Editorial: As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved
At The Denver Post on Monday, more than two dozen reporters, editors, photographers, videographers, page designers, digital producers and opinion staff will walk out the door. Our marching orders are to cut a full 30 by the start of July.
These heartbreaking instructions raise the question: Does this cut, which follows so many in recent years that our ranks have shriveled from more than 250 to fewer than 100 today, represent the beginning of the end for the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire?
The cuts, backed by our owner, the New York City hedge fund Alden Global Capital, also are a mystery, if you look at them from the point of view of those of us intent on running a serious news operation befitting the city that bears our name. Media experts locally and nationally question why our future looks so bleak, as many newspapers still enjoy double-digit profits and our management reported solid profits as recently as last year.
The photo above shows 142 members of The Denver Post's newsroom staff in the newspaper's lobby as it existed on May 15, 2013. The photo below shows the toll that layoffs and constant turnover have taken on the staff in the five years since. On Monday, at least two dozen more journalists will be leaving The Post because of layoffs.
We call for action. 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. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.
A flagship local newspaper like The Post plays a critically important role in its city and state: It provides a public record of the good and the bad, serves as a watchdog against public and private corruption, offers a free marketplace of ideas and stands as a lighthouse reflective and protective of — and accountable to — a community’s values and goals. A news organization like ours ought to be seen, especially by our owner, as a necessary public institution vital to the very maintenance of our grand democratic experiment.
Yes, for years now, large media chains have struggled to responsibly downsize newsrooms. But some have done so less responsibly than others.
Here in Colorado, Alden has embarked on a cynical strategy of constantly reducing the amount and quality of its offerings, while steadily increasing its subscription rates. In doing so, the hedge fund managers — often tellingly referred to as “vulture capitalists” — have hidden behind a narrative that adequately staffed newsrooms and newspapers can no longer survive in the digital marketplace. Try to square that with a recent lawsuit filed by one of Digital First Media’s minority shareholders that claims Alden has pumped hundreds of millions of dollars of its newspaper profits into shaky investments completely unrelated to the business of gathering news.
Coloradans feel the insanity of it in their bones. And what a sad history.
In 2009, the large chain that owned the Rocky Mountain News closed that storied paper’s doors. In 2010, Alden bought the chain of papers that features The Denver Post. The hedge fund gained a talented team of journalists reporting from all over the state, the nation and some of the biggest hotspots in the world, a winner of numerous Pulitzer Prizes, including newsroom-wide awards for its coverage of the massacres at Columbine and, more recently, a theater in Aurora.
Since Alden took control, the decline of local news has been as obvious as it’s been precipitous. The editor who oversaw coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, Gregory L. Moore, decamped in 2016, unable to endure the new fund’s directives any longer.
This year began with The Post recovering from more bloodshed as it packed up to leave its namesake city, its journalists clinging to the hope that a newly launched initiative to charge for online content would improve its fortunes. Before journalists were even in their new headquarters, our publisher and former editorial board member, Mac Tully, resigned.
Still more reductions came, and they did so as fast and as chilling as a high-desert storm.
The cuts come despite constant adaptation and innovation within our organization that grew our online reach exponentially.
This in a city that has seen more than 100,000 newcomers since Alden took control, and in a country where other cities Denver’s size and smaller enjoy larger newsrooms and papers. (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s newsroom, for example, has upwards of 170 managers and staff.)
This in a state and region thrumming with energy and enthusiasm for its future.
This in a market filled with hyper-educated citizens ready and able to afford great journalism should it be offered them.
The inevitable result is that the reduction in quality leads to a reduction of trust. So when errant politicians and public figures push back against even the most credible of reports, they find a fertile environment for doubt.
Yes, other media chains and operations haven’t been spared the same market realities Alden faces. The transition from print to digital publication is a challenging one.
Another factor: Critics on both sides of America’s ever-widening political divide heap blame for the loss of readership on claims — too many of them credible — that newsrooms have lost sight of their responsibility to be truly objective. Such criticisms help fuel spectacularly successful social media companies, which also reap profits from links to traditional newsroom offerings.
Another regrettable result of the fracturing of newsrooms has been the rush by political interests to lavish investments in echo-chamber outlets that merely seek to report from biased perspectives, leaving the hollowed-out shells of newsrooms loyal to traditional journalistic values to find their voice in the maelstrom.
Still we take the moment to acknowledge fundamental truths. When newsroom owners view profits as the only goal, quality, reliability and accountability suffer. Their very mission is compromised. The course correction that needs to come for the benefit of communities across the land depends on owners committed to serving their readers and viewers and users.
We get it that things change. We get it that our feelings are raw and no doubt color our judgment. But we’ve been quiet too long.
We believe without question that if community leaders and our readers care about our mission, and what our newsroom ought to be instead of this shadow of what it once was, it’s time for their voices to be heard.
The smart money is that in a few years The Denver Post will be rotting bones. And a major city in an important political region will find itself without a newspaper.
It’s time for those Coloradans who care most about their civic future to get involved and see to it that Denver gets the newsroom it deserves.