At The Denver Post, it’s byline counts, union talks, and ‘a lot of anxiety’

On Monday, certain reporters at The Denver Post were on the hunt for stories. More stories. Managers at the paper had just announced that editors would be officially measuring the number of items published by investigative journalists and reporters who work on the city desk.

“The expectation is that every reporter will produce at least one story a day, and some of you will be expected to write at least two stories a day,” the paper’s news editor, Larry Ryckman, wrote to staff in a Monday e-mail. He added: “We will maintain our standards when it comes to story selection. We want only stories that are worthy of The Denver Post in print or online. These number targets will not change that.”

The Monday memo itself wasn’t exactly a bombshell. The previous Thursday, many Post reporters had heard about the policy from their immediate supervisors. Blog posts, news briefs, and contributor credits will count toward the target. Lee Ann Colacioppo, the paper’s interim editor, downplayed the move, describing the announcements in an email exchange as simply renewed attention to a “long-standing goal.”

Still, the story count targets have prompted plenty of talk within Colorado’s largest newspaper—which isn’t surprising, as they come at a moment of uncertainty for the Post.

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Last month the paper’s top editor, Greg Moore, announced at an impromptu meeting that he was stepping down after 14 years at the helm. After presiding over multiple rounds of buyouts and cutbacks, “It was just time to explore other ways to use my brain,” he said later. Moore’s exit followed the departure of other notable Post journalists, like the politics reporter Lynn Bartels, who took a buyout in July to go work in a government press office. The paper also recently cut back on locally produced editorials after a writer who left wasn’t replaced.

The loss of talent, and years of stagnant wages, have become top priorities for the newsroom union, which opened collective bargaining negotiations this week with management at the paper’s parent company, Digital First Media.

Also a source of concern for the union: Recent events at Digital First’s papers on the West Coast. The company last month won a bankruptcy sale of two newspapers in California, including the Orange County Register. The sale was immediately followed by news that 70 employees, including the Register’s top editor, would be laid off. And in the Bay Area, the company recently consolidated six papers into two, trimming staff through layoffs and buyouts in the process. 

Put it all together—Moore’s departure, the news out of California, the byline counts, even the pending end of the fiscal year, a traditional time for staff shakeups—and “there’s a lot of anxiety in the newsroom,” said Kieran Nicholson, a reporter and union leader who has been at the paper since 1986. Other Post journalists, speaking on background, offered similar assessments.

“It’s gotten to the point where it’s pretty exhausting,” said Nicholson, “For people like me—and there’s a few of us who have been around that whole time—it’s death by a thousand cuts, and we ride this roller coaster of emotion and seeing so much talent walk out the door.”

The paper’s Guild chapters—one newsroom, one non-newsroom—are part of a national campaign by DFM employees, dubbed #NewsMatters, that includes about a dozen bargaining units around the country. Much of the campaign’s messaging is focused on a lack of investment by DFM and its primary owner, the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital. That echoes the critique of industry analysts like Ken Doctor, who wrote last year of DFM: “Is there anything more to the strategy than milking the company as much as possible?”

“Just keep trimming and we’ll just keep swimming,” is how Nicholson sees the company’s approach. “Eventually I think it’s going to sink us.” 

Contacted for this story, Digital First CEO Steve Rossi issued a statement from the company’s general counsel: “We are in the midst of collective bargaining negotiations with the unions and hope to reach agreements soon.” He had no further comment. 

Colacioppo, the interim editor, also declined to discuss the Guild negotiations. Asked if the byline count policy came down from Digital First, she said, “it’s a Denver Post thing.”

In a vacuum, a story count policy at a large metro newspaper adjusting to digital disruption could be met with a muted reaction. But given the broader sense of waiting for the next shoe to drop, the shift has sparked more discussion within the Post than it might otherwise. At a Wednesday meeting of the rank-and-file, Nicholson said, there was some “angst” about the policy.

Nicholson, the elected chair for the newsroom’s union, said the story quotas  (or “counts,” as higher-ups call them) could be manageable—as long as they don’t degrade the paper’s journalism. Another sticking point in talks with union membership has been the prospect of disciplinary action. So far there’s been nothing in writing about that, he said.

Asked about discipline for missing the targets, Colacioppo told me she hasn’t “even considered it”—though based on conversations with several Post journalists, that is not how reporters in the newsroom understand the policy.

“We do not want to clutter up the website with garbage,” Colacioppo said. She declined to engage in a fuller discussion about whether a stricter story count policy could create incentives for reporters to grab at a press release they might normally pass over. 

Despite the broader concerns, the union is hopeful of progress in contract talks. On Wednesday, union leaders met with company managers to begin negotiations and submitted their proposal for higher wages. They’ll be back to the table later this month.

“I think people here are guarded and they are hopefully optimistic,” Nicholson said. “That’s how you have to be.”

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Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he is also a journalist for The Colorado Independent. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins recently worked on the State Integrity In vestigation at the Center for Public Integrity and he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, The Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.