Denver and Other Communities Get the News Providers They Deserve

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Peter Zenger would have been proud of the Denver Post’s editorial last Sunday.

The colonial-era New York City publisher who stands as the founding exemplar of freedom of the press in America would surely have applauded the remarkable in-house attack on the newspaper’s own majority owner, the $2 billion private hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Bearing the headline, “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,” the editorial asserted that successive rounds of Alden-ordered staff cuts are turning the 126-year-old Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire into “rotting bones.”

The piece included this defiant challenge to the paper’s ultimate bosses: “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”

The editorial was prepared and published by the opinion staff of the Post without communication with the operationally separate newsroom, and no prior notification was given to Digital First Media, the Alden-owned newspaper chain that oversees the Post and 66 other dailies. (DFM occupies offices in the former and prestigious downtown high-rise headquarters of the Post, which, in a another cost-cutting decision, recently had to relocate its newsroom and other offices to the newspaper’s printing plant in nearby Adams County.)

Like DFM, Alden also found out about the editorial after the fact. The company did not make any attempts to interfere with publication or distribution of the digital version of the editorial, which has been widely circulated on the Web, including in social media.

One Digital First Media executive who was placed in an awkward position by the editorial was Chris Loretto, executive vice president of digital. Loretto is also board chair of the Local Media Consortium, whose 80-some member media companies include DFM.

One of the LMC’s main sales pitches to advertising clients is that its members produce quality news, the kind that generates more engagement among readers, making those readers more likely to respond to ad messages and convert to digital subscriptions, which the Post recently introduced. If the Post is truly on its way to becoming “rotting bones,” as the editorial said, would that undermine the case that Loretto and the rest of the LMC try to make?

I asked Loretto if his double positions with the LMC and Digital First Media put him in a contradictory predicament. His answer: “Any individuals speaking on behalf of the LMC are speaking as part of the collective LMC effort and will not comment in that capacity about individual member companies.”

But if the LMC wants the credibility of its members’ publications to continue being a persuasive selling point with advertisers, its leadership should have the power to require individual member companies to heed LMC policy on basic issues like quality content and advertising fraud, which former CEO Rusty Coats warned against in a speech shortly after he left the LMC—titled “Ad Fraud Is a News Killer.” After all, the LMC, despite its name, is no longer a loosel consortium—it’s a legally defined entity.

If any LMC leader has an awkward double role, like Loretto in the case of the Denver Post editorial calling out its owner, then another consortium leader should be empowered to step in and corral any member media organization that isn’t implementing best practices based on the consortium’s adopted policies. What Coats characterizes as “We can only lead them to the water” is not enough when most local news providers, especially those with absentee ownership, have so much to prove to so many users.

Hedge funds like Alden and other private-equity companies have been buying up scores of medium-size and smaller dailies, some of them financially troubled. The companies’ general strategic angle is that their newly acquired properties can be operated much more efficiently and report the news with fewer editorial staff, producing higher profits to service the sizable debt the firms incur from costs of acquisition.

But newspapers bought by private-equity companies that have no local roots often fail to adhere to what has long been the essential mission of community journalism—holding city hall and other local centers of power accountable day in, day out. This pattern of nonfeasance is documented in two recent reports: “Saving the Free Press From Private Equity,” by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger in the American Prospect, and “The Rise of a New Media Baron and the Emerging Threat of News Deserts,” by journalism professional Penelope Abernathy at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

As this column stated in February 2017 in adding up the numbers in Abernathy’s book, “Today seven investment entities control 349 dailies, well ahead of either the 196 belonging to long-established private publishers that include companies like Hearst and Advance Publications or the 161 public publishers that include legacy chains like Gannett and McClatchy.”

The easiest response to what’s happening is to shake a rhetorical fist at private-equity companies, especially those like Alden Global Capital whose severe cost cutting, as the Denver Post editorial said, results in a “decline of local news [that] has been as obvious as it’s been precipitous.”

But it will take more than biting tweets to begin to fix the problem.

Communities, from activist citizens on up to major civic and other nonprofit institutions, will have to step forward. They will have to show some not-so-soft power and convert absentee media owners to the idea that public service is good business (i.e. it helps in selling ads and sponsorships to local merchants and other businesses). A collateral approach is for understaffed local media providers to find funding partners like Report for America, discussed in last week’s column.

Unhappy newspaper staffs will have to make their case against wrong-headed absentee owners with more than biting words, even if those words appear in sneak-attack editorials. An example is what happened in late January at the Los Angeles Times. The paper’s exasperated editorial staff voted 248 to 44 to unionize itself in response to the nonstop staff-cutting and erratic management of Michael Ferro, the former chairman and still majority owner of Tronc, the newspaper chain that then included the Times. Ferro was facing two accusations of sexual harassment at the same time, but the decisive union vote had to contribute to his abrupt decision to sell the Times to a minority investor who plans to rebuild the paper as a prized community asset.

The scathing anti-Alden editorial in last Sunday’s Denver Post did resonate with the spirit of Peter Zenger. But what if the Post editorial staff produced an external blog, with support from civic leaders from neighborhoods and the region, that every day showed what stories were being missed because a newsroom with 90-some people can’t begin to cover a sprawling, fast-growing metro region with 2.7 million people? That would surely inspire the activist community in greater Denver to do more than post supportive tweets.

I think Zenger, whose editorials diligently catalogued all the misdeeds of Britain’s royal governor in New York, would have loved that kind of results-focused protest journalism.