One year ago tomorrow, on April 6, 2018, the Denver Post published a package of editorials attacking its vulture hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital, for laying off around a third of its newsroom employees in order to maintain a fat profit margin.
This bold act led to brutal fallout over subsequent weeks, including the resignation of editorial-page editor Chuck Plunkett, who masterminded the critical Alden roundup, and the decision by previous Post owner Dean Singleton to step down as the broadsheet's chairman and member of the editorial board. Afterward, Singleton summed up the fund's actions in blunt fashion: "They've killed a great newspaper."
Today, the Post continues to publish, and the journalists who've managed to survive a series of draconian cuts that reduced the editorial staff from around 300 to approximately seventy over a decade or so have done plenty of good work under seemingly impossible circumstances. But everyone understands that the paper isn't what it used to be or could be now if its ownership wasn't devoted to gnawing every last chunk of gristle off the Post's carcass.
Against this backdrop, Denver business titan Ken Gart is marking the anniversary of the Post mutiny with a shot across Alden's bow. He's the driving force behind News Matters Denver, a just-launched website that calls on visitors to sign a petition demanding that the fund invest in the paper and the city it's in or sell it to an owner with a greater respect for journalism. Assisting him in his mission is Curtis Hubbard, a former Post manager who left the paper in part because he realized he was a passenger in a slow-motion car wreck.
"We're hoping people will sign on and say, 'We won't tolerate this,'" Gart says.
Gart is a partner in Gart Companies, a major real estate concern in the Mile High City and Colorado as a whole, as well as part of the family behind the Gart Bros. Sporting Goods Company, one of the state's most powerful retailers before its merger with Sports Authority, which is now defunct.
Locals continue to refer to the latter's onetime flagship at 1000 Broadway (across the street from Westword's offices) as the Gart Sports Castle — but few realize how intrinsic the Post was to the firm's success. According to Gart, the company's first store was founded by his grandfather Nathan Gart in 1928 using money he made delivering the Post. And as the years wore on, the relationship remained close.
"I was born in 1956," he notes, "and I grew up with my dad [Jerry Gart, who took over from Nathan] literally befriending every publisher at the Post and the Rocky Mountain News [which folded in 2009]. And those newspapers were the lifeblood of my family. I think we had page three of the Post and Dave Cook [a rival sporting goods company ultimately purchased by Gart Bros.] had page three of the News. That was the exclusive way you marketed your retail business in those days, before things changed with TV and the Internet. It was a natural partnership — and I still love reading the newspaper every morning."
As such, Gart has been frustrated by the deterioration of the Post under Alden, which has been in control since shortly after the dawn of the decade — and he was thrilled by the Plunkett insurrection last year. "That blew me away," he recalls. "I was euphoric, giddy. I was saying to my friends, 'Can you believe what's going on?'"
Afterward, though, efforts by local groups interested in purchasing the Post went nowhere, and the lack of investment by Alden showed up on the page. "When I read it, so much of it is from the Washington Post and the Associated Press, and they're raising the price outrageously," Gart says. "They clearly don't care about the long term, and that's not an ethical way to run a business."
In his view, "capitalism can be a source of good or a source of evil. Now, I'm a big capitalist. I still work with my brothers, and two of their kids are working with us. We're a fourth-generation family business, so we understand that when the business changes, you may have to have layoffs in order to remain profitable. I'm sympathetic to that. But I also feel that a business like the leading local media company has a big responsibility to the local community to be active. They have to show up — and they haven't. There's been no involvement in the community at all, and the editorial content has shrunk so much that it makes me angry. I went from supporting the paper to anger, because what's happening is, in some ways, an example of capitalism at its worst."
In trying to figure out if there was something he could do to address the situation, Gart connected with Hubbard, a partner in OnSight Public Affairs and a former Post heavy hitter; between 2004 and 2013, he served as state editor, politics editor and editorial-page editor. From these positions, Hubbard witnessed what the Post was like before and after Alden took charge.
"I really group my time there in two phases," he says. "There was the local ownership phase [under Singleton] and the phase after the paper was sold to the hedge fund. Now, there was great work done amid difficult circumstances throughout my time at the Post. But the difference was the commitment of ownership to investing in the product. It's been an unstable period for legacy news organizations for the last fifteen years, but that instability was only exacerbated by Alden. The resources given to the newsroom were not commensurate with the revenue of the paper, because they were sucking money out of the news operation."
Hubbard's departure from the Post was directly tied to this scenario. "It became very clear to me as editor of the editorial page that, after another round of staff layoffs and the reduction of the editorial section from two pages a day to one, that what I thought would be a twenty-year career in journalism didn't have twenty years remaining in it."
Like Gart, Hubbard has nothing but praise for current Post reporters and editors, but he believes that there simply aren't enough of them. Before the Rocky closed, he points out that there were more than 500 print journalists working in Denver — a total that's gone down by more than 80 percent. Moreover, "the idea that the state's largest news organization doesn't have a single person in Washington, D.C., is really outrageous," he asserts. "They'll tell you, 'We've just hired someone to cover the federal government,' which is great — but it's not nearly enough, because they'll be based in Denver. When I was politics editor, we had two reporters and an editorial assistant based in Washington, D.C., and what that allows is the old shoe-leather approach to catching a senator in a hallway or waiting outside a committee hearing to get something more than a prepared statement or a dodge. And that's what we've lost."
To underscore these points, Hubbard assisted Gart in the creation of News Matters Denver, whose petition reads:
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
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Support Our Journalism
Denver Needs a News Source to Match its Momentum
We, the undersigned, are urging Alden Capital to behave responsibly by investing in staff and participating in civic life or to sell the Denver Post to someone who will.
Until then, we promise to use our networks and platforms to raise awareness of Alden’s harmful practices with advertisers and the public and to support existing and emerging alternatives.
This text, which signatories are encouraged to share online, doesn't call for subscribers and advertisers to boycott the Post, despite Gart's take on the issue. "My opinion is that you shouldn't do business with Alden Media," he says. "But that's just my opinion. We're not an advertiser anymore."
The reference to "emerging alternatives" reflects Gart's positive impression of the Colorado Sun, launched by renegade Post refugees, and Colorado Public Radio, which recently purchased the online news site Denverite. But he doesn't think these sources are a substitute for the Post — at least not yet — and he wants to make sure that Alden's misdeeds aren't forgotten or overlooked.
"A year ago, the staffers had a sort of open rebellion," Gart says. "A year later, I don't know how many people are aware that this is still going on. I've talked to some retailers who've said, 'I really didn't know about Alden Media.' So I'm hoping advertisers and consumers will look at this and create a flurry of conversation via social media and get more people to pay attention. Because for Alden to do this here and elsewhere around the country is unethical."