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 the Kevin Merida announcement is good news for the Los Angeles Times

Patrick Soon-Shiong may be the most important newspaper owner in the country after Jeff Bezos of The Washington Post. So Monday’s announcement that the next executive editor of the Los Angeles Times will be Kevin Merida of ESPN was significant as much for what it says about Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the paper as it does about Merida’s own considerable abilities. Given the Times’ size, influence and unrealized potential, its fate is crucial to the journalistic ecosystem.

It was just a few months ago that Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal dropped a bombshell: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon who bought the Times in 2018, was looking to get out. Soon-Shiong denied it, but actions speak louder than words — and now he has acted. The fact that he could recruit someone who is regarded as the best free-agent editor out there suggests he was able to reassure Merida about stability in the owner’s suite. The Times itself, in a story by Meg James, puts it this way:

His hiring reaffirms the Soon-Shiong family’s commitment to the paper they purchased, along with the San Diego Union-Tribune, for $500 million from Chicago-based Tribune Publishing in June 2018. The Soon-Shiong family has since invested hundreds of millions of dollars more to replenish the newsroom’s withered ranks, built a campus in El Segundo, upgraded the paper’s technology and covered financial losses that deepened last year when coronavirus shutdowns prompted a steep drop in advertising revenue.

Key to all this may be Soon-Shiong’s daughter, Nika Soon-Shiong, who, according to Katie Robertson’s report in The New York Times, “has become an active part of the newspaper’s management team.” In that regard, she may play a similar role to that of Linda Pizzuti Henry, who co-owns The Boston Globe along with her husband, John Henry. Linda Henry, named CEO of Boston Globe Media last year, is heavily involved in the day-to-day operations of the Globe, thus serving as a guarantor of sorts that Henry won’t sell.

Merida will be the LA Times’ second Black editor, which is also significant because of the paper’s diversity issues under former executive editor Norman Pearlstine. It also raises the question of why The Washington Post didn’t push harder to hire Merida as a replacement for Marty Baron, who retired recently. Merida was a highly regarded top editor at the Post before leaving for ESPN.

One possible explanation is that Merida is just two years younger than Baron. As Tom Jones of Poynter writes, “Maybe the Post is looking for a long-term editor — someone who could take over for 15 or so years, and, perhaps, Merida’s age (64) didn’t align with that plan.”

The Soon-Shiong ownership of the LA Times has been a mixed bag thus far. The newsroom has been bulked up in the hopes that the paper could emerge as a national force. But that hasn’t happened, and its digital subscription numbers have proved disappointing as well. It could be that there’s just no room for a fourth national newspaper along with The New York Times, the Post and the Journal. But the LA Times could dominate the West, serving as a much-needed counterbalance to the East Coast media.

All in all, the appointment of Merida was very good news, not just because he’s a first-rate choice but because it signals that Soon-Shiong is committed to the LA Times’ long-range future.

Correction. The original post described Merida as the LA Times first Black editor. In fact, he is the second; New York Times executive editor Dean Baquet served in that role from 2005 to ’06.

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Rich guys band together in a final push to stop Alden from buying Tribune Publishing

Photo (cc) 2009 by Thomas Hawk

Less than a week ago, efforts to keep Tribune Publishing out of the clutches of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital appeared to be faltering.

The hotelier Stewart Bainum, who originally got involved so that he could acquire Tribune’s Baltimore Sun and its affiliated papers in order to turn them over to a nonprofit, was seeking to outbid Alden’s $630 million offer. But according to Rick Edmonds of Poynter, the Alden deal was a simple cash offer that could be consummated quickly, which meant that Bainum was likely to lose out.

On Saturday, though, Marc Tracy of The New York Times reported that a Swiss billionaire named Hansjörg Wyss had teamed up with Bainum, with each man pledging to put up $100 million apiece.

Then, on Monday, we learned from Lukas I. Alpert of The Wall Street Journal that yet another wealthy patron, the technology investor Mason Slaine, had also agreed to put up $100 million. Slaine, who already owns a small chunk of Tribune, wants to acquire Tribune’s two Florida papers, the Orlando Sentinel and the South Florida Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale.

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Also over the weekend, Gary Lutin, a Manhattan investment banker, revealed that he wants to buy The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania, telling the paper: “There are many encouraging examples of both large global news organizations as well as small community news organizations that survive and eventually prosper based on improving the quality of the news service.” Lutin’s interest is not dependent on the Bainum group’s success — he says he’ll attempt to cut a deal with whoever the eventual buyer turns out to be.

Meanwhile, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the possibly reluctant owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, remains in a position to veto any deal with Alden, though Edmonds has speculated that Soon-Shiong would be happy to cash in.

“Hope is what Tribune staffers are feeling,” writes CNN media reporter Kerry Flynn, “as it looks more and more feasible that local ownership could be in their futures — instead of Alden.”

The Tribune saga has been years in the making as the chain — which currently consists of nine papers — has lurched from one ownership melodrama to another. There was the epic era of Sam Zell, the foul-mouthed Chicago real-estate magnate who hated newspapers, documented memorably by the late David Carr. There was the rudderless period when the company was known as tronc.

Now the struggle over Tribune may represent the last best chance to stop Alden from destroying what’s left of some of the most important papers in the country — among them the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, closer to home, the Hartford Courant.

“Maybe I’m naive,” Wyss told the Times, “but the combination of giving enough money to a professional staff to do the right things and putting quite a bit of money into digital will eventually make it a very profitable newspaper.”

Wyss isn’t being naive at all. Not only have The New York Times and The Washington Post shown it can be done, but regional papers such as The Boston Globe, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis and The Seattle Times are all doing well under local ownership committed to the transition from print to digital and from a mostly advertising-based model to one mainly supported by reader revenue.

Journalism is too important to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We shouldn’t be reduced to having to root for one group of rich guys over another. But that’s where we’re at. In that spirit, may Bainum, Wyss, Slaine and Lutin win.

Previous coverage.

The Los Angeles Times may be on the verge of falling into Alden’s clutches

Photo (cc) 2012 by Gerald Angeles

Rick Edmonds of Poynter weighed in on Thursday with devastating news: it’s looking more and more like Patrick Soon-Shiong will sell the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital as the most likely buyer.

If you’ve been following this story for a while, you know that Alden — notorious for cutting newsrooms and even closing them down, leaving reporters to work out of their homes and their cars — is on the verge of pulling off a complicated deal to buy Tribune Publishing.

Soon-Shiong bought his papers from tronc, Tribune’s predecessor company, just a few years ago and is still in a position to block Alden’s acquisition of Tribune. Edmonds, though, believes it is far more likely that Soon-Shiong will let the deal go through and throw in his newspapers as well.

Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon, faces a potentially debilitating lawsuit, Edmonds reports. He also notes that the Times has gone without an editor for several months now, and that several candidates withdrew because of a possible sale. Moreover, Edmonds says, Soon-Shiong just doesn’t seem to be having much fun playing the benevolent newspaper owner, unlike Jeff Bezos at The Washington Post and John and Linda Henry at The Boston Globe.

After The Wall Street Journal reported recently that Soon-Shiong might be looking to get out of the newspaper business, Soon-Shiong denied it. But it seemed likely then that there might be something to it, and Edmonds’ piece only adds to the growing body of evidence that the L.A. Times, one of the most important news organizations in the country, may soon be eviscerated by Alden.

Edmonds also notes that the sale could result in Alden’s owning all three of Southern California’s major dailies — not just Soon-Shiong’s properties, but also the Orange County Register, which it already owns. Ironically, tronc was blocked from acquiring the Register several years ago because of antitrust concerns, thus paving the way for Alden. Apparently those concerns have now vanished as the number of plausible buyers continues to shrink. All roads, it seems, lead to Alden.

If Soon-Shiong is determined to get out, there’s one more step he can take: Donate his papers to a nonprofit organization, or perhaps to different nonprofits in L.A. and San Diego. This being the newspaper business that we’re talking about, he wouldn’t be leaving that much money on the table, and there would be tax advantages as well.

He could also ensure that he’d be remembered as the savior of the L.A. Times rather than the villain who paved the way for its destruction. I hope he cares.

‘Mogul Roulette,’ or the totally random destruction of local news

Previously published at GBH 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.

Meanwhile, 300 miles to the south, a similar effort was under way to save The Baltimore Sun. It paid off big-time, as the Sun and several sister papers are now on the verge of being acquired by a nonprofit foundation that will operate them in the public interest.

No doubt you’ve read a lot here and elsewhere about the local news crisis, and about the role of hedge funds and corporate chain owners in hollowing out once-great newspapers that were already struggling.

Yet what we don’t talk about often enough is the sheer random nature of it all — and why we assume there’s nothing that can be done about a hedge fund destroying a paper here or a nonprofit or benevolent billionaire saving a paper there. We have been so conditioned to thinking that the untrammeled forces of the market must be allowed to play out that we’ve lost sight of what we’re losing. It shouldn’t be this way.

Last week was a particularly fraught moment in the collapse of local journalism.

First we learned that the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the most avaricious newspaper owner in the country (don’t just take my word for it; as Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post puts it, “Being bought by Alden is the worst possible fate for the newspapers and the communities involved”), was making a $630 million bid to increase its share of Tribune Publishing — whose holdings include the Courant — from 32% to 100%.

The announcement came with at least a little bit of good news: Alden would spin off The Baltimore Sun to a nonprofit. Even better, Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times and The San Diego Union-Tribune, was in a position to block Alden if he so chose.

Rick Edmonds of Poynter speculated that wouldn’t happen. But hope springs eternal — or at least until last Friday. That’s when Lukas Alpert of The Wall Street Journal reported that Soon-Shiong himself might be looking to get out of the newspaper business less than three years after he got in. Worse, Soon-Shiong was said to be looking at offloading his papers to a larger media group. Though neither Alpert nor his soures said so, Alden would be the most likely buyer.

Soon-Shiong, fortunately, denied he’d lost interest in newspapers. But Alpert is a good reporter, so it’s hard to believe that there isn’t something to it.

Call it Mogul Roulette.

So let’s survey the landscape, shall we? Tribune’s papers, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News, the Orlando Sentinel, the Courant and others, will be gutted if the Alden deal goes through. In fact, the Courant is already operating with neither a printing press nor a newsroom.

On the other hand, The Baltimore Sun has been granted a new lease on life. We don’t know what’s going to happen in L.A. or San Diego. And, here and there, large regional papers with either strong private ownership (The Boston Globe, the Portland Press Herald, the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, The Seattle Times) or nonprofit control (The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Salt Lake Tribune, the Tampa Bay Times and, soon, the Sun) are providing their communities with the news and information they need, even if they still face challenges.

This situation is unacceptable. Reliable news is vital to democracy, and though we don’t necessarily need legacy newspapers to deliver it, they remain the most widespread and efficient means for doing so. As the media scholar Alex Jones has written, newspapers continue to produce the overwhelming share of accountability journalism that we need to govern ourselves — what Jones calls the “iron core.” We shouldn’t be dependent on whether the newspaper in our community is owned by someone who believes in journalism’s civic mission or who simply sees it as a piggy bank to be depleted before moving on to the next victim.

Several years ago I had a conversation about newspaper ownership with Victor Pickard, a scholar at Penn’s Annenberg School; he would later go on to write “Democracy without Journalism?,” a call for (among other things) greatly increased funding for public media. Why, I asked him, should communities have so little control over who owns their local newspaper?

We didn’t come up with any answers that day, although Pickard did suggest that antitrust laws be used more aggressively. These days, unfortunately, we are dealing with the antitrust legacy of Robert Bork, who developed a theory that any amount of monopolization is just fine as long as it doesn’t drive up prices.

The Bork doctrine makes no sense in the shrinking newspaper business. At one time Tribune Publishing, then known as tronc, proposed uniting the L.A. Times, the Union-Tribune and, in the middle, the Orange County Register, whose previous owner, Aaron Kushner, had steered into bankruptcy. Soon-Shiong could have been the savior of all three papers instead of just the two he bought from tronc. Instead, a federal judge ruled that such a combination would violate antitrust laws because it might drive up the price of ads. (Your honor, we need to drive up the price of ads.) Yet, paradoxically, Bork’s theories say nothing about giant chains stretching across the country and destroying local newspapers.

What comes next? Maybe Soon-Shiong will step forward and outbid Alden for the rest of Tribune, placing the entire chain in much better hands. Or maybe he’ll sell to Alden. In any case, it’s unacceptable for the fate of local journalism to be left to the whims of unbridled capitalism. We need to start thinking about what alternatives to that model might look like.

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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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.

***

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.

***

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.