To save the Denver Post from its hedge-fund owners, the State of Colorado should seize it

Even by the grim standards of the many staff and budget cuts forced upon the Denver Post over the last few years, the news that broke Wednesday afternoon was a devastating shock: executives announced plans to cut 30 positions from the newsroom, almost a third of the paper’s remaining staff.

When this latest round of cuts is complete, the number of journalists at the Post will have shrunk from over 200 to less than 50 in just seven years, according to the Denver Newspaper Guild, the union that represents Post employees.

It’s important to understand that the Denver Post isn’t dying; it’s being murdered. Despite consistently posting annual profits in the tens of millions, the paper is being slowly stripped for parts by its owner, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. More than 200 newspapers owned by Alden subsidiary Digital First Media (DFM) are suffering much the same fate, as they see their budgets cut and assets sold off to fund the firm’s other, riskier investments and the lavish lifestyle of its reclusive founder, Randall D. Smith.

As news of Wednesday’s cuts reverberated around Denver — and, indeed, the entire news industry — many journalists and observers expressed a similar thought: if Alden isn’t interested in growing the Post and other DFM publications as businesses, and instead intends only to loot them for its own benefit, it should sell them immediately.

The Denver Newspaper Guild echoed these sentiments in a statement on the cuts, calling on Alden “to sell its free-falling properties to local owners while there remains a chance to invest in quality journalism.”

“Sell now before it’s too late,” it added.

Unfortunately, as long as Alden stands to profit from its vulture-capitalist plunder, it has little motivation to offload such a valuable asset. The Post and other DFM newspapers are Alden’s property, and there’s no way that journalists, readers, and concerned citizens in Denver or anywhere can force them to sell it.

Or is there?

There exists, after all, a well-established legal mechanism by which private businesses can be compelled to sell their property in the interest of the public good: eminent domain. Its use seldom comes without controversy, but legally speaking, it’s pretty routine.

Nothing in Colorado state law limits the use of eminent domain to real property — i.e., land and buildings — though that is, of course, almost always what it’s used to acquire. As noted by a 2006 article in The Colorado Lawyer, there’s typically “no need to condemn personal property, because most types of personal property are fungible and can be purchased instead of condemned.”

That’s not true, however, of one of Colorado’s oldest and most influential media organizations, an essential civic watchdog with an established brand and a roster full of talented, experienced news professionals.

It would be crazy — just completely nuts — for the State of Colorado to seize the Denver Post through eminent domain. But is it really any less crazy that one of its most indispensable public institutions is being deliberately stripped and gutted by Wall Street crooks until there’s nothing left?

While any attempt at condemnation would surely prompt fierce legal challenges from Alden and DFM, the law is fairly clear: private property may “be taken solely for the purpose of furthering a public use,” according to section 38-1-101 of the Colorado Revised Statutes. Section 102, meanwhile, gives the governor the authority to initiate eminent domain proceedings “for the purpose of establishing, operating, or maintaining any state house or charitable or other state institution or improvement.”

While the use of eminent domain on businesses or other private institutions is exceedingly rare, it’s not unheard of. In 1984, Maryland’s legislature famously authorized the condemnation of the Baltimore Colts, who ultimately snuck away to Indianapolis under cover of darkness. The California Supreme Court has affirmed governments’ right to use eminent domain for such purposes as “providing access to recreation to its residents in the form of spectator sports,” and courts in both Pennsylvania and New Jersey have issued similar rulings.

No one can argue that a definition of “public use” expansive enough to include access to football games shouldn’t also include access to high-quality journalism. The free press is a cornerstone of democracy, and the protection and preservation of important news institutions is unquestionably in the public interest.

Were the Post to be seized, the state would need to provide Alden just compensation, as adjudged by trial proceedings; given some recent sale prices of major newspapers, it’s not likely to be a large sum, even for a state as cash-strapped as Colorado. Then, of course, the state-owned Denver Post would need to be sold or transferred to a new private entity — a member-supported nonprofit modeled on public broadcasting networks, maybe, or simply a more responsible local ownership group.

Yes, it’s a radical idea. But it’s time to consider that this kind of radicalism may be the only thing commensurate with the immense human cost of Alden and Randall Smith’s destructive greed: journalists out of work, livelihoods and families in upheaval, an entire city and state lacking a signal force for truth and accountability in an era when both are sorely needed.

The simple, maddening truth is that Alden isn’t going to stop this plundering of its own volition. This is the system we’ve created for ourselves, in which any and all concerns about the public good are subordinate to whether or not a faceless hedge-fund billionaire is making a buck somewhere.

If we don’t like what the system has wrought, we should start envisioning a new one.


Originally published on 50 States of Blue Colorado.