Littwin: Denver Post owners are not just laying off employees, they’re looting the public trust
March 16, 2018
I've spent a day lamenting the news of the latest devastating round of layoffs at the already-decimated Denver Post.
Well, I'm sick of lamenting. The question now is what can we do about it. After all, the announcement of 30 layoffs is not an assault only on journalism and journalists. This is an assault on everyone who cares about our city and state.
This is the case of a hedge fund bleeding a newspaper dry and, in the process, enfeebling Colorado's most comprehensive news source. As I tweeted earlier today, when the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009, the Post and the Rocky each employed more than 200 journalists. Where there were once 450-or-so sets of eyes on the city and state, there will soon be fewer than 70. That's 380 that are missing. That's countless thousands of stories that have never been told. That's an incalculable loss for Colorado.
The story of newspaper decline, the transition from print to digital, the loss of advertising revenue, is certainly not a new one. But many newspapers have figured out a way to survive. Some even thrive. This is a different story altogether.
The Post, I'm reliably told, makes a profit. It is not losing journalists because it's losing money. Its newsroom is being repeatedly butchered by a rapacious hedge fund for that oldest of reasons — greed.
So, what can we do?
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The paper must be sold. That's the only way it can be saved. We need, in the best case, local ownership. We've got a few spare billionaires in the state, and billionaires have saved The Washington Post, The Los Angeles Times and other papers. We need one or more of Colorado's richest to step up.
Digital First, which has repeatedly proven its incompetence, owns the Post and several other papers in the state. A hedge fund, Alden Global Capital — currently being sued by a major investor for allegedly taking money from Digital First properties to "finance insider investment deals" — controls Digital First. According to a story in dfmworkers.org, Alden is being sued for siphoning hundreds of millions of dollars for investments in businesses "entirely unrelated to the company's core businesses."
Meanwhile, the Post has put up a paywall to boost revenue and has moved its headquarters to Adams County to save money. And now we get the news that the newspaper must lay off a third of its newsroom.
Phil Anschutz, who owns The Colorado Springs Gazette and Colorado Politics and too many businesses to name, repeatedly tried to buy the Post. At some point, he apparently stopped trying. I may disagree with Anschutz on 99 percent of issues, but we agree that newspapers are worthwhile. At this point, that's enough for me.
Alden needs to have its hand forced. I've thought of a couple of possible ways to do this — most of them certainly quixotic — but something needs to be done.
1. The governor needs to call on Alden/Digital First to sell the Post. Now. This is his job. He's the leader of the state. The leading news site in his state is under what could well be a fatal attack.
2. Those people running for governor need to say the same. And say it a lot. Jared Polis, who once got himself in trouble for a nasty piece of glib talk when the Rocky folded, could redeem himself here. And enough of the "enemy of the people" talk from Trumpists. The enemies of the Colorado people are those who own the Post.
3. Anschutz, who doesn't talk publicly, should send out a representative to talk about the situation publicly. He could make this a real cause. He won't. It's not how he does business. And I'm too old to ever learn that newspapers are just another business.
4. The Post employees could strike. I know. It could cost them their jobs. It would be a brave and bold thing to do and probably a desperate and foolish one, too. But if I were still there, I'd argue that it may be the only way to save the few jobs that are left.
5. Readers could boycott. I'm not particularly a boycott fan. The last boycott I participated in was the United Farm Workers boycott of lettuce in the early '70s. If memory serves, that boycott actually worked, but let me admit it wasn't exactly a personal hardship. But here's the proposition: If you care about the Post, you tell the people taking your call that you'll subscribe or re-subscribe as soon as the paper is sold.
The Post still has value. That value needs to be reinforced. Harvard Nieman Lab's Ken Doctor told dfmworkers.org that Digital First newspapers are bringing in profit margins as high as 20 percent. He says what Alden has been doing is "a legal looting of the public trust."
That's our trust he's talking about. We're the ones being looted. If you have better ideas as to how to stop the looting and, also, the bleeding, I'd love to hear them. Doing nothing is not an option. But doing what is the question that desperately needs an answer.
Mike Littwin writes a column for the Colorado Independent.
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