Can a news organization help to support itself by opening a café, bar and wedding venue? It’s a good question, but here’s a better one: Can such a gathering place lead to the revival of civic engagement and, thus, to renewed interest in local journalism?
It’s hard to imagine worse news for the beleaguered business of local journalism. The Wall Street Journal reported (sub. req.) on Sunday that Digital First Media, the hedge-fund-owned chain notorious for squeezing out the last drop of blood from its newspapers, is trying to buy Gannett. Brian Stelter has posted an update at CNN.com.
Gannett is best known for publishing USA Today — which, though it’s a perfectly fine paper, it’s mainly something to look at when you’re in a hotel. The real story is its vast chain of local newspapers, which are listed here. New England is a nearly Gannett-free zone, with the Burlington Free Press of Vermont being its only holding. By contrast, New Jersey, with eight Gannett local news properties, would be devastated. Digital First owns three papers in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
According to USA Today, Gannett had not received an offer from Digital First as of Sunday night. But it’s for real, as Jeff Sonderman of the American Press Institute tweeted:
Not to praise Gannett too much. Back when the newspaper business was considerably healthier than it is today, media critics like the late Ben Badgikian reported that Gannett insisted on profit margins of 30 percent, 40 percent or more, cutting considerably into their public service mission. In recent years, Gannett has cut the Burlington Free Press to the bone. In “The Return of the Moguls,” I wrote about an alternative media ecosystem in Burlington that had grown in response to the decline of the Free Press. It’s only gotten worse at the Free Press since I did my reporting in late 2015.
But Gannett, a publicly traded company, and GateHouse Media, another hedge-fund-owned chain, at least seem to be in the business of trying to chart a path to the future. Digital First and its owner, Alden Global Capital, by contrast, appear to be in what economists refer to as “harvesting” mode, taking the last few dollars out of their shrinking newspapers before shutting them down or selling them off.
I’ve written about Digital First several times. Most recently, I wrote for WGBHNews.org about a report from the University of North Carolina called “The Expanding News Desert,” which was highly critical of Digital First and GateHouse. In 2014, I tracked the history of Digital First in New Haven for The Huffington Post — from bankruptcy to a fascinating experiment under the visionary leadership of John Paton and then back to bottom-line-oriented cost-cutting.
Let’s just hope the Gannett board decides to fight rather than give in.
Update: Ken Doctor writes at the Nieman Journalism Lab that Gannett may try to escape Digital First’s clutches by running into the arms of Tribune Publishing, known until recently as tronc.
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.
The Nation recently published a splendid takedown of Randall Smith, a little-known Wall Street tycoon whose avarice has hollowed out daily newspapers from coast to coast. By “gutting” his papers, Julie Reynolds reports, Smith was able to amass the $57 million he needed to buy 16 mansions in Palm Beach, Florida. “Don’t just blame the Internet for journalism’s decline,” she writes. “Old-fashioned capitalist greed also strangles newspapers.”
The name of Smith’s newspaper empire is Digital First Media, an ironic moniker for an enterprise dedicated to the proposition that every last penny should be squeezed out of the shrinking print business. But the name isn’t just ironic — it’s also iconic. Although Reynolds doesn’t mention it in her story, it wasn’t that long ago that Digital First was created by a charismatic, foul-mouthed executive who was hailed as a possible savior of the news business.
If you’re a newspaper junkie, you’ll remember him: John Paton, celebrated by The New York Times and the Columbia Journalism Review, a man given to florid pronouncements about the need for newspapers to adapt to digital as rapidly as possible lest they die of irrelevance. As the CJR put it in 2011: “To those who complained that digital ad prices were so low compared to print ads that it was like ‘trading dollars for dimes,’ he retorted with his catchphrase, ‘Start stacking dimes.’”
Paton was put in charge of two moribund newspaper chains: the Journal Register Co., whose flagship was the New Haven Register, and MediaNews Group, whose largest paper was The Denver Post. He called the amalgamation Digital First, and he vowed either to save the business or to go down trying.
My first encounter with the Digital First aura came in the summer of 2011, when I interviewed Matt DeRienzo, then the young new editor of the Register, who’d already made his mark at a smaller Journal Register paper by opening a café and inviting the public to attend news meetings. “‘Digital First’ to me means putting journalism first, and it means putting community first, or readers first,” DeRienzo told me. “Readers don’t need to come to us as this exclusive voice on high, like the nightly news. There are 8 million sources of information out there for us, and our job is to sift through that for them and curate and aggregate and do original reporting as well, and to work with them at every step of the process to connect them with that. And we’re the better for it, I think.”
Paton’s most ambitious initiative was something called Project Thunderdome, whose mission was to create common content and production platforms for Digital First’s papers, allowing local journalists to focus on covering their communities. But the Paton era proved to be shockingly brief. That’s because Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that was headed by Randall Smith, began bleeding Digital First dry before Paton’s vision could be fully implemented. Project Thunderdome was shut down. Costs were cut. The company’s newspapers didn’t even have decent websites. (So much for “digital first.”) DeRienzo quit in 2014, and Paton left the following year.
Jim Brady, a former washingtonpost.com editor who had run Project Thunderdome as Digital First’s top editor, spoke favorably of Paton when we talked in early 2016. “He was maybe a little more aggressive and beat his chest a little bit more than I would,” said Brady, who subsequently launched a company that operates the mobile-first local news sites Billy Penn in Philadelphia and The Incline in Pittsburgh. “On the other hand, it got him a lot of attention and probably allowed us to hire some people, get some people interested in us that wouldn’t have been interested otherwise.”
As Julie Reynolds notes in her article in The Nation, Digital First is now one of the country’s largest newspaper chains. The company bought the Orange County Register out of bankruptcy in 2016 following Boston businessman Aaron Kushner’s failed attempt to restore the Register’s fortunes. In Massachusetts, Digital First owns the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Sun of Lowell. With luck, perhaps Digital First will someday sell them to local buyers, as it did with the Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a transaction that has revived the Eagle and its affiliated papers in southern Vermont.
“Unlike large corporate owners in the past,” Reynolds writes, “the stated goal of the investment firms is not to keep struggling newspapers alive; it is to siphon off the assets and profits, then dispose of what little remains.”
The Digital First story might have had a different ending if Paton had been able to implement his ideas. To this day many smaller papers without debt and with little competition are making money and serving their communities, even if they’re not exactly thriving. Long-term, their demise may be inevitable. Short-term, they’re being hustled along to the boneyard by the likes of Digital First.
Matt DeRienzo, the top editor at Digital First Media’s Connecticut properties, including the New Haven Register, has taken a buyout offer and left the company, according to Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent.
DeRienzo, 38, had worked at various permutations of DFM for the past 11 years. In his early days, he once told me in an interview for my book “The Wired City,” his tasks included making sure the chain’s newspapers didn’t post too much content on their websites so that customers wouldn’t have less incentive to buy a paper. Toward the end, under DFM chief executive John Paton, DeRienzo was a leader in nudging his journalists away from print into the digital age. He writes:
I’ve come to know hundreds of people who have dedicated their lives to journalism, who work long hours for low pay, and put up with all kinds of crap (including plenty from me!) year after year. Cynical exteriors aside, at the heart of it, they care about strangers and are in journalism to improve people’s lives.
For the time being DeRienzo is doing some writing for CT News Junkie, a for-profit website that covers Connecticut politics and public policy.
DeRienzo will be succeeded at DFM’s Connecticut publications by Mark Brackenbury, someone who — in my one brief encounter — impressed me as an editor who cares about journalism and communities.
As I wrote for The Huffington Post earlier this year, DFM seems to be on the verge of breaking up and disappearing; the company’s financial problems had a serious effect on DeRienzo’s ability to carry out his vision. Yet in Bass’ Independent story, Paton sounds as charged up as ever, saying the company will move forward once a buyer for the chain is found.
I hope Paton is right. And best wishes to Matt, one of the good guys in our field.
The redoubtable Ian Donnis of Rhode Island Public Radio reports that The Providence Journal may shed up to 40 jobs once an affiliate of GateHouse Media has completed its purchase of the paper. Donnis’ source is impeccable: the number is included in paperwork GateHouse filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Donnis does not say how many employees the Journal now has, and I was unable to find that number in recent coverage of the sale. I’ll add it if someone passes it along. Also, I assume that all 40 cuts will not be in the newsroom.
Also, Philip Eil of The Providence Phoenix takes a look (link now added) at what the sale means for the venerable paper. (Founded in 1829, the Journal bills itself as the oldest continuously published daily paper in the United States.)
In other dispiriting news, Paul Bass of the New Haven Independent reports that another round of deep cuts is imminent at the New Haven Register. Once part of the Journal Register Co., perhaps the worst newspaper chain in the country, and in more recent years a beacon of hope under Digital First impresario John Paton, the entire chain — which includes Massachusetts titles such as The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and The Berkshire Eagle — is now believed to be for sale.
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.
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.
I find it interesting that the Digital First paywall announced Monday will include the New Haven Register, even though the Register competes with the free New Haven Independent, a nonprofit online-only news organization.
Maybe it won’t matter much — the Independent covers nothing outside of New Haven, whereas the Register offers a lot of suburban coverage. Still, this is something to keep an eye on.
Digital First chief executive John Paton has long been a critic of paywalls, as he acknowledges in this blog post. “Let’s be clear, paid digital subscriptions are not a long-term strategy. They don’t transform anything; they tweak. At best, they are a short-term tactic,” he writes, adding: “But it’s a tactic that will help us now.”
The media’s fascination with Aaron Kushner’s print-centric approach to reviving the newspaper business continues.
Kushner, a former Boston greeting-card executive who bought the Orange County Register a year ago, is the subject this week of flattering pieces by Rory Carroll in The Guardian and Rem Rieder in USA Today. Rieder’s piece, significantly, focuses on Kushner’s plans to launch a paper in Long Beach, Calif., that would compete with one run by John Paton, whose “Digital First” orientation puts him at the opposite end of the spectrum from Kushner in any discussion about the future of news.
Kushner, who once wanted to buy The Boston Globe, has a big idea: that newspapers have a lot of life left in them, and that the way to save them is to bolster shrunken news staffs and ask readers to pay. Print and online readers of the Register are charged the same price — $1 a day.
There’s a lot to like about the Kushner approach. It’s hard to argue with more journalism and an end to a generation’s worth of endless newsroom cuts. Even more enticing is that he holds out the hope that the last 15 years have all been a mirage — that we never should have responded to the disruptive changes brought by the Internet, and that, even at this late date, we can somehow click our heels three times and it will all go away.
It’s too early to rule out the possibility that Kushner might succeed. But classified ads, which comprised about 40 percent of a typical daily newspaper’s revenues as recently as a dozen years ago, are gone and are not coming back. The Kushner approach is an open invitation for an enterprising television or radio station to bolster its website and offer a free, comprehensive source of local news. It’s also a little disconcerting to see a large, important paper like the Register cut itself off from the sharing culture of the Internet.
Still, it’s hard not to wish Kushner well. Even if you’re not a print nostalgist (I’m certainly not), his experience may offer some lessons from which we could all learn.