Mike Littwin: If we want to save The Denver Post, we need to follow Chuck Plunkett’s lead
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Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett has gone hero on us again, this time quitting the job he loved because the vultures at Alden Global Capital had killed his latest column criticizing his hedge-fund bosses.
He said he had no choice. Here’s the quote making the rounds: “Our obligation is to the reader and the truth. We should not be allowing ourselves to be quiet about something our own people are doing that would be considered dangerous, bad for our communities and bad for democracy.”
He said for him to stay quiet would be “hypocritical.” And so he walked.
And so, we’ll all pat him on the back — particularly those of us in the media who know him well — and talk about how brave and bold he was (because he was) and what an inspiration he has become (because he has) and how we hope we would risk everything for principle (because we do).
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We said the same when Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger was fired for self-publishing a column that the Alden bosses had killed when Krieger wrote it for the Camera editorial pages.
We cheered and we applauded. And then … what?
We are in a crisis. That’s why Plunkett and Krieger risked their jobs. It’s a crisis not just for us journalists, but for everyone in the state and the community that values journalism. Applauding Plunkett’s bravery changes nothing. Waiting around for some hero — one, preferably, who doesn’t live paycheck to paycheck — changes nothing.
So, what do we do?
We follow Plunkett’s lead. I don’t know what else there is to do. We quit the paper until Alden sells. They’re making big profits from The Post now. They’re never going to sell unless they’re forced to, but they will, I promise, continue making cuts. There’s fear now that they could do away with editorial pages altogether in order to keep down the rebels. For those who still work at The Post, the survivors, they must act because there’s nothing else to be done.
Plunkett expected to be fired when he had taken his initial stand against Alden, writing a fiery editorial and putting together an entire Sunday package demanding that Alden stop eviscerating the Post. He wrote, bravely and credibly, that if the Alden people weren’t interested in journalism — and they’re not — they needed to sell The Post to someone who was.
Of course he expected to be fired. You don’t rail against the bosses in their own newspaper and expect to get away with it. That he wasn’t fired immediately could presumably be put down to the fact that the Plunkett package — the Denver Post rebellion — had become national news and that Alden, though shameless, isn’t stupid. They were taking enough heat.
So, they didn’t fire Plunkett. They just put out the word to Digital First Media — the front firm that runs the chain of newspapers that Alden owns — that there would never again be anything like it in their papers.
And then Krieger wrote his column and was fired for it. And then newspaper guru Ken Doctor wrote that Alden’s Colorado papers were turning a 19 percent profit at the same time Alden decided to lay off a third of the Post’s newsroom, further reducing a once-prominent newspaper into a shell of itself.
Then Plunkett found that he had to write again. That’s the bargain owners make with their newsrooms — that they get to be independent. It doesn’t always work that way, but it does far more often than the public realizes. Alden has no interest in that bargain.
When I wrote before that it was time for subscribers and advertisers to boycott the Post — that the only way to hurt the hedge funders was through their profit margins — I was criticized by many for both quixotic thinking (I may be guilty of that) and faulty strategy (OK, I’m definitely not a business strategist).
On the other hand, I haven’t heard any competing strategy that would work. Waiting is not a strategy. Hoping for a billionaire to rescue the paper is not a strategy. The only way I can think of to save the Post is to follow Plunkett’s example and make a stand.
We’ve seen the decline of newspapers over these past years, the loss of so many jobs, but newspapers can and do still work. News still matters. Local newspapers can still turn a profit — and generally do. We need to convince a potential owner to step up as the next hero. But Alden won’t sell unless it is forced to sell, not when it’s making 19 percent profit.
I am hoping that Denver Post employees, beleaguered as they are, take a stand against Alden. Walkouts, byline strikes, publicly speaking out, calling for a boycott of their own newspaper, whatever. I understand the risks of losing your job in this market — I’ve been there — but I can’t think of any other way to rally the community, to rally political leaders who can speak directly to Alden, to move readers and advertisers to demand better, to stop the Alden vultures from picking at The Denver Post’s bones, to resolve the crisis that is facing us.
It is a crisis — one that Plunkett’s resignation forces us, again, to confront. Imagine Denver without a newspaper and what that would mean. Sadly, it’s not very hard. Tragically, we’re nearly there now.
Mike Littwin usually runs Sundays in The Aspen Times. A former columnist for the Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, he currently writes for ColoradoIndependent.com.
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