Eight months after publishing a special section decrying massive layoffs at The Denver Post and criticizing its owners for losing sight of the paper’s mission, former editorial page editor Chuck Plunkett will be honored by the National Press Club Nov. 29 for igniting a national dialogue about the fate of local journalism.
“Chuck Plunkett’s decision to publish a newspaper that called out its owners for mismanaging that paper was a remarkable act of courage,” said Andrea Edney, president of the organization, which will award Plunkett its John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award at the Fourth Estate Dinner in Washington, D.C. “That special section gave voice to papers all around the country that have seen their ranks thinned. It was a clarion call to save local journalism.”
Plunkett resigned from The Denver Post shortly after publishing the April 6 package, when the paper tried to block another editorial criticizing owner Alden Global Capital. He now directs CU News Corps, a student-produced investigative journalism program at the College of Media, Communication and Information.
He said his decision to publish the six-page section and pen the lead editorial, “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,” was not an easy one. But after the paper announced layoffs of 30 employees from an already decimated newsroom in mid-March, he felt compelled.
“When we heard the number 30, people started crying,” said Plunkett, who joined the Post in 2003 and became editorial page editor in 2016. “I thought to myself ‘they just killed The Denver Post. Someone has got to do something.’”
He notes that the Denver population had grown by 100,000 since the New York City-based hedge fund purchased the paper in 2010. The owner had raised subscription rates and reported a profit the previous year. But repeated layoffs ensued nonetheless, shrinking the newsroom from 200 to 100.
“Our readers for the most part just thought times were tough so papers were laying people off,” said Plunkett. “I felt they needed to know the bigger story.”
The editorial spelled out the value of local journalism in communities across the country and accused the paper’s owner of compromising its civic mission by needlessly putting profit above quality, reliability and accountability:
"A flagship local newspaper like The Denver Post plays a critically important role in its city and state: It provides a public record of the good and the bad, serves as a watchdog against public and private corruption, offers a free marketplace of ideas and stands as a lighthouse reflective and protective of—and accountable to—a community’s values and goals," it read. "If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Denver Post to owners who will."
Since the publication of what came to be known as “The Denver Rebellion,” several former Denver Post journalists have left the paper to start the Colorado Sun, a reporter-owned ad-free news outlet. Meanwhile, journalists and readers around the country have been discussing and experimenting with alternative business models for local journalism. Layoffs at the Post have ceased.
Today, Plunkett, who cut his own journalistic teeth as an investigative reporter at small-town papers in Arkansas, spends his days teaching tomorrow’s journalists.
He tells them that in an age of social media echo-chambers and fake news easily spread via Facebook and Twitter, their work is more important than ever.
“There is a tremendous need right now for what we do–asking the hard questions, doing the fact checking and telling compelling stories that help people make sense of their lives,” he said. “But people also need to realize that if they want good strong journalism in the future they have got to be willing to support and pay for it.”
He hopes the package he and his colleagues published helped open the nation’s eyes to that.
“When we pulled the trigger on this package, one of my biggest fears was that if it didn’t take—if people just shrugged it off—not only would my career be ruined but the message would die with it,” he said. “The fact that the National Press Club, representing the media across the country, saw this as an honorable thing to do means the world to me.”