IMAGE CAPTION: CU Boulder News Corps Director Chuck Plunkett on campus. The documentary News Matters centers around the efforts of Plunkett and others to save local journalism. Credit: CU Boulder
Colorado filmmaker Brian Malone was wrapping up final edits to his documentary about the dying local news industry when, on January 6, 2021 he flipped on the TV and watched in disbelief as an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Amid shots of protesters scaling walls and busting out windows, one image hit him particularly hard: the one of crowds tearing down and stomping on news cameras.
It was, he says, a lightbulb moment.
“The thing that brought all of these people to the Capitol to engage in this historically violent act was misinformation,” said Malone, who returned to the editing bay that day to reframe the film. “Everything I had been talking about in the film—about the loss of newspapers and trusted information and the dangerous consequences—connected directly to what was happening.”
Four chilling minutes of that footage now mark the beginning of News Matters, which debuts this week on Rocky Mountain PBS.
With several scenes shot on campus, it centers around the efforts of CU Boulder News Corps Director Chuck Plunkett and a group of Colorado journalists to fight back against profit-driven hedge funds which have squeezed the life out of U.S. newsrooms.
Since 2004, more than 2,000 newspapers have been shuttered. Those that remain, including Plunkett’s former employer The Denver Post (withered from 300 to about 60 newsroom staffers) have been cut to the bone.
The film elucidates how it happened, makes the case for why they should be saved, and sheds a hopeful light on emerging alternative business models.
“There is nothing like a big, strong local newsroom to watch out for corruption and hold the government accountable,” says Plunkett, who joined CU Boulder in the Fall of 2018, as the director of the capstone program for journalism students in the College of Media Communication and Information. “When newspapers die, so does democracy.”
The Denver Rebellion
Malone first met Plunkett in April of 2018 at a protest outside the former Denver Post building downtown.
Days earlier, on April 6, 2018, Plunkett, then editorial editor at the Post, made history when he led the publication of a scathing six-page package of editorials calling out New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capitol, the Post’s owner, for rendering the Pulitzer Prize winning daily a skeleton of its former self.
“News Matters: Colorado should demand the newspaper it deserves,” the headline read. It questioned why a company with solid profits was mandating steep layoffs and asked that Alden rethink its business strategy or sell the company to someone who cares about journalism.
In one line, Plunkett referred to the paper’s owners as “vulture capitalists.”
Alden instructed Plunkett not to write about the company again. He resigned in protest and several long-time Post reporters followed.
After he cleaned out his desk, he found himself in a position he— as an objective journalist—had never been in before. He joined a protest outside and held up a sign which said, “Quality Journalism Over Corporate Greed.”
From that moment, now known as “The Denver Rebellion” Plunkett has become a symbol of the national battle to save local news.
“The fact that Chuck was willing to take such audacious actions – to write an op-ed against his own publication’s owner calling them out,” said Malone, who was shooting footage of the rally that day. “that was a pretty great hook to build a film around.”
Three years in the making, News Matters features interviews with more than a dozen journalists and news industry analysts, including former Post owner Dean Singleton and legendary newsman Marty Baron, who retired from the Washington Post in February.
Representatives from Alden Global Capital did not respond to his requests for an interview.
A sunny outlook?
Perhaps the most hopeful scenes feature the founders of the Colorado Sun, launched in 2018 by a group of former Post reporters.
“It is not journalism that is broken. It is the business model that is broken,” says former Post editor and Colorado Sun Senior Editor Dana Coffield in the film. “Perhaps we can find a different way to do the journalism business.”
Other scenes show CU journalism students in classrooms, Plunkett at the front.
“These students are gung ho and working hard to be part of the solution,” Plunkett says. “And the public – they want us to succeed. We just have to figure out how to do right by them.”
The film debuts in a week in which the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital is in the news again, this time bidding to buy Tribune, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and several other large-market daily newspapers.
The news troubles Malone, who worries that local news will soon take another crushing hit.
He hopes his film drives home what that could really mean.
“I want people to walk away with a better understanding of the importance of trusted, vetted journalism,” he said. “And how dangerous our country can get without it.”