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.

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

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.

Read the rest at WGBHNews.org. And 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.

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Globe notes: New photographer, new printing plant

• Looks like The Denver Post’s loss is The Boston Globe’s gain. Jim Romenesko reports that two-time Pulitzer-winning photographer Craig Walker is heading east. “He will be great there and do us all proud as a Post alum, but he will be missed,” Post editor Greg Moore tells his staff. Moore, as some of you know, is a former Globe managing editor.

• The Globe has finalized its deal to shift its printing operations to Taunton, clearing the way for sale of the paper’s Dorchester plant. The move will take place in 2017, according to the Globe’s Beth Healy. Charles Winokoor of the Taunton Gazette writes that folks in that city are pleased, but adds that at least one official is disheartened at the prospect of a two-year wait.

Local buyers exit Worcester Telegram bidding

Harry Whitin
Harry Whitin

This article was published previously at WGBH News.

This week’s Boston Globe-related media news continues, as the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester reports that the only potential local buyers for the paper have withdrawn.

Retired T&G editor Harry Whitin and Polar Beverages chief executive Ralph Crowley had been mentioned as possible buyers since 2009, when the New York Times Co. first put the Globe and its related properties (including the T&G) up for sale. John Henry, who bought the Globe late last year, told the T&G staff in November that he hoped to sell the paper to someone local, and that he might hang onto it if he couldn’t find the right buyer. (Henry also said he would keep the T&G’s Millbury printing plant — a facility that is likely to be used to print the Globe and handle its contract work, including the Boston Herald, after Henry sells the Globe’s current headquarters on Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester. He recently confirmed that move in an interview with Boston magazine.)

Now, though, Whitin and Crowley are out, with Whitin telling the T&G’s Shaun Sutner: “For all intents and purposes, we have withdrawn from the process.”

Today’s T&G story also quotes Tim Murray, CEO of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and the former lieutenant governor, as saying that Henry should sell the paper at a discount if that means transferring it to local owners, just as the Times Co. sold the Globe to Henry out of a sense that he would prove to be a good steward. Here’s Murray:

The fact of the matter is The New York Times gave a discount to a local buyer for The Boston Globe because they had a buyer who professed to be committed to the region, Greater Boston and the journalistic mission that newspapers play. And therefore it is not unreasonable for Mr. Henry to extend that same courtesy to the residents of Worcester in contemplating a sale.

Sutner quotes me regarding two national chains — GateHouse Media, which owns about 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, and Digital First Media, which owns several papers not far from Worcester, including The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Of the two, I think Digital First would be the more interesting choice. Headed by the bombastic John Paton (profiled in 2011 by David Carr of The New York Times), his company — which includes papers such as The Denver Post and the New Haven Register — has been trying to innovate its way out of the financial morass in which the newspaper business finds itself.

Digital First employs some of the most respected thinkers in digital journalism, including editor-in-chief Jim Brady and digital transformation editor Steve Buttry. Here is a press release on Digital First’s most recent initiative, Project Unbolt, which seeks to remove the “bolts” that still keep local journalism attached to the industrial processes that defined pre-Internet newspapers. Digital First also has a content partnership with GlobalPost, the pioneering online international news service founded five years ago by Boston media entrepreneur Phil Balboni. (I wrote about some of Paton’s early moves in New Haven in my book “The Wired City.”)

The Telegram & Gazette is a major media presence in Central Massachusetts. I still hope it ends up in local hands — or that Henry decides to keep it. But if it’s going to be sold to a national chain, the staff and the community could do worse than to be served by a company that is trying to revive the business of local news.

Greg Moore, possibly the Globe’s next editor, wins a big award

Greg Moore

As the Boston Globe seeks to replace departing editor Marty Baron, here’s someone to keep at least one eye on.

Former Globe managing editor Greg Moore has been named the Benjamin C. Bradlee Editor of the Year by the National Press Foundation for his leadership of the Denver Post. Moore was recently seen in the vicinity of the Globe, according to several people I’ve spoken with, although there’s also talk that he has no desire to return to Boston.

The smart money is on an internal candidate. The names that come up most frequently are metro columnist Brian McGrory, editorial-page editor Peter Canellos and managing editor Caleb Solomon. At The Phoenix, Peter Kadzis is predicting Solomon, and floats several other names as well. But, really, who knows what might happen?

Regardless of who ultimately moves into the glass house being vacated by Baron, congratulations to Greg Moore.

Denver Post file photo.