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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Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.