Saving local news: Some ideas from philanthropy, business and technology

Photo (cc) 2016 by Dan Kennedy

Could the example of the late Gerry Lenfest save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers from the avaricious clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital?

About a half-dozen years ago, Lenfest, a billionaire investor, unexpectedly became the owner of The Philadelphia Inquirer and its related media properties. It’s an incredibly convoluted story that I tell in “The Return of the Moguls,” but essentially he had acquired a piece of the Inquirer with the intention of flipping it, and he ended up instead with the whole thing.

Lenfest’s next move saved quality journalism in Philadelphia: In early 2016 he donated his media properties to the Philadelphia Foundation, which in turn set up a nonprofit that, after his death, became known as the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Today the Inquirer is in far better shape than many metro dailies.

Writing for the Columbia Journalism Review, Jim Friedlich, executive director and chief executive of the institute, argues that Tribune newspapers could be saved if deep-pockets philanthropists acquired them and then emulated Lenfest — or simply ran them as for-profit enterprises, as with John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe and Patrick Soon-Shiong at the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune. Friedlich writes:

An Alden purchase of all of Tribune doesn’t have to be a fait accompli. In fact, the threat of such a deal represents an opportunity for civic-minded local investors across the country, who could use this case not only to save a critical local news institution, but to reinvent it.

Soon-Shiong continues to be a major Tribune shareholder, and I recently wrote that he should consider rescuing the chain, which includes papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, the oldest continuously published daily newspaper in America.

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As we know, local news is in crisis, and that has produced a considerable amount of ferment. Most of the attention right now is on Alden’s bid for a majority share of Tribune, which involves regional rather than strictly local news organizations. But there’s a lot happening at the grassroots as well.

For instance, Sarah Scire reports for the Nieman Journalism Lab on an ambitious effort to provide local news start-ups with the support they need to launch and continue operating. Imagine a journalist who’s been laid off by a corporate-owned newspaper and who wants to start something at the hyperlocal level. Where to begin?

According to Scire, the Tiny News Collective takes care of a lot of the back-end details that journalists are usually not trained to attend to themselves. “The project,” Scire writes, “will offer entrepreneurial journalists a tech stack, business training, legal assistance, and back-office services like payroll for around $100 a month.”

The Tiny News Collective, a collaboration between News Catalyst and LION (Local Independent Online News) Publishers, is hoping to have a hand in starting news projects in 500 communities, half of them covering underserved populations.

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Also worth watching is the Crosstown Neighborhood Newsletter project in Los Angeles — an effort to make smart use of data in order to produce a multitude of newsletters, each aimed at a tiny slice of the public. The editor, Gabriel Kahn, a professor at USC Annenberg, writes that Crosstown — “a collaboration between software engineers, designers and journalists” — recently launched 110 such newsletters in one day. He explains:

Our formula starts with data. We collect data about everything we can in Los Angeles, from traffic and crime to COVID-19 cases and building permits. Much of this data is hiding in plain sight, housed on local government dashboards that are hard to navigate. We divvy up the data by neighborhood. One citywide dataset about parking fines becomes 110 stories about how many more or fewer tickets were issued in each neighborhood during the COVID lockdown.

Crosstown reminds me of EveryBlock, a project started in 2008 by the pioneering data journalist Adrian Holovaty that was also heavily dependent on publicly available data. EveryBlock never really caught on, and it shut down in 2013. But far more information is online today than was the case a decade ago, and the tools for presenting it have improved considerably. It could be that the time for Holovaty’s idea has arrived.

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Could Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune’s newspapers from Alden’s clutches?

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2014 by NHS Confederation.

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Could the billionaire surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong save Tribune Publishing’s newspapers?

A report in today’s Wall Street Journal on Alden Global Capital’s bid to grab majority control of the company notes that Soon-Shiong is Tribune’s second-largest shareholder. Soon-Shiong bought the Los Angeles Times, The San Diego Union-Tribune and a bag of balls from Tribune in 2018 for about $500 million. Alden proposes to pay $521 million to up its share of Tribune from 32% to more than 50%.

Despite a somewhat rocky tenure, Soon-Shiong has invested in the L.A. Times similar to the way John and Linda Henry have with The Boston Globe and Jeff Bezos with The Washington Post. Saving Tribune papers such as The Baltimore Sun, the Daily News of New York and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant would be a tremendous act of civic leadership. And maybe an owner who’s actually interested in journalism could figure out a way to turn a small profit without stripping their newsrooms.

Soon-Shiong has plenty of money, but there are two big questions: Does he have the ambition to be a newspaper mogul on the order of William Randolph Hearst? (Even the modern-day mogul Rupert Mudoch owns just a handful of U.S. papers, including the Journal.) And can anyone restore Tribune’s papers to their former glory?

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.

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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