News on the Death March in Denver
Emperors of the Rocky Mountain Voice, Rising and Fallen
Denver would not exist without its newspaper. Not as we know it. Please allow me to explain. In 1858, gold was discovered on the Little Dry Creek tributary of the Platte River, about where there currently sits a Buffalo Wild Wings. Word spread to the thousands of old prospectors that joined the Pikes Peak Gold Rush, flooded into then western Kansas Territory beneath a “sea of white wagons,” and set a camp around present-day Denver.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t all that much gold to be panned. By the following spring 1859, most all of the speculators had picked up and left empty-handed. As many as 40,000 of them came and went by the estimate of Horace Greeley, himself a famous newspaperman of the day. In the words of historian Tom Noel, the Denver region went through an entire boom-bust cycle in the span of six months.
While the miner exodus made for major panic amidst the remaining settlers, who had staked their entire future to Denver, one area man was glad to see the so-called “go-backers” off. More than just a transient encampment town for gold bummers, William Byers had grander ambitions for his adopted home. The Queen City of the American West. To bring that vision to life, Byers did more to boost Denver than perhaps any other citizen. And he did it in the pages of his daily paper, the Rocky Mountain News.
Heath Freeman is a convenient villain for Colorado. Perched high above Midtown-Manhattan on the 34th floor of the Lipstick Building, poetically located just a few stories directly below the offices formerly occupied by Bernie Madoff, the 38-year-old hedge fund executive is pillaging our lone remaining newspaper, the Denver Post.
Freeman is president of Alden Global Capital, the majority-owner of Digital First Media, the second-largest newspaper chain in the country. Upon consolidating his controlling stake, he announced his presence by demanding detailed memorandum from editorial managers to answer for, reportedly in his words:
“What do all these people do?”
Since then at Freeman’s hand, two-thirds of the staff at DFM’s 200 newspapers have lost their jobs — some 3,000 fired. The Post, with its latest round of layoffs in April, is down from a newsroom of 250-strong to now only 70-or-so journalists (more are defecting by the day), stretched gauntly thin to cover a metro area of nearly 3 million.
Layoffs have been a sad reality in newsrooms for years. However, challenging economics cannot provide an alibi for gluttonous corporate greed. Under Freeman’s reign of terror, DFM has made employee cuts at twice the national average rate and been rewarded with unprecedented 17-point profit margins, double those of its peers. The five-step grift works by (1) buying already hurting newspapers, (2) making them considerably worse by firing everyone, but then somehow (3) charging higher subscription rates, and (4) milking the reader for every last cash flow drop, until (5) the whole thing shrivels up and dies. Then … the prestige. The fat returns they harvest are regurgitated into other even more shady deals, such as the $154 million invested into something actually called Fred’s Pharmacy, easily the most fugazi-sounding company of all time. Fucking Fred’s Pharmacy! The position has paid out so handsomely, that Freeman’s mentor and AGC founder Randall Smith has recently treated himself to $50 million-worth of Palm Beach mansions. Only in America baby.
This peculiar business of “distressed debt investing” — translated by critics to be finance-euphemism for “vulture capitalism” — is an age-old, industry-agnostic tradition. It just so happens AGC’s core asset class are companies whose employees make their living investigating and exposing profiteers of injustice and corruption. While to-date Freeman has mostly kept his head below the whirling public scrutiny, I’m certain there are thousands of reporters working hard to avenge their distressed colleagues.
Good. Whatever dirt they manage to excavate, he’s well-earned all the shit he gets and more. With that settled, I think here instead of going on about the bad guy, rather we could toast to his more worthy predecessors and contemporaries. The men and women that built and rebuilt the news business in Denver — granted some more honest and well-intentioned than others — before their legacies are entirely stripped for parts. For as bearish the outlook may seem, in troubled times such as these, may we take some morbid comfort in knowing all of this has happened before and will happen again.
Okay back to Wild Bill and the newspaper that saved Denver. Before you get all sentimental about the NEWS and all its virtue (extremely Will McAvoice), be forewarned that Byers was a big piece of shit too. Like many a powerful figure of the past (and present, I guess), he of the virulent racist variety. In the days leading up to the 1864 massacre at Sand Creek, Byers made use of his platform to stoke the flames of anti-Native American sentiment. “A few months of active extermination against the red devils will bring quiet and nothing else will,” he wrote in the Rocky. Shortly thereafter at Big Sandy Creek, where Chief Little Raven had previously welcomed the “palefaces” with open arms, a volunteer militia of white settlers slaughtered 160 Arapahoe and Cheyenne, most of them old men, women and children.
While his eager advocacy for genocide should never be overlooked, neither can he and his paper’s impact on early Denver and its emergence as a new metropolis. In true frontier-spirit, Byers hauled a second-hand printing press over frozen mud roads across the Nebraska plains from Omaha. According to longtime Post reporter Dick Kreck, he set up shop in back of Uncle Dick Wooten’s saloon in Auraria, where on some real old west shit, patrons would occasionally fire their pistols into the ceiling. Likely backed by a chorus of celebratory gunshots, in the inaugural issue dated April 23, 1859, Byers frankly stated his declaration of principles:
“We have done this because we wished to collect and send forth reliable information, because we wished to help mold and organize the new population, and because we thought it would pay.”
Byers and his paper achieved the latter objectives by playing fast and loose with the former, in becoming the town’s most vocal hype machine. Most boldly, he upsold Denver as a port city, reporting that steamships were propelling through town on the South Platte, which is of course bull shit. While no amount of journalistic hyperbole could float a riverboat down a stream hardly deep enough for a kayak, Byers’ words would indeed come to play an instrumental role in making a regional transit hub out of Denver.
When the Union Pacific railroad was mapping out stations on its transcontinental line, to the many that doubted a train could ascend the massive Rocky Mountains to the west, Byers assured that they were no more than a bit “hilly.” Unconvinced, UP executives elected to bypass the rugged terrain, laying their track 100 miles to the north through Cheyenne. Undeterred, Byers shifted course to secure a secondary railroad, connecting a lifeline to the primary route. Beyond just lobbying in print, he became the land sales manager for the newly established Denver Pacific Company, operating out of the newsroom and pushing sales through the paper. When Byers finally triumphed, so to did Denver. During the 1870s, the city’s population increased by 650 percent. All thanks in large part to the railroad, where today Heath Freeman has gleefully tied his damsel in distressed assets to the tracks.
Mere weeks shy of its 150th anniversary, on February 27, 2009, The Rocky Mountain News printed its final issue. However, its name lives on to this day, not just in the hearts of bereft readers, but in the records of the U.S. Department of Commerce as a legally-owned trademark. But who would buy the rights to a defunct newspaper, you ask?
Before we solve that riddle, let’s back it up to April 7, 2018, when our newspaper plight first popped a wheelie on the public conscious. With Post editorial editor Chuck Plunkett taking a flamethrower to Freeman and AGC in the pages of his own paper, under the banner “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved.” His rally cry ignited an ongoing I-Am-Spartacus moment for his “rotting bones” newspaper. Brethren spoke up in solidarity from besieged DFM properties in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and most close-to-home, Boulder. There, Plunkett’s counterpart at the Daily Camera, Dave Krieger, was summarily terminated for rogue-publishing his own whistle-blowing dissent against managerial oppression. Meanwhile, city and state politicians voiced their support, and national media shined a bright light, as Post employees walked out and stood up to their corporate lords. From Denver to New York, they protested, petitioned and posted:
Their conditions of surrender: invest or sell. Since AGC’s investment capital is likely tied up in some kind of third-world, well-poisoning operation, I assume what they’re realistically hoping for is a sale. Begs the question, who then would buy? According to media omniscient Ken Doctor, the 21st century has seen newspaper ownership transition from the public markets, which have since collapsed twice, to an elite stratification of obscenely wealthy individuals. Therefore unfortunately, the total addressable market of potential media moguls is niche to say the least. Basically just multi-billionaires.
Best case scenario, you get Bezos buying the Washington Post. By all accounts, the Amazon-chief is the hands-off, civic-minded sort newspaper tycoon. The kind every reporter would die to work under. If it turns out he’s covertly motivated by some mustache-twirling plot for world domination, it’s yet to reveal itself. But billionaires don’t become billionaires by neglecting their own self-interest, and by no means should be afforded the benefit of the doubt. So, at the other end of the spectrum — past Paul Huntsman in Salt Lake City, John Henry in Boston, C. Montgomery Burns in Springfield and most recently Patrick Soon-Shiong in L.A. — we arrive at Sheldon Adelson. Capping his own long and litigious feud with the press, the 82-year-old casino magnate and conservative mega-donor up-and-bought his own mouthpiece, the Las Vegas Review Journal. Not surprisingly, his influence has repeatedly loomed over editorial omissions related to his various commercial holdings, reportedly.
Since there aren’t many billionaires that don’t already own one or several newspapers, the Denver Post is for sale in a saturated market. Imagine the odds then that our fair city’s wealthiest resident has already expressed interest in buying his hometown paper. Coming in at #35 on the Forbes Richest Americans list (33 and 19 spots behind Bezos and Adelson, respectively), with a standing net worth of $12.6 billion, put your hands together for Phiiiil Anschutz. Atop his fortune amassed across oil and gas, railroads, telco, real estate, sports teams, movie theaters and more, Anschutz has in recent years diversified into local journalism. His news arm Clarity Media owns among other publications the Colorado Springs Gazette, in which millions have been invested largely to bolster the state government beat.
Political interests in mind, where does Anschutz fall on Adelson-Bezos-Continuum? His community philanthropic endeavors paint one picture. His ties to fringe right special interest groups another. In 2016, the wokest of Coachella Music Festival-goers were devastated to learn that their Instagram blood-likes were being underwritten by a financial champion of anti-LGBT, climate change denial and other dubious causes (I’m working on a hunch that Heath Freeman funneled Denver Post salary-cuts to secretly finance the Fyre Festival … plz reach out with any tips therein, thx). Regarding whether those beliefs would at all shape his newspapers’ editorial bent, the Colorado Springs Gazette is a known conservative-leaning outlet, where observers have claimed that coverage of the Colorado GOP gubernatorial primary race has conspicuously favored candidate Walker Stapleton, to who’s campaign Anschutz has contributed.
Though his editor at the Springs Gazette says he would buy the Denver Post tomorrow, and has purportedly been rebuffed on previous bids, the truth is nobody has much of an idea what Phil Anschutz wants with the newspaper business. Obviously not more money. Here is the entirety of his public comment on the matter:
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For real though, my man hasn’t given a media quote since 1974. No one has the slightest idea what he’s thinking about anything. With Anschutz, all we have are the receipts. And if you follow the money back to 2014, you’ll find that it was him after all who bought that dormant trademark. If he can’t buy the Post, assuming he would even still want it, suppose in his name the Rocky Mountain News will rise again.
Bonfils & Tammen
On December 26, 1907, somewhere on the 1300 block of Logan Street right here in Denver, the gentleman owner and editor of the Rocky Mountain News was brutally beaten. Evidently gassed up on Christmas spirit, the perpetrator had taken exception to his perceived character assassination in a Rocky editorial two days prior. The much younger man tracked down his elderly victim, who by the way was also a retired U.S. Senator, and mollywhopped him to the back of the head. Thus began in earnest “the last great newspaper war of the 20th century.”
The assailant, Frederick Bonfils, along with his partner Harry Tammen, was the co-owner of the Denver Post. Per the account of legendary Post reporter Gene Fowler, at Bonfils’ subsequent trial, the plaintiff Thomas Patterson, who obtained full ownership of the Rocky in 1904, testified that the defendant and his Denver Post were guilty of a far more heinous crime indeed — an assault on journalism! Alas at sentencing, Bonfils got off with a $50-fine and a stern lecture from the judge, who implored him to “publish matters more beneficial to the community and interesting to the readers.”
His honor’s plea fell on dgaf ears. With prior relevant experience as a “frugal grifter” and “genial confidence man” respectively (the Denver Post’s words, not mine), Bonfils and Tammen didn’t know much about owning a newspaper. But boy did they know their readers. You see, sometimes there are men for there time and place. And that was Bonfils and Tammen in the Mile High City.
“Denver has more sunshine and sons of bitches than anyplace in the country,” said one of the many crooked local businessmen of the period, as Fowler recalled. Now you can understand how a duo the likes of Bonfils and Tammen fit right in. Buying the then-failing Evening Post for $12,500 in 1895, immediately they got to speaking their version of truth directly to those sons of bitches, a market segment that the highfalutin Rocky had underserved to its peril. “Write the news for all of the people,” Bonfils demanded of his reporters. “Not just the rich and important or those that think they are.”
Not settling to speak down at the common man, the Post became fluent in his language. “You’ve seen a vaudeville show, haven’t you?” Tammen asked the newsroom rhetorically. “It’s got every sort of act — laughs, tears, wonder, thrills, melodrama, tragedy, comedy, love and hate. That’s what I want you to give our readers.” Lo the Denver Post delivered. Operating squarely in the populist tradition of Pulitzer and Hearst, Bonfils and Tammen took all the effects of yellow journalism and turned them up to eleven. Bombastic headlines in big bold font and garish red ink. Salacious local scandals taking obvious editorial precedence over tedious global conflict. To the many haters like that crotchety old judge, who were sick that the Post was depriving its readers of HARD NEWS, Bonfils replied:
“A dogfight on 16th Street is a better story than a war in Timbuktu.”
“Yes we’re yellow,” Bonfils allowed. “But we’re also red and true-blue.” To his credit, in addition to the heavy pandering, the Post did its fair share of crusading against injustice and punching across at the corrupt halls of power. However by strange coincidence these exposes would often align nicely with the owners’ personal business interests, targeting their ever-lengthening shit-list of rivals and enemies. In fact, the Rocky editorial that earned Senator Patterson his public smackdown had accused the Post of blackmail, a common practice the paper applied to coerce reluctant advertisers. In their most notorious pay-for-play offense, Bonfils and Tammen joined members of the Warren Harding Administration in accepting substantial kickbacks from oil magnate Harry Sinclair, in what would come to be known as the Teapot Dome Scandal.
No matter the legal or physical risk embroiling them at any given moment, ethical ambiguity never stood in the way of making money hand over fist. And if the sexy headlines couldn’t sell themselves, Bonfils and Tammen always had some harebrained promotion up their sleeve. From little stunts: The Post at one point offered gasoline giveaways, and held quirky contests to crown the city’s biggest trout, cutest baby and best-shaped foot (weird!). To big attractions: Tammen was fond of elephants, and managed to convince Bonfils to buy a dang circus. So yeah, the Post for a time had pachyderm paper boys. Whether by a factor of flagrant sensationalism, or the relentless guerilla marketing, these two swashbuckling hucksters somehow took a dying newspaper and sextupled its circulation to 27,136 readers, about one in five Denver residents. By 1929, the Post was taking home $1.8 million a year.
Our last true newspaper baron. Texas-born, a throwback to Bonfils and Tammen with a cowboy hat and the swagger match, Dean Singleton rode into Colorado and won the newspaper war for the Denver Post. Although I doubt neither he nor his comrades in arms would phrase it that way. Losing the Rocky made for bitter victory. Either way, when the Alden Army of the Dead came flying in on their ice/fire-breathing zombie dragon, it was all for naught.
Like Heath Freeman, Dean Singleton was a hatchet-man. He had a feared reputation for downsizing, and was widely besmirched among reporters who called mean names like “Lean Dean” and “dickhead.” Yes if Bonfils and Tammen were the starry-eyed ringmasters, Singleton was the circus accountant. I’m sorry Bozo but we just cannot afford the flammable-model juggling pins and that’s that. His credo was calculating and clear to anyone who set foot in his office. There on the wall a sign read:
“Remember, cash in must exceed cash out.”
The difference between him and Freeman, which to clarify is a canyon-wide gap, was that Singleton loved the news. He started working at his local daily when he was 15 years old. By the time he turned 24, he figured shoot if he could write for one he could own one, a supremely Texan line of thinking. But like hell if he didn’t follow through. And while his tenure suffered painful cutbacks and endless strife, the Post always reemerged stronger. Of course until it didn’t.
Through their budding conglomerate MediaNews Group, Singleton and his founding partner Richard Scudder bought the then-failing Post at a bargain $95 million in 1987. Seven years’ prior, the Post had sold for the exact same price tag to the Times Mirror Company through the estate of the dearly departed Miss Helen Bonfils, Frederick’s favorite daughter. Despite its deep pockets and esteemed pedigree — TMC owned the LA Times — the Post’s new national parent never quite took to its adopted local market, and its valiant attempts at reinvestment fell woefully short. “I believe firmly that had Dean not come along, they would have probably shut the Denver Post down,” Hal Mortenson, the paper’s longtime transportation and packaging director told Denver Post 125, a well-worth-watching short commemorative documentary. “Because it wasn’t making money.”
Singleton saw to fixing that. In just his first year, the Post went from a $15 million loss to a $28,000 profit. Then $3.5 million the next fiscal year, and $5 million the year after that. In 1997 at peak profitability it netted $44 million. A true masterpiece in turnaround artistry, achieved not only through streamlining operational efficiencies, but also by rediscovering what made the Post an institution in the first place — Denver, duh — mandating a renewed emphasis on local reporting and community engagement.
Still the success couldn’t shield them from destructive forces beyond their control. From 2000-on, Singleton and the Post bravely fought back their industry’s steady decline, enduring brutal price warfare with the Rocky, two global recessions and the dying-star-collapse of their revenue model. All in spite of which they won five Pulitzers. Eventually, in a last-ditch effort to save the paper one final time, Singleton threw up a desperation heave that AGC effectively intercepted. From there the sack of the Post commenced.
Foster & Hoyt
It’s hard to fathom now, but in the salad days Denver was a five-newspaper town. Under Bonfils and Tammen, the Denver Post’s market share expanded to exceed all four competitors combined. Ultimately their ascent drove the bottom three out of business, leaving only two. By the early 1940s, after barely surviving the Great Depression, the once mighty Rocky Mountain News seemed on its last gasp. Then salvation arrived in the form of a new editor and chief executive officer.
A veteran of the New York World-Telegram, Jack Foster was transferred back west to helm the failing Rocky by the suits at Scripps-Howard, both papers’ parent company. Into Denver’s founding paper of record, Foster breathed new life, stressing a levity that the deadly serious Rocky had until then lacked. Err toward the breezy talk of the town over the gale-force winds of geopolitics, he instructed. To that end, give readers some respite from the bleak reality of WWII, emphasizing a mix of:
“Pleasant, humorous or relaxed features.”
The new paradigm manifested most prominently in one new addition and another big change. First, Foster’s wife Frances, a former fashion editor and his colleague at the World-Telegram, started the first-ever advice column. Before Abby, Ann Landers or Prudence, inquirers bared the depths of their souls to “Mrs. Molly Mayfield,” Frankie Foster’s pen name. Her sassy witticisms were a smash success with readers male and female, not to mention a natural fit with her husband’s second big gamble.
In 1942, to the chagrin of his boss Roy Howard, Foster changed the Rocky from a broadsheet to a tabloid, magazine-style layout. His bold move was later widely credited with reviving the paper. Ironically, a half-century and change on, the smaller pages would serve to handicap already anemic advertising sales, playing a non-zero part in the paper’s untimely demise.
Meanwhile, as Foster lightened up the stuffy Rocky Mountain News, the once wild and crazy Denver Post came the opposite direction entirely. Tammen died in 1924, and Bonfils followed in 1933. In the wake of their pirate captains’ passing, the newsroom was set aimlessly adrift. The old ways of inflammatory exaggeration, barefaced corruption and other shenanigans, well they just weren’t as cheeky or fun any longer. The Post had lost its soul. Then suddenly … record scratch. Swinging through the saloon doors, basked in rays of light, entered Edwin Palmer Hoyt, aka Ep. Put down that hush money, leave that circus animal be, wipe that blood off the wall, fix that record player. Party’s over at the Post.
Hired away from the Portland Oregonian in 1946 (by who else but the lovely Miss Helen), Hoyt brought to the Post an unfamiliar credibility. He and his new guard of editors and reporters subscribed to a perpendicular trend in postwar journalism, toward professionalism and away from sensationalism. His first order of business: rid the reporting of its bias, which we know was often bought-and-paid-for, and establish a distinct editorial page with strict separation of certainty and slant. For every column-inch outside the new opinion section, Hoyt’s edict was simple:
“Write the news. Write it exactly the way it happened. Print the news as fairly as you can.”
Guided in that spirit, the Post made a remarkable turnaround from a lowly smut rag to one of the highest regarded newspapers in the country. Speaking with equal fervor against red-baiting McCarthyism and the communist threat, per the great Dick Kreck. Hoyt established a strong centrist voice to weigh in upon all issues. Ranging from the civil rights movement, American intervention in Southeast Asia and Watergate, during his 25-year tenure. To same-sex marriage equality, American intervention in the Middle East and pick-your-political scandal, in the decades that followed.
Going on five weeks now, the vaunted Editorial Board of the Denver Post has been silent. The moment enough time had passed for the PR heat to cool off DFM, just shy of a month after his act of defiance, Chuck Plunkett resigned under duress. Two top editors walked away in response on their own accord. Dean Singleton, who Plunkett revered as a personal mentor, would have been the lone remaining editorial board member, but he resigned his seat, as well as his emeritus position as chairman of the newspaper. He didn’t want to get stuck writing editorials, he joked to the Westword before striking a more somber note. “They’ve killed a great newspaper.”
Tech has a complicated relationship with journalism. For one thing, the former totally neutralized the latter’s way to make money, which I promise we’ll get to. For another, while tech has taken the mantle of Big Industry in America, which understandably comes with an elevated level of public interest, Silicon Valley plutocrats don’t feel they should be subjected to media scrutiny. Don’t you see, because *we* are making the world a better place, or some shit. A couple years back, we saw that tension play out to an ugly end between Gawker and Peter Thiel (bizarrely tag-teamed with Hulk Hogan). Today we’re treated to the same gripes echoed by his former co-founder Elon Musk.
Wait just a second though, because I think there’s something Big Tech might resent even more about the News than unbiased coverage. To would-be tech disruptors, one of the few categories that’s thus far evaded their genius reimagining is journalism. Specifically, local. Try as techies might, their old bag of growth hacking tricks just don’t hunt when it comes to regional daily reporting. Believe me it’s a real thorn in their side. For the essence of local journalism, I’m talking boot-leather to the ground type stuff, can’t be written into an algorithm and scaled up on a global network effect. As a profession, it remains disrupt-proof.
However, steadfast in its repeated defeats, tech has yet to wave a white flag to journalism. As fate would have it, one of the latest and greatest attempts to hack local news is unfolding right here in our backyard. Denverite was launched by Kevin Ryan, founder of Business Insider, and a pair of his co-investors.Lacking a traditional business plan, the site was pitched as a hyperlocal news outlet that would develop a passionate viral audience, paving the way for like-minded sites in other major cities, which could all be someway monetized at a TBD date. After a year or so of grinding away at that, Ryan and his partners have moved on to their next disruptions, presumably saving the world all over again. Left behind to do the dirty work of finishing what they started is Jim Brady.
Brady has a career in digital media spanning the better part of 30 years. Something of a grim rite of passage for Denver-adjacent news people, he too was once a casualty of Heath Freeman, as the former EIC of DFM before the AGC stock coup. In the four years since, through his startup Spirited Media, he’s gone on to launch two local news sites in Pennsylvania, Billy Penn of Philly and The Incline of Pittsburgh. Sensing a kindred spirit in Denverite, Brady executed a merger to bring the site under his Spirited Media umbrella in spring 2017, solidifying the “presumptive leader in the space.” With a perhaps more measured growth projection than Denverite’s original founding team, Brady has taken the old digital media business model and tossed it out on its head.
To understand why, it’s helpful to unpack what Dean Singleton means when he laments that the “model changed on us.” Ahem … now presenting A News Publications’ History of Digital Advertising. Pre-dating Byers, to supplement circulation newspapers have been subsidized in largest part by two revenue products: (1) personal classifieds, but mainly (2) advertising. Like the many private sellers who’ve migrated online to list their jet skis, samurai swords and other items, businesses have increasingly shifted their ad spend from print to digital. However, when they want to reach eyeballs in a specific geographical area, they don’t buy digital ads from that city’s newspaper. At least not at the rate they used to by them in print. More often than not, they buy web ads from Facebook or Google, where they can target not only by location but also by age, demographics, preferences, fears, etc. No doubt it’s a tough racket to compete with. In 2016, Google and Facebook combined to gobble up 89 percent of all US digital ad growth. And here’s the real kicker — when Google and Facebook sell advertising off the unlimited free content newspapers and other media outlets supply to their platforms, the content’s publishers receive no compensation from the transaction whatsoever. Unfair!
Rather than scavenge off the scraps left behind by the duopoly powers of Google and Facebook, Jim Brady wisely has said to hell with it altogether. Denverite and its sister sites will no longer chase the direct-sold display ad dollar dragon. Now there will still be ads, but they’ll be sold programmatically or through third-party exchanges. Bottom line, advertising can no longer be the primary revenue driver for a sustainable media operation in the year of our lord 2018. In its place, Brady has re-oriented Spirited 2.0 around two community-based growth initiatives: (1) membership and (2) events.
Denverite chartered its membership program this past February 2018. Be clear this is not a paywall. Freeloaders (it me) can still read the articles. Members however are granted VIP status with exclusive access to premium content. Denverite with Benefits. Depending on your contribution tranche, you may receive monthly member reports, sneak previews of upcoming features, an afternoon edition of the flagship newsletter and other perks. Also, while it’s more involved than a public radio pledge drive, Denverite is sure to play up the fuzzy feeling that comes with being a contributing member of a community. Tote bag not included with purchase.
What better way then to foster sense of community than gathering its members at events (nonmembers are also welcome). As part of their founding DNA, Denverite has sought to engage its readers offline. Notably in 2016, they hosted watch parties for the Super Bowl and election night. Hard-pressed to recreate those emotional highs and lows, Spirited properties activated 40 events across its three city properties in 2017. Obviously sponsorship contracts and ticket sales fixture into revenue planning, but on a deeper plane events provide a forum for Denverite staffers and readers to interact with one another. Casually chat about issues Denverite has reported in the past or could look into going forward.
Which gets us to the crux of what Denverite and Spirited are really about. Community. You could say in the mold of Jack Foster, trying to reinsert a feeling of closeness back into local journalism. Not just through increased engagement via membership and events, but in the substance of the reporting itself, and its more conversational tone. Forgoing the lowest common denominator clickbait to instead spark informed conversation about the pressing topics of the day. For Denverite, often housing and homelessness. And communicating those issues in a voice that’s “of the web” and accessible to young readers. Bucking the best practice in digital publishing to cynically optimize content for maximum reach, perpetuated by the like of Business Insider and its ilk (Buzzfeed, HuffPo, etc.). Pursuing a bond with readers that penetrates further than impression-deep, building an audience that is hopefully more sustainable for the long term. To Brady, in his mind:
“We want to monetize loyalty, not page views.”
Like anything worth doing, it hasn’t been easy. Last November, less than a year after the merger, Spirited media laid off personnel across its properties, including three of the 12 staffers at Denverite. “I could give you some corporate-speak about ‘We’re getting smaller but smarter, we’re going to do more with less,’” Brady told Columbia Journalism Review. “I could say some of that crap, but it’s just not true. … It was a shitty week.” Burdening that loss, with new funding and a longer runway to work with, Denverite carries on with steely-eyed resolve toward the objective-at-hand. One they are adamant is not a solo mission. Time and again they empower upon readers that they too are owners of this experiment, with call-to-actions at every available touchpoint. Suggesting membership. Encouraging referrals to friends and family. Sometimes simply saying “thanks for reading.”
Am I reaching to say the old Denver Post building looks like the Roman Colosseum? Don’t care we’re doing it. I mean you can’t deny it’s got that same parabolic curve to the outside, at least in 2-D. Based on what I can remember from high school history and a cursory reading of a couple Wikipedia entries, the Colosseum was built by the emperor Vespasian to consolidate his power by way of appeasing the Roman people. They the plebeians were widely disillusioned with the previous Caesar, Nero, whose corrupt extravagance had incited a violent rebellion. After Nero killed himself, likely to avoid capture, trial and certain execution, the Colosseum was symbolically erected in the foreground of his palatial complex, the Domus Aurea.
Admittedly the metaphor falls apart when you get into the nitty-gritty of the gruesome spectacle that took place within the amphitheater’s façade. Although Acta Diurna, the Roman daily gazette and humanity’s first newspaper, did include a blood-sports section with the previous day’s gladiator scores, statistics and hot takes. Is Maximus Elite? MY COLUMN. Still, even Bonfils and Tammen for all their muster couldn’t have pulled off bread and circus. The point stands though that regardless of Emperor Vespa’s intentions, the Colosseum stood there for the Roman people, towering above the ashen relic of their fallen tyrant.
On 101 W Colfax, still representing the Post though in name only, the Denver Newspaper Agency building watches out over Civic Center, City Hall and the golden dome of the State Capitol. It was built in 2006 to accommodate both Denver newspapers after they had reached a joint operating agreement to conserve resources. About a decade later, the Post has followed the Rocky out the door, moving the newsroom to its printing facility in Adams County, a good five miles out of the city. Back at their former downtown office, all that remains of the paper are the corporate headquarters of Digital First Media. Twisting the irony knife deeper still, the space left vacant by the Post and Rocky news desks is set to be leased by municipal government officials.
Newspapers had a cultural moment with the election of President Deals. Galvanized around accusations of “Fake News” as an affront to the First Amendment, hashtag resistance types were eager to circle the wagons around their Fourth Estate, tweeting out screen caps of subscription receipts in stoic opposition. Institutions like the New York Times and the Washington Post eagerly received their reinforcements, revving them up with life-or-death refrains, such as “The Truth is Hard” and lest we forget “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” Then somewhere along the line (possibly cresting with their roasting at the WHCD), the pendulum of popular opinion swung back the other way, if ever so slightly. A mounting backlash called into question the professional ethics and societal value of “access journalism,” enveloping into controversy the rising media stars it rocketed into celebrity orbit.
Look, this is tricky, so I want to be perfectly clear. If you’re an immigrant, and the nu-American Gestapo is knocking down your door, foaming at the teeth to round you and your infant children into paddy wagons. For you and many other marginalized citizens whose civil liberties are perpetually threatened by the incompetent belligerency of the Trump Administration, the GOP and our political process writ-large, then this shit is “real as mud.” With that important caveat, for many Americans, the petty West Wing infighting and palace intrigue plastering the front pages of our national newspapers holds little-to-no bearing on their everyday wellbeing. It’s highbrow reality TV. Bookish pro wrestling. Pick your guilty pleasure.
Day-to-day, the decisions that will most directly impact and potentially disrupt the lives of local Denver citizens, are made in the buildings surrounding Civic Center Park — City Hall, the State Capitol and not to mention the exponentially reproducing commercial sky rises. The small-time public hearings and back-room deals that don’t get play in the New York Times or the Washington Post. Less than 2 percent of digital readers are willing to pay for news, which is workable if you’re one of these legacy papers, netting 2 percent of a national, or even increasingly global market. But the same ends don’t seem to meet for local publications; 2 percent of Denver or Portland or Charlotte won’t offset the costs to operate a functional local newsroom. To look out for the people in those cities. To hold the downtown people in the tall buildings accountable. To uproot the evil in the banal. Newspaper-turned-TV writer, David Simon:
“There’s no glory in that kind of journalism, but that is the bedrock. The next 10 or 15 years in this country are going to be a halcyon era for state and local political corruption. It’s going to be one of the great times to be a corrupt politician. I really envy them, I really do.”
What then is there to do? The answer you hear repeatedly is “support local journalism.” As a concerned citizen consumer, this is unquestionably a good thing to do. As a for-profit business, it’s not exactly a home run sales pitch. With the Post currently at the mercy of the Dickensian motherfuckers at Alden Global Capital, there’s even a debate as to whether boycotting would be the civically moral thing to do. Rather than financially condone its abusive ownership, unsubscribe en masse. This was an especially heated point of contention at a recent panel discussion on how to “save the Denver Post,” organized by Corey Hutchins of the Colorado Independent. Dave Krieger, the since-self-sacrificed opinion editor at the Daily Camera, offered sympathetically that the Post is fatally wounded, and that the humane course of action would be to let nature run its course. “With all due respect, I find it personally insulting the ideas that Dave Krieger puts forward,” retorted Pete Wenzel, a Post reporter who published his own SOS signal in The Atlantic. “I’m here to tell you: killing us, killing the people who work at The Denver Post … that’s not going to solve this problem.”
Of course, there is the possibility that some billionaire will swoop in at the eleventh hour and write a check to rescue us from our present dilemma. Although most who would know, including former DFM chairman Dean Singleton, believe a sale is unlikely. Because messed up as it is, killing the Denver Post is a great business for Heath Freeman. The paper contributes $28 million in annualized earnings to AGC, accounting for greater than 30 percent of its corporate overhead. Sure as shit more than Fred’s Pharmacy. So assuming that Freeman would finally acquiesce to sell, the buyer would take a bath on the price.
If this what it takes, Phil Anschutz or some other preposterously affluent suitor overpaying the tycoon toll, then what price if any will we the reader bear? In a time where the concentration of wealth and power among few has never been denser, adding our local daily to the roll call of newspapers owned by a singularly rich individual. The lone institutional voice responsible for holding the forces of wealth and power to account, owned by one of those forces’ most prosperous beneficiaries. Obviously not ideal, but honestly I think it beats the alternative. Still, it shouldn’t be too much to hope for a financially viable and independent local news business. One that isn’t beholden to a billionaire benefactor, charitable grants or for-its-sake-god-forbid government funding. Maybe that business already exists. For his part, Denverite editor Dave Burdick, who would undoubtedly stand to gain from a post-newspaper near future, called the motion to unsubscribe intellectually dishonest and a “load of shit.”
Props to Dave. Like him, I sincerely hope this is not the end of the daily in Denver. But, if death comes for the Post and this was a eulogy, I’d say that at their worst our newspapers blatantly promoted their owners’ self-interests, and hawked strongly on behalf of violent imperialism at home and abroad. At their best, they sold a young Denver to a world outside that wasn’t otherwise buying, and stuck around to dutifully report our many triumphs and tragedies to come. They were the imperfectly human voice of a city. The city ceased to listen.
Thanks for reading