be the only way to save the few jobs that are left. 5. Readers could boycott. I’m not particularly a boycott fan. The last boycott I participated in was the United Farm Workers boycott of lettuce in the early ’70s. If memory serves, that boycott actually worked, but let me admit it wasn’t exactly a personal hardship. But here’s the proposition: If you care about the Post, you tell the people taking your call that you’ll subscribe or re-subscribe as soon as the paper is sold.

In the meantime, keep an eye on this lawsuit against Alden for more information that could potentially come to light.

Hey, not depressed enough already?

Longtime newsstands across Colorado are closing. Gone goes the Narrow Gauge Newsstand in Alamosa after 40 years serving the San Luis Valley.

From The Alamosa News:

According to manager Christie Lindsay, the store is closing because their magazine distributor is going in a different business direction. Owners John and Mary Anne Duffy, who live in Steamboat Springs, could not be reached for comment. Lindsay said that the pair had 13 stores throughout the state and Al’s Newsstand in Fort Collins will be their last once Narrow Gauge Newsstand closes.”We used to be open from 8 o’clock in the morning to 8 o’clock at night with two people on shift throughout that whole time period and just be busy,” said Lindsay. “Now, we’ll sit in here for hours and maybe one person will come in in three hours.”

In Greeley, Woody’s Newsstand, which has been open for 80 years, is also closing its doors.

From The Greeley Tribune:

Business owner Mike Flori said it was a difficult decision, one he made after seeing the store’s 2017 profits. A years-long decline in sales of print media products proved insurmountable. “It’s a sad thing that’s happening with bookstores across the country,” Flori said.

Woody’s was the only bookstore in town.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call localized a planned national school walkout eventThe Greeley Tribune examined having kids in sports year-roundThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel localized Trump’s steel/aluminum tariffs, showing negative effects on energy productionThe Pueblo Chieftain reported a gun-control group’s chapters doubled in Colorado after the Parkland school shootingThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered rising suicide rates in Larimer CountyThe Denver Post reported on fraud and sex crimes in a sober living home empireSummit Daily checked in with candidates for governor about how they would handle the state’s infrastructure woesThe Gazette reported on a crisis in mental health careThe Boulder Daily Camera looked at the area’s evolving open space systemThe Durango Herald reported on rural residents who burn coal to heat their homesThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins fronted a story about the local luxury apartment market.

The Air Force shut down its PR worldwide following a story in The Gazette

“The Air Force has decided it needs to be much more secretive since a Gazette story last month on the National Space Defense Center in Colorado Springs triggered a public relations ‘stand down,'” the paper reported this week. “In an email, the Pentagon confirmed the existence of a memo that bans most Air Force public relations worldwide until airmen are trained on operational security.” (here’s a copy of that memo.)

More from The Gazette

A PowerPoint presentation sent out after the memo cited The Gazette’s story as one that “inadvertently identified a national center of gravity to adversaries.” Yet the military has publicly acknowledged for three years the existence of the space defense center at Schriever Air Force Base and its relationship with spy agencies, including the National Reconnaissance Office. Top Pentagon officials have cited the center as being at the heart of American efforts to defend military satellites. It remains unclear why The Gazette story contributed to the stand down. The story, one of three cited as a reason to cease media outreach, was driven by an Air Force news release that highlighted how the space defense center was entering a new phase with 24-hour operations.

Someone’s sensitive.

E-mails at the Capitol: Don’t speak to the press

Public radio reporter Bente Birkeland of the Rocky Mountain Community Radio coalition doesn’t just break stories, “she sticks up for other reporters trying to follow up on her stellar work,” said Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio this week. Brasch was referencing Birkeland’s latest story from the sexual harassment beat at the Capitol. Her story focuses on an effort in the state Senate to muzzle employees from speaking to the press.

From Birkeland’s reporting:

At issue are two emails obtained from Senate sources that say it is a violation of the chamber’s policies for workers to grant interviews to reporters. A third email, sent directly to us by the top Senate administrator, asked us to tell members of other news organizations not to approach aides and interns for interviews, but rather to speak with communications secretaries. We didn’t act on that request because it’s not our role to direct the reporting of other news organizations. The emails have raised the issue freedom of speech for some at the Capitol at a time when people are speaking out against sexual harassment in hopes of improving workplace culture.

The station reported one email from a top Senate staffer went out to 103 aides and interns, saying, “I know the press has been requesting interviews from aides and possibly other staff” and pointed to an employee handbook that says, “Except for the media staff and those employees designated by the President or the Minority Leader to represent the Senate to the media, no Senate employee, including aides, interns and volunteers may grant interviews to the press.”

Colorado First Amendment attorney Steve Zansberg told the station that courts have upheld governmental restrictions on the speech of certain public employees like, say, employees in the judicial branch being barred from publicly speaking about matters before the courts. But, “To be making up a set of rules about when they do have First Amendment rights is itself a constitutional problem,” he said. “There has to be clear limits that a reasonable person can understand, a line that can’t be crossed.”

Hickenlooper running for president behind the scenes?

This week, Denver Post reporters John Frank and Mark K. Matthews reported previously undisclosed meetings and an upcoming trip to Iowa for a story that said Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper’s “actions in recent months signal to his closest associates and top party strategists that the former Denver mayor and two-term governor is more serious than ever about mounting a White House bid against President Donald Trump.”

The story, which drew from records requests and “more than a dozen interviews with Democratic insiders and Hickenlooper allies,” describes a governor meeting with top national political players including Democratic super lawyer and D.C. fixture Vernon Jordan, who, the Post reported, “offered advice on what steps Hickenlooper should take next, including suggestions on whom else to talk to.”

ColoradoPolitics, however, took the governor’s word for it that he’s not running for president behind the scenes— as if a governor at this stage might actually say otherwise. I tend to recall this one poo-pooing that whole vice presidential possibility, too— right up until he met with Hillary Clinton in person about it.

Speaking of … are you interested in who might replace him?

The Colorado Independent rolled out a soft-launch of a new page at our nonprofit digital newsroom’s website completely dedicated to the 2018 race for governor. There you’ll find thumbnail profiles of all the major canddiates— and minor ones— along with detailed campaign finance info, original reporting, voter resources, and answers the candidates gave to our questionnaire. We hope you’ll consider it your dashboard for this important election through November.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Allen Tian

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

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