While Donald Trump feuds with the national press on Twitter, dueling cable shows call each other out for fake news, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders spars with Jim Acosta, journalists outside of the daily Washington drama face a far bigger threat. The dire economics of the media industry are well-established, but in many cases they’re being made worse by vampire owners whose attempt to eke a few final pennies from publications also happens to be killing them.
The most appalling example of this is playing out in Denver—a metropolitan area of nearly three million residents—where local news is being sucked dry by an out-of-town hedge fund. The headcount at the Denver Post has shrunk from 300 just over a decade ago to about 70 now, and in recent days, a handful of top staffers have resigned after parent company Digital First Media allegedly killed an editorial critical of the New York-based firm that owns it, Alden Global Capital. On Monday, more than 50 of the Post’s remaining staffers signed an open letter calling out the hedge fund for censorship.
“It has become vividly clear that they are undeserving of owning the Denver Post and of serving you [the public],” they wrote. “It has become vividly clear that they must either invest in the newspaper or sell it to someone who cares about Colorado, and they must do it immediately.”
Published on the Denver Newspaper Guild’s site, the note is a cry for help as the Post’s dystopian end-state comes into clearer focus. Similar activism has been seen at newspapers in Los Angeles, Chicago, and elsewhere as corporate parents whittle down newsrooms to their component parts, belying years of happy talk about digital transformation. Welcome to late capitalism: Local newspaper edition.
At the Post and many other newspapers, budgets get slashed just fast enough to stay ahead of declining revenues. The strategy is as lucrative as it is cynical. Internal financial documents published by Nieman Lab last week show that Digital First, which owns several dozen dailies, including the Mercury News in San Jose and the Pioneer Press in St. Paul, MN, reported a 17 percent operating margin in 2017. The Post contributed $28 million in profits alone.
The tension between these hedge-fund overlords and the journalists they employ is reaching its logical boiling point. The Post’s editorial board published a package in early April comparing Alden Global Capital to a vulture picking apart a wounded animal. The editorial page editor of the Boulder Daily Camera—a sister publication—was fired just days later after trying and failing to run a similar column in his own publication. Last Thursday, Post Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett resigned after he was blocked from running yet another piece critical of ownership. Three top staffers, including two senior editors and the former owner and current chairman, followed him out the door Friday. Self-cannibalization-via-hedge-fund is speeding up before our eyes.
The Post employees’ letter Monday calling for the paper to be sold was published as a handful of staffers converged on New York to protest outside Alden Global Capital’s Manhattan office. “Because of the radio silence we’ve gotten after trying to reach out, we’re door-knocking to look for answers, as any good reporter would do,” Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez told Splinter.
Hernandez added that she expects several dozen journalists from other Digital First Media newspapers to join in Tuesday’s protest. “It’s unbelievable to me that we’ve heard absolutely nothing from our ownership,” she said. “We’ve heard no responses to our questions and concerns. We’re here for our Denver community and our papers.”
Alden Global Capital—which has not responded to a message seeking comment—is not here for Denver or any of the other communities where it owns papers. It’s here for profit. And while there has been some movement among civic leaders in Colorado to wrangle up enough cash to buy the Post, the hedge fund is in a strong position to negotiate overly favorable terms. In the meantime, there is still plenty of money to be made.