Colorado is a battlefield in the new newspaper wars. As the body count rises, what can we do?

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Colorado is a battlefield in the new newspaper wars. As the body count rises, what can we do?

On Tuesday, three stories that led the home page of Columbia Journalism Review were about Colorado, a state that has become a battlefield in the new newspaper wars— where journalists fight their hedge-fund owners.

Following the firing and last week’s media “blitzkrieger” of ex-Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger, who says his publisher censored his work, Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett suddenly resigned, himself citing censorship. More resignations followed at the newspaper that has suffered deep cuts at the hands of Digital First Media and its controlling hedge-fund owner Alden Global Capital. They included senior day-to-day editors Dana Coffield, Larry Ryckman and digital director Becky Risch. Speaking to Poynter, Ryckman said he had “more freedom as a journalist in Russia than I did under Alden” and would rather “mow lawns for a living.” Former Denver Post owner and chairman Dean Singleton, an American newspaper icon who himself was known as “Lean Dean” for his cost-cutting, also dropped the mic. “They’ve got the keys to the car and they can drive it any way they want to,” he told Westword about DFM and why he was stepping down. “But they’re not driving it in a way that I want to be a passenger of the car.” His most salient line, however, was this: “I see very little hope that Alden will sell the Denver Post.”

Salient because…

That’s what 55 journalists of The Denver Post called on their owner to do this week in a public letter in which they said they were “outraged at the unconscionable censorship” of Plunkett. That’s in reference to Chuck Plunkett, the architect of the Denver Rebellion, who published a 10-piece editorial package on April 6 calling out the paper’s owners and urging them to sell the paper. The reason Plunkett quit is that he says higher-ups at paper and company rejected a new editorial (read it here) that he wanted to run, which referenced Krieger’s firing and said management “not only didn’t get the message, it is trying to silence the messengers.” In response, on TuesdayDenver Post journalists protested outside their printing-plant-slash-newsroom in Adams County, and a few even flew to New York City to do the same at the offices of Alden Global. “What do we want? New owners,” they chanted at the printing plant. “When do we want it? Now!” (This was my first visit to the new newsroom offices of The Denver Post since they relocated out of their towering downtown headquarters to save money. It’s nothing like the old one.)

Meanwhile, in New York…

Those Denver Post reporters made the rounds in Big Apple media. In one of the hits, on a broadcast of Democracy Now!, reporter Noelle Phillips gave an example of how impacts of the paper’s decline play out in practice on her own beat. She said a local district attorney’s office advised someone to keep secret a document the reporter felt should be public and even indicated that the paper wouldn’t have the money to sue, so “just hold it, sit on it, they won’t fight it, they can’t afford it.” Responding, Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo responded:

More required reading…

Writing in Splinter, David Uberti says The Denver Post is being “murdered by its vulture capitalist owners” and blames it on “late capitalism.” Writing in Rolling Stone, Chuck Plunkett explains the final days leading up to his resignation. Friend-of-this-newsletter Carol McKinley writes in The Daily Beast how The Denver Post is in “full-on rebellion.” Robert Sanchez at 5280 describes “panic” at the Post. Joe St. George of KDVR interviewed Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez about what she hoped to get out of protesting in New York. Kathy Best, editor of the Lee Enterprises-owned Missoulian daily newspaper in Montana, offered this advice to Denver Post journalists: “the whole newsroom resigns at once. You form Denverpostpost.com with paywall and crowd funding until you get enough investors to create and distribute a Sunday printed paper. Then build from there.” (If only it were that easy, right?). This document is swirling around about the possibility of an employee-owned Denver Post, but it might just be a business proposal.

Some context on Singleton…

Read Krieger’s vision for local ownership of The Boulder Daily Camera

Something that came out of fired BDC editorial page editor Dave Krieger’s live interview at The Denver Press Club last week was that as early as last fall he said he circulated a six-page document among the business community that laid out his vision for local ownership of the paper.

Krieger shared that proposal with me, which I published in CJR. As I wrote, “Krieger’s motivation stemmed in part from a concern that even plugged-in members of the community didn’t seem to understand the problems facing the Camera.” Read the whole document here, and the reporting and analysis on it at CJR here. By the way, the paper’s city editor said a caller recently phoned into the paper to say this:

A house call from Ken Doctor: Diagnosis f#!ked

As Colorado became the epicenter of the media world, the national newspaper analyst and DFM corporate whisperer Ken Doctor was back for another check-up. And the diagnosis isn’t good.

Writing for Niemanlab, the good Doctor gives it to us straight:

In a stunningly quick series of events, the Post has continued to shed staff — not by firing or layoff, but by what might best be described as resigned resignation. At the same time, I’ve learned, a fresh round of budget cuts in the range of 10 to 15 percent is being planned for the paper, along with other Digital First Media properties.

That’s big news. Is another round of layoffs coming?

Is there a DFM screening directive/demand or not? 

In Doctor’s NiemanLab piece he also writes this, referencing Digital First Media’s chief operating officer:

It was Guy Gilmore’s gag order that pushed first Plunkett and then Singleton to take their decisive steps. “Do NOT post to the web or publish in print any story touching on Digital First Media / Alden Global Capital without my prior approval,” one DFM editor had written in a memo summing up the new DFM directive in late April. “In the event you are presented with any story that appears to focus or touch upon the struggles of journalism, you must carefully scan the story to make sure it does not involve DFM / Alden Global Capital. This directive comes from above.” It’s a directive that now applies across all of Digital First Media’s 63 dailies and its weeklies as well. “They put us in a position where everything had to be cleared in New York,” Singleton confirmed.

To which I say: This is in dispute.

I talked to the “DFM editor” in question here, Tony Adamis at The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York. He confirms he wrote the memo, but he told me he was only referring to his own publisher when he used the words “comes from above.” In Boulder, ex-op-ed page editor Dave Krieger said, “I don’t know for a fact that it was not the individual inspiration of an individual publisher to censor content in New York, but I suspect very strongly that it was not. I suspect very strongly that those publishers, like ours, were under instructions to do that.”

I asked Guy Gilmore directly, “Has Digital First Media demanded at any of its papers that any mention of the company or of Alden be screened by top editors before publication?” His answer: “No such demand has been made by Digital First Media.”

Something else to think about: The Boulder Daily Camera has started running letters to the editor about Krieger’s firing and the paper’s ownership issues. Five of them appeared in the May 6 edition. Two years ago, when Denver Post employees protested their ownership outside their building the newspaper did not report it. But this week, The Denver Post did, though it used reporting from its TV partner and photos from The Associated Press. Meanwhile, on May 8, the DFM-owned Saratogian ran an AP story about Plunkett’s resignation.

So what’s going on here? It would be tremendously helpful if we could hear— on the record— from any DFM top editors or publishers about what they have or have not been told, or how they are interpreting anything they have heard from the company in the past few weeks about publishable content.

Department of OOF, really?

This line from the Doctor’s order also jumped out at me:

The Post had been down to essentially two thought leaders, Plunkett and Singleton, after two other editorial page staffers moved on, one of them laid off in the recent big layoff of 30.

Ouch! Two thought leaders? Megan Schrader is on maternity leave, but damn. When I called her to ask about this she told me she is very much still a member of The Denver Post’s editorial board and an editorial writer for the paper. Oh yeah, and she also confirmed she has thoughts.

A point for the ‘market forces’ crowd?

In the debate over why The Denver Post is in such a crisis are two camps: The DFM detractors who say the hedge-fund is executing a profit-extraction strategy that guts its papers while gilding its ledger sheets. Others, like top Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo and DFM director of audience development Dan Petty, have blamed the deep cuts on the same market forces affecting other newspapers: A one-two punch of declining advertising dollars and print subscriptions. Last week, The Associated Press told a tale of two newspapers to illustrate this debate.

From that story:

Across the street from the Colorado Capitol rises an 11-story building emblazoned with The Denver Post’s logo. No reporters work out of the building any more, only executives of Digital First Media, whose cuts at the Post triggered an unusual plea from the paper’s own editorial page to be sold to another owner. Five hundred miles to the west, the Salt Lake Tribune newsroom takes up one floor of the building that bears its name, overlooking snow-capped mountains and the arena where the Utah Jazz play. Once a Digital First property that dealt with staff reductions and feared closure, the paper was sold to a prominent local family in 2016. Since then, its reporters received their first raise in a decade and won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. Though its home city is less than one-third the size of Denver, the Tribune’s newsroom staff of about 90 is larger than the Post’s roughly 60, who work out of leased offices in an industrial area northeast of the city.

The gist of the story seemed to be that if a paper gets out from under DFM with help from a local owner with a bankroll, it can thrive. The evidence was there. And yet. This week, The Salt Lake Tribune announced this: “The owner and publisher of The Salt Lake Tribune has ordered staff cuts and a review of shrinking its print edition in light of continued losses in circulation and advertising revenues.” Paul Huntsman, “who acquired Utah’s largest newspaper in 2016,” the paper reported, “relayed those impending changes and financial difficulties in a 50-minute newsroom meeting with staff Tuesday, saying specifics on layoffs, reducing print pages and other content changes would be forthcoming within a week.”

That bolsters the “market forces” side during a bad week. “It’s not just Alden, is my point,” a former alt-weekly newspaper editor in Colorado said to me Wednesday. “Warren Buffett, who owns newspapers, now says he doesn’t think they’ll survive.” (That’s a nod to recent comments by The Oracle of Omaha whose BH Media slashed 300 newspaper jobs around this time last year, in which he said, “I’ve been surprised that the rate of decline has not moderated” and “it’s difficult to see how the print product survives over time.”

The not-just-market-forces side will point to reports of higher-than-others profit margins and dubious investment deals by ownership to say the DFM papers cut far worse than those just suffering from the same economic turbulence buffeting (get it?) the rest of the industry.

So what can readers, advertisers, and others do anyway?

Come to a public town hall and panel discussion at The Denver Press Club next Tuesday, May 15 at around 6 p.m. to find out. From the event description:

News junkies in Colorado are embroiled in a fierce debate over how best to save The Denver Post from its vampiric owners – the hedge funders at Alden Global Capital.

Subscribe to The Post to support local news? Cancel your subscription to deny the owners greater profits? Advertise or don’t advertise? What is it going to take? The Colorado Independent, The Colorado Media Alliance, and The Denver Press Club are bringing that debate to the club at 1330 Glenarm at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, May 15.

The Indy’s Mike Littwin will be the moderator. Panelists include journalism heroes Chuck Plunkett and Dave Krieger, and 9NEWS (KUSA)’s Kyle Clark, Denver Westword’s Patty Calhoun, former Post managing editor Linda Shapley and Post reporter Danika Worthington. Denver Post journos – both current and former – will be there, as well as Denver Mayor Michael Hancock and other politicos who are decrying what’s happening to The Post.

But the critical voices will come from you, the audience, because the only people who might force Alden to sell The Post are readers, advertisers, willing billionaires and, mostly, the talented people still at The Post who keep fighting the good fight. The panel is free. Bring your ideas. Bring your voices. And if your throat needs soothing, drinks are available for purchase at the Press Club bar. Social hour starts at 5:30.

I’ll be there, so come say hi.

What you missed on Sunday’s front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune reported on lawsuits, loopholes, and unpredictability in local land use. The Longmont Times-Call reported how state testing requirements for meth are laxThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how a local library is shortening shelves in the children’s sectionThe Steamboat Pilot published the second installment of gems from its darkroomThe Pueblo Chieftain covered the commencement ceremony of a local universityVail Daily reported how the local real estate market is activeThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported an inflated count helps explain a drop in visits to monumentsThe Boulder Daily Camera reported how the city will slow hiring to save moneyThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on state lawmakers passing a red-flag gun billThe Durango Herald reported how dark money affects a local electionThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had a takeout on how local youth sports leagues keep kids safe from predatorsThe Denver Post reported how Colorado companies are working to help clean up trash in space.

RIP Randy Bangert

The Greeley Tribune is mourning the loss of its editor who died at 63 from pancreatic cancer. “The Wednesday news was not unexpected. When he was diagnosed late last year with what is among the most insidious and sneaky of cancers, it was far along,” The Tribune reported. “He was named The Tribune’s editor emeritus in March. When he was inducted into the Colorado Press Association’s Hall of Fame in April, the sadly inevitable outcome was apparent.”

When the columnist gets jury duty

In March, Colorado Springs Independent columnist and UCCS communications instructor Laura Eurich was called for jury duty. From her latest column in the Springs alt-weekly:

I figured I would be released immediately, as I’m part of the media, and wrote as much on my questionnaire. Perhaps even more surprising than landing in this jury pool: It took six weeks before I was released. I was never scheduled to come in for questioning by the defense and prosecution, but I wasn’t released or able to talk about or read about the case.

Turns out this was for a death penalty case, and Eurich was part of the largest jury pool ever assembled in El Paso County. The jurors, including Eurich, “had to fill out an 18-page questionnaire about the case, our media habits and our feelings about the death penalty.”

More from her column:

The judge directed us not to talk to the media about the case or about anything at all. I AM the media. I teach media. I write this column. And my professional and personal connections are littered with media professionals. Not talking about anything with the media would leave me sequestered, even though the jurors for this case will not be.

She thinks it’s a longshot she’ll be selected. Probably even more so now.

#ChieftainWatch: SOLD. GateHouse gets the bid

The Pueblo Chieftain, the regional newspaper in southern Colorado that was family-owned for 150 years, has been sold to GateHouse Media, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which NPR this week called a “New York-based hedge fund.”

From The Chieftain itself:

Jane Rawlings, president of the Star-Journal Publishing Corp. and publisher of The Pueblo Chieftain, said she and her board of directors spent months studying prospective buyers to find the right owner for the 150-year-old Chieftain — the oldest daily newspaper in Colorado and an institution that has played a key role in supporting and leading the community throughout the years. …

Jason Taylor, president of Western U.S. Publishing Operations for GateHouse Media, was in Pueblo on Tuesday for the official announcement, meeting with Chieftain executives and other staff members. Other GateHouse executives in attendance were: Jay Fogarty, Vice President of Strategy and Involvement; Jesse Shockley, Regional Vice President GateHouse; Michelle Smith, Vice President of Strategy GateHouse West; and Joy Osborne, Regional Human Resources Director GateHouse. …

The Chieftain roots go back to June 1, 1868, when Dr. Michael Beshoar established a weekly newspaper, The Colorado Chieftain. A businessman hired by the Star-Journal by the name of Frank Hoag would change the newspaper — and Pueblo — forever. By 1918, Hoag had worked his way up in the newspaper ranks and purchased the paper. The Star-Journal Publishing Corp. was born. Eventually, Hoag bought The Colorado Chieftain, and it became The Pueblo Chieftain.

The Chieftain website also published a video about the sale, which captures an announcement in the newsroom. This week, NPR aired a national segment about the GateHouse business model, which has been criticized for its cost-cutting when it buys local papers. The news at least ends two months of uncertainty for workers at The Chieftain who knew their paper was being sold but didn’t know who their new owner would be— Adams Publishing or GateHouse. Now they know. And someone owes me a box of donuts. You know who you are.

*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 Corey Hutchins

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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.

3 Comments

  1. Harry on said:

    Corey, thanks for your invaluable in-depth reporting.

    The question of whether Vulture Capitalists or Market Forces are the leading cause of traditional newspapers’ decline is highly salient.

    It seems to me that it is both. Traditional newspaper owners, after multiple failed attempts, appear to be giving up on reinvigorating the buggy whip industry, thus abandoning the dying papers to the Vulture Capitalists to feast on the remains.

    I don’t personally have any knowledge of the business model for newspapers, but printing and distribution costs of the traditional newsprint version would seem to be a major expense, but one not easily reduced. Reporters, as we have seen, are.

    I suspect there is a significant generational divide over print vs. electronic editions of the news. I believe demographics is a significant contributor to the overall decline in circulation. But as long as there is a market, then there is value (and hopefully profit) in providing a quality hardcopy product, through highly distributed printing (Kinkos?) and delivery (Amazon/Uber?).

    But the rest of us will likely prefer e-Reader versions, or the web, or podcasts. (That’s how I receive both the Denver Post and the New York Times)

    The real issue is one of providing news imbued with trust, integrity, depth and overall gravitas. That is what newspapers have traditionally represented through their “You can read it right here in black and white” history, and not as easily earned by such ephemeral media as the internet.

    Has the shortened attention span of our citizens doomed all but the most facile of news sources?

    Having said all that, I’ll just leave you with two thoughts:

    1. Given Alden’s apparent unwillingness to sell the Denver Post, driving down its revenues and/or a mass exodus of reporters would seem the surest way to change their minds, or place the final nail in the Post’s coffin.

    2. But without a solid 5 year business plan to rebuild the Post (or start a new paper) with assured funding for acquisition and operating costs, we’d just be doing Phil Anschutz’s job for him, paving the way for him to startup a new Rocky Mountain News, for good or ill.

  2. Shannon Barbare on said:

    RE: What can readers do — go to this public town hall. Nope. No room left. They need to change the venue or risk alienating the public, whom they critically need. It’s in-crowd behavior and doesn’t bode well.

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