NEW LOCAL DOC DRAWS DIRECT LINE FROM MEDIA’S DEMISE TO CAPITOL SIEGE
Brian Malone’s ‘News Matters’ addresses crisis of misinformation Tuesday and Thursday on Rocky Mountain PBS
By John Moore
Senior Arts Journalist
It begins pretty much at the end of the daily newspaper’s essential, 150-year place in the lives of everyday Americans. It shows misinformed or brainwashed insurrectionists storming the walls of the U.S. Capitol in a violent and deadly attempt to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election, smashing journalists’ equipment along the way like toppled statues from an overthrown dictatorship.
“This film shines a spotlight on the importance of a steady diet of good, robust journalism in our daily lives so that we can make informed decisions,” said Malone. “Because what happens when we don’t? We have a society in chaos – and that’s exactly what we saw on Jan. 6. We saw tens of thousands of people who were led to the U.S. Capitol with bad information.”
It was, Malone says, “an attempted assassination on our democracy.” And on our media.
Malone calls “News Matters,” airing Tuesday and Thursday (April 27 and 29) on Rocky Mountain PBS, a dark comedy. “Like Fargo,” he said with a gallows chuckle. Only it’s The Denver Post that’s being fed to the wood chipper, courtesy of a soulless New York City vulture hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. And some self-inflicted wounds. And the general ambivalence of a generation of Americans who either have no trust in the objectivity of traditional news media, or have been raised in the Internet era to believe that information-gathering is free. Or should be.
‘It’s not journalism that is broken. It is the business model that’s broken.’ – Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun
Malone, an award-winning filmmaker from Castle Rock, was himself a local TV news producer who had stops at Channels 4, 9 and 31. His film takes its “inspiration” from the vaporization of 2,000 U.S. newspapers since 2004, specifically the agonizingly slow death march of The Denver Post, and the crisis of misinformation that has followed here, there and everywhere.
“This film is a sobering look at the weakened state of the traditional news infrastructure in our country and, as a result, the danger that poses to a free and open democracy,” said Malone, whose film takes its title from a bold act of insurrection by former Denver Post opinion editor Chuck Plunkett. In 2018, Plunkett produced a rebellious Sunday editorial section with one of the largest headlines in the paper’s 129-year history: “News Matters.”
Like a town crier, Plunkett called on Alden to reinvest in The Denver Post’s newsroom, or sell to responsible local owners who would.
They did not. Plunkett is now the director of the University of Colorado’s News Corps program.
Alden is the wolf that snuck into the back door of The Post in 2010 and wrested majority ownership of The Post’s parent company, MediaNews Group, from publisher William Dean Singleton. How exactly that happened, when Singleton floated hundreds of millions of dollars in debt to public bondholders, makes for compelling storytelling in the film. So too the unlikely rehab of Singleton’s reputation from a newspaper buccaneer to Denver’s last line of defense against Alden. Ironic not only because Singleton let the wolf in the back door, some would say he was the original wolf. Former Denver Post editor Greg Moore calls Singleton “the original Citizen Kane.” And Singleton agrees.
‘For most of my career, I cut more than anybody did.’ – Dean Singleton
“I’ve got a lifelong reputation for cutting costs,” Singleton says in the film. “For most of my career, I cut more than anybody did. I bought a lot of money-losing newspapers and we put a lot of people out of work – and so I was the villain.”
But it is Alden that has slashed two-thirds of the paper’s reporters, editors, photographers and designers over the past 10 years. What will boggle many viewers is that The Post is not losing money. Far from it.
And that business model remains incredibly profitable for Alden, which now owns more than 200 U.S. newspapers. Not to rescue them. Rather to suck the last drop of profit out of each one of them before leaving them to rot like a dead dog on the highway. “Instead of reinvesting profits,” Malone said, “Alden simply siphons those profits, while cutting the staff to the bone.”
And that has left The Denver Post, the weakened watchdog of the Rockies, still doing heroic daily journalism but now missing important and essential stories, especially those that require long-term, investigative journalism. As the saying goes: You can’t know the stories that aren’t being told.
And loyal readers who are seeing less value for their money are caught squarely in the middle. Subscribers who were asked to pay $5 a year to have either daily paper thrown on the porch for 20 years are now being charged as much as $90 a month, even as The Post gets thinner and thinner.
“But I have spoken to a number of subscribers who are going to stick with The Post as long for as there is a Post,” Malone said. “It’s a tradition with a lot of people. And the real sin in that is Alden Global Capital knows it. And they are taking advantage of those loyalists who are going to go down with the ship.”
To give you an idea of just how profitable daily newspapers almost always have been, consider that in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, the Frederick Bonfils-owned Denver Post grossed $6.1 million in revenues and turned a profit of $1.6 million, for a return of 31 percent. In fact, there has barely been a year in the 129-year history of the paper when it hasn’t made money. Including the Alden years.
A hedge fund doesn’t exist to break even; it guarantees its investors a minimum profit return, and it will ruthlessly cut costs to do it. So The Denver Post doesn’t face the burden of simply making money. It faces the burden of making what has been estimated at anywhere between a 12 and 27 percent annual profit.
Ken Doctor of the Harvard Nieman Lab, who is featured in “News Matters,” says Alden netted $160 million from its MediaNews Group newspapers in 2017 alone. Alden is now embroiled in a bidding war to buy the Tribune Publishing Company, though they have some stunning new competition from Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. and Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss.
These are battles over the very future of local news. But it’s not all gloom and doom. If there is a fault with Malone’s film, it is that it does not offer a full picture of the tiny seedlings of hope that have taken root in the midst of Colorado’s ongoing journalism deforestation.
Malone follows the unprecedented and inspiring emergence of the 2-year-old Colorado Sun, which was started (and is fully owned) by a group of 10 former Post reporters and editors, and now boasts about 10,000 paying subscribers. “The decline of print newspapers might be inevitable, although I hope it is not,” Sun Editor Larry Ryckman said in an email that went out this week urging readers to watch “News Matters.”
“In any event, digital news is already stepping forward to fill the need on phones, tablets and computers. But there is no acceptable substitute for the nonpartisan, independent journalism they deliver.”
Still, while several documentary interview subjects imagine a dystopian future where the demise of The Denver Post would leave Denver without a daily newspaper, that is no longer the case. Last September, the Colorado Springs Gazette made its high-profile move into the metro area with the launch of the Denver Gazette, which produces a robust and fully laid-out, 60-plus page digital daily tabloid in the style of the old Rocky Mountain News. Both Gazettes are owned by billionaire Philip Anschutz’s Clarity Media Group.
Denver also has several cutting-edge new digital newsrooms joining an impressive existing field led by an expanding Colorado Public Radio, which also has acquired and preserved the online, youth-oriented Denverite. Also the education-focused Chalkbeat Colorado and Colorado Politics, which recently joined forces with the century-old Colorado Statesman. Among those newly moving into the Denver market are Axios, which chose Denver as one of four new U.S. bureaus; and Colorado Newsline, part of a national group of local bureaus focusing on legislative news. CityCast Denver is the city’s first daily news podcast. The Longmont Leader is a new local news lab founded in partnership between McClatchy and Google.
In addition, The Colorado News Collaborative (COLab) is a nonprofit, statewide media resource hub and ideas lab that unites journalists from more than 100 newsrooms in the sprawling new Buell Center for Public Media in downtown Denver.
And then there is The Denver Post, which still leads the field in producing important daily journalism, if only with one hand tied behind its overburdened back.
“Look, The Denver Post is still doing good work,” Coffield says in the film. “It’s not like the only thing that’s left in the newsroom is a bunch of three-legged dogs.”
But perhaps the starkest indication of the insecurity in the local media market: Almost no one Malone interviewed for “News Matters” is still working for the same media outlet they were working for when he first interviewed them.
But it’s not so much that quality journalism is no longer out there for your Colorado consumption. Perhaps the most chilling assessment of the current state of the local media landscape comes from Singleton:
“For the most part, journalism is doing its job,” he says, “… and no one is paying attention.”
“News Matters” airs at 10 p.m. Tuesday, April 27; and at 7 p.m. Thursday, April 29, on Rocky Mountain PBS.
John Moore is an award-winning journalist who contributes a weekly arts column to The Denver Gazette. He is a former Denver Post Deputy Sports Editor and later was named one of the 10 most influential theatre critics by American Theatre Magazine. He is now producing independent journalism as part of his own company, Moore Media.