My TEDx Boulder talk delivered at Chautauqua Auditorium on June 3:
My TEDx Boulder talk delivered at Chautauqua Auditorium on June 3:
(Editor’s note: Kelly Dean Hansen chose this blog as the platform for an essay on his resignation as classical music writer for the Daily Camera because of its focus on the ownership issues he identifies as responsible for the cuts in coverage he could no longer abide. In the context of the community conversation about local journalism and the Camera this blog was intended to stimulate, he said he wanted to draw particular attention to the impact of the cuts on freelance contributors.)
By Kelly Dean Hansen
As of May 27, 2018, I have resigned as the freelance classical music writer for the Daily Camera.
The truth is, in today’s journalistic world — certainly in the current environment of print journalism along the Front Range — I was an anachronism. But I genuinely believe that what I had to offer was both rare and treasured, which explains why I did what I did for as long as I did. This should be celebrated. But the pain is real, the sense of loss is real, and it has taken me a few weeks to collect myself enough to write this explanation to readers of the Camera and to classical music organizations in Boulder.
It takes the loss of something special to realize how much it meant. Although writing for the Camera was a reasonably small percentage of my total income — generally around 15 percent — it had become the largest part of my public identity and my private fulfillment. Boulder’s classical music culture is unique among cities of its size. And I was blessed for the past seven years to be one of its primary spokespeople and advocates. It was remarkably stable while it lasted. But ultimately, it was offered upon the altar of corporate greed and vulture capitalism. By the time I submitted my last piece around Memorial Day, my writing had become a shadow and shell of its peak around 2014.
I don’t mean to compare my case, as a freelancer, to those professional journalists who have lost principal sources of income and actual full-time careers to the ruthless downsizing by Alden Global Capital and its front, Digital First Media. But I do think my perspective is as valuable in its own way as those offered by Dave Krieger, the brave editorial board of the Denver Post, and so many others.
How I became the Camera’s classical voice
In 2011, longtime Camera classical music critic Wes Blomster’s health declined rapidly, and he passed away that October. Clay Evans, who was the features editor at the time, offered me the opportunity to step into the role. I was in a singular position to do so, as I had been helping Wes in some capacity for the previous eight years. There was nobody else in Boulder who understood both the classical music scene in the city and the way the local daily newspaper covered that scene.
At the recommendation of professors in the musicology department at CU Boulder — where I had obtained my master’s degree and was working on my Ph.D. — Wes recruited me to help him by writing overnight reviews. This was in 2003, during the first term of the George W. Bush administration. So my connections to the Camera go back 15 years — before Kevin Kaufman’s tenure as editor. I wrote reviews fairly regularly after that, although it was more sporadic after 2006 and I had virtually stopped doing so by 2010.
One thing that has been constant since 2003: I always did reviews for the Colorado Music Festival in the summer. For one reason or another, even during the hiatuses, I always did that without missing a single year. This continued through last summer, even after the CMF ended its longtime repeated concerts and even after I had mostly stopped reviewing other organizations.
Reviews, especially overnight reviews, were an early victim of budget cuts, even before 2011, which was a large reason for my more sporadic contributions in those preceding years. That remained the case when I became the “full time” classical writer, and most of my efforts were devoted to preview articles — but this was a big job, and entailed more responsibility than I anticipated. I settled into it and mastered the balance of scheduling interviews, meeting deadlines, and fitting things into the calendar.
I did tenaciously cling to reviews of opera productions with multiple performances, including rehearsal-based reviews of CU Opera productions. I also reviewed Central City Opera and Opera Colorado, which were the only non-Boulder-based organizations I covered. I inherited this from Wes, and came up with several justifications to keep doing it.
All during this time, I was in the final stages of my dissertation work, which I completed in 2012. After finishing my degree, I made a real effort to find work in academia, but this proved just as frustrating and soul-sucking as it was before I had the piece of paper. But I still had the Camera, and many things fell into place. I was able to find a great living situation (renting, obviously) that allowed me and my family to remain in Boulder and for my two older children to remain at their middle and high schools.
Clay Evans left in early 2012 to work in marketing and media relations for the Colorado Shakespeare Festival and later for CU Presents. Dave Burdick, who took over for him at the Camera, expanded my role, allowing me to write first-person columns for the first time. The first one of these was related to the completion of my degree. I had a rapport with Dave, as he had been the editor when I left before in 2009. But he didn’t stay long, and in late summer of 2012, Kevin “Moose” Huhn became the features editor at the Camera.
I cannot praise Moose enough. From the beginning, he was warm and engaging and treated me as an asset. He never spared words of praise for my writing, and he always went the extra mile. When he had to make cuts, he was judicious, and he always placed the full product online. Most importantly, he almost never rejected any of my schedules or proposals for when previews needed to run or when I wanted to write reviews. He was faced with budget cuts and purse-tightening, but I never felt threatened during his tenure, and he never really questioned the value of what I proposed. Even the columns continued for a time, but they gradually (and kind of naturally) dried up. I consider Moose’s tenure to be the “golden age.”
Cuts begin, but they never end
Moose left the Camera in early 2016. His replacement, Quentin Young, is a superb journalist and also an excellent editor. Quentin has a real passion for the arts and for the news. I had met him in person in December 2014, when both of us were members of a panel for an event about, ironically enough, the future of print media and the arts. He was covering arts in Longmont at the time, as well as producing the Second Story Garage music videos. We had a connection through Moose, whom we both loved as a supervising editor.
In writing this narrative, I have been especially wary of even casting the slightest aspersion upon Quentin. The man is a prince, perhaps even a saint. There have been times in the last two years where he stood up for me when he really didn’t have to put himself on the line. At the beginning of his tenure, things were terrific. He showed intense respect and interest for my writing, and said he would do everything he could to smooth the transition. In many ways, his editorial touch was even lighter than Moose’s was, and his presentation of my work was beautiful.
But it was shortly after Quentin took over that things started to go downhill. Since 2011, and in Wes’s time before that, the home for classical music articles was the Life and Arts section on Sundays. We kept classical out of Friday Magazine because it never really seemed to fit there. Moose was particularly dedicated to keeping my material in Life and Arts, even to the point where I was the most regular contributor to that section. But in July of 2016, the Camera was forced to cut the Life and Arts section. As he would later do many times, Quentin went out of his way to accommodate me as my content moved inevitably to Friday Magazine.
Sunday had been ideal for my previews because most of the events I covered were on weekends, which provided a natural window between my article and the event. Friday proved far more problematic, as I needed to cover things either more than a week in advance or, in some unavoidable cases, a day before the events. But I adapted. I adapted even though there was less space and less prominence. I made it work. Quentin made it work. I was still getting approval for most of my proposed stories based on precedent and my authority on who deserved or merited coverage.
I even started writing overnight reviews for the Boulder Philharmonic again, which I hadn’t done since 2009. Once again, the outlook looked positive. Things changed drastically in 2017. Quentin was given instructions regarding reviews, specifically that we could not run both a preview and a review of the same event. I still fought for the opera reviews as long as I could. I like to think that I had an argument that helped me on several occasions: the Camera was never going to find another me. I think that Quentin knew that then, and that he still knows it now.
But the cuts were unrelenting and ever increasing. I will say that Quentin was both explicit and brutally honest about what was going on. And when I resisted, as I always did, he became exasperated. He didn’t want to make the cuts. He knew they were painful. Reviews for CU Opera and Opera Colorado were the first victims. For the first time, the entity known as Alden Global Capital was brought to my attention. Before that point, I had focused so much on content and calendar that the business end of it was something about which I never really had to worry.
Things briefly looked up again last summer. I was allowed to do my weekly CMF reviews again, continuing that streak. I reviewed the Central City Opera productions, and the Denver Post (whose features department had been stripped bare) picked them up. In the fall, I managed once again to fit in all of the season previews for the many regular-year orchestral and choral ensembles. But then, in early 2018, the messages became even darker and gloomier than they were before.
Quentin was under strict budget constraints as the end of the fiscal year approached. Anything not running in Friday Magazine (such as reviews of any sort) was discouraged. I did manage to do one last review, for Colorado MahlerFest (which, as far as I know, has continuously been reviewed for most of its existence) on May 20. I fulfilled pretty much all of my normal coverage for the spring. But then I submitted what I considered a normal budget for June.
I requested a season preview for Central City Opera and a preview for CU’s New Opera Workshop, which have both been regular for years. And I mentioned that the six weekly previews for the CMF — articles that have defined my work for the Camera perhaps more than anything else — would occupy the last two Fridays in June. I mentioned reviews for Central City Opera in July (which have been a cherished part of my summer routine), hoping that their status as long repertory runs (and the fact that the organization closely collaborates with the Boulder Philharmonic and is as close to us as it is to Denver) would help make the case.
But Quentin was at the end of an extremely tight budget. On Sunday, May 27, I received an email that not only would the Central City Opera reviews not be done (the Post’s coverage or lack thereof being irrelevant), but he could only fit in one CMF preview and even that would be tight. It was at that point that I lost whatever restraint I had. Before this, reviews, which were always in the crosshairs, had been the principal target of the cuts. A cut to the weekly CMF previews (which are extremely saturated as it is) was the first instance where I perceived being asked to cut something that was really at the core of my coverage.
I didn’t handle it well, to say the least. I sent off a series of replies that went through the stages of grief — denial, anger and bargaining for sure. Depression would set in later that week. I indignantly expressed that there was no possible way for me to cover the CMF without the weekly previews (in truth, I could have found a way, at least for the first two weeks). I lashed out at somebody who was only following his own strict instructions. Finally, I offered to cut my pay rate per item in half if I were given the previews, the CMF reviews (which surely would have been cut, ending the streak I had going since 2003) and the CCO reviews.
I said that I didn’t think I could continue under such circumstances, and offered ultimatums when I was in absolutely no position to do so. What I am paid is only a part of budgetary considerations. I know that well, and I know about advertising to content ratios. But these had never really been a big issue before. Of course, I again resorted to my credentials, along with a bitter comment about whether arts coverage even mattered at all.
I may have rare qualifications, but so do all the other victims of the cuts. The freelancers, the editors, the reporters, the photographers, all of these people have skills that are particularly unique to them. I do continue to believe that the Camera remained devoted to the arts in its community more than other papers of its size. I think that everybody I wrote for and worked with recognized how singular my particular qualifications were. There are times when it’s OK to flash a Ph.D., and I did so, once again. It didn’t matter.
However I handled it, I still don’t know how exactly he expected me to respond to that email. Previously, I had begged, but I had never demanded. Acceptance was always difficult. But this was different, and he had to have known that. He did include wording about regretting the cuts, but that he was making them in other places as well. Whatever the case, it became apparent to both of us that this was just not going to work anymore. I was hastening the inevitable with my response. I had already done the interview for the Central City Opera preview, so I felt that I had to write that story, which I did, before hearing back from Quentin. It ran on June 8.
Quentin’s reply expressed both his deep frustration and his admiration. Of course, when he and everyone around him are concerned for their own jobs in the current environment, my case isn’t going to resonate. And he was right that I failed to reckon with the fact that the Camera today is not the Camera of 20, 10, two years or even one year ago. But he did note how much I would be missed and held out hope that I would find an “outlet better equipped to support and cultivate [my] rare mix of knowledge and writing ability.”
The future is uncertain
I decided to write this lengthy explanation and history as a way to communicate the situation to Camera readers, classical music patrons, and particularly the organizations I cover without having to rehash it many times over or rely on a Facebook post. But I also want to communicate to future potential employers or patrons: I’m listening. Classical music organizations, I might have something you can use. I can read and analyze a score as well as any conductor. I have extensive knowledge of the repertoire across all classical genres. I can obviously write. I want to find some way to continue to serve the community I so dearly love and of which I have been a part for so long.
Ideas have been floated. Zachary Carrettin, director of the Boulder Bach Festival, has proposed a Boulder Arts Magazine (with me as editor-in-chief) on a couple of occasions. But that is a long-term proposition and one that would require a lot of backing — and some skills that I don’t possess would have to go behind production and design. A blog is another idea, but one that is less appealing because that market has already been cornered. A podcast is a particularly intriguing idea, one that would allow me to continue doing interviews, including guest artists. I will likely have to return to the slog of trying to find employment in academia — which would entail leaving Boulder — and that is a world that failed me long before journalism did.
I did tell Quentin that if anybody is going to take over covering classical music in any sense, the best person for that job is Quentin himself. Having edited my things for two years and being an arts lover himself — and an absolutely brilliant writer — he has what it would take. I don’t know if he is going to follow up on my suggestion. He probably doesn’t have time. Maybe he can find another freelancer who relies less upon the job for their lifestyle than I did. For now, organizations should contact him directly, and hopefully coverage will continue.*
Boulder has around six orchestras — three of them fully professional — along with spectacular professional and community choral groups. We have an awesome summer music festival at Chautauqua that hosts one of those orchestras. The main regular-season professional orchestra has received national honors and recognition for representing the community in which it plays. We have a state university with a separate College of Music that boasts world-class faculty, including a Grammy-winning string quartet that ranks among the best in the country. The free Faculty Tuesday recitals at CU are a wonder to behold, as are the student opera productions. What other city of our size in the country has all that? All that deserves adequate coverage in the local daily newspaper, and the Camera, recognizing that, has been remarkably generous with that coverage in the past.
And that’s what I’ve been fighting so hard to keep, to preserve. Who knew that the battle would become this quixotic? Now I won’t be able to afford to attend the concerts I’ve covered for years. I can’t justify comp tickets anymore. The whole situation is one of absurdity. Alden Global Capital, You Ruined It.
I can’t adequately express my thanks to all who have supported me, especially the readers who told me how much my writing meant to them. You showed that a practicing Mormon from St. George, Utah could thrive in a community like Boulder. I think that I always accurately conveyed what my interview subjects wanted to say, presenting their point of view as it was, even if I disagreed with it. In reviews, if I didn’t like a concept or a performance choice, I didn’t hesitate to say so, even if it was at odds with the public reaction. No matter what, I always felt appreciated by most of the readership and the patrons.
I can’t say I fully support Dave Krieger’s idea of a subscriber boycott because of the harm it would cause to some of the most vulnerable cogs in the machine. I mean the carriers, including (as some know) myself. For the time being, I’m still here. And I’d like to stay here and continue to enjoy the arts culture of Boulder, not just classical music, which has become such an integral part of my life and identity. I can only hope that somebody or some organization will find a way to help me make that possible.
*Since I drafted and began to revise this narrative, a CMF preview article ran in Friday Magazine on June 22, by features staff writer Christy Fantz. It is superbly written, and Christy obviously did great interviews — but it is apparently intended to cover the entire six-week festival season. The interview subjects were the opening-night soloist, executive director Elizabeth McGuire and Artistic Advisor Peter Oundjian, who does not even appear until the third week. The typical “If You Go” information box described the whole festival, not just one or two weeks. If this is true, it is horrifying.
Last week, employees of the beleaguered Denver Post protested the rapacious policies of the paper’s private equity owner by holding simultaneous rallies outside the firm’s New York headquarters and the Post’s downsized Colorado offices. The rallies attracted a fair amount of media coverage, including a new round of stories in various outlets about the crisis in local journalism.
But they drew no reaction from the intended audience: Alden Global Capital, the private equity firm that owns the Post and 64 other daily “brands,” along with several dozen weekly or niche publications, through its controlling interest in Digital First Media.
Indeed, Alden’s contempt for its DFM employees was on display in the lobby of Manhattan’s Lipstick Building, home of the hedge fund’s offices (and former home of another notorious hedge fund, the Ponzi scheme run by Bernie Madoff). Security guards in the building’s lobby refused the protesters access to Alden’s offices. They also refused to accept petitions with more than 11,000 signatures carried by the Post employees from Denver to plead with the financiers to support or sell the newspapers they are strangling. The guards told the protesters they were not authorized to accept deliveries and ordered them out of the building, threatening them with arrest for trespass.
A normal company even tangentially concerned about its public image would have arranged a simple public relations reception for the protesters. Some lower-level company functionary would have been there to accept the petitions and promise they would be delivered to and reviewed by the appropriate company executives. Whether this delivery and review would have actually happened is an entirely different question. In most cases, probably not. But the P.R. performance would have conveyed a message of reasonableness for the TV cameras and the broader world. Most companies want to be thought of as reasonable, even if they are every bit as fixated on profit to the exclusion of other considerations as Alden Global Capital.
This is because most companies report to a public constituency. It might be their stockholders, it might be their customers, it might even be their employees. A private equity firm doesn’t have a public constituency. It has no exposure to what the world thinks. It is not publicly traded. It has no customers, other than a small number of wealthy investors granted admission based on a single factor: how much money they have.
So if the journalists’ hope was to influence Alden’s behavior, their strategy was not aligned with their goals. Protests designed to move Alden based on public embarrassment are doomed to fail if Alden cannot be embarrassed. Protests designed to influence public opinion are doomed to fail if Alden does not care about public opinion.
Allowing for the exceptions that confirm the rule, journalists as a class tend to maintain a cognitively dissonant combination of idealism and cynicism. The cynicism grows from career-long exposure to the self-serving, the self-important and the self-righteous. They are accustomed to filtering haystacks of propaganda to uncover needles of truth. The idealism is reflected in their choice of vocation. They believe that shining a light on injustice will lead to remediation of the injustice, even if the actual results, historically, are decidedly mixed.
It was this latter trait that was on display during last week’s protests. The Post employees apparently believed that the righteousness of their cause — supporting institutions of a free press protected by the Bill of Rights — would be enough to move a hedge fund notoriously impervious to public opinion. Neither Randall D. Smith nor Heath Freeman, the vulture capitalists whose various mansions are now familiar to those following this story, has felt compelled to respond publicly throughout the now years-long controversy over their policy of stripping newspapers of assets and resources in order to enrich themselves and provide capital for unrelated investments.
This is not to say that the protests were without value. The first step in the fight to save the newspapers that DFM’s policies have sent into a death spiral is to let the public know what’s at stake. This is particularly true in the communities where these papers operate. That was the purpose of the editorial published on this blog last month that had been spiked by the publisher of the Boulder Daily Camera. That was the purpose of the package of editorials and columns published by the Post last month criticizing its owners. But once that purpose has been accomplished — and certainly, what is happening to the Post, the Camera and more than a dozen other Colorado newspapers is now much better known among the general public than it was just a few months ago — it does not make sense to pursue a strategy of publicly shaming a company that has no shame.
Charlie Munger, the 94-year-old vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s longtime partner in that enterprise, famously told an audience at the Harvard Business School in 1995 that he has always been among the top 5 percent of his age cohort in believing in the power of incentives to determine human behavior — and he has always underestimated it. Often, an organization’s incentives are multiple and contradictory, making this diagnosis more difficult.
This does not appear to be the case with Alden Global Capital. In fact, Messrs. Smith and Freeman appear to have a single incentive with respect to their control of DFM — harvesting as much cash as rapidly as possible from these properties. Indeed, newspaper industry analyst Ken Doctor recently reported DFM continues to wring outsized profits from these properties even as it starves them of resources. Emissaries from DFM arrive at each property like clockwork to demand their take off the top in the manner of a mob protection racket. The publishers and editors must deliver what DFM demands from their declining pool of revenues and then figure out how to keep the enterprise in business. The result is the dramatic cuts in resources, personnel and news coverage that are the hallmark of DFM properties. Once-robust metropolitan dailies such as the Post, San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press and Orange County (Calif.) Register are now hollowed-out shells of their former selves, even as Smith and Freeman grow wealthier dining on their remains.
What is it that matters to Smith and Freeman? Cash, clearly. How can those who object to their selfish stewardship of these First Amendment institutions hope to influence their behavior? By depriving them of as much cash as possible. How do they do that? By enlisting advertisers and subscribers to engage in collective action.
The labor union that represents journalists at a declining number of papers has long experience with this tactic in the service of goals less urgent than survival. For many years, when collective bargaining was going nowhere at various newspapers, the Newspaper Guild, since renamed the NewsGuild, a division of the Communication Workers of America, would engage in subscription boycott campaigns as a last resort. The tactic was simple: Launch a public campaign to get subscribers to sign cards canceling their subscriptions. But rather than have them submit those cards individually, the Guild would collect them and then present a choice to management: Come to the table and negotiate in good faith or face a subscription boycott.
The tactic was always controversial because it resembled a suicide pact. Convince enough subscribers to cancel and they may or may not ever come back, even after a particular contract dispute is resolved. That is especially true now, with so many of these properties on life support. A successful subscription and advertising boycott could very well send them over the edge.
But what’s the alternative? To continue encouraging readers in the communities we allegedly serve to shovel their hard-earned cash, in annually increasing amounts, into the pockets of Smith and Freeman? To continue underwriting their unrelated investments while the newspapers these readers intend to support slowly starve to death? To continue doing exactly what these plunderers want? According to Doctor, Alden’s strategy relies on the loyalty of readers to keep feeding it cash even as it destroys the product they are buying. By urging them to do just that, journalists are helping the hedge fund con their readers.
Doctor has estimated that on the current trajectory of draining cash from these properties, most of them have a couple of years left at best. Alden has no long-term plan beyond that. By 2021, Doctor says, Alden will either sell what remains to capitalism’s equivalent of a junk yard or close the doors, as it did with the venerable Oakland Tribune.
So the worst that could happen as the result of a subscription and advertising boycott would be accelerating this timetable by a matter of months. I have heard journalists protest that readers canceling subscriptions would hurt them, the journalists. This is a misguided and unfortunate argument that puts journalists on the same level as the vulture capitalists they are protesting — motivated principally by self-interest. This fight is not about the journalists who remain at these withering properties. It is about their readers. It is about the communities they serve. It is about the future of local First Amendment institutions. If they are being strangled as it is, if their owners are unresponsive to pleas that they alter their self-serving course, then attacking these owners where they live — in their cash flows — is the only recourse remaining.
The NewsGuild has the expertise and experience to organize such a campaign. The goal would be to make Alden’s ownership of these properties less lucrative than it expects and, ultimately, more trouble than it’s worth. It would have to be executed so successfully — enlisting thousands of subscribers and dozens of advertisers — that Alden would lose its one incentive to hold on.
In the best-case scenario, Alden would look at the collapsing revenues and decide to salvage what it could by putting these properties up for sale while they are still worth saving. Local owners would have an opportunity to reinvest in them and bring them back. In the alternative scenarios, where Alden remains as immoveable as before, the tactic would simply accelerate the transition away from these papers and deprive Smith and Freeman of the tens of millions of dollars they are extracting each year. Denver and Boulder both have significant high-tech and startup communities. If their daily newspapers are doomed, better to get about the business of starting something new, 21st-century local platforms designed to ensure that revenues are dedicated to journalism, not avaricious Wall Street players.
It’s no fun contributing to the demise of an institution you love by urging subscribers and advertisers to abandon it. But it’s better than being willing victims, continuing to line the pockets of voracious vultures as they commit strangulation in not-so slow motion. If Alden’s principals had responded to any of the journalism, any of the protests, any of the pleas that they recognize the importance of our free press, less extreme alternatives might be available now. But they have not. Their response to last week’s protest should leave us with no illusions: Alden’s intention is to continue draining these properties of cash until only the husks remain. It has no interest in engaging with its employees or the communities they serve. It has no interest in dialogue.
The only option remaining is to hit these scavengers where they live, in their cash flows. Even that might make no difference. But it’s better to go down fighting than obsequiously feeding the beast that’s killing you.
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.
Editor’s note: An early draft of this editorial was submitted to the Daily Camera editorial board Friday morning, April 13, 2018, for publication on the Camera’s website Saturday, April 14, and in print Sunday, April 15. This is our usual process. Draft editorials are edited, corrected and revised during the day, but the early draft serves as the basis for approval, or not, and recommended revisions by board members. The editorial board consists of the publisher, executive editor and editorial page editor. In this case, the executive editor and editorial page editor supported publication. The publisher did not. On most matters, the editorial board operates democratically, but in this instance, the subject being the business itself, the publisher exercised his veto and killed the editorial. I elected to publish it on a different platform for the reasons stated in the editorial: This is a story about an important, longstanding Boulder institution. As journalists working in that community, we have an obligation to our readers to tell it.
— Dave Krieger, editorial page editor
The first-ever Colorado Journalism Week (April 16-22) arrives at a moment both inspiring and dispiriting for American journalism, and newspaper journalism in particular.
Inspiring because, at its highest levels, American journalism has rarely been more energetic. Investigating foreign interference in our last national election and the most unusual presidential administration of our lifetimes, The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal are breaking important stories on a daily basis.
Dispiriting because, at many smaller papers, including this one, the journalistic lifeblood of communities large and small is being systematically drained by their owners’ private equity business model. One of the more insidious aspects of this process is that these communities are generally left in the dark about what is happening because the newspaper is the community storyteller. When it fails to tell this important story about itself, it breaks trust with its readers. We have remained quiet about this for too long.
The Daily Camera is 128 years old, counting its first year as a weekly. Much of the city’s history is recorded in its archives. If Boulder had another 128-year-old institution in danger of imminent demise, particularly one exercising an essential democratic freedom enshrined in the Bill of Rights, the Camera would be obliged to cover it. But we have a dilemma on this particular story: the desire of your local journalists to see the Camera survive and thrive versus the desire of our private equity owners to continue draining cash from the business without encountering any more adverse publicity than necessary.
The Denver Post took this debate to a new level of prominence last week by publishing a Sunday opinion section condemning the draconian cuts required by its owner, the New York private equity firm Alden Global Capital. Alden owns a controlling interest in Digital First Media, which owns the Post, the Camera, and more than a dozen other Colorado papers. The Post urged Alden to support its journalism or sell the paper to someone who will. This decision came after yet another round of personnel cuts, leaving the Post newsroom, now located in Adams County, a shadow of its former self.
The trajectory of the Camera’s decline has been more gradual, but over time the effect has been the same. Including our most recent round of layoffs in late 2016, our resources have consistently declined despite our continuing profitability. Recently, we lost our business editor. We do not know when or if we will be able to replace her. Imagine a daily paper without a business editor trying to cover a town that considers itself the high-tech and startup capital of Colorado.
Part of this loss of resources can be explained by the well-known impact of the internet on newspapers’ business model. With so many advertising dollars moving to the web through behemoths like Google and Facebook, all newspapers face new business challenges. But this secular problem should not obscure the predatory behavior of private equity investors.
“Between 2012 and 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, all newspapers lost 24 percent of their workforces,” the American Prospect reported recently. “But at a sample of 12 papers owned by DFM, the layoff rate was more than half, according to a tabulation collected by journalists who worked for DFM papers.”
A lab experiment illustrating this point is occurring in the Twin Cities of Minnesota, which once had two robust metropolitan papers in the Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Paul Pioneer Press. One, the Star Tribune, was bought by a local billionaire, Minnesota Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. The other, the Pioneer Press, is owned by Alden. The Star Tribune is thriving, with an estimated 250 journalists in the newsroom, thanks to Taylor’s belief in supporting community journalism. The Pioneer Press has suffered draconian cuts similar to those in Denver and can no longer hold a candle to its former competitor in Minneapolis.
Journalism is not just any business. It is part of our democratic infrastructure. A minority shareholder in Digital First Media recently filed a lawsuit claiming Alden has drained tens of millions of dollars from its newspapers in order to make dubious, unrelated investments. In a court filing in response to the suit, Alden essentially admitted as much. The Nation reported that Alden principal Randall D. Smith bought up 16 mansions in and around Palm Beach, Fla., for $57.2 million. As always, Alden declines comment. It does not appear to harbor any sense of corporate responsibility or accountability.
“There is no long-term strategy other than milking and continuing to cut,” newspaper analyst Ken Doctor told investigative reporter Julie Reynolds. “Their view is that in 2021, they’ll deal with that then. Whatever remnants are there, they’ll try to find a buyer.”
Doctor also helped to answer a question we are hearing from our subscribers: How can we hope to survive by simultaneously shrinking our product and increasing our prices?
“They keep ratcheting up the price for the die-hard subscribers,” Doctor said. “Everybody talks about the demise of the (local) paper. But Alden has been able to track it, and there’s a lag time. It takes people a while to cancel. As people drop the paper, in the meantime they’re maintaining or growing their profits.”
Whether a particular form of capitalism should be permitted to destroy local First Amendment institutions serving millions of Americans is now a national conversation, thanks to the Post. Reaction to its plea was swift. The Nation wrote about it. So did Esquire. The New York Times put it on the front page. The Washington Post published an in-depth piece Friday under the headline, “As a secretive hedge fund guts its newspapers, journalists are fighting back.”
Taking a cue from the Denver Post, even Alden-owned publications are daring to speak up. “In an extraordinary editorial, (the Post) bravely implored their owners — the same investors who own our news organization — to support local journalism or sell the properties to someone who will,” wrote Neil Chase, executive editor of the Mercury News of San Jose. “The union that represents our employees has been saying the same thing for months.”
The Camera takes pride in serving as our community’s public square for discussion and debate of many local issues. To refuse to acknowledge this one would be tantamount to declaring that the Camera’s loyalties lie with its corporate overlords and not the community it serves. If we do not host this conversation, other platforms surely will.
So, as we observe this first Colorado Journalism Week, we believe it is part of our obligation to our readers to let them know as honestly as we can of the existential threat to this 128-year-old Boulder institution. Without a new owner, or intervention of some other kind we haven’t imagined, Boulder, like Denver and many other communities in Colorado and elsewhere, is in imminent danger of losing its daily newspaper once it has been bled dry.
A happier outcome is still possible. Alden has sold certain properties, including the Salt Lake Tribune and Berkshire (Mass.) Eagle, to local investors willing to support these institutions. Groups of potential investors are now discussing possible bids for the Post. We would like to see similar activity in Boulder before it’s too late.