A Flourishing Region, A Withered Paper: Denver Post's Run Of Bad News

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Originally published on August 8, 2018 6:58 pm
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Colorado's largest news organization, The Denver Post, is shrinking. It has just 60-some journalists to cover a fast-growing metro region with nearly 3 million people. NPR's David Folkenflik reports that the Post's decline has stirred concerns and inspired former staffers to start a competing digital publication.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: I encountered the mayor of Denver blinking in a blazing sun. It's rising to 100 degrees, but here he is with other local officials celebrating a corporate gift to help single-parent families.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Whereas...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Warren Village and United Airlines are today launching a meaningful partnership that will benefit...

FOLKENFLIK: Mayor Michael Hancock tells me he is a fan by and large of the news and of The Denver Post.

MICHAEL HANCOCK: I will tell you that being around Denver all my life, being a political junkie, if you will, I have learned and watched and observed how our democracy works through the media.

FOLKENFLIK: The Post gave big headlines to unflattering incidents involving the mayor and his son, yet Hancock says he was proud to participate in a rally for the newspaper's staff earlier this year.

HANCOCK: While it's not always fair or what I want to read, even if it, you know, is about me in particular, I understand the importance of free, uncensored media in our nation.

FOLKENFLIK: At that event unveiling the donation for single-parent families, a Denver TV news team was there. The Denver Post quoted press releases. The paper quotes press releases a lot more than it once did. I met Dana Coffield in the lobby of the landmark Denver Post building across from City Hall. Except The Denver Post is no longer there. Coffield is a former reporter and editor for the paper.

It's got some pretty inspirational words and messages here. What does it say on the wall there?

DANA COFFIELD: Investigate. Report. Record. Illuminate. Reflect - journalism.

FOLKENFLIK: So these are all great words. How much of that gets done here in this building?

COFFIELD: None.

FOLKENFLIK: After two rounds of layoffs last year, the Post said it would move its journalists out to save money. Most now work at its printing plant in the suburbs. The idea was to stave off future job cuts. Then news came in March - more sweeping layoffs. A private investment group called Alden Global Capital owns the Post. The newspaper industry faces grim trends, but The Denver Post is widely believed to be profitable. Yet it keeps getting cut. The paper's newsroom is less than a third of what it was. Again, Dana Coffield.

COFFIELD: So in addition to running a breaking news team and having a couple of enterprise reporters, I had to do Web production. I was liaison with the photo department. I was, you know, jack of all trades and very quickly becoming master of none.

FOLKENFLIK: So she quit. Alden Global did not respond to requests for comment. The paper's top editor wrote me that she is, quote, "pretty busy these days without much administrative help."

JOHN AGUILAR: In the seven-county area and the metro, I cover pretty much everything outside of Denver. So...

FOLKENFLIK: That's a lot.

AGUILAR: ...Been a - yeah, it's the doughnut around Denver essentially.

FOLKENFLIK: Denver Post reporter John Aguilar says all those layoffs have taken a toll.

AGUILAR: We're kind of starting to find people's breaking point now, whereas the previous cuts I think people kind of hung in there and just tried to see what would happen next. Now you're just seeing people leaving in large numbers beyond the cuts that were made in March. And I hadn't seen that happen before.

FOLKENFLIK: In a rented WeWork space around the corner from the old Denver Post building, you can find The Colorado Sun, a new digital news outlet started by former Denver Post veterans including Dana Coffield. The site's top editor is Larry Ryckman.

LARRY RYCKMAN: So we decided to take a different approach. What we're trying to do is to demonstrate to Colorado that these are the stories that you want to read. These are the stories that you need to read and to build loyalty.

FOLKENFLIK: Coloradosun.com promises to be advertising-free.

RYCKMAN: At the end of the day, we rise or fall based upon the support that we get from the people of Colorado. And that means people giving us $5 a month or maybe $5,000 to help us out.

FOLKENFLIK: Ryckman had been a senior Post editor. He quit after he wasn't allowed to name Alden Global in an article on the paper's former editorial page editor who called for the paper to be sold. Ryckman says the Post is now too hobbled to fulfill its mission.

RYCKMAN: Those are a lot of stories that aren't getting covered - people who aren't being celebrated, bad guys who aren't being exposed, corruption that isn't being exposed. We just don't know. We don't know what we have lost as a community.

FOLKENFLIK: What's happening at the Post in Denver is mirrored in communities across the country. Ryckman says the Post's journalists are laboring awfully hard to do good work in spite of their bosses rather than because of them. David Folkenflik, NPR News, Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.