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

The landmark Denver Post building stands out and stands proudly, one of its home city's defining civic structures downtown, along with the seats of city and state government nearby.

In the building's lobby, words spell out the mission of the paper and its corporate parent, Digital First Media. Words such as: Report. Record. Investigate. Illuminate. Journalism.

While Digital First Media still operates on upper floors, none of those things happen in the Denver Post building. The Post has left. And that's no longer exceptional. The Baltimore Sun, owned by the Tronc company, this week became just the latest newspaper moving out of its historic building downtown to work in far cheaper digs.

What journalists find galling in Colorado: a round of layoffs last fall was accompanied by the announcement of the newsroom's move to the paper's printing plant in the suburbs. Management officials said the moves would stave off future layoffs. That was in November. Then, in March, Digital First laid off a third of The Denver Post's staff.

Colorado's largest news organization is shrinking — and shrinking fast.

Development in downtown Denver is booming. Colorado is home to major corporate interests, natural resources and federal lands. Yet The Denver Post now has just 60-some journalists to cover a battleground political state with shifting demographics and a fast-growing metro region nearing 3 million people.

"Those are a lot of stories that aren't getting covered," says Larry Ryckman, a former senior news editor at the Post. "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. "

Denver's loss echoes in communities across the country, not least because the controlling owner of the Post (and Digital First Media), a private equity firm called Alden Global Capital, controls nearly 100 print and online publications. Alden Global has ordered up one round of cuts after another in recent years for papers throughout the country. Cuts have also been severe at the Tronc newspaper company, which recently slashed the New York Daily News newsroom in half in a single day.

In Denver, the newsroom now stands at less than a third of what it was at its peak about six years ago, according to former editors and reporters there.

The trends in the business are grim, as digital revenues do not compensate for deep losses in print income for local newspapers. Yet The Denver Post has been profitable, according to industry analysts. The headline on one such analysis by Ken Doctor of Newsonomics: "Alden Global Capital Is Making So Much Money Wrecking Journalism It Might Not Want To Stop Anytime Soon."

"In the seven-county area in the metro [region], I cover pretty much everything outside of Denver," says John Aguilar, a reporter for the Post. "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 try 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."

Rays of hope periodically emerge. The investigative nonprofit news site ProPublica announced Wednesday it would fund reporting at seven local papers to expand coverage of state governments.

But on the same day a study released by Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy found fresh evidence of "news deserts" — areas where news coverage of important local matters was limited or absent. It found that smaller communities in the shadow of big metro dailies and TV news stations often enjoyed little coverage. And it found a diminishing amount of original local coverage in those news organizations that do survive.

Dana Coffield was a senior editor at the Post. She says she quit voluntarily earlier this year after wondering how she could take on more responsibilities.

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

Among the other voluntary departures this year: the publisher, the investigations editor, the photography director, and Larry Ryckman himself.

Ryckman says he quit earlier this year after writing a story covering the departure of the paper's former editorial page editor. That editor, Chuck Plunkett, resigned in the wake of an editorial in which he called for Alden Global Capital to sell the paper. The words "Alden Global Capital" did not appear in Ryckman's article (although they did surface in a searchable "tag" at the bottom of the article's Web page). Ryckman says the paper's editor, Lee Ann Colacioppo, forbade him from including Alden's name in the article.

"I've never ever had somebody tell me not to include a fact in a story," says Ryckman, a former national editor and Moscow correspondent for The Associated Press. "I had more freedom as a reporter in Russia than I did as an editor under Alden Global Capital."

Neither Alden Global's president, Heath Freeman, nor one of its top newspaper executives responded to NPR's requests for comment.

Colacioppo, the Post editor-in-chief, said Ryckman's allegations about the Plunkett story and his departure were personnel matters that she could not discuss. She deflected NPR's requests to comment more broadly on the aspirations and fortunes of the Post: "I'm pretty busy these days without much administrative help."

On a recent trip to Denver, I encounter the city's mayor blinking in a blazing sun at an event celebrating United Airlines' $1 million gift for a local community center serving single-parent families. The temperature would rise to 100 degrees that day.

Mayor Michael Hancock tells me he's a fan — by and large — of the news, and of the Post in particular. When he was growing up, Hancock says, he would read both the Post and the livelier Rocky Mountain News. The News went out of business in 2009.

"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," Hancock says.

The Post devoted a lot of coverage and big headlines this year to unflattering incidents involving the mayor and his adult son. Yet Hancock says he was proud to appear at a local event in support of saving the paper.

"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 a free, uncensored media in our nation," Hancock says.

A TV news crew was on hand to cover United's contribution. An oversize check for $1 million is irresistible for TV. Not a huge story, but a real one. The Post covered the story with statements from a press release. It's doing that more often than it used to.

Around the corner from the old Denver Post building, in the Petroleum Building, you can find the Colorado Sun, a digital news startup with a staff of 10 — most of whom are Denver Post alums. They include Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman, who serves as its editor-in-chief.

The group's website, ColoradoSun.com, embarked on a Kickstarter campaign and is expected to launch soon. Ryckman says it aims to build loyalty and promises it will be advertising-free. Instead, the Colorado Sun will build on donations large and small as well as foundation grants.

"What we're trying to do is to demonstrate to Colorado that these are the stories that you want to read, [that] these are the stories that you need to read," Ryckman says.

There's no guarantee of success. But he says staying at the Post would have been a losing proposition, as the paper has been hobbled in seeking to fulfill its mission.

Ryckman says the Post's journalists are having to labor awfully hard to do good work — in spite of their bosses, rather than because of them.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.