Aggressive cost-cutter buys an already diminished Boston Herald

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There was a time not too many years ago when Digital First Media — the all-but-certain next owner of the Boston Herald — was the toast of the newspaper business. The chain was led by a brash, profane chief executive named John Paton, who espoused an aggressive post-print strategy built around free, advertiser-supported websites, community engagement, and high-profile initiatives such as Project Thunderdome, a national news and innovation center.

It all fell apart quickly. Alden Capital, the hedge fund that controls Digital First, grew impatient with Paton’s grandiosity. Project Thunderdome was dismantled in 2014. Paton left in 2015. And the chain embarked on a relentless strategy of cutting costs to the bone. “If you work for a company owned by a hedge fund, it’s like walking through a minefield,” Jim Brady, Digital First’s former editor-in-chief, told me in 2016. “Any step can be the one where you hit the mine. Any day it could end, and you know that.”

Brady has since turned entrepreneur, founding mobile-friendly local news sites in Philadelphia (Billy Penn) and Pittsburgh (The Incline). And the post-Paton Digital First has earned a reputation for brutal cost-cutting — which raises serious concerns about what its executives have in mind for the Herald.

Digital First, based in Denver, won the Herald sweepstakes on Tuesday by outbidding two rivals. When the Herald’s soon-to-be-former owner, Pat Purcell, took the Herald into bankruptcy in December, he said the paper would be acquired by GateHouse Media, another chain controlled by a hedge fund. But Digital First, a late entry, bid a reported $11.9 million, outdistancing GateHouse’s $4.5 million and a lesser-known contender, Revolution Capital Group.

In the short term, there might not be that much difference between GateHouse and Digital First. GateHouse would have cut the number of people employed by the Herald from 240 — about half of them editorial staff members — to 175. Digital First reportedly reached an agreement with the Newspaper Guild recently to offer jobs to about 175 people. Long-term, though, there is reason to believe the Herald might have been better off under GateHouse, despite the company’s own well-deserved reputation for obsessing over the bottom line.

Why? Consider the gap between the two bids. GateHouse’s much lower offer suggests that it would not have had to cut as much to earn back its investment. GateHouse also has a substantial infrastructure in Greater Boston, with more than 100 community newspapers, including dailies such as The Patriot Ledger of Quincy, the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester, and the Providence Journal. The Herald is currently printed by The Boston Globe, but GateHouse has considerable press capacity of its own. Finally, GateHouse officials appeared to have a plan, and had been talking with people both inside and outside the Herald for weeks. (Disclosure: including me.)

By contrast, Digital First’s intentions are a mystery. But recent news about the company has not been good. The company recently eliminated the editor’s job at the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, one of its two dailies in Massachusetts, and is now running the paper out of its other daily, The Sun of Lowell. Even more ominous, the Sentinel is getting rid of its newsroom, with journalists being told to work out of their homes. As a friend put it upon hearing the news that Digital First will soon own the Herald: “How long before the newsroom is relocated to a nearby Starbucks with free WiFi?”

In California, Digital First has gone on a rampage that rivals Sherman’s march through Georgia. According to the Los Angeles Times, the company’s Southern California News Group will soon eliminate at least 65 of the 315 newsroom positions at its 11 papers, which include such well-known titles as the Orange County Register and The Press-Enterprise of Riverside. That comes on the heels of 65 cuts last summer. Farther north, the once-great Mercury News of San Jose, which at its peak employed about 440 journalists, is down to just 39 union positions in the newsroom, with some non-union staff as well.

The newspaper business has been in trouble for more than two decades as technological and cultural changes have hollowed out its financial underpinnings. But greed should not be overlooked as a major contributing factor. Last fall I wrote about an investigation by The Nation into the hedge funds that own newspapers. Among other things, we learned from reporter Julie Reynolds that Randall Smith, the tycoon who controls Digital First, had purchased 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million, which he had amassed by “purchasing and then destroying newspapers.”

The one good-news story about Digital First involves the Berkshire Eagle — and that’s only because the chain sold the paper to local business leaders a couple of years ago. According to Shan Wang of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the Eagle and its affiliated newspapers in Vermont have been rebuilding their staff and their reputation since Digital First got out of town. Wang wrote:

Newly rid of Digital First Media and its cost-cutting ways, and now owned by people with real ties to the county, the Eagle newsroom was reinvigorated. The new owners laid out a guiding strategy — if you build it up, they will come back — and promised to stay in the business of local news for the long haul. Producing better, local-focused news, and more of it, they surmised, would be the straightest path to bringing back subscribers, raising more revenue — more to invest in digital products and, finally, sustainability.

What a concept. Of course, it’s a lot easier to go the independent route with small papers that enjoy local monopolies than with a large, money-losing number-two daily like the Herald, which has long labored in the shadow of the dominant Globe. If Purcell could have stayed in business, he would have.

Still, the optimist in me hopes that once Digital First has wrung whatever profits it can out of the Herald and is ready to move on, local investors will step forward who are willing to take a chance and return the paper to independent ownership. Unfortunately, the next few years are likely to be rocky — not just for Herald employees, but for their readers as well.

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Ill-advised Hinckley decision undermines insanity defense

President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.
President Reagan moments before being shot by John Hinckley. Photo (cc) by Thomas Hawk.

I’m not outraged that a federal judge has decided to release John Hinckley, who tried to assassinate President Ronald Reagan in 1981. But I don’t think it’s a good idea, either. Hinckley grievously wounded the president; say what you will about Reagan’s seemingly complete recovery, but there was plenty of evidence that he was never the same. Hinckley also injured Reagan’s press secretary, Jim Brady, leading to Brady’s premature death in 2014.

This isn’t a yes-or-not situation; Hinckley already enjoys considerable freedom, and he apparently has not abused it. He’ll still be under some supervision. Still, I don’t think the government should go any further for two reasons:

1. Federal judge Paul Friedman ruled that “the preponderance of the evidence” shows “that Mr. Hinckley will not be a danger to himself or to others.” This strikes me as a value judgment, and that Friedman had the discretion to rule otherwise on the grounds that anyone who did what Hinckley did will always be a danger to others.

2. Hinckley was found not guilty by reason of insanity. That outraged a lot of people who wanted to see him go to prison. In fact, it was the right thing to do, and it ought to happen more frequently. Unfortunately, granting freedom to someone as notorious as Hinckley will only make it more difficult for defense lawyers to make the already-difficult case that their clients should not be held criminally responsible.

Hinckley should be held in a safe, humane, and secure facility. He should not be freed.

More: Harvey Silverglate writes, “What you did not mention is that the release of Hinckley will embolden supporters of the death penalty.” Indeed it will.

A New Haven-centric view of Digital First’s latest woes

The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.
The Register in June 2013, shortly after a redesign.

This article was published earlier at The Huffington Post.

The end may be near for one of the most widely watched experiments in local journalism.

Early today, Ken Doctor reported at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Digital First Media was pulling the plug on Project Thunderdome, an initiative to provide national and international content to the company’s 75 daily newspapers and other publications and websites. Soon, Doctor added, Digital First’s papers are likely to be sold.

Judging from the reaction on Twitter, the news came as a shock, with many offering their condolences and best wishes to the top-notch digital news innovators who are leaving — including Jim Brady, Robyn Tomlin and Steve Buttry. But for someone who has been watching the Digital First story play out in New Haven for the past five years, what happened today was more a disappointment than a surprise.

I first visited the New Haven Register, a regional daily, in 2009. I was interviewing people for what would become “The Wired City,” a book centered on the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news site that represents an alternative to the broken advertising-based model that has traditionally supported local journalism. The Register’s corporate chain owner, the Journal Register Co., was in bankruptcy. The paper itself seemed listless and without direction.

Two years later, everything had changed. Journal Register had emerged from bankruptcy and hired a colorful, hard-driving chief executive, John Paton, whose oft-stated philosophy for turning around the newspaper business — “digital first” — became the name of his blog and, eventually, of his expanded empire, formed by the union of Journal Register and MediaNews, the latter best known for its ownership of the Denver Post.

Just before Labor Day in 2011, Matt DeRienzo — then a 35-year-old rising star who had just been put in charge of all of Journal Register’s Connecticut publications, including the New Haven Register — sat down with me and outlined his plans. His predecessor had refused my requests for an interview; DeRienzo, by contrast, had tracked me down because he’d heard I was writing a book. It seemed that a new era of openness and progress had begun.

The openness was for real. The progress, though, proved elusive. For a while, John Paton was the most celebrated newspaper executive in the country, the subject of flattering profiles in the The New York Times, the Columbia Journalism Review and elsewhere. Media reporters were charmed by his blunt profanity, as when he described a presentation he gave to Journal Register managerial employees. “They were like, ‘Who’s the fat guy in the front telling us that we’re broken? Who the fuck is he?'” Paton told the CJR.

In 2012, though, Journal Register declared bankruptcy again — a necessary step, Paton said, as it was the only way he could get costs such as long-term building leases and pension obligations under control. After Journal Register emerged from bankruptcy in 2013, Paton’s moment in the national spotlight seemed to have passed, as media observers turned their attention to a new breed of media moguls like Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos (who bought The Washington Post), Red Sox principal owner John Henry (who bought The Boston Globe), greeting-card executive Aaron Kushner (who acquired the Orange County Register) and eBay founder Pierre Omidyar (who launched a new venture called First Look Media).

Although Digital First’s deepening woes may have escaped national attention, there were signs in New Haven that not all was well. Some positive steps were taken. The print edition was redesigned. The Register website was the beneficiary of a chain-wide refurbishing. Nasty, racist online comments were brought under control, and the newsroom embraced social media. But larger improvements were harder to accomplish.

Among the goals Matt DeRienzo had talked about was moving the paper out of its headquarters, a hulking former shirt factory near Interstate 95, and opening a smaller office in the downtown. In 2012, the Register shut down its printing presses and outsourced the work to the Hartford Courant. The second part of that process never came, though. Just last week, the New Haven Independent reported that the Register had backed away from moving to a former downtown mall facing New Haven Green. Two months earlier, according to the Independent, the Register and Digital First’s other Connecticut publications laid off 10 people.

Neither development should be described as a death knell. The downtown move is reportedly still in the works. And the 10 layoffs were at least partly offset by the creation of six new digitally focused positions. But rather than boldly moving forward, the paper appears to be spinning its wheels. And now — or soon — it may be for sale.

One of the biggest problems Digital First faces is its corporate structure. Can for-profit local journalism truly be reinvented by a national chain whose majority owner — Alden Global Capital — is a hedge fund? People who invest in hedge funds are not generally known for their deep and abiding affection for the idea that quality journalism is essential to democratic self-goverance. Rather, they want their money back — and then some. Preferably as quickly as possible.

No matter how smart, hard-working and well-intentioned John Paton, Jim Brady, Matt DeRienzo et al. may be, the Digital First experiment was probably destined to end this way, as chain ownership generally does. I wish for a good outcome, especially in New Haven. Maybe some civic-minded business leaders will buy the paper and keep DeRienzo as editor. And maybe we’ll all come to understand that the best way to reinvent local journalism is at the local level, by people who are rooted in and care about their community.

Local buyers exit Worcester Telegram bidding

Harry Whitin
Harry Whitin

This article was published previously at WGBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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