The Buell Public Media Center in Denver, home of The Colorado Sun. Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy.

Is there a silver lining hiding somewhere inside the rise of newspaper ownership by private equity? Brant Houston says yes. In a recent essay for the Gateway Journalism Review, Houston argues that what he calls the “Alden effect” has provided a significant boost to startup news projects as communities fight back against the destruction of their legacy newspapers. Alden is a reference to Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that owns two newspaper chains, MediaNews Group and Tribune Publishing, which between them control about 100 papers. Houston writes:

Alden Global is a call to arms for the creation or expansion of alternative, and often nonprofit newsrooms. A call to arms that should have been sounded years ago.

Call it the Alden effect.

Alden’s brazen and brutal harvesting of a disrupted and distressed news industry has made clear the long death spiral of newspapers and legacy media. And it has made clear how a new business model for journalism (usually a nonprofit model or a public benefit corporation) is needed and how independent digital newsrooms need to form deeper alliances.

Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois. He talked about his new book, “Changing Models for Journalism,” in an appearance last June on the “What Works” podcast. And a personal note: He was my first editor at The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn, Massachusetts, way back in 1979.

In his Gateway article, Houston traces such Alden-driven moves as a closer relationship between two existing nonprofits, Voice of San Diego and inewsource, in response to Alden’s acquisition of The San Diego Union-Tribune; the merger of WBEZ and the Chicago Sun-Times following Alden’s takeover of the Chicago Tribune; the founding of The Colorado Sun by 10 Denver Post journalists who’d had enough of Alden’s cuts; and the wealthy hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s decision to found a high-profile nonprofit, The Baltimore Banner, after he lost out to Alden in a bid to purchase Tribune Publishing, whose holdings include The Baltimore Sun.

Ellen Clegg and I encountered the Alden effect over and over in our reporting for our book, “What Works in Community News.” We might call it the “Alden and Gannett effect,” since we also examined communities whose newspapers had been shredded by Gannett, our largest newspaper chain with about 200 papers. In addition to Denver, the projects we write about that have their origins in cuts by Alden and Gannett include:

  • Memphis, Tennessee, where nonprofits such as MLK50 and the Daily Memphian are filling some of the gaps created by cuts at Gannett’s Commercial Appeal.
  • The Bedford Citizen, a small nonprofit in the Boston suburbs launched about a dozen years ago as Gannett’s predecessor company, GateHouse Media, hacked away at the local weekly and ultimately closed it.
  • Mendocino County, California, where two refugees from Alden papers started a digital site called The Mendocino Voice.
  • Santa Cruz, California, where two former employees of Alden’s Santa Cruz Sentinel founded a nonprofit called Santa Cruz Local and where a larger for-profit, Lookout Santa Cruz, is operating as well.

Starting a news project is grindingly hard work, and Ellen and I came away with enormous respect for the news entrepreneurs we interviewed. It would be easier if legacy newspapers had remained in the hands of local interests. But, as Houston argues, the rise of Alden, Gannett and other chain owners has provided a jolt to efforts aimed at reviving community-based journalism.

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