Burgers, beers and journalism: An experiment in civic engagement

Photo (cc) 2012 by Ruocaled

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Can a news organization help to support itself by opening a café, bar and wedding venue? It’s a good question, but here’s a better one: Can such a gathering place lead to the revival of civic engagement and, thus, to renewed interest in local journalism?

The New York Times last week reported on an interesting experiment taking place at The Big Bend Sentinel of Marfa, Texas. The paper was acquired last year by two former New Yorkers, Maisie Crow and Max Kabat, who quickly found themselves facing the challenge of paying the bills in an era of shrinking ad revenues. Their solution was to renovate a former bar and transform it into a newsroom and café. The revenues, Crow said, would be used to expand the Sentinel’s coverage, explaining that “we wanted to expand the potential.”

But at a time when the decline of civic life is leading to diminishing interest in the day-to-day goings-on that are the staple of local newspapers, bringing journalists and the community together in a common space could help remind residents of why news matters. Indeed, Abbie Perrault, the Sentinel’s managing editor, told the Times that the shared space is “a great way to keep my finger on the pulse and get new leads and find stories.”

The Sentinel is offering a fresh take on an idea that nearly got off the ground a decade ago. That’s when Matt DeRienzo, then the 34-year-old publisher of The Register Citizen in Torrington, Connecticut, was opening up his newsroom to the public with the encouragement of John Paton, an innovative executive who was briefly the toast of the newspaper business.

As The New York Times wrote back then, members of the public could visit The Register Citizen’s Newsroom Café for coffee and muffins and to use the paper’s archives for free. “Matt’s taking his audience and making it a colleague,” Paton was quoted as saying. “A building with open doors, with no walls, is the brick-and-mortar metaphor for how the web works.”

DeRienzo was soon named editor of all of the Journal Register Co. chain’s Connecticut newspapers, including its flagship, the New Haven Register. I interviewed him around that time, and he was brimming with ideas. The company sold off its hulking plant by I-95, and DeRienzo began making plans for an open newsroom on the Yale side of the New Haven Green.

Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Journal Register was merged with another chain, MediaNews Group, and the resulting behemoth was dubbed Digital First Media — an ironic moniker that paid tribute to Paton’s oft-repeated mantra, “digital first,” but that soon proved it was dedicated mainly to squeezing out profits for the benefit of its hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital. Paton left. DeRienzo left. And the idea of local journalism reinvented around open newsrooms and public participation faded away. (I told the full story of Digital First’s rise and fall in an earlier WGBH News commentary.)

“It elevated the awareness and reputation of the newspaper and the people who worked in the newsroom,” DeRienzo said of the Torrington experiment in a Facebook discussion last week. “It improved transparency and trust with readers. Our audience grew, and our digital revenue grew.”

Nearly a generation ago, the Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote in his landmark book “Bowling Alone” that newspaper readership correlates strongly with civic engagement. People who vote in local elections, take part in volunteer activities, attend religious services or engage in any number of other activities are also more likely to read the paper. “Newspaper readers,” he wrote, “are machers and schmoozers.

Which brings us back to The Big Bend Sentinel. The local news crisis has multiple causes, technological change and corporate greed being foremost among them. But, fundamentally, it’s also about declining interest in what the school board is up to, whether the city council will approve a new liquor license and other quotidian matters.

News organizations that hope to survive and thrive can’t settle for merely covering civic life — they have to teach their communities the importance of local news so that people will start paying attention and realize that what the mayor is doing is likely to have more of an effect on their families than anything that is taking place in Washington.

Such journalism is sometimes derisively called “eating your broccoli.” So kudos to the Sentinel for reimagining the intersection of journalism and audience engagement more along the lines of a cheeseburger and a beer. And look! Here comes the bride!

Correction: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of the town name of Marfa, Texas.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

From the local-news crisis to Trump’s lies, 2019 was a year to put behind us

Tucker Carlson. Photo (cc) 2019 by Seth Anderson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The devolution of Tucker Carlson. The MIT Media Lab’s entanglement with career sex criminal Jeffrey Epstein. The ever-present threat to free speech. And, above all, the ongoing corporate-fueled crisis afflicting local news.

These are the themes that emerged in my most-read commentaries for WGBH News from the past year. We live in difficult times, and my list might provoke pessimism. But given that four of my top 10 are about the meltdown of local news, I’m at least somewhat optimistic. People really care about this stuff. And that’s the first step toward coming up with possible solutions. So let’s get to it.

10. Whatever happened to Tucker Carlson? (March 12). When Fox News talking head Tucker Carlson began his journalistic career in the mid-1990s, he built a reputation as a smart, unconventional conservative, a stylish writer and (as I can attest) a charming lunch companion. Today he is a racist, sexist hate-monger and a full-throated apologist for President Trump. What happened? Although I can’t read Carlson’s mind, it would appear that he values fame and fortune over principle. In that sense, Carlson is a metaphor for nearly the entire conservative movement, with the few conservatives of conscience having been exiled to #NeverTrump irrelevance.

9. Corporate newspaper chains’ race to the bottom (Jan. 16). One year ago, the cost-slashing newspaper chain Gannett was fighting off a possible takeover by Digital First Media (now MediaNews Group), owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital and generally regarded as the worst of the worst. Gannett avoided that grim fate. But by the end of the year, Gannett had merged with another bottom-feeder, GateHouse Media. The first order of business: Cutting another $400 million or so from papers that had already been hollowed out, including titles that serve more than 100 cities and towns in Eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

8. The move from no-profit to nonprofit journalism (May 15). A brief period of hope greeted Paul Huntsman after he bought The Salt Lake Tribune in 2016. Instead, the cutting continued, as Huntsman discovered that 21st-century newspaper economics were more of a challenge than he’d imagined. Then, last spring, he announced that he would seek to reorganize the Tribune as a nonprofit entity. Several months later, the IRS approved his application. Nonprofit ownership is not a panacea — the Tribune still must take in more money than it spends. But by removing the pressure for quarterly profits and keeping the chains at bay, Huntsman might point the way for other beleaguered newspaper owners.

7. Fact-checking and the dangers of false equivalence (Sept. 18). We have never had a president who spews falsehoods like President Trump. Much of what he says can be chalked up to old-fashioned lying; some of it consists of conspiracy theories from the fever swamps of the far right that he might actually believe. Fact-checkers at The Washington Post, CNN, PolitiFact and other news organizations have diligently kept track, with the Post reporting several weeks ago that Trump had made more than 15,000 “false or misleading claims” during his presidency. Yet the media all too often remain obsessed with balance in this most unbalanced of times. And thus Democratic presidential candidates, including Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden, are inevitably held to a higher standard, being branded as liars for what are merely rhetorical excesses or even disputed facts.

6. Yes, millennials are paying attention to the news (July 24). Millennials are often, and wrongly, caricatured as self-absorbed and caring about little other than where their next slice of avocado toast is coming from. It’s not true. A study by the Knight Foundation, which surveyed 1,600 young adults, “shows that 88 percent of people ages 18-34 access news at least weekly, including 53 percent who do so every day.” The findings matched what I’ve seen in many years of teaching journalism students: they’re dubious about the news as a curated package, but they’re well-informed, highly quality-conscious and not wedded to the notion of loyalty to specific news brands. Can we put them in charge now, please?

5. Stop letting Trump take up residence inside your head (Jan. 2). I kicked off 2019 with a list of five ideas for de-Trumpifying your life. Unfortunately, the president’s bizarre, hateful rants and policies can’t be ignored completely — but surely we can save our outrage for his truly important outbursts. Looking back, I think my best piece of advice was to pay more attention to non-Trump news, especially at the local level. We live in communities, and making them work better is a great antidote to our dysfunctional president.

4. Post-Jeffrey Epstein, some questions for the MIT Media Lab (Sept. 11). Joi Ito, a celebrated star in the media world, was forced to resign as director of the MIT Media Lab after his modified limited hangout about his financial entanglements with serial rapist Jeffrey Epstein, who committed suicide while in jail, turned out to be far more extensive than he had originally admitted. That, in turn, brought the Media Lab itself under scrutiny. In the post-Ito, post-Epstein era, questions remained about exactly how dependent the lab had become on Epstein’s money — and whether it was really producing valuable work or if some of it was smoke and mirrors aimed at impressing its mega-wealthy funders.

3. Don’t blame the internet for the decline of local journalism (Nov. 27). Following yet another round on academic Twitter arguing that we need new forms of journalism in response to the damage that the internet had done to local news, I was mad as hell and couldn’t take it anymore. Yes, technology has done tremendous harm to the business model that traditionally paid for the news. But equally to blame is the rise of chain ownership intent on bleeding newspapers dry before discarding them and moving on. From Woburn, Massachusetts, to New Haven, Connecticut, independent local news organizations are thriving despite the very real economic pressures created by the rise of Craigslist, Google and Facebook. Local news isn’t dying — it’s being murdered by corporate greed.

2. Calling out New England’s enemies of free expression (July 2). Since 1998, I’ve been writing an annual Fourth of July round-up of outrages against the First Amendment called the New England Muzzle Awards. For many years, the Muzzles were hosted by the late, great Boston Phoenix. Since 2013, they’ve made their home at WGBH News. The 2019 list included school officials in Vermont who tried to silence the high school newspaper (and lost) and a police chief in Connecticut whose officers arrested a journalist during a Black Lives Matter protest to prevent her from doing her job. And don’t miss the 2019 Campus Muzzles, by Harvey Silverglate, Monika Greco and Nathan McGuire, which focus on free-speech issues on college campuses.

1. GateHouse decimates its already-decimated newspapers (June 5). As I noted above, the Gannett newspaper chain managed to fend off the depredations of Alden Global Capital. But Alden, Gannett and GateHouse Media danced around each other all year. In the spring, GateHouse, already known for taking a bonesaw to its newspapers, eliminated about 170 positions at its papers nationwide and merged 50 of its smaller weeklies in Greater Boston into 18, a surefire way to undermine customer loyalty to the local paper. “We remain positive about the future for local media but certainly acknowledge that the business model for community news is under pressure,” GateHouse CEO Kirk Davis told me. But by year’s end, GateHouse had merged with Gannett, Davis was gone — and the cutting continued.

So what will 2020 bring? Call me crazy, but I think we’re going to see some good news on the local-journalism front. As for what will happen nationally, I think I can safely predict that the political press will continue to focus on polls and campaign-trail controversies at the expense of substance, continuing a trend documented recently by my colleagues Aleszu Bajak, John Wihbey and me at Northeastern University’s School of Journalism.

Finally, my thanks to WGBH News for the privilege of having this platform and to you for reading. Best wishes to everyone for a great 2020.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

As the Herald sheds jobs, its hedge-fund parent embraces overseas outsourcing and AI

The news from MediaNews Group (formerly known as Digital First Media) just gets worse and worse. Jim Clark writes that not only has he been laid off from his position as a sports copy editor at the Boston Herald, but that the Herald is “eliminating its copy desk positions.”

Meanwhile, Julie Reynolds, the go-to source for all things MediaNews, reports for The Intercept that the chain — owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital — is moving in the direction of outsourcing its page-design jobs overseas and covering high school sports with artificial intelligence.

“Now it’s outsourcing California news design to the Philippines, paying pennies on the dollar for work that once employed professionals who lived in the communities they served,” Reynolds writes.

There is no bottom.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Private equity ownership is devastating retail — just as it has destroyed newspapers

The Washington Post reports some startling figures about the role of private equity firms in the retail business. According to the Post’s Abha Bhattarai:

More than 1.3 million Americans have lost their jobs in the past decade as a result of private equity ownership in retail, according to a report released Wednesday. That includes 600,000 retail workers, as well as 728,000 employees in related industries. Overall, the sector added more than 1 million jobs during that period. [my emphasis]

This is exactly what has happened to the newspaper business over the past several decades. Yes, the internet has devastated the economic model, with advertisers fleeing to Craigslist, Google and Facebook. But that’s only part of the story. The other part is that corporate chains have hollowed out newsrooms in order to maximize profits at a time when what was really needed was investment and patience.

The most notorious of the corporate raiders is MediaNews Group, formerly Digital First Media, which is owned by Alden Global Capital. MNG has all but destroyed once-great papers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, as U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren notes in her proposal to re-regulate Wall Street. Cuts continue at MNG’s Massachusetts holdings, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. Meanwhile, The Berkshire Eagle is rebuilding after a group of local business people bought the paper back from MNG.

Consider, too, that independent regional papers such as The Boston Globe and the Star Tribune of Minneapolis are doing reasonably well, and others are taking innovative steps such as giving iPads to their readers to ease the transition to all-digital (the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette), operating under hybrid for-profit/nonprofit ownership (The Philadelphia Inquirer) or are pursuing pure nonprofit ownership (The Salt Lake Tribune).

For years we’ve been hearing that Amazon is destroying retail — yet, as the Post observes, that part of the sector not being strangled by private equity has continued to grow. Newspapers’ business problems are very real. But surely they would be shrinking a lot more slowly, and perhaps groping their way toward sustainability, if they weren’t being destroyed by our financial overlords.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Flipping the deal: Alden hedge fund may be looking to sell Digital First to Gannett

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Digital First wants to buy Gannett, endangering local newspapers across the U.S.

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:

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

No, the Digital First approach to newspaper ownership is not defensible

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Could a newspaper rebellion against hedge-fund ownership spread to Massachusetts?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The Denver Post is mad as hell and isn’t going to take it anymore. Will DFM care?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

The rise and fall of Digital First; or, how to get rich plundering newspapers

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.