Newspaper owners are coming for your democracy

These are tough times for the newspaper industry, tougher times for people who make their living as ink-stained wretches, and it’s no picnic for readers either when the newspaper owners talk to us as if we’re stupid on those occasions when they talk to their customers at all.

We know what a dying newspaper looks like, we know when the news is lighter and the physical size of the paper itself approaches “brochure” more than newspaper.

So when the owner of the Denver Post — also the owner of the St. Paul Pioneer Press — laid off 30 percent of the staff yesterday, there was only lipstick left to put on the pig.

The paper couldn’t even come up with more than five paragraphs of copy to describe its own demise. There’s some in-depth coverage.

“The Denver Post will emerge on the other side still doing important work that impacts the lives of our readers – stories that inform them, move them, surprise them and entertain them. We will continue our aggressive, groundbreaking efforts to find ways to reach and connect with those readers,” Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo told her remaining employees.

She’s been there for 20 years and she gave it to her employees about as straight as any editor has.

But what’s happening is a death rattle on the doorstep.

“I don’t understand the business plan,” Jesse Aaron Paul, political reporter at the Post, tells Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan. “How does cutting off a leg help you keep running?”

It doesn’t.

Alden Capital, the hedge fund that owns Digital First, knows how to make money while stripping its properties. They don’t buy newspapers; they buy debt at a discount. The company is burning every paper it owns to the ground. The Wall Street tycoon gets richer with every blaze.

Readers are at least smart enough to see what’s happening, and they’re taking their frustration out by refusing to buy the papers, thus hastening their demise.

“Increasingly, your typical daily newspaper is owned by someone who is actively destroying the local journalism we want to preserve,” Matt DeRienzo, an independent newspaper publisher and former employee of Digital First in Connecticut, wrote on Medium in January.

For sure, the digital world has created the oxygen for the blaze that’s wiping out newspapers. But DeRienzo says the hedge funds are supplying the gasoline.

Digital First didn’t give a new paywall much time to work. It started in January when John Ingold, a reporter at the paper, made an impassioned series of pleas on Twitter for people to support its work.

Ingold went to yesterday’s beheadings, then went back to work.

“Be a noisy subscriber,” Matt DeRienzo prescribed in his essay on how to support a newspaper whose owners are destroying it.

A week ago, there was a faint glimmer that some readers around Minnesota are doing just that.

In the Red Wing Republican Eagle, publisher Neal Ronquist asked for “everyone’s help” to save the newspaper industry.

Ronquist was responding to pushback from readers of RiverTown Multimedia’s papers (a division of the ubiquitous Forum Communications) decision after the company closed offices in several cities — Woodbury, for example — where it owns newspapers. It did so while telling readers the journalism wouldn’t suffer.

We’ve embraced technology, resulting in the automation and centralization of many processes and tasks. This has allowed us to retain, and employ, content generators and sales professionals in the communities we serve.

We’ve shrunk the number of buildings we own and operate. We continue to support the communities we cover even as our physical footprint dwindles; it’s because the evolution of our business no longer requires enormous pieces of equipment, or high volumes of people. Just as many factories have reduced in size or number as technology has changed, so have we. One reporter with a smartphone has literally replaced dozens of people compared to 30 years ago. Same goes for a sales representative with a tablet.

The readers who know what lipstick looks like are correct. There’s a relationship between quality journalism, and the people available to do it.

“His point about how the newsrooms are producing more content than ever is incredibly inaccurate,” a former RiverTown journalist told me. “I hope he doesn’t believe that.

“One year ago… literally… there were 38 FTEs (fulltime employees) in RiverTown newsrooms. Today there are 22.”

It is the nature of corporate executives to try to put the best spin on bad news, but it’s  counterproductive  — not to mention: hypocritical — when the business is  local journalism.

What might have been a more honest message from newspaper execs to the readers?

“We’re coming for your democracy. For God’s sake, stop us while you still can!”