DENVER — As a cops reporter for a corporate-owned newspaper in South Carolina, Noelle Phillips had already survived multiple rounds of layoffs before moving across the country in 2014 for a job at The Denver Post. Now, the spinning blade of corporate cutbacks is buzzing around her again.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” she said after a demonstration Friday outside The Post’s downtown office building. There, in front of the revolving glass doors of the first-floor lobby, about 100 members of the newspaper’s labor union and community allies were rallying to bring attention to The Post’s parent company, Digital First Media, and its primary hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital.
In April, DFM offered 26 buyout packages to newsroom staff. If everyone takes one, the newsroom of The Denver Post will have been slashed by one third in the past year alone. The deadline to accept the buyouts was Thursday, June 16.
Standing on a metal bench and shouting into a megaphone, reporter Kieran Nicholson, the elected chair of the newsroom’s union, explained the reason for the rally.
“We are here today to collectively ask The Post’s parent company — DFM and Alden Global Capital — to accept the number of buyouts and not seek further job reductions through layoffs,” he said.
Nicholson celebrated his 30th anniversary at the paper last month. He clarified that “celebrated” might be too strong a term. He didn’t get a card, a letter, a lunch or even an attaboy.
“No one noticed,” he told the crowd. “Alden Global, which is a hedge fund headquartered in New York City — they didn’t notice.”
He rattled off names of corporate executives to loud boos, saying the suits were too busy “stuffing their pockets on dollars made on the backs of our labor” to pay attention to what’s happening at The Post.
Outside the building, which is just a few blocks from the state Capitol, the newspaper’s employees wore T-shirts sporting the hashtag #NewsMatters. They carried signs reading “We need a responsible owner,” “Journalists hold the powerful accountable,” and “Quality journalism over corporate greed.” A blown-up mockup of a newspaper front page leaned against a wall with headlines reading “What happens to communities when hedge funds own newspapers?” and “Denver Post journalists rally to protect quality journalism.”
Demonstrators lamented an atmosphere of uncertainty inside Colorado’s largest newspaper. Elsewhere, reporters for other Digital First Media-owned newspapers like The St. Paul Pioneer Press showed solidarity on social media.
“For a newsroom of this size to face two buyouts within the same year is devastating,” said Ricardo Baca, editor of The Post’s marijuana section The Cannabist, in an interview. “Really, from the bottom up,” he added, “we are a very affected newsroom, and not for the better.”
For ownership at The Denver Post to ask for any more casualties, “is so crushing to us that it’s hard not to take it personally,” Baca said, especially when the paper is still making a profit.
For the journalists who showed up to the rally — not every union member did — it was unusual to make news instead of report it.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever participated in anything that felt a little bit like a protest,” said Jennifer Brown, an investigative projects reporter who has been at the paper 10 years. “It felt slightly uncomfortable to start, but it felt really good to be out here and be loud about what we’ve been going through. And it’s time we speak up and say this stuff, otherwise it’s just happening. I personally feel I have nothing to lose anymore, they’ve already gutted the place. We might as well be out shouting about it.”
When Brown started, the paper had more than 200 staffers in the newsroom. If the latest round of buyouts are realized, she says that number will be cut to about half. The paper used to have four reporters who covered health and medicine, she said. Now they have one. The investigative team has shrunk. Some beats aren’t covered at all. The paper, she said, wants to outsource the design team so The Denver Post’s layout would be produced out of town.
Denver City Councilman Kevin Flynn, a former reporter for the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News, gave a brief speech where he noted — as other public officials elsewhere have — that newsroom retrenchment means less watchdogging of people in power like himself.
“What the decline in local news coverage means is a less informed electorate,” he said. “When I look over at the old press table in the council room now I remember days when we had to fight for a seat.”
At one point during the rally someone shouted “Where’s Tully?”
That would be Mac Tully, The Denver Post’s publisher, who wasn’t present at the demonstration. (He did not return a phone message. Digital First Media CEO Steve Rossi did not return an e-mail.)
The past few months have been tumultuous times for The Denver Post.
In February, for the first time in memory, no house editorial appeared on the op-ed page after an editorial staffer departed and was not replaced. In March, the paper’s longtime editor Greg Moore abruptly announced he was leaving. In April, editors at the paper instituted byline quotas for reporters, though they wouldn’t call them that.
Two months ago,The Denver Newspaper Guild began collective-bargaining negotiations with Digital First Media.
Nicholson, a union leader in the newsroom who has been at the paper since 1986, said the talks, such as they are, have been frustrating.
“They’re pretty flat,” he said. “There’s not a lot of bargaining or negotiating going on.”
When The Post’s previous owner, Dean Singleton, ran the show, Nicholson said he was more receptive to dialogue. “We even sat down with Mr. Singleton a few times when he was owner,” Nicholson said. “That’s not happening anymore.”
That’s quite a commentary given that a newspaper union in California once painted Singleton as a bad-faith union-buster.
Nicholson and others would like to see a local owner for The Denver Post.
In 2014, Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs, floated the idea of bringing back the Rocky Mountain News. Anschutz had quietly purchased the rights to The Rocky’s name, URL and intellectual property when the paper folded in 2009. Some at the time wondered if Anschutz wasn’t making a shrewd play for a takeover of The Denver Post with the prospect of a newspaper war in Denver.
Later, when editor Greg Moore resigned from The Post, questions about a potential sale to Anschutz’s Clarity Media again bubbled up among the Denver politierati. But Clarity CEO Ryan McKibben shot them down. “Nothing’s going on,” he said at the time. “Greg Moore resigns and everybody thinks the world’s gonna end.”
As for the near-future of The Post, Nicholson hopes the Friday demonstration will mean more outside attention to whatever that is.
Asked if he thought The Denver Post would report on the demonstration outside its headquarters, he said: “I don’t know if we will or not, but it looked like news to me.”
Photo credit: Allen Tian