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.

The FT offers a close-up look at how Alden is destroying the Hartford Courant

The state capitol in Hartford, Connecticut. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Not too many years ago, New England was home to a number of medium-size and smaller daily newspapers that did an excellent job of covering their communities. There are a dozen or so that come to mind. But among the largest and the best were The Providence Journal and the Hartford Courant.

The Journal, as we all know, has been decimated by its corporate-chain owner, Gannett, the successor to GateHouse Media. The Hartford Courant, which bills itself as the oldest continuously published paper in the country, has been battered for years under the ownership of a chain now known as Tribune Publishing. The Courant’s printing has been outsourced, and the newsroom was shuttered recently as well. There is no indication that reporters and editors will have a place to work other than their homes even after the COVID pandemic is behind us.

As I’ve written several times recently, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, whose MediaNews Group is widely regarded as the worst newspaper owner in operation, controls 32% of Tribune — and is seeking a majority share.

The Financial Times recently published a lengthy article on the plight of local news focused on the Courant. There is nothing new in the story — we hear about the widespread closure of community newspapers, the rise of hedge-fund ownership and other familiar themes. Nevertheless, it’s a strong overview for anyone who’s unfamiliar with the tale of what happened to a key part of democratic life.

There are also a few points that deserve to be emphasized. At a time when profits in local news are elusive at best, Alden is living high:

The cost cutting is certainly working. MediaNews Group achieved about 20-25 per cent operating margins in 2019, according to people familiar with the matter, more than double that of peers such as Gannett or even The New York Times. In 2020, although the pandemic shattered advertising and MNG’s revenues fell by 20 per cent, the company was still on track to make a profit.

The Courant itself is doing well from a bottom-line perspective as well, earning a profit of $2 million a year, according to the FT’s reporting.

What this shows is that there is still an inflow of cash into even the most moribund newspapers. Readers buy them despite their ever-decreasing value. Businesses advertise in them. If you’re willing to gut the newspapers you own to keep expenses well below income, and to keep cutting as income continues to fall, well, yes, you can earn a profit. At some point, needless to say, you’ll reach the point at which you can no longer cut. And that’s when you shut your doors. (Oops. Bad analogy. They already have.)

Heath Freeman and other officials at Alden rarely speak for the record. When Freeman cooperated with a Washington Post reporter last year, it, uh, did not go well. So I was interested to see that the FT did manage to get a comment out of a company spokesperson named Chrissy Carvalho. It was a classic:

It’s a lot easier to make snippy anonymous comments than actually undertake the difficult task of making sure news organisations across America are able to serve their communities during a prolonged period of declining revenues.

As the FT notes, there are efforts to try to get Tribune to sell the Courant to local interests. But that’s going to be hard to do given the paper’s continued profitability. The tragedy is that the crisis afflicting local news is only partly related to external factors such as technology, the decline of advertising and the rise of Google and Facebook. Corporate greed is at least as responsible.

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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.