I read a few things that got me thinking about the Denver Post, bloodletting, local journalism, craft beer and social media.
One was in the Colorado Springs Gazette this week, penned by its editor, Vince Bzdek. He noted how thankful he is that the Pulitzer Prize winning newspaper he works for is owned by a Coloradan who has a stake in the state and ultimately skin in the game when it comes to the Gazette and its community.
Surrounding this, Bzdek spends much of his piece hammering the ownership of the Denver Post, which recently cut 30 more newsroom positions, for a total of 75 newsroom cuts in the past three years, by what Bzdek terms a "vulture capitalist" firm, one that has also been playing Whack-A-Mole on journalists at the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and The Orange County Register.
The capitalist, Randal Smith, owns 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida, Bzdek says, manages $2 billion in assets and has never run a newspaper.
Under his steerage, the Post is fast becoming an empty shell.
I agree with Bzdek in that newspapers that are surviving and thriving are "owned by someone with a stake in the future of the state and the city." Bzdek says that on its current trajectory, with Smith sucking the value out of the Post as fast as he can, it's just a matter of time before the Post "is a shriveled carcass and can no longer make enough profit to satisfy (Smith's) bloodlust."
I can identify with bloodletting. Before purchasing the Plaindealer, I worked for Cox Communications, which owned four major newspapers and a dozen or so smaller dailies. Small was a relative term. I worked for two dailies in East Texas, one a 40,000 circulation paper, another a 6,000 circulation paper. Both were the lifeblood and voices of their communities. Both were nearly bled out when Cox sold them to a venture capital firm.
The boss of this new outfit, calling all the shots from 300 miles away, was a slick-dressed newspaper mercenary who smiled like a donkey eating cactus. His number two, who was inserted locally to run the papers into oblivion, was a foul-mouthed haggard who received his Masters degree from a now-defunct institution and who often looked and smelled as if he was wearing the same shirt three days in a row, because he was.
His proud pronouncement to me was the inner joy he felt in setting employees off on new career paths via the pink slip, a pursuit in which he wasted no time.
The newsroom was cut first. The circulation department was cut. The business office was lopped off and the marketing department mothballed. He went back to the newsroom and took a few more whacks. Advertising folks, who surely thought they were untouchable because the corporate beast had to eat, soon learned their fate as many in that department received the unavoidable.
Being at the executive level, I had to be the bearer of bad news, to people I had hired, trained, and grown together with personally and professionally.
None of that mattered to the man at the top.
I was terminating people right and left, and becoming numb as hell about it. If I hadn't had a heart attack already earlier that year, I was surely due for one. Then it came time to terminate Kim, a graphic artist who had been on my team for years. She knew why she had been called in that morning but seemed to take it harder than others. Tears streamed down her face. I reached out and put my hand on hers, and she gathered herself and told me that she found out that morning she was pregnant.
Somewhere, 300 miles away, the man with the grin, who had spent decades in the business running successful newspapers, was now taking great pleasure in bleeding the dignity from organizations and communities he neither knew nor would ever know. Surely, the cold details were in his report sent to the "vulture capitalist" in New York.
It didn't take me long to quit that bunch.
But I didn't quit doing what I love. Bzdek, too, hasn't given up either, as painful as it is to watch what’s happening to the “state newspaper,” the one that won the battle with the Rocky Mountain News as the last big Colorado paper left standing.
He notes that while social media giants have chewed up local advertising of all mediums — if you think newspapers have been pared down, ask someone at a local radio station, or my friend in Grand Junction who works for the Yellow Pages — a resurgence is gaining momentum of late, getting back to the basics, the standards to which newspapers stringently adhere.
Facebook, he says, has shown that its sources can't be trusted, that it was used by Russians for propaganda and that it didn't care about "the privacy of their readers' data."
Meanwhile, 7-in-10 Americans are reached every month by newspapers and their websites. Bzdek quotes Nielsen Scarborough: "Notably, millennials 21-34 make up 25 percent of the U.S. population and now represent 24 percent of the total monthly newspaper readership."
Still, some are convinced that local journalism just can't stand up to the strain, that newspapers will collapse soon enough and that what's happening at the Post is a precursor of a medium losing to transition.
And I can illustrate with a sample from the myriad examples out there. In 2015, Andre Johnson, and in 2018, Eric Hosmer, star athletes in Houston and Kansas City, respectively, took out full page ads in their local newspapers to thank fans after moving on to teams in other cities. Hosmer, 28, a millennial if ever there ever was one with 450,000 Twitter followers, along with Johnson, chose the newspaper because newspaper readers are engaged.
Locally, the Ouray Ice Park, Inc., the Ridgway Chautauqua Society and Five Guys and a Sign all made large investments recently with the Plaindealer to deliver their respective organizations' messages.
Need more? This week Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook, apologized to his users for a "breach of trust" in the Cambridge Analytica scandal. In which medium did Zuckerberg choose to make this apology? He purchased full page newspaper ads to say "I promise to do better for you."
The medium is the message. If you trust the medium, you’ll have a better chance of trusting the message.
Alan Todd is co-publsiher of the Ouray County Plaindealer. email@example.com