The hedge-fund ‘vultures’ are circling another newspaper chain with a paper in Colorado

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Vulture image by Ryan Paulsen for Creative Commons on Flickr

The vultures are circling again. But I’m sick of the metaphor. It’s time for a new one. In coverage of The Denver Post’s cost-cutting hedge-fund owners, the caricature has been a vulture, circling dead and dying things, picking at carcass bones of a shriveled-up newspaper chain rotting on the side of our late-capitalist highway to some future hell where local newspapers no longer exist.

Which brings me to The Nothing. I vividly recall a college friend’s deadpan remark while watching The Neverending Story how The Nothing from that film was the scariest villain in all of cinema. Because what, really, is worse than nothing? And a nothing that, like, grows? 

“A hole would be something. Nah, it was Nothing. And it got bigger and bigger,” says the character Rock Biter in the movie. “What you have told us is also happening where I live in the West,” replies the character with the racing snail. “A strange sort of … Nothing is destroying everything.”

This week, The Nothing has its eyes on Gannett, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains.

From Columbia Journalism Review (emphasis mine):

The Wall Street Journal’s Carl Lombardo reported that MNG Enterprises Inc. is planning a bid for Gannett, the publishing powerhouse that owns USA Today as well as important local papers such as the Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, and Iowa’s Des Moines Register. The scoop might normally have passed under the radar as standard-issue jockeying—except MNG Enterprises is better known as Digital First Media, the prolific private-equity-backed publisher that has become an industry byword for cost-cutting and job-slashing.

Digital First Media is, of course, the owner of The Denver Post. It’s controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, which drew civic side eyes for much of last year after gutting the Post newsroom by about a third, leading to mass layoffs and voluntary departures. “Is this strip-mining or journalism?” asked The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan about the public behavior of this particular corporate citizen. And now DFM, that dark and growing force of absolute oblivion, is looking to swallow up a journalism institution that owns roughly 100 newspapers — including The Coloradoan in Fort Collins. Oh. What could go wrong?

From Ken Doctor at NeimanLab:

What all this means is Gannett, like it or not, is in play. Even two years ago, that statement might have … dropped jaws — Gannett was clear it wanted to be the consolidator, not the consolidatee. But no longer: In an industry of unending downturn — and in a world flirting with a who-knows-how-deep recession to come — all bets on the conventional wisdom of newspaper ownership are off. Anyone with the appetite and dollars to buy can, whether it’s a Patrick Soon-Shiong or an Alden Global Capital.

So what does this mean for Colorado? Gannett’s only newspaper property here is the Coloradoan, a paper with reader engagement initiatives that have impressed me over the years and whose former editor helped fight for expanded open records laws. “You know Gannett’s reputation, and we’ve lived through the company earning it. Even so, the prospect of DFM has us shook,” someone in the Coloradoan newsroom told me. In 2016, a wave of nationwide layoffs at the Gannett chain licked the Coloradoan. The paper’s editor, Eric Larsen, says the newsroom is watching the DFM buyout talks closely. “Given that we’re journalists who have seen what’s transpired at the Post over the years, there’s natural trepidation about what the future could hold under any new ownership,” he says. “But I wouldn’t say it’s dominating discussion here.” (The Coloradoan also publishes The Windsor Beacon, though that paper no longer has its own staff.)

On Wednesday, USA Today, which is owned by Gannett, reported a quadruple-bylined story datelined from Denver about a potential DFM takeover. From the piece:

If Alden’s latest plans come to fruition, it will be bringing its ownership style to a newspaper near virtually every American. MNG Enterprises, which also operates as Digital First Media and is owned by the hedge fund Alden, has launched a hostile takeover bid for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher by paid circulation. With a national newspaper in USA TODAY and 109 local brands in cities around the country, Gannett would make for a unique – and landscape-shifting – acquisition for MNG. …

In interviews with roughly a dozen journalists who experienced Alden’s takeover in Denver, a dire picture emerges of what happens when the hedge fund comes for the newspaper in your town. They described crippling personnel cuts, corporate meddling and a stewardship that results in a newspaper being hollowed out to a shell of what it once was. A spokesperson for MNG, Paul Caminiti, did not respond to specific questions for this article but issued a statement crediting the company’s “successful track record” enabling it “to run newspapers profitably and sustainably so that they can continue to serve their local communities.”

The USA Today story offers a good recent history of The Denver Post’s problems under its hedge-fund owner, quoting some of the voices familiar to this newsletter and recounting their battles. It ends with this kicker: “Former Denver Post reporter Brian Eason, in describing corporate entities like MNG, said that he believed newspapers aren’t just ‘dying from natural causes. Greed is killing them.'”

Colorado Public Radio just. keeps. expanding.

Not long after hiring two new regional reporters— one in Grand Junction, another in Colorado Springs— and announcing it’s looking for a Washington, D.C. correspondent, CPR is out with even more news on their journalistic expansion. The station on Wednesday said in a news release it is committing $300,000 “to build a team of investigative journalists, starting with a new opening for investigative editor.” Colorado Public Radio “is on track to grow the newsroom by a third this year alone,” wrote station spokesperson Courtney Lee, adding how in the last six years the station “has already doubled the size of its reporting staff, from 16 to more than 35 positions.” The investigative team, which will be made up of three reporters and a data specialist, will be a first for CPR, and the news release said the $300,000 to fund it is an anonymous gift.

More from CPR (emphasis mine):

The investigative team at Colorado Public Radio is another major development in the organization’s multi-year plan to become a leading news source for Colorado. When the vision of this five-person team is fully realized, it will provide critical resources for the community.

In August, the station’s executive editor Kevin Dale said in this newsletter he planned to build an investigative unit and credited an increase in listener support for CPR’s growth. He also said he wanted to create a 24/7 newsroom. “Our goal,” he said, “is to build this up to a newsroom of — my dream is around 70 or more … that is covering all parts of the state all day every day.” Cheers to that.

The Colorado Sun hired another reporter, and…

He’s a white dude. (Disclosure: So am I.) That aspect makes the lede given criticism the Civil-backed new digital outlet has faced over the lack of diversity in its initial hires. Responding to scrutiny in July about Colorado newspapers being overwhelmingly white and largely male and the team at the Sun looking no different, Sun editor Larry Ryckman said through freelance arrangements and by making strategic hires as the site grew, he hoped to increase diversity on his staff.

Six months later, that staff grew by one when the Sun last week peeled away investigative reporter Christopher N. Osher from The Denver Post to cover education. A grant from WEND ventures (its website: coming soon) will fund the beat. When trying to fill the position, Ryckman said the Sun conducted a national search, posted the opening on and with the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, receiving dozens of applications from across the country— a number of which came from women and minorities. “At the end of the day we hired the most qualified candidate,” he said. “As it turned out he was in our own backyard. … At the end of the day I’m like an NFL general manager on draft day. I’ve got to pick the best available player.”

Ryckman, who has spoken on journalism panels about the importance of newsroom diversity, said the reality is he can only hire the people who applied. “We cast a very wide net,” he said. “We … worked our network of friends and colleagues across the country … we posted this on minority journalism websites.” He said his site remains “committed to becoming more diverse as we grow. I just have to take it one hire at a time.”

In conversations I’ve had with journalists and others in recent months about diversity and equity in newsrooms, some themes emerged. Managers have to put in the work, which can be hard — though some say, actually, it’s not that hard — and make a serious effort in constant recruiting while doing so outside existing networks. Reach out to local and national organizations that represent minority journalists. Make sure to consider diversity of thought, class, and identity. Consider grooming the next star to mentor instead of hiring an already accomplished journalist. Interviews can illuminate better than applications alone. There are even online tools to check a job listing to make sure it’s not unintentionally coded in a way that can put women off from applying.

The Sun’s recent hire cranks its full-time staff to 11 with a handful of part-timers and a stable of about a dozen freelancers, Ryckman says. The news site Chalkbeat Colorado already offers dedicated coverage to education here, and shares its work with other outlets. Ryckman said the approach at the new Sun beat will be to tackle statewide and rural education issues and do work others aren’t doing.

While the for-profit Sun hasn’t closed the door on turning into a nonprofit, Ryckman says, it recently filed paperwork to become a public benefit corporation and has been in talks with potential investors. Ryckman says the outlet is “still happy to be partners with Civil” and continues to draw grant money from the cryptocurrency/blockchain entity, but is open to new funding streams beyond direct payment through memberships. “I think this is going to be a big year for us at the Sun,” he says.

Following publication of the newsletter version of this column earlier this week, Durango Herald editor Amy Maestas offered a tweetstorm about diversity in newsroom hiring. Click below to see the entire thread:

Speaking of education reporters…

As the Colorado Sun gains one, The Denver Post loses one. And in a way no journalist wants to have to write about. Monte Whaley, a reporter at the paper for roughly two decades, “is no longer a Denver Post employee,” the paper’s top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo said this week. The Denver Post, she said, “found instances in his work over the last 18 months that was identical to or closely mirrored words in other media outlets.” The paper removed those instances from online stories and attached a note where necessary, she said.

“Using other people’s words or reporting without credit is in direct violation of our ethics policy and the standard we set for reporters,” Colacioppo said. “Our partners at Chalkbeat accounted for the majority of instances we identified and we have been in touch with them and apologized.” (Chalkbeat is a nonprofit newsroom dedicated to education coverage that often shares its work with other publications. Its policy for republishing its stories is here.)

In a brief phone call Wednesday, Whaley said he had no comment.

Tony Mulligan, administrative officer of the Denver Newspaper Guild, said the union would file a grievance.

Post editors contacted us and alerted us to what they had found in this case,” said Eric Gorski, a former Denver Post reporter who is now managing editor for local news at Chalkbeat. “We are grateful for their attention to the matter and look forward to continuing a partnership that has been good for us both —  and for readers.”

La Plata County’s GOP chair blamed a local newspaper for the area’s political divide

A recent story in The Durango Herald about how La Plata County might be shedding its purple skin for a deeper blue hue quoted the county Republican Party chairman speaking rather frankly. “You’re not going to win in this county anymore as a Republican,” Travis Oliger told the paper. “I would be amazed if we have any candidates going forward. It’s like flushing money down the toilet … because they’re going to lose.”He blamed the area’s demographics and a nationalized recent election for the latest results that swept Democrats into power in every contested race on La Plata’s ballot. But he also had something to say about local media.

From the Herald:

He said rural residents would rather travel farther to shop in Farmington than go into town. “They don’t feel part of this community,” Oliger said. “And I sense that pretty heavily from just about everybody that I talk to. And it’s terrible. It really is.” Oliger also blamed The Durango Herald for creating a divide in the community. “We absolutely hate you guys,” he said. “We’re totally destroyed in the newspaper. You draw cartoons. We’re racists. We’re bigots. We’re sexist. No one wants anything to do with us at all.”

And he had to know that was going to make it in the paper.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Boulder Daily Camera reported on a local prominent climate scientist who is making the case of tracking global heating through ocean temperature. The Loveland Reporter-Herald reported how regional northern Colorado cities are collaborating on water issuesThe Greeley Tribune wrote about how some small towns in Weld County are undergoing an identity crisisThe Longmont Times-Call covered a revived local oatmeal festival in LafayetteThe Steamboat Pilot fronted a piece about 40 things a Steamboat local should knowThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel localized the government shutdown by profiling the local chief rangerThe Summit Daily News covered a new report about youth suicide rates in ColoradoThe Denver Post kicked off a series about the densification of Denver, a city that epitomizes “diminishment of nature.” Vail Daily reported how Eagle River is experiencing stressThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled a local athlete with a rare form of cancerThe Durango Herald examined midterm election data for a takeout about how the county is “taking a blue turn.”

‘Joey Bunch is away’

Readers of the ColoradoPolitics website and print edition for the past few weeks have noticed something about the Insights column regularly written by the Clarity Media-owned publication’s lead politics reporter Joey Bunch. Lately they’ve been items he previously published. “Joey Bunch is away, so this week we revisit his Insights column of March. 30, 2018,” reads the latest installment.

There’s more to it than that. Joey Bunch, a longtime journalist from the Deep South who spent 14 years at The Denver Post before joining ColoradoPolitics in 2016, is recovering from cardiac arrest and hoping to undergo open-heart surgery soon. Last month, Bunch checked into a hospital with pneumonia and sepsis— and suffered a heart attack while there a couple days later. Getting over the pneumonia with a weakened heart has been a struggle, he told me this week, but added it’s the pneumonia that technically saved him. If he’d had that heart attack anywhere else, he said, he might have been a goner. Well-wishers have been dropping by and sending notes his way. Perhaps you’ll keep him in your thoughts. “I’m overwhelmed by the outpouring of kindness and support,” Bunch says. “We think of this as a cold, manipulative business, but if you nearly die, you’ll be surprised to find out it’s not always so.”

From Denver TV to the mayor’s office

“Last September, longtime Denver television and radio personality Gloria Neal spoke frankly about what she referred to as a one-in, one-out quota for black journalists at local TV stations,” reports Michael Roberts in Westword. “Months later, she’s got a new gig, but not in broadcasting. She’s been named the director of public affairs for the office of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock,” who recently kickstarted a re-election bid as others step up to challenge him.

“I am certainly not someone who saw this coming,” Neal, who isn’t working in a campaign role, told Westword, “but I’m glad for the opportunity.”

Read the whole piece here.

Our new attorney general opposes The Colorado Independent’s U.S. Supreme Court records fight

While “many of the nation’s biggest news organizations, some of its top legal scholars and a squadron of Colorado newsrooms” are supporting The Colorado Independent’s fight to have the U.S. Supreme Court hear its case over access to judicial records relating to a death penalty case, one new statewide officeholder is not: Incoming Democratic Attorney General Phil Weiser.

From reporter Alex Burness in the Independent:

The Independent is asking the Supreme Court to return the case to the lower court, arguing that Colorado’s justices failed to apply First Amendment requirements in ruling that the documents should remain sealed. Instead, the state’s justices issued a blanket ruling that the public does not have an “unfettered” right to view judicial records. In a brief filed Thursday, Weiser wrote that The Independent’s petition “is not about the public’s general access to court records.” “Instead, this case is about a small subset of sealed documents that the Colorado state courts have repeatedly concluded have no bearing” on claims by death-row prisoner Sir Mario Owens that prosecutors mishandled his case, Weiser wrote.

The Colorado Independent’s editor, Susan Greene, told Burness that Weiser misstated a state court’s ruling in the case— and The Independent’s position. “Apparently, the A.G. believes that justices of the U.S. Supreme Court will be persuaded by how it characterizes the ruling and ignore the actual words of the Colorado Supreme Court’s opinion, which read that the ‘presumptive right of access to judicial proceedings’ does not extend to the records on file in courts of law,” she said, adding, “Weiser is defending the indefensible. This is a disappointing start for a man who purports to champion government transparency.”

Read the full write-up at The Independent here.

Two months after a sale, The Chronicle-News in Trinidad moved from its historic building

After more than a century of producing the news at 200 West Church St. in Trinidad, Colorado, the small Chronicle-News has moved to West Main Street downtown in an old landmark cafe formerly known as Delmonico.

The physical move is an outgrowth of another recent transition. In November, a group of locals bought the paper from a Louisiana company that owned it for the past 75 years. As for the new location, “Obviously, in a perfect world, we love this building, it’s what this newspaper has built and we would have loved to stay,” one of the new co-owners, Julie Loudon, said in the paper’s own write up. “Yet, our chief priority is the newspaper as a business and purchasing both the business and the building was not practical for us in our current position.”

On Facebook, friends of the paper weighed in to trade stories about how their lives intersected with The Chronicle-News over the years. “As a 9-year-old lad I peddled the Chronicle News on Sunday Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor and started World War II And When Franklin Delano Roosevelt Passed away 1 year into his 4th term,” wrote one. “I sure hope they consider keeping the large Chronicle News signage across the top of the building just for history’s sake,” wrote another whose parents “got engaged when my mom and her mom lived temporarily in the brick apartments up that big staircase to the side.” Another said, “My first job as a reporter was at The Chronicle News in Trinidad,” while another recalled, “My grandpa worked there.” For one Trinidadian, though, it’s “hard to see all the familiar places of my childhood change but nothing ever stays the same.”

*This column 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