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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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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New Herald publisher Kevin Corrado is thrilled (again)

On Monday the Boston Herald ran a statement by Kevin Corrado, newly installed by Digital First Media as the paper’s publisher. Here’s what Corrado was quoted as saying:

I am thrilled to join the Boston Herald team. I share the commitment to delivering quality news and information to our readers, advertisers and our communities. I look forward to getting to know the staff and evaluating how we best can meet the needs and expectations of those we serve. I’m committed to producing content that our readers want, in both print and digital, providing them with the best news experience possible. Quality readership will provide for advertising solutions that get results for our advertisers.

Now where we have heard that before? Oh, right. In 2013 Corrado was named president and publisher of Digital First’s New England Newspapers Inc. And here’s what he was quoted saying at the time:

I am thrilled to join the Digital First Media team and to lead the New England operation. I share the commitment of delivering quality news and information to our readers, our advertisers and our communities and I look forward to getting to know these communities more and learning how we can continue to meet the needs and expectations of those we serve.

Can’t buy a thrill.

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Digital First to move Herald printing to GateHouse’s Providence Journal

When printing the Herald was not a problem. 1881 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

A key part of The Boston Globe’s strategy to reposition itself as a sustainable business has been to establish its printing operation as a regional hub for a variety of publications, including The New York Times and USA Today. That strategy has come under question since last summer, when its new Taunton printing plant got off to an exceedingly rocky start.

Now the Globe has suffered a significant blow, as Digital First Media, the incoming owner of the Boston Herald, will take the tabloid’s printing business to the Providence Journal, owned by GateHouse Media — ironically, one of the losers in the recent bidding to buy the Herald out of bankruptcy. Don Seiffert of the Boston Business Journal has the details.

The Globe’s business relationship with the Herald has been strained last September, when then-Herald owner Pat Purcell published a hotly worded statement in his paper blaming the Globe for the Herald’s printing woes. “We talk with the Globe on a regular basis but unfortunately the remedies they put forth to solve the production problems have failed miserably,” the Herald said at that time.

Although the Globe’s printing woes have by most accounts eased considerably (even if they have not been entirely solved), Digital First clearly wasn’t going to stick around. The Providence facility is well-regarded, and it was widely believed that GateHouse would move the Herald’s printing there if it won the bidding. Ironically, GateHouse will end up making money from the Herald even though its bid fell short. In a statement to the BBJ, Globe president Vinay Mehra said:

At present, we are unable to offer a competitive bid for that business. What this move affords us is the opportunity to continue to bring our production costs and efficiencies in line, take advantage of added capabilities for The Globe product, and deliver to our readers the best quality news product in the market.

I’m hearing reports from inside the Herald that the switch will require deadlines so early that evening sports stories may not make the print edition. Mehra, meanwhile, sounds like he’s just as happy to be rid of the Herald — something that would surely not be the case if everything was running smoothly.

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Digital First to close on Herald sale Monday; Shelly Cohen bids adieu

Digital First’s acquisition of the Boston Herald closes on Monday. I’m told that even inside the Herald, there is very little known about who’s staying and who’s going. But the memo below explains what is happening to those who are losing their jobs.

One who has confirmed that she’s leaving is editorial-page editor Rachelle Cohen, who signs off today with a classy farewell. She writes:

As an institution in this community it will live on; it will continue to vigorously compete in the marketplace of journalism because the people who have labored here — and those who will continue to do so — actually don’t know how to operate any other way.

Here’s the memo.

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Digital First COO hails acquisition strategy after winning Herald auction

Last Wednesday, the day after Digital First Media outbid two other prospective buyers for the right to purchase the Boston Herald, chief operating officer Guy Gilmore sent an email to Digital First employees, which a source forwarded to me. The sale was approved by a bankruptcy judge on Friday. No closing date has been set.

If you’re wondering what Gilmore’s message portends for the Herald, well, you won’t find much here. But it may be of some interest.

I am writing to announce that DFM has won the right to acquire the Boston Herald by submitting the highest bid in an auction held yesterday in Boston. The Herald is a significant newspaper — a local institution that is also widely recognized across the entire country.

This acquisition is important in a number of ways. Most obviously it expands our footprint in the New England region where we already own and operate two dailies nearby. It is a vote of confidence by our Board of Directors that our team has the skill to successfully operate this well known metro newspaper. And it is a clear indication that our leadership is interested in expanding its newspaper holdings when the right opportunity presents itself.

Not long ago, DFM acquired The Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise. The integration of those newspapers into DFM’s existing cluster of Southern California newspapers has been extraordinarily successful. Adding the Boston Herald to our existing group of papers in the Northeast is another such opportunity. Clearly​,​ DFM is a buyer, and a buyer of strong brands.

Meanwhile, on a more general note, let me reassure you that your company continues to outperform its peers in virtually every category. To quote my predecessor, “our company is fortunate to have a deeply talented and dedicated team committed to building a strong and sustainable business that will allow us to continue fulfilling our mission and serving our communities for years to come. Your contributions are greatly appreciated.”

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What will GateHouse Media do with the Boston Herald?

There is so much local media news breaking today that it’s hard to keep it all straight. Late this afternoon came the huge announcement that Boston Herald publisher Pat Purcell, who bought the tabloid from his mentor Rupert Murdoch in 1994, was taking the paper into bankruptcy with the intention of selling it to GateHouse Media.

I’ve posted the clip of us talking about the deal on “Beat the Press.” Here is the Herald’s coverage. And here is The Boston Globe’s. The Boston Business Journal has some interesting details as well, including the bankruptcy filing. I talked with Jenna Fisher of Patch about what’s next.

At this point, we all have far more questions than answers. A friend suggested something to me a little while ago that is worth pondering: Can we be sure that GateHouse will end up with the Herald? Once a business goes into bankruptcy, it’s up for grabs. As I note in my forthcoming book, “The Return of the Moguls,” the executives who were running California’s Orange County Register took that paper into bankruptcy several years ago with the goal of buying it themselves. They lost out, and today the Register is part of the Digital First Media empire.

Other questions: Although cuts have already been announced, will the diminished Herald be its old recognizable blend of local news, good photography and sports coverage, and feisty tabloidism? Or will it be something else entirely? Will GateHouse keep Herald Radio up and running? Will it honor its printing contract with the Globe, or will it move operations to a GateHouse facility? We’ll learn the answers to all these questions in the weeks and months to come.

Interestingly, for a few years Purcell owned around 100 community papers in Eastern Massachusetts in addition to the Herald, selling all but the Herald to GateHouse about 15 years ago. Now things have come full circle.

No one wants to see hard-working journalists lose their jobs. We all hope GateHouse will keep the pain to a minimum, and that the Herald will be with us for many years to come.

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