Some credit the line to the great A.J. Liebling, others to the maybe even greater H.L. Mencken, but in either case it’s undeniably true: “Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one.”
Or it was true— until Sunday’s edition of The Denver Post, when the inmates took charge of the asylum, when the owners of the Post presses were wondering what the hell had just hit them and when Chuck Plunkett, the paper’s editorial page editor, turned into a journalistic superhero.
It was an act of bravery and an act of theft. In an editorial headlined in the online version, “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,” Plunkett demanded that the hedge-fund vultures who own the Post sell it to someone who cares about Denver and about journalism.
It’s not exactly a radical thought. The vultures reside in the New York offices of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund called out by Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan as “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.”
As you’ve no doubt heard, the Denver Post has just laid off 30 more employees, bringing the number of journalists in the newsroom to fewer than 70. You could call that a skeleton crew, except it would be unfair to skeletons. To give you some perspective, when the Rocky Mountain News folded nine years ago, the Post and Rocky newsrooms together employed more than 500 journalists.
How do you comprehensively cover a metro area of more than 2.5 million people with fewer than 70 journalists? Here’s how: You don’t. You try and you work miracles with the few people you have and eventually you can’t pull it off anymore. And here’s the thing: You can bet there are more layoffs coming.
And so, distressed by the latest layoffs, Plunkett went rogue, publishing one stinging editorial and eight stinging columns in the Sunday Perspective section, all of them calling out Alden and insisting that Colorado deserves better. Newspapers routinely give hell to the powerful — you know the line, we afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted — but they rarely (or is it never?) slam their own owners in their own newspaper.
Plunkett didn’t tell the bosses at Digital First (the Post parent company/newspaper chain owned by Alden) about his plans. He didn’t tell Post Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo — the editorial pages being separate from the news pages. He spit in the Alden bosses’ faces and, in doing so, fully expected he could be fired. He hasn’t been, at least so far. And now that the story has made the front pages of The New York Times, Alden may not have the guts to take him on.
And why did Plunkett do it? Because, he said, it was the right thing to do.
Imagine, you risk your job for the right thing. Or, for that matter, risk your life, as many journalists do. Or just sit through seemingly endless zoning board meetings, as your local journalists routinely do. Or give voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise have a voice, as every newspaper does.
The funny/tragic thing is that during these terrible times for newspapers, the Post is apparently making money, turning a decent profit, but Alden keeps cutting because that’s what Alden does. It doesn’t care if it’s hurting the product. It cares about profit. That’s why they call it vulture capitalism.
As Newsonomics writer Ken Doctor put it in an interview with journalist Julie Reynolds, “There’s no long-term strategy other than milking and continuing to cut. Their view is that in 2021, they’ll deal with that then. Whatever remnants are there, they’ll try to find a buyer.”
There are rumors that right-wing, multi-billionaire Phil Anschutz, who owns The Gazette in Colorado Springs, may take another try at buying the Post. Someone needs to step up before the newspaper just fades away. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock issued a statement saying how proud he was of the Post for “speaking out.” Governor John Hickenlooper told Rolling Stone that the paper has “to be sold” before it gets so squeezed by Alden that “people won’t buy it anymore.”
Should people buy the Post any more? If the Post weren’t making a profit, Alden would unload it. So, is it better to support the paper by buying it or better to support the paper by not buying it and thereby squeezing Alden? I don’t know the answer. But thanks to Plunkett’s rebel stand, the question of how to save the Post is now front and center, a local story, a regional story, a national story, a story to which attention must be paid.