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‘We have got an absentee landlord’: Denver Post calls out owners for dramatic newsroom cuts

In a blistering editorial, journalists at the Denver Post sounded the alarm about years of devastating job cuts and took the newspaper’s own hedge fund owners to task, begging to be sold. Amna Nawaz speaks to Chuck Plunkett, editorial page editor of the Denver Post, who co-wrote the editorial.

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  • William Brangham:

    Newspapers around the country continue to face steep problems. In many cases, especially for midsize papers, layoffs and buyouts are far from over.

    This weekend, journalists at The Denver Post sounded the alarm with a blistering stop-the-presses-style editorial that took the paper's owners to task.

    Amna Nawaz looks at why editors there took this most unusual step.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The front-page editorial came after years of devastating cuts ordered by Alden Global Capital, a New York City hedge fund that stepped in to buy the paper in 2010.

    In it, the editorial page editors referred to Alden as vulture capitalists and wrote, "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."

    Just today, two dozen more staffers left The Post, the latest in a series of layoffs that have taken the 125-year-old paper from a newsroom of 250 journalists to fewer than 100.

    The Post's parent company is one of the biggest newspaper chains in the country, with more than 90 papers in cities like St. Paul, Boston, and San Jose.

    Several of these newsrooms have gone through staff reductions. But none of these papers so far have quite done what The Denver Post has, publicly calling out their owners and begging to be sold.

    Joining me now, Chuck Plunkett, editorial page editor of The Denver Post, who co-wrote the editorial.

    Welcome.

    And I want to begin by just asking you, why? Why take this extraordinary move, why in this particular way, and why now?

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    Well, you know, news — and thanks for having me.

    Newspapers have a proud tradition of calling out the powerful, being the voice for the voiceless. And we even have a tradition that we run letters to the editor and op-eds written by outsiders who are critical of our work.

    On the editorial page, we are critical of government and private businesses who we don't feel are living up to the job that they are supposed to perform.

    And in this situation, we believe that our owners are failing their readers, not just in Denver, Colorado, but in their many holdings across the United States, and that it was only proper to call them out and ask for better.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But this is a pretty drastic move, I think it's fair to say. It's an extraordinary step.

    Help me understand a little bit more about what exactly is at stake.

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    Well, we're under extraordinary conditions.

    When I first joined The Post midway through 2003, it was at its peak. There were more than 300 journalists. We had five mountain bureaus. We had a large political team.

    And over the years, that has downsized. Some of that is because of market forces, which I totally understand. But we have seen that cities that are our size and larger or smaller — I mean, our size or smaller population have newsrooms that are much larger than The Denver Post, even when we were at where we are presently today, which is just under 100.

    These cuts call — when they're completed, we will be down closer to 60. That And Seems like the death knell. That seems like the final cut. And it was either stand up now and ask that things change and take a stand for the community and take a stand for journalism and what we should be doing as a newspaper, or facing the prospect of writing our own obituary in a few years, maybe as many as — maybe as few as three.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What do you feel would be lost if The Denver Post were not allowed to continue to thrive with the staff you think it needs?

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    That's a great question.

    You know, a city — a paper of record like The Denver Post, the biggest newsroom in a state, should be seen as a public institution. It is the kind of entity that has a unique position that, because of its reporting ability and because of its editorial ability, are able to call balls and strikes.

    We're able to help keep things on a level playing field and help monitor a situation, so that a city and a community and a state and a region can enjoy and become what they are capable of, so they can meet their potential.

    And if you don't have strong journalistic team — if you don't have a strong journalistic team trying to meet those goals, so much is lost, it's incalculable.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So what would you like to see from your parent now? Would you like to see them either say or do? How can The Denver Post be saved?

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    It would be great if they would invest in the newsroom again. We lost our publisher earlier this year. He has not been replaced with someone who spends time day in and day out in the Denver community.

    And that's the problem that I'm beginning to see, is that we have got an absentee landlord-type situation. What if — if Alden and Digital First Media want to reinvest and prop up that piece of the business, then that would be great.

    Short of that, I think they should try to look for — or I don't think I — I hope that they will look for community members who are able to afford and desire to have the public institution that is The Denver Post.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Do you believe it can be saved?

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    I do believe it can be saved.

    Since Alden has taken the reins in Denver, this city has grown by over 100,000. The city limits in Denver alone is 700,000. We're in a metro area of more than three million.

    It's a young, hyper-educated, affluent bunch of people that live here. And it's entrepreneurial, and it's hard-charging, and it's a city and town and state on the make. We have got — Amazon is considering putting its second headquarters here. We're considering a bid for the Winter Olympics, and on and on.

    And I cannot imagine, with the energy that's here, with the people here, the potential readership that you have here, that if you have a really quality newsroom putting out good news, good journalism day after day, that you won't have a market for that.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Chuck Plunkett of The Denver Post, thanks for your time.

  • Chuck Plunkett:

    Thank you so much for having me.

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