What a local news revolt looks like
By Brendan Fitzgerald
It’s been one month since The Denver Post’s editorial page editor kickstarted widespread criticism of its owners. In that time, Digital First Media—one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains, itself controlled by the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital—has been likened to predatory birds and strip-miners. Digital First newspapers have appealed to readers for support, sometimes without naming Alden or DFM. Unionized employees have quietly sought new owners. Financial documents leaked to NiemanLab’s Ken Doctor quantified for the first time Digital First’s profit margins during an era of anxiety at its newsrooms. Last year, Digital First Media “reported a 17 percent operating margin—well above those of its peers…along with profits of almost $160 million,” wrote Doctor. “That’s the fruit of the repeated cutbacks that have left its own shrinking newsrooms in a state of rebellion.”
What does a local news rebellion look like? The epicenter of the Digital First revolt still appears to be Denver. Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s editorial page editor, wrote a new editorial lamenting the “neglect” and “censorship” that afflict Digital First newsrooms. When that editorial was rejected, Plunkett resigned—a move that touched off more resignations from top editors as well as the Post’s chairman. Yesterday, CJR detailed the contents of Plunkett’s editorial. Today, Post staffers plan to rally outside the paper’s printing plant, where its newsroom was moved in order to cut costs. They’ll also rally in New York, outside the headquarters of Alden Global Capital.
Less attention has been paid to Boulder, a mere 30 miles from Denver, where Daily Camera Editorial Page Editor Dave Krieger was recently fired for self-publishing his own rejected criticism of Digital First. Last week, during an interview with CJR correspondent Corey Hutchins, Krieger mentioned a letter, written months before the Denver Post’s revolt, in which he envisioned a future of local ownership for the Daily Camera:
"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."
CJR obtained a copy of Krieger’s letter, which is excerpted in a new story by Hutchins.
The Denver Post has undoubtedly played a leading role in the Digital First Media drama. But such widespread criticism of DFM and Alden is the work of an ensemble cast, whose members are variously protected or exposed. Some have seniority or union protections. Some might resign, and some might be fired. “It’s not like you’re The New York Times,” said Tony Adamis, managing editor of the DFM-owned Daily Freeman. “Many of us are very small. I’ve got a newsroom of 12 people.” Adamis later confirmed to Hutchins that he authored a memo requiring staff get his approval before publishing about Alden or DFM.
Krieger, the ex-Daily Camera editor, told Hutchins that his letter to business people detailing the threats to Boulder’s local paper caught most by surprise. “They had no idea. They didn’t know who owned us, they didn’t know what kind of a company it was.” By the end of today’s rallies, a few more people in Denver and New York will surely know. Whether their message stirs a greater revolt at DFM’s dozens of newspapers—or sustained criticism from their readers—remains to be seen.
Below, more on local criticism of Digital First Media:
No more editorial revolts? Yesterday, Chuck Plunkett detailed his resignation in a first-person piece for Rolling Stone. In the piece, he writes that “Alden is actively debating whether to do away with house editorials in all of its papers across the country.”
“Everything has an Arkansas angle.” The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, which is not a DFM paper, discusses the departures of both Krieger and Plunkett, a former employee. “Now is the time for all good readers to come to the aid of their local paper, radio station or other source of real, unfiltered and undoctored news.”
- Readers against DFM in Boulder: Weeks after Krieger’s termination, the Daily Camera published a handful of letters from outraged local readers. “Don't bother quoting some breach of policy to me,” wrote one decades-long Boulder resident. “At 64, I have heard them all, and watched those in power trample ethics and manipulate ‘law’ and ‘policy’ to promote their own unethical, self-serving ends. Shame on you Digital First Media.” Boulder, the letter concluded, “deserves better.”