Recently we learned that the worst of the bottom-feeding newspaper chains, Digital First Media, was seeking to acquire Gannett Co., which owns USA Today and about 100 other publications. Now the New York Post is reporting that the deal could flip the other way: Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that owns Digital First, might sell to Gannett instead.
On a 1-10 scale of whether this is good news or bad news, I’d give it a 5.1. As I argued in a recent column for WGBHNews.org, anything is better than Digital First. No doubt Gannett ownership would be a marginal improvement for Gannett’s three Massachusetts papers — the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
But Gannett virtually invented the business model for chain newspapers of cutting journalism to the bone while driving up profit margins for the benefit of Wall Street. Just last week Gannett tore through another round of cuts at its newsrooms across the country. So let’s not get too excited.
It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.
Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:
The proposal from Digital First Media to acquire Gannett has been published: https://t.co/E7epJn8YFG DFM's argument to investors could be summarized as "We would cut more costs, maximize cash flow, and kill all digital investments." pic.twitter.com/xrz8kD68IT
Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.
But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.
I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.
Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.
Update:Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.
Politico media columnist Jack Shafer has written, if you can believe it, a semi-defense of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and its principal, Randall Smith, who are in the midst of running their newspapers into the ground. Alden owns the Digital First Media chain, whose Denver Post is the locus of an insurrection against hedge-fund ownership. The 100-paper chain also owns three Massachusetts properties: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Shafer’s argument is a simple one: the end is at hand for the newspaper business, no one has figured out how to reverse its shrinking fortunes, and so therefore Smith can’t be blamed for squeezing out the last few drops of profit before the industry collapses. “Smith may be a rapacious fellow,” Shafer writes, “but his primary crime is recognizing that print is approaching its expiration date and is acting on the fact that more value can be extracted by sucking the marrow than by investing deeper or selling.”
Now, it’s possible that Shafer is right. But I’m considerably more optimistic about the future of newspapers than he is. Let me offer a few countervailing examples.
1. I certainly don’t want to sound naive about GateHouse Media, a chain of several hundred papers controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group. GateHouse, which dominates Eastern Massachusetts, runs its papers on the cheap, too, and I’ve got a lot of problems with its barebones coverage of the communities it serves.
But GateHouse, unlike Digital First, is committed to newspapers. That’s why both insiders and outsiders were hoping GateHouse would buy the Herald. I genuinely think the folks at GateHouse are trying to crack the code on how to do community journalism at a profit for some years to come — and yes, its journalists are underpaid, and yes, I don’t like the fact that some editing operations have been centralized in Austin, Texas. But it could be worse, as Digital First demonstrates. For some insight into the GateHouse strategy, see this NPR story.
2. Smaller independently owned daily papers without debt can do well. The Berkshire Eagle is in the midst of a revival following its sale by Digital First to local business interests several years ago. In Maine, a printer named Reade Brower has built an in-state chain centered around the Portland Press Herald that by all accounts is doing well.
3. Large regional papers like The Denver Post are the most endangered. Transforming The Washington Post into a profitable national news organization, as Jeff Bezos has done, was a piece of cake compared to saving metros. As I describe in “The Return of the Moguls,” billionaire owner John Henry of The Boston Globe is pursuing a strategy that could result in a return to profitability: charging as much as the market will bear for print delivery (now up to more than $1,000 a year) and digital subscriptions ($30 a month). Globe executives say the paper is on track to pass the 100,000 mark for digital subscriptions in the first half of this year, and that the business model will start to look sustainable if it can reach 200,000.
In other words, reinventing the newspaper business is not a hopeless task. Randall Smith and Alden Global Capital have taken the easy, cynical route — but not the only route. There are better ways.
It looked like a one-off last month when The Denver Post rebelled against its hedge-fund owner. In publishing an editorial and several commentaries denouncing Alden Global Capital as “vulture capitalists,” the Post’s journalists took what was seen by most observers as a courageous but futile stand.
But now the rebellion is starting to spread. And there is hope, however slight, that Digital First Media — the newspaper chain controlled by Alden — can somehow be pushed into doing the right thing. As CNN media reporter Brian Stelter writes, there were protests scheduled for today in Denver and New York City, the latter to take place outside Alden’s headquarters.
What’s happening matters nationally, and it matters locally. Digital First is one of our largest newspaper chains, controlling nearly 100 newspapers on both coasts and at points in between. Locally, Digital First operates The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, and, since earlier this year, the Boston Herald. So intent is Digital First on cutting costs that it actually closed the Sentinel’s offices, switching to a “virtual newsroom,” which is apparently now acceptable corporate-speak for “no newsroom.”
The rebellion against Digital First got a boost last week when Ken Doctor, citing documents he had obtained, reported in the Nieman Journalism Lab that the company had run up a profit margin of 17 percent in the 12-month period that ended on June 30, 2017. The Lowell and Fitchburg papers were particularly lucrative, with a profit of 26 percent. The numbers were shocking, as they demonstrated that the papers are generating more than enough money to cover their communities if only it wasn’t being siphoned off by Alden principal Randall Smith to buy mansions in Palm Beach, Florida.
At the moment, there are no signs of protests coming to Massachusetts — but that could change. And Colorado continues to be a hotbed of unrest. In his latest, Doctor reports that former Post owner Dean Singleton, known as a brutal cost-cutter when he was at the height of his powers years ago, is so appalled by the cuts that he’s resigned as chair of the Post’s editorial board. “At the end of my career, I don’t want to be a part of it,” Singleton said. “The Post has been totally gutted of news coverage and of editorial coverage. That’s a fact.”
Several others also resigned, including editorial-page editor Chuck Plunkett, who was the force behind the Post’s anti-Alden Capital package last month. The reason: Ownership refused to let him write about another Digital First property in Colorado, the Daily Camera of Boulder, where editorial-page editor David Krieger was fired after he self-published a rant that criticized Alden. Doctor writes that the Camera might simply eliminate the editorial pages — which, I’m told, has become common practice at Digital First’s smaller papers. Back in Denver, some 55 Post journalists signed an open letter, saying they were “outraged” at the silencing of Plunkett.
The uprising against Alden Capital demonstrates that there is still money in newspapers. In fact, though the technology-driven changes that have decimated newspaper revenues over the past 25 years are very real, they are only half the story. Debt-free newspapers that are rooted in the community, and that are not forced to ship their revenues off to greed-crazed owners, can still manage to turn a profit. And though virtually all newsrooms have shrunk in response to the changing economics of journalism, a 17 percent margin obviously requires a lot more blood on the floor than, say, a more modest goal of 5 to 10 percent.
The challenge is that corporate chain ownership, accompanied by unrealistic profit expectations, remains the prevailing business model in the newspaper business, notwithstanding a few wealthy owners who are trying to buck the tide. Locally, for example, more than 100 papers, including key dailies such as the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, the Providence Journal, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, are owned by GateHouse Media, which is controlled by yet another hedge fund, Fortress Investment Group.
GateHouse has its own well-earned reputation for operating its newspapers on a shoestring. Unlike Digital First, though, GateHouse appears to be committed to staying in the newspaper business rather that choking out the last drop of value — which is why a lot of us thought GateHouse would be the lesser of two evils when Digital First emerged as a last-minute bidder for the Boston Herald. (As it turned out, Gatehouse won anyway: Digital First moved the Herald’s printing operation from The Boston Globe’s facility in Taunton to the Providence Journal.)
The only hope now is that outrage against Digital First will harm Alden Capital’s bottom line. Economic pressure combined with the emergence of civic-minded local buyers could provide these papers with a fresh start — as happened several years ago in Pittsfield, when Digital First sold the Berkshire Eagle (and several affiliated papers in Vermont) to a group of local business leaders.
If nothing else, the rebellion against Digital First should help educate the public that it doesn’t have to be this way. Run properly, newspapers can still make money while fulfilling their mission of holding government and other institutions to account. Getting the hedge funds out will not solve journalism’s long-term economic challenges. But it would be a welcome start.
It was an unprecedented rebellion against the most notorious of the bottom-feeding newspaper chains. Over the weekend The Denver Post, gutted beyond recognition by Digital First Media, its hedge-fund-backed owner, published an editorial and a package of commentaries protesting endless rounds of cuts in the paper’s reporting staff. The editorial referred to the paper’s corporate overlords as “vulture capitalists” and said in part:
We call for action. Consider this editorial and this Sunday’s Perspective offerings a plea to Alden [Global Capital] — owner of Digital First Media, one of the largest newspaper chains in the country — to rethink its business strategy across all its newspaper holdings. Consider this also a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better. Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely — at least not until Alden has squeezed every last penny out of the Post and the nationwide chain of newspapers it owns, ranging from The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register on the West Coast to, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
As I’ve noted previously, Alden is controlled by an ultrawealthy financier named Randall Smith who, according to investigative reporting by Julie Reynolds in The Nation, plundered his newspapers in order to amass the $57 million he needed to purchase 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Digital First has also been accused of diverting hundreds of millions of dollars into investments managed by Alden, according to Reynolds.
The allegations against Digital First and Alden may be shocking, but they also underscore an important fact that casual observers often miss: there’s still plenty of money in newspapers, even though the business continues to shrink. Indeed, as the editorial in The Denver Post pointed out, Digital First was “solidly profitable” last year. Yet the Post’s newsroom has shrunk from more than 250 several years ago to fewer than 100 today — and will soon sink below 70.
Among those who contributed to the Post’s anti-Digital First package was Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe who worked as editor of the Post for 14 years, quitting two years ago rather than continuing to slash his reporting staff. “The Post cannot do its job starved of resources the way it is now,” Moore wrote. “Deep investigations can take months, running down news tips can take days, gathering and analyzing records can cost thousands of dollars, and getting the right photograph that tells a story better than words ever can takes patience. All of that is at stake with the relentless cutting taking place.”
Ironically (or perhaps not ironically), the Post on Friday published a preview of the baseball season in which it ran a six-column photo of Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia instead Denver’s own Coors Field. Now, yes, it’s the sort of mistake that any 12-year-old baseball fan should have caught. But it’s also the sort of mistake that a demoralized, skeletal staff seemed almost destined to make. (The Post blamed it on a “production error.”)
So what can be done? Moore offered several suggestions: forming a public-private partnership, creating a foundation, or somehow persuading Digital First to spend a little more on journalism and a little less on Randall Smith’s mansions and speculative investments. The most promising of Moore’s ideas, though, is to find another buyer. If Smith and his hatchetman at Alden — Heath Freeman, likened to the fictional Wall Street villain Gordon Gekko in a recent Bloomberg View column by Joe Nocera — can be persuaded to sell now rather than wait for the last profits to trickle in, then perhaps journalism in Denver can be saved.
Just recently the Los Angeles Times, laid low by the corporate depredations of a chain known (seriously) as tronc, with a lowercase “t,” was purchased by a billionaire surgeon named Patrick Soon-Shiong. It’s too early to know what Soon-Shiong’s intentions are, but, if nothing else, he could give the Times a chance to grow again. Billionaire ownership has also benefited The Washington Post, which claims to be turning a profit under Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and The Boston Globe, which is holding steady under financier and Red Sox principal owner John Henry.
Digital First’s initial reaction to the Denver uprising was more hands-off than one might have imagined. According to Sydney Ember of The New York Times, the company decided to let the commentary remain online and to go ahead with plans to include it in the Post’s print edition. The editorial-page editor, Chuck Plunkett, who conceived of the package, will remain on board.
But it remains to be seen whether what happened last weekend was the start of something big — or a futile gesture, quickly forgotten and not to be repeated as Digital First’s newspapers continue their long, not-so-slow slide to oblivion.
The Nation recently published a splendid takedown of Randall Smith, a little-known Wall Street tycoon whose avarice has hollowed out daily newspapers from coast to coast. By “gutting” his papers, Julie Reynolds reports, Smith was able to amass the $57 million he needed to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline,” she writes. “Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”
The name of Smith’s newspaper empire is Digital First Media, an ironic moniker for an enterprise dedicated to the proposition that every last penny should be squeezed out of the shrinking print business. But the name isn’t just ironic — it’s also iconic. Although Reynolds doesn’t mention it in her story, it wasn’t that long ago that Digital First was created by a charismatic, foul-mouthed executive who was hailed as a possible savior of the news business.
If you’re a newspaper junkie, you’ll remember him: John Paton, celebrated by The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review, a man given to florid pronouncements about the need for newspapers to adapt to digital as rapidly as possible lest they die of irrelevance. As the CJR put it in 2011: “To those who complained that digital ad prices were so low compared to print ads that it was like ‘trading dollars for dimes,’ he retorted with his catchphrase, ‘Start stacking dimes.’”
Paton was put in charge of two moribund newspaper chains: the Journal Register Co., whose flagship was the New Haven Register, and MediaNews Group, whose largest paper was The Denver Post. He called the amalgamation Digital First, and he vowed either to save the business or to go down trying.
My first encounter with the Digital First aura came in the summer of 2011, when I interviewed Matt DeRienzo, then the young new editor of the Register, who’d already made his mark at a smaller Journal Register paper by opening a café and inviting the public to attend news meetings. “‘Digital First’ to me means putting journalism first, and it means putting community first, or readers first,” DeRienzo told me. “Readers don’t need to come to us as this exclusive voice on high, like the nightly news. There are 8 million sources of information out there for us, and our job is to sift through that for them and curate and aggregate and do original reporting as well, and to work with them at every step of the process to connect them with that. And we’re the better for it, I think.”
Paton’s most ambitious initiative was something called Project Thunderdome, whose mission was to create common content and production platforms for Digital First’s papers, allowing local journalists to focus on covering their communities. But the Paton era proved to be shockingly brief. That’s because Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that was headed by Randall Smith, began bleeding Digital First dry before Paton’s vision could be fully implemented. Project Thunderdome was shut down. Costs were cut. The company’s newspapers didn’t even have decent websites. (So much for “digital first.”) DeRienzo quit in 2014, and Paton left the following year.
Jim Brady, a former washingtonpost.com editor who had run Project Thunderdome as Digital First’s top editor, spoke favorably of Paton when we talked in early 2016. “He was maybe a little more aggressive and beat his chest a little bit more than I would,” said Brady, who subsequently launched a company that operates the mobile-first local news sites Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh. “On the other hand, it got him a lot of attention and probably allowed us to hire some people, get some people interested in us that wouldn’t have been interested otherwise.”
As Julie Reynolds notes in her article in The Nation, Digital First is now one of the country’s largest newspaper chains. The company bought the Orange County Register out of bankruptcy in 2016 following Boston businessman Aaron Kushner’s failed attempt to restore the Register’s fortunes. In Massachusetts, Digital First owns the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Sun of Lowell. With luck, perhaps Digital First will someday sell them to local buyers, as it did with the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a transaction that has revived the Eagle and its affiliated papers in southern Vermont.
“Unlike large corporate owners in the past,” Reynolds writes, “the stated goal of the investment firms is not to keep struggling newspapers alive; it is to siphon off the assets and profits, then dispose of what little remains.”
The Digital First story might have had a different ending if Paton had been able to implement his ideas. To this day many smaller papers without debt and with little competition are making money and serving their communities, even if they’re not exactly thriving. Long-term, their demise may be inevitable. Short-term, they’re being hustled along to the boneyard by the likes of Digital First.
The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.
Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.
Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.
I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.
Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.
Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.
The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.
In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).
Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.
Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.
Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.
One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.
No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.