Rejected Denver Post editorial decries ‘outright censorship’ at Digital First papers

The Denver Post's downtown office. Most reporters have moved into an office in the Post's Adams County printing facility as part of a cost-cutting effort. According to a February Denver Post story, "Only the newspaper’s owner, Digital First Media, remains in the building, occupying space on the top floor." Photo via Larry Goodwin/Flickr.

ON THURSDAY, DENVER POST Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett resigned from his position. According to Plunkett, an executive with Digital First Media—the nation’s second-largest newspaper chain, controlled by the Alden Global Capital hedge fund—declined to approve an editorial Plunkett wrote that was critical of the Post’s owners. Since Plunkett’s resignation, two more senior editors quit, and former Post owner Dean Singleton resigned from his position as chairman.

Plunkett’s editorial decries “outright censorship” at Digital First Media papers and reiterates that Alden should “reinvest in its newsrooms, or release us to better ownership.” The editorial also alleges 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.” Recently, Tony Adamis—an editor at the Kingston Daily-Freeman, a DFM-owned newspaper in New York—told staff in an email that coverage of Digital First Media or Alden Global Capital required “prior approval.” He also wrote, “This directive comes from above”—a reference, Adamis tells CJR, to his own paper’s publisher. A Denver Post reporter tweeted, “This is what we’re dealing with here.” Reached by email, DFM Chief Operating Officer Guy Gilmore said, “No such demand has been made by Digital First Media.” CJR sent additional questions to Gilmore, and will update this story should we receive a response.

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The text of the editorial follows:

A SERIOUS THREAT to journalism in Colorado and across the country is only growing stronger. Papers owned by Alden Global Capital and operated by Digital First Media now suffer not just from neglect, but outright censorship.

Early last month, we called on Alden to reform its business practices or sell to more responsible owners. Now developments suggest our management not only didn’t get the message, it is trying to silence the messengers.

On April 25, the editorial page editor of Boulder’s Daily Camera – Dave Krieger – was fired, and so far there is no word on whether his position will be refilled. While there are legitimate questions about whether Krieger’s actions warranted his dismissal, the relevant answers are complex, and can easily be seen from his perspective.

Meanwhile, our sister paper remains without an independent editorial board, and the city it seeks to cover and serve is outraged. Boulder’s City Council decried Krieger’s ouster this week, and requested that the editorial pages be restored.

They deserve immediate assurances, and action.

The Camera is operated by Digital First Media, the same parent company that manages The Denver Post, the Longmont Times-Call and many other local papers. Digital First Media’s controlling owner, the New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital, appears intent on reaping out-sized profits while its newsrooms wither.

Reporters from many non-Alden newsrooms have continued to shed light on the company’s controversial practices. Last week, the national media expert Ken Doctor published a blockbuster account titled “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.”

Doctor relied on insiders who said the privately held Alden made 19 percent profit in Colorado. Company-wide, its operating margin of 17 percent represented a haul of almost $160 million and surpassed its industry peers.

While we cheer economic success, we note that such profits suggest many local papers shouldn’t be in such dire straits, and that the communities in which their journalists toil are being underserved. Here in Denver, the cuts have been so draconian – The Post now employs roughly 70 journalists to cover a city of more than 700,000 – we must shake our heads in shame and agree with those critics who say our readers are being badly underserved.

Krieger meant to call attention to this dynamic for Boulder readers. He worked through proper channels to write an editorial that sought more responsible management, but was rebuffed by the paper’s publisher, who, of course, reports to Digital First Media. Though the Camera’s editor voted with its editorial page editor to publish the editorial, the publisher nixed it. He did so on orders from Digital First Media chief Guy Gilmore.

Krieger published the editorial anyway, on the blog Boulder Free Press.

Normally, we would view such an action as insubordination. A newspaper’s owner has the right to reject any of its offerings, and should be able to expect its staff will follow orders.

But our industry demands transparency and responsible behavior from the entities and people its newsrooms cover, and best practices dictate that journalists don’t shirk their duties even when the story turns to management or their own.

Also, last week we learned that Digital First Media has demanded at some of its papers (i.e., likely all of them) that any mention of the company or of Alden must be screened by top editors before publication.

Journalism’s mission is too important for such atrocious apostasy.

We renew our call for Alden to reinvest in its newsrooms, or release us to better ownership.

Plunkett’s resignation came almost a month after the Post published an editorial package, overseen by Plunkett, that drew national headlines and referred to Alden as “vultures” who slashed newsrooms and picked them apart for profit. Plunkett hoped the Post’s editorial rebellion would spur constructive discussions within his own company, he tells CJR. However, he says, “that didn’t really happen.”

Days after the Post package, Dave Krieger—an editorial page editor at the DFM-owned Boulder Daily Camera—was fired after he self-published an Alden-critical editorial he says his publisher rejected from running in the paper. Plunkett says he wanted to publish an editorial about Krieger’s firing and new reports of high profit margins at Digital First Media, but that work was rebuffed. He adds that content DFM might view as controversial required review by DFM’s Gilmore as well as two other Denver Post executives. Plunkett says he was told the editorial would not run in the Post—a decision he characterizes as censorship.

“It’s just bullshit,” Plunkett tells CJR.

On Monday, the Denver Newspaper Guild released a letter signed by more than 50 Denver Post employees who said they are “outraged at the unconscionable censorship imposed on our now-former editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett.” Post employees plan to rally outside the paper’s printing plant at noon on Tuesday. “The rally will call for Alden to invest in the Post or sell it to someone who will,” according to a news release. Denver Newspaper Guild members and allies also plan to rally at the same time outside the iconic Lipstick Building in New York City where Alden Global Capital has offices, says Tony Mulligan, the union’s administrative officer.

Plunkett says there was talk of moving him off the editorial page and back into the newsroom where he used to work.

“They don’t want to fire me because they’re worried about the bad publicity, but they don’t want me to say anything else,” Plunkett says, recalling his thoughts last week around the time he wrote his latest editorial and decided to resign. “If I was willing to lose my job a month ago to speak out, what’s changed? Nothing’s changed. And how can I just agree to be quiet going forward?”

The Denver Post’s top editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, declined to comment about why the editorial didn’t run. But, she said, “I fully expected that ultimately what he wrote would find its way into the public view.”

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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.