In what is now known as the Denver Rebellion, Chuck Plunkett went rogue at work. With support, he orchestrated an editorial section in The Denver Post featuring nine op-eds from prominent Denver Post writers, including one from Plunkett. Centering the pieces was an editorial that cast light on the erosion of journalism—at the expense of readers and for the profit of the global hedge fund overseeing The Post.
Shortly afterward, Plunkett was encouraged to resign from his role as editorial editor. He now shares a message with TED and beyond about the important connection between local newspapers and democracy—and the demise of journalism in a time of unfettered corporate growth. In this interview with Chuck Plunkett, learn why and how he went rogue, what he learned, and if he would do it again. (And, if you are considering taking a stand at work, he shares a few thoughts.)
So, you went rogue at work. What precipitated your decision to go rogue?
Loyalty. The problem we faced at The Denver Post amounted to a test of loyalty to the principles and ethics of our profession. The hedge fund that controlled the many papers in our family demonstrated clearly over several years—and continues to reveal itself today—as one that does not prioritize doing good journalism at a level sufficient to cover a state with a population as large and complex as Colorado’s. Alden Global Capital cares about short-term profits only. Its decisions and practices demonstrate that it’s out to drain the last of the profits to be had from the population of subscribers who long to have a local print paper, and to do so without investing in a digital future.
It charges high subscription rates but delivers a product far below the standard of a paper serving a population as large as Colorado’s. It does so by failing to adequately staff the newsroom. Worse, it prevents its journalists from responsibly reporting on its practices.
Were you prepared to leave or resign as a result?
Yes, though I didn’t wish to go. I hoped our “News Matters” Perspective section would get the owners’ attention and stay their hand. Instead of cutting the newsroom to death, I hoped Alden’s executives would rethink the pending cuts and meet with journalists to craft a long-term plan for success.
I knew that hope was naïve. Two days before we launched the Denver Rebellion, I described my plans to former Post owner William Dean Singleton, who remained a member of the editorial board. Dean warned me that, should I publish the editorial, they would likely fire me or push me out. He pressed me to explain my reaction to that observation.
I answered that our readers deserved to know the truth about the coming cuts. That we weren’t just dealing with market forces, though certainly those were of huge concern. That the bigger threat came from Alden’s cynical business strategy.
Dean said publishing such an editorial would be the right thing to do. He said he would stand with me. He said if Alden forced me out, he would join me. And he did.
That night, I told my wife, Genine, what I had planned and what Dean advised. It wasn’t an easy thing to hear, of course, but she agreed it was the right thing to do. Genine said I should go for it, and we would get by.
From that point forward, I was all in.
How long did you contemplate that choice before you actually left?
I first had the idea to publish such an editorial about three months prior, following a round of cuts that saw the former managing editor, a good friend, resign. She hoped to save the positions of some younger reporters, and many of us by then were weighing our options.
But it wasn’t until Alden decided to cut the newsroom from 100 to 70 journalists that the idea took hold. During the meeting in which the staff learned of the cuts, there were a lot of tears. The situation felt surreal to me. I thought, “This is wrong. They’re killing this newsroom and so many others. Someone should do something about this.”
Then I remembered that, as editorial editor, a key responsibility was to stand up for the best interests of our readers.
The thought came to me as if someone else were talking—and talking with force. The voice said, “Someone should do something about this, all right. And that someone is you.”
Did you consider the choice to be moral in nature? Related to your integrity? Was there a sense that you “had no choice” or that the choice was “black and white”?
Absolutely. But, I so feared such a move that it took deep reflection on the work of others to push me into action. Remember that the Denver Rebellion wasn’t just an editorial. The editorial anchored op-eds from prominent Denver Post writers. Several of them left months or years before because of Alden’s cuts. One was leaving as a result of the coming cuts. Additionally, the editorial section was losing a key employee. (We would go from three staffers to two.)
In assembling the package, which we planned to launch the weekend before the cuts, I tasked the writers with providing a range of perspectives about the importance of local news.
Some took on Alden directly, but the overall goal was to focus attention on what was being lost.
As I read and edited the pieces, it was like the voice of God told me I had to stand by these folks, fully join them in this effort to stand up for the many talented, hard-working journalists who so wanted the public to know what the hell was going on. So yes, the choice was clear.
If I hadn’t honored my colleagues with a package that did the hard work of journalism and did it as authoritatively and unflinchingly as possible, I would have hated myself the rest of my life.
What did you do to prepare your plan of action and exit?
I believed that my reputation as a journalist would protect me. That a door would open. My wife and I were in a good enough place financially I knew I could weather a short absence from the workforce.
Did you ever consider just leaving without a rogue exit?
No. I worked for years to be the editorial page editor. I longed for that job and wanted to keep it. If I had believed for one second that Alden was genuinely trying to prepare for the future, I would have done everything possible to endure the cuts and the degradation of the paper to attempt to persevere and be there when that brave new future arrived.
Did you share your plan with others beforehand, either personally or professionally? If so, how did you decide who to share it with?
I didn’t tell anyone about the editorial until two days before when I told Dean and my wife. The day before the launch, I entrusted my friend Larry Ryckman, then a Post editor who now runs The Colorado Sun. Like Dean, Larry warned me about the likelihood I would lose my job. But, also like Dean, he swore that should I be fired or forced out, he would go with me.
The decision to keep it quiet was essential at the newsroom level. The more who knew about it, the greater the chance a higher-up would find out and stop it. I didn’t tell those close to me, my family and friends, because I didn’t want to put anyone in a position of thinking they might talk me out of it. Sometimes in life, you must stand on your own.
What did you do the morning before you went rogue? And in the evening afterward?
I woke with a pounding heart at just after 3 a.m., worried that if we didn’t handle things correctly, Alden’s yes-men at the parent company that ran the hedge fund’s papers would find out and kill the package before it published.
In my home office, I wrote out the two scenarios I saw to prevent that from happening and picked the one I believed had the best chance of success. Writing about the decision and the strategy proved hugely beneficial, and I trusted that it would. It’s the advice I would offer anyone thinking about such a move. Writing is a higher form of thinking.
And in the evening? Genine and I have a hot tub we call Jolly Pequod. I made Martinis and we took a cruise. She’s got a waterproof setup for a tablet and she read aloud the many stories already tearing up the internet. At one point I had to turn off my phone, as the alerts from social media and texts were too exhausting.
Who was your first call when it was done?
The package went viral so quickly I didn’t have to make any calls. Within the first 30 minutes, I was swamped with folks from the newsroom praising the package. Genine texted that she and her colleagues were celebrating the success and that she was so proud. People from all over the country and globe were posting on Twitter about it.
My email inbox swelled with praise and support. The first of requests for interviews arrived within two hours. The requests continue today.
How did people at large respond?
Never in my life have I experienced so much goodwill. The editorial package touched the hearts of people from many different professions and communities. Many newsrooms, major and minor, carried stories about it. Journalists at The Post and at Alden papers were ecstatic. Former bosses and mentors reached out with praise that melted my heart. The package was the talk of the town for weeks.
Elected officials tried to help. Denver’s mayor and Colorado’s governor went public in agreement that Alden should sell The Post to more responsible owners. There is a congressional effort now to pass bills to help newspapers. Some of the presidential candidates have sounded similar notes. There were town halls about what to do. Several organizations awarded the effort.
Yes, there were critics who said the real problem was that newsrooms were either too liberal or too conservative. That our industry failed to understand the digital future. That kind of thing. But it was about a third of the voices and not nearly as prominent as the thumbs-up crowd.
Are you glad you did what you did?
I am extremely proud to have been a part of what we did. It’s the biggest thing I’ve ever done as a journalist.
Did you have moments where you questioned your choice—during or after?
I relentlessly question everything I do, but I’ve never once believed that my choice in this instance was the wrong one. In fact, sometimes when I’m feeling down and fretting over something I’ve done, I just say to my reflection, “Well, at least you led the Denver Rebellion. You can’t be all bad.”
What has happened since you went rogue? How has the world and work changed for you?
It hasn’t been easy. Or it wasn’t.
Despite the fact that I am so proud of the Rebellion, life hasn’t always been such a joy following my departure from the newsroom. I went through a long period of depression and desperation. Again, I worked hard for years to be the editorial page editor. I longed for that job and wanted to keep it. Losing it cost me dearly. I didn’t know who I was supposed to be if I wasn’t in a newsroom. I didn’t have a good sense of how to structure my days. I started making mistakes. I feared I couldn’t do things that once were second nature. For a while there, I grew angry and despondent and didn’t always act in my best interest. Things got out of control.
These days I am doing my best to become a good teacher. Striving to help prepare the next generation of journalists. I quickly found that the transition from the newsroom to the classroom isn’t easy for me. Not a journalism major in college, I have had to learn on the job at the university. But what I’ve found is if you’re honest about your situation, there are plenty who do their level best to help.
The best thing I did during this time was to resolve to get back in fighting trim. I switched to a mostly plant-based diet, returned to running, bought an incredibly beautiful bicycle and tried to focus on living with mindfulness and charity. A creative writer, I drafted a plan for a novel, and I’ve been working on that as well. When the new lifestyle is working, and it often is these days, I enjoy a profound sense of purpose. That might sound a little hokey for the hard-chargers among us, but it helped.
How did your exit impact those around you or your former colleagues? Did your empowerment mirror new empowerment in them?
When I resigned, the newsroom crafted an open letter to Alden published online and signed by folks throughout the company. Soon, several Post employees and close friends left and formed The Colorado Sun. They tell me had it not been for the Rebellion, they might still be stuck working in that toxic environment. Instead, they are doing journalism they love under an ownership structure they control.
I’ve heard from strangers that what we did gave them wings. People thrill to our story, and I’m still asked to do interviews and present in public. The Denver Rebellion inspired countless people. Should you make such a move honestly and sincerely, your example and story will do so also.
That said, a note of caution. At times during the aftermath, my criticism about The Post meant to target Alden instead hurt the feelings of some of the journalists who remained behind. It’s been a rough road for the talented and hardworking journalists standing up in their own way by refusing to quit. The lesson is that you’ve got to remember that not everyone is ready or able to go rogue. There are considerations of equity or lack thereof based on race, gender, and class that impact a person’s ability to leave. Some have serious financial responsibilities and not many options. Others have a desire to continue the work they know down in their bones to be critically important and so they choose to endure.
Praise them, and never forget.
Millennials are growing a reputation for ghosting jobs. What do you think of that course of action?
I’m old school when it comes to maintaining responsibility. If a business takes a chance on you and invests in you, you owe it a substantial return. Even after Alden put so much pressure on me that I felt forced to resign, I wrote a letter of resignation and remained on hand for a few more weeks to ease the transition of my departure. I take a dim view of leaving others in a lurch. You may think you’re just sticking it to the man, but really it is others like you who are left to take up the slack. That said, there are cases when someone is undergoing physical or emotional harm. Getting out of those kinds of situations on your terms is completely understandable and necessary.
What is your greatest advice to people considering going rogue at work?
You will know clearly when the time comes. You’ll know you’re in the right if your work ethic is superior to theirs.
Next, take care to craft your argument for leaving and look for a way to make it matter. Don’t blow the opportunity by second-guessing and wimping out. Embrace your decision and act in a manner that befits your convictions.
We didn’t just flip the man the bird. We assembled a package of fact-based opinion pieces that honored the highest standards of our noble profession. We played to our strengths to underscore the depravity of those who sought to undo us.
Finally, be prepared to accept a genuine open hand. Had the vultures gotten the message, I would’ve been proud to reconsider. If what you do leads to a sincere effort to reform, praise it and do right by it.
That said, I certainly wouldn’t expect a positive response from management. Be ready. Finally, steel your nerves. For no matter what happens, it will be a wild-ass ride.
Do you recommend any resources for people who are considering this decision?
I didn’t look to anything new in the run-up to publishing the “News Matters” Perspective. In recent months I came across a collection of essays by the Harvard Business Review titled On Mental Toughness that helped get me through the aftermath.
If you’re in a toxic situation, you likely have favorite books or movies, albums or songs, poems and the like that have guided you to this point and built your values and instincts.
I remember often thinking of the New Testament verse that I boiled down in paraphrase as, To whom much is given, much is expected. My take on it was that I had this high-profile job that came with an enormous responsibility to the public. Circumstance showed me a way to call out a clear and present danger. The job required that I do the right thing.
You carry wisdom like that with you, or you wouldn’t be asking yourself these questions. Trust the ideas that helped make you who you are, do right by them, and the rest will take care of itself.