Chuck Plunkett, the Denver Post editorial page editor behind the paper’s unprecedented call-out of its hedge fund owners, has resigned.
The longtime Post staffer told Denverite he made the decision after he was prohibited from publishing another editorial critical of the newspaper’s ownership.
Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo gave the news to the Post staff in an email shared with Denverite on Thursday evening.
Update, May 4, 6:20 p.m.: Larry Ryckman, the senior editor who wrote the story in the Denver Post about Plunkett’s resignation, has also resigned. More on that below.
Updated, May 4, 6:50 p.m.: Dana Coffield, another senior editor, is also leaving the Denver Post.
Updated, May 4, 8:15 p.m.: Dean Singleton, the chairman of the Denver Post, has stepped down from that role, according to an email to staff from Colacioppo shared with Denverite. He owned the paper from 1987 to 2013.
“Today, it’s with great pain that I tell you that Chuck Plunkett — I think we can agree his power was never of the quiet variety — has resigned,” she wrote.
“I know (that) Chuck will be remembered by the world for writing. But I want to take a moment to celebrate the powerful work he did over the years — investigations, tackling coverage of the DNC, leadership of our politics team and finally as editorial page editor, his dream job.”
Reached by phone Thursday evening, Plunkett told Denverite,”It’s a tragedy what Alden Global Capital is doing to its newsrooms and what it’s doing to the Denver Post. It’s just… it’s an act of apostasy to our profession and I could no longer abide it.”
In early April, Plunkett and the editorial board published an editorial condemning Alden Global Capital, which as owner of Post parent company Digital First Media has subjected the paper to years of brutal cuts. It ran just days before 30 journalists would walk out the doors for the last time after the latest round of layoffs. Along with the editorial, the paper published eight opinion pieces — many by former Post staffers — rising to the defense of the paper and local journalism.
Plunkett told the New York Times then that he hadn’t warned the owners or Colacioppo about his plans to publish the pieces.
On Thursday, he told Denverite that in the month since his widely shared and written about editorial was published, the tension between DFM and its newspapers was growing.
Late last month, the DFM-owned Boulder Daily Camera’s editorial page editor, Dave Krieger, was fired after he self-published his own editorial taking a stand against Alden. And in Kingston, New York, an editor at the DFM-owned Daily Freeman sent an email to staff that said any stories on “the struggles of journalism” could not mention DFM or Alden. “This directive comes from above,” it said.
In response to those events, Plunkett wrote another editorial. It never made it to print.
“That editorial was rejected,” he said. “So I took a walk in the rain and wrote a letter of resignation.”
It was Acting Chief Executive Guy Gilmore and other DFM executives who killed it, Plunkett said, and emphasized that Colacioppo was “nothing but a white hat” throughout all of this. He does not know if DFM consulted anyone at Alden.
After the Post published its April 6 editorial package, Plunkett said, “things got pretty dicey at the Denver Post, for me and for others. Guy Gilmore … was pretty unhappy — outright angry — and trying to get us to stop talking.”
At first Plunkett thought DFM and Alden were going to be reasonable. He gave a lot of interviews in the week that followed and Gilmore never directly contacted him.
But after what happened at the Daily Camera, Plunkett was “pretty much told that we weren’t supposed to talk any more about Alden or Digital First Media.” The way he understood it, the directive given at the Daily Freeman was company-wide, and he started asking DFM through Colacioppo what this meant, practically speaking. It became clear, he said, that the company was trying to censor this story — and he knew what he had to do.
“If we were willing to risk our reputation and our job … then I can’t go dark now. That’s an untenable position. I’ve been boxed in to a corner,” he said. Recalling a talk he just gave to students at the University of Denver, he added, “They’re all so excited about the future and nervous and anxious about the future. How would it look to them if after so strongly defending journalism — if then the same editorial page editor behind them went dark and just kept his head down and agreed — there’s no other way to think about it — agreed to stay silent?”
Plunkett’s resignation was met with an outpouring from Denver Post staff on Twitter, including word from breaking news reporter and chairman of the Newsroom Unit of the Denver Newspaper Guild Kieran Nicholson that the Post would not report on the departure.
About an hour later, a story credited to senior news editor Larry Ryckman appeared on the Post’s website. The next day, reporter Jon Murray tweeted just after 6 p.m. that Ryckman had “put in his two weeks’ notice.”
An email to staff from Colacioppo said that senior news editor Dana Coffield would also be leaving.
Then, a later Colacioppo email informed staff that Denver Post chairman Dean Singleton was stepping down.
“This giant in the industry has been my mentor, my champion, and a voice that was always prodding me to push harder, aim higher,” Colacioppo wrote. “He’s played that role for many editors and The Post and city of Denver were better for it.”
Ryckman soon after confirmed his departure for Denverite.
“It’s partially what happened with Chuck and, you know, this something that’s been building for a while,” Ryckman said. “With some of the restrictions, frankly, that Alden is placing on its newspapers — I’ve been doing this for a long time and I’ve never had anybody ever tell me not to write something for anything other than a legitimate debate over the news value.”
He added that he was not forced out.
“We’re moving into a different phase now and I just felt it was time for me to go,” he said. “I leave with sadness. I wish the Post nothing but the best.”
Plunkett said Thursday was not his last day at the Denver Post. He’ll spend a few days transitioning out as the paper decides what to do next. It’s unclear right now if and when it will hire a new editorial page editor. Krieger has yet to be replaced at the Daily Camera.
Plunkett also said he’s evaluating his own options right now and plans to stay in journalism.
“As far as what the Post is going to do, I sure hope the community effort to wrest control away from Alden is successful. And if there’s any way I can be a part of that, sign me up, because it is too important for Denver and for Colorado. It’s mission has to continue and it needs to continue at some level better than we’ve got now,” he said. “I’m worried that because of what Alden is doing, that people aren’t going to want to keep working there and that people aren’t going to want to go there. And that would be a real shame.”
And as for what supporters of local journalism can do: “I think that if enough people make their voices known — letters to Alden, calls, any of those things people can do to make their voices heard — sooner or later it will change minds.”
Update, May 4, 7 p.m.: Denver Post employees will rally outside their office at the Denver Post Printing Facility, 5990 Washington St., at noon May 8. The call for action, according to a press release: “Invest or sell.” Here’s the rest of the message from the release:
Alden made $36 million in 2017 on its Colorado properties and slashed 30 newsroom jobs at the Post this spring. Employees throughout the paper are seeking not only to protect their jobs, but to save the Post from further degradation. The rally will call for Alden to invest in the Post or sell it to someone who will. Since taking ownership in 2011, Alden has continually stripped staff and cut operating budgets to maintain high double-digit profit margins, the highest in the industry.
Employees at the rally are seeking to end Alden’s harmful, short-term business models, which gut the paper, so the Post can continue its longtime mission, for more than a century, of serving Denver, the Front Range and Colorado.
You can read more about the latest layoffs at the Post and its history of trouble with Alden Global Capital here.
And you can read Plunkett and the editorial board’s piece on it here.
Note: Author Ashley Dean and editor Dave Burdick both previously worked at the Denver Post.