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By Rob Byers
April 14, 2018
IDEAS
Byers spent decades at the Charleston Gazette and combined Gazette-Mail as a reporter, projects editor and, until March 31, executive editor; the paper won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting.

I don’t know Chuck Plunkett, the editorial page editor of the Denver Post. But if we ever cross paths, I’d sure like to buy him a beer.

Plunkett did something that all journalists love: He stood up for what he believes. He played David to the Goliaths at Alden Global Capital in New York. The big difference in this tale, though, is that these Goliaths sign his paycheck.

Alden is the hedge fund that owns Digital First Media, which operates the Post and is one of America’s largest newspaper chains. Rather than cultivating a reputation for hard-hitting news, Alden has become known for layoffs.

On April 6, Plunkett published an editorial calling out Alden for its latest gutting of the Post newsroom. The piece has been hailed as extraordinary, remarkable and brave by other journalists covering the story — who perhaps themselves are confronting the same uncertainly and heartbreak in their newsrooms. (From January 2001 to September 2016, the newspaper publishing industry lost more than half of its jobs, tumbling from 412,000 to 174,000 positions, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.)

But beyond the initial burn of the word “vultures” in the headline and sentences like “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom,” Plunkett makes a pointed appeal to the only people who can truly save newspapers today: the readers.

“It’s time for their voices to be heard,” the editorial declares.

If Plunkett and the other outspoken Post staffers are going to succeed in standing up to the might of Alden, they’re going to need the good people of Denver standing behind them, watching their backs.

That means letters to the editor, social media support, advertisers that are wise to the staying power of print, maybe a local version of the petition at aldenexposed.com and a willingness — if not eagerness — to pay for honest journalism.

Plus, they may have the opportunity to devote their dollars to an owner they can support. A group of local investors announced on April 12 that it’s gathering funds to convince Alden to part ways with the Denver Post.

Journalism’s value skyrockets daily, with each new bit of wackiness coming out of the Trump Administration. Movies like The Post and Spotlight have helped feed the trend. Suddenly, journalism is sexy.

So what better time for Denverites, Coloradans (and all the other -ites and -ans across the country) to step up and, as the editorial implores, “demand better”? Demand better from journalists and editors who take shortcuts. Demand better from media owners who give them little choice. Actually, yesterday or last month would have been a better time — but now will do.

My advice: Find a serious news outlet — hopefully your local paper — that is doing a good job, and reward it with a subscription. Already a subscriber? It’s never too early to renew, and while you’re at it, send a note to the publisher letting him or her know the type of journalism you value.

I have witnessed all sides of this story myself. During February and March, the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, the paper where I worked for more than 26 years, slogged through Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In that time, a dedicated group of readers banded together to try to save the Gazette-Mail, a longtime watchdog over government and industry in West Virginia.

They collected several hundred signatures on a petition. They gathered thousands of dollars to buy a big ad in the Gazette-Mail. They fought to find someone to outbid the “stalking horse” buyer that was poised to take over, fearing massive layoffs and the resulting demise of watchdog journalism in West Virginia.

In the end, they got their wish when a local media group and its investors made a competing bid and the “stalking horse” decided it had had enough.

Layoffs still happened (which included me, now formerly the executive editor), and vacant positions will stay vacant, but likely not on the scale as we originally feared.

Regardless of my own misfortune, I was proud to see our readers taking a stand for what they believe. They saw the value in having a serious source for local news and were determined that it be allowed to carry on. Only time will tell if the new ownership can maintain the paper’s dedication to its decades-old motto of “sustained outrage,” which means sticking with a story to the sometimes bitter end, until a wrong is righted.

That is how reporter Eric Eyre and the Gazette-Mail won the 2017 Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting. Eyre hammered away at a problem (in this case, drug wholesalers dumping millions of painkillers on small towns in West Virginia) until the nation took notice.

Local news outlets are the roots of the news ecosystem. If they continue to wither, the entire system will crumble. Stories will be missed, facts will go unchecked, tales will go untold — and partisan echo chambers and social-media hysteria will rush into the void.

Case in point: A recent Politico analysis shows a clear correlation between counties with low news-subscription rates and how well Donald Trump fared against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.

“Without having the newspaper as kind of ‘true north’ to point you to issues, you are left to look for other sources,” Penny Abernathy, a University of North Carolina professor who has studied the decline of local media, told Politico. “And because of the dramatic rise in social media, that ends up being your Facebook friends.”

Or simply Trump himself on Twitter, an information flow that keeps fact-checking reporters working long — or should I say, longer — hours.

So, yeah, this journalism stuff really matters. From coverage of your local school board to fact-checking the President, it’s a public service. Local news can thrive only if you want it to. Only if you demand it.

And if you don’t… well, the Post editorial gave us a picture along with its thousand words, and it’s not a pretty one. Nothing but “rotting bones. That’s what Plunkett predicted his beloved newspaper would resemble within a few years. Rotting bones where the churning presses once roared, full of the life and times of the community.

And if you don’t… well, we’ve already got Sinclair Broadcasting’s army of anchors telling us what to think. Or what their owners think we should think, anyway.

“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

That’s the line that sticks with me when I think about the Deadspin mash-up of Sinclair anchors across the nation pushing Trump’s fake news bit from a company-mandated script.

“This is extremely dangerous to our democracy.”

Man, is it ever.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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