‘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.

Will Patrick Soon-Shiong stand up to Alden — or sell his newspapers?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

It was quite a week for Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune.

On Tuesday came the news that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital was offering $630 million to boost its share of Tribune Publishing from 32% to 100%. Alden would take Tribune private and then, presumably, do what it does: slash the newsrooms of the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant and others to ribbons. One unexpected benefit: The Baltimore Sun and several sister papers would be acquired by a nonprofit foundation.

The complicating factor was that Soon-Shiong, the second-largest Tribune shareholder at 24%, has the right to veto Alden’s acquisition. Would he? Probably not, guessed Poynter analyst Rick Edmonds. “I would bet that getting out with a good return on his investment will be Soon-Shiong’s main or sole objective,” Edmonds wrote.

Then, on Friday, came a bombshell. Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong was looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he bought the Times and the Union-Tribune from Tribune’s absurdly named predecessor, tronc.

“The move,” Alpert wrote, “marks an abrupt about-face for Mr. Soon-Shiong, who had vowed to restore stability to the West Coast news institution and has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into the paper in an effort to turn it around.” Soon-Shiong denied it, tweeting, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”

We are left wondering what’s correct — “people familiar with the matter,” as Alpert described his sources, or Soon-Shiong’s on-the-record denial. Alpert is a good reporter, and presumably his sources are aware of at least some frustration on Soon-Shiong’s part. What’s especially worrisome is that Alpert’s sources say Soon-Shiong has come to believe his papers would be better off “as part of a larger media group.” Other than Alden or Gannett, it’s hard to imagine any other options. If Soon-Shiong is really tired of the business, why not sell them to a nonprofit?

Nevertheless, it’s hard for me not to think about all the times that John and Linda Henry have been rumored to be selling The Boston Globe since they bought it in 2013. Every so often they deny it, such as in 2018 and 2020. And there certainly haven’t been any signs that they’re selling.

Still, the Henry rumors never made it into The Wall Street Journal. Let’s hope that, whatever else comes out of the Tribune meltdown, Southern California’s major newspapers remain within the relatively safe orbit of Soon-Shiong’s protection.

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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.

Media roundup: Censorship in LA; publicly funded news in NJ; and the death of a pioneer

Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Update: Judge Walter has lifted his order.

It’s a basic tenet of press freedom: news organizations may publish public documents they lawfully obtained even if they got those documents by mistake. And so editors at the Los Angeles Times thought they were on solid ground last week when they reported the details of a plea agreement reached between a corrupt police officer and a federal judge — even though the Times obtained that information because the government had accidentally uploaded the plea agreement to a public database.

Judge John Walter ordered the Times to remove parts of the article after a lawyer for the police officer, a narcotics detective named John Saro Balian, argued that his client’s life would be in danger. The Times complied, though its new celebrity editor, Norman Pearlstine, has vowed to fight. “There is sort of a constant effort to nibble away at the First Amendment,” Pearlstine told The New York Times, “and I think there is an obligation to respond to that and push back. Once it’s out in the public record, it is our decision to decide whether it is newsworthy and we should publish.”

Pearlstine was recently hired by the Times’ new billionaire owner, the surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, in the hopes of leading the paper back to greatness following years of budget cuts and chaotic ownership. Though highly regarded, Pearlstine some years ago found himself on the wrong side of a major First Amendment case. As editor-in-chief of Time Inc., Pearlstine turned over reporter Matthew Cooper’s notes in the Valerie Plame investigation, thus complying with a court order. (No, I am not going to rehash that morass of a story. If you want to know more, click here.) Pearlstine said he acted because Cooper’s source, George W. Bush chief operative Karl Rove, wasn’t truly confidential and because Time Inc. had already lost its legal appeal.

“Although we were ready to spend millions of dollars on litigation, I had to ask whether this strange case was the one on which we wanted to draw the line by ignoring a contempt order,” Pearlstine wrote in his 2007 memoir, “Off the Record,” quoted by Douglas McCollum in the Columbia Journalism Review.

This time, Pearlstine is on the side of the First Amendment angels. Bruce Brown, executive director of the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, put it this way in a statement: “It is plainly unconstitutional for a court to order a news outlet to remove public information from an article it has published. It does not matter whether the information was placed in a court file by mistake.”

Judge Walter’s temporary restraining order is under appeal. The standard for such issues was defined in 1979 by Chief Justice Warren Burger, who wrote in the 1979 case of Smith v. Daily Mail Publishing Co. that “if a newspaper lawfully obtains truthful information about a matter of public significance, then state officials may not constitutionally punish publication of the information absent a need to further a state interest of the highest order.”

What’s taking place in Los Angeles is censorship, plain and simple. Walter’s order should be overturned as quickly and decisively as possible.

An experiment in public funding of news

Government funding of the media has long been regarded as toxic to journalism’s watchdog role. Public media organizations such as WGBH receive indirect funding through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Smaller nonprofit news projects like the New Haven Independent and Voice of San Diego receive subsidies by way of their tax-exempt status. But government officials do not decide what news gets covered.

New Jersey, though, is going to try something different. Its recently passed budget includes $5 million for local news initiatives. Donations are being sought as well. Yes, there is still some protection. According to the Associated Press, the money will be distributed by a nonprofit organization to be called the Civic Information Consortium, with a 15-member board comprising appointees chosen by elected officials as well as representatives of the state’s colleges and universities, the news media, and the public. The idea was developed by the Free Press Action Fund, part of the media-reform group Free Press, which has done yeoman’s work in educating the public about net neutrality.

Caught between the New York and Philadelphia media markets, New Jersey suffers from a paucity of news coverage. As described by the AP, members of a community with no coverage of their city government could ask the consortium for money to fund a reporter. The idea brushes right up against the wall separating journalism from government interference, although it seems that those involved have made a good-faith effort to maintain at least some semblance of independence.

Still, as Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute told the AP, “When you start taking public money you have to start with the suspicion that at some point the system will be corrupted by power.” This is a worthwhile experiment, but it will have to be monitored closely.

Marcia Chambers, 1940-2018

A remarkable journalist left us last week. Marcia Chambers, a former New York Times reporter and editor who spent her so-called retirement running the Branford Eagle, the small community news site she launched, died at the age of 78. Chambers operated her site beneath the umbrella of the New Haven Independent, whose founder and editor, Paul Bass, paid tribute to her over the weekend.

Marcia Chambers, Journalist, 1940-2018
Marcia Chambers and Paul Bass at the New Haven Independent’s fifth-anniversary party in 2010. Photo (cc) 2010 by Dan Kennedy.

I wrote about one of Chambers’ exploits in “The Wired City,” my 2013 book about new forms of online journalism. While the Independent was investigating the murder of a Yale graduate student named Annie Le, Chambers somehow obtained a 2003 police report about an ex-girlfriend of the suspect, Raymond Clark, who claimed he had forced her to have sex when they were both students at Branford High School. As a condition of receiving the report, Chambers promised not to publish it until after an arrest had been made. But that didn’t mean there were not other uses to which the report could be put.

The Independent’s Melissa Bailey typed the woman’s name into Facebook, discovered that she had an account, and friended her, letting her know she was a reporter covering the murder. After Clark’s arrest (he was later convicted), Bailey and Chambers wrote a storywithout using the woman’s name. “I can’t believe this is true,” they quoted the woman as writing on her Facebook page. “I feel like im 16 all over again. Its jsut bringing back everything.”

The revelation that the Independent had the police report created a media stampede, Bailey said later. “People were calling us, begging us for this police report,” she told a researcher for Columbia University. “The New York Times came in and practically tried to arm-wrestle Paul.” It was a triumph for Chambers — one of many in a long and productive career.

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What the new owner of the Los Angeles Times can learn from Jeff Bezos

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) and Jeff Bezos in 2016. Photo from a Post video.

Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.

Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.

Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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Rob Curley out, jobs eliminated at Orange County Register

Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy
Photo (cc) by Dan Kennedy

Digital news pioneer Rob Curley is out as editor of the Orange County Register, whose acquisition by Digital First Media was completed earlier today. The story was broken by the Orange County Business Journal.

Gustavo Arellano, the editor of OC Weekly, adds that some 50 to 70 employees are losing their jobs at the Register and its sister paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise. These are “mostly on the sales, circulation, and marketing side,” Arellano writes, a sign that Digital First—which also owns several other papers in Southern California—is consolidating its business operations.

A little more than a year ago I spent a good chunk of a day at the Register as part of my book project. Curley, who made his bones as an early digital guy at the Lawrence Journal-World a dozen years ago, followed by stops at the Washington Post and the Las Vegas Sun (among other places), allowed me to spend a considerable amount of time with him and answered all questions. However, it was completely off the record, so I can’t share with you anything I learned. I can tell you it wasn’t all that eventful.

The next day, Kushner—who had tried to purchase the Boston Globe and Maine’s Portland Press Herald before leading a group that bought the Register in 2012—stepped down a day before I was to interview him. Kushner’s emphasis on print, and his head-turning moves to hire staff and buy and launch newspapers (including a short-lived daily in Los Angeles), earned him national recognition. Unfortunately, a shortage of funds led him to dismantle what he had built in very short order.

Digital First bought the Register and the Press-Enterprise for $49.8 million after the US Department of Justice convinced a federal judge that a higher bid by Tribune Publishing, which owns the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union Tribune, should be rejected because it would reduce competition.

It struck a number of observers, including me, that the government was engaged in outdated thinking that no longer applied to the shrinking, money-losing newspaper business. Tribune has gone through numerous gyrations over the years, but the LA Times has remained an excellent newspaper. It almost certainly would have been a better steward of the Register and the Press-Enterprise than Digital First.

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The latest update on the Globe‘s home-delivery meltdown

Update, 5:05 p.m. Confirming a rumor I picked up earlier today, Globe tech columnist Hiawatha Bray reports on Facebook that “dozens” of Globe reporters, responding to the “fiasco” of the past week, will deliver the Sunday paper.

***

Today’s must-read post on The Boston Globe‘s ongoing home-delivery meltdown is by Adam Gaffin of Universal Hub. Among other things, he notes that when the Orange County Register switched to the Globe‘s new carrier, ACI Media Group, in 2014, mayhem ensued.

But I’m confused. According to the Times‘ story, the Register switched from the Los Angeles Times‘ service to ACI, based in Long Beach, California, after it fell behind on its payments to the Times. Yet when the Globe published a story on its own problems earlier this week, it identified ACI as the company that delivers the Los Angeles Times.

Googling ACI Media Group leads to dead ends and 404s (not a good sign). But I did find a cached press release from September 2010 in which ACI reported that it had at least some of the L.A. Times‘ home-delivery business:

American Circulation Innovations (ACI) is now delivering a weekly volume of 250,000 of the subscription-paid daily and Sunday Los Angeles Times. This represents a more than 100% increase of ACI’s delivery of the Los Angeles Times newspaper.

ACI’s Chief Executive, Keith Somers said: “We’ve been able to leverage our management team’s circulation background and our highly innovative and efficient delivery model to provide the Los Angeles Times with quality home delivery at reduced rates. We’re proud that our performance and service have earned increased business from such a valued and marquee partner.”

So the Orange County Register switched from the Los Angeles Times‘ home-delivery service to ACI Media Group, which also had at least some of the Times‘ business. And now the Globe is reporting that ACI has all of the Times‘ business. I guess.

The company’s new name appears to be the ACI Last Mile Network. And for what it’s worth, I haven’t been able to find any stories about problems with its service similar to what the Globe is going through. The Register‘s problems were essentially self-inflicted—though that may turn out to be the case with the Globe as well.

Former Globe suitor Aaron Kushner steps down at the OC Register



Late Tuesday afternoon I was at the Los Angeles Times, interviewing people about the state of the Orange County Register, when suddenly the word came down.

Aaron Kushner, who’d bought the paper in 2012 and presided over a dizzying expansion and stomach-churning retrenchment, was stepping down from his executive role. His co-owner, Eric Spitz, was moving to a reduced role. And Richard Mirman, a former casino executive who’d been brought in as publisher last fall, would become president and chief executive officer of the Register’s parent company, Freedom Communications.

The Register covers the story here; the Times here; and OC Weekly here.

I had traveled to Southern California to do some reporting on Kushner’s stewardship of the Register. I visited the paper on Monday and sat in on a news meeting. I am — no kidding — scheduled to interview Kushner later today, a meeting that took weeks to set up. I’m going to keep my appointment and see if he or anyone else will see me.

Kushner, who tried to buy The Boston Globe and then the Portland Press Herald of Maine, was widely portrayed as either a savior of the newspaper business or a naive idealist after he assumed the reins at the Register. He emphasized print over digital and more than doubled the size of the newsroom. But his moves became increasingly hard to understand. He bought The Press-Enterprise of Riverside, then launched new dailies in Long Beach and Los Angeles.

Starting more than a year ago, the expansion was reversed. Layoffs and buyouts commenced. The LA and Long Beach papers were closed. And the Register’s plant in Santa Ana was sold for $27 million.

The situation right now is confusing and fluid. In reading the Times’ and the Register’s coverage, it seems that Kushner, Spitz and Mirman all have ownership shares. Media business analyst Ken Doctor tells the Times that Mirman’s job “is to steady the place and to get it ready for another owner.”

Strange days in Orange County for sure.

Some reflections on the life of Steve Burgard

Steve Burgard
Steve Burgard

My friend and mentor Stephen Burgard, director of Northeastern’s School of Journalism for the past dozen years, died on Sunday. It was unexpected — he was on sabbatical, happily working on a new version of his book about religion and the media, when a longstanding lung ailment suddenly worsened.

I first met Steve online in the late ’90s, when I was covering the media for the Boston Phoenix and Steve was writing editorials for the Los Angeles Times. He was a Boston native, and he took an interest in what I was reporting about the Globe. We became frequent email correspondents as he wrote to me with ideas, observations and occasional criticism.

In 2002 he took the Northeastern position. After I expressed an interest in joining the faculty of my alma mater, he became my staunchest supporter, clearing the way for my hiring, helping me to learn the ropes as I worked toward tenure, and encouraging me every step of the way.

Steve was a huge baseball fan and had Red Sox season tickets. Last July 1, he took me to Fenway, where we watched the Sox lose to the Cubs, 2-1. Steve was truly in his element — but no more so than when he would drop by my office to talk about school business, gossip about something we’d seen on Romenesko, or just shoot the breeze.

I can’t believe we won’t be doing that again.

Bryan Marquard has written a masterful obit of Steve that appears in today’s Globe. And here is a growing tribute page that appears on our school’s website.

Northeastern University photo by Skylar Shankman.

Gary Webb: A flawed prophet who deserved better

Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.
Gary Webb in 2002. Photo via Wikipedia.

It’s been a long time since I gave much thought to Gary Webb, the investigative reporter who wrote a series of articles for the San Jose Mercury News in 1996 alleging that the CIA looked the other way (or worse) when the Nicaraguan contra rebels sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s — thus leading to the crack epidemic.

Major news organizations engaged in a furious effort to discredit Webb, and he was eventually pushed into resigning from the Mercury News. He made several attempts to revive his career (including a stint with friend of Media Nation Al Giordano’s NarcoNews.com), but committed suicide in 2004.

Now a movie about Webb has come out called “Kill the Messenger.” I would like to see it. Here’s what I wrote about Webb in The Boston Phoenix in 1998 — part of a longer article on the crisis of credibility afflicting investigative reporting:

A good example of how important work can be quashed is the case of Gary Webb, a former reporter for the San Jose Mercury News. In August 1996, the Mercury published a three-part series by Webb alleging that Nicaraguan contra rebels, backed by the CIA, had sold cocaine in Los Angeles in the 1980s in order to finance their guerrilla war against the leftist Sandinista government. These operations, Webb asserted, touched off the crack epidemic in black neighborhoods across the country.

The series gained a national audience, especially among African-Americans, after the Mercury republished the series on its Web site. But when the Washington Post, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times published their own lengthy reports rebutting many of Webb’s conclusions, the Mercury backed off. Executive editor Jerry Ceppos apologized for the reports’ flaws in 1997, and Webb was exiled to the Cupertino bureau. He ultimately resigned.

Now Webb is back, with a new book that incorporates and expands on his original series. Unfortunately, Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion (Seven Stories Press) is no guide to what went wrong unless you’re a blind Webb partisan. According to Webb, the big guns who came after him were motivated by malice and envy, and by a knee-jerk institutional need to suck up to the national security establishment. What few mistakes made it into in his stories, he asserts, were put there by boneheaded editors at the Mercury.

In fact, the anti-Webb exposés did establish beyond a reasonable doubt that Webb overreached in several key areas. Yet they never seriously challenged Webb’s central, well-documented premise: that the contras were selling cocaine in the US in order to fund their war in Nicaragua, and that their CIA sponsors looked the other way.

In October 1996, Geneva Overholser, then-ombudsman of the Washington Post, took her paper to task for putting more effort into exposing the flaws in Webb’s reporting than into following up the leads he had unearthed, and she challenged her colleagues to investigate further. No one took her up on it. Yet on Friday, the New York Times reported the existence of a classified CIA study that showed the agency “continued to work with about two dozen Nicaraguan rebels and their supporters during the 1980s despite allegations that they were trafficking in drugs.” At long last. Webb, of course, remains in the journalistic wilderness.