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Plunkett: Don’t sit back and let the Aldens of the world commit great evil

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Editor’s note: Chuck Plunkett, former editorial page editor of The Denver Post who now teaches at the University of Colorado, delivered this speech Saturday at the Graduate Teacher Program. Plunkett left The Post in May, a month after leading an editorial-page rebellion calling for the newspaper’s owners to sell, an action he describes as the “News matters” Perspective section. The speech has been edited for length.

When I was in graduate school, one of the big concepts that thrilled those of us in the Creative Writing courses, especially the workshops, was that good fiction, while not true in the literal sense, was a higher form of truth-telling. In fact, we thought of it as the highest form of truth-telling. That while the work came from the imagination, and while it could even feature completely unrealistic characters, settings or plots, the stories connected in a way that few other forms of communication can.

Chuck Plunkett, former Denver Post editorial page editor is Director of CU News Corps, which is an investigative and explanatory news project. (Glenn Asakawa, University of Colorado)

We thrilled to the idea of adhering to the demands of “the fictive dream,” the notion espoused by John Gardner and others that the goal is to write so precisely, to craft the work so seamlessly, to so draw the reader in, she feels as if she’s literally experiencing the action, the emotions, the human drama. We practically worshipped the idea that society depended upon such writing to make sense of its darkest secrets and mysteries.

Woe to anyone who appeared to be cutting corners or dialing it in with a boilerplate page-turner. How we hated the very idea of being considered a sellout. Anything that might cheapen the mission was like sinning.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

Also, back in those graduate school days, all of us knew the chances of making it as fiction writers, paying the bills as serious artists, were bleak.

I make these observations for a couple of reasons about what it is they say about life in America in 2019.  

Discoverable, knowable facts

Obviously, in these days of constant, withering criticism of journalists as purveyors of fake news, in this altered reality we now live in where an American president and his many followers manipulate a concept of alternative facts to back essential claims, in these days of flat-earthers, climate-change deniers, people tossing around concepts like “my truth,” talk about truth-telling as anything other than based in evidence and verifiable fact is tricky. But making such distinctions is what we as educators should understand as part of our central mission.

Given that I’m a journalist, I stand by the idea there are discoverable, knowable facts. That there is such a thing as truth. That fake news is the work of operatives intentionally throwing sand in the gears of our public discourse to achieve self-serving agendas. That any public figure who calls a legitimate, verifiable news story fake is sinning far more than those corner-cutting sellout writers I mentioned earlier.

Sure, as a human being, I get it that our arts and ideas, flights of fancy though they may be, do convey great truths about the human experience. And I understand that trying to define truth is a sticky wicket, and that those thinkers in the academy who grapple with the conundrum do us a great service.

But it is mightily important we make clear distinctions when we talk about truth-telling. It is important we labor at getting the caveats right. We must make sure as educators that we’re setting the bar for better than what we’re getting. We need to be especially transparent these days.

About the other observation. How we knew as students the chances of making a living at writing were minuscule. It’s a point I make now about students of journalism. These days, they know the chances of making a successful living at their passion are more fraught. They think of the work as a calling.

Society should know that about them. Especially with local reporters. Theirs is not the high-definition glitz of big media personalities. Theirs is something altogether different, and we should stress that in our conversations and understand what it means. Local journalists do important work vital to our communities. They endure all kinds of deprivations to tell our stories, and very few of them ever achieve anything close to what we think of as fame.

Were the local news ecosystem healthier right now, the attacks against journalists at all levels would be more difficult to launch. For now that local news is so tragically diminished, readers forget how critical its coverage is to our lives.

After graduating, I found myself back in a newsroom. My thoughts upon entering the profession weren’t at all high-minded. I wasn’t yet a convert. I didn’t think about the mission then like I do now. These people were inky wretches writing about school-board races and legislative battles, human endeavors I didn’t yet understand the significance of. Rather, I hoped to work as a reporter long enough to get a novel written, get it published and move on, either back to the academy, or to hit it big enough I could just write. (And you know, go on adventures.)

I’m sure that had that happened, I would have happily become an elitist who no longer had the time to bother reading the local paper. I could’ve been that guy, and what a wasted life it would have been.

Looking out for the powerless

I started at a tiny paper outside Little Rock, Arkansas. My idea was to be an investigative reporter, but I didn’t know how to go about it. I read a handbook from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nonprofit organization that promotes best practices, training and so forth. The book started to change the way I thought about things. I was intrigued by the mission it described, the goal of holding the powerful accountable and looking out for the powerless. I was impressed by the discovery that reporters, though fiercely competitive, worked so tirelessly to help educate other journalists in order to advance the profession.

The newsroom I worked in after graduate school served three weekly community papers. (And what mastheads. The Cabot Star-Herald. The Lonoke Democrat. The Carlisle Independent. Poetry!) We only had a handful of reporters, and maybe one photographer, so the reporters took pictures while out covering stories. We supplied our own cameras. This was at the very cusp of the digital transformation. They used a darkroom to develop film. The building housed the printing press, and the office smelled like ink. I thought of it as a kind of sweet smell, but mostly acrid. It was a metallic, bracing scent that stuck with you, even after a shower.

Though we worked on early computers and the enterprise would soon shift to digital layout, my first post-grad taste of working in a newspaper included long nights hovering over light tables and vats of hot wax, pasting the stories and photos onto dummy pages. We used X-Acto knives and razor blades to make edits on the page.

Everything took forever.

Certainly, at times I despaired. This was not the work of great literature I’d so hoped for.

But we had readers. People cared about our articles. We told their stories. We kept track of City Hall and the county commissioners. We wrote stories of birth and stories of death. We wrote about new businesses coming, zoning disputes, fires, storms and what new laws from the legislature would mean to our communities.

Getting the story right

It was a trip. You would find yourself standing in the rain outside a courthouse, say, smelling like ink, struggling to get the family of a crime victim to talk to you, and you felt such a sense of purpose and mission. You would duck into a coffee shop or greasy spoon, and people were in there reading the paper.

But it’s not analog nostalgia that made it meaningful, that made it matter to me. I’m happier to live and work with the technologies we have today. It was the commitment to the work. Even that tiny newsroom employed editors and a copy editor.

I began to see the transformational energy that results between human beings engaged in the act of objective journalism and careful writing. The iron-sharpening-iron strengthening of ideas. The slavish service to getting the story right.

My first real investigative story came from a tip that the sheriff in Lonoke County was corrupt, but no one was brave enough to do anything about it. He’d been around a long time. He was considered one of the most powerful people in the area. It would be foolish to cross him.

The tip was that this sheriff employed his brother to serve as executive secretary to an interagency drug task force that included the sheriff’s jurisdiction. The task force often housed suspects at the Lonoke County jail. The sheriff’s brother also owned a bail bond business.

The tip meant a trip to the jail. Back in those days, at the dawn of the popular internet, few things other than vinyl records were being digitized. It was old-school, shoe-leather reporting, and somehow that added to the mystique, the romance, if you will, of being a journalist.

The jail’s logbook included information about the arresting agency and the name of the bonding company suspects employed to go free. If you listed the first 20 people hauled in by the drug task force, and then cross-checked to see who was bonding them out, something like 19 of them were by the sheriff’s brother.

There were some other stories like that about this sheriff. Once we were able to document that the rumors and tips were true, and publish stories about them in the paper, things changed. The state paper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, took notice, and came to town to follow up. Soon, I had a job at the Democrat-Gazette. During the next election, that longtime sheriff we’d written about was out of a job.

At the Democrat-Gazette, I learned what a marvelous and amazing invention a modern newspaper is. What an incredible human accomplishment. I learned first-hand the concept and responsibility of a paper of record. (And let me deal with this term of art before we go further. When I talk about a newspaper or a paper, I mean the work of a newsroom that presents the majority of its work through the printed word.  That certainly includes digital publication, as it has for decades now. Even in 1996, traditional newspapers were already making that switch.)

No matter the medium, every day, from early in the morning to late at night, Democrat-Gazette reporters endeavored to write about everything newsworthy in the state. An impossible task, of course. But what a model.

A paper of record seeks to keep track of the many narratives that make a community. From City Hall to the Capitol. Its business and commerce. Its arts scene, and its entertainment. Its sports and lifestyle. Its ideas and opinions.

I couldn’t believe how difficult the job was, and how hard reporters worked for stories. Hours-long committee meetings, school-board meetings, overtime and extra innings. Police reporters sifted through piles of arrest reports and raced to the scenes of horrific crimes and disasters. 

At that time, Little Rock faced an epidemic crack problem in its downtown neighborhoods. The drug trade fueled violent turf battles. Sometimes reporters got to the scene before police and had to stand around looking at a dead body, wondering what to do. Business writers pored over earnings reports, lawsuits, contracts. Investigative reporters dug through reams of documents and sought out sources in the most unlikely places.

Opinion writers and editors tried to make sense of the most complex and vexing issues of the day. Columnists wrote beautiful, awful screeds, and intelligent, clear-eyed analysis. An editorial cartoonist boiled it all down to a single image. Magic radiated from that newsroom.

Soon enough I would see the absolute brilliance of the editorial pages. As a paper of record, with all those journalists covering all those beats, a state paper like the Democrat-Gazette is one the most, if not the most, plugged-in members of the community. It knows all the right people. It knows the score. It understands the nuances and the narratives better than most. So when that paper weighs in with editorials, think of the influence. Think of the power. Think of the usefulness of that.

So too, when a community faces danger. A strong paper, known for its excellence, has a far better chance of attracting whistleblowers, tipsters and the like. The insiders who know what’s going on are more willing to trust such a paper. The voiceless who have everything to lose have far more reason to trust such a paper.

Again, think of the power and the usefulness of that.  

Such a newsroom makes the ground tremble and shake.

Thomas Jefferson said it best. And though he didn’t like how journalists covered him much more than the current president appreciates his coverage, Jefferson understood the logic behind the mission. He got the importance of the profession to society. He said democracy could function without government, providing that a free and independent press was there doing its job. He said it wouldn’t work the other way around.

Fast-forward to 2008, to the newsroom of The Denver Post, where I now worked helping cover our home city’s preparation for the Democratic National Convention. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were locked in a swamp of a race for the nomination, and while Team Obama insisted the delegate math was in its pocket, Team Clinton wouldn’t quit.

The upshot revealed what was then, in those days before the Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates to campaign spending, the biggest campaign loophole going. Political parties task the host cities with raising the tens of millions of dollars it takes to put on the big show. Because donors to host committees technically aren’t giving to a candidate, there are no legal limits. But big corporate and special interest donors wish for their host-committee contribution to resonate with the nominee. Without a nominee, Denver’s committee wasn’t meeting its financial obligations.

During the fallout, I managed to get an interview with Obama. While I had him on the line, I asked about the campaign finance loophole. He said, on the record, that if he became president, he would seek to close it. We ran the story. And sure enough, in 2012, the Charlotte host committee struggled to raise the money needed, because Obama insisted his party cap donations at $100,000 and not accept corporate or special interest money.

Turned out to be a sham. In the final analysis, it was discovered that the committee had to rely on millions of dollars in corporate donations to meet their obligations. But the point I’m making here is that a local paper brought the dynamic to light. We can’t always assume the big papers will take care of such things.

This week News Corps students read a story by Jesse Paul, a Denver Post intern at the time of its publication, now a politics reporter at The Colorado Sun. He wrote it in the summer of 2014. It burst like a bomb upon the scene and generated years of follow-up stories. It is likely the story will continue to create news at the legislature this session.

What happened was, Democratic lawmakers passed and signed into law in 2013 a program that would allow those in the country illegally to gain driver’s licenses. The licenses would be clearly marked as separate from resident licenses and would not allow the holder to vote. It meant to make the roads safer. By passing the tests needed to gain a license, the drivers would know the rules and regulations. The licenses would allow for liability insurance. Police stops would become less of a threat for all involved. Hit-and-runs would decline.

The Democrats were able to do this because they controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office. But the bill hadn’t attracted significant attention or review because in 2013 the big battles and stories centered around the party’s efforts to install a raft of gun-control bills following the Aurora theater shooting and the massacre of first-graders and teachers at Sandy Hook.  

And The Post, which held the biggest politics desk in the state, was dealing with cuts. We had fewer politics reporters. I knew it all too well. I was the politics editor. That summer Jesse interned with us, as I tried novel ways to fill in the gaps I saw, I worked with University of Denver students to provide readers fact checks of political ads. (We’re going to launch a fact-checker out of CU News Corps soon, by the way.  So stay tuned.)

In July, the state did a test run of the sign-up program immigrants were required to use to get an in-person appointment at a Department of Motor Vehicles office. The program was to go live on Aug. 1. No sooner did the phone and internet sign-up launch than it crashed.

The story so far had been inside-the-book and wasn’t generating much attention. I asked Jesse to look into it, assuming it was a simple story about a botched computer program.  

Jesse discovered a raft of problems with the new law’s implementation. He found that many, many more immigrants were interested in the program than lawmakers prepared for. By working with immigrant advocacy groups, he realized some 150,000 wished to gain a license. But the law opened only five DMV offices of the state’s 56 to the program. It allotted but a couple of handfuls of workers to do the work. The state hadn’t yet published a driver’s manual in Spanish. The documents the immigrants had to bring were extensive, and if they didn’t speak English, they had to bring their own interpreter. They also had to pay $30 extra for the privilege.

Again, no walk-ins were welcome. You had to have an appointment. Each day, a new day’s worth of slots appeared. That meant each day, immigrants had to log in and try to win one of these rarest of opportunities.

Jesse did the math. Assuming each appointment went flawlessly — a huge assumption — it could take an immigrant three and a half years to meet with a DMV employee. This for a license only good for three years, that — wait for it — had to be renewed in person.

Think of the incredible cruelty here. Imagine the disruption in a person’s life, the life of a family. Many of the would-be applicants would have to drive hundreds of miles to one of the few DMV offices taking the appointments. Many worked demanding and degrading jobs. Think of the injustice.

News matters to communities

You’ve heard of local newsrooms uncovering all kinds of abuses. Folks wrongly sentenced to prison for life. Foster children abused and killed despite numerous warnings. Environmental damages with life-threatening dangers that industry tried to keep hidden.

But it is also coverage like Jesse’s that illustrates how important strong local newsrooms are to a community. The issues are complex. The problems harrowingly dangerous. The consequences for human beings immense and life-altering.

But so what? Right? Things change. We drive cars now instead of horse-drawn buggies. Soon enough, we won’t even have to drive. Typewriters were great when? The Gutenberg press was a big deal, but come on, that’s so ancient. Something new will come.

Yes. I get it. I don’t allow myself to fear technology or change. I never liked working with wax and razor blades. I don’t want to cling to the past.

But here’s the inside scoop. All but the most curmudgeonly among the ranks of inky wretches currently in the trenches long ago embraced the spectacular advantages of digital disruption. Our work is exponentially more available than when it had to be printed on paper. Our audiences and potential audiences are vast. We can create cutting-edge videos, podcasts, interactive data-visualization. We can report in virtual reality. Digital tools enable us to do journalism like it’s never been done before. I embrace and love all of that.

But the kinds of downsizing we’re seeing in newsrooms like The Denver Post and Boulder’s Daily Camera, the cuts that Alden Global Capital is making, are ruining the brand. They are ruining the idea of the paper of record. They are destroying what Thomas Jefferson was talking about.

Alden isn’t even trying to build the newsroom of the 21st century. It talks a good game. Its management arm is called Digital First Media (it’s now calling itself MediaNews Group). But the model they’re working under is focused on harvesting what’s left of the profits to be made from the generations of subscribers who want to have a printed paper, despite the fact that it’s looked increasingly awful since Alden took control.

As Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times, told CNN the weekend our “News matters” editorial barrage published, what’s happening at local newsrooms now is far, far more dangerous to our profession than anything Trump is doing.

Former Denver Post editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett leads his former co-workers after a rally against the paper’s ownership group, Alden Global Capital, Tuesday, May 8, 2018, outside the paper’s office and printing plant in north Denver. (David Zalubowski, AP Photo)

Zero-based budgeting and cuts

What do I mean? Think about this. How long ago was it that you remember The Denver Post serving its readers like a truly great regional newsroom? When was the last time you felt like The Denver Post lived up to its masthead moniker: The Voice of the Rocky Mountain Empire?

At its peak, The Post was the ninth largest paper in the country in terms of circulation. Its journalists have won nine Pulitzer Prizes. When I started there in 2003, the newsroom held nearly 300 journalists. We had bureaus all over the state. We had a handful of journalists at the nation’s capital. The Post touted as its editor Greg Moore, a hotshot from The Boston Globe who helped launch that paper’s priest sex-abuse coverage that is now the subject of a major movie.

The Post employed a recruitment editor. Its editors sought the best journalists it could find. The most experienced. Getting on there was a difficult task. It was a destination paper.

By the time I became the editorial page editor in 2016, Greg had resigned, unable to endure the travesty of the cuts that brought us to a newsroom of 100 journalists. I had to make do with a staff of three. At its peak, the editorial department employed more than a dozen, including an editorial cartoonist who won a Pulitzer shortly after Alden took over — and then invited him to leave.

Following Mike Keefe out the door were dozens more in only a few years. The Post has no bureaus now. They don’t even have anyone in Washington. Their editorial page has been gutted. The few journalists that remain must endure “zero-based budgeting,” an unpractical, top-down management style that presents journalists with unconscionably inadequate resources to do the job.

For years, The Post has been forced to degrade its journalistic standards and principles in order to meet marching orders centered on generating clickbait content. Even the most casual look at The Post reveals its shocking overreliance on thinly sourced stories, wire stories and “repurposed content” from sister papers.

In newsrooms, journalists know that every day is a new day. If you’re not living up to standards, you can go from being a star to a backbencher in a matter of hours. The same is true for a newsroom. If you can’t remember the coverage we used to put together, the packages we used to develop, you’re likely not interested in subscribing. And why should you be?

That means that Alden, in its elder-abuse strategy of milking its readers with ever-higher subscription rates but delivering ever-skimpier coverage, has poisoned the well for your generation. They’ve now seen to it that you won’t ever like The Denver Post again. Magnify that grim reality across dozens of newsrooms from coast to coast, magnify it again if Alden succeeds in taking over Gannett, and you’ve got a crisis on your hands.

So I say to you, what are you doing about it?

As educators. As citizens. As the beneficiaries of our democracy. What are you doing to help save local news? What are you doing to simply help stop the carnage?

We need to think about that. You need to think about that.

Yes, coverage of local news, especially these days, can feel like grasping for the point of it all.  

We don’t always get the full story right out of the gate. Too often, highly educated people like you all become impatient. They view our coverage as something less. They’d rather read The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal. The Atlantic. The New Yorker. I get that. Those are tremendous publications. In them you have a chance to read the best journalism being done in the world. I will even go further. During the years after I decamped graduate school with my lofty literary ambitions, I realized that much of the best writing being done in America is coming not from fiction writers, but from journalists.

Democracy begins at home

But democracy begins at home, and it’s important to support the home team. It’s important not to let go of the idea of the hometown paper. Hey, most highly educated people I know love buying local. If local produce, beer and coffee matter, why not local news? It’s important to remember that, when its newsroom is adequately staffed, its journalists properly funded, the hometown paper can be as good as The Bigs on any given story. It’s important to remember that a hometown paper, especially in an “it” city like Denver, in an “it” state like Colorado, can produce absolutely phenomenal journalism, as The Post did not that many years ago.

There are ways to help beyond sending an angry letter to the editor, or a letter to Alden directly. You can subscribe to the local outlets that are trying. You can make sure your news diet includes healthy samples of local coverage. Newsrooms are increasingly holding community events these days. Attend some of them. Invite your friends and colleagues.

You can talk to your friends and colleagues about local coverage, highlight and promote on social media the good work that is still being done.

And speaking of social media, you can push back against the rampant abuses that bots and operatives and special interests peddle there.

You can demand better, and see to it that your students, also, get the message.

There is still opportunity to avert the crisis. The conversation has changed. A benefit of the horrors occurring at The Denver Post is that far more people now are aware of the reality that unscrupulous owners can just devastate a good paper. Readers know now that it’s a cynical strategy that’s gutting newsrooms.

The University of Denver launched the Colorado Media Project this summer to help get a handle on the realities, challenges and opportunities. The Denver Press Club hosted a community meeting to talk about what to do now in this Alden horror show. The meeting instantly overfilled, and despite the fact it was livestreamed, the club held another, which also overfilled.

The Colorado Sun is off to a great start. It’s gotten enough initial support to hire an extra reporter. Colorado Public Radio has seen its donor support grow so much it is expanding its newsroom to 70 from 40. CPR is opening an office near the state Capitol. It’s opening a Washington bureau. It’s building an investigative team.

There is healthy pushback. Now that the conversation has changed, there is opportunity. Knowledge is power, after all. That’s what journalists have been saying from Day One. An educated populace is headed toward its full potential. But democracy dies in darkness.

So please don’t sit quietly by and let the Aldens of the world commit the great evil they are engaged in. We shouldn’t just look the other way and mutter things about capitalism and buggy whips. We should think about what is being lost. What is being squandered. What is being stolen from us by people willing to sell their children’s souls to the devil in order to enrich themselves while the getting is good.

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