Chuck Plunkett, who resigned as editorial-page editor of the Denver Post four weeks ago today, after an executive for the subsidiary company that runs the paper refused to okay a new editorial critical of Alden Global Capital, its vampiric hedge fund owner, has been named director of CU News Corps at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Plunkett is thrilled by the new gig, in which he'll serve as the main coordinator for the university's investigative news outlet, which produces long-form journalism for professional media organizations in the state as part of a for-credit class. "I feel nothing but grateful about this opportunity," he says. But he's also mindful of the circumstances that led to the position, and he continues to mourn the continuing plight of the Post, whose newsroom staff has gone from more than 300 journalists around a decade ago to about 65 today, with more high-profile reporters and editors splitting on an almost daily basis.
"I didn't get to stay in the job of editorial-page editor long enough to really make my mark," Plunkett says, then admits: "Well, I guess I did make my mark, but not in the traditional sense. If I could have been on the page for several years and learned in that role and gained experience, there would have been an opportunity to make it a great page. And at any paper whose owners were willing to invest, it should have been a great page. But the Post's owner, Alden Global Capital, wasn't willing to do that. So I made my mark the way I did."
Specifically, Plunkett masterminded a series of pieces in the April 8 edition blasting the hedge fund for its cut-to-profits approach and calling on the firm to sell the Post to individuals willing to invest in journalism. But in retrospect, he wishes he'd spoken up earlier.
"It took me too long," he allows. "For much of my career, I bought the argument that we were dealing with market forces beyond our control and our attempt to gain sufficient advertising revenue digitally didn't work out. But since I became editorial-page editor, I've evolved on this issue. For one thing, I know more about how things work from the inside. I had better access to the publisher [Mac Tully resigned from the job in January] and people like William Dean Singleton [he stepped down as Post chairman earlier this month, after Plunkett took his leave]. For another, I saw bad decision after bad decision being made in a very compressed period of time."
The trigger for Plunkett was the revelation earlier this year that thirty journalists would be laid off.
"When those cuts were announced at around the same time the lawsuit against Alden came out, I felt we just couldn't stay quiet any longer," he stresses. "After the cuts, people were crying, and I had this surreal feeling that I was floating out of my body — but I also had the sense that someone should say something about this, and I was in the unique position of actually being able to say something about it. Even at that point, though, it took several days until I was completely on board, and it wasn't until the few days before we published that I was 100 percent locked in. It was easily the most difficult decision of my professional career."
The April 8 essays and editorial were lauded by media members and news consumers nationwide. Still, Plunkett had mixed emotions about the praise.
"When you get that kind of acclaim from your peers and from readers, you want to sit back and feel good," he acknowledges. "But in this situation, the accomplishment, such as it is, was marred by the fact that the company didn't get the message. The company did more draconian kinds of things. I was out of a job, [Boulder Daily Camera editorial page editor] Dave Krieger was out of a job, and journalists were unsure about how they could report about the company — and they were getting the message that they shouldn't."
He adds: "What we're seeing isn't the advancement of quality journalism we should get, and there are days when I wonder if it was all worth it. But I keep coming back to 'yes.' I don't have any regrets. I feel like it was the right thing to do. And when I look at this new chapter, this position at CU is the opportunity of a lifetime for someone like me. It's something I dreamed about in the past, and the fact that it was still available and they graciously gave me a chance to interview was incredible."
Indeed, the CU News Corps directorship has been open since last fall, but even though a national search had been conducted, the university hadn't filled it prior to Plunkett's resignation. "It's an endowed position and a three-year contract," he explains. "It's not a tenured position. I have to prove my merit, and that's only right and correct, and I like that. But it's such a deeper sense of security than what I've had for a long time. The toxic environment of always watching people leave and wondering about the simplest cuts and the weird decision-making I witnessed — that's going to be a thing of the past. Universities have university politics and students move on, but that's something I can deal with."
Obviously, Plunkett has quite a cautionary tale to tell budding journalists at CU Boulder. But he insists that "I don't want to go in and be the doom-and-gloom instructor. I want to be the inspirational guy, the one to get folks excited, especially about local journalism, because that's a niche I think we could own. We want great students to go to the greatest journalism institutions in the world, but we should also want to have local papers and local newsrooms that are just as good. What I would want to impart to students is that we can't make our future on the sugar high that most people associate with daily journalism these days. We can't just do listicles and quick hits and flash stories. We've got to do quality journalism and we've got to do it well in really interesting and new ways, and not just in print or traditional photography, but all the new things coming online that young journalists will be especially attuned to. After we instill great journalism ethics, we need to find new, innovative ways to do journalism and think about being entrepreneurial and finding new funding streams. Because good journalism isn't broken. It's the funding model that's broken."
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Even though Plunkett has moved on from the Post, he's still watching developments at the paper closely, and he's distressed by the steady stream of departures. "The news about Kevin Simpson and Jennifer Brown leaving, on top of Dana Coffield and so many others, is awful," he says. "These are central people at the Denver Post, pillars of the Denver Post. And meanwhile, they haven't figured out how to run the editorial page — and that's depressing, too."
Rumblings that Digital First Media, which operates the Post and many other papers under the Alden Global Capital umbrella, might be considering eliminating editorial pages entirely at its properties "is one of the reasons I resigned," he continues. "I started hearing that they might want to bring me back to the newsroom, kick me off the page and kill editorial pages across the country. And that's such an abdication of responsibility. It so gets it wrong. Why in the world would you give up the editorial voice of a newspaper? It's the most plugged-in member of the community, and its opinion ought to matter and be of great service. Giving that up because you got called out by someone — correctly called out — only shows the depths of depravity these people operate in. These are really bad people."
At CU Boulder, Plunkett is looking forward to "helping the next generation of students at the capstone level and at their senior level of achievement get a real dose of newsroom life, investigative reporting and explanatory journalism," he says. "It can be very free in how we do the presentation; we can do it in print, we can do it in podcasts, we can do it in documentaries. But the most important thing is to instill strong journalism ethics at that critical juncture. I want to let young journalists know that this is still an exciting, useful, noble profession, and I want to impart the skills, but also the enthusiasm, to get out there and kick some ass."
As Plunkett understands firsthand.