This message from the Boston Herald showed up in my inbox Tuesday night. Read the fine print. Not much attention to detail at MediaNews Group, the chain that owns the Herald and that, in turn, is part of the notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
Tag: MediaNews Group Page 1 of 3
Patrick Soon-Shiong, the wealthy surgeon who owns the Los Angeles Times, has delivered yet another daily newspaper into the greedy hands of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. Soon-Shiong announced Monday that he’d sell The San Diego Union-Tribune to Alden’s MediaNews Group. By my count, the Union-Tribune becomes the 10th paper that Soon-Shiong has helped turn over to Alden. As Sara Fischer and Andrew Keatts report for Axios, the new owners immediately announced cuts to the newsroom.
When Soon-Shiong bought the LA Times in 2018, the Union-Tribune was thrown in as part of the deal. Soon-Shiong was hailed by optimistic media observers as someone who, like Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post and John Henry at The Boston Globe, would provide his papers with the runway they needed to become self-sustaining enterprises.
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It’s been a mixed bag. Soon-Shiong’s main interest has been the LA Times, but he’s gone back and forth between investing and cutting. By no means has the Times been hollowed out as if it had been owned by, oh, let’s just say Alden Global Capital. But he’s run a lean ship, with the Times announcing just a few days ago that the recent sale of its press meant that game stories, box scores and standings would be eliminated from its print edition, according to Andrew Bucholtz of Awful Announcing.
Selling off the San Diego paper to one of the worst possible buyers is reminiscent of John Henry’s decision to sell the Telegram & Gazette of Worcester to a Florida chain back in 2014. As I recount in my book “The Return of the Moguls,” folks at the T&G thought Henry had promised not to sell unless a local buyer could be found; Henry told me his only promise had been not to sell to GateHouse Media. In any case, GateHouse managed to acquire the T&G within months and immediately began hollowing it out. GateHouse later morphed into Gannett, the country’s largest newspaper chain with about 200 dailies, which is notorious for its cost-cutting.
Alden Global Capital’s two newspaper chains, MediaNews Group and Tribune Publishing, make it the second largest owner with about 100 dailies. Alden is often described as the worst newspaper owner in the country, denounced as “vulture capitalists” who slash news coverage and sell off real estate in an attempt to squeeze out as much revenue as possible. Locally, Alden owns the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Soon-Shiong was perhaps the central player in Alden’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing. Whereas MediaNews Group comprises mainly smaller papers, plus a few large dailies such as The Denver Post, Tribune owns eight of the largest, most iconic papers in the country, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant.
In the spring of 2021, Tribune, then comprising nine papers, was up for grabs, as it had been many times before. Stewart Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, was attempting to buy the chain and sell off some of its properties to what he hoped would be public-spirited local owners. His main interest was in saving the Sun. Also bidding for the papers Alden. The hedge fund actually offered less money than Bainum, but its offer was reportedly less complicated as well.
The Tribune board ended up voting to sell the papers to Alden — a move that could have been halted by just one board member. Soon-Shiong, who was on the board, abstained, and he did so in a way that mean his vote essentially counted as a yes. As The Washington Post reported at the time, Soon-Shiong submitted his ballot without having checked the “abstain” box; if he had, his vote would have been counted as a “no.”
Bainum went on to found the nonprofit Baltimore Banner. Tribune, meanwhile, spun off one of its most prominent papers, the Daily News of New York, which remains part of the Alden empire as a separately owned entity.
So what’s next for The San Diego Union-Tribune? Nothing good, you can be sure. Voice of San Diego, a nonprofit news site, headlined its story “LA’s Richest Man Sells Union-Tribune to Feared ‘Chop Shop.’” Will Huntsberry and Scott Lewis interviewed the news-business analyst Ken Doctor, who predicted that San Diego will not be rid of Alden anytime soon.
“People get confused because these people are cut-throat capitalists,” Doctor told them. “But their papers are making money and they’re holding onto them for the time being.”
At least two daily newspapers owned by Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group will end reader comments on July 1.
The Boston Herald announced the move earlier today, saying that the change was being made to “dramatically speed up the performance of the website” as well as on its mobile platforms. The Denver Post took the same action last week, although editor Lee Ann Colacioppo cited bad behavior rather than technology, writing that the comment section has become “an uncivil place that drives readers away and opens those trying to engage in thoughtful conversation to hateful, personal attacks.”
Both papers emphasized that readers will still be able to talk back at them through social media platforms.
Wondering if this were a MediaNews-wide action, I tried searching about a half-dozen papers in the 60-daily chain and could find no similar announcements. I found something else interesting as well. The eight larger dailies that comprise the Tribune Publishing chain, which Alden acquired a couple of years ago, are now included as part of MediaNews Group, although they are still listed separately as well. (A ninth, the Daily News of New York, was split off from Tribune and is being run as a separate entity.)
The moves by the Herald and the Post represent just the latest in the long, sad story of user comments. When they debuted about a quarter-century ago, they were hailed as a way of involving the audience — the “former audience,” as Dan Gillmor and Jay Rosen put it. The hope was that comments could even advance stories.
It turned out that comments were embraced mainly by the most sociopathic elements. Some publishers (including me for a while) required real names, but that didn’t really help. The only measure that ensures a civil platform is pre-screening — a comment doesn’t appear online until someone has read it and approved it. But that takes resources, and very few news organizations are willing to make the investment.
The best comments section I know of belongs to the New Haven Independent, where pre-screening has been the rule right from the start. Keeping out racist, homophobic hate speech opens up the forum for other voices to be heard. The New York Times engages in pre-screening as well.
So kudos to the Boston Herald and The Denver Post — and I hope other news outlets, including The Boston Globe, will follow suit.
So where are the missing MediaNews Group dailies? Last week, I noted that Contrarian Boston couldn’t find any evidence that the Boston Herald had returned to its Braintree offices, two years after Northeastern journalism student Deanna Schwartz and I found that the Herald had decamped for The Sun in Lowell.
Now, in a follow-up, Mark Pickering reports for Contrarian Boston that The Sun is nowhere to be found, either. He writes:
For the city of Lowell, the disappearance of The Sun marks the end of an entire era. For decades, the publishers of such papers were local kings that often built impressive headquarters. And the papers were the prime way for residents to keep up with local news.
Pickering asks: Have the Herald and The Sun joined a number of other newspapers part of MediaNews Group, owned by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, that no longer have any newsrooms at all? The answer to that question is not entirely clear.
One story I’ve heard is that the Alden papers in Massachusetts have a warehouse in Westford. (Update: Or perhaps in Devens.) Papers are delivered from whatever printing plant they’re using these days before being trucked out. I’ve heard there are a few offices there that Alden journalists can use. But it appears that Alden journalists, for the most part, work at their homes except when they’re out reporting.
And let’s not forget that another MediaNews Group paper, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg, was deprived of its offices several years before the pandemic. That means that all three of the chain’s Massachusetts papers are operating without a proper newsroom.
Clarification: I’ve now noted in the caption that The Sun left its iconic downtown headquarters years ago.
Updated on Jan. 23, 2023
Recently I put together a crowdsourced spreadsheet of independent local news outlets in Massachusetts in order to show that community journalism hasn’t been entirely swallowed up by corporate chain journalism. If a paper is owned by an out-of-state group, it didn’t make the cut.
But not every chain is as bad as Gannett or Alden Global Capital’s MediaNews Group. Alden, as you may know, owns The Sun of Lowell, the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg and the Boston Herald, all of which have been slashed to the bone — and beyond. Gannett is closing and merging our venerable weekly newspapers and reassigning local reporters to regional beats.
There aren’t too many other chain newspapers in Massachusetts, but there are a few — and all of them are doing a better job of serving their communities than Alden or Gannett. Here are the ones that come to mind:
CNHI, Montgomery, Alabama
- Eagle-Tribune of North Andover (daily)
- Daily News of Newburyport (daily)
- Salem News (daily)
- Gloucester Daily Times (daily)
- Haverhill Gazette (weekly)
- Andover Townsman (weekly)
Steven Malkowich of Vancouver, British Columbia*
- Sun Chronicle of Attleboro (daily)
- Foxboro Reporter (weekly)
Advance Publications of New York
- Republican of Springfield (daily)
- MassLive (digital)
- Reminder (weeklies in multiple communities in the Greater Springfield area; click here for a list)
Newspapers of New England, Concord, New Hampshire
- Daily Hampshire Gazette of Northampton
- Athol Daily News
- Greenfield Recorder (daily)
- Amherst Bulletin (weekly)
- Valley Advocate of Northampton (alt-weekly)
CherryRoad Media, New Jersey
This small but growing chain of newspapers has acquired five weekly publications in Central Massachusetts from Gannett.
- Millbury-Sutton Chronicle
- Item of Clinton
- Grafton News
- Landmark of Holden
- Leominster Champion
I think this is the complete list, but if you know of any more, just drop me a line at dan dot kennedy at northeastern dot edu.
*Malkowich’s holdings are … complicated. Here is a Los Angeles Times story that offers a little bit of background. I do know that he earns generally high marks for the way that he’s presided over The Sun Chronicle.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.