One month ago, The Denver Post editorial board made news with a package of columns clustered around a tell-it-from-the-mountain screed decrying the degradation of local journalism at the hands of the out-of-state hedge fund and the yes-people that run the newspaper – and dozens of other papers across the country.
I was the editor behind the project, and while I expected to lose my job when I hit publish that Friday afternoon, it took our parent company, Digital First Media (DFM), controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, until late last week to push me out.
The Denver Post, a 125-year-old city newspaper, came under Alden/DFM rule in 2011, and has been run into the ground ever since. It’s one of dozens of regional publications presently owned by the vulture capitalist fund – practically all of which have seen reductions in staff and resources since the moment they found themselves under the Alden/DFM umbrella. And while the sale of all these papers to the hedge fund was announced as a strategy to position local outlets for the long run, the reality that journalists in the company’s newsrooms have lived and breathed has been something more cynical and sinister.
Over the last several days, I was put in a position where resignation was my only honorable option. This is how it happened.
A month ago, any talk of firing me, taking the contentious editorial package off-line and yanking it from the printing presses quickly ended. Any of those moves would have been too great a public-relations disaster before the overwhelming interest in the pieces and the support they generated around the U.S. and, to my astonishment, the world. On the same morning our Sunday call-out showed up on doorsteps in Denver, The New York Times ran an above-the-fold piece about the fight. As the person who had assigned, edited and contributed to the special edition, the moment was surreal.
But what may have looked like a David-and-Goliath victory quickly turned into a shameful crushing of dissent at the Post, its sister publication in Boulder and among its counterparts in local newspapers owned by the same hedge fund.
One month later, the call for better hasn’t worked.
This past Friday, the day after I resigned, two of my closest friends – Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman – top editors in the newsroom, followed suit. The paper’s former owner, the legendary William Dean Singleton, a deeply revered mentor and member of our editorial board and the greater Denver community, also stepped away.
Instead of getting the message, the Alden executives atop New York’s Lipstick Building – Heath Freeman and Randall D. Smith – viewed the package (dubbed the “News-matters Perspective”) as a “self-inflicted wound” that simply makes it easier for Alden and Digital First to bleed its newsrooms dry. While we managed to change the public conversation and rightly refocus the national understanding of the plight of traditional newspaper journalism, we also made the vultures even more menacing.
The problem is significant not only for DFM journalists: The erosion of quality local journalism in the shortsighted service of obscene profit-taking is destroying public trust in what we do.
Depending on your bogeyman – whether it’s Trump Nation or P.C. Elitism – the desire to retreat to echo-chamber news outlets has grown. Local papers look more like advertising supplements filled with content from other sources, and “serious journalists” are considered something only national brands can afford.
What this story has taught me is that unless the reading public truly gets in these vultures’ faces and demands better, the “rotting bones” of our paper will be scattered over the high desert much sooner than feared.
The company’s first attempt to silence me came days after the package caught fire in early April. Henceforth, I was to turn over publication plans for all opinion content three days in advance. The pieces were to be screened by a committee overseen by DFM senior leadership. In addition, I was forbidden to mention our owners, Alden, in any capacity.
I argued that none of that was practical, but agreed to report to a publisher, as I had before the last one resigned and wasn’t – in a cost-saving move – replaced. Traditionally, the editorial page does not report to a given paper’s top editor, though this has changed at many companies over the years. Given the present circumstances, I would be happy to report to Post editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who is certainly qualified, and, it should be noted, the first female editor-in-chief in the publication’s century-plus history.
After doing several interviews about the package that first week, I agreed to mostly let the editorial speak for itself and move forward with my job. After all, our board places great value on diplomacy and statesmanship.
The shaky status quo soon fizzled, as corporate questioned whether I should be pulled from the editorial page and returned to the newsroom, where I served as politics editor from 2011 to 2016.
Again, my push-back against those ideas seemed successful, but only for a few days. (I’ve since learned that Alden is actively debating whether to do away with house editorials in all of its papers across the country.)
Last Thursday morning, I drafted an editorial for Sunday, May 6, that criticized Alden and DFM for legitimate reasons: They had instructed top editors across their holdings to never mention the companies without top-level clearance; they had fired their editorial page editor in Boulder for arguably doing his job; and a national media expert confirmed Alden is doing exactly what we said a month ago, and then some, which is essentially milking the cash cow to death.(The Post enjoys profits of 19 percent. Across DFM, the operating margin is 17 percent. These are figures in excess of Alden’s media peers.)
The May 6 editorial, which never ran, began: “A serious threat to journalism in Colorado and across the country is only growing stronger. Papers owned by Alden Global Capital and operated by Digital First Media now suffer not just from neglect, but outright censorship.”
It ended: “Journalism’s mission is too important for such atrocious apostasy.
“We renew our call for Alden to reinvest in its newsrooms, or release us to better ownership.”
The piece was swiftly rejected by DFM chief Guy Gilmore, and talk returned to pulling me back into the newsroom.
As I write this, the reflection and emotion are but hours old. It took me until early Thursday afternoon to begin crafting my letter of resignation. When I finished it an hour or two later, and pressed the send button – well, I fought tears and rage.
On Saturday night, I remembered that after our big package ran last month, the student paper of Alden top dog Heath Freeman’s beloved alma mater, Duke University, published a thrasher of an editorial as a greeting to a Freeman visit. The Chronicle‘s piece was both brilliant and reason enough to believe in the future.
Without question, the Duke editorial underscored the power of local papers. By way of shaming Freeman for his rapacious greed, the students referred to the university’s mission statement and the expectation that the goal of higher education is to use knowledge in pursuit of the public good. It was a clever and civil way of calling Freeman out for what he was, and it also was an inspired appeal to the rest of us adults to take stock.
For as the student writers understood, good journalists don’t just seek to expose or to criticize, but to point out solutions, and be prepared to praise them when they occur.
What if it worked? What if Heath Freeman listened to these kids?
What if Freeman merely promised to save his newspapers, or sell them?
Why can’t something like that be the outcome of this story?
So far, some civic-minded folks have announced plans to offer $10 million in seed money to rally support to buy the Post, but that’s far from enough, and experts argue that Alden believes it can keep making money by simply running the paper into the ground.
As journalists and as good public citizens, we cannot agree to remain silent about clear threats to our communities.
The stakes are too important. Now that we’ve placed the vultures on notice, let’s keep them there until we win.
Until last week, Chuck Plunkett was The Denver Post‘s editorial page editor.