‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

In response to the rampaging vulture capitalism that was threatening to destroy their newspaper, union employees at the Hartford Courant last year launched a campaign to find a nonprofit organization that would save their jobs and the journalism their community depends on.

Not only did they fail, but the situation at the Courant, the oldest continuously published newspaper in America, just got infinitely worse.

Read the rest at GBH News.

A dark day for Tribune’s storied newspapers — but great news in Baltimore

There is terrible news to report tonight for readers and employees of the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant — but good news in Baltimore.

A deal that had been in the works since late 2020 is close to being consummated, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital on the verge of becoming the sole owner of Tribune Publishing. As has been documented on numerous occasions here and elsewhere, Alden is the most avaricious of the chain newspaper owners, squeezing the life (and the journalism) out of its properties.

Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that Alden is paying an estimated $630 million to bring its share of Tribune from 32% to 100%. Tribune, currently a publicly traded company, will go private.

Last month the News Guild, the union that represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine papers, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission charging irregularities in Alden’s bid. No word on whether that challenge is over or if it will continue.

Meanwhile, there’s good news in Baltimore. As part of the transaction, Tribune will sell The Baltimore Sun, The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, and several other publications to a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight for All Institute. The sale caps a campaign of many months on the part of community activists.

Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted:

It’s a ray of sunshine — or a rainbow, if you will — on what is otherwise another dark day for American newspapers.

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The FT offers a close-up look at how Alden is destroying the Hartford Courant

The state capitol in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Not too many years ago, New England was home to a number of medium-size and smaller daily newspapers that did an excellent job of covering their communities. There are a dozen or so that come to mind. But among the largest and the best were The Providence Journal and the Hartford Courant.

The Journal, as we all know, has been decimated by its corporate-chain owner, Gannett, the successor to GateHouse Media. The Hartford Courant, which bills itself as the oldest continuously published paper in the country, has been battered for years under the ownership of a chain now known as Tribune Publishing. The Courant’s printing has been outsourced, and the newsroom was shuttered recently as well. There is no indication that reporters and editors will have a place to work other than their homes even after the COVID pandemic is behind us.

As I’ve written several times recently, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group is widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in operation, controls 32% of Tribune — and is seeking a majority share.

The Financial Times recently published a lengthy article on the plight of local news focused on the Courant. There is nothing new in the story — we hear about the widespread closure of community newspapers, the rise of hedge-fund ownership and other familiar themes. Nevertheless, it’s a strong overview for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tale of what happened to a key part of democratic life.

There are also a few points that deserve to be emphasized. At a time when profits in local news are elusive at best, Alden is living high:

The cost cutting is certainly working. MediaNews Group achieved about 20-25 per cent operating margins in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter, more than double that of peers such as Gannett or even The New York Times. In 2020, although the pandemic shattered advertising and MNG’s revenues fell by 20 per cent, the company was still on track to make a profit.

The Courant itself is doing well from a bottom-line perspective as well, earning a profit of $2 million a year, according to the FT’s reporting.

What this shows is that there is still an inflow of cash into even the most moribund newspapers. Readers buy them despite their ever-decreasing value. Businesses advertise in them. If you’re willing to gut the newspapers you own to keep expenses well below income, and to keep cutting as income continues to fall, well, yes, you can earn a profit. At some point, needless to say, you’ll reach the point at which you can no longer cut. And that’s when you shut your doors. (Oops. Bad analogy. They already have.)

Heath Freeman and other officials at Alden rarely speak for the record. When Freeman cooperated with a Washington Post reporter last year, it, uh, did not go well. So I was interested to see that the FT did manage to get a comment out of a company spokesperson named Chrissy Carvalho. It was a classic:

It’s a lot easier to make snippy anonymous comments than actually undertake the difficult task of making sure news organisations across America are able to serve their communities during a prolonged period of declining revenues.

As the FT notes, there are efforts to try to get Tribune to sell the Courant to local interests. But that’s going to be hard to do given the paper’s continued profitability. The tragedy is that the crisis afflicting local news is only partly related to external factors such as technology, the decline of advertising and the rise of Google and Facebook. Corporate greed is at least as responsible.

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Alden Global Capital wants to take another big bite out of Tribune Publishing

The iconic Chicago Tribune Tower, sold for mixed-use development in 2016.

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It looks like 2020 is going to end on a suitably terrible note for the future of local and regional news.

The New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, notorious for depriving its newspaper chain of staff, resources and even office space, is planning to make a play for majority control of Tribune Publishing Co., which owns such storied titles as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and New York’s Daily News. The Wall Street Journal broke the news on Wednesday.

Alden has owned 32% of Tribune for a while and, as Julie Reynolds reports for the union publication NewsMatters, has essentially been calling the shots. She writes:

The hedge fund has left its classic stamp of profiteering across the news chain’s operations — letting Tribune’s digital efforts flounder where other chains have thrived, shutting down newsrooms and offices after defaulting on rent, slashing reporter and other staff pay during the pandemic crisis, and now being sued by shareholders — all while Alden’s officers on the board are handsomely rewarded for this “performance.”

As Reynolds notes, Tribune has been closing newsrooms — including just this week at the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily paper in the country, according to Western Mass. Politics & Insight. The move comes not long after the Courant outsourced its printing to The Republican of Springfield.

Alden’s own MediaNews Group papers have been shutting newsrooms as well. In Massachusetts, the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg was rendered homeless several years ago. During the summer, Northeastern journalism student (and “Beat the Press” intern) Deanna Schwartz and I learned that the Braintree office of MNG’s Boston Herald had apparently closed, with operations moved to The Sun of Lowell, another MNG property.

Of course, it’s at least theoretically possible that new newsrooms will be found for some of these papers after the pandemic has ended. A number of papers — including The Boston Globe — have kept their offices even though nearly all of their employees are working from home. That’s an expensive proposition. Still, it would hardly be a surprise if Alden decides that what few journalists it still employs can work from home indefinitely.

That would be a mistake. News organizations, like most businesses, thrive on collaboration and ideas that bubble up from teamwork. Then again, there is no sign that Alden executives care.

Tribune’s daily newspapers are, for the most part, larger and have more vitality than MNG’s collection of dailies and weeklies. The metros that MNG publishes, such as The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and the Orange County Register, have already been trashed beyond recognition. Earlier this fall, Larry Ryckman, co-founder of the start-up Colorado Sun, said at a conference that at one time the Post and its now-defunct daily competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed about 600 journalists. Today, he said, the Post has about 60.

If Alden succeeds in grabbing majority control of Tribune, it will represent the latest step down in a long fall that began with its acquisition by the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate mogul Sam Zell in 2008. The Zell years were the subject of a monumental takedown by the late New York Times media columnist David Carr in 2010, with Carr describing a culture that “came to resemble a frat house, complete with poker parties, juke boxes and pervasive sex talk.” Oh, and they were pillaging the company, too.

Later, under new owners, the company was renamed tronc Inc. — and yes, that’s a lowercase “t” that you see.

In 2018, the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong managed to wrest the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune from tronc’s clutches. And though the Soon-Shiong era has not been without bumps in the road (including an ugly internal dispute over racial justice), his wealth has given his papers a future.

As for the papers now controlled or soon to be controlled by Alden Global Capital, the future is likely to be nasty and brutish, to take John Locke Thomas Hobbes out of context. Whether it will also be short remains to be seen.

How Alden Global Capital is strangling Connecticut’s Hartford Courant

Note: Susan Campbell, a Hartford Courant columnist, posted the following on Facebook earlier today, writing, “I am told the Courant is shifting focus to cover the coronavirus and the column I submitted wouldn’t be read, or run this Sunday. So here is the column I wrote.” I contacted her and asked if I could republish it at Media Nation. She gave her permission, and so here it is. Her column has also been republished by #NewsMatters, “a NewsGuild project for Digital First Media workers.” Digital First Media is an earlier name for MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain that Alden controls. — DK

By Susan Campbell

Dear Hartford Courant reader,

Your roof is on fire.

The signs have been there, but you may not be aware of the damage overhead. What you, the reader, sees are a few typos, a missed paper, or someone on the other end of the phone who cannot stop your paper delivery during your vacation. Worse, there’s no one at your local meeting, because when newspapers had more people on staff, they could afford to come to your traffic commissions, town council meetings, and panel discussions.

Nothing just happens, dear reader, but before we explore what’s going on, see if you can figure out this math: Recently, Tribune Publishing Co. announced that the company’s fourth-quarter profit was $4 million. That should be good news, but these days, newsroom blood-letting has moved from paper cuts to full-on beheadings.

And for that, you can thank Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, which owns 32% of the Tribune company. Alden is known for one thing and one thing only: Alden kills newspapers. The corporation walks through the battlefield of struggling newspapers (which pretty much describes 99% of newspapers), lifts up the wounded, props them up at a computer, and then methodically sucks up all the resources until there’s nothing left. Their shady business practices — including an accusation that they moved employee pension assets into their own accounts — have earned the notice of the Department of Labor.

The next time you want to complain about your local coverage, remember that you have no idea how hard the dead-last-remainders of America’s newsrooms work to do what they do. They are part of a broken business model, but there is your reporter/photographer/editor, spinning as fast as s/he can.

I know. I was a remainder, until I realized I was so angry at the system I couldn’t exist in it. I left in 2012 when I thought things were pretty bad.

But this isn’t just me, a disgruntled former employee. Last May, some U.S. senators, including Sherrod Brown (husband of Pulitzer-winning newspaper columnist Connie Schultz), Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker, wrote Alden a letter begging them to abandon their attempted hostile takeover of Gannett because newspapers are a “public good.” Gannett shareholders ultimately rejected the takeover.

Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, where in December, members of the Denver City Council passed a resolution that called on the company to either invest in the Post or sell it. Alden has been draining the blood from that once-fine newspaper since 2011.

In January, two respected Chicago Tribune columnists wrote a New York Times op-ed calling attention to their own newspaper’s struggles as an Alden holding. In February, the Chicago City Council passed a resolution similar to Denver’s.

We need that here, in Hartford. We need a concerted effort to save the Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper in the Nation, the newspaper that printed a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and was sued for libel by Thomas Jefferson. We need a full-throated show of support, like that of state Sen. Saud Anwar and others. We, too, need to encourage Alden to put up or shut up. We, too, need wealthy people to invest in local journalism.

Mostly, we need to stop the dangerous trend that threatens our free press. According to the Pew Research Center, post-Watergate, the circulation of daily newspapers peaked in the late ’80s. About that same time, third-generation newspaper families began to lose interest in the family business, while corporations began to notice the healthy profit margins found in the newspaper industry. At a rate that accelerated as we barreled through the ‘90s, more and more newspapers became part of media conglomerates.

If the carnage continues, Alden will kill our newspaper. When that happens, we’re left with news deserts, with our “news” shoveled at us by social media, with its lack of fact-checkers and professionalism. Our information age will suffer from an appalling lack of information.

Passivity is not an option. This is our damn newspaper. This is our damn democracy.

Susan Campbell teaches at University of New Haven, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood.” She can be reached at slcampbell417@gmail.com.

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Hartford Courant to absorb last vestiges of Advocate alt-weeklies

cover_image_3_330_410_88_sha-40Long before I decided to write a book about the New Haven Independent, I knew who Paul Bass was. The New Haven Advocate, like The Boston Phoenix, was one of the crown jewels in the world of alternative weeklies. Bass, who spent much of his long stint at the Advocate as its chief political columnist, was something of a legend in that world.

The first time we met, in 2009, he told me he had decided to launch the Independent, an online-only nonprofit news site, in part because he was unhappy with what had happened to the Advocate under the ownership of the Hartford Courant and its various corporate overlords. (I wrote about the sale of the Advocate papers for the Phoenix in 1999.)

This week, about eight months after The Boston Phoenix died (survived by its sister papers in Portland and Providence), the Advocate breathed its last. In this case, there isn’t even a body to mourn, as the Courant absorbed the Advocate into a weekly supplement called CTNow. The Hartford Advocate and the Fairfield County Weekly are being subsumed into CTNow as well, according to this account by blogger and former Advocate writer Brian LaRue.

Bass has written a heartfelt tribute to the Advocate and what it meant to New Haven — and to him. Among other things, he gets at something I’ve been thinking about: whether community news sites like the Independent are, in a sense, the new alt-weeklies — not as opinionated, not as profane, not nearly as far to the left, but nevertheless representing a type of journalism that is engaged with the community in a way that few daily newspapers are.

Worcester paper abandons printing presses, too

It’s become a flood. The Telegram & Gazette of Worcester has announced it’s shutting down most of its printing operations, costing 64 employees their jobs. The T&G will be printed at the Boston Globe. Both papers are owned by the New York Times Co.

The announcement comes within days of the Boston Herald’s deal with the Globe, and with the New Haven Register’s decision to shut down its presses and shift its printing operations to the Hartford Courant.

Total job loss: 222. Absolutely necessary. And a tragedy for the workers, their families and the local economy.

New Haven Register to stop presses, cut 105 jobs

As a symbol of a newspaper that’s out of touch with its community, you couldn’t do much better (in other words, much worse) than the headquarters of the New Haven Register. The city’s daily newspaper is located in a former shirt factory alongside Interstate 95 amid an undistinguished strip of businesses. A barbed-wire fence surrounds part of the property.

So though you’ve got to be sad at today’s news that the Register will soon be printed by the Hartford Courant and that 105 people will lose their jobs, in the long run it should provide the Register with an opportunity to rebuild its community ties. The New Haven Independent covers the story, and it follows by days the announcement that the Boston Globe will soon begin printing most editions of the Boston Herald.

New Haven Register editor Matt DeRienzo has said he wants to move the staff — or at least part of it — to a downtown location where members of the public will be free to walk in, grab a cup of coffee and observe news meetings — as they already do at a smaller paper he also runs, the Torrington Register Citizen.

Recently, the Register began webcasting its news meetings as well.

Like many papers, the Register moved out of the downtown in the 1970s 1980s as a reflection of the large industrial enterprises they were in those days — manufacturing plants that took deliveries of paper and ink, and then sent fleets of vehicles across the region to distribute the finished product. It made a certain kind of sense, but it also represented the fraying of a relationship with the communities those papers served.

Now the Register’s owner, the Journal Register Co., has embarked on an extensive reinvention effort called “Digital First.” The Register’s decision to jettison its printing operation is a reflection of that effort, and it could be a sign of better days to come.

Tribune outsources local journalism jobs to Chicago

The bankrupt Tribune Co. is outsourcing New England newspaper jobs to the mother ship in Chicago. Both the Hartford Courant, a daily, and the New Haven Advocate, an alt-weekly, have been affected by Tribune’s latest cost-slashing.

Our story begins last Thursday, when Boston Globe sportswriter and Courant alumnus Peter Abraham tweeted, “Two great friends and mentors were let go by the Courant today. If you need top-notch copy editors, I know just the guys for you.”

When I expressed my dismay, Abraham responded, “Seems they are now going to edit the paper out of Chicago or something. Just awful.”

Then, on Friday, the New Haven Independent reported that Joshua Mamis, publisher of the Advocate as well as two satellite operations in Hartford and Fairfield County, had lost his job. I met Mamis at a media-reform conference in San Francisco in 1996, and interviewed him in 2009 for my book-in-progress about the Independent and other community news sites. He is a good guy, and it’s kind of insane to think the Advocate papers can thrive without their own full-time publisher.

The Independent also obtained a memo that gets into a bit more detail about the Chicago connection. Here’s the key paragraph:

Other changes are a result of our on-going participation in Media on Demand (MoD), which provides fully edited and designed non-local news and features content for Tribune newspapers and websites. MoD will expand to take on copy-editing and page design for several newspapers including The Hartford Courant at a center based in the Chicago Tribune newsroom, where the content-sharing hub is located.  This approach, already implemented at the Daily Press, will enable us to improve the efficiency of operations and position us to fulfill our local mission and to meet the challenges of the future.

The Daily Press is located in Newport, Va. And here’s more from the Courant.

This is terrible news. Shipping local journalism jobs to Chicago is malpractice. Rather than pillaging its properties to pay down its $13 billion debt, Tribune ought to get out and let an unencumbered owner operate them.

Here is a column the New York Times’ David Carr wrote earlier this year on Tribune’s implosion. And here is a piece I wrote for the Boston Phoenix in 1999, shortly after the Advocate papers were sold to Times Mirror, which was later acquired by Tribune.

Taking a look at Connecticut budget coverage

Gov. Dannel Malloy

Compared to Greater Boston, the decline of traditional news organizations in Connecticut is considerably more advanced. The Hartford Courant, a venerable statewide daily that traces its founding to 1764, is owned by Tribune Co., which is in bankruptcy. As a result, the Courant has had to cut back on its Statehouse coverage in recent years. Other largish dailies, such as the New Haven Register, no longer even have a full-time Statehouse reporter.

Yet Connecticut has also proved to be a place where digital-media experiments have arisen to fill in some of the gap. Two that are focused on state government are the Connecticut Mirror, a well-funded non-profit, and CT News Junkie, a scrappy for-profit that also functions as the Statehouse bureau for the non-profit New Haven Independent.

With Gov. Dannel Malloy having reached a tentative agreement with the state’s labor leaders on Friday, a deal that could prevent the layoff of nearly 5,000 employees, I thought this was a good time to check in on how the old and new players covered it.

Hartford Courant

  • Lede: “Capping months of secretive talks, Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and state-employee union leaders reached a deal Friday to save $1.6 billion over the next two years in exchange for a promise not to lay off unionized workers for the next four years.”
  • When: Time-stamped at 10:11 p.m. on Friday; published in Saturday’s print edition
  • Length: About 1,600 words
  • What: A densely reported story that is full of details but is a little bewildering if you’re not an insider. Perhaps the one-must read if you’re a stakeholder, but loses points for quoting the chairman of the Republican State Committee as calling the budget “unconstitutional” without offering (or demanding) an explanation.
  • Reported by no one else: “At the end of his prepared remarks in announcing the deal, Malloy’s speech said, ‘Finally … so much for Friday the 13th being an unlucky day!’ But Malloy never delivered that line.”

The Connecticut Mirror

  • Lede: “Negotiators for state employee unions and Gov. Dannel P. Malloy tentatively agreed Friday on a two-year $1.6 billion package of concessions and other labor savings that will help Malloy balance the $40.1 billion biennial budget without 4,700 announced layoffs.”
  • When: Posted on Friday with no time-stamp, but first comment posted at 2:29 p.m.
  • Length: About 1,400 words, plus a 1,100-word sidebar analyzing the implications of the deal for future budget planning, posted later on Friday
  • What: As with the Courant, the Mirror’s main story is densely reported and filled with details of interest mainly to insiders. The sidebar, though, provides needed perspective by demonstrating how difficult it will be for Malloy to hold on to savings in the face of demands that he undo program cuts.
  • Reported by no one else: “With over $19 billion in bonded debt, Connecticut ranks among the top three states in the nation in terms of debt per capita, and debt as a percentage of the taxpayers’ personal income.”

CT News Junkie

  • Lede: “Gov. Dannel P. Malloy said that after months of negotiating he has reached a deal with labor that saves the state $1.6 billion over the next two years and $21.5 billion over the next 20. However, at a 3 p.m. press conference there was little Malloy could say about the agreement until negotiators have had time to brief union members.”
  • When: Friday at 6:12 p.m. (final update); initial post at 2:20 p.m.
  • Length: About 900 words
  • What: As the site’s name suggests, CT News Junkie is mainly geared toward political junkies and insiders. It doesn’t get any more insidery than this: “Also the retirement age will be raised from 60 to 63 for Tier II employees and 62 to 65 for Tier IIa employees, however, those changes won’t kick in until 2022.” But the shorter length makes for a somewhat zippier read without sacrificing much in the way of needed details.
  • Reported by no one else: “In 2009 the last time a the [sic] SEBAC contract was reopened it took the state employee unions three weeks to complete the ratification of the contracts.”

The New York Times

  • Lede: “Threatened with nearly 5,000 layoffs, representatives for 45,000 unionized state employees agreed Friday to $1.6 billion in concessions over two years to help balance a budget that Gov. Dannel P. Malloy says includes pain for everyone: record tax increases, substantial program cuts and worker givebacks in health care, pension benefits and wages.”
  • When: The Web version of the article says it was “published” on Friday; it appeared in print on Saturday
  • Length: About 900 words
  • What: The Times covers major Connecticut stories as part of its New York local report. The story, which cites the Courant for some details, offers a more sweeping view than the others, going with fewer details and seeking to place Malloy’s conciliatory approach with the unions in a broader political context.
  • Reported by no one else: “And while the confrontational approach has made Governor Christie of New Jersey a hot property, there is no early indication that what Mr. Malloy calls ‘shared sacrifice’ is working as well for him. A Quinnipiac University poll in March put his approval rating at 35 percent.”