Why revelations about Alden’s acquisition of Tribune should force a do-over

Photo (cc) 2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Could Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing be headed for a do-over? Julie Reynolds, who’s been reporting on the hedge fund’s evisceration of newspapers for years, has written a fascinating story for the Nieman Journalism Lab suggesting that the $633 million deal may have been illegal.

Alden, which already owned 32% of Tribune’s papers, pledged to pay $375 million in cash in order to bring its share up to 100%. But Reynolds reports that Alden didn’t actually have the cash, a fact that may have been known only to the three members of Tribune’s board who were affiliated with the hedge fund.

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As soon as the transaction was consummated, Alden forced the papers to borrow about $300 million. That included $60 million from Alden’s other newspaper chain, MediaNews Group, at an eye-popping interest rate of 13%. As everyone predicted, Alden has gone on a cost-cutting rampage, offering buyouts throughout the chain.

Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of Tribune’s largest paper, the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, “The scale of talent leaving the Chicago Tribune is staggering.

Reynolds also reports that the full Tribune board may have been left in the dark about a private meeting that Tribune board member and Alden founder Randall Smith had with Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum last year.

You may recall that Bainum had initially worked out an agreement under which Alden would buy Tribune’s nine major-market dailies and then sell one of them, The Baltimore Sun, to Bainum, who planned to donate it to a nonprofit organization. After Bainum concluded that Alden was trying to gouge him, he tried to put together a bid for the entire chain. Most if not all of the papers would have been spun off to local buyers. But he was never able to put together a firm offer, and the board went with Alden instead. Alden is keeping all nine papers, including the Sun.

As Reynolds notes, the Tribune board spurned Bainum’s higher offer because the financing was not in place — and ignored the reality that Alden’s wasn’t in place, either. She writes:

Given the healthy profits Tribune has generated over the last several quarters, the cuts are there for just one reason: to achieve higher margins for Alden. Randall Smith will get richer while communities served by Tribune are starved of the information they need.

If Reynolds is correct in asserting that laws were broken in order to pave the way for Alden’s acquisition of Tribune, then the punishment ought to be more than a fine and a slap on the wrist. The sale should be voided and the Tribune board should be forced to vote again.

Maybe this time Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, can be persuaded to stop Alden. As a 25% owner of Tribune before the sale, Soon-Shiong could have said no. Instead, he abstained, and did it in a manner that allowed the transaction to go through.

I’m also lighting up the Bat Signal again for Jeff Bezos.

Previous coverage.

A small example of how racially biased algorithms distort social media

You may have heard that the algorithms used by Facebook and other social media platforms are racially biased. I ran into a small but interesting example of that earlier today.

My previous post is about a webinar on news co-ops that I attended last week. I used a photo of Kevon Paynter, co-founder of Bloc by Block News, as the lead art and a photo of Jasper Wang, co-founder of The Defector, well down in the piece.

But when I posted links on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, all three of them automatically grabbed the photo of Wang as the image that would go with the link. For example, here’s how it appeared on Twitter.

I don’t know what happened. Paynter was more central to what I was writing, which is why I led with his photo. Paynter is Black; Wang is of Asian descent. There’s more contrast in the image of Wang, which may be why the algorithms identified it as a superior picture. But in so doing they ignored my choice of Paynter as the lead.

File this under “Things that make you go hmmmm.”

Are cooperatively owned news projects an idea whose time has finally come?

Kevon Paynter. Photo via Bloc by Block News.

Among the more intriguing business models for news organizations is the co-op. They’ve been slow to get started, but their time may finally be coming. For years I followed the Banyan Project’s efforts to launch a demonstration site in Haverhill, Massachusetts, which ended up falling short. The Mendocino Voice is transitioning from for-profit to a co-op that will be owned by employees and readers. And the Voice is not alone.

Last week I sat in on a webinar called “Cooperatives in a Changing Media Landscape,” part of the Next Gen Entrepreneurship online conference. Two people immersed in co-ops discussed their experience: Kevon Paynter, co-founder and executive director of a project called Bloc by Block News, which reports on news in Maryland and aggregates the work of other publishers; and Jasper Wang, the co-owner and vice president of revenue and operations at The Defector, a mostly sports site founded by former employees of Deadspin, which in its heyday was part of the Gawker network. The moderator was Olivia Henry, a graduate student at the University of California in Davis.

The two projects are very different. The Defector was born big, launching last year with 19 employees — 18 of them editors and writers — and 10,000 subscribers. It currently has 39,000 subscribers. According to Wang, everyone is being paid a salary. The lowest is $58,500, with the possibility of making more depending on how much revenue the site is generating. (It’s more complicated than that, but never mind.)

Jasper Wang. Photo via McSweeney’s.

“We’ve been financially sustainable since pretty early on,” Wang said. The site is owned by the employees, he added, with everyone participating in the governance of the site.

For those of us who are concerned about the local news crisis, Bloc by Block is intriguing. Paynter said the spark for it came during the 2016 election. When he went home to New Jersey to vote, he said, he knew who he would cast his presidential ballot for — but he didn’t have a clue about many of the other offices that were also being contested.

“I had no idea who to vote for when it came down to the local issues,” he said. He added that when he started talking with people after the election, many told him they simply vote for one party, Google the candidates or “we kind of make a guess the night before.”

Bloc by Block is supported by nonprofit foundation money, including Maryland Humanities; Paynter sees covering the arts and culture as part of his local news mission. The project is developing a mobile app that will allow users to see news from multiple publishers. Noting that there are more than 130 newspapers in Maryland, Paynter said, “There’s a discoverability issue, and we want to solve for that.”

Unlike The Defector, Bloc by Block is what Paynter calls a “multi-stakeholder cooperative,” with ownership shared among readers and the publishers whose news is being aggregated. Readers themselves can cover local governmental and neighborhood meetings, he added.

“It’s really about civic engagement as well as news,” he said, explaining that he wants his audience to “not simply be passive consumers of information but active participants.”

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Bringing a new Light to the undercovered community of New Bedford

Palmer’s Island Lighthouse in New Bedford Harbor. Photo (cc) 2010 by the Massachusetts Office of Travel and Tourism.

The New Bedford Light, a nonprofit news project launched recently, could lay claim to being the most highly touted community journalism organization in quite some time. Today, The New York Times weighs in. Previously, The Boston Globe and CommonWealth Magazine ran profiles.

As the Times’ Katharine Q. Seelye notes, the Light’s model is to run one significant story a day in the hopes of filling the gap created by the implosion of The Standard-Times, a venerable New Bedford daily that has been ripped apart under the ownership of the Gannett chain.

“We cannot go down the route of the daily newspaper that tries to do all things for all people,” the editor, Barbara Roessner, told Seelye. “The challenge for us is to stay disciplined to do the deeper work and not be caught up in the daily news cycle.”

I’m not so sure about that. As I’ve written previously, what the city might need more than anything is daily accountability journalism. It can be done effectively with a small staff, as the New Haven Independent, to name one example, has been demonstrating for nearly 16 years.

Still, the Light is attractive and has published some significant stories since its debut. Leading the site right now is a story by Will Sennott on the city’s looming eviction crisis. Other recent stories include a look at the effects of rising real-estate prices and racial and ethnic patterns of where COVID-19 hit the New Bedford area the hardest.

The leadership of the Light is unusually high-powered. Roessner is a former managing editor of the Hartford Courant and former executive editor of the Hearst Connecticut Media Group. The publisher is Stephen Taylor, a former top executive of The Boston Globe as well as a member of the family that used to own the Globe. Walter Robinson of “Spotlight” fame is a board member.

It looks like the Light should go a long way toward changing New Bedford’s status as an undercovered community.

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Janet Malcolm was a brilliant analyst of journalism’s ethics and morals

Janet Malcolm, at right. Photo (cc) 2013 by kellywritershouse.

Janet Malcolm, who died on Wednesday at 86, wrote perhaps our finest meditation on the ethics and morality of journalism. At The New Yorker, Ian Frazier has written an eloquent appreciation of her life and work.

“The Journalist and the Murderer,” a two-part essay published in The New Yorker that was later turned into a book, is ostensibly about a lawsuit filed by Dr. Jeffrey MacDonald, a convicted murderer, against Joe McGinniss, who wrote about the case in his bestselling book “Fatal Vision.”

MacDonald sued McGinniss for fraud and breach of contract because McGinniss — in order to maintain access — had continued to pretend that he believed in MacDonald’s innocence long after he’d concluded the former Army doctor really had murdered his wife and two young daughters. Malcolm argued that was no different from what all journalists do.

We all know the opening line to “The Journalist and the Murderer”: “Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible.” So let me treat you to her lurid yet precise closing, less often cited, on the foolishness of those who let themselves be seduced by a journalist:

Like the young Aztec men and women selected for sacrifice, who lived in delightful ease and luxury until the appointed day when their hearts were to be carved from their chests, journalistic subjects know all too well what awaits them when the days of wine and roses — the days of the interviews — are over. And still they say yes when a journalist calls, and still they are astonished when they see the flash of the knife.

As

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No. In fact I had hoped to be able to say — since the judge kind of cheated me out of my opportunity to be redirected — Dan [Daniel Kornstein, the defense lawyer] said I had time to be redirected — then Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions so that — the judge just let him go on and on — and then finally there wasn’t really time because I had to catch a plane at a certain hour. However, the material I gave to Kornfeld, was that having looked at all this and having slept on this material the night after my first appearance at trial, I had a kind of insight, if you will, that the four intruders represented, psychologically speaking, the only truthful thing that MacDonald had told — that there were really four intruders — but, of course, they weren’t exactly as he depicted them — but there were four people who intruded upon the hedonistic — and — life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald — and four people who, you know, intruded into his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father, namely Colette, Kristy, Kimberly, and the unborn son. In my text I rendered this as: No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

And here is how Malcolm edited the quote for publication:

No. In fact — and this, too, was something I wasn’t able to say in court, since Bostwick cleverly ate up all the time with a bunch of silly questions and I had to catch a plane — the four intruders who MacDonald claimed were responsible for the murders represented the only truth, psychologically speaking, that he told. There really were four people who intruded on the hedonistic life style and whoring around of Jeff MacDonald: the four people who intruded on his disinclination to be a responsible husband and father; namely, Colette, Kristen, Kimberly, and the unborn son.

Quite a difference. Malcolm defends her method on the grounds that spoken English is impossible to render in written English except with extensive editing, but that it should remain true to what the person actually said. “The idea of a reporter inventing rather than reporting speech is a repugnant, even sinister, one,” she says, all the while insisting that’s not what she’s doing.

But most of us were trained on the AP Stylebook, which takes a rather different view of what constitutes an accurate quote: “Never alter quotations even to correct minor grammatical errors or word usage. Casual minor tongue slips may be removed by using ellipses but even that should be done with extreme caution.”

William Zinsser, in his classic book “On Writing Well,” includes a useful discussion of the issue ranging from Malcolm to the legendary New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, who took considerable liberties with what people told him. Zinsser’s verdict: “I know that it’s just not possible to write a competent interview without some juggling and eliding of quotes; don’t believe any writer who claims he never does it. But many shades of opinion exist on both sides of mine.”

I agree with Zinsser. When I’m writing longer pieces, especially books, I do some compressing and editing, but I would not go nearly as far as Malcolm. If a person is that inarticulate, well, that’s what indirect quoting is for.

I also disagree with Malcolm that what we do is “morally indefensible.” The idea that every interview is a con, and that our job is to smile and let our subject think we’re on their side before we plunge in the knife, is offensive and wrong. The value in Malcolm’s observation is that it makes us think about what we do so that we can be better journalists and — dare I say — better human beings.

By the way, I have long been convinced that Jeffrey MacDonald’s murder trial was grossly unfair and that he might even be innocent. Years ago I reviewed “A Wilderness of Error,” Errol Morris’ book about the MacDonald case, for BookForum. Morris is withering in his assessment of McGinniss; but he was frustrated with Malcolm, who was someone he admired, for failing to grapple with the possibility that MacDonald had not committed the monstrous crime of which he was convicted. You can read my review here.

Talking about the local news crisis with Frank News

I spoke with a news organization called Frank News about the local news crisis, the role of corporate chains and hedge funds in making a bad situation worse, and what steps might be taken to improve the situation. Please have a look.

The AP will no longer publish the names of suspects charged with minor crimes

The Associated Press, in a long-overdue move, has announced that it will stop reporting the names of suspects who are arrested and charged with minor crimes. The worldwide news agency says that not only do those names lack newsworthiness but the lack of follow-up means that it would never be reported if they were acquitted. John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards, writes:

These minor stories, which only cover an arrest, have long lives on the internet. AP’s broad distribution network can make it difficult for the suspects named in such items to later gain employment or just move on in their lives.

The AP will also “stop publishing stories driven mainly by a particularly embarrassing mugshot,” he adds.

A shocking omission from a high school yearbook

This is nauseating. From The New York Times:

Morgyn Arnold is a natural cheerleader. She grew up supporting her six older siblings at sporting events in Utah and followed in her father’s and sister’s footsteps by becoming a cheerleader herself.

For Morgyn, who has Down syndrome, being on the Shoreline Junior High School cheer squad gave her a chance to make friends and feel included after transferring to the school last summer.

But when the school yearbook came out a few weeks ago, Morgyn, 14, was not in the team’s photo or listed as part of the squad. The school has since apologized for what it called an “error,” but Morgyn’s sister Jordyn Poll said she believed that the exclusion was intentional.

It sounds like it wouldn’t have happened if the kids were in charge.

Bipartisan federal legislation would provide tax credits to ease the local news crisis

Bipartisan legislation has been introduced in Congress that would provide some government support for local news. The ubiquitous Steve Waldman, the co-founder of Report for America and the chair of the Rebuild Local News Coalition, writes that the bill “would provide more help for local news than any time in about a century, yet it’s done in a very First-Amendment-friendly way.”

Waldman has the details, so I’ll just hit the highlights:

  • It would provide a tax credit of up to $250 each year for subscriptions or donations to local news — a measure Waldman has been talking about for quite a while.
  • Payroll tax credits would be available to publishers for hiring or retaining journalists.
  • Small businesses would receive a tax credit for advertising in local news outlets.

The bill, known as the Local Journalism Sustainability Act, is co-sponsored by Reps. Dan Newhouse, R-Wash., and Ann Kirkpatrick, D-Ariz.

My reservation about this legislation is that would benefit chain-owned papers as much as it would independent papers and websites. I guess that’s OK, and it’s hard to imagine how to cut out the corporations while keeping benefits for independents. But I’m concerned that the legislation might freeze in place the advantage already held by corporate-owned legacy outlets without providing them much in the way of an incentive to improve their journalism.

On the other hand, I agree with Waldman that the legislation is ingenious in the way that it would provide government support for local news without making news organizations dependent on currying favor with the very people they’re covering. Another smart move: benefits would be limited to organizations with fewer than 750 employees, which would leave out the large national newspapers.

Overall, it’s a pretty interesting step that might help ease the local news crisis. I don’t see this as a comprehensive solution, but even a boost on the margins would help.

Apocalypse now: When political fervor turns religious

Painting by Frederic Schopin (1804-1880) depicting the First Crusade — “Battle delivered under the walls of Antioch between the crusaders led by Bohemond and the army of Karbouka, general of the Sultan of Persia, June 1098” (via Time.com)

In the spring of 2016, as it was beginning to look like Donald Trump might actually win the Republican presidential nomination, I attended a talk at the Harvard Kennedy School by Michael Ignatieff, a prominent Canadian politician and academic. He was appalled by Trump’s rise, as were we all. But I was struck by his peculiarly Canadian analysis.

“Politics,” he said, “should be boring.”

Read the rest at GBH News.