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Opinion Columns

Plunkett: A new Sun is born, and brighter days are ahead

In the last week of August, on the Boulder campus of the University of Colorado, about two dozen upperclassmen and graduate students gathered to begin a program meant to help launch their careers in newsrooms.

As the new director of that program, I was one of the instructors waiting to meet them.

Chuck Plunkett, former editorial page editor for The Denver Post, will join the College of Media, Communication and Information at CU Boulder as Director of CU News Corps, which is an investigative and explanatory news project. He is photographed on the CU Boulder campus. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

Oh what rich irony! While my credentials for the job include more than 22 years working in professional newsrooms, with experience in breaking news, investigative reporting, politics coverage and running the editorial pages, what most people these days know me for is standing with media experts who warn newsrooms here and across the country are being systematically destroyed. (And in doing so leaving a dream job at The Denver Post.)

Couldn’t my very presence before the young journalists be seen as quite the argument against their chosen field? Why should they be interested in a career in newsrooms? Why should anyone during these difficult times?

After all, this was a brutal summer for our noble profession in Colorado and nationally. The Denver Post, the once great Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire, completed its most recent round of draconian cuts. As it carved its way down to 70 positions in a newsroom that held nearly 150 when it won a Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Aurora theater shooting, several of its editors — myself among them — pulled up stakes and left. Almost all of its politics reporters did also.

A crazed gunman shot up a local newsroom in Maryland, killing five.

The president of the United States only escalated his attacks against journalists as “enemies of the people.”

The New York Daily News cut its newsroom in half, prompting outgoing editor-in-chief Jim Rich to tweet: “If you hate democracy and think local governments should go unchecked and in the dark, then this is a good day for you.”

As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio put it, the paper’s owner, Tronc Inc., should “sell the paper to someone committed to local journalism and keeping reporters on the beat.”

The comments, of course, echo the warnings in our special Perspective section decrying the cuts that the vulture capitalists at Alden Global Capital have been making at their many Colorado papers and in newsrooms from coast to coast.

All summer I mourned The Denver Post. For while its hardworking staff scrambled to recover from the exodus of so many experienced journalists, and while it has succeeded in refilling many of those vacancies and continues to punch above its weight (Go Team!), Alden still runs the place, and there’s just no getting around that — whatever they say. (There is an important distinction to make here. I resigned in protest after I and others took issue with Alden’s silencing of negative stories and opinion about the hedge fund. Fair enough. But it’s also fair to note that Alden never attempted during my time there to silence or influence stories or opinion about news and people in Colorado unrelated to Alden. They could not have cared less about what happened here.)

So what in the world were those two-dozen students thinking? Why would they want to get into journalism?

And why would I want to egg them on?

It’s been a happy epiphany. Never in all my time in the profession have I believed in the mission as strongly, and I’m happy to say I’ve become more optimistic about the industry’s chances despite all the doom and gloom I’ve witnessed firsthand.

For starters, ours is the kind of work that becomes more obviously needed the worse the situation becomes on the ground.

Consider the raft of ballot measures alone that face voters at the local and state levels this season. So many of them would be hugely transformative, and likely carry enormous unintended consequences. How best to make sense of issues like campaign finance or oil and gas setbacks in the poisoned atmosphere our public square has become?

Solid reporting, clearly articulated, is the best antidote I know of. Helping the next generation of journalists provide it can’t help but be exciting.

Another reason for optimism has been the level of interest the community has shown since Alden’s greedy plot was outed for the world to see. This past week we witnessed in these pages the official launch of The Colorado Sun.

Welcome Colorado Sun!

What a joy it is to see this newcomer to the media marketplace. (And yes. Disclaimer. They are my friends.)

While I have key concerns about the startup and those like it, the overwhelming fact of its existence and the excitement it has generated here and nationally cannot be ignored.

The Sun’s experiment underscores a relatively new and much-needed argument in our industry. Here are journalists who understand they must take control and think in more entrepreneurial ways. The next generation of journalists sees this, and is taking note. In my experience working in newsrooms, I know that it’s the best of signs when journalists begin to define the problem they face, for once they do so, look out!

And then there has been the community support. Even before The Sun offered its first stories to readers, its Kickstarter campaign raised more than $160,000.

While that’s obviously not nearly enough money to keep the lights on over the long haul, that level of initial commitment suggests The Sun should be in good stead as it moves into this more critical phase, where we’ll discover just how many will be willing to make continuing contributions in the form of subscriptions and donations.

From what I’ve seen already, The Sun will be good for the money.

Yes, the future’s unclear. It always is. About the only thing we can say for certain is that things will change and we will be forced to adapt.

But Colorado gets it now, what journalists are going through. And journalists are problem solvers. As plenty of wise people have said, it’s not journalism that’s broken, it’s the funding.

Now that new models are blossoming outside the noxious influence of the likes of Alden, perhaps brighter days are ahead.

Chuck Plunkett, former Denver Post editorial page editor, directs the CU News Corps program within the journalism department at the University of Colorado Boulder. @chuckplunkett