Op Ed: Love, Money and the Death of My Hometown Newspaper

Dave Krieger was fired from Boulder's Daily Camera after privately publishing an op-ed that had been canned by the paper's hedge fund owner.
Courtesy of Dave Krieger
Dave Krieger was fired from Boulder's Daily Camera after privately publishing an op-ed that had been canned by the paper's hedge fund owner.
My editor at Boulder’s Daily Camera, Dave Krieger, warned early on that my biggest challenge as an aspiring journalist would be to temper my penchant for idealism. Perhaps that’s why, when he told me of the imminent danger posed to our paper by its hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital, I didn’t absorb that the end was as close as he foretold.

Good mentors have an irritating habit of being right — apparently even when unwittingly predicting their own demise. Two weeks ago, after privately publishing a column attempting to warn Boulder about the trouble that our city’s 128-year-old paper is in, Krieger was fired from his position as the Camera’s editorial-page editor.

I guess it was one way to drive his point home. As he had told me himself, years earlier, “Unfortunately, there is nothing about this job that ever makes one feel important or wise.”

Growing up, I fought over sections of the Camera with my dad at breakfast. My fifth-grade current-events report covered an article about Boulder’s treatment of prairie dogs — serious business in this city that echoes through our letters to the editor today. I imagined the regularly bylined reporters as mysterious local celebrities. At college, I smoothed out the crumpled papers lining the boxes of my parents’ care packages and achingly read last week’s news, savoring every real-ink word off pages that had touched actual Colorado air. Back in Boulder (and putting that degree to great effect as a professional cyclist), I would set my bike up on a stationary trainer when I deemed it too snowy or windy or early in the morning to go outside and read the entire paper, sweat-soaking section after section as I rode, a quirk that my cycling coach did not find particularly impressive.

I adore the Daily Camera.

If money equaled love, that might be something Heath Freeman and I would actually have in common. Freeman is the president of Alden. Its subsidiary, Digital First Media, owns nearly one hundred papers nationwide — papers that Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab recently reported as turning a 17 percent profit margin for their owners. Profits from its Colorado papers are even higher because, well, most things are here. That’s a 17 percent profit margin while layoffs last year at Digital First papers ran at twice the rate of non-Alden-owned publications. Since the Denver Post was acquired by Digital First less than a decade ago, roughly 75 percent of its newsroom has been cut — quite the measure of appreciation for one of Alden’s most profitable papers.

As Krieger noted in his rogue editorial, about a decade ago in the Twin Cities, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was bought by a local billionaire invested in community journalism, while the St. Paul Pioneer Press went to Alden. Previously equal competitors, the Star-Tribune is thriving with 250 newsroom journalists, while the Pioneer Press has fewer than 100. So: It doesn’t have to be this way.

Until very recently, Alden has slyly avoided much public blowback for the decimation of its papers' abilities to report local news. Freeman himself has made no acknowledgement of any of this while building an addition on his new five-million-dollar mansion in the Hamptons. People notice thinner papers, but generally trace it to Facebook, Buzzfeed or the end of print — not a hedge fund owner 1,500 miles away in New York City.

Alden is silent, unrecognizable, with a web page that requires a user login and a president whose face turns up fewer than five relevant hits on an Internet image search. I checked, and that’s roughly the same public visibility as my dad, a public elementary school teacher. In my imagination, Freeman was a steely-eyed old man — but the guy is in his late thirties. He’s my peer. Two years older than my big brother, they would have been starting their careers in New York at the same time — that is, before my bro left his job to travel the world and returned to the Colorado mountains with a luxurious flowing mane and beard to match.

Freeman was a football player at Duke — a kicker, all too appropriately, so standing up to a few minutes of pressure is a familiar way for him to bring glory to the team without having to get his hands dirty. He remains a sports fan — he recently paid $119,500 for an auctioned basketball jersey. I wonder if he might care about the thrill this now-Olympian felt when she first saw her own name in the minuscule print of her hometown paper’s high school sports blotter results.

Likely not.

Insatiable greed is frightening in any industry and at any age, but here’s what is worse: Our local paper, bearer of the stories that impact our community, now no longer has the discretion to print this news. Krieger’s original attempt to publish his editorial in the Camera to inform the public — and subsequently that newspaperman canary himself — were canned. The Camera’s Editorial Advisory Board (a volunteer group of which I am a member) attempted to submit a joint column on the firing. It, too, was a no-go.

Even more terrifying, Boulder is only one city. The other hundred Digital First papers aren’t reporting on their owners, either. A leaked memo from a managing editor at the Alden-owned Daily Freeman in Kingston, New York, read, "Do NOT post to the web or publish in print any story touching on Digital First Media / Alden Global Capital without my prior approval... This directive comes from above.” Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s editorial-page editor who started the Denver Rebellion, resigned last week, telling CNN, “there is active consideration of doing away with editorial pages throughout the company.”

When you walk into the Camera’s offices now, a giant stuffed Kermit the Frog doll sits in the receptionist’s chair. A thread is unraveling from the top of his head where he is missing an eye. He used to be sort of darkly funny, but when I stopped by last Friday, Krieger’s office was bare and empty and Kermit didn’t make me smile anymore.

“Not to get too grandiose, but the artist is an observer of life,” Krieger wrote to me after my first column submission at the Camera. “Think of yourself occasionally as a painter. You get to paint what you see. That's the rule. You're a writer. You get to write about...anything...everything.”

Many people now know Dave Krieger as a man willing to sacrifice his job fighting those who would destroy papers and their integrity from the top. I know him as one similarly committed to instilling passion, understanding and respect for the craft of journalism in those hovering at the bottom.

In 2014, I snagged my position on the Editorial Advisory Board. At the time, it was predominantly composed of Boulder lifers with an average age well over sixty. I was quite certain that this was the big time. Krieger was hired shortly thereafter and asked if I would be interested in submitting some full-length op-eds as a community columnist. At the time, winning the biggest races in the world on my bicycle was a very real goal, but the idea that he thought I had potential to be a real writer — for the Camera, no less! — was almost incomprehensible.

Once I showed interest, he not only edited my columns but would send me email treatises on bias, ethics and sources, eloquently schooling an economics major in not only what it would take to become a journalist, but why it mattered. When I confessed that I couldn’t fix my leas as requested because I didn’t know what one was, he fired back with a customized, engaging multi-page primer on the subject. An incurable competitor, I told him that I wanted the hardest feedback he could give me, because that was the only way I would trust him. He was game: “Your wish is my command. Now I guess I find out just how mentally tough you are in this new line of yours.”

In my life, I have cried myself to sleep twice — once, the night after I lost the leader’s jersey in my final Giro Rosa (the women’s prestige-equivalent to the Tour de France and a race I built more than a decade of my life around), and once in utter despair because I had committed to a project for Krieger that mattered deeply to me and I was terrified I wouldn’t have what it took to turn around my soundly rejected first attempt.

I retired from elite sport in 2016. Removing my life’s linchpin of consuming purpose broke me in ways I never expected. Yet from the maze of disorienting loss, Krieger’s example showed me that there was yet another world where the standards could be just as high, the personal commitment just as strong, the impact on the world perhaps greater (women’s cycling doesn’t have a terribly robust fan base).

Regardless of my future path in journalism, Krieger taught me to respect how challenging it is to write with impeccable clarity, accuracy and fairness and how crucial it is to have people writing truth, thinking critically and understanding what is happening in our communities. My sources tell me that Krieger’s egalitarian mentorship extended to aspiring news reporters, eighty-year-old guest columnists and washed-up bike racers alike. This is why it hurts so much to see him gone, and why the events that led to his departure further deepen that sting.

The morning after Krieger’s firing, my green-bagged Camera landed in a new sprinkler system ditch in my front yard. I glared at it and left it there all day. Sulking was neither effective nor very fair. It’s not ultimately the Camera’s fault — and our paper really needs us now. By Krieger’s estimate, we have two to four years before it goes under entirely.

Warren Buffett, CEO of Berkshire Hathaway and owner of more than thirty successful local newspapers, himself reminded his editors and publishers in a 2012 letter, “No one has ever stopped reading half-way through a story that was about them or their neighbors.” Whether you find their writing on a screen or in print, we need local reporters at our interminable city council meetings, in our courts, talking to the voiceless on our streets and pulling together that blotter for high school sports.

Boulder. Denver. Orange County and the Bay Area. Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and New York. Please, anyone who cares about local news, spread this knowledge any way you can — because the one story that could save our papers is the one they aren’t allowed to print.

A lifelong Coloradan and retired Olympic cyclist, Mara Abbott is now a freelance writer and works at a local farm. Dave Krieger and other journalists (including Chuck Plunkett and Westword's Patricia Calhoun will be on  panel called "How to Save the Denver Post" at the Denver Press Club tonight, May 15. The event is free, and there's been so much interest that a second edition has been added for Thursday, May 17.  Find more details here.