‘We’re not expecting a miracle’: Denver Post rebellion receives mixed response

The Denver Post's downtown office. Most reporters have moved into a new office in a printing facility in a neighboring county as part of a cost-cutting effort. Chelsea Nesvig, via Flickr

THE DENVER POST’S recent, dramatic rebellion against its hedge-fund owner generated national headlines and heartened a few media watchers. According to a new report in The New York Times, the Post‘s move also prompted a group of investors called Together for Colorado Springs, chaired by the founder of the Colorado Springs Independent, to begin assembling a plan to try and purchase the paper from Alden Global Capital. But the Post is far from the only Digital First Media newspaper suffering deep cuts as its owner faces accusations of sucking money from its newspapers in order to make risky investments—something the Post alluded to in its own remarkable coverage.

Late last week, as part of a perspective package that included nine columns, some from outside contributors and former staffers, the Post’s editorial board decried the business practices of its owner, Alden Global Capital, as a “cynical strategy of constantly reducing the amount and quality of its offerings, while steadily increasing its subscription rates.” That editorial, which urged Alden to sell the Post, also included a “call for action” that invoked other Alden-owned newspapers:

Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings.

However, in the days following the Post’s plea, the response from other newspapers owned by the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain has been mixed or muted. On Tuesday, senior editors throughout the chain who were on a regularly scheduled conference call spent some time discussing how they might respond in their own communities, according to Tony Adamis, managing editor of The Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York. Like a handful of other DFM papers, The Freeman ran an Associated Press item in print and online about The Denver Post’s revolt.

ICYMI: Meet the journalist tracking Digital First Media’s hedge-fund owner

“Different people were taking sort of different approaches to try to report news of interest,” Adamis said about the editors on the call. “And in the uncomfortable position, to some extent, of reporting on yourself.”

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After the cuts at Bay Area News Group papers, executive editor Neil Chase wrote, ‘people in our community offered introductions to potential investors in the event our owners decide to sell.’

 

CJR REACHED OUT TO other Digital First Media newsrooms to try and learn whether they planned to build on the Post’s message and cover what has become a national story. Some editors didn’t respond to calls or emails; of those who did, one was too busy to talk, another politely indicated he did not wish to discuss the matter. However, a handful explained their rationale for tackling the story locally or not.

Neil Chase, executive editor for the DFM-owned Bay Area News Group, voiced his support for the Post’s efforts early on social media. The Bay Area News Group includes The Mercury News and East Bay Times, papers that were hit with two dozen layoffs in February.

This week, Chase’s support materialized in the pages of his own paper, where he published a column in The Mercury News addressing the uprising against Alden in Denver and called the Post’s editorial “extraordinary.” After the cuts at his own papers, Chase wrote, “people in our community offered introductions to potential investors in the event our owners decide to sell.” In the piece, he explained that The Mercury News is planning public events to keep those conversations going.

In an interview before his column ran, Chase said his California papers don’t have a Sunday editorial section, so he couldn’t do something quite as ambitious as The Denver Post. However, Chase announced in his column that the Bay Area News Group will embark on a series of town halls in order to invite comments on changes to its newsrooms. “If the goal in Denver was to raise public awareness of the situation they’re in,” says Chase, “I think this was a brilliant way to do it.”

About 30 miles south, in Santa Cruz, the DFM-owned Sentinel newspaper re-printed The Denver Post editorial in full, with this note: “This editorial was published in the Denver Post on Sunday. The Santa Cruz Sentinel is also owned by Alden Global Capital and has seen similar cuts in recent years.” (Managing editor Kara Meyberg Guzman didn’t respond to an inquiry by the time this story was posted.)  

In an interview, Frank Pine, executive editor of the DFM-owned Southern California News Group, which includes The Orange County Register and the Riverside Press-Enterprise, said he felt The Denver Post’s shot across the bow prompted a “very necessary” conversation about the state of journalism. He added that local newspapers have an obligation to be open with their audiences.

“Here in Southern California, we have also had staff reductions and we have made significant changes to our publications,” Pine said. “We’re thinking about how best to communicate that story to our readers.”

In Massachusetts, The Berkshire Eagle also reprinted The Denver Post editorial, with a note that might give some hope to those wishing for DFM to sell its papers to local owners. “In 2010, MediaNews Group—and therefore the Post and The Eagle—came under management and ownership of Digital First Media,” reads the note. “As of May 1, 2016, The Eagle has been owned by a locally based group.” That’s in reference to a group of wealthy local businessmen, led by a retired judge, who pledged to increase local news coverage and bring back jobs that were outsourced by DFM.

 

So far, many of Alden’s DFM-owned daily and weekly papers haven’t added their voices to the Post’s plea.

 

JAMES CAMPANINI who edits the DFM-owned Lowell Sun and the 180-year-old Fitchburg Sentinel and Enterprise in Massachusetts, has seen his own newsrooms beaten down by cutbacks. In February, for the first time in its history, the Sentinel and Enterprise closed its office to save money.

After the recent sale of The Boston Herald to Digital First Media, Campanini says he’s heard plenty about “vulture capitalism” in the journalism business. However, it’s doubtful his papers will follow The Denver Post’s lead in aggressively covering it.

“The challenges are difficult enough without just heaping on criticism everywhere,” he says. “We’re trying to get this news industry to survive and to grow again, and maybe it is by doing negative stories of corporate ownership and stuff. But it doesn’t seem like it’s abating. Everybody wants a piece of newspapers. When they go up they’re being sold.” A revolution on the op-ed page isn’t going to save the industry, says Campanini, but maybe a “white knight” in Denver will decide to buy the Post. It happened for The Berkshire Eagle, after all.

In Colorado, which has about a dozen DFM papers, at least two—The Boulder Daily Camera and The Longmont Times-Call—ran the same front-page Associated Press wire story about The Denver Post’s revolt. The Fort Morgan Times re-published a column about it by a former Post staffer now writing for the nonprofit Colorado Independent. In Saratoga Springs, New York, the DFM-owned Saratogian ran an AP report, and headlined its story to focus readers’ attention on Alden: “Denver Post publishes harsh rebuke of its ownership, which also controls The Saratogian.” (Saratogian editor Charlie Kraebel said he was swamped and couldn’t talk.)

At The Freeman in Kingston, editor Adamis said running an AP wire report of such an unprecedented event met the test for newsworthiness in his community. But it’s probably not something his limited staff would tackle with original reporting. “It’s not like you’re The New York Times… when the Times has to report on itself they set up a little team and a firewall and they have the luxury of being able to do that,” he said. “Many of us are very small. I’ve got a newsroom of 12 people.”

So far, many (if not most) of Alden’s DFM-owned daily and weekly papers haven’t added their voices to the Post’s plea. Out on Colorado’s Eastern Plains, in the small town of Sterling, the Journal-Advocate has no plans to run any editorial coverage about the matter, says editor Sara Waites. That paper won’t run a wire story because it no longer subscribes to AP content. Editors at other DFM papers in Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota didn’t respond to inquiries.

It’s possible that some editors might fear reprisal from DFM for critical coverage of Alden.

Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s editorial page editor, orchestrated his paper’s coverage without notifying DFM or his own paper’s top editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo. Within hours of the Post’s publication, DFM Chief Operating Officer Guy Gilmore called Colacioppo. “They considered firing me and pulling sections,” Plunkett tells CJR. “Lee Ann talked them down.”

Critical coverage of Alden seems easier from outside of DFM’s purview. George Pyle, editorial page editor for The Salt Lake Tribune, noted a few improvements at his paper since it was purchased from Digital First Media. “The Salt Lake Tribune is smaller than it used to be, in the size of its staff and the number of its pages,” wrote Pyle. “But it could be worse. We could all live in Denver.”

One East Coast editor for a DFM paper asked not to be named because he worried about the potential for reprisal. After the Denver Post package went live last Friday, the editor says DFM journalists were forwarding links to them all over the place.

“On a personal level—not as a company level, as a company guy—I’m applauding it,” the editor says. But the editor has no plans to cover what the Post did, or to run anything similar. “I’d love to tell our readers how this publication is suffering at the hands of this bloodletting,” the editor says. Though the The Denver Post may find a savior, the editor went on, “We’re not expecting a miracle.”

This post was updated on April 12 to reflect a developing story, and on April 16 to correct a geographic reference.

ICYMI: Denver Post cuts fit a disturbing pattern at hedge fund-owned newspapers

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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.