For a few glorious weeks, it seemed the Denver Post’s remaining staffers had found a spark to light their way through the most difficult time in the newspaper’s 125-year history. In early April, after Post staffers were told their ranks would be depleted by a third, the editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett, led an open mutiny on his opinion page. In a package of op-eds, including his own editorial headlined “News Matters,” the 51-year-old journalist eviscerated Alden Global Capital—the paper’s much maligned hedge-fund owner—writing that the company consisted of “vulture capitalists” who needed to sell the newspaper if Alden “isn’t willing to do good journalism here.” Plunkett’s move—he didn’t notify Post brass about the editorial beforehand—was clearly career threatening, but one that generated attention across the country and gave his paper’s journalists a rallying point around which to continue doing meaningful work.
How quickly that momentum disappeared.
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On Thursday, Plunkett resigned from the Post after Guy Gilmore, the chief operating officer of Digital First Media, the paper’s parent company, blocked another editorial Plunkett had written about Alden. The unpublished piece began: “A serious threat to journalism in Colorado and across the country is only growing stronger.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.”
Plunkett told the New York Times that the editorial addressed the hedge fund’s deep newsroom cuts “despite making significant profits [and] its efforts to keep articles about newsroom turmoil out of its own newspapers.” Alden has continued slashing its newsrooms nationwide despite Digital First reporting a 17 percent profit margin last year from its properties, along with nearly $160 million in profits (of which the Post accounted for $28 million), according to an analysis by Ken Doctor of Nieman Lab. Plunkett’s piece also discussed the firing of Digital First colleague and Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor, Dave Krieger, who self-published an editorial attacking Alden late last month. In a brazenly tone-deaf retaliation, Digital First is said to be considering eliminating editorial pages at the dozens of newspapers under its corporate umbrella.
“The company’s first attempt to silence me came days after the [original editorial] package caught fire in early April,” Plunkett wrote in a Rolling Stone editorial published on Monday morning. “Henceforth, I was to turn over publication plans for all opinion content three days in advance. The pieces were to be screened by a committee overseen by DFM senior leadership. In addition, I was forbidden to mention our owners, Alden, in any capacity.… [W]hat may have looked like a David-and-Goliath victory quickly turned into a shameful crushing of dissent at the Post, its sister publication in Boulder, and among its counterparts in local newspapers owned by the same hedge fund. One month later, the call for better hasn’t worked.”
The Denver Newspaper Guild—the union of Colorado newspaper employees that includes Post workers—lamented Plunkett’s resignation in a statement released on Monday, writing that, “Chuck told the truth, eloquently and pointedly. And in that our newspaper’s corporate ownership—Digital First Media and the hedge fund Alden Global Capital—saw something to fear, not to champion. … This censorship harms our readers, and we are concerned it also threatens the newsroom’s independence. It requires journalists to work in an unacceptable climate of intimidation, worried that telling the truth will lead to dismissal.”
If all of this wasn’t bad enough for the Post’s remaining staffers, on Friday two top editors and the paper’s former owner (who served as chairman and had a position on the editorial board) announced their resignations. Senior editors Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman were important pieces of the Post’s daily machine, both respected within the newsroom for their journalistic acumen and their management styles in the face of Alden’s demands to constantly cut jobs and siphon profits. Dean Singleton’s departure from the paper he owned for more than two decades (he’ll reportedly remain with the paper’s charitable arm) could be meaningful financially if longtime advertisers throw up their hands and follow him out the door.
Whatever the fallout, Singleton told Westword, the endgame is unlikely to include Alden selling the Post. “It’s a very important part of keeping Digital First together,” he said. “There certainly would be tax complications and corporate overhead complications, and for now, the Post throws off a lot of cash…. I’m not going to say anything bad about Alden, publicly or privately. I don’t know that they understand how damaging they’ve been to the newspaper and how damaged the newspaper is in the local community.”
For journalists at the Post, the losses of Coffield and Ryckman will have the most immediate impact because of the editors’ close working relationship with reporters in the newsroom. Coffield, especially, is prized among the staff for her thoughtfulness and deep knowledge of Colorado. Plunkett’s parting, however, has the potential to do the most psychological damage. Not only had he served capably in various newsroom jobs over his 15 years at the Post, his outspokenness against Alden made him the paper’s most immediately recognizable face; his words gave power to the people who make the paper work.
Those still at the Post describe a newsroom plunged further into chaos. The word “panic” was mentioned to me several times recently. “It’s a total shitshow,” one staffer wrote me. Regardless of Singleton’s sentiments about Alden staying in the Denver news business, Post employees are planning an “invest or sell” rally on Tuesday afternoon, both outside their office at the paper’s printing facility north of downtown and at Alden’s headquarters in New York City.
It will take time to fully unpack what the slashing and burning of the Rocky Mountain West’s most significant newspaper at the hands of Alden Global Capital will mean to this state and its residents. Sadly, with the latest exodus, it seems that day is getting closer.