Denver Post journalists have been waging a war of words against Alden Global Capital, its vulture hedge fund owner, and given that the paper is still making millions despite layoffs targeting nearly a third of its newsroom staff, Alden appears to be winning. But now, those Post scribes and photographers who've been given their walking papers have a new opportunity to be paid to exercise their skills. The Economic Hardship Reporting Project has established a $10,000 fund specifically earmarked for recently axed Post employees.
"This isn't charity," stresses Alissa Quart, the project's executive director and editor, who developed the fund in conjunction with EHRP managing director David Wallis. "They're going to be writing for us. Journalists love to do what they do — and they want to work."
According to Quart, the Economic Hardship Reporting Project got its start in 2011-2012, when founder Barbara Ehrenreich "saw there was a huge number of journalists who were either suddenly out of work or having to work freelance, and their rates were stagnating or going down. Reporters were being laid off, photographers were being laid off."
In the meantime, Quart goes on, Ehrenreich was growing increasingly concerned that because of shrinking newsroom resources, important stories — particularly those dealing with poverty and financial inequality — were going uncovered.
"Her main line on that was, 'Why can only the rich afford to write about poverty?'" Quart notes. "So she focused on this urgent need to help freelancers tell these important stories."
Quart launched the project's current incarnation in 2014. "We had more funding and became a bigger organization," she notes. "Initially, the focus was only on writing, but we moved on to other media: nonfiction film, animation and more. We're now a pretty healthy organization, and our main mandate is to cover inequality and publish with mainstream media organizations that may not be covering it in quality ways as often as they'd like or as often as we'd like them to."
Approximately a quarter of the EHRP's grant recipients "are lower-income, and they're able to spend two weeks covering a feature, which used to be the norm but is now really hard to do for people who are living in $17-a-night Airbnbs and working as Uber drivers because they were laid off. This lets them continue to write, and to write about their experiences, as well."
The Denver Post fund isn't the first of its kind.
"When DNAinfo and Gothamist," a pair of New York City-area websites, "made an effort to unionize last year, their owner, Joe Ricketts, shut them down," Quart recalls. "So we created a $5,000 fund for them. When there's a bad actor involved, like Joe Ricketts or the Alden group, we hope to create emergency funds to help out the reporters who've been laid off."
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Those interested in taking part in the project need to come armed with ideas. "Our work has appeared in a lot of major publications: the New York Times and The Atlantic, but also Vice, Cosmopolitan and Curbed, which is a real estate journal. So we do a lot of national stories, but we feel reporters from the Post have a special handle on Western or Midwestern news. There are a lot of news deserts out there right now, with skeletal local newspapers that kind of rehash feel-good local stories but don't really get into the gist of things. That leads to people not being informed about the places where they live — and we want to support local newspapers as much as we can."
Examples of work produced by the project include a series of articles grouped under the heading "On the Ground," including "Passive, Poor and White? What People Keep Getting Wrong About Appalachia" and "My Small Town Is Being Poisoned by Fracking Waste."
The Post fund came to fruition after the paper published an editorial package critical of Alden, and a few weeks afterward, Chuck Plunkett, the man who conceived it, resigned when an executive spiked another piece on the subject. Quart sees his actions, and those of other journalists at the paper who've spoken out against the hedge fund, as being "very inspiring and defiant, and the case they've laid out is really clear. These greedy hedge funds are the clear villain — and as every reporter knows, a really good story needs a villain. It's a powerful morality tale or, really, an immorality tale."
Laid-off Denver Post journalists interested in applying for grants can get more information at the Economic Hardship Reporting Project's submission page.