By Julie Reynolds
Digital First Media journalists converged May 8 in Manhattan, arriving from newspapers around the country to deliver more than 11,000 signed letters demanding change from the chain’s hedge fund owner Alden Global Capital.
The group gathered in front of Alden’s headquarters in New York’s famous Lipstick Building. Demonstrators were flanked by nearly as many reporters, photographers and videographers from national and local media outlets who covered the event along with a related protest and walkout in Denver. Representatives came from all six locals that are part of a DFM workers’ caucus, including delegates from Denver, the San Francisco Bay Area, St. Paul, suburban Detroit, suburban Philadelphia and Kingston.
“I came 3,000 miles today to give you a message,” Pulitzer Prize winner George Kelly told the crowd. Kelly flew in from the Bay Area for the rally. “Be proud of the work you do. Be proud of the communities you serve. Be ashamed of the people hundreds of feet above our heads, draining the lifeblood out of our coverage, draining the lifeblood out of our mastheads, draining the lifeblood out of our communities.
“The shame is theirs. But down here on the streets, the pride is ours.”
The protestors, who were joined by NewsGuild members from New York City, shouted for Alden’s president Heath Freeman to come down from his 34th floor offices to talk. Freeman, who does not respond to press requests for comment, never appeared.
“All of us, all the journalists and employees across all departments at all of DFM newspapers are fed up, disheartened and angered by Alden’s ownership and DFM’s execution of its cutthroat operating plans,” said Kieran Nicholson of the Denver Post.
“Collectively we all say, we all plea, we all scream: We’ve had enough. Alden — the time to sell is now. Sell now while there’s still value in the company that you’re hell bent on destroying.”
After about an hour of statements and chanting — “Hey ho! Hey ho! Aldan Global’s got to go!” — a small group of protestors entered the lobby with a box of 11,000 signed letters to Alden’s leadership from readers and journalists across the country.
On top of the box was a letter signed by the journalists who attended the rally.
The letter begins:
“Mr. Heath Freeman and Mr. Randall Smith;
“Digital First Media’s website boasts that it employs ‘journalists with deep experience speaking truth to power.’ Today, those journalists are speaking to you.
“You effectively own the company and have power over all aspects of its operations. But rather than use that power benevolently, you abuse it with what seems akin to bloodlust.”
And it ends: “Just get the hell out of newspapers.”
The group was quickly stopped by security staff and a man who identified himself as a plainclothes police officer.
“They threw us out of the building,” said Thomas Peele, also from the Bay Area News Group. When the group asked if a security guard could deliver the letters, the group was told “Are you crazy?” Peele said.
While fellow journalists chanted “We’ll be back!” Peele addressed reporters.
“They know we’re here. This is an ongoing effort and we’re certainly not going to stop now,” said Peele, as he was told to move away from the building’s entrance by a security guard. “We clearly have their attention we know that these protests the editorials and stories from around the country are rattling Alden Global, and we’re going to keep the pressure on them.”
At noon in Denver, printing plant workers poured out of their building, joining newsroom workers to protest. Pressman Frank Donato was quoted by the Colorado Independent, saying, “Our numbers have been decimated over the years. Call, write, get the politicians involved. The pressure needs to be put on Alden.”
Chuck Plunkett, the Post’s former opinion page editor who resigned last week after his column was censored, also spoke, telling the crowd of around 100 to “Keep doing what you’re doing and don’t let the vultures get you down.”
Organizers say their campaign will continue to escalate with a variety of tactics and joint actions nationwide, all designed to highlight the damage done to local journalism by Freeman and Smith and to demand that they invest or sell DFM newspapers.
Social media posts trended, with a live video stream on DFM’s Facebook page viewed more than 3,000 times and DFMworkers’ Twitter feed garnering more than 56, 000 impression over several days up to and including the rally.
Media coverage in both cities was extensive, starting with live appearances on Democracy Now! by Denver Post breaking news reporter Elizabeth Hernandez, fired Boulder Daily Camera op-ed page editor Dave Krieger and yours truly.
The national writers’ and free speech advocacy group PEN America issued a press release decrying Alden’s censorship of its journalists:
“We are troubled by the resignations of several Denver Post employees following accounts that they are forbidden to publish editorials critical of the paper’s new owner, Digital First Media, or of the hedge fund that controls it, Alden Global Capital. If Digital First Media is essentially censoring negative coverage by the papers it owns, it is exercising a style of ownership that is all too familiar to countries like China and Russia.”
Below, in no particular order, are links to media coverage, as well as the full text of the letter to Alden executives Randall Smith and Heath Freeman:
The New York Times
The Daily Beast
The Denver Post (Denver7)
Colorado Times Recorder
Channel 9 News/KUSA – Denver
Full text of DFM journalists’ letter to Alden Global Capital:
Mr. Heath Freeman and Mr. Randall Smith;
Digital First Media’s website boasts that it employs “journalists with deep experience speaking truth to power.” Today, those journalists are speaking to you.
You effectively own the company and have power over all aspects of its operations. But rather than use that power benevolently, you abuse with what seems akin to bloodlust.
This occurs despite that you own a public trust. That’s what newspapers are in this country, even the ones you have eviscerated. You are incredibly privileged. You own a business in the only industry specifically named and protected in the U.S. Constitution. Great responsibility accompanies your privilege. Yet you repeatedly turn your back on it, its patriot authors, and the democracy it preserves.
DFM’s website also states that “keeping (the public) informed with hard-hitting journalism has never been more important.” How can anyone possibly conclude that you believe this statement? Every action you have taken shows you are the antithesis of believing in the importance of journalism. If you believed in journalism, the Denver Post would be adequately staffed to cover the mountain west, DFM’s papers in the Bay Area would have an education reporter (or two), reporters at the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise would not work in a virtual newsroom, aka, the corner coffee shop.
If you believed in journalism you wouldn’t be scared of what was written about you on your papers’ editorial pages and you wouldn’t be firing editors for speaking truth to power.
The employees gathered outside your office today have a simple message for you: Invest in your newspapers or sell them. Now, while they still exist. Take a portion of your industry-topping profits and invest in your newspapers and websites. Grow them. Pay your staffs what they deserve, offer decent health insurance, contribute a bit to their retirement accounts. Protect the public trust.
We are extremely pessimistic that you will do this. So we call on you to sell. Let responsible owners restore the vibrant free press you have stripped from communities across the country. Take the spoils from your unconscionable profiteering out to Montauk and buy another mansion. Or some more of those sporty six-figure Duke basketball jerseys. Do whatever you want.
Just get the hell out of newspapers.