For months, rumors have circulated that theDenver Post
and other newspapers in the Digital First Media chain might beput up for sale by Alden Global Capital
, DFM's majority owner.
Thus far, that hasn't happened -- but many members of the Denver Newspaper Guild, which represents the majority of Post employees, clearly wish it would. The Guild, as part of a national action, has issued an open letter asking for a local benefactor to step up and buy the paper rather than allowing it to slowly deteriorate under the auspices of a purely profit-driven hedge fund. Get details and read the letter below.
The Post isn't mentioned by name in the letter, but there's no mistaking that it's the subject of the plea. The broadsheet is described as "a newspaper with more than 100 years of history and multiple Pulitzer Prizes" that's " looking for an owner who cares about Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Empire, as well as an unfettered press to watch over them."
What's wrong with the current one? The letter argues that Alden, referred to as a "New York City hedge fund," concentrates "on lofty profit margins rather than lofty journalistic ambitions, has cut jobs in all areas of the newsroom and refuses to open its purse strings and reward employees with much-needed raises. Fewer journalists means fewer people asking hard questions. Fewer journalists means fewer people demanding accountability from those in positions of power. Fewer journalists means fewer news stories and less information for the public."
This situation isn't unique to the Post. Indeed, the current action, backed by DNG's parent union, The National Guild, targets two-dozen newspapers across the country, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and the Long Beach Press-Telegram. And DNG administrative officer Tony Mulligan acknowledges that some other Digital First Media properties have been hit harder by layoffs, downsizing and budget cuts than has the Post, the company's flagship daily.
That doesn't mean the Post's escaped unscathed. "I would estimate that the Post staff has been cut 30 percent since Alden took controlling interest," Mulligan says. He adds that "the Post is run by competent managers, but it appears the financial decisions are being made by bean counters or snake-oil salesmen at the corporate office in New York. And we'd like to see more local control."
When asked if the letter is a serious effort to attract a buyer for the Post or a means by which to focus attention on the negative effect of Alden's ownership, Mulligan replies, "Both. Even though the paper's now profitable, our members and employees of Digital First Media around the country are seeing staffing cuts continue, the selling-off of real estate, the stagnant wages. We're all frustrated by the hedge-fund business model we're working under, so this is a way to voice that frustration and maybe trigger some positive change."
Mulligan's seen plenty of reports about the Post and other DFM properties heading for the block but has no inside information about whether they're legit. Then again, the papers are "owned by a hedge fund," he notes, "and isn't everything owned by a hedge fund up for sale?"
As for a dream owner, Mulligan describes "a wealthy local benefactor who has an interest in the paper functioning as the community watchdog and providing a real resource for the community" -- but he doesn't offer a living example of such an individual. Rather, he cites the late Helen Bonfils, daughter of Post co-owner Frederick Bonfils, who acquired controlling interest in the paper in 1933 and took pride in overseeing it for decades thereafter.
"Let's resurrect Helen -- a local person who actually cares about Colorado and sees value in providing a good news source for the community," Mulligan says.
If a flesh-and-blood person with these attributes doesn't come along, Mulligan fears that the Post will grow weaker and weaker over time. In his view, "this business model may make perfect sense in the hedge-fund world, but it doesn't seem to make much sense as a long-term business strategy. When you sell off all your real estate and rent, it hits your bottom line -- and when you reduce your staff, you reduce your ability to create valuable content."
Meanwhile, more Post reporters are defecting, including Kristen Painter, who tweeted about her recent jump to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and business vet Andy Vuong, who revealed on Twitter that he was joining the staff at Charles Schwab.
That's seeing the writing on the wall.
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Continue to read the Denver Newspaper Guild "Wanted: New Owner" letter and release. "Wanted: New Owner" Denver Newspaper Guild letter and release:
"Dear local community benefactor,
A newspaper with more than 100 years of history and multiple Pulitzer Prizes is looking for an owner who cares about Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Empire, as well as an unfettered press to watch over them.
The current owner, a New York City hedge fund, focuses on lofty profit margins rather than lofty journalistic ambitions, has cut jobs in all areas of the newsroom and refuses to open its purse strings and reward employees with much-needed raises. Fewer journalists means fewer people asking hard questions. Fewer journalists means fewer people demanding accountability from those in positions of power. Fewer journalists means fewer news stories and less information for the public.
We seek an owner who has a stake in our community and a sense of local, civic responsibility. The Denver Newspaper Guild hopes that local stewardship will help return the paper to its glory days and a new owner may be more willing to pay the price to do it.
The Denver Newspaper Guild
Wanted: New owners.
That's the message today from journalists, ad reps and other media workers across the country seeking alternatives to Digital First Media, the nation's second-largest newspaper chain.
Today, Guild-represented staff at major newspapers including The Denver Post, San Jose Mercury News and St. Paul Pioneer Press have published ads online and in print seeking local, community-minded buyers for their newsrooms.
"Dear local community benefactor," one such ad begins, "A newspaper with more than 100 years of history and multiple Pulitzer Prizes is looking for an owner who cares about Denver, Colorado and the Rocky Mountain Empire. The current owner, a hedge fund out of New York City, refuses to open its purse strings and reward employees with much-needed raises."
Properties owned by Digital First Media have yet to be put officially on the market, but recent actions (including the sale of newspaper buildings and the shutdown of the company's Thunderdome initiative) make it clear that investors are seeking an exit strategy.
Nationally, The Newspaper Guild-CWA is reaching out to Digital First CEO John Paton, offering to help identify potential new owners for individual papers and regional clusters.
"The future of journalism is too important to leave in the hands of distant investors who fail to grasp that investing in better news products is also good business," said Bernie Lunzer, president of The Newspaper Guild. "These papers are profitable, and they can remain so, but cutting costs is not a long-term business strategy."
Comprised of MediaNews Group and 21st Century Media (formerly Journal Register), Digital First Media manages more than 100 local newsrooms in 18 states. Its majority owner is the "Distressed Opportunities Fund" of New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, founded by Randall Duncan Smith, a specialist in "vulture investing."
Under the direction of Alden, Digital First has drained its media properties of real estate and other assets, while laying off journalists, cutting wages and reducing news coverage.
"When we were fully staffed, our coverage was better, there's just no getting around it," said Kieran Nicholson, a breaking news reporter who's worked at the Denver Post for 28 years. "Everyone here continues to work hard -- we try to do more with less, but it's a tough road."
Nicholson and his colleagues are hoping for owners who would take pride in The Denver Post and its tradition of excellence, he said. "Every business has to be profitable, and we all understand that, but we think a local owner might also see this as community service."
The Guild welcomes confidential inquiries from potential investors, as well as Digital First employees, including those at non-represented papers. Contact Tony Mulligan, Denver Newspaper Guild administrative officer, at email@example.com or 303-595-9818.
Send your story tips to the author, Michael Roberts.