Free Press

Say goodnight, Gracie

Let’s start at the beginning. We’ve been talking about our owners within the Daily Camera editorial board for years. In their defense, my former colleagues on the board, publisher Al Manzi and executive editor Kevin Kaufman, are the people who have to downsize the operation every year to keep up with Digital First Media’s insatiable profit demands. Revenues are declining anyway, part of the secular industry trend, but the cuts required by DFM have accelerated the decline. Especially the cuts in circulation, where our service — delivering the print product on time, before people go to work — is now just horrendous. Frustrated subscribers increasingly resort to letters to the editor, getting no satisfaction from the business side of our operation.

Al would get upset when I published one of these complaints, saying it wasn’t appropriate as a letter to the editor. I would suggest that if he fixed the problem on his end, the business end, subscribers wouldn’t have to resort to letters to the editor and we wouldn’t have this issue. In more relaxed moments, Al would admit there’s nothing he can do. Circulation is run out of Denver, DFM’s headquarters, and local operations like ours can only pick up the pieces. Districts are enormous and the pay sucks so they can’t keep carriers. District managers can’t cover for carriers like they used to because the districts are just too big.

Anyway, the DFM people come in and announce what their take is going to be and Al and Kevin have to figure out a way to keep the lights on. They’ve been really resourceful, too. They created a design center in Boulder, first to consolidate page production for the rest of the Prairie Mountain Media publications, and then as a general contract operation that now builds pages for the Denver Post and St. Paul Pioneer Press as well. That’s how we saw the contents of the now-famous Denver Post Sunday editorial section of April 8 before almost anybody else knew about it. I’m a fairly paranoid sort, so I printed out the editorial just in case DFM killed the section.

I should interject here that when I say DFM I am talking about a front for Alden Global Capital, the New York private equity firm actually demanding these profits while strangling the businesses that produce them. “Digital First” is by now an Orwellian name for this outfit. It may once have aspired to digital innovation, but that went away as soon as they discovered digital innovation costs money. A member of our editorial advisory board who knows about such things documented more than a hundred dead scripts running on our website. Sometimes, it takes forever to load. Sometimes, that spinning wheel never stops spinning; the site never stops loading. This is not exactly digital innovation at work. DFM knows. They just don’t care.

Anyway, over time, Al and Kevin have gotten used to this process. It’s human nature. You adapt. They’ve laid off people who broke down and sobbed, who became enraged, who asked them what they should do now. They’ve moved with the business from the Camera’s longtime downtown headquarters to an office building in east Boulder, to today’s offices in a nondescript office park farther east. The way they see it, they have no choice. If they don’t do it, DFM will find somebody who will. The only difference will be that the two of them won’t have jobs. This is true as far as it goes, but it’s also the classic collaborator’s defense. We are allegedly serving the community with our newspaper. At what point do the community’s interests enter the equation? Ever?

This is where the division between the journalism side and the commercial side of the business is most obvious. On the journalism side, we wrestle with this. Historically, in good newspaper companies, there has been a recognition on the business side that they need to keep their nose out of what we publish for exactly this reason. This is the line that Al crossed in my view when he started making editorial decisions to please our corporate overlords. He’s an extremely capable publisher, but he is not a journalist and should not be making editorial decisions. He quite literally does not know what he’s doing.

Historically, he has not interfered. Kevin has done a good job defending editorial prerogatives — he backed me in every situation where Al objected to a letter criticizing us or an advertiser or some other business. This is a norm that is generally understood and respected in good journalism organizations. Our financial interests — the business side — cannot dictate or even influence what we publish on the editorial side. Until this month, the Camera respected that. Some Boulder activists routinely accused us of carrying water for our corporate overlords whenever we failed to support their causes, but until this month it was a figment of these ideologues’ imaginations. I had never gotten a call, not once, from anybody at DFM or Alden about anything I wrote or published. They care about cash, not content. Except, as it turns out, when the content is about them.

The Camera’s respect for the traditional wall between editorial and business crumbled with the publication of the Post’s April 8 editorial section. The Post has had no publisher since Mac Tully resigned in January. That’s how its editorial section slipped through. That wasn’t going to happen again. DFM lost its CEO last fall, and the publisher of the Pioneer Press, Guy Gilmore, a circulation guy, is now running the show as the chain’s chief operating officer. My guess is this metastasizing revolt — reflected in the Post section and expressions of solidarity of varying strengths at some of the chain’s California properties — became a test of Gilmore’s fitness for the job, fitness at DFM basically being synonymous with ruthlessness. Remember, DFM’s only job is to deliver the cash to Alden so it can invest in Greek debt or Fred’s Pharmacy or whatever. Content doesn’t matter, journalism doesn’t matter, digital doesn’t matter. Cash matters.

Mike Littwin, my former colleague at the Rocky Mountain News and now a columnist for the Colorado Independent, wrote a column praising the Post’s rebellious editorial section and condemning Alden. The Independent shares Mike’s columns with local publications, including ours, and we run a fair number of them. I proposed to run this one. Normally, I didn’t need approval for the columns I chose for the Camera’s opinion pages, but in our chain of command I reported to Kevin, and I thought he should know. So I shipped him Mike’s column and asked if he had any problem with my running it. He said he didn’t, but he would need to check with Al. Al vetoed it.

This was the first time in my three and a half years at the Camera that management had censored content. It changed everything. If Al no longer respected editorial independence, then we were going to have big problems.

From Al’s point of view, I get it. I surmise that Gilmore, trying to show Alden he could be as ruthless as necessary to put down an insurrection, was bringing the hammer down. If Al was perceived to be weak, allowing the rebellion to bloom at properties he ran, he could be replaced. Al, Kevin and I are all in the same general age range. I’m the oldest at 63; Kevin’s a year or two younger than me, and Al’s a year or two younger than Kevin. Even in an era of full employment, there’s not much market demand for unemployed, white-collar 60-somethings whose work history is exclusively in an industry that’s perceived to be dying.

So I get it. Nevertheless. Some things are more important than one’s own personal interests. As a lifelong journalist, telling my readers the truth, as best I can divine it, is my reason for existence. Nothing matters more than that, and nothing would be a more shameful epitaph than, “He betrayed his readers so he could keep his job.”

So I began to look for a way to write something about Alden myself. In the news business, we need a peg, a hook, a reason to address a topic on the editorial page. Ironically, Al provided it. He’s our liaison to the Colorado Press Association, the industry trade group. When the CPA announced that Gov. John Hickenlooper would declare the first Colorado Journalism Week, Al forwarded the announcement to me and Kevin and suggested I write an editorial to commemorate it. That’s what I did.

Now, to me, as a lifelong news man, there is no way in the world to address the state of Colorado journalism in 2018 without addressing Alden’s massive influence as owner of the Denver Post, Daily Camera and all the other publications of Prairie Mountain Media. In fact, this is the single biggest threat to Colorado journalism today. So that’s what I said in the editorial.

I gave Al plenty of notice it was coming. Colorado Journalism Week was to begin April 16, so Sunday, April 15, was the appropriate day to run the editorial. At our weekly editorial board meeting the previous Monday, I told him what I had in mind. He called me later in the day to say he had checked with Gilmore and it was a non-starter. I told him I was going to do my job and submit it anyway and then he could do his, but I wasn’t going to be intimidated into wimping out.

I circulated an early draft to Al and Kevin around 9 a.m. that Friday, which is standard for a Sunday edit. Al never responded directly. For a long time, he didn’t respond indirectly, either. In his defense, he was on vacation in Scottsdale, but he was also attending to business and was in at least sporadic contact with Kevin. When I sent it out, I figured it had very little chance, based on my conversation with Al on Monday. But by late in the afternoon, when I still hadn’t heard back, I began to think Al might be considering restoring our editorial independence. By then it was in our publishing software, coded and ready to go, because it was getting to be that time. Our Sunday Insight section is a preprint that goes to press Friday night. It was about 4 when Kevin reported Al had killed it. The next day, at home, I published it on this blog.

The following week was apparently full of intrigue and corporate drama at a level higher than mine, but I was not a party to any of it. I did not hear from Al until last Friday morning, when he asked if I had time to meet with him at 9. I said sure. We talked for about an hour. Some of it was personal, private stuff I won’t go into. I think we both like to think we’re friends, even though our contact is limited to work. He and Kevin made the decision to hire me, which was not especially popular either in Boulder or the newsroom, where two very capable, younger, in-house candidates were passed over. But we’ve done a lot of things during my tenure that I think he’s proud of — long-form Q&As with major Colorado political figures (Gary Hart, Dick Lamm, Pat Schroeder, etc.), long editorials on local, state and national topics, a burgeoning roster of community columnists and a robust community discussion and debate in our letters and guest opinions. Even as he fired me, he was personally kind, thanking me for “raising the bar” of our opinion section.

Anyway, his main point during that Friday discussion was that “the company” — both Alden and DFM have such slimy reputations in our newsroom that “the company” seems like the least unflattering way to refer to them — has a right to prohibit its employees from disparaging it. He also argued that I had written the editorial “on company time” and therefore had no right to publish it on a non-company platform. I told him I had written the first draft starting around midnight on Thursday at home. Was that company time? As a manager, he said — the editorial page editor is a management position at the Camera even though it manages no one as a department of one — whatever time it takes to do my job is company time.

He broached the subject of a no-disparagement agreement going forward. I said I would not sign away my freedom of speech, but I offered to limit any criticism of DFM or Alden to my personal platforms. (Twitter is already full of DFM employees sounding off about Alden on their personal accounts.) Knowing by then that he would not approve such criticism for publication in the Camera, this offer seemed to me a simple recognition of reality. That was how we left it.

I heard nothing else until Kevin emailed late Tuesday afternoon to say he and Al needed me to come in for a meeting at 10 a.m. Wednesday. And yes, he said, I needed to bring my laptop. This is the equivalent of a football player being told to bring his playbook to a meeting with the coach. Not much suspense at that point.

I couldn’t sleep Tuesday night, so I drove to the office park about 5 a.m. to pack up. I had covered the walls of my office with cheap reproductions of various forms of impressionism to make it seem less office-parky, and I knew it would take a while to pack them all up and clear them out. (If you check out the long-form Q&As with Sam Assefa and Stan Garnett, you’ll see Claude Monet reproductions in the background.) I was done by about 6:30, so I went out to breakfast and then took a last stroll up and down the Pearl Street Mall on a brisk, blue-sky Colorado morning. The mountains that tower over the mall had a light dusting of snow or frost, the mall was just awakening, and I started to get sentimental, so I headed back.

The meeting was in our conference room, which was a little odd since there were just three of us and we each had an office. But Al was already there, set up to sit directly across the conference table from me, so I guess he wanted a certain formality. It took about two minutes. Al gave a short spiel in which he cited not my disparagement of the company but my outside use of material produced on company time as the violation that forced him to “terminate” me. When an employer is holding your final check in his hand, the time for discussion is past, so I asked if we were done, then shook their hands and thanked them for the opportunity to work there. Al came around the table to shake my hand, thank me for the quality of my work and wish me well. It was my impression that neither he nor Kevin were happy about having to do this, but, as I’ve mentioned, it was not the first time, nor probably the last, that they will have to do something like this.

In my view, Al picked the wrong reason to fire me, although, as a management employee, I’m not sure he even needed a reason. For many years, when I worked at the Cincinnati Enquirer, Rocky Mountain News and Denver Post, I was a member of my union and there were rules about how and why they could fire people represented by the bargaining unit. But the Camera is a non-union shop and anyway, these days in the newspaper business, you can call most anything a layoff for economic reasons.

But I find the idea that all my time is company time nonsensical on its face. Lots of writers free-lance on the side. The only limitation most publications impose is that staff writers not free-lance for direct competitors. Since this blog didn’t exist until that Saturday, it would be hard to define it as a competitor to the Camera. In any case, I offered the piece to the Camera first. Once it rejected it, to then have veto power over its publication elsewhere is a straight-up act of censorship. As an editor, I was constantly reminding readers whose submissions were rejected that they could submit them elsewhere.

The grounds for firing me I would have understood in the traditional sense was the claim that I disparaged my employer. I certainly did that, although it was in defense of my immediate employer, the Camera, that I disparaged its private equity owners. But this is one of those cases where the very essence of what we are about comes into play. When do we serve our readers, and our obligation to tell them what’s going on? When do we stand up for telling them the truth? When do we quit covering for the unaccountable hedge fund we work for?

If the answer is never, which I guess is Al’s answer, I think we lose our legitimacy. All that sanctimonious First Amendment stuff is worthless if we’re not willing to risk anything. I keep coming back to the impetus for the editorial in the first place: This is an important story, not just in Boulder, but in Denver, in San Jose, in Orange County, in St. Paul, and many other places where Alden is destroying papers to make its principals richer than they already are. Alden is now actively using these properties to suppress this story. If journalism is in your heart and in your blood, it’s your duty to tell that story. At least, that’s how I felt leaving that office park for the last time.

One final note, which I add for potential employers, since I’m now out of work. I realize that, as an employer, reading a screed like this in which an ex-employee offers a detailed, behind-the-scenes description of a previous employer, could be a disqualifying factor all by itself. And I understand why. Loyalty matters. I have competed vigorously for every paper I’ve worked for, including for years for the Rocky in one of the last great metropolitan newspaper wars. I believe if you ask my former colleagues there they will tell you no one was more competitive on the Rocky’s behalf. Every paper I have worked for — six, now — holds a place in my heart. I have never before felt required to give a public account such as this. It is my fondest hope that I never will again.