“If we’re continuing on this trajectory, there’s no way in hell we’re going to survive.”
The iconic Denver Post building has a slight curve to it. Like a camera lens, the bright white structure widens into the shape of a parentheses on its front side, an architectural flourish that allows those inside to capture sweeping views of the city sprawled before it. From this perch, journalists covering the city could spot the institutions they were responsible for covering: the majestic Colorado State Capitol, the Civic Center’s open walkways, the stately city council building.
In recent months, however, the city’s watchdogs have instead been monitoring Denver from a distance. The Post relocated from downtown Denver to the paper’s printing plant outside of the city earlier this year. This was the beginning of a string of devastating cuts that now leave the Post at risk of closing its doors permanently.
This isn’t your average “local journalism is a failing business” story. The threat in this case is far less abstract. Alden Global Capital, a New York City-based hedge fund that owns the Denver Post’s parent company Digital First Media, has been slashing its newsrooms across the country while maximizing profits. Digital First Media, the country’s second-largest newspaper chain, has eliminated two out of every three staff positions at its media outlets since 2011, according to reporting by The Nation.
Over the last few months, these tactics have spelled danger for the Denver Post. Around 30 percent of the paper’s newsroom was laid off this April. Soon after, Editorial Page Editor Chuck Plunkett spearheaded a series of opinion pieces in the paper demanding Alden Global Capital sell the paper or invest in its newsroom. Two weeks ago, Plunkett resigned when he was told he could not run another editorial standing up to the hedge fund. And then two other senior editors resigned, too, leaving the Post severely understaffed and without a clear path forward.
Journalists from Digital First Media publications around the country gathered outside Alden’s New York City offices Tuesday to demand answers. In Denver, the Post staff members that remained rallied around their office wearing shirts declaring “News Matters.”
In one opinion piece published by the Denver Post, former reporter Ricardo Baca wrote of the journalists’ protest: “To an extent, this is the opposite of what we’ve been trained to do since Journalism 101. But these are also desperate times, and if we don’t speak up now, then we will be destined to witness the demise of our city’s largest and most essential news-gathering operations — and what would happen to democracy then?”
All the while, the beleaguered staff at the Denver Post continued to crank out a daily paper.
This scene is a far cry from the environment I encountered when I started a summer internship at the Denver Post last July, as one of about 12 paid interns. Denver had lost its other major newspaper, The Rocky Mountain News, in 2009 and the Post’s staff had seen its share of cuts in the years before I arrived. But a team of editors supported a newsroom united by a strong sense of camaraderie and an enthusiasm about local news big and small—from policies criminalizing homelessness in Denver to the threats facing the city’s oldest cemetery. When the Great American Eclipse arrived in August, 2017, the staff mobilized to Wyoming, Nebraska, and all over Colorado to cover the bizarre beauty of the moon overtaking the sun.
Fast forward ten months, and all but one of the editors I worked with have quit the paper or been let go. Most of them haven’t been replaced.
Danika Worthington, who works the Post’s Sunday shift, said the job often now requires her to be her own editor. Now that senior editors Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman have stepped down, she doesn’t even know who her editor during the weekdays will be.
“If we’re continuing on this trajectory, there’s no way in hell we will survive,” Worthington said.
If the Denver Post folds, it will leave the city without a paper of record to monitor the most basic developments. But even in the newspaper’s current emaciated state, there are fewer and fewer people to keep a close eye on the growing metropolis of three-million-plus people.
In February, politics reporter Jesse Paul and three other Post journalists polled every member of the Colorado House of Representatives to determine if lawmakers would vote to expel a representative accused of sexual harassment. Paul said that the politicians were angry and “frustrated about the fact that we were going to put them on the record.”
Just three months later, Paul said the staff doesn’t have the bandwidth for this type of intensive reporting anymore.
“There’s no way we’d have time now to poll all 65 lawmakers on every single issue,” Paul said. “Basically we’re having to triage on a daily basis to decide what we’re covering and what we’re not...Whether it’s a bill that will affect everyone in Colorado or the really contentious governor’s race happening right now.”
Cops reporter Noelle Phillips fears this means public figures in Denver won’t be held to account. Phillips is the only reporter regularly covering the police beat and the city’s court system, meaning she often doesn’t make it to trials before the day the verdict is announced.
“The people we cover know that we have diminished resources, so they’re likely to take advantage of that,” Phillips said.
Denver Post investigations in recent months have uncovered a disturbing pattern of young people aging out of the Colorado foster care system without permanent homes or institutional support and fraud and sex crimes in Colorado sober-living homes.
This isn’t just about the current landscape of journalism; it’s also about its future. Worthington and Paul came to the Denver Post as interns. When I started there in the summer of 2017, the Post had paid interns allocated to each section of the paper. This summer, staff members say that the paper may only hire a couple interns whose colleges can pay their stipends, if they host interns at all.
When Erin Douglas landed an internship at the Post last summer, she thought she was starting her dream job. A Colorado local who grew up in the suburbs of Denver, she hoped to eventually join the staff as a full-time reporter—a trajectory many in the newsroom had taken in years past.
Douglas will graduate from Colorado State University this month with degrees in journalism and economics, but instead of returning to the Post she’ll be heading to New York City to start her career.
“I feel that as a young journalist, I literally have to leave (Denver) if I want to get a job,” Douglas said. “If all of our journalists are moving to New York, D.C., and Boston, then that's a problem. We’re not reporting for the rest of the nation at that point….Who is reporting for the people here at home?”