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Mike Littwin

"The pump don't work 'cause the vandals took the handles."

Littwin: If we want to save The Denver Post, we need to follow Chuck Plunkett’s lead

Littwin: If we want to save The Denver Post, we need to follow Chuck Plunkett’s lead

Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett has gone hero on us again, this time quitting the job he loved because the vultures at Alden Global Capital had killed his latest column criticizing his hedge-fund bosses.

He said he had no choice. Here’s the quote making the rounds: “Our obligation is to the reader and the truth. We should not be allowing ourselves to be quiet about something our own people are doing that would be considered dangerous, bad for our communities and bad for democracy.”

He said for him to stay quiet would be “hypocritical.” And so he walked.

And so, we’ll all pat him on the back — particularly those of us in the media who know him well — and talk about how brave and bold he was (because he was) and what an inspiration he has become (because he has) and how we hope we would risk everything for principle (because we do).

We said the same when Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger was fired for self-publishing a column that the Alden bosses had killed when Krieger wrote it for the Camera editorial pages.

We cheered and we applauded. And then … what?

We are in a crisis. That’s why Plunkett and Krieger risked their jobs. It’s a crisis not just for us journalists, but for everyone in the state and the community that values journalism. Applauding Plunkett’s bravery changes nothing. Waiting around for some hero — one, preferably, who doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck — changes nothing.

So, what do those of us who value The Post do?

We follow Plunkett’s lead. I don’t know what else there is to do. We quit the paper until Alden sells. They’re making big profits from The Post now. They’re never going to sell unless they’re forced to, but they will, I promise, continue making cuts. There’s fear now that they could do away with editorial pages altogether in order to keep down the rebels. For those who still work at The Post, the survivors, they must act because there’s nothing else to be done.

Plunkett expected to be fired when he had taken his initial stand against Alden, writing a fiery editorial and putting together an entire Sunday package demanding that Alden stop eviscerating the Post. He wrote, bravely and credibly, that if the Alden people wern’t interested in journalism — and they’re not — they needed to sell The Post to somehow who was.

Of course he expected to be fired. You don’t rail against the bosses in their own newspaper and expect to get away with it. That he wasn’t fired immediately could presumably be put down to the fact that the Plunkett package — the Denver Post rebellion — had become national news and that Alden, though shameless, isn’t stupid. They were taking enough heat.

So, they didn’t fire Plunkett. They just put out the word to Digital First Media— the front firm that runs the chain of newspapers that Alden owns — that there would never again be anything like it in their papers.

And then Krieger wrote his column and was fired for it. And then newspaper guru Ken Doctor wrote that Alden’s Colorado papers were turning a 19 percent profit at the same time Alden decided to lay off a third of the Post’s newsroom, further reducing a once-prominent newspaper into a shell of itself.

Then Plunkett found that he had to write again. That’s the bargain owners make with their newsrooms — that they get to be independent. It doesn’t always work that way, but it does far more often than the public realizes. Alden has no interest in that bargain.

When I wrote before that it was time for subscribers and advertisers to boycott the Post — that the only way to hurt the hedge funders was through their profit margins — I was criticized by many for both quixotic thinking (I may be guilty of that) and faulty strategy (OK, I’m definitely not a business strategist).

On the other hand, I haven’t heard any competing strategy that would work. Waiting is not a strategy. Hoping for a billionaire to rescue the paper is not a strategy. The only way I can think of to save the Post is to follow Plunkett’s example and make a stand.

We’ve seen the decline of newspapers over these past years, the loss of so many jobs, but newspapers can and do still work. News still matters. Local newspapers can still turn a profit — and generally do. We need to convince a potential owner to step up as the next hero. But Alden won’t sell unless it is forced to sell, not when it’s making 19 percent profit.

I am hoping that Denver Post employees, beleaguered as they are, take a stand against Alden. Walkouts, byline strikes, publicly speaking out, calling for a boycott of their own newspaper, whatever. I understand the risks of losing your job in this market — I’ve been there — but I can’t think of any other way to rally the community, to rally political leaders who can speak directly to Alden, to move readers and advertisers to demand better, to stop the Alden vultures from picking at The Denver Post’s bones, to resolve the crisis that is facing us.

It is a crisis — one that Plunkett’s resignation forces us, again, to confront.  Imagine Denver without a newspaper and what that would mean. Sadly, it’s not very hard. Tragically, we’re nearly there now.

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About the Author

Mike Littwin

He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
mlittwin@coloradoindependent.com | Twitter @mike_littwin

13 Comments

  1. phil on said:

    As a (long time ago) former employee of the RMN and now a subscriber to the Post, I too am concerned about the effect that dropping my subscription would have on the skeleton crew left there. Yet, the fact that my subscription puts more dollars into the pockets of the vultures at Alden and DFM is driving me up the wall. My first response is to stop feeding the Beast and watch the whole thing go smash. But I worry about the folks in the newsroom, the designers, the printers — what about them? A newspaper is more than the editorial staff. Or would the Post turn into the daily ad-paper? I am absolutely stymied about what to do. Is a boycott the answer? Will the Beast really care?

  2. Mike Littwin on said:

    Phil and Frank, I understand how hard this is. If we do nothing, in my view, what will happen is that Alden will continue to bleed the paper until there’s nothing left. If it becomes more difficult to keep the paper than to sell the paper, they’ll sell. They care only about profit. That’s their business. They’re not open to buyers now. I think a very public loss of subscribers and advertisers might — and I agree, might — convince them to change their minds.

  3. Harry on said:

    Instead of writing letters to the editor (which aren’t getting published anyway), we need to write letters to the advertisers appealing to both their community spirit and their bottomlines.

    That would be the quickest way to have this Golden Goose start laying rotten eggs for Alden.

  4. Bruce Madison on said:

    What’s happening to journalism is what has happened over the past few decades to my profession, medicine, which is now run by profit-seeking corporations, insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital, rather than by actual physicians. Thankfully, unlike physicians, who laid down and got rolled, many journalists are braver, and are risking their careers rather than meekly watching their profession go under. As a news consumer, I’m not sure of the correct approach either, but I’m leaning towards the Plunkett/Littwin approach and dropping my subscription, after more than 50 years. Very sad.

  5. Doug McKenna on said:

    Today, after hearing the news about the Denver Post’s editorial page editor resigning, we finally canceled our Daily Camera subscription, our local paper.

    After the recent firing of Dave Krieger, the Camera’s very good editorial page editor (a place where I’ve had many guest opinions published, going back before his time), we had a family discussion of the pros and cons of cancelling our subscription.

    The pros of course are that our only power is market power, voting with our wallets, making the Camera as a business less valuable and more easily purchasable by new supportive owners, but only if others act similarly (always a problem, martyring oneself prematurely for the cause).

    Another pro was not being subjected to near-daily half-page ads pretending to be news stories but actually peddling quack/patent medicine cures, not to mention avoiding the full-page Hobby Lobby ads on July 4th and certain other religious holidays, ever insinuating that the US is a Christian Nation. The paper is supposed to stand up for the First Amendment, not confuse the populace on the subject.

    The cons are that it will be, in the short term, harder for us to be aware of local news and issues. Every citizen needs a paper of record to understand what’s going on (public meeting notices, real estate recordings, news, etc.). The local paper of record is the first draft of local history as well; indeed my motivation for writing essays and letters there is really of form of recording the zeitgeist for future Sylvia Pettems (a local historian) as much as it is to foster discussion among politicians and citizens about present-day issues.

    It is especially problematic to have a web-only source of news, because the web as a medium is temporary and all that content disappears when a website goes dark and electricity-consuming caches dry up. 200 years from now, our descendants are going to look back at these times and call them the digital dark ages: most of the computer bits will be gone or unreadable. There must be an official printed daily record of events, recorded on microfilm and available to everyone in libraries.

    There is a lot of money in Boulder, and the citizens there need to fund a non-profit foundation to endow it with enough money to serve the community with a quality paper. This is the model of The Guardian, perhaps the Colorado Independent, and to some extent public radio. It’s tough, but it can work.

    So … Unsubscribe! A painful protest in the short term, but it has to be productive in the long term.

  6. Cynthia on said:

    I agree with Phil – this is not an easy decision, particularly for those of us who care about the Denver Post, the news it still covers, and the people who are still trying to turn out a paper and online edition every day (heroes in their own right).

    It seems that a huge protest is in order – something with major national visibility – and Governor Hickenlooper, or someone at a state leadership level needs to fly to New York City to insist on a meeting with Heath Freeman (with the NYTimes standing by their side as moral support).

    It is insane that a couple of heartless, greed-driven wealthy men can hold a 126 year old news institution hostage. What kind of a world are we living in?

  7. Sue B. Mullins on said:

    Angst. Once upon a time, I wielded a red pencil in “the rim” and set hot type heads. (I have a narrowed index finger to remind me). In those days, independent, thoughtful, professional journalism was expected and honored by readers eager for
    “the latest news”. The first amendment’s command and promise were clear to every reader..and journalist.

    The staffs in Boulder and Denver and Longmont and Loveland and Ft. Collins are holding to that promise and practice today. I ache for them.

    I know the stress of being on deadline and having to put across an unbiased report.. To keep my readers accurately informed. To advance a public purpose through revelation. To tell the truth. Readers deserve no less.

    We depended on ad sales..yes. But we weren’t owned by those dollars.

    That’s the difference today.

    So..although it’s painful..I agree with Harry. Fight money with money.

    I’ve pulled today’s Post and Herald out of the re-cycle bin. My form letter is “saved” and sent to advertisers I support(ed), telling them why I no longer will purchase their product(s).

    Maybe greed will save the Bill of Rights!

  8. Mike Littwin on said:

    Two more top editors at the Post — Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman — have quit. How much longer can this continue?

  9. john in denver on said:

    Woke up this morning and read news of Dean Singleton stepping down from the Denver Post.

  10. John Dulles on said:

    Thank you for hosting the event at the Press Club last night. It was a robust and interesting conversation. My take away; No one is sure what the best approach is, and there are serous differences among us.
    So meanwhile, I’m not sure much will happen. But this is a critical moment and time is of the essence!
    I recommend that you, and others in the leadership group, promptly appoint a special committee to review and consider all legitimate recommendations and devise a strategic plan that would include specific actions that need to be taken to implement this plan. The committee may devise more than a single approach, but the need is for a coordinated plan that we can all rally around and support. You might wish to appoint some civic leaders, in addition to journalists, to the special committee. But this should be done soon.

  11. Keith Evan Rude on said:

    Mr. Litwin. It was nice to bump into you at a local Longmont restaurant this morning. I have always enjoyed your well thought out, rational perspectives on the issues confronting society. It is nice to know they are still being shared with the public at large. As a lifelong Democrat of the: “I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.” (George McGovern) variety, the Left seems to have lost all bearing, the religious Right leaves me apprehensive, and I fear Libertarians would put dioxin in toothpaste, as a consequence of deregulation. I have yet, to change my voter affiliation from Democrat, to something else. I feel like the proverbial “Man Without a Country,” these days. Independent sounds better, and better. Glad to have found you again. Peace.

  12. Tina Griego on said:

    I was with Mike, Keith. I’m the ME here. So glad to see you stopped by to check us out. Tina

  13. Mike Littwin on said:

    I enjoyed bumping into you, too. Thanks for the kind words. Hope we continue to bump into each other at Colorado Indy site. Mike

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