I’ll turn to Colorado media after this quick diversion. An advantage and disadvantage of having a five-year-old is that I end up watching a lot of old family movies. It’s not like we’re going to put on Game of Thrones while the kid is awake. We made the mistake of starting the original RoboCop—I’d forgotten how violent it is. The 1967 Doctor Dolittle is surprisingly good. And of course it was inconceivable that we skip the classic Princess Bride with its Dread Pirate Roberts.
In some ways the Dread Pirate reminds me of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, owner of the Denver Post. Roberts really was a bad guy who apparently stole stuff and murdered people. Yet the myth of Roberts generated more fear than the reality. As our hero who took over the pirate’s role explains, “No one would surrender to the Dread Pirate Westley.” Similarly, I think the myth of Alden generates much of the fear and loathing surrounding it.
As much as many journalists hate Alden, surely no one is accusing Alden of stealing stuff and murdering people, right? Well, not exactly. Critics do routinely accuse Alden of “strip mining” newspapers and the like (as I noted last year). And here is how John Frank, who migrated from the Post to the Colorado Sun to Axios Denver, summarizes a new documentary (from April 29): “‘News Matters’ links the Jan. 6 insurrection at the nation’s Capitol with the downfall of local news, in this case to the gutting of the Denver Post by its hedge fund owner.” Really? We’re going to blame Alden for that?
If you like you can watch the 84-minute documentary via PBS through May. Mercifully, you can speed up the viewing (I watched at 1.75x). The film doesn’t blame Alden per se for the Capitol assault; it blames a general lack of reliable information. And Alden shares some of the blame for that, the film suggests, because it bought up and then gutted various newspapers.
The film’s thesis to that extent is weak, obviously so to anyone who doesn’t have an ax to grind. The problem behind the January 6 assault isn’t that people lacked newspapers to read the facts about the presidential election. Plenty of news outlets wrote tons about that. The problem is that lots of people chose not to read or to ignore the available news and to turn instead to Fox commentators; to Donald Trump, who lied continuously about nearly everything; and to conspiracy mongers of various stripes, included those involved with the QAnon fraud. Indeed, the documentary reviews such problems.
We don’t lack coverage of national news. We don’t even lack coverage of state-level news, at least here in Colorado, nor of metro news (although I’d like to see more coverage of certain sorts of stories). The main problem is not that Alden controls certain newspapers, but that some areas have little or no local news coverage, as the documentary observes. And then the problem is not that “news deserts” drive bad national political movements but that no one holds local politicians, business interests, and other local powerful people accountable.
Don’t get me wrong: In most respects “News Matters” is an insightful documentary that points out some real problems. I learned a lot from it. I do personally wish that someone would buy the Post from Alden, someone more worried about the quality and quantity of news output. There’s plenty to criticize Alden for. I have a lot of respect of Chuck Plunkett, whose criticism of Alden cost him his job with the Post. I’m just saying that we should criticize the reality of Alden rather than the Dread Pirate version of it.
Despite frequent claims that Alden would destroy the Post, the paper continues to produce some excellent-quality journalism on state and local issues. For example, the Post’s Elise Schmelzer arguably is the best crime reporter in the state. Plausibly the Post is not producing as much good journalism as it could under better ownership.
Alden operates in a media climate that it did not create. The main underlying problem (as the documentary observes) is that newspapers lost enormous advertising revenue to Craigslist, Facebook, Google, and other digital companies. Although some other buyer might have avoided the deep cuts that Alden made, it seems likely that the Post was carrying too large a staff and too heavy a budget to survive without major cuts, whoever the buyer. No “vulture capitalist” stepped in to buy the Rocky Mountain News; it simply closed. Alden is pretty bad, but the Dread Pirate version of Alden makes a more convenient scapegoat.
In Axios, Frank offered a remarkably balanced take on all this: “What gets lost are the amazing news innovations taking place in Denver. Yes, many places are news deserts, but not here. As the Post cut back, new credible local news sites like the Colorado Sun, Denverite—and, yes, Axios Denver—have blossomed. CPR and City Cast are adding a voice to the news each day. And the Denver Gazette is publishing a digital paper. . . . Former Post journalists helped launch or expand each of these outlets. . . . The bottom line: Local journalism is not dead here. Neither is the Post, for that matter.”
The documentary doesn’t ignore such developments; near the end it covers the launch of the Colorado Sun. For a few brief moments, the film is almost optimistic about the future of journalism.
Consider this development: The Sun’s Larry Ryckman, formerly of the Post and a vocal critic of Alden, announced that the Sun, in association with the National Trust for Local News, purchased Colorado Community Media with its “24 suburban newspapers in the Denver metro area.” Ryckman aims to help “provide the hyper-local coverage of school boards, cities and counties that only they produce.”
Miracle Max’s remarks about Westley apply as well to local journalism: That which is only mostly dead is still partly alive and can be brought back to strength. Especially if your cause is noble.
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