Chuck Plunkett, architect of The Denver Post Rebellion, suddenly quits the paper citing censorship

Last week witnessed the first firing amid what’s now known as The Denver Rebellion. This week witnessed the first string of resignations.

On Thursday, Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett abruptly quit the paper after corporate higher-ups at Digital First Media stopped him from running another editorial that mentioned the firing of sister-paper editorial page editor Dave Kreiger of The Boulder Daily Camera and took aim at the way DFM’s controlling hedge-fund owner treats the newspaper chain’s properties while earning big profits. Plunkett was the architect of an April 6 editorial package about the perils of hedge-fund journalism, which sparked a kind-of revolt within certain quarters of the DFM chain raging against the Alden Global Capital machine. “I was trying to follow good journalism ethics and I was not allowed to do it anymore,” Plunkett told the AP.

“Our obligation is to the reader and the truth,” Plunkett said to The New York Times. “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.”

Plunkett’s mic drop was followed by the resignations on Friday of senior news editors Larry Ryckman and Dana Coffield. And even former owner Dean Singleton— a majorly symbolic move.

Meanwhile…

BLITZKRIEGER: Fired Boulder opinion editor makes the rounds

That’s the latest this week. Last week, Bouler Daily Camera editorial Page editor Dave Krieger got the ax after he published a blog post about his paper’s hedge-fund owner after his publisher stopped an editorial about it from running in the paper. Krieger, who did not sign a non-disparagement agreement, has since published a new blog post detailing the days leading up to his firing. He has appeared on KGNU, on the 9News nightly newscast “Next,” and elsewhere in local media talking about what happened.

On Monday night he sat for a live interview with me at The Denver Press Club where we spoke for an hour and a half about his personal story, the existential threat that hedge-fund ownership poses to local newspapers, and the future of The Boulder Daily Camera. Here are the highlights:

He said DFM’s chief operating officer Guy Gilmore personally got involved in local content in Boulder…

“I was the last to know that Guy Gilmore apparently decided that this would be the place that they made their stand,” Krieger said. More:

“Here comes this rebellion, here comes The Denver Post section. This is a challenge, I assume— and now I’m speculating because Guy Gilmore does not confide in me. But I assume this was a challenge to his leadership. He just got in and now there’s this rebellion, people insulting the people he reports to— the people at Alden. So he made it very clear— and this I know for a fact— to our publisher, to Al Manzi, that this was not going to continue. This was not going to happen again, what The Denver Post had done. And so when I proposed to run a Mike Littwin column from The Colorado Independent— Mike had written a column about The Denver Post rebellion— Al Manzi, our publisher, killed that. He said, No, you can’t run that. And that was the first time anybody in management at The Camera had censored content based on the content. And I knew that if that was going to continue then we’re going to have a real problem.”

On why a crackdown might have come in Boulder…

“My guess is it’s because Guy Gilmore found in our publisher a pretty vulnerable target. You threaten a guy who’s about to turn 60 that you’re going to replace him if he doesn’t do what you’re telling him to do, you’ve got a lot of leverage over him, and I think that’s essentially what happened. They decided they needed to make a statement that this was gonna stop.”

(Editor’s note: The national context here is we want to know how some of the other hundred-some Digital First Media papers in the country are reacting to The Denver Post’scoverage of its owner and whether they’ll do something similar in their own communities. In the immediate aftermath, some did react and some didn’t, and some feared reprisal. Recently, in Kingston, New York, an editor sent a memo to staff saying not to publish anything mentioning Digital First Media or Alden Global Capital without his approval. That came after the paper there, The Daily Freeman, published copy about the struggles of the journalism industry that mentioned the paper’s owners.)

Krieger thinks the Boulder and Kingston incidents could be part of a broader crackdown…

“My theory based on what Al Manzi did, and he admitted to me, he checked with Guy Gilmore about my editorial proposal … that’s what tells me that other publishers are probably getting the same message. … 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.”

He thinks DFM is like the mob…

“Honestly it reminds me a lot of the mob and a protection racket. They come in and [say] ‘Give us your take and now let’s see if you can keep your business going having given us that off the top’ … Every year something gets downsized in order to meet the profit demands of DFM.”

What does the hedge fund want?

“I keep thinking of them as a predator in an alien invasion movie. You remember the scene in “Independence Day” when the president asks the alien ‘What do you want from us?’ and the alien says, “Diiiiiiiiiie.” That’s sort of what they’re saying.”

He said his editor and publisher use the classic “collaborators defense”—  if they don’t follow instructions they’ll be replaced by someone else who will. So, what would Krieger want them to do?

“I would want them to stand up and say, No, this is not what we do here.”

He wrote a six-page document about his vision for The Boulder Daily Camera last fall…

“Not publicly, but to the business community. … hoping I could get somebody interested in buying The Camera from Alden and salvaging it because that’s happened in a few other markets. When I sent that to various businesspeople in Boulder, people who are very, very knowledgeable in the field of startups and high-tech, to a person it was completely news to them. They had no idea. They didn’t know who owned us, they didn’t know what kind of a company it was.”

So why did he wait until The Denver Post rebelled before rebelling himself on his own op-ed page if news about ownership was so important to the community?

“It’s a very fair criticism. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should have come up with a reason to do it earlier.”

Was it worth it to lose his job?

“Oh yeah. Absolutely. … there’s no question in my mind about this. … In this case, there’s good and there’s evil it seems to me— it’s just really clear to me— and I’m not going to be associated with that.”

Will his firing chill institutional criticism?

“I think there’s a chill. I think I’m the example, and I think the message is: Don’t do what he did.”

What’s next for him personally?

“I’m going to the Kentucky Derby.”

Would he encourage Boulderites to buy a subscription to The Boulder Daily Camera?

“Just about the time I was fired my opinion started to change on that.”

Krieger said he saw firsthand censorship from corporate about local content. And since then the paper hasn’t acknowledged why he left or run letters to the editor about the situation.

“When I see that, then I start to think Maybe this institution is not worth saving. The tradition is great … it would nice to be able to save it. But if it’s going to be owned by people who censor any content they don’t like, that’s not a real newspaper in a free society.”

(If you want to see a mini-debate over the merits of subscribing to Colorado DFM papers or boycotting them, click here.)

What’s the alternative?

“You’ve got some people in Boulder who know how to start stuff up, maybe that’s what needs to happen now, something needs to get started up.”

Speaking of DFM’s Chief Operating Officer Guy Gilmore…

That time Boulder City Council weighed in

Early this week, The Boulder Daily Camera did mention Krieger’s firing— albeit in a news story pegged to a proposed City Council resolution by the mayor pro tem, Aaron Brockett, who told the paper he wanted to seek support from his colleagues on a resolution “calling for editorial and journalistic independence for the staff of the Daily Camera.”

From the story, by Alex Burness:

Brockett said he was inspired to bring forward the resolution after reading a blog post from Dave Krieger, the former editor of the Camera’s editorial page, who wrote that he was fired in April after self-publishing an editorial in which he argued the future of the Camera is threatened by “draconian” cuts by the paper’s hedge-fund ownership, Alden Global Capital. Krieger said in his post that he was barred from running that editorial in [The] Camera. He posted it online instead, drawing state and national attention.

Asked why he’s planning to introduce the resolution, Brockett said, “I want to say that the City Council feels that it’s critically important that our local paper, the Daily Camera, has the independence to be able to run any story that they feel is relevant and to publish any opinion piece that they feel is worthy of being published.” Brockett said he’s been “disturbed” by the fact that there’s been no mention of Krieger in recent editions of the Camera. “It feels like there’s important local news that’s not being mentioned in our local paper, and that concerns me,” he said.

On Tuesday, the City Council unanimously approved the resolution. (Read the language in it here.) City reporter Burness live-tweeted the council discussion. Noting the coverage, the paper’s city editor Matt Sebastian wrote on Twitter, “It was because of this planned action tonight by the city government — at a public meeting — that we finally were able to acknowledge the firing in today’s @dailycamera. Ridiculous that it took so long. But our owners don’t want subscribers to know.”

A bombshell report on DFM’s profits

Amid all the commentary about hedge-fund ownership of local newspapers and the slashing of newsrooms comes some serious context about the ledger sheets. Writing for NiemanLab, newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor reported this week that documents show Digital First Media “has ridden its deep cuts to nearly $160 million in profits and the highest margins in the business.” Doctor reveals how last year DFM made a 17 percent operating margin on its papers, what he calls “well above those of its peers.” The Colorado properties, led by The Denver Post “but including 11 other papers that have received short shrift in the coverage of the protests, drive 22 percent of those profits, or $36 million,” he reports based on numbers provided by confidential sources. “On its own, the group drives a 19 percent margin for DFM. That makes Colorado DFM’s second-largest profit driver.”

More from the good Doctor:

Clearly, times have turned tenser for DFM’s chief operating officer Guy Gilmore and his bosses, Heath Freeman and Randy Smith at Alden Global Capital. While none would respond to inquiries, it’s becoming increasingly clear that public pressures have created headaches for them. Though Krieger is the first DFM employee to be terminated in the current controversies, the company wrestles — almost daily, I’m told by the numerous sources with whom I’ve spoken — with how to deal with the increasingly high-profile criticism.

“DFM and Alden face a tough choice,” he goes on. “Crack down on its ever-vocal journalists and risk more public (and perhaps financial) damage — or wait to see if the rebellion dies down. Tempers are hot; actions remain unpredictable. The protesting editors remain in limbo — and need continuing public support.”

Then he brings it back to Denver:

Among those questioning Alden’s deep staffing cuts action is Dean Singleton, who built the MediaNews Group chain that assembled most of what are today DFM’s larger newspapers. A still-towering figure in Denver civic life, Singleton sold his controlling stake in the company to Alden five years ago. He remains though on the Post’s editorial board. Over the years, he has said little about Alden’s cutthroat business strategies, but there may well be a line Alden could cross with him. Should Alden move to fire Plunkett or top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, Singleton could well sever his relationship with the paper, an enterprise with which he’s been associated for 31 years. That would create a new problem Alden doesn’t need.

Read the full piece for more insight about what DFM/Alden might be hearing from their lenders and whether big advertisers at The Denver Post could be poised to pull out. He also tackles the question about whether Alden would sell The Denver Post with his analysis informed by newspaper brokers and context from previous sales. “Even as civic groups form to ‘save’ the Post, Alden continues to reject — rudely, per standard Alden protocol — the buying inquiries from billionaire Colorado resident and Colorado Springs Gazette owner Philip Anschutz, who recently made a new attempt to buy the Post,” Doctor writes.

Wither The Cannabist. Are they serious?

As if the news wasn’t bad enough this week, word comes in that deep staff cuts at The Denver Post “will soon leave The Cannabist without a dedicated staff, triggering an attempt by its founding editor to buy the publication.” That’s according to The Denver Business Journal, which reported Cannabist editor Alex Pasquariello is leaving amid news that bots would essentially take over the staffless marijuana vertical.

More from the DBJ:

Ricardo Baca, founding editor of The Cannabist and a widely-known marijuana journalist, said he was outraged to learn what was happening to The Cannabist. He reached out to Colacioppo and the Post’s head of finance Thursday, letting them know he wants to buy it. “If the Post is up for selling this, and the price is right,” he said. “If we can’t do it on our own, there are people in the community who I know are interested. This brand became so essential to the community, and there’s so many people who want to support it.” Baca left The Cannabist and Denver Post in 2016. He currently runs The Grasslands, a marketing and events agency that works in the marijuana and blockchain industries.

“Other groups have approached the newspaper about buying The Cannabist in recent months, Baca said,” per the DBJ. “Aside from High Times magazine, it’s the best-known publication covering general interest marijuana-related news and culture, he said.” Denver’s alt-weekly Westword rounds up a tweetstorm by Cannabist writer Jake Browne here.

‘Don’t forget the editors’

Writing a guest column for ColoradoPolitics, Simon Lomax, a former journalist in the U.S. and Australia who now works in advocacy, had a suggestion for those hoping to help rebuild Colorado’s journalistic infrastructure. “Invest in editors, not just reporters,” he said. Going long on hiring an army of reporters is great, he added, but editors are “the teachers, coaches and librarians of the newsroom. They impart wisdom from years of experience and enforce factual and ethical standards. When rushed reporters overlook important details or neglect another side to the story, editors are there to guide them, and if necessary, challenge them to do better.”

More from Lomax:

Editors are an essential check and balance in any newsroom, making sure stories are reviewed by someone besides the author and subjected to a level of scrutiny before publication. When mistakes happen, editors work with reporters to find out what went wrong and fix it. And when the work of reporters is unfairly criticized, editors are there to defend them. Perhaps most of all, editors provide stability, sticking around longer than many reporters who are quite often early in their careers and looking to move from market to market. Editors are keepers of institutional knowledge, which is essential to correctly judge what is newsworthy and what isn’t.

I’m with him when he says editors can save you from embarrassing yourself, and it reminded me of Colorado’s U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet who wrote on Twitter about the importance of “edited content.” Bennet’s brother James, it should be noted, is editorial page editor of The New York Times.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune profiled a motorcycle crash victim and how she works to educate people on what saved her lifeThe Longmont Times-Call fronted a piece about how unaffiliated voters can participate in this year’s party primariesThe Steamboat Pilot ran a cover story about the paper’s photojournalists and their workThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on “what some say appears to be a population boomlet unlike others that have preceded it.” The Loveland Reporter-Herald covered how local development is making room for prairie dogsThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins had a weekend takeout on a 40-year-old murderThe Durango Herald reported on local government and homeless campsThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on marijuana use in Colorado schools (with a classic Colorado photo to go along with it). The Boulder Daily Camera scrutinized private halfway housesThe Denver Post reported on the 10 days left of this year’s legislative session.

What Chuck Plunkett said at DU

For Denver’s “Real News Day” on April 27, the University of Denver, along with The Denver Press Club, threw a spotlight on the importance of journalism for a day of honor and activities. DU’s Department of Media, Film & Journalism Studies also honored Chuck Plunkett, who led The Denver Post’s editorial rebellion, with an award for Journalism in the Public Interest. Here are some highlights of what Plunkett said, according to a copy of prepared remarks:

  • “The equipment, technology, and software that Digital First Media supplies us came from the Soviet Union.”
  • “Earth to Alden: Another motivational newsroom saying reminds us that the dumbest thing you can ever do is tell a journalist not to tell a good story or suppress the truth about something important. Like a clear threat to democracy.”
  • “We need to have an ENOUGH moment in local journalism.”
  • “We need to remember – especially in Digital First Media papers – that our first obligation is to the truth, and to our readers.”

Department of Bad Numbers

Last week, thousands of teachers from across Colorado walked out of their classrooms and flooded the state Capitol, protesting for more funding for education. As coverage swelled around the event, KUSA 9News anchor Kyle Clark noticed something.

“We begin tonight with a correction, which could be a first, but we got something wrong on a big story,” he said in a recent broadcast. “I checked and every other major media outlet in Denver got it wrong as well.”

From the report:

As thousands of teachers in Colorado prepare to rally at the state capitol this week, it’s been widely reported that the state ranks 46th in teacher pay, with an average of $46,155 a year. We cited that figure on Next this week. It’s also appeared in the newspaper, on every local television station, and in national reporting on Colorado.​ But that’s not accurate, according to the latest data from the National Education Association, which provided the original statistic. The NEA ranks Colorado at 31 for average pay in a report dated April 2018, meaning Colorado teachers are far closer to the middle of the pack when it comes to pay.​

The numbers came from the National Education Association teachers union, but, as 9news noted, “the underlying numbers were quietly revised, a change first noticed by The Denver Post.”

Here’s The Denver Post itself about that:

The National Education Association’s 2018 report said the Colorado teachers were paid on average $51,808 in 2017 compared to a national average of $59,660. That ranks 31st among the states and Washington, D.C.​ If you follow along with teacher salary data, you may be scratching your head right now. That’s because the group’s report last year listed Colorado’s average salary in 2016 as $46,155 and ranked it 46th in the nation. That’s quite a jump in one year. But NEA has updated its 2016 data to show the actual average salary that year as $51,233. An NEA spokeswoman did not return calls seeking clarification on the change, but the updated data is more in line with what districts reported to the Colorado Department of Education. Using the updated data, the average Colorado teacher’s salary rose 8.1 percent from 2009 to 2018, but dropped 6.7 percent after adjusting for inflation.

Another reason The Denver Post’s existence freakin’ matters, right?

A newspaper job ‘so nice’ a reporter ‘quit twice’

Scott Franz says he quit his job as a government reporter for The Steamboat Pilot about two years ago but then thought better of it. But now he’s quitting for real to “attempt to backpack more than 2,600 miles through our great country on the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Not sure if this means there’s a job opening at the Pilot, but there is an interesting-looking one from Summit Daily in the Breckenridge area. From the listing: “This reporter will help us compile the best police blotter in the state and find ways to overcome the state’s weak judicial records laws.”

The Telluride newspapers are also looking for an associate editor, and The Mountain Mailin Salida wants “a community-minded weekend and sports reporter who has a degree in journalism or English.” Here are some other openings, too.

#ChieftainWatch

Nearly two months ago, this newsletter brought you the news that the southern Colorado Pueblo Chieftain newspaper, family owned for 150 years, would soon get a new owner. “They’re just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s,” the paper’s general manager Brad Slater told me on March 8. He said readers might expect an announcement around April. That didn’t happen. So what’s going on? Slater didn’t return a call this week.

According to internal Chieftain emails that went out to employees there in January, “prospective buyers” included Digital First Media, Clarity Media, Adams Publishing, and GateHouse Media. In March, I reported “in conversations with multiple media sources, I’m told the Colorado buyers are out. That leaves GateHouse and Adams.” At the time, a GateHouse spokesman didn’t return a call, and an Adams representative wouldn’t confirm or deny anything. On that front, “Nothing really has changed,” the Adams guy told me Wednesday. No word from GateHouse.

The Chieftain is a unionized paper whose employees are members of the Denver Newspaper Guild. “It’s honestly kind of frustrating at this point,” says Chieftain journalist and union member Luke Lyons. “I don’t like to speak for everyone, but I know based on conversations I’ve had with other employees [and] union members that we’re getting tired of hearing speculation and waiting to see what our future is.”

As we think about what’s to come of The Chieftain, I’ll leave you with this link to a piece by one of the paper’s former journalists, Hal Walter, about the “frenetic and smoke-filled chamber of talent, incompetence, comedy and urgency” where he worked. It includes a scene in which an editor “got down on all fours howling like a dog, then stood with his leg lifted at a post in the newsroom” and was “offered a severance.”

*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 of Denver Post building by Allen Tian

1 COMMENT

  1. I was that howling journo’. And what fun it was, too. The nickname “Mad Dog” stuck like a Taser barb; it has followed me around ever since.

    I had four dailies under my shock collar before I joined The Chieftain in 1983, and it only took one more to send me over the fence and into freelancing in 1991.

    But I still love a good newspaper, and am saddened every time another one gets absorbed by the Bottom-Line Borg. I lift a leg in anger on those button-down bastards.

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