How The Denver Post’s rebellion rippled across America

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How The Denver Post’s rebellion rippled across America

By now you’ve likely heard about The Denver Post’s multi-page editorial broadside at its hedge-fund owner. This week’s newsletter seeks to explain the local and national repercussions of the Denver Rebellion, where things stand now, and what might be done.

First, the background: In the immediate aftermath of the massive mid-March layoffs at the paper, which is owned by Digital First Media and controlled by the New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the institutional message from the paper itself had been mixed. While the newsroom’s union members leveled full blame for the layoffs on Alden, top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said “this problem is not a Denver Post alone problem.” She also shifted blame to “market forces,” and said about the hedge fund owners, “this suggestion that they don’t care at all about the newspapers is, I think, untrue.” Around the same time, when Digital First’s audience development director Dan Petty represented the Post on a Denver Press Club panel, he, too, steered blame away from Alden. In its initial coverage of the layoffs, the paper’s TV news partner Denver7 ignored the hedge-fund angle altogether, quoting Colacioppo as saying newspaper revenue streams just haven’t caught up with the costs of doing business.

But then things took a dramatic turn.

In a remarkably courageous move, the paper’s editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett, wrapped 10 sticks of editorial dynamite into a perspective package and rolled it right up to the door of Alden Global. The individual pieces, which called out the paper’s owner in stark terms, came online last Friday and blew up on social media and in the national press. “Unprecedented,” the News Guild called it. An “extraordinary act of defiance,” wrote HuffPo. Oliver Darcy at CNN said The Denver Post was sending out an SOS distress call. The New York Times put the story on its Sunday front page, calling the move a revolt. Of note in the Times piece: The backstory of how Plunkett, who orchestrated the package unbeknownst to DFM corporate and the paper’s top editor, almost lost his job over the move.

OK, so what did the paper actually write that got so much attention?

Highlights from the house editorial “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved“:

We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will. … [W]e’ve been quiet too long.”

The editorial accused the Post’s owner of a “cynical strategy of constantly reducing the amount and quality of its offerings, while steadily increasing its subscription rates.” It called its owners “vulture capitalist” hedge-fund managers who hide “behind a narrative that adequately staffed newsrooms and newspapers can no longer survive in the digital marketplace.” Coloradans, the editorial read, “feel the insanity of it in their bones.”

Other highlights from the package included a piece by Joanne Ostrow who wrote, “Sadly, Denver’s one remaining daily paper is being ground down and hollowed out by owners who care nothing for journalism but seek only more profits.” Former top editor Greg Moore wrote in a guest column, “government, business, media, community and civic leadership should brainstorm solutions and come up with a strategy to preserve The Post. … Solutions could include a private-public partnership for funding it, finding a buyer, creating a foundation, establishing some kind of trust, or convincing the current owners to invest in the product with, possibly, some incentives and guarantees. Withdrawing support altogether and focusing on a new product seems the least promising approach, but maybe that is what it will take.” Journalist Jenn Fields, who is taking a buyout, wrote about the kinds of stories that might go untold in a diminished newsroom. Former Denver Post marijuana editor Ricardo Baca name-checked Alden’s leader Heath Freeman four times in a guest column, and called him “little more than a vulture capitalist whose Nixonian legacy will involve the attempted murder of local American journalism.”

Then came the phone call…

As I heard it from journalists in the Adams County printing plant, which houses the newsroom after cost cuts pushed them from the office downtown, plenty weren’t aware the editorial package was coming. When it went live online, emails started zipping around @denverpost.com inboxes. Not long after, Guy Gilmore, Digital First Media’s chief operating officer, got on the horn with top editor Colacioppo. The newsroom was tense. Reporters talked amongst themselves about how they might respond if corporate canned Plunkett or if they took the stories offline or wouldn’t let them run in Sunday’s paper. Some said they’d protest with picket signs if that happened. The concerns weren’t unfounded, either. “They considered firing me and pulling sections,” Plunkett told me about corporate. “Lee Ann talked them down.”

The timing for publishing this was apt…

In recent weeks, headlines have been piling up around Alden with journalists outside Denver pointing out how the hedge fund treats its newspaper properties. For those in Denver, it’s somewhat old news. Westword and 5280 each did stories on Alden two years ago. But following the latest deep and messy cuts, national attention shifted to the ownership aspect. Traffic increased to the #NewsMatters online site of the NewsGuild union, which, through the work of journalist Julie Reynolds, was exposing how the hedge fund operates and what it does with its money while gutting newsrooms of the papers it owns. A Q-and-A I conducted with Reynolds about her work on Alden remained for a week as one of the most-read stories on Columbia Journalism Review’s website just before The Denver Post bombshell. Also in the lead-up, The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan accused Alden of “strip-mining” journalism. Bloomberg News ran a story headlined “Imagine If Gordon Gekko Bought News Empires.” Something else about the timing: The morning of April 8, The Denver Post came in for a barrage of criticism when it mistakenly published a large photo of a Philadelphia sports stadium and said it was Denver’s Coors Field.

Plenty of people on social media pointed out how sometimes copy editors are the first to go during layoffs and spun the screw-up into a conversation about newspaper ownership and how it affects copy. Needless to say, once the anti-Alden perspective package went online around 2 p.m. MT, not many were talking about the photo blunder when they were talking about The Denver Post.

What was the reaction?

It went national. Fast. The Washington Post matched The NYT’s piece with a report of its own, then its media reporter Paul Farhi followed up, writing, “the conventional analysis of newspaper decline has been replaced in Alden’s case by a narrative about ‘vulture capitalism,’ the notion that Alden’s draconian cutbacks are designed to sustain profits without regard for the newspapers’ long-term future.” NPR weighed in and so did PBS NewsHour, Forbes, and Columbia Journalism Review, among others.

A day after the package came out, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper was quoted in Rolling Stone saying, “I wish they would sell it” when asked about the paper’s hedge-fund owner. Denver writer Colin St. John published a piece in Esquire offering an inside view from The Denver Post’s newsroom during the revolt.

From Esquire:

A couple weeks ago, I visited the paper’s new offices to chat with John Wenzel, who remains on staff as a reporter. I say “new” offices because Alden moved the staff from its building in downtown Denver to its printing facility in Adams County at the beginning of the year, which—in an act of you-can’t-make-this-shit-up—is the most polluted zip code in the country. … “The anxiety level is at an all-time high. I’ve worked here for 17 years and I’ve never seen this many people get the ax at the same time,” Wenzel said. He’s thoughtful about his words but doesn’t see much value in holding back anymore. There’s no red Swingline in sight. “We have nothing to lose by rallying around this cause and trying to get a new owner. There’s a very real feeling in the newsroom that the Post could shut down in the next year or two.” … “It’s so clear to us. They’re cutting off our limbs while keeping the brains, heart and lungs alive,” he said. “And now they’re starting to shut those organs down, too. We’re fighting for survival.”

Writing in The Nation magazine, John Nichols focused on how the newspaper union’s “urgent struggle” to preserve The Denver Post was being echoed by its editorial page. Indeed, the perspective package was headlined “News Matters,” the hashtag rallying cry of the News Guild union. (Interestingly, because he is a manager, editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett isn’t in the union.)

Nichols offered some context:

There were always bad owners of newspapers, radio stations, and television stations, just as there are now bad owners of online news sites. But the hedge funds that have in recent years been buying up major daily newspapers in order to capitalize on what remains of their reputations—or the downtown real estate where big-city newspapers were once headquartered—are not just bad owners. They are, indeed, vultures who pluck at the remains not just of media outlets but of a dying democratic discourse.

A separate piece by Julie Reynolds in The Nation also turned a spotlight on the leaders of Alden Global Capital, who the magazine describes as the “Vulture Capitalists Who Savaged The Denver Post.” Colorado journalist Sandra Fish offered her take in The Daily Beast.

The response from within. How other Alden/DFM-owned newspapers responded…

In the days after the dust settled, I started looking to see whether other Digital First Media newspapers— the chain owns about 100— were covering the story or whether they were building on what The Denver Post did in their own editorial pages. As I ended up writing for a story in CJR, the response was mixed or muted. Here in Colorado, which has about a dozen DFM papers, at least two of them—The Boulder Daily Camera and The Longmont Times-Call—initially ran the same front-page Associated Press wire story about The Denver Post’s revolt. The Fort Morgan Times re-published a Mike Littwin column about it. Littwin, my colleague at The Colorado Independent, used to write for the Post. Out on the Eastern Plains, in the small town of Sterling, the Journal-Advocate had no plans to run any editorial coverage about the matter and wouldn’t run a wire story because it no longer subscribes to AP content.

I reached out to about a dozen DFM editors across the country and learned some had discussed how they might respond locally when senior editors held a regularly scheduled conference call just days after the news broke out of Denver. “Different people were taking sort of different approaches to try to report news of interest,” one editor told me for CJR about the call. “And in the uncomfortable position, to some extent, of reporting on yourself.” Some papers, like one in Saratoga Springs, New York, and another in Kingston, New York, ran an AP story within the first week. One editor I spoke with on the East Coast feared potential reprisal from corporate.

On the other hand, the editor of the Bay Area News Group in California penned a column addressing the uprising in Denver, and said his papers planned a series of public town halls to keep up a local conversation about their ownership and changes to their newspapers. The biggest response, though, came from the Southern California News Group, which includes The Orange County Register, Los Angeles Daily News, and Riverside Press-EnterpriseOn Friday, it published its own big editorial package across its local chain. Unlike The Denver Post, the series of 10 opinion pieces do not name Alden Global Capital, but they do note the severe cutbacks that have hampered their own newsrooms.

Want to know who didn’t get to see their hometown paper’s editorial page react? Readers of The Boulder Daily Camera. According to op-ed page editor Dave Krieger, the publisher of the DFM-owned paper killed an editorial he wrote about Alden Global’s role in the hollowing out of its newspapers. Krieger courageously published his piece anyway on a blog platform. This was his intro:

Editor’s note: An early draft of this editorial was submitted to the Daily Camera editorial board Friday morning, April 13, 2018, for publication on the Camera’s website Saturday, April 14, and in print Sunday, April 15. This is our usual process. Draft editorials are edited, corrected and revised during the day, but the early draft serves as the basis for approval, or not, and recommended revisions by board members. The editorial board consists of the publisher, executive editor and editorial page editor. In this case, the executive editor and editorial page editor supported publication. The publisher did not. On most matters, the editorial board operates democratically, but in this instance, the subject being the business itself, the publisher exercised his veto and killed the editorial. I elected to publish it on a different platform for the reasons stated in the editorial: This is a story about an important, longstanding Boulder institution. As journalists working in that community, we have an obligation to our readers to tell it.

You can read The Editorial They Did Not Want You To Read in full here. Krieger told me Tuesday evening he hadn’t yet heard from DFM corporate about it.

So, who is going to save The Denver Post?

We don’t know if this is even possible. But, since last Friday, conversations have been swirling in Colorado— and one group has already anted up an initial $10 million. That group includes Colorado Springs hotel owner Perry Sanders and tech entrepreneur John Street. Helping broker the effort is John Weiss who owns The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly and Colorado Springs Business Journal, among other local papers.

One interesting aspect of this is the group is based in Colorado Springs, not Denver, and it’s being led through a “moderate to progressive” group called Together for Colorado Springs, which Weiss operates. Is this a preemptive strike to counteract a purchase effort from conservative billionaire Phil Anschutz? Also, Sanders, an environmental lawyer, owns hotels in the Springs (including the one where Trump got stuck in the elevator) and he has said he wants to build a 100-story skyscraper in the Springs. Weiss has long criticized The Gazette for sometimes failing to disclose it is owned by Anschutz, most recently in its coverage of The Broadmoor hotel. Does Colorado need another wealthy hotel owner with big business and local development interests owning a newspaper?

Weiss says all this is pretty new and they are just getting discussions started. They didn’t want to sit back and potentially let Anschutz be a lone bidder, he says, adding he doesn’t think it’s healthy if Anschutz owns all the big newspapers in Colorado. The Weiss/Sanders/Street effort is likely one of a few that just got the loudest early attention.

The Denver Post itself reported Gov. John Hickenlooper said he has discussed the paper’s future with potential investors. “I’ve had a dozen, probably closer to two dozen, discussions with various people,” he told the Post. “The last thing that most people would want is the government to be involved in the ownership of a free media. … I don’t think it’s inappropriate if I could get the right people together, if there was some opportunity. Mostly what I am is, I think, a sounding board to put people together. But I’m not active in any way trying to decide what is the solution.” The Post’s piece is pretty detailed about some ideas floating around.

Everything old is new again…

In the 1960s through 1970s, The Denver Post’s local publisher, Helen G. Bonfils, battled an attempted takeover from a newspaper mogul in New York who wanted to control it. She won, and as Vince Bzdek, editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, reminded readers this week, here is language from a court ruling in that case: “A corporation publishing a newspaper such as The Denver Post certainly has other obligations besides the making of a profit. It has an obligation to the public, that is, the thousands of people who buy the paper, read it, and rely upon its contents. Such a newspaper is endowed with an important public interest. A corporation publishing a great newspaper such as The Denver Post is, in effect, a quasi-public institution.”

Watch (or listen to) our public panel on newspaper ownership

News about a group ponying up $10 million to get conversations started about the future of Colorado’s flagship newspaper broke on the same day a panel convened to discuss newspaper ownership in Colorado.

At the kick-off of the Colorado Press Association’s annual conference in the Springs, panelists included Rocky Mountain PBS’s Laura Frank, The Colorado Independent’sSusan Greene, The Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger, and John Weiss. I moderated.

Watch a video of the event here, or listen to the podcast version here.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call ran a one-year anniversary piece about the Firestone oil-and-gas home explosion. The Loveland Reporter-Herald fronted a story about the city revisiting its open records practicesThe Steamboat Pilot covered why “mud season” is so greatThe Greeley Tribune reported on a growth spurt at local high schoolsThe Pueblo Chieftain spotlighted a local shoes-for-kids programThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported how marijuana is (or isn’t) funding schoolsThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel had a bizarre tale of a modern-day livestock rustlerVail Daily ran a story about how technology could detect rockslidesThe Boulder Daily Camera reported on local student housing issuesThe Denver Post carried coverage from the Democratic and Republican state assembliesThe Durango Herald covered how one Colorado county is a national example for renewable energy.

Dept. of Two’s a Trend: On high school newsrooms in Colorado

In a matter of days, two different TV news stations in Denver ran broadcasts about two different high school student newsrooms. On April 7, Denver ABC affiliate Channel 7 carried a piece about students at Elizabeth High School transforming a theater club into a broadcast newsroom. “Every other Tuesday it’s ‘lights, camera, action’ for the class of EZTV,” the station reported. “Their mini newscasts show during class periods and also stream on the school website.”

Meanwhile, on April 9, KUSA 9News, Denver’s NBC affiliate, ran a broadcast about the student newspaper at Denver’s George Washington High School, one of six public high schools in the city with a newspaper. “They work on business skills,” advisor and teacher Daniel Singer told the station. “It’s an actual business where they raise all the money and work towards a common goal of printing.” This high school newspaper, though, sounds like a non-high-school newspaper. “We were supposed to have two issues,” said one student, “but we only have enough money for one, so we decided to do this issue solely on the internet.”

Colorado Public Radio got its first new prez in 40 years

Stewart Vanderwilt will take over from outgoing CPR president Max Wycisk who leaves in June after four decades at the helm. “Vanderwilt is currently the general manager of KUT and KUTX, two public radio stations in Austin, Texas,” CPR reports.

Here’s what Vanderwilt had to say to the public radio station about local news:

“The strength of public media really is its local ownership and commitment, and public media takes a long view on the delivery of its mission, and so I feel CPR is well-positioned to be a long-term partner with the community in providing important news and journalism, not only for Denver but across the state. We had a researcher who appeared on our show here – Texas Standard – the other day, who noted a correlation between effective disease research and the presence of local media in communities across Africa, and I think there’s a point there to be made that – and the point that I heard about The Denver Post: the local media provides more than civic and cultural engagement, but it really is, in many cases, a bellwether of the health of the community, and so I think CPR will definitely continue to do what it’s doing, but I think there’s even more urgency to expand its role.”

Learn more about him here.

Event: 2018 Denver Watchdog Workshop 

You might have heard about Investigative Reporters and Editors (say its acronym out loud: IRE), the national nonprofit dedicated to improving investigative reporting, which has been around since 1975. The group is having an event on Saturday, May 5 from 9 a.m. to 12:30 at the KUSA 9News building at 500 Speer Blvd. in downtown Denver.

From the event:

IRE will offer several of its core sessions, designed to improve your ability to find information on the Web quickly, and point you to key documents and data that will help you add depth to your daily work and produce quick-hit enterprise stories. In addition, this workshop will give you tips on bulletproofing stories, digging deeper on the Web with social media, search engines and much more. These sessions are designed for reporters, editors, and producers from small, midsize and large publications, TV, radio stations, Web-only news sites and news blogs. Freelancers, students and journalism educators are also encouraged to attend.

Click here for more.

#ChieftainWatch

Still no official word yet. In early March management said we should know around the beginning of April who bought The Pueblo Chieftain. That’s the newspaper in southern Colorado that had been in family hands for 150 years. Now it’s mid-April and journalists still don’t know who their new owner will be.

Oh yeah, and Gov. John Hickenlooper proclaimed April 16- 22 ‘Colorado Journalism Week’

Seriously. He did that. For real.

 

*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.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misspelled a first name. 

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.

2 Comments

  1. Norm Olsen on said:

    Should the Post ever retreat from its hard left slant, it might survive. While the leftist bias might play well in Denver proper, Denver proper is not large enough to support a major daily newspaper, print edition. Broadening its outlook is likely to increase readership om the more conservative suburbs. Right now, in the “burbs” you can’t give the paper away as demonstrated by the occasional Post employee giving out free papers at the supermarket.

  2. john in denver on said:

    What is the content of the paper you consider to be a “hard left slant”??

    As best I can tell, the Post
    * hasn’t had fawning news stories of socialist nations.
    * does not cover favorably cover leftist political organizations (or critically cover alt-right political organizations).
    * the little business news I read on the DP site is pretty much summed up as modified press releases from capitalist corporations.
    * the comics are not particularly skewed.
    * Republican John Elway and Republicans who own sports teams don’t get called out for their politics on the sports pages.
    * the editorial pages print a range of opinion. National content is fairly middle of the road, with neither hard right or left pushed. Local editorials vary, but include commendation and criticism of parties, candidates and elected officials.

    So what do you read that is so very different than what I read?

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