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Wendi Thomas talks about her work at MLK50, a nonprofit covering social justice in Memphis

Wendi C. Thomas. Photo (cc) 2022 by Ellen Clegg.

On the latest “What Works” podcast, we talk with Wendi C. Thomas, the editor and publisher of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism, which is based in Memphis, Tennessee. Thomas founded MLK50 in 2017 as a one-year project designed to focus on the antipoverty work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr. King had traveled to Memphis in April of 1968 to support striking sanitation workers who were fighting for safer working conditions and a living wage.

But MLK50 became much more than a one-year project. Thomas and her staff have gone on to produce journalism that has changed the dialogue, and changed lives, in Memphis. Her work has garnered numerous awards. In 2020, she was the winner of the Selden Ring Award for her groundbreaking investigative series, “Profiting from the Poor,” an investigation of a nonprofit hospital that sued poor patients over medical debt. The series, co-published with ProPublica, had major impact: the hospital erased $11.9 million in medical debt. MLK50 is one of the projects that we profile in our book, “What Works in Community News.”

Ellen Clegg has a Quick Take on the situation at the Houston Landing, a highly anticipated and well-funded nonprofit newsroom that launched in 2023. The Landing is in turmoil after CEO Peter Bhatia fired the editor and the top investigative reporter for reasons that remain mysterious.

My Quick Take is on The Baltimore Sun, the venerable 186-year-old daily newspaper that at one time was home to the infamously caustic writer H.L. Mencken. Earlier this month, Alden Global Capital sold the Sun to a right-wing television executive who hates newspapers. But not to fear — public interest journalism is alive and well in Baltimore, as I explain.

You can listen to our conversation here and subscribe through your favorite podcast app.

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How the NY Times over-interprets its reporting about billionaire media owners

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

The New York Times has published a story (free link) that calls into question the rise of billionaires who own news organizations, noting that The Washington Post under Jeff Bezos, the Los Angeles Times under Patrick Soon-Shiong and Time magazine under Marc Benioff are all losing money. True enough. My problem with the story is that reporters Benjamin Mullin and Katie Robertson try too hard to impose an ubertake when in fact there’s important background with each of those examples. Mullin and Robertson write:

All three newsrooms greeted their new owners with cautious optimism that their business acumen and tech know-how would help figure out the perplexing question of how to make money as a digital publication.

But it increasingly appears that the billionaires are struggling just like nearly everyone else. Time, The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times all lost millions of dollars last year, people with knowledge of the companies’ finances have said, after considerable investment from their owners and intensive efforts to drum up new revenue streams.

The role of wealthy newspaper owners is something of ongoing interest to me. My last book, “The Return of the Moguls” (2018), focused on the Post, The Boston Globe and the Orange County Register in Southern California, owned by a rich Boston-area businessman named Aaron Kushner. At the time the book came out, the Post was flying high, the Globe was muddling along and the Register was failing; it eventually fell into the hands of the slash-and-burn hedge fund Alden Globe Capital. The Post’s and the Globe’s fortunes have since moved in opposite directions.

Here are the particulars that get glossed over in Mullin and Robertson’s attempt to impose an overarching framework:

• Bezos, who bought the Post in 2013, made deep investments in technology and built up the staff. The result was years of growth and profits, which only came sputtering to a halt after Donald Trump left the White House. Former executive editor Marty Baron, in his book “Collision of Power,” suggests that, over time, a disciplined approach to hiring became more lax. In other words, the Post got ahead of itself and is now in the midst of a reset. A new publisher, William Lewis, begins work this month, and we’ll see if he can articulate a strategy that amounts to more than “just like the Times only not as comprehensive.”

• Benioff bought a dog and, predictably, it’s going “woof woof.” Time was the largest of the Big Three newsweeklies, along with Newsweek and U.S. World & News Report; it’s also the only one of the three that still exists in a somewhat recognizable form. Newsweeklies succeeded because, pre-internet, you couldn’t get great national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal delivered to your doorstep. Not only is there no discernible reason for them to exist anymore, but the leading newsweekly these days, at least in terms of cachet, is The Economist.

• Not all billionaire owners are in it for the right reasons, and Soon-Shiong has proven to be an uncertain leader. Does he care about the Los Angeles Times or not? He’s built it up; now he’s tearing it down. He recently pushed out his executive editor, Kevin Merida, the most prominent Black editor in the country, and he’s done some truly awful things such as delivering Tribune Publishing’s papers to Alden Global Capital and more recently selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden.

So what does that tell us about billionaire owners? Not much. As Mullin and Robertson acknowledge, some are doing just fine, including The Boston Globe under John and Linda Henry and The Atlantic under Laurene Powell Jobs. They could have also mentioned the Star Tribune of Minneapolis under Glen Taylor or, for that matter, The New York Times, a publicly traded company that is nevertheless under the tight control of the Sulzberger family. I don’t think the Sulzbergers are billionaires, but they are not poor.

At the moment, it seems that the only two viable models for large regional dailies is individual ownership by wealthy people who are willing to invest in future profitability and nonprofit ownership, either in the form of a nonprofit organization owning a for-profit paper, as with The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Tampa Bay Times, or a paper that goes fully nonprofit, as with The Salt Lake Tribune and The Baltimore Banner. The Banner is a digital startup that nevertheless is attempting to position itself as a comprehensive replacement for The Baltimore Sun. The Sun, in turn, was one of the Tribune papers that Soon-Shiong helped gift-wrap for Alden, and just this past week was sold to right-wing television executive David Smith.

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Why we should be wary of The Baltimore Sun’s return to local ownership

The Baltimore Sun’s convoluted ownership journey took an unexpected turn on Monday. The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which acquired the paper as part of its purchase of Tribune Publishing in 2021, sold the Sun to David Smith, who’s executive chairman of the television network Sinclair. The price has not been disclosed.

Smith is a Baltimore guy, and he’s buying the Sun as an individual — that is, the Sun will not be part of Sinclair. In that respect, the deal is similar to Jeff Bezos’ purchase of The Washington Post in 2013. The Post is not part of Amazon, although the mega-retailer was enlisted to sell discount descriptions to the Post, especially during the early years of Bezos’ ownership.

We are in the early hours of the Sun deal, so we don’t know how this is going to play out. It’s striking how much fear and criticism I’ve seen given Alden’s reputation as the worst newspaper owner on the planet, infamous for slashing newsrooms, selling off real estate and making journalists work out of their homes. Normally a transfer to independent ownership would be celebrated, and, in fact, Smith might provide an infusion of cash and energy. Then again, he might also bring his toxic brand of right-wing politics to the Sun.

The Sun is the flagship of a regional group that also includes the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, the site of a horrific mass shooting some years ago.

This didn’t have to happen. Back when Tribune was for sale, Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum reached an agreement to buy the Sun from Alden once Alden had acquired Tribune. Bainum, though, came to believe that Alden was not adhering to that agreement, and he wound up bidding for all of Tribune’s nine major-market newspapers.

Although Bainum was offering more money than Alden ($680 million versus $635 million), word at the time was that Alden’s bid was more straightforward, and the vulture capitalists won the prize. Among other things, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and then a member of Tribune’s board, declined to stop the sale to Alden, for which he was roundly criticized.

Bainum, meanwhile, used some of his wealth to found The Baltimore Banner, a nonprofit digital venture that immediately established a reputation for journalistic excellence. It will be fascinating to see whether Smith rebuilds the Sun into a worthy competitor to the Banner, or if instead he uses it to grind his political axe.

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In ‘Hedged,’ Margot Susca explains how private equity destroyed newspapers

The media business analyst Alan Mutter once memorably asserted that newspapers’ “Original Sin” dates back to the mid 1990s, when they started giving away their journalism for free on the internet. Margot Susca, though, argues that the real fall from grace came roughly a decade later, when Fortress Investment Group paid $530 million to acquire Liberty Group Publishing, renaming it GateHouse Media. That transaction marked the beginning of the private equity era in journalism, an era defined by hollowed-out newsrooms and ghost newspapers that lack the resources to provide the communities they purportedly serve with the news and information they need.

Susca, an assistant professor of journalism at American University, tells the sad story of how private equity wiped out vast swaths of the newspaper business in “Hedged: How Private Investment Funds Helped Destroy American Newspapers and Undermine Democracy.”

Read the rest at The Arts Fuse.

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Kevin Merida’s departure from the LA Times raises doubts about its billionaire owner

Kevin Merida. Photo (cc) 2021 by Michifornia.

There’s some very bad news coming out of Los Angeles this week. Kevin Merida, the executive editor of the Los Angeles Times, is stepping down after just two and a half years on the job. Merida, who previously held high-level jobs at The Washington Post and ESPN, is perhaps the country’s most prominent Black editor, and his departure raises serious questions about the LA Times’ owner, billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong, who bought the paper in 2018.

Soon-Shiong has certainly been a better steward than a corporate chain or hedge fund would have been, but his time at the helm has been unsteady. He wants to grow toward profitability, but he keeps cutting the staff. Twice he has gone out of his way to deliver newspapers into the arms of the undertakers at Alden Global Capital, doing nothing to stop Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing’s nine major-market dailies in 2021 and then selling The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden in 2023.

Poynter media columnist Tom Jones notes that Soon-Shiong is now trying to reassure the LA Times newsroom that Merida’s departure will not lead to a similar fate:

Perhaps sensing the uneasiness of his newsroom, Soon-Shiong wrote in a note, “Our commitment to the L.A. Times and its mission has not wavered since the inception of our acquisition. However, given the persistent challenges we face, it is now imperative that we all work together to build a sustainable business that allows for growth and innovation of the L.A. Times and L.A. Times Studios in order to achieve our vision.”

Benjamin Mullin, writing in The New York Times, reports that Merida clashed with members of Soon-Shiong’s family over Merida’s edict that staff members who signed a petition condemning Israel’s war in Gaza would be temporarily banned from covering stories related to the war. Whether or not you think Merida was clinging to outmoded ethical standards, you can’t say that move was controversial. Indeed, two New York Times contributors resigned, apparently under pressure, after signing a similar letter.

At one time it looked like wealthy individual owners might be a solution to the news crisis — not that they could be expected to underwrite losses forever, but they could certainly provide the runway needed to build a new, sustainable business model. Now, with Jeff Bezos’ Washington Post floundering, it looks like the only wealthy newspaper owners who’ve fulfilled their promise are John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Glen Taylor at the Star Tribune of Minneapolis.

Sadly, it’s hard to be optimistic about the future of the LA Times under Soon-Shiong.

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How Alden and Gannett inadvertently provided a boost to startup local news projects

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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Alden buys four papers in Pennsylvania. You’ll have no trouble believing what happened next.

The historic Scranton Times building. Photo (cc) 2022 by Jeffrey Hayes.

Last summer came horrifying news from Scranton, Pennsylvania: the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was buying the Scranton Times-Tribune and three sister papers from the Lynett family, the local publishers going back to 1895. The sale was taking place even though those members of the family who actually ran the papers opposed it. They were outvoted by other members of the family who simply wanted to cash out and get on with their lives. Ellen Clegg and I talked about it at the time on the “What Works” podcast.

What happened next was predictable and depressing. Washington Post media columnist Erik Wemple traveled to the Scranton area recently and filed a long, sad report about what he found (free link). The lowlights:

  • The news staff, already down to 40, a steep decline from 90 in the late 1990s, was immediately cut by another 10, with employees offered voluntary buyouts if they would just go away.
  • Newsrooms in Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton and Pottsfield were put up for sale. The Scranton Times’ headquarters was abandoned in late November, with journalists being told that most of them would be expected to work at home.
  • Some customer service calls were outsourced to the Philippines.

Almost immediately, Wemple writes, editorials about local and state issues were replaced with generic national content, which is exactly the opposite approach that researchers Joshua Darr, Matthew Hitt and Johanna Dunaway found is helpful in reducing political polarization. As Darr told Ellen in 2021:

It’s important for people to be able to express their opinions on national politics, and there are myriad ways to do that. But I don’t think there’s necessarily a good reason for local newspapers to devote some of their precious op-ed page space to things that aren’t local. I think they should be maximizing their comparative advantage in the marketplace by giving people things that they can’t get anywhere else.

There’s no question that the Pennsylvania papers were facing real challenges. As Wemple reports, paid circulation and advertising were both in a tailspin, and the Lynett family understandably was tired of subsidizing losses. But it didn’t have to end like this. Perhaps the best solution would have been for a local nonprofit institution to purchase the papers, as is the case at another Pennsylvania paper — The Philadelphia Inquirer, a for-profit entity owned by the nonprofit Lenfest Institute.

Steven Waldman, the president of Rebuild Local News, has proposed tax incentives and other measures to prevent newspapers from falling into the hands of cost-slashing chains. Unfortunately, such steps would not have come in time to save the Lynett papers.

Sadly, based on Wemple’s story, it doesn’t sound like much of an effort was made to find a buyer that would have operated the papers for the benefit of the public rather than for Alden’s wealthy investors. I just hope that some of the journalists who have lost their jobs will fight back by starting their own venture, as is happening in community after community across the country.

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The Boston Herald checks in from the San Gabriel Valley bureau

This message from the Boston Herald showed up in my inbox Tuesday night. Read the fine print. Not much attention to detail at MediaNews Group, the chain that owns the Herald and that, in turn, is part of the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.

A new report finds that news deserts are spreading — but there are bright spots, too

Photo (cc) 2008 by Stefano Brivio

The release of a new report by Penelope Muse Abernathy on the state of local news is always a big deal. For 15 years now, she’s been tracking the extent of the crisis, and has done more than anyone to popularize the phrase “news deserts,” which describes communities without a source of reliable news and information. This week Abernathy, now at Northwestern University’s Medill School, issued “The State of Local News 2023.” It’s a downbeat report, although there are a few bright spots. Here’s a key finding:

The data and insights collected and analyzed in this 2023 report on The State of Local News paint the picture of a country and society increasingly divided between the journalism-have’s — mostly residents in more affluent cities and suburban areas where alternative news sources are gaining traction — and the journalism have-not’s, those in economically struggling and traditionally underserved metro, suburban and rural communities. This partitioning of our citizenry poses a far-reaching crisis for our democracy as it simultaneously struggles with political polarization, a lack of civic engagement and the proliferation of misinformation and information online.

Before I continue, a disclosure: Abernathy, who’s been a guest on our “What Works” podcast about the future of local news, was kind enough to provide a pre-publication endorsement of the book that Ellen Clegg and I have written, “What Works in Community News,” which comes out in January.

Abernathy’s principal collaborator on the new report is Sarah Stonbely, director of Medill’s State of Local News Project, who I interviewed in 2022 when she was at the Center for Cooperative Media, part of Montclair State University in New Jersey.

If you’d like a good summary of Abernathy and Stonbely’s report, I recommend Sarah Fischer’s overview in Axios, which leads with the prediction that the U.S. will have lost one third of its newspapers by the end of 2024.

The cleavage between affluent urban and suburban areas and less affluent urban and rural areas is one of the major challenges Abernathy and Stonbely identify, and it’s definitely something that Ellen and I noticed in our reporting for “What Works in Community News.” I recall asking folks at the start-up Colorado Sun why they were trying to stretch their resources to cover stories across the state rather than focusing on Denver. The answer: the Denver metro area was already fairly well served despite massive cuts at The Denver Post, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. By contrast, there was very little news coverage in the more rural parts of the state.

As Abernathy and Stonbely put it: “The footprint for alternative local news outlets — approximately 550 digital-only sites, 720 ethnic media organizations and 215 public broadcasting stations — remains very small and centered around metro areas.” Indeed, this chart tells a rather harrowing tale. As you can see, people who live in news deserts are considerably less affluent and less educated than the national average.

The report also includes a section called “Bright Spots in the Local News Landscape.” Although the interactive map is a little hard to navigate, I can see that several projects that Ellen and I profile in “What Works in Community News” are included, such as NJ Spotlight News, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Texas Tribune, The Colorado Sun and the Daily Memphian.

The report also highlights The Boston Globe as one of its good-news stories, observing that, under the ownership of John and Linda Henry, the paper has thrived on the strength of its digital subscriptions. In a sidebar, Tom Brown, the Globe’s vice president of consumer analytics, tells Abernathy that digital growth continues, although at a slower rate than during the COVID pandemic. Retention is down slightly, too. “We are nonetheless still seeing overall strong retention,” Brown says, “and we are investing in several areas of the business with the goal of engaging subscribers more and, in particular, our new subscribers.”

Editor Nancy Barnes adds that though the Globe is ramping up its coverage of the Greater Boston area as well as in Rhode Island and New Hampshire, it can’t fill the gap created by the gutting and closure of local weekly papers at the hands of Gannett, the giant newspaper chain that until recently dominated coverage of the Boston suburbs and exurbs.

“Having returned to Boston after many years away, I have been stunned by the decimation of local newspapers across Massachusetts and New England,” Barnes says. “However, our coverage strategy is not tied to specific Gatehouse newspaper communities [a reference to Gannett’s predecessor company]. We cover greater Boston in depth, but we don’t have the bandwidth to be the local news source for everyone.”

This week’s Medill report is the first of a multi-part series. Future chapters will be released over the next few weeks and into January.

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The Colorado Sun donates its share of 24 suburban papers and urges they go nonprofit

Photo (cc) 2021 by Dan Kennedy

One of the more innovative efforts at saving newspapers from chain ownership is winding down, although the papers themselves remain protected. The Colorado Sun announced Wednesday that it would transfer its ownership shares of Colorado Community Media (CCM), a chain of 24 weekly and monthly papers in the Denver suburbs, to the nonprofit National Trust for Local News, which led the effort to buy the papers two years ago. The Sun had been given a stake in CCM in return for helping to run the papers.

The reason given for pulling out was that the Sun is in the process of converting from a for-profit public benefit corporation to a nonprofit, which I wrote about recently for Nieman Lab. A story in the Sun that appeared Wednesday urged nonprofit status for CCM as well: “Just as we believe that nonprofit is the right fit for The Sun, we believe it’s a good fit for these weeklies, too. That will be a decision for the​​ Trust and the board of directors of the Colorado News Conservancy, the parent company of CCM.” No money is changing hands. (The Conservancy is the entity established by the National Trust and the Sun to run the CCM papers).

Sun editor and co-founder Larry Ryckman said on X/Twitter: “We’ve been proud co-owners of Colorado Community Media for 2 years & wish it well in this new chapter. They’re doing great work & deserve your support.” Linda Shapley, publisher of CCM, was quoted in the Sun as saying: “I’m grateful for The Sun’s support at a time that was most critical for our future At Colorado Community Media, we’re excited to be part of the evolving Colorado news ecosystem, and we’re dedicated to serving our communities with timely, factual news and information.”

The Sun and CCM are the subject of a chapter in “What Works in Community News,” a book about the future of local journalism by Ellen Clegg and me that will be published in January. In September 2021 I spent nearly a week in Denver reporting on Colorado’s media ecosystem. Obviously that ecosystem is still in flux, but the period covered by our book ends in late 2022.

I believe what was taking place in Colorado back then is a story still worth telling: the founding of the Sun by 10 journalists who’d quit The Denver Post following deep cuts by its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital; the Sun’s early hopes of raising money through blockchain technology; its unique governance structure; and its participation in the acquisition of CCM.

Ellen and I look at our book not as a standalone entity but, rather, as the hub of an ongoing story that also comprises updates to our website, a podcast (Shapley, National Trust executive director Elizabeth Hansen Shapiro, and former Denver Post editor Greg Moore have all been guests, and we hope to have Ryckman on once the book has been released), and an evolving social media presence (we’re currently on X/Twitter and Mastodon, but that may change).

So of course we want you to read our book. But we also hope you’ll turn to our other platforms to keep up on the latest.

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