Washington Post reporters Elahe Izadi and Sarah Ellison have a terrific account of how the campaign to save Tribune Publishing from Alden Global Capital got started.
It began with Save Our Sun, a group launched by several Baltimore Sun reporters. And as recently as a few weeks ago, it looked like they had won a significant but limited victory: Alden would take ownership of eight of Tribune’s nine major-market dailies, spinning the Sun and several affiliated papers off to nonprofit ownership.
That’s when things got more interesting. When Stewart Bainum, the hotel magnate behind the nonprofit plan, grew frustrated with Alden’s terms, he put together a group of billionaires and outbid Alden for the entire chain. Though Bainum’s victory is not yet assured, things are moving in the right direction. The papers would be spun off to local owners, some of them nonprofits, which would represent the biggest victory over chain journalism in many years.
Among the papers that would be saved from Alden’s clutches: the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant.
Meanwhile, Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab explains how Alden can win even if it loses: the hedge fund already owns 32% of Tribune. So if the Bainum group ends up paying a premium, Alden will be among the beneficiaries.
Bad news about the media business is nothing new. From the moment that the commercial web slipped into view in the mid-1990s, news organizations have been on the losing end of a long war over how — and even whether — journalism should be paid for.
Some recent developments, though, offer reasons for hope amid the gloom. Consider:
• BuzzFeed recently acquired HuffPost and immediately took an axe to it, laying off 47 employees, with the threat of more cuts to come. I will concede there’s nothing positive about that. But the debacle points to the limits of media funded by venture capital and could encourage more sustainable models.
• The notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital was on the verge of acquiring Tribune Publishing, whose nine large-market daily papers include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and, locally, the Hartford Courant. But a group of billionaire investors led by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum stepped forward to propose breaking up the chain and operating the papers locally, some of them on a nonprofit basis. And, at least at the moment, it looks like they might win.
• As media observers had long feared, the departure of former President Donald Trump from the White House led to an immediate decline in news consumption — not just at the cable news networks, but at national and regional newspapers too. Yet the post-Trump slump represents a chance to emphasize local news, which has more of an effect on readers’ actual lives and helps build community.
What a lot of this comes down to is the end of the idea that scale will save the digital news business. “Local doesn’t scale” has long been the motto of community-based entrepreneurs. But now it’s looking like scale doesn’t work at the national level, either, with a few notable exceptions like The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Josh Marshall, founder of a small but successful political website called Talking Points Memo that depends mainly on reader revenue, described the dilemma in a recent essay for The Atlantic. For years, he wrote, venture capitalists kept pouring more and more money into digital news outlets hoping that they would someday become large enough to dominate their rivals, rake in a bounty of ad revenues and give the investors a chance to cash in.
Instead, the digital ad money went to Google and Facebook, leaving these outlets without any way forward.
“The whole digital news industry has been based on lies,” Marshall wrote, adding: “Investors realized that the tantalizing prospect of ad revenue lock-in that had always appeared just over the horizon was an illusion, so they shut off the investment spigot … In digital publishing, scale was the god that failed.”
If bigger isn’t necessarily better, that points to an opportunity for local news, whose tribulations have been the subject of considerable discussion over the past several years. Last November, I wrote that reviving community journalism could help overcome the angry polarization of the Trump era. Now three scholars have conducted a study showing there may be something to it.
According to an overview by Joshua Benton of the Nieman Journalism Lab, the researchers — Joshua Darr of Louisiana State University, Matthew Whitt of Colorado State University and Johanna Dunaway of Texas A&M — conducted a survey of readers after The Desert Sun of Palm Springs, California, decided to drop from its opinion pages all syndicated columns and references to national politics for one month.
Darr, Whitt and Dunaway compared The Desert Sun’s readers to those of a control paper and found that polarization was less than what might otherwise have been expected. The numbers were small and didn’t really prove anything one way or the other. But, as the three wrote, the effect was notably salutary regardless of the actual numbers, since the experiment pushed the paper to pay more attention to what was taking place in its own backyard.
“Local newspapers are uniquely positioned to unite communities around shared local identities, cultivated and emphasized through a distinctive home style, and provide a civil and regulated forum for debating solutions to local problems,” they wrote. “In Palm Springs, those local issues were architectural restoration, traffic patterns and environmental conservation. The issues will differ across communities, but a localized opinion page is more beneficial for newspapers and citizens than letters and op-eds speckled with national political vitriol.”
It’s worth noting, too, that The Desert Sun — a Gannett paper — is small enough to be regarded as a truly local paper. According to the Alliance for Audited Media, the Sun’s combined digital and print weekday paid circulation is 15,862, and 16,993 on Sundays. But will the experiment have a lasting impact?
According to Julie Makinen, the paper’s executive editor, the answer is yes. Although the ban on national politics lasted only lasted for a month, she wrote approvingly about the study last week and added that it “is useful to us in that it helps point the way for further improving our opinion pages as we bring on a new editor for the section.”
Which brings me back to where I started. If scale is “the god that failed,” as Josh Marshall puts it, and if local news and opinions are an answer to rebuilding both journalism and civic engagement, what should come next?
Damon Kiesow of the Missouri School of Journalism, whose professional stops include a stint on the digital side at The Boston Globe, recently tweeted out a link to a piece he wrote more than a year ago that seems even more relevant now than it did then.
Because most local newspapers are owned by national chains, he wrote, those papers often end up getting caught in a strategy of pursuing scale even though it makes no sense for them. Journalistically, it means loading up on syndicated content. On the business side, it means chasing advertising dollars — or pennies — that are going to go to Google and Facebook in any case.
“To succeed,” he wrote, “local media have to abandon scale and refocus on community. Advertising remains part of the equation. But reader revenue, donations, foundation funding — yard sales if necessary — are all in the mix.” He concluded that “the internet is infinite; your community is not. Go small, or we are all going home.”
For a generation now, much of the news media have been seeking magical one-size-fits-all solutions to the economic destruction created by technology and out-of-control capitalism. The problem is that there are no easy answers, and scaling up has only made things worse. Those who have succeeded have done so through the hard work of figuring out what their communities need — and then going about the business of serving those needs.
The group of billionaire investors headed by Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum has pulled out ahead of the hedge fund Alden Global Capital in the bidding for Tribune Publishing’s nine daily newspapers. The Bainum group would split the chain apart and run at least some of the papers as nonprofits. Cara Lombardo and Lukas I. Alpert report in The Wall Street Journal:
If Alden loses the deal, it would mark a stunning, 11th-hour turnaround for the New York hedge fund, and a major victory for critics who say its model of aggressive cost-cutting has hurt the local news industry. Alden had spent nearly a year-and-a-half positioning itself to take over Tribune, publisher of nine large-market daily newspapers including the Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News and the Baltimore Sun.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
It sounds too good to be true. Stewart Bainum, the hotel magnate (why are they always magnates?) who is leading the transition of The Baltimore Sun and its sister papers to nonprofit ownership, may make a bid to buy all of Tribune Publishing, according to The New York Times.
As you may recall, the hedge fund Alden Global Capital has a deal to buy Tribune, a move that would almost certainly lead to the gutting of the Chicago Tribune and the rest of the chain’s already-diminished newspapers, including, semi-locally, the Hartford Courant. As part of that deal, Alden would spin off the Sun to a nonprofit.
According to the Times’ Marc Tracy, though, Bainum and Alden have been unable to come to an agreement on the details of that transition — and Bainum may now put together a group of investors who would buy the entire chain. Tracy writes:
If Mr. Bainum manages to reach an agreement to buy Tribune, he would be likely to seek local owners for its other newspapers, which also include The Hartford Courant, The Orlando Sentinel and The South Florida Sun Sentinel, the people said.
“The people” is a reference to Tracy’s unnamed sources.
Who knows what will happen? But this is well worth keeping an eye on, as it could lead to a renaissance for some of our most important newspapers — just as it appeared that they were being led to the slaughterhouse.