How The Denver Post stood up to McCarthy and exposed the limits of mindless balance

The Denver Post’s former downtown headquarters looms over the Colorado Statehouse. The Post itself now operates out of its printing plant in the suburbs. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

The McCarthy era is often cited as a time when the limits of journalistic objectivity were exposed for all to see. For years, the press reported Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s false claims that he had a list of communists in a straight-up, deadpan manner, reasoning that it was their job to inform the country of what a United States senator was saying, not to offer any judgments.

But that’s not what Walter Lippmann had in mind when he first defined objective reporting a century ago. As he conceived it, objectivity was not acting as a conveyor belt for the lies of the powerful; nor was it mindless balance. Rather, it was an objective, fair-minded pursuit of the truth. Once you had determined the truth to the best of your ability, your job was to report it.

“We tell people in a forthright and unflinching way what we have learned because we’ve done the reporting,” retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron said at a virtual appearance at Northeastern earlier this year. Baron defined objectivity as  “independence and open-mindedness and a posture of listening and learning.”

Recently I read a book as part of my research into local news that is about as obscure as you can imagine: “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post,” written by Post staffer Bill Hosokawa and published in 1976. And I was struck by how courageously the Post stood up to McCarthy — especially since, in previous decades, the Post had been mired in corruption and racism.

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By the time McCarthy came along, the Post’s editor was a stand-up guy named Palmer Hoyt, who was unflinching in his insistence on holding the Wisconsin senator to account. In a memo to his staff, he defined true objectivity in such a compelling way that it ought to be taught to every reporter. I’m not going to quote the entire memo, but here’s a key excerpt:

It is obvious that many charges made by reckless impulsive officials cannot and should not be ignored, but it seems to me that news stories and headlines can be presented in such a manner that the reading public will be able to measure the real worth or value and the true meaning of the stories.

For example, when it is possible and practical, we should remind the public in case of a wild accusation by Senator McCarthy that this particular senator’s name is synonymous with poor documentation and irresponsible conduct and that he has made many charges that have been insupportable under due process.

In 1954, Hoyt received the John Peter Zenger Freedom of the Press Award. In his acceptance speech, Hoyt continued to speak boldly, turning media critic: “It is true that the number of newspapers critical of McCarthy has grown during the last year or two. But there are still many of them who are his supporters, his apologists, even his devotees.” And he singled out the Chicago Tribune and the Hearst papers as particularly egregious offenders.

It hardly needs to be said that we are facing a crisis of democracy today — perhaps the most serious since the Civil War, as Robert Kagan recently wrote in The Washington Post (free link). The brainless objectivity of the 1950s has morphed into something else. As Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School has written, Donald Trump received an enormous assist from the press in 2016 by portraying his grotesque behavior and corruption as being equal to Hillary Clinton’s shortcomings — you know, her emails.

Today, Trump and his supporters, who seek to destroy the integrity of our elections in order to pave the way for an illegitimate second Trump term, are getting plenty of harsh coverage, as they should. But to absorb this through the media is to see it balanced against the Democrats’ struggles over its infrastructure bills and chaos at the border. It’s all both sides and false equivalence.

As New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has said over and over again, the press is not equipped to cover a reality in which one of our two major political parties remains its normal self and the other has lurched into authoritarianism. You can see it in the headlines this week describing the debt-limit crisis as something the Democrats are struggling to solve — as if it’s a given that the Republicans have descended into madness and therefore can’t be blamed.

We are living through an incredibly ugly time. At the very least, we should remember what Palmer Hoyt said about the media’s obligation to tell the truth.

In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

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I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

On the ground during a raucous student protest with The Colorado Sun

Colorado Sun education reporter Erica Breunlin

One of the best things about visiting local news organizations is getting a chance to accompany reporters on stories. I still look back fondly on my trips to New Haven about a dozen years ago, when I shadowed the staff of the New Haven Independent. And then there was the unforgettable experience of covering the first news conference on COVID-19 in Mendocino County, California, on March 5, 2020, while I was reporting on The Mendocino Voice.

I was in Denver last week learning about The Colorado Sun, an online-only project founded three years ago by a group of journalists who left The Denver Post after multiple rounds of cuts by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. And on Monday, I struck gold.

I was sitting in on the morning news meeting when we learned that students had staged a walkout at Denver North High School to call for the removal of school board member Tay Anderson, who was censured last week for inappropriate interactions with an underage student. (Anderson has said he cut off all contact as soon as he learned she was 16.) I took a Lyft to Denver North, where hundreds of students had gathered in Denver Park.

Already on the scene were two young journalists — the Sun’s education reporter, Erica Breunlin, and photographer Olivia Sun (“no nepotism involved,” she quipped), who began a stint at the Sun through the Report for America program several months ago.

It was a wild scene. Students were chanting “Hey hey, ho ho! Tay Anderson has got to go!” And “Resign!” After gathering on the steps of the school, they headed off for Denver Public Schools headquarters, some two and a half miles away. The chants grew more profane, with “Fuck That Pedo” proving to be the most popular.

Breunlin and Sun, meanwhile, were hard at work. Breunlin had made the mistake of wearing red pumps, but that didn’t stop her from interviewing students and then running to keep up with the crowd. At one point she asked a student, “Do you feel unsafe?” “Yes.” “Why do you feel unsafe?” Pause. “It’s not right.”

Report for America photographer Olivia Sun

Breunlin was careful to point out to the students that the evidence against Anderson was ambiguous, but that didn’t stop them from demanding action. At one point, the students started chanting “Lock him up!”

I knew Breunlin was tweeting. But while I was scanning my phone outside the DPS building, I was surprised to see that the Sun had posted a full story. When had she written that? She later explained to me that it was pieced together by her editor, Lance Benzel, from her tweets and from phone calls.

“He was great, because he was telling me to really just focus on the scenery and talking to people and tweeting and really capturing that color,” she told me later. “And then he was embedding my tweets into the story, pulling information from my tweets to put in the story, so it was like I was doing the reporting. He was kind of finessing the story, so it really was a good team effort.”

Sun told me she had sought a position through Report for America, which places young journalists with newsrooms across the country, because she was burning out on her job as a photographer with the Des Moines Register.

“The institutional knowledge I gained from working somewhere like that [the Register] is really irreplaceable,” she said. “I really got to learn from old guard veteran journalists. But essentially I wanted to see what else was out there and how I could personally put my skills to a more streamlined use in just illustrating local issues.”

Ironically, both Breunlin and Sun said that what had attracted them to the Sun was the chance to work on in-depth stories rather than breaking news — and here they were, covering a breaking story. But that’s not typical of what they, or the Sun, do.

Finally, here is their story. It was updated later in the day, so it isn’t quite as urgent as the first version. But you’ll get the idea. Nor was theirs the only strong account. I thought The Denver Post, in conjunction with Chalkbeat, did a nice job as well.

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How to sell newspapers

A black-tailed jackrabbit. Photo (cc) 2006 by Jim Harper.

Now this is how you sell newspapers. I just finished reading Bill Hosokawa’s 1976 book “Thunder in the Rockies: The Incredible Denver Post.” Much of it focuses on the early days under the ownership of Harry Tammen and Frederick Bonfils, who bought the struggling daily in 1895 and ran it for its first several decades. This anecdote, though undated, would appear to be from the 1920s or earlier:

While every newspaper has its promotions, many of The Post’s were unique. Periodically jackrabbits would proliferate alarmingly on Colorado’s eastern plains, decimating what crops could survive drought and hail and threatening the livelihood of the farmers. With The Post’s encouragement these farmers would round up the rabbits in wintertime drives covering many square miles, clubbing them to death by the thousands. But the meat wasn’t wasted. The carcasses, quickly frozen by the cold, would be sent to Denver in donated railroad cars, trucked to The Post, and distributed free to queued-up lines of the poor. To stimulate the goodwill of ranchers, The Post also offered a bounty on mountain lions which preyed on sheep and cattle. Many a mountain man, smelling pungently of a hunting camp, would make his way to The Post with a dead lion in the back of his truck, there to be photographed claiming his bounty.

Given the proliferation of rabbits in Greater Boston, would some enterprising media entrepreneur here try a similar promotion?

‘News Matters’ is now available via Kanopy and universities

Recently I wrote about “News Matters,” a documentary that tracks Alden Global Capital’s evisceration of The Denver Post and the rise of The Colorado Sun. Unfortunately, my post came just as Rocky Mountain PBS was about to take it down from its website.

But there’s good news. If you want to see it and you have a library card or university log-in, you can watch it by clicking here.

A documentary tracks the demise of Denver’s dailies — and the rising of the Sun

Photo by Brian Malone

In the documentary “News Matters,” Dean Singleton, who sold a majority share of his newspaper chain to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2013, tells a gruesome story.

He recalls being sent out to a one-car accident after midnight when he was a young reporter working in Wichita Falls, Texas. The police officer at the scene told him the driver had been killed. Singleton, though, could see that the driver’s arms and legs were still moving, so he pressed the officer. The answer: the body would keep jerking around for a while, but that didn’t make him any less dead.

“That’s kind of where print newspapers are today,” he says.

“News Matters,” by Brian Malone, tells the story of Denver’s two daily newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News, which folded in 2009, and The Denver Post, formerly the crown jewel of Singleton’s empire, now being torn apart by Alden. The Post at one time had between 250 and 300 reporters; today it has about 60. As retired Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron says, that’s not nearly enough to cover a metropolitan area the size of Denver, with a population of about 2.9 million.

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Among those interviewed for the film is Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe, who was the Post’s top editor for 14 years before resigning in 2016 rather than implement cuts demanded by Alden. Moore recalls being grilled by Alden’s bean-counters over every issue imaginable, and some that weren’t imaginable, like “Why do you have photographers?” and “Why can’t you be the same size as some pissant paper in New Jersey?”

If there is a central character in “News Matters,” it’s former Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett, who wrote a searing editorial in 2018 referring to Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling on community leaders to buy the Post. Plunkett becomes emotional when he recalls the cuts that followed Moore’s departure, saying, “I felt like I was floating out of my body, not even attached to the real world. And I just had this very clear thought — this is where The Denver Post dies.” Plunkett resigned not long after writing the anti-Alden editorial.

Toward the end of the film, we see some of the Post journalists who we’ve gotten to know — Larry Ryckman, Dana Coffield, Tamara Chuang and Jennifer Brown — starting a new venture, the online-only Colorado Sun. “The journalists you see up here today are the owners of The Colorado Sun,” Ryckman tells the small crowd that had gathered, “and we will be the ones calling the shots.”

Singleton’s retort: “The Colorado Sun has no future in my opinion … There’s no business model there.”

Well, the Sun is still shining, and it appears that it may be on track toward becoming a sustainable business. The film takes us into the early days of COVID-19. “Ad revenue has fallen off a cliff,” Ryckman says, “but it has greatly increased membership.” Earlier this year, the Sun acquired a group of 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in Denver’s suburbs.

And the once-mighty Denver Post continues to shrink.

If you’d like to see “News Matters,” you’d better hop to it. I only found out about it last week, and it turns out that Rocky Mountain PBS is taking it down on Wednesday. For the next couple of days, you can watch it here. There’s also information about hosting a screening that you can find at the film’s website.

How a group of Denver area newspapers were saved from corporate ownership

Photo (cc) 2008 by Alyson Hurt

Just before Thanksgiving last year, Melissa Milios Davis was contacted by Jerry Healey, the co-owner — along with his wife, Ann Healey — of Colorado Community Media, which publishes 24 weekly and monthly newspapers in the Denver suburbs.

The Healeys were approaching retirement and looking to sell, and they were hoping to avoid turning over their life’s work to a corporate chain owner or a hedge fund. Milios Davis, vice president for strategic communications and informed communities at the Gates Family Foundation, serves on the executive committee of the Colorado Media Project, which has been seeking ways forward for local news since 2018.

That encounter, Milios Davis said at a recent webinar (you can watch it here; background information here), led to the sale last month of the Healeys’ newspapers to a new entity whose majority owner will be The Colorado Sun, a startup digital news operation that’s run as a public benefit corporation. That means the 24 papers, like the Sun, will not be organized to enrich its owners; any profits they earn will be rolled back into news coverage and other operations.

“These are still profit-making enterprises. It’s a business,” said Milios Davis, adding it would have been a “huge loss” if the papers had fallen into the wrong hands.

Also speaking at the webinar, organized by the Media Enterprise Design Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder, were Lillian Ruiz, co-founder and managing director of the National Trust for Local News, and Larry Ryckman, editor and co-founder of the Sun. The moderator was Nathan Schneider, an assistant professor of media studies at the university.

According a recent article about the deal by Corey Hutchins of Colorado College, the papers will be owned by the newly formed Colorado News Conservancy, which in turn is co-owned by the National Trust for Local News and the Sun. Hutchins reported that the 40 employees who worked for the Healeys, about half of them journalists, would keep their jobs.

The conservancy is currently seeking a publisher, Ruiz said at the webinar, and has invested a considerable amount of attention in the process. “We didn’t want to create just a replication of who have we had some handshakes with over a highball,” she said.

The Sun itself, which was founded after the meltdown of The Denver Post under the ownership of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is continuing to grow, said Ryckman — from a staff of about 10 when I wrote about the Sun for the Nieman Journalism Lab last fall to 15 today, with more on the way. He described the chance to save the community newspapers as something that was too important to pass up.

“At least on the Sun side, this came together pretty quickly,” he said. “This absolutely was a cause that was near and dear to our hearts…. We know who’s first in line when it comes to buying newspapers these days, and no one wants to see that happen.”

What helped jump-start the deal, said Milios Davis, was a study that the Colorado Media Project conducted several years ago in partnership with the Colorado Press Association. Among the findings: the number of journalists covering local news had been cut in half over the previous decade, in line with what was taking place nationally; and that of 151 newspapers they could identify, 93 were still locally owned.

“We saw on the horizon that a lot of these were … older owners” who lacked a succession plan, she said, explaining that there were 44 in that category. “We were looking at this as a tidal wave that would slowly crash on the shores,” which led to conversations about how to help them transition to new local ownership.

And then the Healeys came along.

One of the most important takeaways from what is happening in Colorado is that local news can still be run on a sustainable basis, and that corporate control and the gutting of newsrooms are not inevitable. As I wrote a few weeks ago, I would love to see the Colorado story replicated across the country. Ruiz said the exact model being used in Colorado might be unique to that area. But she added that her organization is looking at what might work in other parts of the country — especially in communities of color.

So how do we wrest control of local news away from chain owners? Report for America co-founder Steven Waldman, who’s been everywhere lately (it also turns out that he’s a co-founder of Ruiz’s organization), wrote an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times calling for tax breaks for newspaper owners who sell to nonprofits or public benefit corporations.

That would provide an incentive for the likes of Alden and Gannett to take their money and go home. I would add another incentive: tax penalties to be imposed on for-profit owners of newspaper chains of a certain size that are not owned locally.

Communities deserve a chance to take charge of their news and information. Three years after Alden all but destroyed The Denver Post, we’re starting to see a renaissance fueled by a new media venture and an old one that’s been given new life.

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A deal in Denver’s suburbs points the way toward a solution for local news

This is one of the most exciting developments I’ve seen in local news in a long time — certainly more exciting than the news that Substack and Facebook were going to toss some spare change in a tin cup in the hopes of enticing community journalists to set up shop on their platforms.

Earliest this week David Folkenflik of NPR reported that The Colorado Sun, a digital startup that arose from the ashes of The Denver Post, would acquire a chain of 24 small newspapers in the Denver suburbs in partnership with a new nonprofit organization called the National Trust for Local News. As Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman told Folkenflik:

These are the folks who are covering school boards, city councils, county commissions that no one else is covering. They provide unique local coverage. And we’re doing this so that we can preserve those voices.

Denver is the best-known example of the damage inflicted on newspapers by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Three years ago, journalists at The Denver Post rebelled at Alden’s brutal budget cuts. But guess who won? That led Ryckman and others to leave and launch the Sun. Ryckman described what happened last fall at the Radically Rural conference sponsored by the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel, which I covered for the Nieman Journalism Lab:

We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off. We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.

At one time, Denver’s newspapers employed about 600 journalists, Ryckman said. But the Rocky Mountain News shut down in 2009, and, as of last fall, Ryckman estimated the head count at the Post as being somewhere around 60. The Sun employs 10 people. But as a public benefit corporation, it can reinvest whatever money it makes in improving its journalism.

Could such a model work elsewhere? I don’t see why not. Take Eastern Massachusetts, whose weekly and daily community newspapers are nearly all owned by Alden’s rival in cost-cutting, Gannett. Could some sort of nonprofit entity be formed that would attempt to buy back Gannett’s properties in the Boston area? Gannett does sell papers from time to time. Maybe it’s possible to make them an offer they wouldn’t refuse.

The situation is dire. And what’s taking place in Denver suggests a possible way forward.

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Bright lights in Denver

After Alden Global Capital destroyed The Denver Post, everyone assumed it was lights out. A city that had long had two vibrant daily papers (the Rocky Mountain News closed down in 2009) now barely had one.

Suddenly, though, news sources are proliferating in Denver. Today the all-digital Denver Gazette makes its debut, joining an earlier start-up, The Colorado Sun. The alt-weekly Westword continues to publish.

The lesson, as always, is that when legacy media fail, entrepreneurial journalists seize the opportunity to move in.

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How Alden Global Capital is strangling Connecticut’s Hartford Courant

Note: Susan Campbell, a Hartford Courant columnist, posted the following on Facebook earlier today, writing, “I am told the Courant is shifting focus to cover the coronavirus and the column I submitted wouldn’t be read, or run this Sunday. So here is the column I wrote.” I contacted her and asked if I could republish it at Media Nation. She gave her permission, and so here it is. Her column has also been republished by #NewsMatters, “a NewsGuild project for Digital First Media workers.” Digital First Media is an earlier name for MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain that Alden controls. — DK

By Susan Campbell

Dear Hartford Courant reader,

Your roof is on fire.

The signs have been there, but you may not be aware of the damage overhead. What you, the reader, sees are a few typos, a missed paper, or someone on the other end of the phone who cannot stop your paper delivery during your vacation. Worse, there’s no one at your local meeting, because when newspapers had more people on staff, they could afford to come to your traffic commissions, town council meetings, and panel discussions.

Nothing just happens, dear reader, but before we explore what’s going on, see if you can figure out this math: Recently, Tribune Publishing Co. announced that the company’s fourth-quarter profit was $4 million. That should be good news, but these days, newsroom blood-letting has moved from paper cuts to full-on beheadings.

And for that, you can thank Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, which owns 32% of the Tribune company. Alden is known for one thing and one thing only: Alden kills newspapers. The corporation walks through the battlefield of struggling newspapers (which pretty much describes 99% of newspapers), lifts up the wounded, props them up at a computer, and then methodically sucks up all the resources until there’s nothing left. Their shady business practices — including an accusation that they moved employee pension assets into their own accounts — have earned the notice of the Department of Labor.

The next time you want to complain about your local coverage, remember that you have no idea how hard the dead-last-remainders of America’s newsrooms work to do what they do. They are part of a broken business model, but there is your reporter/photographer/editor, spinning as fast as s/he can.

I know. I was a remainder, until I realized I was so angry at the system I couldn’t exist in it. I left in 2012 when I thought things were pretty bad.

But this isn’t just me, a disgruntled former employee. Last May, some U.S. senators, including Sherrod Brown (husband of Pulitzer-winning newspaper columnist Connie Schultz), Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker, wrote Alden a letter begging them to abandon their attempted hostile takeover of Gannett because newspapers are a “public good.” Gannett shareholders ultimately rejected the takeover.

Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, where in December, members of the Denver City Council passed a resolution that called on the company to either invest in the Post or sell it. Alden has been draining the blood from that once-fine newspaper since 2011.

In January, two respected Chicago Tribune columnists wrote a New York Times op-ed calling attention to their own newspaper’s struggles as an Alden holding. In February, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution similar to Denver’s.

We need that here, in Hartford. We need a concerted effort to save the Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper in the Nation, the newspaper that printed a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and was sued for libel by Thomas Jefferson. We need a full-throated show of support, like that of state Sen. Saud Anwar and others. We, too, need to encourage Alden to put up or shut up. We, too, need wealthy people to invest in local journalism.

Mostly, we need to stop the dangerous trend that threatens our free press. According to the Pew Research Center, post-Watergate, the circulation of daily newspapers peaked in the late ’80s. About that same time, third-generation newspaper families began to lose interest in the family business, while corporations began to notice the healthy profit margins found in the newspaper industry. At a rate that accelerated as we barreled through the ‘90s, more and more newspapers became part of media conglomerates.

If the carnage continues, Alden will kill our newspaper. When that happens, we’re left with news deserts, with our “news” shoveled at us by social media, with its lack of fact-checkers and professionalism. Our information age will suffer from an appalling lack of information.

Passivity is not an option. This is our damn newspaper. This is our damn democracy.

Susan Campbell teaches at University of New Haven, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood.” She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.

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