The Wall Street Journal takes on the local news crisis

Wall Street Journal reporters Keach Hagey, Lukas I. Alpert and Yaryna Serkez weigh in today with a comprehensive overview of the crisis threatening local newspapers — a crisis that contrasts with the relative good health of the three national papers, The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Journal.

It’s well worth reading, even if there’s nothing especially new. Two quick observations:

1. Although the story pays lip service to the harmful effects of chain ownership, it doesn’t quite get at the fundamental problems: the debt amassed to build the chain, the lack of investment in technology, and the drain created by having to export a good chunk of revenues to some distant corporate headquarters.

2. The Journal also calls The Boston Globe a “notable outlier” among regional papers for its relative success in building digital subscriptions and maintaining a decent-size newsroom. The obvious if unmade argument is that other papers could do the same with committed local owners.

Globe owner John Henry is not perfect, but MediaNews Group (the new name for Digital First Media), Gannett or GateHouse would likely have cut the newsroom of roughly 220 people by another 100 or so.

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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.

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There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.

“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”

To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.

I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.

Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.

“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”

And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”

So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.

There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.

Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.

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Four dailies north of Boston sold to Alabama retirement fund

The CNHI newspapers have been sold to Retirement Systems of Alabama. CNHI’s holdings in Massachusetts include four daily newspapers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times — as well as several non-daily publications.

This is good news, with reservations. CNHI’s ownership has long been complicated; the Alabama buyer has been involved for years, so this doesn’t seem like much of a change. CNHI has run the papers on the cheap, but the quality remains good. I know that staff members were concerned that the papers might be sold to Digital First Media or GateHouse Media, hedge-fund-owned chains that slash their properties to the bone. So it could have been worse.

Earlier: “Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale” (June 25, 2018).

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Local newspapers are dying. And hedge funds are making it worse.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The state of local journalism is grim — and the hedge funds that have scooped up hundreds of newspapers over the past decade have made things even worse than they otherwise might be.

That’s the conclusion of a new report from the University of North Carolina. Titled “The Expanding News Desert,” the study finds that corporate chains controlled by private equity and hedge funds cut more deeply, shut down more papers, and demonstrate less regard for journalism’s civic mission than was the case with “the historic practices of traditional print newspaper companies.” Here’s how the report’s author, Penelope Muse Abernathy, the Knight Chair in Journalism and Digital Media Economics at UNC, describes the strategies pursued by what she calls these “new media barons”:

The standard operating formula often included aggressive cost-cutting, the adoption of advertiser-friendly policies, the sale or shuttering of under-performing newspapers, and financial restructuring, including bankruptcy. At the most extreme, their strategies have led to the closure of hundreds of local papers and diminished the important civic role of newspapers in providing reliable news and information that helps residents of a community make important decisions about governance and quality of life issues.

This has enormous implications for Greater Boston, where two leading hedge-fund-owned chains, GateHouse Media and Digital First Media, already control most of the local papers, and where a third, CNHI, has put its four dailies in the Merrimack Valley and on the North Shore up for sale. Those papers — The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News, and the Gloucester Daily Times — are at risk of falling into the hands of either GateHouse or Digital First, which are likely to double down on the deep cuts that have already been made.

Digital First, controlled by Alden Global Capital, currently owns three papers in Massachusetts — the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, The Sun of Lowell, and its most recent acquisition, the Boston Herald. Although I’ve written about Digital First on several occasions previously (for instance, see this), I was struck in reading the UNC report by just how bad things are.

Digital First’s profit margin in 2017 was 17 percent, far higher than that of other newspaper companies, including GateHouse. And it achieved that margin by destroying newsrooms — in some cases literally. The newsroom at the Fitchburg paper was shut down last year, with the paper’s journalists being told to work out of their homes. In the suburbs of Philadelphia, reporters at two Digital First papers “must work remotely,” Abernathy writes, “because the Pottstown Mercury’s mold-infested newspaper building has been condemned.”

The top-line numbers at Digital First are breathtaking. Between 2012 and ’17, employment at 12 Digital First papers decreased by 52 percent, from 1,766 to 849, according to a survey conducted by the NewsGuild. Yet as bad as that period was for the newspaper business as a whole, the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that total newspaper employment dropped by about one-fourth from 2012 to 2016 — only about half the rate of journalistic job destruction at Digital First.

GateHouse, meanwhile, has expanded massively in recent years — from 379 newspapers with a total circulation of 3.1 million in 2014 to 451 papers and 4.3 million in circulation today. The company controls well over 100 community weeklies in Greater Boston and environs as well as dailies such as the Providence Journal, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, The MetroWest Daily News of Framingham, and The Patriot Ledger of Quincy. According to the UNC findings, GateHouse’s decimation of the ProJo, which it purchased in 2014, has been especially brutal:

By July 2018, newsroom employment had been cut by 75 percent, bringing the staffing levels below 100. According to the NewsGuild-CWA, there were fewer than 20 reporters and columnists responsible for covering both state and city government.

GateHouse has also embarked on a strategy of selling business and marketing services to advertisers through subsidiaries of its hedge-fund owner, Fortress Investment Group — “raising questions,” as the report puts it, “about the role of a local newspaper’s sales department in supporting local businesses.” Readers are fleeing GateHouse’s shriveled papers. Revenues, profits, and share prices are all down. All of that calls into question, Abernathy writes, whether GateHouse’s aggressive acquisition strategy is sustainable.

The depredations of Digital First and GateHouse are taking place amid the cratering of local journalism nationwide. Among the UNC report’s findings:

  • About 60 daily newspapers and 1,700 weeklies have closed since 2004, an overall decline of about 25 percent.
  • Nearly 200 of the 3,143 counties in the United States no longer have a newspaper. More than 2,000 counties have no daily paper.
  • Residents in these “news deserts” — that is, areas without newspapers — “are generally poorer, older and less educated than the average American.”

What can be done about the decline of local journalism and the rise of predatory hedge-fund newspaper chains? There is no one answer. The report notes that LION Publishers (Local Independent Online News) counts about 525 local digital news operations, both for-profit and nonprofit. Some, such as the New Haven Independent, The Batavian of Batavia, New York, and VT Digger, a statewide project based in Montpelier, Vermont, do an outstanding job of covering local and regional news. Yet many such operations are tiny and, as the report notes, a 2015 survey found that one in four failed. Although you could argue that three in four surviving is actually a pretty good track record, that’s not nearly enough to water the news deserts that are spreading across the countryside.

“There is a compelling need,” Abernathy writes, “for philanthropic foundations, community activists, local government, concerned citizens and potential founders of nonprofit news organizations to work together from the beginning to identify communities most lacking coverage and the funding needed to sustain a start-up news organization in those communities.”

That would be a good start, as would programs to boost civic and media literacy, another recommendation of the report. Without quality local news, it’s hard for people to participate in their communities in a meaningful way — or even to understand why they should. Corruption runs amok. Apathy reigns. And the underpinnings of democracy rot away.

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Once again, Digital First swings the ax at the Boston Herald

Digital First Media’s latest round of cuts at the Boston Herald was the talk of local media Twitter on Thursday. The most shocking was that photographer Mark Garfinkel, perhaps the paper’s best journalist, was among those told that his services were no longer needed.

Disclosure: Mark is a friend who has spoken to my students on several occasions. He worked as a stringer at the former Beverly Times (long since merged with The Salem News) near the start of his career — and the photo editor at that time was none other than Mrs. Media Nation.

Both Jack Sullivan at CommonWealth Magazine and Jon Chesto of The Boston Globe have weighed in on the cuts. Sullivan puts the body count at about 20; Chesto says 14. Chesto also reports that the Herald now employs about a total of 100 people, less than half the 240 who worked there before former owner Pat Purcell declared bankruptcy.

Some of the cuts don’t necessarily diminish the Herald’s journalism. The copy editing jobs, for instance, are being outsourced to a Digital First facility in Denver. (Not that we should expect distant copy editors to do as good a job as local people who know the area.) Overall, though, this is terrible news. Garfinkel was one of two photographers let go on Thursday. How can you have a viable tabloid without great photography?

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Eagle-Tribune and affiliated papers north of Boston put up for sale

The CNHI newspaper chain is up for sale. The company, with newspapers in 22 states, owns several properties in Massachusetts, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover, The Daily News of Newburyport, The Salem News and the Gloucester Daily Times. CNHI merged with Raycom Media last September. What prompts the sale, apparently, is that Raycom is being acquired by a television company that wants to be rid of its newspapers.

CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, is owned by public employee pension funds in that state. Its papers have been operated on the cheap, with staff members being subjected to unpaid furloughs over the years. But we are now in an era of defining deviancy down with respect to chain newspaper owners, which means that the pending sale is nothing to celebrate. The alternatives are likely to be bad or worse.

The logical buyers would be either of two national chains: GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 papers in Eastern Massachusetts, or Digital First Media, which owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. GateHouse, at least, has been getting some favorable attention lately. Not so much for Digital First.

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Herald cuts continue as Digital First outsources design jobs to Colorado

Jack Sullivan of CommonWealth Magazine has the latest on cutbacks at the Boston Herald. Digital First Media, which bought the Herald earlier this year, is centralizing the paper’s advertising design and news layout operations at its headquarters in Boulder, Colorado.

It’s a rare instance of Digital First making cuts that don’t directly affect news coverage, and it’s become standard operating procedure at newspaper chains. For instance, GateHouse Media, which owns more than 100 newspapers in Eastern Massachusetts, outsources much of its design work to a facility it owns in Austin, Texas. Still, it’s terrible for the people who are losing their jobs — estimated at 10 to 15 in news design alone.

Then again, there’s not much in the way of reporting resources at the Herald that Digital First can still cut. Sullivan writes writes that there are now fewer than a dozen reporters at the once-robust tabloid. Wow.

More details in this Twitter thread from Herald sports copy editor Jon Courture. Click here to read the whole thing.

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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?

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.

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