Two Editors Lost In a Battered Industry

by Kyle Massey  on Monday, May. 14, 2018 12:00 am   3 min read

The Denver Post and the Log Cabin Democrat lost splendid editors this month, both exemplars of Arkansas journalism and former newsroom colleagues of mine.

One — Chuck Plunkett — was driven from his job writing editorials for the Denver Post. The other — David McCollum — was eulogized in Little Rock after a half-century in the newspaper business.

Plunkett, the Post’s editorial page editor and a Little Rock native, was pushed to resign after writing eloquent criticism of his company’s hedge fund ownership for milking profits from its newspaper holdings (a hefty 19 percent margin from the Post) while slashing jobs and decimating local news coverage.

McCollum, the Conway paper’s sports editor and columnist for more than 35 years, was laid to rest on the same day Plunkett wrote a first-person essay about his job struggle for Rolling Stone.

McCollum died after heart surgery but had no plans to retire. He was 68. Plunkett was at his job until Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that owns the Post and dozens of other publications, put editorial handcuffs on him.

Both men offer important lessons in a daily newspaper industry desperately looking for a new business model.

When McCollum hired on in Conway in 1982, the paper had a circulation of nearly 9,000 and a robust staff, including me, a 20-year-old sportswriter with much to learn from his new 34-year-old boss. The newsroom employed six full-time editors, five reporters, two photographers and two clerks. Frank E. Robins III was publisher, following in the footsteps of his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

Nowadays, the paper’s daily circulation is around 4,000, according to figures published this month by the Arkansas Press Association, and the Log Cabin website last week listed six newsroom employees. Instead of being run by a local family, it is owned by GateHouse Media Inc., the nation’s largest chain by number of newspapers.

In three years as my boss, McCollum taught me to apply the same intellectual rigor to covering sports that I would to reporting news, that the real stories were not in scores and statistics, but rather the people and issues animating the games.

He molded his sportswriting to changing times, realizing that fans could get scores and basics quicker from electronic media. McCollum helped refine a style of newspaper sports writing relying more on analysis, context and glimpses into personalities.

In the mid-1990s, when I was an editor and Plunkett a young reporter at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in Little Rock, Plunkett was already building the integrity that’s so clearly on display now. He went on to success at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review and then in Denver, where he was the paper’s lead politics reporter and political editor before taking over the editorial page.

He managed to keep his job for a few weeks after writing a stinging rebuke of the paper’s owners, Alden and its publishing arm, Digital First Media. But he told Arkansas Business last month he doubted he’d be able to keep both his job and his standards. He certainly faced greater scrutiny. So when the paper spiked another tough editorial about Alden, which had cut a newsroom once numbering 300 to a staff of about 70, Plunkett had had enough. Two other top Post editors, Dana Coffield and Larry Ryckman, followed him out the door.

Plunkett wrote that the ownership had “instructed top editors across their holdings to never mention the companies without top-level clearance,” and revealed that the operating margin for Digital First was 17 percent across the board. Its papers “now suffer not just from neglect, but outright censorship,” he said. The unpublished editorial ended this way: “Journalism’s mission is too important for such atrocious apostasy.”

Some 55 members of the Post staff, now in open rebellion, signed a letter last week condemning the ownership.

Nevertheless, Plunkett heads into a tough journalism job market at age 51. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, American newspaper publishers employed 411,800 people in 2001; by September 2016, that number was 173,709 and falling.

McCollum, of course, will never know unemployment. At Second Baptist Church of Little Rock, where he was a deacon and Sunday school teacher, the Rev. Preston Clegg told a crowd of hundreds that McCollum saw journalism as a calling close to his ceaseless quest for spiritual understanding. “David sought the truth, down to the smallest detail.”

McCollum asked that memorial contributions be made to Second Baptist or to the Committee to Protect Journalists at CPJ.org.

 

 

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