The media today: Denver Post cuts fit a disturbing pattern at hedge-fund owned papers

News of impending cuts at The Denver Post came first from Twitter. “In a staff meeting, the @DenverPost editor just told us that we are cutting 30 positions in the newsroom,” wrote City Hall reporter Jon Murray. “There are some sobs in the room.” The paper soon confirmed that its newsroom of around 100 would be reduced by almost a third, slashing its capacity to cover one of the nation’s booming cities. (Its newsroom had already been cut by two thirds, from 300 at its peak.)

The cuts at the Post, which has already seen several rounds of layoffs, will leave the region’s preeminent paper with fewer resources to provide the sort of accountability journalism that has won it several Pulitzer Prizes. “I’m sure some commenters will cheer what they believe is the eventual demise of the mainstream media, but there is nothing to celebrate when a city has fewer journalists working in it,” Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo wrote in a memo to staff on Wednesday. But the story isn’t just a local one; it’s part of a pattern playing out around the country at newspapers controlled by one company.

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The Post is just the most recent outlet owned by “vulture” hedge fund Alden Global Capital to face the ax. Alden controls Digital First Media, the country’s second largest newspaper chain, which has a pattern of gutting newsrooms and selling off valuable office space to squeeze profit from the industry. In the Bay Area, it has decimated the San Jose Mercury News, cutting a newsroom of more than 400 down to about 40 staffers. Writing last month on the purchase of the Boston Herald by Digital First, Joshua Benton argued, “just short of setting the place on fire, being bought by Digital First is about the worst outcome possible.”

The man behind Alden Global Capital is Randall Smith, a press-shy billionaire who Julie Reynolds profiled in The Nation last fall. “He has no experience with actually managing a newspaper, and his professional history reflects no interest in journalism beyond profiteering,” Reynolds wrote.

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The Washington Post’s Margaret Sullivan likened Digital First’s approach to strip-mining. Cataloguing the stunned reactions from Denver, she notes that “Digital First is wreaking similar havoc all over the country.” That result of that havoc is fewer journalists working in dozens of cities. As Denver Post Broncos beat reporter Nicki Jhabvala tweeted in response to the news, “This is why hedge funds shouldn’t own newspapers.”

Below, more on the coverage of cutbacks in Denver and elsewhere.

  • A depressing decade: Denver Business Journal’s Caitlin Hendee and Greg Avery write on the recent history of cuts at the Post and its former sister paper, The Rocky Mountain News, which ceased publication in 2009. “There were about 450 journalists at the newsrooms of Denver’s competing daily newspapers just a decade ago,” they note.
  • An ongoing issue: In 2016, CJR’s Corey Hutchins reported on problems at the Denver Post, where byline counts, union talks, and “a lot of anxiety” dominated the newsroom.
  • Not just Denver: Robert Feder reports on another round of layoffs at the Chicago Tribune. Feder notes that “Thursday’s layoffs and the uncertainty surrounding them may help fortify an effort to unionize Tribune editorial employees.” Last week, NPR’s David Folkenflik examined Tronc’s reorganization plans.

 

Other notable stories

  • Time’s Daniel D’Addario profiles Shep Smith, the man with “the hardest job on Fox News.” An old-fashioned anchorman, Smith delivers straight reporting that often contradicts the outlandish conspiracy-mongering and pro-Trump cheerleading of his network’s opinion shows. “We serve different masters,” Smith says of the divide between news and opinion. “We work for different reporting chains, we have different rules. They don’t really have rules on the opinion side. They can say whatever they want.”
  • ProPublica issued a correction to its year-old story on newly nominated CIA chief Gina Haspel. “The story also said she mocked the prisoner’s suffering in a private conversation. Neither of these assertions is correct and we retract them,” wrote Editor in Chief Stephen Engelberg. “It is now clear that Haspel did not take charge of the base until after the interrogation of Zubaydah ended.” This is a major screw-up on an important story, but ProPublica’s transparency about its error is admirable. “We at ProPublica hold government officials responsible for their missteps, and we must be equally accountable,” Engelberg acknowledged.
  • The movement sparked by the Parkland shooting has thrust teenage voices onto the national stage. CJR’s Alexandria Neason, a former education reporter, offers do’s and don’ts for reporting on children.
  • Former ESPN President John Skipper spoke with The Hollywood Reporter’s James Andrew Miller about his abrupt exit from the network in December. The cause, Skipper says, was an extortion plot connected to his purchase of cocaine, the substance referenced in the announcement of his departure.
  • Current’s April Simpson raises a good question in her piece on a shelved NPR investigation into the Peace Corps prescribing of a controversial anti-malaria drug: What should news organizations do with reporting by individuals found to have committed sexual harassment?
  • Michael Getler, a legendary ombudsman for The Washington Post and PBS, died Thursday. “Mr. Getler became known for sharp observations that became the talk of the newsroom—and other newsrooms,” wrote Bart Barnes in the Post’s obituary of Getler, who also served as a foreign correspondent and editor at the paper.

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Pete Vernon is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter @ByPeteVernon.