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.
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.
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.
There is terrible news to report tonight for readers and employees of the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant — but good news in Baltimore.
A deal that had been in the works since late 2020 is close to being consummated, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital on the verge of becoming the sole owner of Tribune Publishing. As has been documented on numerous occasions here and elsewhere, Alden is the most avaricious of the chain newspaper owners, squeezing the life (and the journalism) out of its properties.
Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that Alden is paying an estimated $630 million to bring its share of Tribune from 32% to 100%. Tribune, currently a publicly traded company, will go private.
Last month the News Guild, the union that represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine papers, filed a complaint with the Securities and Exchange Commission charging irregularities in Alden’s bid. No word on whether that challenge is over or if it will continue.
Meanwhile, there’s good news in Baltimore. As part of the transaction, Tribune will sell The Baltimore Sun, The Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, and several other publications to a nonprofit organization called the Sunlight for All Institute. The sale caps a campaign of many months on the part of community activists.
Joseph Lichterman of the Lenfest Institute, the nonprofit that owns The Philadelphia Inquirer, tweeted:
Nonprofit ownership won't solve the Sun's issues by itself, but having a locally based owner that cares about supporting journalism that serves the community will give the Sun a fighting shot.
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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The union at most of Tribune Publishing’s newspapers are making a bold move to stop Alden Global Capital from destroying local journalism in their communities.
Lukas I. Alpert reports in The Wall Street Journal that the News Guild, which represents workers at seven of Tribune’s nine daily newspapers, is demanding that three of the members of Tribune’s seven-person board of directors step down for violating Securities and Exchange Commission rules. The three members were appointed by Alden, a New York-based hedge fund.
One of the three is none other than Randall Smith, the subject of a brutal takedown in The Nation several years ago for pillaging his newspapers and using the money to buy 16 homes in Palm Beach, Florida, for $57 million. (OK, you can’t prove that there was a direct transfer of funds. But money, as they say, is fungible.)
Alden denies any wrongdoing in the would-be Tribune deal, in which it would acquire a majority share of some of our most important newspapers, including the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and the Hartford Courant, for an offer valued at $521 million.
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?
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.
At the dawn of the Trump presidency four years ago, the journalist James Fallows offered a prescription for overcoming the anger and divisiveness that had given rise to Donald Trump’s toxic brand of right-wing populism: a renewed engagement with community life.
“At the level of politics where people’s judgments are based on direct observation rather than media-fueled fear,” Fallows wrote in The Atlantic, “Americans still trust democratic processes and observe long-respected norms.”
Fallows and his wife, Deborah Fallows, later wrote an entire book on the topic. But their advice was not heeded. President Trump sucked up every bit of oxygen and energy, from the Resistance to impeachment, from COVID and economic collapse to his racist rhetoric, his cruel policies and his sociopathic Twitter feed.
“We need a world in which we talk less about the president,” lamented Cardozo School of Law professor Ekow Yankah last week. “It’s not healthy.” That Yankah was being interviewed on a podcast called “Trumpcast” suggests the depth of the problem. Even now, Trump is dominating the news to a far greater extent than President-elect Joe Biden — and not in a good way. Rather than living locally, we spend all our time thinking nationally. It’s exhausting and leaves us feeling angry and alienated.
Our media in many ways are a reflection of our politics. The Trump years were very good for national news organizations like The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR and, God help us, cable news, especially Fox. And they were very bad for local media, especially community newspapers.
To renew civic life, you first need to renew local, independently owned newspapers and other media. I’m not talking about major regional newspapers, public radio or local TV newscasts. I’m talking about the hard but rewarding work of keeping tabs on city councils, school committees, zoning, police, development, neighborhoods and racial justice.
“There is a direct correspondence between the closing of newspapers and the polarization of people formerly served by those newspapers,” wrote Marc Ambinder, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership and Policy, in a recent essay for MSNBC.com. He added: “If we want a society where we can accurately understand the preferences and behaviors of everyone, we need more local journalism.”
Unfortunately, it has become nearly impossible to pay for such journalism. The causes are familiar, from the collapse of digital advertising for everyone except Google and Facebook to the rise of corporate and hedge-fund ownership that bleeds local newspapers dry.
The COVID pandemic has made the financial situation facing news organizations that much worse. According to CNN reporter Kerry Flynn, two major publicly traded chain newspaper owners, Gannett and Tribune Publishing, are near collapse. Gannett’s ad revenues were down 38% in the second quarter over the previous year and down 23% in the third quarter. Tribune was down 48% in the second quarter and down 38% in the third.
Between them, the two companies own hundreds of local papers that had been hollowed out even before the pandemic. And unlike national papers like the Times, the Post and The Wall Street Journal, these companies have barely gotten started on charging readers for digital access.
So what is to be done? As I’ve written a number of times previously, I think we need a variety of solutions; one approach is not going to work in every community. For-profit, nonprofit, cooperative ownership, even volunteer-driven projects are all doing good work in cities and towns across the country. But they remain the exception, and the overall picture continues to darken.
Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported recently that Congress is considering a number of ideas, including tax credits for subscribing to a local news source, tax relief for publishers, advertising subsidies, and an antitrust exemption that would allow the news business to negotiate as one in an attempt to extract some revenues from Google and Facebook.
“Congress has pretty much decided it should come to the aid of local news,” Edmonds wrote. “The question of how remains, together with making the help timely.”
In Massachusetts, a bill that would create a special commission of journalists, academics and legislators to study the extent of the local-news crisis has gotten bogged down in committee, though I’m told that it could pass before the end of the year. (Disclosure: I’ve worked on the measure with state Rep. Lori Ehrlich, D-Marblehead, and would be a member of the commission.)
Needless to say, a commission isn’t going to fix what’s ailing local news. Yet if we’re going to have any chance of revitalizing civic engagement and closing the chasm that has come to separate us, we need to find a way.
In late October, The Inquirer and Mirror of Nantucket announced that the longtime editor and publisher, Marianne Stanton, along with a local businessman named David Worth, were buying the paper back from Gannett, which had owned it for a number of years.
“I think it’s pretty cool that two Nantucketers, both descendants of the early settlers, could work together to pull this off,” said Stanton in the announcement.
I think it’s pretty cool, too. It’s hard to know what, if anything, it will lead to. But it was a step in the right direction as well as very good news for the civic life of one community. Maybe it will be the start of something.
Note: Susan Campbell, a Hartford Courant columnist, posted the following on Facebook earlier today, writing, “I am told the Courant is shifting focus to cover the coronavirus and the column I submitted wouldn’t be read, or run this Sunday. So here is the column I wrote.” I contacted her and asked if I could republish it at Media Nation. She gave her permission, and so here it is. Her column has also been republished by #NewsMatters, “a NewsGuild project for Digital First Media workers.” Digital First Media is an earlier name for MediaNews Group, the newspaper chain that Alden controls. — DK
By Susan Campbell
Dear Hartford Courant reader,
Your roof is on fire.
The signs have been there, but you may not be aware of the damage overhead. What you, the reader, sees are a few typos, a missed paper, or someone on the other end of the phone who cannot stop your paper delivery during your vacation. Worse, there’s no one at your local meeting, because when newspapers had more people on staff, they could afford to come to your traffic commissions, town council meetings, and panel discussions.
Nothing just happens, dear reader, but before we explore what’s going on, see if you can figure out this math: Recently, Tribune Publishing Co. announced that the company’s fourth-quarter profit was $4 million. That should be good news, but these days, newsroom blood-letting has moved from paper cuts to full-on beheadings.
And for that, you can thank Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund, which owns 32% of the Tribune company. Alden is known for one thing and one thing only: Alden kills newspapers. The corporation walks through the battlefield of struggling newspapers (which pretty much describes 99% of newspapers), lifts up the wounded, props them up at a computer, and then methodically sucks up all the resources until there’s nothing left. Their shady business practices — including an accusation that they moved employee pension assets into their own accounts — have earned the notice of the Department of Labor.
The next time you want to complain about your local coverage, remember that you have no idea how hard the dead-last-remainders of America’s newsrooms work to do what they do. They are part of a broken business model, but there is your reporter/photographer/editor, spinning as fast as s/he can.
I know. I was a remainder, until I realized I was so angry at the system I couldn’t exist in it. I left in 2012 when I thought things were pretty bad.
But this isn’t just me, a disgruntled former employee. Last May, some U.S. senators, including Sherrod Brown (husband of Pulitzer-winning newspaper columnist Connie Schultz), Tammy Baldwin and Cory Booker, wrote Alden a letter begging them to abandon their attempted hostile takeover of Gannett because newspapers are a “public good.” Gannett shareholders ultimately rejected the takeover.
Alden’s holdings include The Denver Post, where in December, members of the Denver City Council passed a resolution that called on the company to either invest in the Post or sell it. Alden has been draining the blood from that once-fine newspaper since 2011.
We need that here, in Hartford. We need a concerted effort to save the Oldest Continuously Published Newspaper in the Nation, the newspaper that printed a copy of the Declaration of Independence, and was sued for libel by Thomas Jefferson. We need a full-throated show of support, like that of state Sen. Saud Anwar and others. We, too, need to encourage Alden to put up or shut up. We, too, need wealthy people to invest in local journalism.
Mostly, we need to stop the dangerous trend that threatens our free press. According to the Pew Research Center, post-Watergate, the circulation of daily newspapers peaked in the late ’80s. About that same time, third-generation newspaper families began to lose interest in the family business, while corporations began to notice the healthy profit margins found in the newspaper industry. At a rate that accelerated as we barreled through the ‘90s, more and more newspapers became part of media conglomerates.
If the carnage continues, Alden will kill our newspaper. When that happens, we’re left with news deserts, with our “news” shoveled at us by social media, with its lack of fact-checkers and professionalism. Our information age will suffer from an appalling lack of information.
Passivity is not an option. This is our damn newspaper. This is our damn democracy.
Susan Campbell teaches at University of New Haven, and is the author of several books, including, most recently, “Frog Hollow: Stories From an American Neighborhood.” She can be reached at email@example.com.
In late 2015 I paid a visit to Burlington, Vermont, to survey the damage wrought by Gannett Co., the newspaper chain that owns the Burlington Free Press. Paid weekday print circulation at the state’s largest daily had fallen from about 50,000 to 16,000. The editorial staff, which at one time was close to 60 journalists, had shrunk to around 25.
“Obviously it’s a little tougher and you do have to pick your spots,” the legendary Free Press reporter Michael Donoghue, who had just retired, told me. “We were always thought of as the newspaper of record because everything would be in there. I’m not sure there’s a newspaper of record technically in Vermont anymore.”
To be fair, what happened to the Free Press was not much different from what has happened to newspaper after newspaper across the country. Fortunately other media organizations in Vermont arose to fill the gap — Seven Days, a vibrant alt-weekly; VT Digger, a well-funded statewide nonprofit investigative project; and Vermont Public Radio, which had boosted its local coverage. Still, the Free Press and its corporate overlords at Gannett had failed at their mission of holding government and other institutions to account.
I offer this story because now we are being asked to save Gannett from the ravages of something much worse. And we should. The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported on Sunday that Digital First Media, the Death Star of newspaper chains, is seeking to acquire Gannett, which owns USA Today as well as about 100 other publications. Digital First owns about 50 dailies, including three in Massachusetts: the Boston Herald, The Sun of Lowell, and the Sentinel & Enterprise of Fitchburg.
Why should we care when Gannett has been doing such a poor job? Because things can always be worse. Gannett ownership has been awful in the usual way. Digital First, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, is uniquely awful. Its decimation of the papers it owns sparked what proved to be a futile insurrection last year at its flagship, The Denver Post. Newsrooms have literally been closed, with journalists forced to fend for themselves, from the Fitchburg paper to, most recently, The Record of Troy in upstate New York.
Executives at chains such as Gannett and GateHouse Media, hardly beloved at the local level, nevertheless seem to be trying to figure out a long-term plan. Gannett has remained committed to investigative reporting. GateHouse has set up a business-services and marketing division known as ThriveHive, which, if nothing else, suggests that the company is committed to staying in business. Digital First, by contrast, appears to be engaged in what economists refer to as “harvesting” — that is, taking as much money out of the shrinking newspaper business as possible before closing the doors and turning off the lights.
“The dirty little secret that DFM [Digital First Media] learned is that — at least for now — it can sell longtime readers an inferior (or, to use the technical term, crappier) newspaper and only 10 percent each year will cancel,” writes Philly.com columnist Will Bunch. “Do the math, though, and it’s clear that much of America outside the biggest cities will become news deserts by the early 2020s.”
And to think that at one time Gannett was considered the poster child for greedy corporate newspaper chains. In his classic series of books dating back to the 1980s called “The Media Monopoly,” the late media critic Ben Bagdikian labeled Gannett as “the largest and most aggressive newspaper chain in the United States,” noting that the profit margin at some of its local papers was an “astonishing” 30 percent to 50 percent. Bagdikian also described Gannett as “an outstanding contemporary performer of the ancient rite of creating self-serving myths, of committing acts of greed and exploitation but describing them through its own machinery as heroic epics.”
So here we go again. Gannett, as bad as it has been for the communities it serves, is being held up as an exemplar of local journalism that must be saved. Talk about defining deviancy down. The newspaper analyst Ken Doctor, writing at the Nieman Journalism Lab, reports that Gannett executives may seek to wriggle out of Digital First’s hostile takeover attempt by delivering themselves into the arms of Tribune Publishing, the company formerly known as tronc. Tribune, like Gannett, is known more for its cost-cutting than for its journalism. But anything is better than Digital First.
There is a certain irony in the dilemma now facing Gannett. The company’s model of downsizing newsrooms and driving up profits helped create the crisis that faces the newspaper business today. As newspapers became less comprehensive and less interesting, they lost readers, thus prompting repeated rounds of cuts to keep those profit margins up. Not to push this theory too far — the decimation of advertising-funded news at the hands of digital media is a much larger factor. Still, Gannett-style slash-and-burn management played a role.
Now Gannett is reaping what it sowed. We should all hope that Gannett’s board is successful in fighting off Digital First. But we should also understand that this is strictly a choice between the lesser of two evils. Democracy deserves better.