The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is this strip-mining or journalism? ‘Sobs, gasps, expletives’ over latest Denver Post layoffs.

Journalists at the Denver Post during an announcement of forthcoming layoffs.
Journalists at the Denver Post during an announcement of forthcoming layoffs. (AAron Ontiveroz/Denver Post/Getty Images)
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Jesse Aaron Paul could hardly believe his good fortune when he started his internship at the Denver Post in 2014 not long after he graduated from Colorado College.

“I felt like I had reached the end of the yellow brick road,” Paul, now 25, said, describing his first day at the paper with its history of Pulitzer Prizes, its beautiful downtown building (“like a beacon”), and its nationally regarded top editor, Greg Moore, who hired him at summer’s end and who dubbed him “Super Jesse.”

That all came crashing down on Wednesday when newsroom employees were summoned to an all-staff meeting at the paper’s headquarters, no longer downtown but at the printing plant in an outlying county.

After round after round of cutbacks in recent years at the hands of its hedge-fund owners, the staff thought there might be a small number of buyouts offered. There wasn’t much left to cut, after all.

Top editor Lee Ann Colacioppo, who has been at the paper for almost 20 years, gave it to them straight — and the news was far worse than expected.

The Post, already a shadow of its once-robust self, would be making deep layoffs: another 30 jobs.

“Sobs, gasps, expletives,” was how Paul, who covers politics, described the stunned reaction.

“The room went silent — we were blindsided by the numbers” said AAron Ontiveroz, a 33-year-old photographer who has been on that award-winning staff for seven years, watching its ranks drop from 16 photographers to six.

The newsroom would be below 70 positions: a startling drop from a time not much more than a decade ago when the Post and its rival, the Rocky Mountain News, together had more than 600 journalists. (The papers were in a joint operating agreement until the Rocky went out of business in 2009.)

“It’s painful — there’s a knot in my gut to see what we built up over time torn down in this relentless way,” Moore told me. He was the paper’s top editor from 2002 to 2016, when he stepped away, disheartened by what he called the “harvesting strategy” by the paper’s parent, Digital First Media, which in turn is owned by a hedge fund, Alden Global Capital — one of the most ruthless of the corporate strip-miners seemingly intent on destroying local journalism.

I tried to talk to someone in Alden’s New York headquarters on Wednesday to ask about the apparently counterproductive strategy of endless cuts but was told no one was there to speak to the news media. When I asked to be connected to managing director Heath Freeman’s office, the receptionist hung up on me.

Digital First is wreaking similar havoc all over the country.

Its ownership of Bay Area papers in California has brought the staff of 16 regional papers (including the San Jose Mercury News) from a combined 1,000 editorial employees to about 150 — and that was before recently announced cutbacks of an additional one-third, according to the East Bay Express.

The Boston Herald was just bought out of bankruptcy by Digital First, causing Joshua Benton, writing in the Boston Globe, to offer a stark analysis:

“Just short of setting the place on fire, being bought by Digital First is about the worst outcome possible,” he writes. “It’s less the Herald being saved than the Herald being stripped for parts.”

Colacioppo, the editor in Denver, choked up as she told me by phone that she will do her best to keep her paper serving the metro area, where she grew up reading the Post.

Investigative stories such as this past Sunday’s exposé of abuses at Colorado’s “sober-living homes” — which already has the state legislature promising reform — will become even more important in the pecking order.

And routine coverage will take a further back seat — “it’s been a long time since we sat through every City Council meeting,” she said.

But as every journalist knows, it’s often normal beat reporting and apparently unexciting meetings that can generate the most important leads. And that kind of coverage also has the immeasurable benefit of letting public officials know that someone is watching.

Someone is still watching in Denver. In Boston. In San Jose.

But for how much longer?

“I don’t understand the business plan,” said Paul, the once-starry-eyed Denver Post intern, who is awaiting word on his fate. “How does cutting off a leg help you keep running?”

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