PUTTING THE VULTURES ON NOTICE: What if Elijah Parish Lovejoy ran his newspaper merely to get rich?
Good evening. Thank you all so very much for coming out tonight, and for supporting quality journalism over corporate greed. Particularly local journalism, as will be our focus. This may sound like a grateful exaggeration, but it shouldn’t: My life has been forever changed for the better since I got the call from David Shribman that Colby College would bestow an award and honorary degree in the name of Elijah Parish Lovejoy. I’d known about Lovejoy. I was told of his astonishingly high-bar example during the fraught aftermath of our News-matters Perspective, the special Denver Post section that gathers us here. Thinking about Lovejoy’s completely selfless service to truth, to freedom and to the profession, to all that’s right and good about America’s grand democratic experiment, can’t help but deepen one’s thinking about what’s important in life. Thinking about Elijah Lovejoy can get you through the hard times.
Humblest appreciations, David, and heartfelt thanks also to the members of the selection committee and trustees. Thank you for all you are doing President Greene. Thank you Colby College. Thanks to Patrice Franko, Sherry Berard and the Goldfarb Center.
Had those interested in seeing the advancement of a strong, vigorous and independent press not responded so positively to what we did from The Denver Post editorial pages, our clarion call would have fizzled to the raw equivalent of a career-ruining “never mind.” It means the world that an institution like Colby would bestow this unparalleled tribute to help advance our effort.
Earlier this summer, I became certain it would be possible to structure this entire lecture as one long list of thanks.
Thanks to The Denver Post. Thanks to the journalists I’ve worked with. The newsrooms I’ve been lucky enough to write for.
My wife, Genine. She stood with me. She said it was the right thing to do. She gave it her blessing. Thank you Genine!
The writers who joined our News-matters mutiny, the Denver Rebellion as it is now known, obviously deserve praise. So do those who worked more secretly.
My parents were so pleased they came up all the way from Little Rock. (By the way, my father, an accountant by trade, particularly appreciates the honorary degree!)
Thank you Mom and Dad, for demanding that I keep in mind the biblical advice all my formative years that to whom much is given, much is expected.
So many good people to thank. Could I manage such a lecture? A long list of thanks?
Don’t worry! Listicles never caught on with me.
My goal tonight is to inspire you to attempt the seemingly impossible. As an editor, that was always part of the job. The responsibility continues now that I’ve become Professor Plunkett to students of journalism. (Thank you University of Colorado Boulder!) I hope to inspire each of you to think seriously about the challenges facing our communities as so many of our local newsrooms face neglect and abuse. While we focus on the damage wrought by vulture capitalists, there are also the social media companies who benefit from our work but soak up most of the revenue. And this continued belief in too many quarters that the news ought to be thought of as free must change. What’s to be done? What is a community’s responsibility to making sure it is being properly informed? How can you support local journalism and demand better?
So if I may, and I do apologize, given that we are in a chapel, I’d like to capture a slice of the kind of energy that’s needed here. I’d like you to turn to your neighbor and say, and say it newsroom-style.
“Let’s kick some ass!”
Now wasn’t that fun? Let’s say it together.
What if you learned that the pricey craft brew down the street was skimping on its hops? If the nearby coffee roaster charged top dollar for generic beans?
Or this one from Mike Littwin, a legendary columnist in Colorado. To be the owner of a professional sports team, you have to commit to at least the basic number of players. And if you’re going to profit from being considered the paper of record, you ought to be responsible enough, at the bare minimum, to provide the staffing it takes to attempt the job. (After our News-matters Perspective ran, Littwin published a column that called me a journalistic superhero, and I’d always thought he considered me a snot-nosed neophyte. Thank you Mike Littwin!)
But somewhere along the way hedge funds like Alden Global Capital started buying up newsrooms, and they’ve not proven to be the kinds of business people who try to improve or even sustain the quality of the product.
Now many local newspapers are skimpy things, full of “content” instead of serious journalism, and less and less from actual newsroom employees. They say their digital offerings are
better. And newsrooms like The Denver Post do continue to punch above their weight. But the quality is diminished online, too. And we see the direction this is going.
Lots of single-source or thinly reported articles. Too many promising young journalists turned to desk jockeys barely able to dig in, put on quotas for clicks. Seasoned journalists fed up and quitting. Diminishment across all departments. Insiders at the top levels of Denver and Colorado government tell me elected officials, political appointees and bureaucrats are getting lazy. They’re making mistakes and not getting caught, and it’s feeding an awfully negative feedback loop indeed.
Let’s look at what’s happening in Colorado. It’s happening across the land.
The Denver Post newsroom held nearly 300 journalists when I started in 2003. It sure looked like a destination paper. The now-defunct Rocky Mountain News remained a fierce competitor with more than 200 journalists. By the time Alden Global Capital took control of one of the largest newspaper chains in the country – of which The Post served as a flagship – the Rocky was long gone and The Post had dwindled below 200. Not to worry, the chain’s management company, Digital First Media, told us. We would retool. We would become a newsroom of the 21st century.
We went through the process. We did it well.
Then weird things began to happen. An editorial cartoonist won a Pulitzer Prize. He was gone in a year, along with several others during an Alden-ordered buyout. The newsroom won a Pulitzer for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting. It also was a finalist for its coverage of massive forest fires. We were thanked with the loss of 20 more positions. The cuts came no matter that we hit the page-view targets. Targets set impossibly high.
Greg Moore, a champion The Post’s former owner lured from The Boston Globe, resigned. Vincent Carroll, editorial page editor, soon followed.
We consolidated space to reduce our lease. We did it again, and brought the advertising department into the newsroom, once a serious no-no in our profession. We left downtown Denver and most of us moved into the printing plant.
Our managing editor resigned. The publisher to whom I reported directly also left.
Almost immediately word came we would cut 30 more positions from the 100 remaining.
To paraphrase The New York Times’ Dean Baquet, asking a newsroom of 70 folks to cover a city the size of Denver, a state
the size of Colorado, is ridiculous. A profound example of the crisis facing local newsrooms today.
Alden Global Capital sits atop the Lipstick Building in Manhattan. Its CEO, Heath Freeman, expanded a mansion in East Hampton during our preparations for the News-matters Perspective. He once bought a famous basketball player’s jersey for nearly $120,000. Alden’s Randall D. Smith owns 16 mansions in Palm Beach.
They’ve slashed the size of their newsrooms at twice the national rate, and reap profits approaching 20 percent, well above those enjoyed by other owners. And they’ve been subsidizing investments in entities that have nothing to do with journalism with their newsroom profits and pension funds. (Thank you to the media reporters, like Ken Doctor, Margaret Sullivan and Julie Reynolds, who have documented these abuses.)
To me it is a moral issue. If you own a newsroom, you own a quasi-public institution vital to the maintenance of society. You own a piece of the American democratic experiment. You must invest in that newsroom for the public good. That’s the price of admission. That saying about money being the best way to keep score is all wrong. Success as a human being should be
about so much more than mansions and sports memorabilia worth more than most families make in a year.
The consequences of breaking the public’s trust for fast profits are considerable. When you constantly degrade the quality of your offerings, your readers see what’s happening. They feel it, and they feel betrayed. Not only have you insulted your core readers, you’ve poisoned the well for the next generation, who see no reason to ever take you seriously again. Meanwhile, you’ve left a community without a paper of record, and fueled the flames of the disasters that come with a poorly informed and therefore easily misled populace.
Does anyone think that the enemy-of-the-people hostility directed against journalists these days is absent hurt feelings from that betrayal?
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the university mission. A few weeks after our special section, the student paper at Heath Freeman’s alma mater, Duke University, published an editorial titled “Shame on Freeman,” to welcome a visit to campus. The student journalists suggested Freeman re-read the university’s honor code. They reminded him, much as my parents might have, that to whom much is given, much is expected. That the goal of a higher education – the whole point of it – is to use your many privileges not just to better your situation, but to benefit
society. Not to become the worst example of excess money can buy.
But didn’t I say I wanted to be inspiring? Well, a good editor summarizes the challenges ahead.
Many people I’ve talked to since we pulled off the Denver Rebellion want to know how in the world we secretly assembled a package of nine columns centered around a tell-it-from-the-mountain editorial that called out the owners. How did we manage to publish the section not only online, but in the actual newspaper. How did we force Alden Global Capital to deliver the News-matters Perspective right to readers’ doorsteps, or at least somewhere on the front lawn.
They want to understand it, given the checks and balances that news organizations construct to prevent non-authorized publication from occurring. What did it take to break the heavy chain of command?
(Without doubt, that story is an exhilarating cliffhanger. So if any of you are interested, please ask in the Q&A.)
But for now I want to talk about the deeper question of how. It’s the question thinking about Lovejoy raises. When you know you will face serious and difficult consequences, how do you summon the courage it will take to move forward?
If our overarching goal as professionals, as scholars, as good citizens, is to act boldly to advance the mission of serving humanity, then we must know how to overcome the fears that stand in the way.
What I learned is that overcoming fear meant fulfilling an obligation. Our responsibility is to the truth and to the readers, not to the special interests or elected officials, not the powerful who run things in our community, not even to the people who sign our paychecks.
A proud tradition of the editorial page, especially, is that we call out anyone or any institution we consider a bad actor, or threat.
Another motivator, we wanted to avenge the victims. To make the plea forcefully and publicly while there was still a chance to save the newsroom. We published the weekend before the first round of the 30 layoffs took place.
You feel loyal to all the editors and producers, reporters and photographers, videographers and graphic artists, the designers and the copy editors, the researchers, the editorial assistants, that newsroom in your mind filled with the people past and present you learned from and worked with all these years (like a family to you, and all that that means) who so helped create the journalist you turned out to be. You know
they would want you to take the unique opportunity you see before you, and sound the alarm.
Here’s a fun story about our interaction with those atop the Lipstick Building. (And you know, you can put lipstick on a pig.) Woody Paige, an ESPN commentator, and then a Denver Post sports columnist, was in New York on business with Digital First Media. In the neighborhood, he thought he would stop by and meet the new owners. Shake hands like professionals. Alden’s receptionist rang up security. A guard ushered Paige down to the street.
Paige would later reflect: “That was my first indication that this was not a newspaper-centric company.”
Yes, billionaires are busy people. No, Paige didn’t have an appointment. But here was a marquee name for a property from which they wished to profit. A brand name in Colorado. A huge draw for our subscribers. Ushered out by security for wanting to say a friendly hello.
Maybe I’ve got something against rich people? Not a bit. I wish I had more money all the time. One of my favorite people in all the world is William Dean Singleton, the billionaire former owner of the MediaNews Group chain Alden now controls. During my days as editorial page editor, Dean served as an
important member of our editorial board. Though officially retired, he also remained as chairman of The Denver Post, and his name figured prominently on the masthead. (Still, he was no friend of the kind of owners Alden turned out to be, and there was bad blood.) He lives in and loves Denver and all of Colorado, where he also has a ranch. The Post was his baby. All I had to do was call. His interest in our work practically oozed from his pores.
In Dean’s mind, a community and state will never reach their full potential without a strong paper of record.
Yes, as owner he was called Lean Dean, and had a reputation for running a tight ship to make his fortune. But as mentioned earlier, Dean spent big bucks to lure Greg Moore from The Boston Globe. He so loved the photography of a then unknown Craig Walker he brought him to The Post, where the photojournalist would win not one but two Pulitzer Prizes. He so cared about the quality of the editorials he spent hours talking about them – whether I liked it, or not.
When I told Dean what I was planning with the News-matters Perspective, I knew he had the power to derail the scheme. Not only did he stand back and let us move forward, he said it was the right thing to do. When publication led to my resignation, Dean joined me out the door. (Thank you Dean Singleton!)
Like Jeff Bezos in Washington and Patrick Soon-Shiong in Los Angeles, Glen Taylor in Minneapolis, the late Gerry Lenfest in Philadelphia, Reade Brower in Maine and Walter Hussman in my home state of Arkansas. Rich folks willing to make a little less because they so appreciate the responsibility of owning a newsroom, and supporting its mission.
Heady stuff, talking about billionaires. But in summoning the courage it took to go forward, I need to tell you about the employee I was forced to let go.
Most people think of journalists as those prominent in the public eye. But a good newsroom depends upon a staff peopled by those who rarely receive recognition.
Cohen Peart joined The Denver Post more than 20 years ago at the very bottom of the pecking order. He worked his way onto the editorial pages, then into the role of curating and editing the letters to the editor, and assisting with op-ed columnists.
He is a quiet person who avoids the spotlight. Material trappings aren’t his thing. Even through the snows of winter and the heat and rains of summer, most days, Cohen commutes several miles by bicycle.
Like a lot of us in newsroom, Cohen has his idiosyncrasies, and working with him was not always the happiest of times. If he thought an idea I had was lame, he made his opinion clear.
The happiest times of Cohen’s career meant working with our writers, helping to craft and improve. He believed that every email and call deserved a response, no matter how impossible that became. He zealously protected our decades-long practice of featuring a free-marketplace of ideas, with the richest variety of voices fit to print.
I not-so-secretly believed that Cohen took special pleasure in publishing letters that called me out for editorials or columns, and allowing the writers their maximum derision. (Hopefully, the fact that we routinely published such anti-Plunkett content gives special resonance to the circumstances of my resignation.) Giving readers their voice meant far more to Cohen than pleasing a boss.
What I’m describing is a commodity you can’t find in the spreadsheets. This quiet signal to readers – in print and digital formats – that we have their back doesn’t neatly register as page views, no matter that its influence in reader participation is mission critical.
When Alden instructed in March that the newsroom be cut again – by almost a third – only three of us worked on the editorial pages. At the peak we had more than a dozen. And so it was that the week we put the News-matters Perspective together would be Cohen’s last at The Denver Post. The other
member of the team, editorial writer and columnist Megan Schrader, now The Post’s editorial page editor (and she is so fantastic), was on maternity leave. In addition to our daily workload, Cohen and I had to fill that six-page Sunday section, while maintaining the coolest of professional attitudes so that others wouldn’t suspect we were up to anything.
Cohen stayed late most days. It was his idea to arrange the package so that we broke tradition and started the editorial on the cover, above the fold. The package needed that unifying voice, he said. He quietly worked with the right people to deliver that now-iconic photo showing former Post employees as if blacked out of existence.
At a critical point, while I privately debated whether we should go through with the barrage, Cohen said: I’m so glad we’re doing this, because our readers don’t know this information. We never write about the owners and what’s going on behind the cuts. The readers ought to know these things.
If that Sunday’s paper landed on Cohen’s doorstep without the News-matters Perspective, I would’ve blamed myself until and upon my dying day.
Cohen texted that Sunday. He’d planned to come in the next day and clean out his desk. But he’d logged in and looked at the hundreds of letters-to-the-editor submissions.
He stayed late his last day at The Denver Post, building an entire page of letters for the next Perspective. He did his job as always. He tallied the responses so that the package contained the correct proportion of negative and positive reaction.
This is the kind of journalist that makes a newsroom matter. This is the kind of professional the business must have to succeed. This is the kind of human being that helps a community find its voice and rise above the petty distractions and serious challenges that threaten democracy.
Elijah Lovejoy would’ve loved Cohen Peart.
Any respectable newsroom owner would.