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“Censorship Is a Red Line for Me”: Why Denver Post Reporters Are Protesting Paper’s Hedge Fund Owner

Web ExclusiveMay 08, 2018
Media Options

Reporters from Digital First publications around the country will rally outside Alden Global Capital’s office here in New York City to demand that the hedge fund that controls their newspapers, Alden Global Capital, either invest in its papers or sell them. The hedge fund is known for slashing and downsizing its papers to maintain high profit margins. Since 2010, Digital First Media has cut budgets and staffs at newspapers across the country, including the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. In recent months, Digital First Media cut 30 percent of the newsroom at The Denver Post. Meanwhile, the private company reported profits of almost $160 million in 2017 and a 17 percent operating margin—far higher than other newspaper publishers. We are joined by Noelle Phillips, a Denver Post police reporter, who says that her ability to be a watchdog for the city of Denver has been challenged by severe staff cuts at the paper.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We’re joined by Noelle Phillips, who is the police reporter for The Denver Post. Noelle, talk about—you’re the police reporter.


AMY GOODMAN: What does it mean, what’s happening to your newsroom?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Well, I’ve been there since 2014, and the newsroom had probably about 160 people. And now we’re somewhere in the sixties. We don’t know exactly sure how many people work in our own newsroom. But for me personally, in 2016 we had a round of buyouts, and our full-time courts reporter left. And I was asked to cover courts, as well as all the police departments and the sheriff’s offices in the Front Range of Colorado. So it’s about five counties that I’m primarily—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re one reporter.


AMY GOODMAN: Who used to—how many used to cover this?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Well, we have a team of breaking news reporters that pick up a lot of like car crashes and shootings overnight and stuff. But then I come in and do like watchdog over the police and sheriffs, monitor their policies, crime [inaudible]—

AMY GOODMAN: And what does it mean to have your newsroom so gutted?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Oh, it’s just hard to keep up with everything. We try to be everywhere all the time. It’s not unusual to have to write three or four stories a day and then still do your long-term investigative projects as you’re going.

AMY GOODMAN: The legislators, city councilmembers, this must, in some ways, for some, be a relief. Have you heard anecdotes of people hearing the watchdogs gone?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Oh, yeah. Yeah, Bente Birkeland, a public radio reporter in Colorado, overheard a legislator, when he heard the news that a third of The Denver Post staff was going to be cut, laugh and say, “Oh, we can do whatever we want now.”

I recently was trying to get an autopsy report from a county coroner outside of Denver, and I was having some troubles. Under state law, I needed that. That was public records. The coroner didn’t want to release it. And I had heard through sources that she went to the DA’s Office and said, “What do I do?” And an assistant DA said, “Well, they don’t have the money to sue. Just hold it. Sit on it. They won’t fight it. They can’t afford it.” So they know that our budgets are tight and that there are fewer of us. And there’s going to be shenanigans when you don’t have local reporters watching.

AMY GOODMAN: So talk about, Noelle, what you can’t do right now, what it means, for example, when you are so limited in your resources and your staff to cover issues of police brutality.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Yeah, it’s just—we have an independent monitor in Denver that has like civilian oversight of police and sheriffs in like use of force issues. And the police chief recently was under investigation. And I’ve been working on a story, like picking at it, about how that investigation was handled. And I haven’t been able to finish it, because I keep having to do daily stories along the way. And so this important story about oversight of the investigation of the police chief has been on the back burner for several weeks. It needs to be done. We don’t cover gavel-to-gavel trials anymore. And those are important stories to our criminal justice system, but we cannot physically have a reporter in there all day every day.

AMY GOODMAN: And even the—losing the downtown office of The Denver Post, a kind of metaphor for what has happened. Your whole staff was moved from where you’d been for years, in downtown Denver. You are The Denver Post. To where?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Unincorporated Adams County, where our printing plant is. And The Denver Post location was so symbolic. So there’s a big part in the heart of downtown called Civic Center. And you could stand on The Denver Post balcony: to your left was the state Capitol, and to your right was City Hall. And we were in the center of it. And now—

AMY GOODMAN: Big sign, Denver Post.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Yeah, Denver Post on the building. Now we’ve moved to our printing plant, which is an industrial area in Adams County, which is one county over. And City Hall is now—the city government of Denver is now leasing our space in The Denver Post building. Still says Denver Post, but it’s mostly City—a third City Hall now. The people—

AMY GOODMAN: The government that you’re—

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Yeah, the people we’re supposed to be watching now occupy our old newsroom.

AMY GOODMAN: And now you’re out at the printing press.


AMY GOODMAN: And Alden Global Capital, they sold that building? And—

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Right, yeah. So, Alden Global, when they bought The Denver Post, from what I understand from Julie Reynolds’ excellent reporting, is they sold the printing plant and that property to another subsidiary of theirs. And now we’re in there. I don’t know for sure, because I don’t get to see the books, but I’ve heard that we actually pay to lease it back. We can’t get that confirmed, but that’s the prevailing theory.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about what’s happened in the newsroom since the editorials, the pieces were written about your owners, Alden Global Capital? What happened? How did Alden Global Capital respond? How much interaction do you have with this hedge-fund owner, based here in the Lipstick Building in New York?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Zero. Never heard from them. As far as we know, we haven’t gotten a response. And we’re doing what reporters do. You try to communicate, you email, you call. No response. We’re knocking on their front door today.

AMY GOODMAN: So, explain what happened when the editorials were written.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Oh, it was huge. Chuck Plunkett, our editorial page editorial, launched them on a Friday afternoon. Our newspaper doesn’t have a publisher, so he essentially didn’t have a boss that’s normally the supervisor of the editorial board. So we hit send. Exploded, went national, international news, that The Denver Post was rebelling against its own ownership. From what I understand, Digital First Media was not happy about this. And I’ve heard that the COO called down to Denver.

AMY GOODMAN: The chief operating officer.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Chief operating officer called down to Denver.

AMY GOODMAN: What about the CEO?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: We don’t have one at Digital First Media.

AMY GOODMAN: Just the hedge fund here in New York.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Right, right.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the COO calls to Denver Post.

NOELLE PHILLIPS: To Denver Post, and says, “Who the hell did that?” They said, “Chuck Plunkett.” “Who is he?” “The editorial board editor.” “Who’s his boss?” “Well, you are.” Like, I mean, it was just—it shocked the company that we did that. Chuck has since written another editorial calling them out, and that editorial was spiked. And so, Chuck resigned in protest. And then, on Friday, Dean Singleton, the former owner of The Denver Post, who was chairman of the board, resigned. And then two senior editors, Larry Ryckman and Dana Coffield, resigned. And Larry is my editor. That’s who I report to.

AMY GOODMAN: So what does it mean not to have the editors of The Denver Post? How are you putting—you just edit yourself, and it’s just put in the paper?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: Well, we have a couple of more editors. But they’re going to be so overworked. They’re going to have so many reporters.

AMY GOODMAN: You talked about Chuck Plunkett, who is the editorial page editor. Last week, he resigned. Fifty-five Denver Post staff members penned a letter condemning the paper for censorship. So you’re not only talking about cuts now, but censorship.


AMY GOODMAN: The letter read, quote, “Chuck told the truth eloquently and pointedly. And in that our newspaper’s corporate ownership—Digital First Media and the hedge fund Alden Global Capital—saw something to fear, not to champion. … This censorship harms our readers, and we are concerned it also threatens the newsroom’s independence. It requires journalists to work in an unacceptable climate of intimidation, worried that telling the truth will lead to dismissal.” Noelle Phillips, are you concerned about this? Are you concerned even speaking out right now?

NOELLE PHILLIPS: I mean, yeah, there’s a risk. My name is on that letter, as well. But I feel confident in this. I believe it’s the right thing to do as a journalist. This is about the First Amendment, and censorship is a red line, hard line, for me, that I won’t tolerate. I won’t work for somebody who’s going to do that for us. But I still want to be a journalist, and I still want to be in Denver. And those of us that are there are really passionate, and we are still there because we believe in this job and we believe in what we do and we think it’s important. And we’re going to do the best we can to be good journalists for Denver while we can.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much.


AMY GOODMAN: Noelle Phillips, police reporter for The Denver Post, has been there for four years, has been reporting for many years before that, from South Carolina to Colorado. Noelle Phillips, thanks so much.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion on what’s happening at The Denver Post and also the Boulder Daily Camera, to speaking with Dave Krieger, who was just fired for publishing an editorial critical of the same owner, Alden Global Capital, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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