This week last year, Denver became ground zero in a new narrative about the role of private equity in late-capitalist newspaper decline.
It was in 1963 when Wall Street Journal publisher Dow Jones put the first newspaper company on the New York Stock Exchange, and The New York Times followed suit six years later. In Covering America, Christopher Daly’s excellent history of American newspapers, he recalls the decade as when newspapers began to lose control of their own destinies. “They could be bought and sold just like a company that made nails, or soap, cigarettes or jet engines. They could be combined and recombined with other companies, captured like so many pieces on a corporate chessboard. From now on they could be owned by people who didn’t care about journalism, or who didn’t even like journalists.”
Or, well, hedge funds.
On April 8 last year, about a month after The Denver Post announced it would lay off nearly a third of its newsroom, then-editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett courageously rounded up a bundle of columns critical of the paper’s cost-cutting hedge-fund owner Alden Global. He capped it with his own editorial headlined “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,” and published the package online the Friday before, on April 6, without alerting the paper’s top editor or its corporate ownership. The explosive act changed the national conversation about newspaper ownership and led to a dramatic realignment of Colorado’s media landscape. (For a recap of the aftermath, including the protests, a firing, the mass resignations, attempts to buy the Post, those Press Club panels, a rival startup, the creation of The Colorado Media Project, et al, I’ve chronicled that here.)
A year later, the drama of those heady days is no more. The Denver Post’s logo still adorns the white cruise-ship-looking building in downtown Denver, though its newsroom has been shipped off to a printing plant in Adams County. Sometime soon, we’ll be able to view at least two documentaries (currently in the works) about this time in Denver history and what it might mean in the larger context of the local news apocalypse.
Writing recently in a project for the labor union that represents Digital First Media journalists, Julie Reynolds checked in with some of the key figures of last year’s uprising for a retrospective and a look at what has changed. Some excerpts:
Alden is still in control of the Digital First Media chain, and none of the locals raising funds to buy the Denver Post has pulled it off. Alden is even emboldened to try to take over its competitor, Gannett, and has nominated its own board slate to be voted on at Gannett’s annual meeting. For all of the widespread, negative press coverage, Alden hasn’t stopped doing what it does.
…After hiring a “spin” firm to try to clean up its reputation, Digital First Media has officially changed its tarnished name to MediaNews Group. The hedge fund and its founders, Heath Freeman and Randall Smith, are rarely mentioned in news reports without a line or two describing their reputation for destroying newspapers….
The Harvard Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor also believes the rebellion spawned community concern about local news, an industry desperate for solutions. “You’re seeing a response, more this year than last year, of people recognizing things like ‘news deserts.’ There has been lots of discussion among foundations, and in Denver there have been discussions about how to pay for journalism.” The main takeaway, he said, is that “the old order is declining rapidly; the new order is still inchoate.”…Most important of all, the Denver Rebellion made Americans understand that their local newspaper is under siege — and that it’s worth fighting for.
A new project hopes to keep up the pressure
One year ago, Denver Post staffers openly rebelled against their hedge fund owners. While employees have continued to do their best to produce a great newspaper, they are hamstrung ― and Denver is poorly served ― by the paper’s current ownership. Join us to fight for journalism that’s reflective of this great city.
We, the undersigned, are urging Alden Capital to behave responsibly by investing in staff and participating in civic life or to sell the Denver Post to someone who will. Until then, we promise to use our networks and platforms to raise awareness of Alden’s harmful practices with advertisers and the public and to support existing and emerging alternatives.
The two men behind this renewed public pressure campaign are Ken Gart, a longtime Denver businessman, and Curtis Hubbard, a public affairs professional who spent years in the newsroom of The Denver Post. I caught up with them over the phone this week to talk about their effort, and about what they think they’re doing differently than those who sparked unsuccessful efforts last year to lean on the hedge fund to sell the paper to a local owner.
“One of the things that we noticed in the last several months is … that momentum seems to have disappeared,” Hubbard said. “So this is really about being a public outreach and public engagement effort.” He added he wants the site to become a clearinghouse for information and a way to harvest email addresses. “That sort of engagement and outreach that didn’t happen a year ago is one of the big things we’re trying to accomplish this time around,” he said.
Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore: OK, now what?
Last week, writing for Pulitzer.org, former Denver Post editor Greg Moore, who now works at the online marketing company Deke Digital, wrote a piece about the fight for the survival of local news producers. The importance of that survival, he wrote, is “finally getting the public attention it deserves. But the question now is: Will it make a difference?”
From the piece:
I left the business in 2016 because I concluded hedge funds and investment banks that dominated ownership of local newspapers were not committed to the mission of serving the public interest. But I freely admit that between 2009 through 2014, I was feeling pretty optimistic that newsrooms might make it across the digital divide because of efficiency and creativity. The editors had become better managers. With no deadwood to move around any longer, they focused on getting the most out of all who remained, aware that any departure might go dark during these tighter times. We were more selective about what we covered and our story recognition was sharper. We jettisoned low-level rote reporting in favor of higher impact news. And we were taking advantage of digital tools to multi-task and become better storytellers — packaging compelling reporting, writing, video and photography that was growing audience. We were creating all kinds of apps, and were blogging, tweeting, Facebooking … you name it. If the top business leadership had been as committed to building the business as the newsroom editors were committed to building the audience, I really think we’d be in better shape today.
In the rest of the piece, he chats with folks about the potential saviors of the business model from philanthropy to government subsidies. “Every day that passes by another local newspaper inches closer to death,” he concludes. “I just hope we have given the public enough to fight for and to fight about. The very survival of local news is at stake.”
#PlunkettWatch: Will Chuck P win a Pulitzer Prize?
We’ll know next week. He’s already been honored by The National Press Club, received Colby College’s 2018 Lovejoy Award for courageous journalism, and an ACLU Civil Rights Award. On April 15, we’ll find out whether this year’s Pulitzer Prize board deems the catalyst of the Denver Rebellion worthy of journalism’s top honor for editorial writing or column writing.
In an odd twist, if Plunkett does win, it won’t be because The Denver Post nominated him for the prize. The paper’s current editorial page editor, Megan Schrader, confirmed the paper did not apply on his behalf this year. Hmmm. It’s worth noting Plunkett resigned from the paper citing censorship. My take? The Denver Post should have given him the nom. If they did, and he won, then you might even see something in this newsletter like, Hey, how about that, it looks like the corporate suits didn’t get involved. Since the paper didn’t nominate him, you kind of have to wonder. At least I do.
Wally World’s water world: Introducing ‘The Water Desk’
The Walton Family Foundation has turned on the funding spigot for more water coverage in Colorado courtesy of the Center for Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Launching with a $700,000 grant for two years, “the Water Desk will operate as a small news organization that also provides resources, training and other support to journalists, media outlets and students so that the public and policymakers are better informed about Western water issues and the Colorado River,” CU reports.
From the announcement:
As a journalistic effort, the Water Desk will maintain a strict editorial firewall between its content and funders. Likewise, the Water Desk will have editorial independence from CU. The Water Desk is interested in working across platforms and will be looking for ways to support journalism through newspapers, magazines, websites, radio/podcasts, television, video and other media. We’ll be releasing guidelines for applying for funding soon.
So why aren’t you reading about the Waltons and all their influence over our water in the West? I think the answer is that the Waltons are smarter than those who came before them. They have taken the art of impact investing to new and more dangerous heights.
…They understood from the beginning that there were only four possible areas of oversight into their water activities: government, journalists, environmental groups and academics. And they have poured millions of dollars into all of these areas. As you have seen, or rather not seen, the Waltons’ efforts to influence or even control how water is distributed and used in the future has largely been kept invisible or even cheered on.
We’re all going to be working for Colorado Public Radio one day
If the Centennial-based public radio behemoth is set for world domination, perhaps it wants to make sure the world will, well, be around a little while longer. This week’s news in the CPR-just-keeps-expanding department is that it’s launching a “climate solutions reporting team” with help from a $1.21 million grant from the Jacques M. Littlefield Foundation that will cover five years and pay for an editor and three reporters.
“We are committed to fact-based reporting on the impact, solutions and political aspects of climate change,” CPR’s top editor Kevin Dale said in a statement. The station’s president and CEO Stewart Vanderwilt added the new team will produce “deep and ongoing coverage of Colorado’s role in research, innovation and action to address climate issues.”
As newspaper newsrooms in Colorado have constricted in recent years, CPR has been on a recent march of expansion. The latest move comes just after the station gobbled up the for-profit hyperlocal news site Deverite, started building an investigative unit, hired local reporters in Grand Junction and Colorado Springs, and announced it was looking for a Washington, D.C. correspondent. In a statement, Dale credited the growth to “a direct result of the investment the community has made” in the station.
The Gazette in Colorado Springs yanked back a state Senate endorsement
Nearly a month after The Denver Post editorial board popped eyeballs across Colorado by rescinding its much-discussed 2014 endorsement of Republican U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the editorial board of The Gazette in Colorado Springs came out with its own take-back.
“Our endorsement of Pete Lee was a mistake,” the board wrote in a headline about the Democratic senator it backed in the latest election. Why? From the editorial:
We viewed him as a wise politician with moderate views and an independent will. We did not care which party he belonged to, because we considered him principled and dedicated to making Colorado a better place in which to live. During just three months in the Senate, Lee has proven us wrong. Lee votes like a partisan lemming following an extreme party off the cliff.
The paper particularly did not approve of Lee’s vote in favor of the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, paid family leave, an oil-and-gas bill, sex-ed bill, and red-flag gun bill. The board even got in a ding at Denver’s KUSA 9News TV anchor Kyle Clark, calling him “Democrat-friendly” as if he is somehow loyal to a particular political party in Colorado, which he isn’t.
This isn’t the first time The Gazette’s editorial board snatched back an endorsement. Last year, the board backed an effort by oil-and-gas interests to pass a statewide ballot measure “requiring the government to award just compensation to owners of private property when a government law or regulation reduces the fair market value of the property,” which critics worried would lead to massive unintended consequences for local governments. After further consideration, including learning about what happened when Oregon passed a similar law, “We were wrong on Colorado Amendment 74,” The Gazette’s editorial board wrote in a headline before the 2018 midterm elections.
The Pueblo Chieftain’s union negotiations
At the time, Luke Lyons, a reporter and the unit chair of the Chieftain’s newsroom union, said there had been a few layoffs since the out-of-town takeover. Paginators, he said, were also told they could move to Austin where GateHouse’s design hub resides or be laid off. Because of some accounting changes, he said, journalists there were taking a monetary hit. Also, the newsroom got a dress code. No more jeans at work. “It has to be slacks and collared shirts,” he said that summer. “Even for the sports guys.”
GateHouse recognized the labor union and has been negotiating a new contract. Now, a year later, “We’ve basically been struggling to get any financial improvement during our negotiations with GateHouse,” Lyons says.
“The company is proposing a two-year contract with minimum wages upon hire as low as the state’s current minimum wage of $11.10 per hour and next year’s state minimum wage of $12.00 per hour. Under the company’s proposal, nine of the 14 minimum wage rates will be the state minimum wage,” according to an April 3 bargaining update document. “When GateHouse took over the paper, employees lost night differential and other premium pay, daily overtime, had their mileage rate reduced, and are now required to pay three to four times as much for medical insurance. But the biggest loss for those not yet at top scale in the old contract is the loss of pay progression, leaving people stuck at their current low rate.”
What you missed from the Sunday front pages across Colorado
ATTN Colorado newsrooms: April 26 deadline if you want help from ProPublica
Investigative nonprofit news powerhouse ProPublica is “supporting local and regional newsrooms as they work on important investigative projects affecting their communities” with topics that range from conflicts of interest to housing, mental healthcare, criminal justice and workplace safety.
The outlet is currently looking to select six newsrooms across the country to join its national network. “The group will begin work on July 1 and continue for a year. With support from a new grant, we will pay the salary (up to $75,000), plus an allowance for benefits, for full-time reporters.” Sounds like a good deal. More from ProPublica:
ProPublica’s first group of seven local reporters produced a strong body of work last year, exposing lapses in worker safety at nuclear facilities, failures in public housing, the devastating toll of post traumatic stress disorder on first responders, and stunning miscarriages of justice in Indiana, among others.
More details on this initiative and how your newsroom can apply here.
Weekly newsroom HR report: The personnel file
Remember last week when Erin McIntyre and Mike Wiggins, the couple at The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel who said they were leaving the paper and didn’t let on immediately about their next adventure? Turns out they’re the new owners of The Ouray County Plain Dealer. “My favorite thing about journalism is connecting with the community I serve,” McIntyre said. “Telling personal stories folks can relate to.” From the announcement:
The couple look forward to making Ouray County their home and getting to know the community. “We are passionate about community journalism and take our role as the next caretakers of the Plaindealer seriously,” Wiggins said. The Ouray County Plaindealer was established in 1877, and only the Silverton Standard and The Miner (1875) newspaper traces its roots as a Western Slope business back further than the Plaindealer. The Plaindealer has been owned and operated by Alan Todd and Beecher Threatt since October 2010, when they purchased the paper from David Mullings. It is the newspaper of record for Ouray County, the City of Ouray and the Town of Ridgway.
Buying a newspaper together. These days. The guts. Now for some bad news. Jim Patterson, editor of The Craig Daily Press, told readers this week why they might not have seen him around lately. “There’s really no way to cushion what I’m about to tell you, so I’ll just tell you: On March 15, I was diagnosed with advanced pancreatic cancer,” he wrote. Thoughts his way.
Congrats to Colorado’s ‘Best of the West’ winners
Two Colorado newsrooms took home First Place prizes in this year’s Best of the West journalism awards.
For the top honor in page design, Stephanie Swearngin of The Colorado Springs Gazette won with “a magazine-style, black-and-white design for ‘Joshua’s Journey,’ about a family helping a young son battle cancer.”
Westword staff writer Chris Walker won for immigration and border reporting with his profile of a Pakistani “who desperately wants to be deported during the most deportation-loving U.S. administration in recent memory can’t seem to get himself booted across the border.”
Other Colorado newsrooms also took home awards. Sam Brasch and Megan Verlee of Colorado Public Radio won second place for audio storytelling for their podcast “Purplish.” Jennifer Brown of The Colorado Sun won second place for news writing with her story about a high school senior’s suicide. The Sun’s Brown, Tamara Chuang and Kevin Simpson also won third place in growth and environment reporting. Dougal Brownlie of The Gazette in Colorado Springs tied for third place for a features slideshow.
On a related note, after three-and-a-half years, Walker is leaving Westword to forge an independent path as a freelancer. He penned a multi-tweet announcement that included this line: “I did not, for a second, take for granted that, in this day and age with the way the industry has gone, I was still able to follow what was once a common track: join an alt-weekly during my 20’s and use my time there to develop a voice, hone investigative techniques, drop an F bomb or two in my writing, and pursue stories mostly of my own choosing.”
And, man, I do sure hope that track remains for many more like him.
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