Arkansas Business: A Journalist Cries Out In Denver, by Way of Little Rock

by Chuck Plunkett

April 23, 2018

A Little Rock native was on NPR two weeks ago, telling Audie Cornish of “All Things Considered” how he stood up to a greedy hedge fund ownership to defend his paper, the Denver Post, amid brutal job cuts.

He told Cornish that his hometown paper, in a market one-fifth Denver’s size, was better-staffed than the Post, the only daily in a capital city of 700,000, in a metro area of nearly 3 million.

Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s editorial page editor, defied his bosses at Alden Global Capital with a piece headlined “News Matters — Colo. Should Demand the Newspaper It Deserves.”

It was an aggressive attack on the hedge fund, which had slashed the newsroom staff to 100 from a high of about 300 when Plunkett came aboard in 2003. Then it announced 30-some additional cuts, leaving the paper desolate.

“It’s going to put us at 70 people or below,” Plunkett told Arkansas Business by phone, describing a newsroom left “depressed and toxic — lots of crying.” He said the paper was decimated even as Denver boomed, adding 100,000 residents over a decade.

For a time, Plunkett believed that the cuts were in line with layoffs at other papers disrupted by the internet and the exodus of advertisers from daily print outlets. But eventually he came to see a “strange business decision.”

“It wasn’t just because the newspaper industry was having a hard time, but because we had a very aggressive hedge fund ownership that was trying to cynically milk as much profit out of the company as it could.” Alden stands accused by minority stockholders of stripping its newspaper properties and pumping the money into side investments that Plunkett called shaky.

He believes a robust, smart-minded paper could make real money in a literate, affluent and growing marketplace. “Denver and Colorado are on the make, with Amazon considering us for its second headquarters, the city and state thinking of an Olympics bid, a new cannabis industry and a hugely entrepreneurial population.” He also hailed the city’s startups, craft-beer culture and pro sports. “There’s a lot of energy for a paper to capitalize on, and one of the places a community traditionally finds its identity is through its newspaper.”

In his NPR moment, Plunkett compared the remade Post unfavorably to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, his first major paper. “When I go home, my family still gets the paper, and I’m just really impressed,” Plunkett told Arkansas Business. “It’s professionally done, and they have more reporters now, and a bigger Washington presence, than we have.”

The Little Rock paper is “locally owned, and it’s a smaller population, smaller geography, yet they have a much larger, better paper and stronger newsroom. We are not its equal,” he told Cornish. Democrat-Gazette Publisher Walter E. Hussman Jr., chairman of Wehco Media, is a native Arkansan and longtime Little Rock resident.

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