‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH News.

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

Can Gannett and McClatchy’s joint venture reinvigorate national advertising?

At root, the debate over whether Google and Facebook should pay for news is about how their duopoly destroyed the value of digital advertising and then kept most of the revenues for themselves.

News, which is expensive, can’t survive on the pennies brought in by Google’s programmatic ads. That’s why there’s been so much emphasis in recent years on reader revenue — an emphasis that, at least in a few places, is starting to pay off.

Still, it would surely be a positive if news organizations could develop a revenue stream other than digital subscriptions. When readers are empowered, they expect their preferences and prejudices to be catered to. You need a balance. That’s why it’s interesting to see Axios’ recent report that Gannett and McClatchy will combine forces to sell national advertising for their hundreds of local and regional papers.

Can Gannett and McClatchy’s efforts drive up the price of digital ads? That’s the real issue, and without that their effort is not going to have much of an effect. Of course, it also does nothing to boost ad sales at the local level, which have been on the decline for years. Yes, local businesses have gravitated to Facebook just like everyone else. But local newspapers aren’t exactly known for being aggressive and creative about selling to the local hair salons, pizza restaurants and funeral homes, either. It can be done. Just ask Howard Owens, publisher of The Batavian in western New York state.

The partnership shows why I differentiate between Gannett and Alden Global Capital, even though their nuke-the-newsroom approach to the bottom line looks very much the same on the ground. Alden, by all appearances, is trying to squeeze as much money as it can out of the newspapers it’s killing and then get out. Gannett, on the other hand, is hoping to build a community news chain that can be sustainable in the long run.

Gannett’s biggest mistake, carried over from its predecessor company, GateHouse Media, is that its executives think they can build for the future while failing to provide enough journalism to retain readers. No matter how smart your business model, it’s not going to work if all you’re offering your audience is a shell.

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Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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A dark day for Tribune’s storied newspapers — but great news in Baltimore

There is terrible news to report tonight for readers and employees of the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant — but good news in Baltimore.

A deal that had been in the works since late 2020 is close to being consummated, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital on the verge of becoming the sole owner of Tribune Publishing. As has been documented on numerous occasions here and elsewhere, Alden is the most avaricious of the chain newspaper owners, squeezing the life (and the journalism) out of its properties.

Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that Alden is paying an estimated $630 million to bring its share of Tribune from 32% to 100%. Tribune, currently a publicly traded company, will go private.

Last month the News Guild, the union that represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine papers, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission charging irregularities in Alden’s bid. No word on whether that challenge is over or if it will continue.

Meanwhile, there’s good news in Baltimore. As part of the transaction, Tribune will sell The Baltimore Sun, The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, and several other publications to a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight for All Institute. The sale caps a campaign of many months on the part of community activists.

Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted:

It’s a ray of sunshine — or a rainbow, if you will — on what is otherwise another dark day for American newspapers.

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The Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on a Spotlight reporting project

The Boston Globe will partner with the Portland Press Herald on an unspecified investigative reporting project, according to the trade publication Editor & Publisher. The partnership will produce “a multi-part investigative report that will be published by both organizations this fall.”

The project will be funded by the Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, established by the Globe and Participant Media, the producers of the movie “Spotlight.” Grants of up to $100,000 are awarded to reporters or teams of reporters. This is the first time the Globe has partnered with another news organization. The series will be published by both papers.

Scott Allen, the Globe’s assistant managing editor for projects, declined in an email to say what the topic of the reporting would be — but when I noted that the Press Herald reporter who’ll be working on the project, Penelope Overton, covers the lobster industry, Allen said that “we expect to take full advantage of her considerable expertise.”

There are some interesting intersections between the Globe and the Press Herald. The E&P story points out that Press Herald managing editor Steve Greenlee worked at the Globe for 12 years. But it goes beyond that. Lisa DeSisto, who is chief executive officer of the Press Herald and its sister papers, was previously a high-ranking business-side executive at the Globe (and, before that, a colleague of mine at The Boston Phoenix).

The two papers also have the distinction of having been pursued by Boston-area businessman Aaron Kushner, who tried to buy the Globe in 2010 and nearly succeeded in buying the Press Herald in 2012. Kushner and a team of investors ended up purchasing the Orange County Register in Southern California later in 2012. They spent considerable resources in building up the Register and acquiring and launching other papers — only to tear it all down in short order when the hoped-for revenues failed to materialize. Today the Register is owned by the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital. (I tell the story of Kushner’s newspaper adventures in my book “The Return of the Moguls.”)

Today the Press Herald is owned by Reade Brower, a printer, who’s built a small chain of Maine newspapers and gets generally high marks for his stewardship. The Globe, of course, is owned by billionaires John and Linda Henry.

The FT offers a close-up look at how Alden is destroying the Hartford Courant

The state capitol in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Not too many years ago, New England was home to a number of medium-size and smaller daily newspapers that did an excellent job of covering their communities. There are a dozen or so that come to mind. But among the largest and the best were The Providence Journal and the Hartford Courant.

The Journal, as we all know, has been decimated by its corporate-chain owner, Gannett, the successor to GateHouse Media. The Hartford Courant, which bills itself as the oldest continuously published paper in the country, has been battered for years under the ownership of a chain now known as Tribune Publishing. The Courant’s printing has been outsourced, and the newsroom was shuttered recently as well. There is no indication that reporters and editors will have a place to work other than their homes even after the COVID pandemic is behind us.

As I’ve written several times recently, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group is widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in operation, controls 32% of Tribune — and is seeking a majority share.

The Financial Times recently published a lengthy article on the plight of local news focused on the Courant. There is nothing new in the story — we hear about the widespread closure of community newspapers, the rise of hedge-fund ownership and other familiar themes. Nevertheless, it’s a strong overview for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tale of what happened to a key part of democratic life.

There are also a few points that deserve to be emphasized. At a time when profits in local news are elusive at best, Alden is living high:

The cost cutting is certainly working. MediaNews Group achieved about 20-25 per cent operating margins in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter, more than double that of peers such as Gannett or even The New York Times. In 2020, although the pandemic shattered advertising and MNG’s revenues fell by 20 per cent, the company was still on track to make a profit.

The Courant itself is doing well from a bottom-line perspective as well, earning a profit of $2 million a year, according to the FT’s reporting.

What this shows is that there is still an inflow of cash into even the most moribund newspapers. Readers buy them despite their ever-decreasing value. Businesses advertise in them. If you’re willing to gut the newspapers you own to keep expenses well below income, and to keep cutting as income continues to fall, well, yes, you can earn a profit. At some point, needless to say, you’ll reach the point at which you can no longer cut. And that’s when you shut your doors. (Oops. Bad analogy. They already have.)

Heath Freeman and other officials at Alden rarely speak for the record. When Freeman cooperated with a Washington Post reporter last year, it, uh, did not go well. So I was interested to see that the FT did manage to get a comment out of a company spokesperson named Chrissy Carvalho. It was a classic:

It’s a lot easier to make snippy anonymous comments than actually undertake the difficult task of making sure news organisations across America are able to serve their communities during a prolonged period of declining revenues.

As the FT notes, there are efforts to try to get Tribune to sell the Courant to local interests. But that’s going to be hard to do given the paper’s continued profitability. The tragedy is that the crisis afflicting local news is only partly related to external factors such as technology, the decline of advertising and the rise of Google and Facebook. Corporate greed is at least as responsible.

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Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

***

As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

***

Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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Can the union representing Tribune’s workers stop Alden Global Capital?

The union at most of Tribune Publishing’s newspapers are making a bold move to stop Alden Global Capital from destroying local journalism in their communities.

Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that the News Guild, which represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine daily newspapers, is demanding that three of the members of Tribune’s seven-person board of directors step down for violating Securities and Exchange Commission rules. The three members were appointed by Alden, a New York-based hedge fund.

One of the three is none other than Randall Smith, the subject of a brutal takedown in The Nation several years ago for pillaging his newspapers and using the money to buy 16 homes in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million. (OK, you can’t prove that there was a direct transfer of funds. But money, as they say, is fungible.)

Alden denies any wrongdoing in the would-be Tribune deal, in which it would acquire a majority share of some of our most important newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, for an offer valued at $521 million.

Earlier:

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Could Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune’s newspapers from Alden’s clutches?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2014 by NHS Confederation.

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Could the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers?

A report in today’s Wall Street Journal on Alden Global Capital’s bid to grab majority control of the company notes that Soon-Shiong is Tribune’s second-largest shareholder. Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and a bag of balls from Tribune in 2018 for about $500 million. Alden proposes to pay $521 million to up its share of Tribune from 32% to more than 50%.

Despite a somewhat rocky tenure, Soon-Shiong has invested in the L.A. Times similar to the way John and Linda Henry have with The Boston Globe and Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post. Saving Tribune papers such as The Baltimore Sun, the Daily News of New York and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant would be a tremendous act of civic leadership. And maybe an owner who’s actually interested in journalism could figure out a way to turn a small profit without stripping their newsrooms.

Soon-Shiong has plenty of money, but there are two big questions: Does he have the ambition to be a newspaper mogul on the order of William Randolph Hearst? (Even the modern-day mogul Rupert Mudoch owns just a handful of U.S. papers, including the Journal.) And can anyone restore Tribune’s papers to their former glory?

Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.