Megaphone in hand, George Kelly looks energized despite his red-eye flight to New York City. Kelly, a breaking news reporter at the East Bay Times, traveled 3,000 miles from Oakland to deliver a message: “Be proud of the work you do. Be proud of the communities you serve. Be ashamed of the people hundreds of feet above our heads.” The modest but mighty crowd before him erupted with applause.
Kelly was one of 20 or so Digital First Media employees who gathered outside 885 Third Ave in Manhattan at noon today to protest. They chanted call-and-response battlecries (“What do we want? New owners! When do we want them? Now!”) and held handmade posters as they rallied against the slashing of local newsrooms by Alden Global Capital, the New York–based hedge fund that’s gutted DFM properties like The Denver Post in recent months.
“The shame is theirs, but down here on the streets, the pride is ours,” Kelly shouted alongside his fellow protesters. In the shadow of the Lipstick Building—Alden’s headquarters—protesters created a frontline in the war on local news, charging their corporate owner not only with pillaging newspapers, but also of censoring them. “What we have is resolve. What we have are messages: We want Alden out of our news,” Kelly continued. (Alden Global Capital declined to comment on this story.)
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Joe Rubino, proudly sporting a Colorado flag baseball cap, traveled from Denver (with funds from the Post’s union) to shame, publicly, what some are calling a “vulture fund,” though he preferred another metaphor. “This company is a parasite,” he tells CJR. “It infects things that are living and it drains them for its own benefit and nothing else.” The Post reporter calls Alden’s recent actions a “slap in the face” to readers, a disservice to the industry: “They fear a free press and do not belong in the business at all.”
Today’s protest was the culmination of a weeks-long campaign by Post staffers and their supporters to hold Alden accountable. It started last month when the Post put together an editorial package calling for Alden to sell the paper or change its business practices. Then Dave Krieger, an editor at another DFM property, the Boulder Daily Camera, was fired on April 25 for his self-published editorial lambasting the actions of private equity newspaper ownership. Last week, the turmoil continued as Chuck Plunkett, the paper’s editorial page editor, tendered his resignation in response to DFM’s rejection of another editorial criticizing its actions (Corey Hutchins included the entirety of the unpublished editorial in his story for CJR.)
The editorial alleged that DFM “has demanded at some of its papers that any mention of the company or of Alden must be screened by top editors before publication.” Plunkett’s departure caused a ripple effect: Two senior editors, plus the Post’s former owner Dean Singleton, departed the company in protest. And, in an open letter yesterday, 55 of the Post’s staffers decried “unconscionable censorship” by the Alden-controlled Digital First Media, the second-largest newspaper chain in the country.
Courageous journalists. Confronting power. #NewsMatters pic.twitter.com/7yMfRTiJRW
— Gabriel Elizondo (@elizondogabriel) May 8, 2018
Until now, DFM employee’s grievances have taken the form of tweets, scathing editorials, and open letters. Today was different. Frustrated, yet empowered, they took their efforts offline and to Alden’s doorsteps, with help from the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America, which defrayed the costs of DFM employees’ flights to the demonstration.Three hours later, at noon mountain time, another contingency gathered at the Post’s printing plant in Adams County, the paper’s acting newsroom, 2,000 miles away.
The crowd walking out of the Denver Post today is much bigger than just the newsroom. pic.twitter.com/OqAOzntRs5
— Ashley Dean (@AshleyDean) May 8, 2018
Staffers from various DFM papers, from the Post to The Mercury News to the St. Paul Pioneer Press, are becoming a unified front. The fight in Denver is the same one happening in Kingston, New York, and in Oakland, California. Many of these DFM papers remain profitable (like the Post) and churn out Pulitzer-worthy coverage (like East Bay Times). Yet their owners, far removed from the communities these papers serve, continue to slash budgets and staff. Another round of cuts is coming soon, according to Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor, something “in the range of 10 to 15 percent is being planned for the paper, along with other Digital First Media properties.”
One of those properties, the Bay Area News Group, lost close to 40 people earlier this year. The loss devastated its coverage, according to Thomas Peele, one of its investigative reporters, who was in New York today to protest: “Every day is a struggle.” The cutbacks mean few city hall reporters, and not a single education reporter, remain at the group’s newspapers. Almost a year ago, Peele and some colleagues picked up a Pulitzer in New York for breaking news coverage of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland that killed 36 people. A year later, they’ve experienced three staff reductions since. “We were already thin at that time,” he told the crowd outside the Lipstick Building. “It felt like there weren’t a lot of bodies left to go in our newsroom.”
A small group broke off and made its way from the pedestrian plaza through the revolving door and into the lobby of Alden’s headquarters. They wanted to personally deliver a letter to Alden’s executives, complete with 11,000 signatures safely packaged within a cardboard Staples box. But they didn’t have the chance today; security forced them out within minutes. Instead they’ll take the more traditional route and mail the petition. “We clearly have their attention,” Peele said, back outside the Lipstick Building. A few minutes later, the protesters started to disband, and in Terminator-worthy fashion, chanted: “We’ll be back.”
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Editor’s Note: This piece has been updated to include an accurate count of the lives lost in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire.Meg Dalton is a freelance journalist and audio producer based in Connecticut. She's reported and edited for CJR, PBS NewsHour, Energy News Network, Architectural Digest, MediaShift, Hearst Connecticut newspapers, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @megdalts. Find her on Twitter @megdalts.