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May 7, 2018, 10:58 a.m.

Newsonomics: “Everything I believe about the news business is being violated” at The Denver Post

Former Denver Post owner Dean Singleton is upset that the paper he built “has been totally gutted of news coverage…It is breaking my heart.” Meanwhile, the current owners plan still another round of cuts — and consider killing editorial pages entirely.

It might only seem that the walls are tumbling in at The Denver Post. Or it might be reality.

In a stunningly quick series of events, the Post has continued to shed staff — not by firing or layoff, but by what might best be described as resigned resignation. At the same time, I’ve learned, a fresh round of budget cuts in the range of 10 to 15 percent is being planned for the paper, along with other Digital First Media properties.

Meanwhile, controlling owner Alden Global Capital — the Post’s much-derided disassembler — is reacting in real time to both the mushrooming community protest and the new financial challenges that protest is generating. Sources tell me that financial pressure includes at least one lender withdrawing from the refinancing of its $225 million credit facility, one apparently due to be repaid or refinanced before the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, five key Post news executives have turned in their resignations within the last 10 days. First came the resignation of Chuck Plunkett — the editorial page editor whose six-page section a month ago calling his paper’s owners “vultures” lit this fire.

DFM bosses were considering firing or reassigning Plunkett, but he got ahead of the process. Once DFM chief operating officer Guy Gilmore mandated that any editorials mentioning the company must be pre-approved by him, the die was cast. Plunkett wrote an editorial about DFM firing his colleague, Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor Dave Krieger and about the subsequent condemnation of that act by the Boulder City Council. Plunkett submitted that piece, Gilmore rejected it and Plunkett headed out the door.

“I was being boxed in so that I couldn’t speak,” said Plunkett, who as editorial page editor stood uniquely as the voice of the paper — a voice at risk as DFM considers the elimination of editorial pages across its company, I’m told.

— former Denver Post owner Dean Singleton

Following Plunkett’s resignation, three other top Post editors also took their leave. Digital director Becky Risch announced her departure early last week for another job, outside journalism. Senior editors Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman both quit Friday. That leaves the paper — whose staff had just been cut to 70 overall — down to 66 staffers, with openings for at least five editors.

Says one experienced remaining Post news staffer: “Larry, Becky, and Dana were all long-term committed editors who were highly respected.” This morning, 55 of the Post’s remaining newsroom staffers signed an open letter “outraged at the unconscionable censorship imposed on” Plunkett and calling on Alden and DFM to “either invest in the newspaper or sell it to someone who cares about Colorado, and they must do it immediately.”

Dean Singleton has left his Post

But it’s the fifth resignation that may do the most damage to DFM’s continuing and highly profitable operation of the Post. (Last week, I detailed DFM’s Colorado group profits of $36 million in the company’s last fiscal year; the Post itself was responsible for about $28 million of that.)

Dean Singleton — the Post’s former owner and long-time publisher and a Denver resident who had been associated with the Post for the last 31 years — threw in the towel as well at week’s end. Once nicknamed “Lean Dean” for his own cutting of newspaper staffing, Singleton had emerged through this drama as a protector of the Post’s legacy of commitment to the wider community. Five years ago, as he dealt with the worsening of his multiple sclerosis, Singleton had sold his controlling stake to Alden, but he had remained as both chair of the Post’s editorial board and a highly influential civic player.

A Murdochian character from the print newspaper era that’s quickly receding, Singleton had held his fire as long as he formally served with the company. As I had indicated last week, though, more self-inflicted damage at the Post would likely push him to sever his three-decade relationship with the paper he built and used to beat the once highly competitive Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky closed in 2009 — at a point when Denver had about 600 daily journalists, compared to the 60 or so of today.

“I resigned as well,” Singleton told me in an interview Sunday. “At the end of my career, I don’t want to be a part of it. The Post has been totally gutted of news coverage and of editorial coverage. That’s a fact.”

It was Guy Gilmore’s gag order that pushed first Plunkett and then Singleton to take their decisive steps. “Do NOT post to the web or publish in print any story touching on Digital First Media / Alden Global Capital without my prior approval,” one DFM editor had written in a memo summing up the new DFM directive in late April. “In the event you are presented with any story that appears to focus or touch upon the struggles of journalism, you must carefully scan the story to make sure it does not involve DFM / Alden Global Capital. This directive comes from above.” It’s a directive that now applies across all of Digital First Media’s 63 dailies and its weeklies as well.

“They put us in a position where everything had to be cleared in New York,” Singleton confirmed.

Singleton pointed to the Post’s long-time central role in Denver civic life. Five years ago, the Post editorial page included nine staffers, he told me, and had major influence in the city and state. “The new airport, the new football stadium, Major League Baseball coming, the $1 billion bond that the city just passed — if the Post supported something, it usually passed,” he said.

Now, “we have a governor’s race in June, and I don’t think they’ll be any endorsements.” The industry standard would be for editorial boards to meet with and interview candidates and then decide on endorsements. There’s no one left at the Post to do the interviews.

The Post had been down to essentially two thought leaders, Plunkett and Singleton, after two other editorial page staffers moved on, one of them laid off in the recent big layoff of 30. Singleton usually consulted with Plunkett on editorial stands by phone, at least several times a week. With the two of them gone, the Post will run several syndicated columnists, but apparently has no mechanism to create a new local editorial page viewpoint or leadership.

About 25 miles away in Boulder, where DFM fired editorial page editor Dave Krieger last week and his five local community contributors resigned in protest, it also appears there will no longer be an editorial page.

“There had been discussion [at DFM corporate] of eliminating all editorial pages except syndicated columns,” Singleton told me. Such a move would be a twofer for the company: cutting both costs and troublesome journalism. And it would have a dramatic impact in DFM communities from San Jose to Long Beach to Saint Paul to Trenton.

“Now, they’ve damaged this community — and that includes advertisers,” says Singleton, who knows all the major ones by first name. “In the view of Coloradans, New Yorkers have declared war.”

Projecting the Post’s financials

It’s unsurprising that a lender might be balking at supplying new credit to Alden, given the past month of revelations and the threat of boycott-related revenue loss in the months ahead.

In Delaware Chancery Court, Alden is currently facing off against the largest minority shareholder in DFM, Solus Alternative Asset Management LP — also known in court filings as Sola Ltd and registered in the Cayman Islands under its full name, Stanfield Offshore Leveraged Assets, Ltd. While neither Sola or DFM/Alden has responded to requests for comment, the contentious suit has now apparently been moved back on the court calendar to September. (An initial hearing had been expected this week.)

In Sola’s March 5 lawsuit filing, the company makes several references to a $225 million credit facility, apparently due for repayment at the end of this year. It’s that facility that seems to be at issue between Alden and lenders currently.

As private companies, neither Alden nor DFM disclose much about their finances, so it’s difficult to know the impact of its lender pressures.

“What we do know,” one insider tells me, “is that they’ve blown through a lot of money.” The Sola lawsuit has alleged numerous poor, money-losing investments made by Alden, in part, at least, with Digital First Media profits and pension funds. That suit may be adding to both current lender concerns and to pressures on the principals.

Whatever that pressure, marketplace pressures have led Alden to plan still another coming round of budget cuts at its properties.

As Alden demands to continue its level of profit-taking amid a 10-percent-plus drop in advertising revenue, its executives have mandated new cuts for the company’s new fiscal year, which starts July 1.

Those cuts look to be in the 10 to 15 percent range, sources tell me, though it’s unclear the degree that newsrooms would be subject to the new cuts, given that they have already absorbed major cutbacks since the start of 2018. In fact, the Post and other DFM dailies may soon have issues simply getting a print paper out seven days a week. Two weeks ago, David Little, editor of the DFM-owned Chico Enterprise-Record north of San Francisco, communicated directly with his readers on the ongoing protests. It’s not just metro papers that are at issue here — though they receive most of the attention — it’s community dailies as well.

“When I started as editor here almost 19 years ago, we had 45 full-time people in the newsroom,” Little wrote. “We would have had to rent an entire restaurant for Monday’s pizza party. Now we can fit in a corner. We had 15 full-time news reporters when I started. We have four today.”

In Denver, word is spreading that the half-dozen staffers working at DFM’s Ideas Lab — an ad-directed data-science effort — are at risk. Further, there’s emerging word of high-level business-side layoffs at other DFM properties.

We will only hear about such cuts piecemeal, though, since the gag order means that additional cuts will filter out only through the company’s widening seams.

As more cuts are made, the axe is handed to the surviving managers. Says one Post source of COO Gilmore: “He has never stepped foot in our newsroom to visit. He has never sent an email to the staff. He made [Post editor] Lee Ann Colacioppo do this all on her own and now criticizes her. It’s absolutely abhorrent.”

Those FY 2019 budgets have most certainly been based on the recent market realities the Post, and other DFM papers have faced. But they don’t figure on big-ticket advertisers pulling out of the paper, or subscribers suspending their orders in large numbers.

Even without the notion of a subscriber boycott, the Post — as its product and staff have both been serially reduced — has seen one of the largest drops in paying subscribers in the industry.

In a stretch of less than three years — March 2015 to December 2017 — the Post’s Sunday paid readership dropped 32 percent, according to the Alliance for Audited Media. For Monday through Friday, the decline was 37 percent.

The Sunday print product now counts 197,000 subscribers, down from 289,000 in March 2015. Daily is down to 104,000, from 165,000.

It’s a long spiral down for an institution that Dean Singleton — and hundreds and hundreds of journalists — built over decades. But listen closely to the words of the Post’s now-former editorial board chairman to understand the depth of the pain in Denver, in other communities monopolized by Digital First Media, and unfortunately more and more cities across America.

“Everything I believe about the news business is being violated,” says Singleton. “It is breaking my heart.”

Photo of Dean Singleton, then outgoing chairman of the Associated Press board, shaking hands with then-president Barack Obama at an AP luncheon April 3, 2012 by AP/Carolyn Kaster.

POSTED     May 7, 2018, 10:58 a.m.
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