How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

With Alden destroying the Hartford Courant, Hearst goes statewide and digital

The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.

Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.

CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.

The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.

It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.

The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.

Things went from bad to worse at the Courant earlier this year when Alden added Tribune to its holdings despite efforts by the staff to find a local buyer.

It’s great to see Hearst now upping its game in Connecticut as well.

The Sun is setting in Lowell

More downsizing at The Sun of Lowell, part of Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group chain. Kris arrived at The Sun 42 years ago as a Northeastern co-op student. People like him are the heart and backbone of local journalism.

Soon-Shiong ducks question on why he didn’t move to stop Alden from buying Tribune

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

Billionaire Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong evaded the question when CNN’s Brian Stelter asked him on the new “Reliable Sources” podcast why he didn’t intervene to prevent Alden Global Media from acquiring Tribune Publishing.

Here’s the exchange:

Stelter: Patrick, there are people who want to know why, with the Alden deal, you didn’t step in. This is the deal where Tribune was being taken over by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. You are the biggest outside shareholder. You could have stepped in. There’s questions about why you decided to abstain, why you decided not to stop that from happening. Can you share with us why?

Soon-Shiong: Well, look, you know, I was a passive shareholder, and it was really important for the board to do what it has to do with regard to the rest of the Tribune holdings. I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

A quick recap: Alden, the worst newspaper owner on the planet, paid $633 million last month to boost its share of Tribune’s nine major-market dailies from 32% to 100%. Soon-Shiong, who held 25% of Tribune’s shares, could have just said no and given Baltimore hotel magnate and philanthropist Stewart Bainum more time to pull together his own deal.

Instead, Soon-Shiong abstained, and he did it in such a way that the deal was allowed to go through. That is, if he had formally abstained, the sale would have been stopped.

And now Alden is decimating Tribune’s newspapers, just as it has with its 100-paper MediaNews Group chain.

Previous coverage.

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Why revelations about Alden’s acquisition of Tribune should force a do-over

Photo (cc) 2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Could Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing be headed for a do-over? Julie Reynolds, who’s been reporting on the hedge fund’s evisceration of newspapers for years, has written a fascinating story for the Nieman Journalism Lab suggesting that the $633 million deal may have been illegal.

Alden, which already owned 32% of Tribune’s papers, pledged to pay $375 million in cash in order to bring its share up to 100%. But Reynolds reports that Alden didn’t actually have the cash, a fact that may have been known only to the three members of Tribune’s board who were affiliated with the hedge fund.

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As soon as the transaction was consummated, Alden forced the papers to borrow about $300 million. That included $60 million from Alden’s other newspaper chain, MediaNews Group, at an eye-popping interest rate of 13%. As everyone predicted, Alden has gone on a cost-cutting rampage, offering buyouts throughout the chain.

Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of Tribune’s largest paper, the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, “The scale of talent leaving the Chicago Tribune is staggering.

Reynolds also reports that the full Tribune board may have been left in the dark about a private meeting that Tribune board member and Alden founder Randall Smith had with Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum last year.

You may recall that Bainum had initially worked out an agreement under which Alden would buy Tribune’s nine major-market dailies and then sell one of them, The Baltimore Sun, to Bainum, who planned to donate it to a nonprofit organization. After Bainum concluded that Alden was trying to gouge him, he tried to put together a bid for the entire chain. Most if not all of the papers would have been spun off to local buyers. But he was never able to put together a firm offer, and the board went with Alden instead. Alden is keeping all nine papers, including the Sun.

As Reynolds notes, the Tribune board spurned Bainum’s higher offer because the financing was not in place — and ignored the reality that Alden’s wasn’t in place, either. She writes:

Given the healthy profits Tribune has generated over the last several quarters, the cuts are there for just one reason: to achieve higher margins for Alden. Randall Smith will get richer while communities served by Tribune are starved of the information they need.

If Reynolds is correct in asserting that laws were broken in order to pave the way for Alden’s acquisition of Tribune, then the punishment ought to be more than a fine and a slap on the wrist. The sale should be voided and the Tribune board should be forced to vote again.

Maybe this time Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, can be persuaded to stop Alden. As a 25% owner of Tribune before the sale, Soon-Shiong could have said no. Instead, he abstained, and did it in a manner that allowed the transaction to go through.

I’m also lighting up the Bat Signal again for Jeff Bezos.

Previous coverage.

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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Alden’s victory marks a dark day for newspapers — but it could lead to a brighter future

The Chicago Tribune Tower — no longer the home of its namesake newspaper, which is now falling into the hands of our worst newspaper owner. Photo (cc) 2013 by R Boed.

It was, in a sense, the perfect ending to the disastrous $630 million sale of Tribune Publishing to the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. After Tribune’s board voted earlier today to turn over its nine major-market dailies to the worst newspaper owner in the country, it wasn’t entirely clear that the vote was valid. And I’m guessing that the Newspaper Guild, which has been fighting the sale, will file a challenge. Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison of The Washington Post explain:

But participants also remained uncertain well into Friday afternoon about the potential impact of Patrick Soon-Shiong’s surprise announcement, made via a spokeswoman, that he “abstained” from the vote. The California biotech billionaire owns the Los Angeles Times — which is unaffected by the sale — and about one-quarter of Tribune shares, meaning he had enough votes to torpedo the takeover.

According to Tribune Publishing proxy filed on April 20 with the Securities and Exchange Commission, an “abstain” vote would be counted as “against” the merger. Yet it appears that Soon-Shiong ultimately did not cast his ballots in a way that would have stopped the Alden sale. Unnamed Tribune Publishing officials told the Chicago Tribune that the proxy ballots registered to Soon-Shiong were submitted without the “abstain” box checked, and that his votes were counted as “yes” for the merger.

Had he not voted at all, his silence would have been recorded as a vote “against” the merger. But ballot submitted without any boxes checked at all were understood as endorsing the board’s recommendation to approve the merger.

David Folkenflik of NPR has a comprehensive account of what went down today and what it means for the future.

There are two villains here in the looming destruction of some of our most important newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant. One is Soon-Shiong. I realize he has his hands full with the LA Times, and I’m glad that he appears to be recommitted to that paper after rumors circulated earlier this year that he was looking to sell. But all he had to do today was vote “no,” buying more time for another bidder to emerge. Instead, Soon-Shiong will walk away with $150 million.

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The other villain is a Swiss billionaire named Hansjörg Wyss. At one point, Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum put together a $680 million bid that was largely aimed at breaking up the chain and finding local buyers. Wyss wanted the Chicago Tribune — but reportedly decided against it once he learned that its finances were in worse shape than he’d been led to believe. He also reportedly lost interest after his advisers convinced him that, no, the Trib couldn’t be transformed into a national paper in league with The New York Times or the Post. With a net worth of $6.4 billion, though, Wyss easily could have sucked it up rather than walking away.

I’m not going to single out mega-billionaire Jeff Bezos as a villain, even though I recently argued that he should add Tribune to his ownership of the Post. It would have been nice, but there was never a hint that he had any interest.

And here’s a really terrible wrinkle. Earlier this year, Alden had agreed to buy Tribune and then sell The Baltimore Sun to Bainum, who in turn planned to donate it to a nonprofit. Bainum decided to try to buy the entire chain after concluding that Alden was trying to chisel him on the terms of the deal. Now Alden will keep all nine Tribune metros plus some pretty vital smaller papers, such as the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland.

Alden will soon control two newspaper chains. In addition to Tribune, Alden owns MediaNews Group (also known as Digital First Media), whose 100 or so papers include The Denver Post, the Orange County Register in Southern California and, in Massachusetts, The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and the Boston Herald. Its papers are mere shadows of their former selves, barely able to cover the communities they purportedly serve.

If there’s a bright spot — and there is — it’s that entrepreneurial journalists move in where there is market failure. Former Denver Post journalists are now operating The Colorado Sun, a digital operation that recently acquired a chain of 24 regional newspapers around Denver. In Northern California, two former Alden journalists are now running a news co-op called The Mendocino Voice. And in Baltimore, Bainum says he’s going to investigate launching a nonprofit alternative to the Sun.

This may be the darkest day in the history of American newspapers. My hope is that, five years from now, we’ll look back and see that something good came out of it.

Previous coverage.

Why Jeff Bezos should rescue Tribune’s newspapers from Alden Global Capital

Jeff Bezos. Photo (cc) 2019 by Daniel Oberhaus.

Previously published at GBH News.

It’s going to take a miracle to save the Chicago Tribune, the Hartford Courant, New York’s Daily News and six other large-market dailies from the greedy clutches of Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that’s widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in the country.

On May 21, Tribune Publishing’s board is scheduled to vote on selling its papers. At this point, it looks like the only viable bid is from Alden, which has offered $635 million to boost its share of the company from 32% to 100%. A competing bid from the Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum was dealt a huge setback recently when his partner, the Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, pulled out. Bainum, who wants to acquire Tribune’s Baltimore Sun and turn it over to a nonprofit, said he hasn’t given up. Right now, though, money and momentum are on Alden’s side.

Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, The Mercury News of San Jose and, locally, the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg. All have been decimated, a fate that you can be sure is in store for Tribune’s papers if the hedge fund’s bid is accepted.

But it’s not too late if someone with vast riches and a demonstrated interest in journalism is willing to step up. Someone, for instance, like Jeff Bezos. The mega-billionaire owner of The Washington Post would be the perfect savior for the Tribune papers. Would he do it? I have no idea. If he were willing, though, he could breathe new life into some of our most important journalistic institutions.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Bezos’ ruthlessness in running Amazon has caught up with him; his public image has taken some well-deserved hits since 2013, when he found $250 million in a spare pants pocket and bought the Post. Do we really want someone whose drivers have to pee into bottles in order to make their appointed rounds having even more power than he does already? Yes, Alden already owns about 100 papers via its MediaNews Group subsidiary. But whoever wins Tribune will control some of the most influential daily newspapers in the country. How can we be sure that Bezos wouldn’t use that power for ill?

To answer that question, we have to look at the record. And however brutal his treatment of Amazon employees may be, he has been an exceptionally good steward of The Washington Post. There is no evidence that he has interfered in the Post’s news coverage, or even in its editorial pages.

Then-executive editor Marty Baron stressed that Bezos had been hands-off when I interviewed him for my 2018 book “The Return Of The Moguls.” And Baron repeated that at a recent event sponsored by Northeastern’s School of Journalism. “His involvement on the news side was nothing beyond approving our budget,” Baron said. (Note: I’m on the faculty.)

What evidence exists to the contrary is, frankly, pretty thin gruel. In his new book, “Fulfillment: Winning And Losing In One-Click America,” ProPublica reporter Alec MacGillis observed that, after buying the Post, Bezos bought a mansion in Washington, D.C., and greatly increased Amazon’s lobbying presence in the capital.

MacGillis also noted that the Post ran a cheerleading editorial in favor of Amazon’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, coming to the D.C. subrub of Arlington, Virginia. “It would be left to a local business journal, not the Post, to uncover the emails showing the lengths to which Arlington officials had gone to ease Amazon’s path,” MacGillis writes. OK, fine. But the Post was hardly the only newspaper that expressed enthusiasm for HQ2 and the thousands of jobs it would bring. As a reminder, take a look at some of The Boston Globe’s coverage.

Indeed, Bezos has built such a sterling reputation for his leadership of the Post that Hamilton Nolan, who keeps tabs on the paper for the Columbia Journalism Review, recently devoted an entire piece to speculating about what would happen if Bezos woke up one morning and decided to weaponize the paper on behalf of his business and personal interests. Nolan wrote that “the editorial independence of the Post should never be taken for granted.” No, it shouldn’t. But after more than seven years of ownership, Bezos has done very little to raise concerns about his vision for the proper role of a newspaper owner.

Needless to say, Bezos could afford to buy Tribune. Even so, it’s worth reminding ourselves just how rich he is. In January 2020, his net worth was $118 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index. By early 2021, it had risen to $196 billion as the pandemic super-charged Amazon’s business even while millions of Americans were being thrown out of work.

In other words, it would cost Bezos less than 1% of the money he’s made just over the last year to buy Tribune in its entirety. The latest news about Alden, meanwhile, is that the hedge fund “probably violated federal pension protections by putting $294 million of its newspaper employees’ pension savings into its own funds, according to a Labor Department investigation.” The story, reported by Bezos’ Washington Post, noted that Alden has admitted no wrongdoing and paid the money back. But still.

Bezos is 57, an age when many successful people start thinking about their legacy. He’s stepping down as Amazon’s CEO later this year. By investing resources in The Washington Post, he transformed it into a profitable, growing, digitally focused news organization in just a few years. Attempting to work the same magic with Tribune’s papers would be a worthy challenge.

Is this any way to ensure the future of journalism? No, it is not. As I wrote recently, the fate of great news organizations shouldn’t be left solely to the whims of unregulated, predatory capitalism. Unfortunately, that’s the system we have, and it’s not going to change between now and May 21.

So please, Mr. Bezos. Is it OK if I call you Jeff? Give these papers a chance to thrive. You did it with the Post. You can do it again.

A new editor in Lowell and Fitchburg

MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain owned by Alden Global Capital, has named a new senior editor at The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg: Bruce Castleberry, who will remain as regional sports editor for Massachusetts.

Castleberry replaces Tom Shattuck, who left late last month.

A remarkable editorial in the Orlando Sentinel pleads for deliverance from Alden

Orlando, Florida. Photo (cc) 2020 by Joe Flood.

The Orlando Sentinel — one of nine Tribune Publishing newspapers that are either on the verge of being bought and destroyed by Alden Global Capital or rescued by a group of would-be billionaire saviors — has published a remarkable editorial about its fate.

“Alden’s history with newspaper ownership is akin to a biblical plague of locusts — it devours newsroom resources to maximize profits, leaving ruin in its wake,” the editorial says. Indeed, Alden, the hedge fund behind MediaNews Group, has destroyed papers from coast (the Orange County Register) to coast (the Boston Herald) and at various points in between (The Denver Post).

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The Sentinel’s local and regional coverage would be valuable to its community in any case. But as the editorial notes, it’s the paper’s reporting on indicted former elected official Joel Greenberg that led the national press to U.S. Rep. Matt Goetz, a Florida Republican whose meltdown encompasses so much alleged wrongdoing that it can’t be easily summarized here.

As I wrote earlier this week, a group led by the hotel magnate Stewart Bainum, who hopes to take Tribune’s Baltimore Sun nonprofit, has offered Tribune’s board slightly more money than Alden ($650 million to $630 million). But the board has been leaning Alden’s way because the Bainum group hasn’t pulled its financing together yet. The Sentinel editorial puts it this way:

This is the kind of principled ownership the Sentinel and other Tribune papers like the Chicago Tribune and South Florida Sun Sentinel need to survive and thrive, investors who see not just an opportunity to make money (because many papers, ours included, still make money) but also a way to strengthen their communities.

With chains of varying levels of greed such as Gannett, Advance and McClatchy controlling almost everything else, the fight of Tribune really feels like it’s the last battle in a long war for the soul of American newspaper journalism.

If the Bainum group loses, the only thing left will be the hard work of building an alternative local news ecosystem.