High Country News: A good newspaper gets strangled
“O Justice, when expelled from other habitations, make this thy dwelling place.”
As a bright-eyed kid with a ponytail and poorly trussed tie, I walked beneath that inscription every workday of my first decade at The Denver Post. Etched in stone at the newspaper’s former downtown office, it imbued a sense of purpose and privilege to all who entered. The lofty hope it espoused — that newspaper reporting can champion truth, meaning and a sense of community — has withered under the watch of Heath Freeman, the pernicious hedge-fund owner who is murdering the paper.
Over 21 years, I weathered more than a dozen buyouts, as The Denver Post adjusted to the changing business of newspapering. When I was hired on as an intern chasing the ultimate gig in 1997, there were more than 300 journalists in the newsroom. The latest battlefield amputations by Freeman — spurred not by need but by punitive greed after the paper missed its annual budget by a few percentage points this spring — have slashed that count to less than 60, leaving about 35 reporters and photographers as the gasping “Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire.”
Freeman is the head of Alden Global Capital, the firm that bought the Post’s parent company, the debt-addled MediaNews Group, in 2010. Over the last few years, Freeman’s vindictive hacking became too much for me. I could no longer reconcile my heart-and-soul labor with such a dirtbag owner. I bailed in April, and since then the exodus has grown, as a masthead of journalists — some of the very best in Colorado — flee Freeman’s foul domain.
Smart people say there are stages of grief. So far, I’ve occupied one: anger. And I’m not moving on anytime soon.
Every day, another log is tossed onto the conflagration of my rage. There’s the photo of the expansion underway at Freeman’s vacation manse in the Hamptons; the news that Alden Global has squeezed its stable of newspapers — more than 60 across the nation — with a slash-and-burn profit margin twice that of other major newspaper owners; the firing of the Boulder Daily Camera’s well-respected editorial page editor, Dave Krieger, for publishing an editorial critical of Freeman and his rapacious goons at the laughably named Digital First Media; the de-staffing of the Cannabist, an award-winning, first-of-its-kind website covering Colorado’s grand experiment with marijuana; the resignation of The Denver Post’s editorial page editor, Chuck Plunkett, after Freeman’s minions denied an editorial revealing that he shamefully squeezed $36 million in profit from his 11 Colorado newspapers, an absurd 19 percent profit margin that was not fueled by innovation or growth, but by firings.
Plunkett’s departure was followed by senior editors Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman, marking an incalculable loss to the newsroom. If history must note the fatal blow to The Denver Post, it likely will be the departure of Dana and Larry. Recently, we learned that Dean Singleton, who owned The Denver Post for more than a quarter century, captaining the paper through both its heyday and toward its nadir, had stepped down as chairman of the paper’s board. Singleton, a consummate newspaperman who we respected deeply for keeping us working while he trimmed operations to handle declining ad revenue, doesn’t see the paper surviving Freeman’s avarice.
“To me, it’s unbelievable that somebody would be so naive as to believe you can cut the heart out of a newspaper and still think it’s going to survive,” Singleton told Westword’s media reporter, Michael Roberts, in an interview following his resignation. “Because you can’t. I have little hope that the Post has a lot of future. There’s probably nobody you could talk to at the Post who wouldn’t give you a similar opinion. It’s sad. … This became a very good newspaper, and it became the heart of the state of Colorado, and they’ve cut the heart out of it.”
Freeman — and his septuagenarian mentor, Randall Smith — are heating their mansions with the charred bones of newsrooms. The publicity-shy Smith bought 16 mansions in Palm Beach last year, spending $57.2 million as his young barbarian-in-training disemboweled newspapers across the country.
Like I said, my rage simply will not abate.
It all happened so fast. In 2011, Alden Global hoovered up 50.1 percent of MediaNews Group’s debt, as the company negotiated its way through bankruptcy. At the time, the national economy was in the tank. Newspapers were suffering, advertisers were slashing budgets and the internet was usurping print as the longstanding source of news. Alden Global corralled all its newspapers, which included The Denver Post, The Salt Lake City Tribune, St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, San Jose’s Mercury News, L.A. Daily News and The Orange County Register, under Digital First Media. Digital First’s charismatic chief executive, John Paton, initially inspired hope for these papers in the digital age, and we all doubled our efforts to transform the industry, reporting stories, writing them, shooting video and tailoring multi-media stories to online readers, all while enduring ever-tightening budgets.
We succeeded. Thrived, even. Online readership soared. Subscriptions climbed. We harvested accolades, including a Pulitzer Prize and several Edward R. Murrow video awards. Then came the draconian cuts from Freeman. No one remembers seeing him ever visit The Denver Post newsroom, but he demanded an annual 20 percent profit margin. His draconian cuts started with equipment and led us to decamp from our downtown building, with its Pulitzer awards and etched inscription, for a windowless corner of the printing plant in unincorporated Adams County. Then came personnel cuts. Every year, a new round of layoffs, buyouts and soul-sucking send-offs.
We were duped. Freeman doesn’t care about video. Or digital news. Or print news. Or news. He wants his newspapers to do one thing: kick out cash. He’s cut more than 3,000 jobs from newsrooms across the U.S. It’s a short-term play from a wannabe Gordon Gekko, but at least it’s covering his inept investments in Greek debt and flailing pharmacy chains. And it’s working. Digital First Media papers are yielding him buckets of money: last year Alden reaped $160 million from its newspapers, including $28 million from The Denver Post, according to an independent report — dashing any hope that Freeman might leave before he’s turned these papers into ash-piles.
“Journalism’s mission is too important for such atrocious apostasy,” Plunkett wrote in his final column, which Freeman’s deputies spiked. “We renew our call for Alden to reinvest in its newsrooms, or release us to better ownership.” Freeman won’t. He’s in this to the bitter end, and it’s not going to take long for advertisers to lose any semblance of a return on their investments. The future of the 126-year-old Denver Post and other Digital First papers could not be bleaker.
Even worse, Freeman is stifling coverage — even censoring his own editors — when we seek to expose how Alden Global is razing local journalism, the backbone of American democracy — and justice. And that’s the real rub here. It’s not just that journalists are out of jobs. It’s that they are not telling the stories that we all need to hear. As the nation withdraws into echo chambers and filtered news, Freeman and his ilk are not just cutting budgets, they are severing the connections between us, the very stories that unite us. And that is something every citizen should fight to prevent.
Jason Blevins is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News (hcn.org).
Becca Gerber, a first-term member of the Park City Council who is seen as bringing a younger person’s perspective to the Marsac Building, will seek reelection this year.