Fired Boulder Daily Camera editor sought local owners for DFM paper

A view of Boulder, Colorado, from the Flatirons. Photo via kbphoto/Flickr.

THE DENVER POST‘S editorial rebellion against its owners—Digital First Media and its hedge-fund controller, Alden Global Capital—peaked again late last week, when three high-profile editors and the paper’s chairman resigned in the course of two days. Yesterday, CJR reported on an editorial, written by ex-Post Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett, that criticized the Post’s owners and was ultimately rejected in an act Plunkett characterized as censorship. In the wake of the Post’s editorial revolt, Plunkett “was forbidden to mention our owners, Alden, in any capacity,” he wrote in Rolling Stone.

About 30 miles northwest, in Boulder, a different scenario played out. Boulder Daily Camera Editorial Page Editor Dave Krieger was fired after he self-published an editorial he claimed was blocked by his publisher. The editorial criticized private-equity newspaper ownership and observed that “Alden has sold certain properties…to local investors willing to support these institutions. We would like to see similar activity in Boulder before it’s too late.”

The Camera is one of about a dozen smaller DFM-owned newspapers in Colorado. Like the Post, it has undergone staffing reductions and retrenchment while the company that owns it reportedly maintains a healthy profit. In the aftermath of the Denver Post rebellion, which drew national headlines and included calls for DFM to sell the paper, other DFM newspapers, particularly in California, ran their own editorials acknowledging the impact layoffs have had on their products.

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Krieger says he wanted to explain to readers in Boulder how private-equity ownership might endanger their local newspaper’s future. So he wrote an editorial:

The Camera takes pride in serving as our community’s public square for discussion and debate of many local issues. To refuse to acknowledge this one would be tantamount to declaring that the Camera’s loyalties lie with its corporate overlords and not the community it serves. If we do not host this conversation, other platforms surely will.

But the editorial never ran. The publisher of the Boulder Daily Camera killed it, according to Krieger. After Krieger published it himself on a blog, he was fired.

Krieger’s motivation stemmed in part from a concern that even plugged-in members of the community didn’t seem to understand the problems facing the Camera, he said during a recent talk at The Denver Press Club.

When I sent that to various business people in Boulder…to a person it was completely news to them. They had no idea.

“People who were otherwise really on top of things, on top of municipal issues, on top of the things that we tend to editorialize about…would be completely dumbfounded when they found out,” he said.

Last fall—“before any of this happened”— Krieger authored a six-page document that envisioned local ownership of The Boulder Daily Camera, in the hope that someone in the city, known for its money and tech-savvy startup culture, might try and purchase the paper. Krieger says there may have been some nibbles, but nothing materialized. However, in recent weeks, at least one venture capitalist in Boulder got in touch and asked about the document.

“When I sent that to various business people in Boulder—people who are very, very knowledgeable in the field of startups and high-tech—to a person it was completely news to them,” Krieger said last week at the press club. “They had no idea. They didn’t know who owned us, they didn’t know what kind of a company it was.”

Krieger’s document, “A Vision for Local Ownership of the Boulder Daily Camera,” is excerpted below:

The private equity model of newspaper ownership has been very different from [Warren] Buffett’s. It has stripped these properties of their assets (the sale of the Daily Camera’s downtown building was typical) and demanded escalating profits as revenues have declined. The only way to meet these demands from ownership has been to cut resources and staff. This has accelerated the decline of the Daily Camera, its sister papers within Prairie Mountain Media, as well as the Denver Post and the many other properties nationwide owned by Digital First Media, the company established by Alden Global Capital Partners of New York City to hold its media properties.

The city of Boulder is an affluent, highly-educated community that could and very likely would celebrate a great local paper and support adequately a decent one. The continued existence of the Daily Camera, which recently celebrated its 125th birthday, is now in doubt. The proposal here is that if there are people of means in Boulder who consider local journalism important, that they consider, either individually or [by] banding together, making an offer for Prairie Mountain Media. A wild guess as to the price tag would be somewhere between $25 million and $40 million. If the buyer(s)’ interest was only in the Camera, they might investigate whether there are interested local parties to which they could sell off some or all of the other PMM nameplates: Akron News-Reporter, Broomfield Enterprise, Brush News-Tribune, Burlington Record, Canon City Daily Record, Canon City Shopper, Colorado Daily, Colorado Hometown Weekly, Estes Park Trail-Gazette, Fort Morgan Times, Fort Morgan Weekly, Julesburg Advocate, Lamar Ledger, Longmont Times-Call, Loveland Reporter-Herald, Loveland Weekly, South Platte Sentinel, Sterling Journal-Advocate.

Any prospective buyer should go into such a transaction with eyes wide open. These properties have been starved by their owner for years. From a journalistic standpoint, a new owner would need not only the capital to buy the Daily Camera, but also the patience to forego profits for a time in order to reinvest in and reinvigorate the business.

Miraculously, the Daily Camera remains profitable today. Its leaders have shrunk and consolidated operations, laid off personnel and surrendered community offices while growing a design center that now builds pages for the St. Paul (Minn.) Pioneer Press and Denver Post as well as the PMM publications. But it does not have adequate staff to perform its watchdog function effectively. Because all clerical positions have been eliminated, many clerical functions are performed by reporters and editors whose time could be better allocated.

Boulder would be well-served by benefactors who rescued a local paper being slowly strangled by its private equity owners for the purpose of guaranteeing the community a robust free press. These prospective owners should know not to expect favorable coverage for their personal business endeavors. If they tried to use their acquisition to advance their personal or business interests, they would be remembered as dishonorable propagandists (see Sheldon Adelson in Las Vegas). The only way to do this with integrity is to provide financial stability and resources, hire and support great people in the editorial operation, and get out of the way. The only way to do this with integrity is to do it as a contribution to the free marketplace of ideas in your community.

Boulder has an opportunity to take back ownership of its local newspaper. On the current trajectory, this opportunity will not last long.

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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.