An elegant, comprehensive takedown of how Alden pillages local newspapers

Illustration by Thomas Nast

Among those of us who have obsessively followed Alden Global Capital’s destruction of newspapers over the years, there was very little that was new in McKay Coppins’ 7,000-word magnum opus that The Atlantic published this week. Still, Coppins is a gifted writer, and he’s pulled together the full story in a manner that is both elegant and comprehensive.

The arc of Coppins’ narrative is familiar. Alden, a hedge fund, got into the newspaper business about a decade ago. At first, Alden indulged the chief executive it inherited from one of the chains it acquired, John Paton, and then turned on him when he wasn’t willing to go along with the drastic cost-cutting they insisted on. I imagine Alden co-founder Heath Freeman was initially impressed with the blunt, profane Paton, who was not averse to slashing expenses to align them with revenues. The problem was that Paton actually cared about journalism and was not on board with Freeman’s insistence on endless rounds of cuts in order to enrich himself and the other co-founder, Randall Smith.

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One fact I hadn’t known previously is that Randall Smith, secretive and a generation or so older than Freeman, is the brother of Russ Smith, founder of the now-defunct New York Press. Russ also founded the Baltimore City Paper, the Washington City Paper and now runs the website Splice Today.

The New York Press was a big deal in the 1990s, as Coppins notes, publishing 10,000-word columns by Smith that attacked the elite media establishment. Smith also once published a lengthy takedown of The Boston Phoenix by another writer that infuriated all of us. I wish I still had a copy. No complaints by me about Smith, though — he wrote a favorable review of my first book for The Wall Street Journal, and I enjoy bantering with him on Twitter about music and baseball.

But back to our story. Coppins’ description of Freeman, the more active and public of the two partners in running Alden’s newspapers, is priceless:

People who know him described Freeman — with his shellacked curls, perma-stubble, and omnipresent smirk — as the archetypal Wall Street frat boy. “If you went into a lab to create the perfect bro, Heath would be that creation,” says one former executive at an Alden-owned company, who, like others in this story, requested anonymity to speak candidly. Freeman would show up at business meetings straight from the gym, clad in athleisure, the executive recalled, and would find excuses to invoke his college-football heroics, saying things like “When I played football at Duke, I learned some lessons about leadership.” (Freeman was a walk-on placekicker on a team that won no games the year he played.)

And Coppins’ description of Alden’s business model is right on target:

What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self….

Alden’s calculus was simple. Even in a declining industry, the newspapers still generated hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenues; many of them were turning profits. For Freeman and his investors to come out ahead, they didn’t need to worry about the long-term health of the assets—they just needed to maximize profits as quickly as possible.

Where I have a bit of a problem with Coppins is that though he credits some of the earlier reporting he relies on, he’s haphazard about it. I winced at his sole reference to Julie Reynolds, whom he quotes indirectly a single time and identifies only as a former reporter for the Monterey Herald in California. In fact, since leaving the paper Reynolds has been indefatigable in reporting on Alden. It was because of her 2017 cover story for The Nation, for instance, that we know Randall Smith used his ill-gotten newspaper gains to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. Just recently she reported for Nieman Lab that Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing was tainted by dubious gamesmanship of the sort that should have prompted a do-over.

Then there’s the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, whose bid to buy Tribune fell short this past spring. In August, Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported that Bainum was launching a well-funded digital news nonprofit in order to compete with Alden’s Baltimore Sun. Coppins writes about that without giving any credit, and it’s being repeated in media circles as though it was his scoop.

But these are quibbles. Coppins is a gifted writer and has done a prodigious amount of reporting of his own.

Recently The Atlantic published an essay by Elaine Godfrey about the damage done to her hometown newspaper in Iowa by Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain. (Alden’s holdings come in second.)

The Atlantic deserves credit for using its prestige to focus on the local news crisis, and on the Wall Street greed that has transformed it into a catastrophe.

And so the cutting begins

Alden Global Capital is wasting no time in taking a chainsaw to its newly acquired newspapers. NPR media reporter David Folkenflik tweeted a thread that contains some horrifying details about what the hedge fund has in store for Tribune Publishing:

How about that? A $60 million loan with a 13% interest rate that Alden will pay to itself.

The cuts, by the way, will come on top of massive downsizing that took place in 2020, when Alden was a mere minority shareholder. Tribune’s Chicago Tribune reports:

Last  year, Tribune Publishing employment fell by 30%, dropping from 4,114  employees at the end of 2019 to 2,865 employees at the end of 2020,  according to the company’s annual reports. The company had a total of  896 newsroom employees across its eight markets entering this year.

Finally, the New York Post’s Keith Kelly writes that Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong, who was in a better position than anyone to stop the sale of Tribune to Alden, is “taking a lot of heat” for not voting against it — or at least for not abstaining in a way that would have stopped the deal.

Kelly quotes an unnamed source who calls Soon-Shiong “second most despised man in newspapers today behind Heath Freeman,” Alden’s president. Nice quote. I wonder who said it?

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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.

Previous coverage:

As Gannett seeks to hire journalists, Alden continues to ‘strangle’ them

Photo via the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Among those of us who follow the business of local news, there is a tendency to lump the two most notorious corporate chain owners together. Gannett Co. and Alden Globe Capital, after all, are both notorious for slashing their newsrooms to the bone. Their newspapers and websites in too many instances fail to meet the information needs of the communities they purportedly serve.

Yet there is a difference. And I was reminded of that difference recently by Rick Edmonds, who analyzes the media business for the Poynter Institute.

After a decade’s worth of cuts, Gannett is planning to bolster its reporting corps in the near future, Gannett chief executive Mike Reed told Edmonds — although he didn’t provide any numbers. Currently, Gannett employs about 5,000 journalists at its properties, which include USA Today, about 260 regional dailies and many other weekly papers and websites, including dozens in Greater Boston.

“We need to get even better,” Reed was quoted as saying. Well, OK. I would replace “even” with “a lot.” Still, such talk would be unimaginable at Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group chain of about 200 papers has sparked newsroom revolts as well as demands from 21 U.S. senators that the company stop its “reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers,” according to a recent story by Sarah Ellison in The Washington Post.

The difference between how Gannett and MediaNews are perceived may have something to do with their ownership structures.

The current Gannett is the result of a merger late last year between Gannett and GateHouse Media. Despite keeping the Gannett name, it was clearly GateHouse that got the better of the deal: Reed was the chief executive at GateHouse before assuming the same position at Gannett. The new Gannett immediately embarked on an estimated $400 million in cuts in order to pay down the debt it had taken on in financing the merger, according to the media-business analyst (and newly minted entrepreneur) Ken Doctor at Nieman Lab.

Gannett is a publicly traded corporation, which means that Reed’s ultimate goal is long-term growth and sustainability — albeit with as little journalism as the company can get away with. Reed hopes to do that by leveraging Gannett’s media holdings with digital marketing subsidiaries the company owns as well as an events business, which is obviously on hold during the COVID pandemic.

If everything works out over time, it is possible to imagine Gannett’s local news outlets staffing up and providing better, more comprehensive coverage than they have in recent years. As good as what would be offered by independent newspapers and websites? Almost certainly not. But any improvements would be welcome.

Alden Global Capital, on the other hand, is a hedge fund. And as best as anyone can tell, the company has no strategy for MediaNews Group beyond extracting as much money as it can for as long as it can. Its Massachusetts papers, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Enterprise & Sentinel of Fitchburg, operate on a shoestring. The Fitchburg office was closed several years ago. The Herald’s office in Braintree was recently shut down as well, although it’s unclear whether that was a temporary, COVID-related move or something permanent.

In Ellison’s Washington Post article, Alden managing director Heath Freeman tried to portray himself as a savior of journalism. “I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” he was quoted as saying. Ellison, though, ran through a list of MediaNews papers across the country that have been so gutted that they have virtually no one to cover the news.

“Don’t buy the idea that Alden is trying to save newspapers. I don’t think any idiot would buy that,” said Dean Singleton, the owner of an earlier iteration of MediaNews Group whose own reputation as a cost-cutter looks benign by today’s standards. Freeman’s retort: “We’ve saved the very newspapers that Dean Singleton ran into bankruptcy, so take his recriminations with a grain of salt.”

Stop me if you’ve heard me say this before, but quality local news can be a key to reviving civic engagement, which in turn could help us overcome the hyperpolarization that defines our culture nationally. According to a recent survey by Gallup and the Knight Foundation, 70% of Americans believe the news media play a “critical” (30%) or “very important” (42%) role “in making residents feel connected to their local community.”

Moreover, Andrea Wenzel of Temple University, in her new book “Community-Centered Journalism: Engaging People, Exploring Solutions, and Building Trust,” found that people trust local news outlets more than they do national media.

“While national press was perceived by residents of all political backgrounds as distant, privileged, and dismissive of local culture,” she wrote, “it was not uncommon for residents to have first- or secondhand interactions with local reporters. So while participants could identify shortcomings, there was a base-level familiarity and trust.”

Those interactions are important — but they are becoming increasingly rare at the local news organizations being run by Gannett and MediaNews Group. At least there’s some reason to hope that the situation might improve at Gannett. As for MediaNews, a former reporter for the chain, Julie Reynolds, put it this way in The Nation several years ago: “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline. Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”

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Alden’s Heath Freeman: Destroying the newspaper business in order to save it?

Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post profiles Heath Freeman, the undertaker-in-chief for Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group, the worst newspaper chain in the known universe.

Alden is notorious for destroying good newspapers like The Denver Post and The Mercury News of San Jose, and is now making a play for Tribune Publishing, which owns big metros like the Chicago Tribune and The Baltimore Sun. In Massachusetts, Alden owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.

“I would love our team to be remembered as the team that saved the newspaper business,” Freeman tells Ellison. She follows up with this withering paragraph:

This is what Freeman’s approach to saving the newspaper business looks like in St. Paul, Minn.: A local sheriff blew his budget by $1 million and there was no Pioneer Press reporter available to cover the county board meeting. In San Jose: There was no reporter on the education beat at the Mercury News when the pandemic started closing schools. In Denver: In the aftermath of the 2012 Aurora movie theater mass shooting, the editor was asked to slash staff to improve the next month’s budget numbers. In Vallejo, Calif.: There is exactly one news reporter left at the Times-Herald to cover a community of 120,000 people.

The best thing that could happen for those communities is for MediaNews Group to collapse. The papers would still be there, and they would almost certainly have a brighter future on their own.

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