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In the editorial pages of the Denver Post, a rebellion against its 'vulture capitalist' owners

Today, April 9, more than two dozen staffers in the Denver Post newsroom will walk out the door, representing the latest round of staff cuts and layoffs at one of the largest metro newspapers in the West.

The day before, the news outlet's editorial board filled the newspaper's opinion pages with protests - representing a remarkable rebellion against the owners responsible for continual staff cuts at the paper over the past few years.

"News matters," read the headline that stretched across the front page of the opinion section. "Colo. should demand the newspaper it deserves."

The slate of nine opinion pieces included an editorial and eight columns, many of which were written by former Denver Post journalists. They targeted the paper's owner, Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund to which some of the pieces scornfully referred as "vulture capitalists" in the articles.

In mid-March, Alden and the Denver Post's parent company owned by Alden, Digital First Media, directed the paper to cut 30 jobs by July, which is nearly one-third of the staff. The directive came despite Digital First Media's being "solidly profitable," as Digital First Media reportedly told its workers in 2017.

"We take the moment to acknowledge fundamental truths. When newsroom owners view profits as the only goal, quality, reliability and accountability suffer," the Denver Post editorial board wrote. "Their very mission is compromised."

The opinion articles were both a rebuke of Alden Global Capital's "money-over-everything" tactics and a call to action, both to Alden and to the paper's readers.

They called on Alden to either rethink its business strategies or to sell the paper to an owner who actually values journalism and urged readers to demand the same. The writers asked questions such as, "Who will step up and save the Denver Post?" and "Who will 'be there' when journalists are gone?"

They mourned the loss to the local community of the watchful eyes of journalists, and they raised the unsettling possibility that the recent layoffs "represent the beginning of the end for the Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire."

The layoffs, wrote Ricardo Baca, a former Denver Post reporter and its first cannabis editor, "force us to imagine a Denver without a substantive daily newspaper."

Protests by journalists run against the grain of "Journalism 101," he wrote, but "these are also desperate times, and if we don't speak up now, then we will be destined to witness the demise of our city's largest and most essential news-gathering operations - and what would happen to democracy then? Who would hold the powerful, Alden Global Capital included, accountable in the absence of a major metropolitan daily newspaper?"

A telephone message left for Alden Global Capital was not immediately returned late Sunday. Digital First Media's chief operating officer, Guy Gilmore, also did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Denver Post's editor in chief, Lee Ann Colacioppo, told The Washington Post that Alden has had absolutely no contact with her or anyone on the editorial side. She said she has spoken with executives from Digital First Media, who she said appear aware of the impact the deep cuts have had on the morale of the newsroom. The justification for the cuts provided to her was that, despite being profitable, the company was not on track to make its budget, Colacioppo said, declining to give an opinion about that reasoning.

When she informed the newsroom of the looming staff cuts in mid-March, the initial reaction was one of "shock and horror," she said.

Then, she said, they had to put out the next day's paper. And do it again and again and again. While dispiriting to a newsroom that has won nine Pulitzer Prizes in its 125-year history, Colacioppo said the cuts have only emboldened the reporters to continue doing journalism that matters.

"They settled in and did the great work they always did: aggressive and fair and balanced reporting that we think makes a difference in our community," she said. "But beyond that, they used all the tools at their disposal to draw attention to our situation. It achieved instant national attention and has continued to do so, and that's because the staff reacted. We're going to make clear what our situation is here and help people understand what's at stake when a local newspaper [undergoes repeated staff cuts]."

The editorial pages editor, Chuck Plunkett, told the New York Times Saturday that he neither warned the owners nor Colacioppo about his plans to publish these articles - nor was he concerned about the possibility of losing his job.

"I had to do it because it was the right thing to do," he said. "If that means that I lose my job trying to stand up for my readers, then that means I'm not working for the right people anyway."

This spring's cuts at the newspaper come after 26 staffers were offered buyouts or laid off in 2016 and another 20 were offered buyouts in 2015, prompting the newspaper's staffers to protest Alden and Digital First Media outside the newsroom, wearing T-shirts that said. "#NewsMatters." Another 10 newsroom staffers were laid off in November 2017.

In 2016, the paper's longtime editor, Gregory L. Moore, resigned after he could no longer endure laying off journalists, as he recounted in one of the Denver Post's Sunday commentaries. Announcing his decision to leave from the newsroom floor, he told the staff that he had been looking at a picture of the newsroom staff taken after the Denver Post won a Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for its coverage of the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting.

"I realized there are more than 50 people in that photo who aren't here anymore," Moore told the staff, according to a 5280 Magazine article about the cuts.

The same photo of the group was published in the newspaper Sunday, with the dozens of journalists no longer at the Denver Post colored in black.

"Naively, I hoped my departure might stanch the bleeding," he wrote in his column. "I'm sad because it has continued, and I'm angry because now I realize The Post might not endure.

"I will miss it if it is gone," he wrote. "We all will."

  

Story by Meagan Flynn. Flynn is a reporter on The Washington Post's Morning Mix team. She was previously a reporter at the Houston Chronicle and, prior to that, the Houston Press, where she covered criminal and social justice issues extensively.

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