Journalism matters

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Print this page by Bernie Niemeier
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Photo by Mark Rhodes

On Friday, April 6, the editorial page editor of The Denver Post published a column on the newspaper’s website titled “News Matters.”  The column was harshly critical of the Post’s owners for yet another round of staff cuts at the 125-year-old, Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper.

The sub-headline read, “Colo. should demand the newspaper it deserves.”  Among other criticisms, the column went so far as to describe the newspaper’s New York-based hedge-fund owners as “vulture capitalists.” Eight additional opinion columns, many from former staffers, were a part of the complete online package.

In any other industry, such actions would be treated as an insubordinate takeover of company assets from the factory floor.  For the Post, its publishing peers received this as a highly laudable act of courage.  At Virginia Business, we support that opinion.

While this magazine is intrinsically business friendly and sympathetic to management, we agree that no publishing enterprise can or should be run with profit as the only goal.  In fact, no business in any industry can sustain itself with only profit in mind.  Employees matter, customers matter, quality matters, and, in this case, journalism matters.  When such matters go untended, profit becomes impossible.

Interestingly, after local Post management consulted with executives at Alden Global Capital, the paper’s hedge-fund owner, the editorial page editor responsible was not relieved of his duties.  The digital columns also ran in that Sunday’s print edition of the Denver Post.  Credit the owners for getting that call right.

It’s worth giving some context here.  Just a decade ago, when Denver had two dailies managed under a joint operating agreement, there were approximately 450 journalists serving readers.  The other paper, the Rocky Mountain News, became defunct in 2009.

During the next few years, the Post saw its former owner, the newspaper chain MediaNews, go bankrupt.  The Post then was sold to Alden, who purchased several other large-market newspapers in the depth of the Great Recession. Collectively, the newspaper group  now does business under the name Digital First Media.

The 30 positions axed in this latest round of cuts will take out nearly one-third of the Post’s remaining 100 newsroom employees, leaving about 60 daily newspaper journalists to cover the 21st largest metro area in the U.S. 

In another cost-cutting move, the paper has decamped from its longtime downtown Denver headquarters, moving all employees to its suburban printing plant six miles from the central business district.

Colorado is currently the second-fastest growing state in the U.S., driven largely by growth in the Denver metro area.  When these facts are taken all together, it’s appropriate and reasonable to think in terms of what kind of newspaper Denver deserves.

Some might ask why this should matter.  It matters to our democracy, which depends on informed citizens.  There is a reason why the First Amendment is first.  In this age of false equivalence, fake news does not equal real news.

Some might think this is all a result of readership declines — not true.  People consume more information today than at any time in history.  Like the Post, nearly all newspapers have a robust online presence in addition to print.

What may be less apparent is that advertising fragmentation has become even greater than audience fragmentation.  The longstanding business model for media relies on support from paid advertising.

Digital advertising price points don’t cover the cost of local newsgathering.  In our technology-obsessed world, it’s become far too common to see low advertising budgets chasing low-cost solutions, inevitably delivering subpar results.

Click-ability is not the same as accountability.  Digital “likes” add up, but to what?  To their advertisers, new media platforms too often have said, “trust me,” while delivering bots instead of real consumers.

Thomas Jefferson’s proviso, “A democratic society depends on an informed and educated citizenry,” relies largely on freedom of the press.  Let’s hope in Denver and elsewhere that such high ideals and the truth espoused by quality journalism shall remain.

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