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When a hedge fund tries to kill the newspapers it owns, journalists must fight back

Professional newspaper journalists aren’t known for publicly expressing their opinions, so imagine my surprise back in June 2016 when my Denver Post colleagues asked me if I would join them in a protest.

My colleagues were planning to demonstrate against a New York hedge fund that was choking out a respected Colorado institution, a Denver business that had served the public for more than a century.

Fellow editors, reporters, page designers and artists — normally known outside the newsroom for their unbiased public presence and stringent ethical standards — made T-shirts and picket signs, organized a slate of speakers and invited media outlets with which The Post competes to attend.

If this sounds like a scene out of a dystopian novel, you’re not that far off. Employees of The Denver Post were, in fact, protesting their own.

We were protesting Alden Global Capital, the Manhattan hedge fund that owns The Post and many other papers — including Boulder’s Daily Camera, the Longmont Times-Call and esteemed American dailies from San Jose, Calif., to Trenton, N.J.

The protest drew a lot of attention, especially because this most unlikely of picketing demographics was out there raising hell, shouting about the importance of the fourth estate and holding signs that read “Democracy Depends on Journalism” and “Journalists Hold the Powerful Accountable.” But as unlikely as it was to see journalists protesting their own paper’s ownership on the front steps of the newsroom, it’s even stranger to see those same journalists protesting the paper’s ownership in its own pages.

Yet here we are, pointing out to all who will listen that Alden Global Capital — “one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism,” according to Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan — is systematically gutting The Denver Post and other Pulitzer-winning newspapers throughout the country.

These are desperate measures, to be certain; protesting certainly doesn’t come naturally to journalists, nor does penning opinion pieces targeting a newspaper’s ownership. To an extent, this is the opposite of what we’ve been trained to do since Journalism 101.

But these are also desperate times, and if we don’t speak up now, then we will be destined to witness the demise of our city’s largest and most essential news-gathering operations — and what would happen to democracy then? Who would then hold the powerful, Alden Global Capital included, accountable in the absence of a major metropolitan daily newspaper?

Mind you, I’m no longer a Post staffer. I edited and wrote for the newspaper for 15 years before resigning in December 2016, and I also worked for the Rocky Mountain News for four years before that. Colorado already lost the Rocky in 2009, and this most recent slate of cuts at The Post — involving 30 journalists in a newsroom that barely numbers 100, representing the largest layoff by percentage in the newspaper’s history — forces us to imagine a Denver without a substantive daily newspaper.

And that’s something I’m just not willing to do.

At a time when Denver is booming and Colorado is growing and The Denver Post is innovating, Alden Global Capital is cutting staff, just as they have since they first purchased The Post’s parent company, Media News Group, in 2010. As Bloomberg View columnist Joe Nocera wrote about these eight years of layoffs at The Post and its sister papers carried out by Alden Global Capital president Heath Freeman: “His layoffs aren’t just painful. They are savage.”

And they’re especially savage because the profitability of Alden Global Capital’s newspaper group, a.k.a. Digital First Media, doesn’t seem to matter much. Published reports have argued that The Post is turning a healthy profit — a likelihood echoed by former DFM president and CEO Steve Rossi, who wrote in a 2017 staff-wide memo that the company was “solidly profitable” and that “advertising revenue has been significantly better than that of our publicly traded industry peers.”

So why is a solidly profitable organization offering buyouts and conducting layoffs as if they’re going out of style? That’s a subject for another piece, but I can’t recommend media writer Ken Doctor’s regular analysis enough — especially his latest column on DFM, which covers a new Delaware lawsuit that alleges Alden Global Capital yanked profits from DFM newspapers and moved them into “poorly performing investments.”

There are unfortunately many more awful stories detailing Freeman’s heartless management of Digital First Media, but he’s little more than a vulture capitalist whose Nixonian legacy will involve the attempted murder of local American journalism, so let’s instead focus on the future of The Denver Post and other DFM papers.

Because there is a future there, and I wholeheartedly believe that.

While Alden Global Capital and Heath Freeman will always be remembered as the money-over-everything behemoths that attempted genocide on their very own newspaper group, they will eventually tire of such devastating work and move onto another industry in distress. And when they finally sell these fine American newspapers to a less vicious corporate owner, or perhaps even a network of local owners, these resource-starved papers and their too-lean staffs will be ready to rebuild their newsrooms and repair their reputations.

The papers then must regain the public’s trust by covering what other outlets have let fall by the wayside. They will embolden their standing as the papers of record in their communities. They will start almost from scratch, building a business from an actual digital-first mindset instead of the business model that unsuccessfully tried to create digital dimes from print dollars.

And when The Denver Post and other papers emerge from the shameful shroud of Alden Global Capital and Heath Freeman, they will not go after their former ownership with a series of hatchet-job pieces or one-sided, everything-and-the-kitchen-sink deep-dives; They won’t do that because that would be vengeful and unethical, and while we journalists will stand up for our colleagues and workplace when they are under an unprecedented attack, we will not target subjects purely out of spite.

That’s just not what professional newspaper journalists do.

Ricardo Baca is the founder of The Cannabist and The UMS and a former staff writer and editor at The Denver Post, the Corpus Christi Caller-Times and the Rocky Mountain News. He now runs full-service communications agency Grasslands.

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