In Chicago, public radio steps up to fill the gap created by hedge-fund ownership

It looks like Chicago’s number-two newspaper is about to get a huge boost. Given that the dominant daily, the Chicago Tribune, is being gutted by its new hedge-fund owner, the move can’t come soon enough.

According to media writer Rob Feder, the Chicago Sun-Times and public radio station WBEZ are seeking to merge their operations. The Sun-Times, a tabloid that bills itself as “The Hardest-Working Paper in America,” has long labored in the shadow of the Tribune. But with the Tribune now controlled by Alden Global Capital, the Sun-Times/WBEZ combination could quickly emerge as the news source of record in our third-largest city.

Sun-Times reporter Jon Seidel writes that the newspaper would become a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media. What’s unclear — and maybe those taking part in the talks haven’t figured it out themselves yet — is whether the Sun-Times would become a nonprofit or if it would remain a for-profit entity owned by a nonprofit. It matters for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that nonprofits are not allowed to endorse political candidates.

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I couldn’t immediately find any numbers on how big the two entities’ reporting staffs are. But it’s significant that there would reportedly be no job reductions if the two operations are combined. WBEZ is one of public radio’s powerhouses, and the Sun-Times has maintained decent paid circulation — nearly 107,000 on Sundays and almost 100,000 on weekdays, most of it print, according to numbers it filed with the Alliance for Audited Media a year and a half ago. (The Tribune clocked in at 527,000 on Sundays and 256,000 on weekdays.)

According to a news release quoted by the Sun-Times, the combined outlet “would invest in journalism through expanded capacity to better serve Chicago; expand and engage with diverse audiences throughout the region, and expand digital capabilities to deliver a compelling digital experience across platforms and reach audiences where they are.”

Public radio can play a vitally important role in keeping regional news coverage alive in markets where legacy newspapers are shrinking. In Denver, for instance, Colorado Public Radio, combined with Denverite, which it acquired several years ago, now has what is likely the largest newsroom in the state — about 65 staff members, according to executive editor Kevin Dale. The Denver Post, cut drastically under Alden ownership, employs about 60 journalists, and The Colorado Sun, a well-regarded digital start-up, has 22, according to editor Larry Ryckman.

In Boston, public radio stations WBUR and GBH have probably the most robust news operations in the region after The Boston Globe. Unlike the Tribune, the Globe is independently owned and growing. But if that were to change, the public radio stations would be well-positioned to fill in the gap.

The WBEZ/Sun-Times announcement is the best journalism news to come out of Chicago since Alden acquired the Tribune earlier this year. Let’s hope it becomes a model for what might take place elsewhere.

How public pension funds are helping to finance the destruction of local news

This is Cerebrus, not Cerberus. Photo (cc) 2006 by Andrew Becraft

Public employee pension funds are investing — perhaps unwittingly — in the destruction of local news.

That’s the most important takeaway in a recent report by Julie Reynolds for the Nieman Journalism Lab. Reynolds writes that Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that has destroyed newspapers across the country, has financed a number of its deals with the help of Cerberus Capital Management, a private equity firm. That includes Alden’s acquisition earlier this year of Tribune Publishing, which owns major-market papers such as the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun and, in New England, the Hartford Courant.

Cerberus’ top investor is the California Public Employees Retirement System, followed by the Public School Employees’ Retirement System of Pennsylvania. Eight of Cerberus’ top 10 investors are public employee pension funds. “Perhaps it’s time to demand that public pensions divest from shadow banks that aid and abet the aggressive dismantling of the free press,” Reynolds writes.

Cerberus turns out to have quite a track record, and it extends well beyond its role in helping Alden destroy local news. As Reynolds reports:

The firm has been accused of profiting from the Sandy Hook school massacre, because it promised to unload its ownership in gun manufacturers but then didn’t — at least not until its company Remington Arms went bankrupt in 2018. And Cerberus is the owner and founder of Tier 1 Group, the company that trained four members of the Tiger Squad that assassinated and dismembered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

The role of public pension funds in newspapers isn’t new. CNHI, based in Montgomery, Alabama, owns 89 local news outlets in 21 states, including The Eagle-Tribune of North Andover and its affiliated papers north of Boston. CNHI, in turn, is owned by the Retirement Systems of Alabama.

But though CNHI has cut deeply over the years, its track record isn’t nearly as grim as that of Alden. At least in Massachusetts, its newspapers remain well-staffed enough to do a reasonably good job of covering their communities.

In the trade magazine Editor & Publisher, Gretchen A. Peck reports that Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-CWA, wonders if Alden’s purpose in buying up newspapers is to exert political influence aimed at staving off regulation:

Schleuss speculated whether there might be political play behind these newspaper acquisitions. The NewsGuild president also opined about legislative remedies that Congress might enact to force hedge funds like Alden to be “radically transparent” about their investors. That would allow the public to discern if investors are earnest and market-minded or if they’re bad actors attempting to hold sway over the press.

It’s a real concern, though to date I haven’t seen any signs that Alden has an agenda other than cutting its papers to the bone and squeezing out whatever profits remain.

Peck’s article is also accompanied by a “publisher’s note” that is interesting mainly because it represents one of the few occasions when Alden has deigned to address the way it’s running its newspapers:

Publisher’s Note: E&P reached out to Heath Freeman of Alden Global Capital, welcoming his comment and contribution. The company’s crisis manager responded, post-deadline, with the following remark he attributed to MediaNews Group’s COO, Guy Gilmore: “A subscription-driven revenue model, long overdue payments from tech behemoths including Google and Facebook for the use of our content and the modernization of non-editorial operations are some of the keys to ensuring local newspapers can thrive over the long term and serve the local communities that depend on them.”

Kara Swisher to Patrick Soon-Shiong: How could you let Alden buy Tribune?

Kara Swisher. Photo (cc) 2017 by nrkbeta.

I just skimmed the transcript of Kara Swisher’s interview with Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. It gets off to a slow start — but eventually she lets him have it in the chops over his pathetic rationalizations for not stopping the hedge fund Alden Global Capital from buying Tribune Publishing earlier this year.

The short version, for those who aren’t sure what I’m talking about: Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and medical entrepreneur, owned 24% of Tribune, which publishes nine major-market daily newspapers. He could have blocked Alden by voting no or by voting to abstain, thus giving Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum more time to put a deal together — or to see if another buyer might emerge.

Instead, Soon-Shiong declined to vote at all, which allowed the deal to go through. Here’s the heart of what Swisher told him:

So essentially you’re saying I couldn’t save them. And I’m — I don’t quite know what to say. There’s some point where you do make a stand and say, you can’t do this. And especially with Alden Global Capital having a reputation it does, you might have stood up for it. You might have said no. But you felt the current owners weren’t going to really do anything with your money. As you said, they had an agenda. It seems like you have a theory of their agenda. But they weren’t going to make it better. And so any port in the storm, is that what you’re saying?

Soon-Shiong’s hedging is pretty much in line with his recent interview with Brian Stelter of CNN. But this response screams out:

Well, it’s a little more than that, right? I think there should be enough civic responsibility in Chicago, enough civic responsibility in Florida, civic responsibility wherever these — Baltimore. And obviously, as you knew, there were certain billionaires and multimillionaires. So to be fair, it should be really the responsibility of people living in their community. I live in California. So I can’t personally be responsible for Florida or Baltimore and Chicago.

Baltimore? Baltimore? Is the good doctor kidding? Bainum originally had an agreement to acquire The Baltimore Sun from Alden after Tribune was sold and then donate the Sun to a nonprofit. After he concluded that Alden was jerking him around, he tried to put together a group that would buy the entire chain. (Bainum is now launching a nonprofit news project in Baltimore.)

Look, it’s great that Soon-Shiong seemed to be committed to the Times and his other paper, The San Diego Union-Tribune. But if you look up the word “disingenuous” in the dictionary, you just might find his photo.

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Spurned by Tribune, Stewart Bainum moves ahead with nonprofit news in Baltimore

Baltimore. Photo (cc) 2014 by Patrick Gillespie.

Among the worst outcomes of Stewart Bainum’s failed bid to purchase Tribune Publishing is that he lost out on an earlier deal to buy The Baltimore Sun and donate it to a nonprofit organization.

The hedge fund Alden Global Capital had originally agreed to spin off the Sun to Bainum after buying Tribune’s nine major-market dailies. That deal fell through when Bainum, a Baltimore hotel magnate, balked at Alden’s terms and tried to buy the entire chain.

So it’s very good news that Bainum appears to be moving ahead with a nonprofit venture that would compete with the Sun. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reported earlier this week that Bainum is advertising for a chief product officer who’ll work for a “well-funded startup” aimed at becoming “a new paradigm for digital first, cross-channel local media.”

The project will include the web, mobile, terrestrial and satellite radio and video, both on television and online, according to the ad, which adds that the “vision is to be the leading provider of news and lifestyle content in the Baltimore area.”

Bainum was originally willing to pay $65 million for the Sun. Assuming that money is still on the table, this should be a well-funded regional news product. Bloomberg and the Lenfest Institute are involved, too, though Edmonds suggests their role will be minimal.

One aspect I find interesting is the cross-platform nature of the project. The biggest challenge facing online-only media is getting the word out that they exist. As a former newspaper executive once told me, the problem with dumping the print edition in favor of digital is that print is essentially a billboard for digital. If print goes away, you disappear to non-subscribers. Bainum might avoid that problem by moving into radio and television as well as digital.

I also wonder whether there’s an underlying strategy to wrest the Sun away from Alden. Given the way the hedge fund is already decimating its holdings, which include the Chicago Tribune, New York’s Daily News and the Hartford Courant, there is little doubt that the Bainum project will be a better, more comprehensive news organization than the Sun on the day that it debuts.

If the Sun’s audience and advertisers (yes, nonprofits can accept ads) move en masse to Bainum’s venture, Alden might prove willing to walk away.

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With Alden destroying the Hartford Courant, Hearst goes statewide and digital

The Connecticut Statehouse in Hartford. Photo (cc) 2009 by Dan Kennedy.

Chain ownership is almost never a good thing. But some chains are better than others — and Hearst is among the very best. No doubt its status as a privately owned company whose family is involved in management has a lot to do with that. The legendary mogul William Randolph Hearst would be proud.

Among other things, the Hearst-owned Times Union of Albany, New York, did some of the crucial early reporting about sexual assault allegations against Gov. Andrew Cuomo — accusations that have brought him to the brink of resignation or removal.

Hearst has been making some interesting moves in Connecticut for quite some time. Now, with the hedge fund Alden Global Capital tearing apart what’s left of the Hartford Courant, Hearst is positioning itself as a digital rival for statewide coverage. Rick Edmonds of Poynter reports that the company has launched a new website, CTInsider.com, that features coverage from its 160 journalists at eight dailies and 14 weeklies and websites in the state.

CTInsider.com offers a combination of free and paid content. Subscribers pay $3.99 a week after an initial discount.

The Hearst paper I’m most familiar with is the New Haven Register, a daily paper that figured heavily in my 2013 book about hyperlocal news projects, “The Wired City.” The project I was profiling, the New Haven Independent, a digital nonprofit founded in 2005, was providing deep coverage of the city, filling a gap left by the dramatic downsizing of the Register.

It was an interesting time for the Register. Under the ownership of the reviled Journal Register chain, the Register had lurched into bankruptcy. Journal Register then morphed into Digital First Media, headed by a visionary chief executive named John Paton who, about a dozen years ago, provided a jolt of optimism. Soon, though, Alden moved in, merging Digital First with its Denver-based chain, MediaNews Group, and, well, you know the rest. But then Hearst bought the New Haven Register a few years ago, and the paper has since undergone something of a revival.

The Hartford Courant had thrived for many decades as Connecticut’s sole statewide paper. But under Tribune Publishing’s chaotic ownership, it had been shrinking for many years. During the years that I was reporting “The Wired City,” a pair of vibrant websites devoted to covering state politics and policy had popped up — the for-profit CTNewsJunkie.com and the nonprofit Connecticut Mirror, both of which are still going strong.

Things went from bad to worse at the Courant earlier this year when Alden added Tribune to its holdings despite efforts by the staff to find a local buyer.

It’s great to see Hearst now upping its game in Connecticut as well.

Despite spinning off a few papers, there are no signs that chains are walking away

Nantucket, where The Inquirer & Mirror is once again locally owned. Photo (cc) 2007 by Michael Galvin.

From time to time I’ve taken note of rare instances when Gannett has sold some of its 1,000 or so papers to local ownership. In Massachusetts, for example, The Inquirer & Mirror of Nantucket was acquired last fall by a group headed by the editor and a local businessman.

Kristen Hare of Poynter asked Gannett for some numbers, it turns out that the chain has sold 24 papers to community interests. (Be sure not to miss the correction. As you’ll see, Gannett can’t even keep track of how many papers it owns.)

Not that there’s any benevolent motive at work here. Gannett is going to do what’s best for its bottom line, and a few isolated weeklies don’t fit with its strategy of regional groups, dailies and stories shared across papers regardless of whether they have any local interest.

Just recently, Gannett shut down two weeklies west of Boston — the Marlborough Enterprise and the Hudson Sun. Maybe there weren’t any local buyers available. But those towns are also covered by Gannett’s MetroWest Daily News, so there was an incentive not to empower any possible competitors.

Writing for the Local News Initiative at Northwestern University, Mark Jacob speculates that the hedge fund Alden Global Initiative might sell off some of the nine major-market dailies it acquired when it gobbled up Tribune Publishing earlier this year. I suppose anything is possible, but that seemed to fly out the window when Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum’s efforts to buy Tribune fell short. Bainum planned to break up the chain, starting with The Baltimore Sun, which he wanted to donate to a nonprofit. In the end, though, Alden’s offer prevailed, even though it was loaded with undisclosed debt.

Jacob also profiles The Berkshire Eagle of Pittsfield, a rare instance of a newspaper that Alden was willing to sell to local interests, and The New Bedford Light, launched despite Gannett’s refusal to sell The Standard-Times.

And then there is this odd observation by Jacob:

In some ways, large chains can be beneficial for local news consumers. They often bring website expertise, technical support and consistent business practices. And they may have a greater ability to recruit talent.

No. Some chains are better than others, but all of them are dedicated to the proposition that newspapers exist mainly so that the owners can squeeze out profits that could otherwise be invested in news and technology. Even in terms of digital publishing, I have rarely encountered an independent news website that is as clunky and intrusive as a typical chain site.

As the old saying goes: Local doesn’t scale.

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The Capital Gazette overcame mass murder only to be done in by corporate ownership

Photo via “On the Media”

The public radio show “On the Media” offered a terrific special hour-long broadcast over the weekend — a deeply reported piece on the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where five journalists were killed in a mass shooting three years ago today.

The story follows the newsroom through the shock of the shooting and the newspaper’s halting recovery. Sadly, as the last part of the hour unfolds, we learn that the journalists overcame the worst horror imaginable only to be done in by their corporate owner, Tribune Publishing. In the closing minutes, things go from bad to worse, as the hedge fund Alden Global Capital purchases Tribune.

By the way, what “On the Media” ran was a compressed version of a two-hour series that was part of the NPR podcast “Embedded,” which had not been on my radar until now. Outstanding and important work.

 

Soon-Shiong ducks question on why he didn’t move to stop Alden from buying Tribune

Patrick Soon-Shiong. Photo (cc) 2019 by the World Economic Forum.

Billionaire Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong evaded the question when CNN’s Brian Stelter asked him on the new “Reliable Sources” podcast why he didn’t intervene to prevent Alden Global Media from acquiring Tribune Publishing.

Here’s the exchange:

Stelter: Patrick, there are people who want to know why, with the Alden deal, you didn’t step in. This is the deal where Tribune was being taken over by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital. You are the biggest outside shareholder. You could have stepped in. There’s questions about why you decided to abstain, why you decided not to stop that from happening. Can you share with us why?

Soon-Shiong: Well, look, you know, I was a passive shareholder, and it was really important for the board to do what it has to do with regard to the rest of the Tribune holdings. I’ve got my hands full and frankly, really committed to the LA Times and San Diego Union-Tribune.

A quick recap: Alden, the worst newspaper owner on the planet, paid $633 million last month to boost its share of Tribune’s nine major-market dailies from 32% to 100%. Soon-Shiong, who held 25% of Tribune’s shares, could have just said no and given Baltimore hotel magnate and philanthropist Stewart Bainum more time to pull together his own deal.

Instead, Soon-Shiong abstained, and he did it in such a way that the deal was allowed to go through. That is, if he had formally abstained, the sale would have been stopped.

And now Alden is decimating Tribune’s newspapers, just as it has with its 100-paper MediaNews Group chain.

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Why revelations about Alden’s acquisition of Tribune should force a do-over

Photo (cc) 2012 by the Chicago Tribune

Could Alden Global Capital’s acquisition of Tribune Publishing be headed for a do-over? Julie Reynolds, who’s been reporting on the hedge fund’s evisceration of newspapers for years, has written a fascinating story for the Nieman Journalism Lab suggesting that the $633 million deal may have been illegal.

Alden, which already owned 32% of Tribune’s papers, pledged to pay $375 million in cash in order to bring its share up to 100%. But Reynolds reports that Alden didn’t actually have the cash, a fact that may have been known only to the three members of Tribune’s board who were affiliated with the hedge fund.

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As soon as the transaction was consummated, Alden forced the papers to borrow about $300 million. That included $60 million from Alden’s other newspaper chain, MediaNews Group, at an eye-popping interest rate of 13%. As everyone predicted, Alden has gone on a cost-cutting rampage, offering buyouts throughout the chain.

Nieman Foundation curator Ann Marie Lipinski, a former editor of Tribune’s largest paper, the Chicago Tribune, tweeted, “The scale of talent leaving the Chicago Tribune is staggering.

Reynolds also reports that the full Tribune board may have been left in the dark about a private meeting that Tribune board member and Alden founder Randall Smith had with Baltimore hotel magnate Stewart Bainum last year.

You may recall that Bainum had initially worked out an agreement under which Alden would buy Tribune’s nine major-market dailies and then sell one of them, The Baltimore Sun, to Bainum, who planned to donate it to a nonprofit organization. After Bainum concluded that Alden was trying to gouge him, he tried to put together a bid for the entire chain. Most if not all of the papers would have been spun off to local buyers. But he was never able to put together a firm offer, and the board went with Alden instead. Alden is keeping all nine papers, including the Sun.

As Reynolds notes, the Tribune board spurned Bainum’s higher offer because the financing was not in place — and ignored the reality that Alden’s wasn’t in place, either. She writes:

Given the healthy profits Tribune has generated over the last several quarters, the cuts are there for just one reason: to achieve higher margins for Alden. Randall Smith will get richer while communities served by Tribune are starved of the information they need.

If Reynolds is correct in asserting that laws were broken in order to pave the way for Alden’s acquisition of Tribune, then the punishment ought to be more than a fine and a slap on the wrist. The sale should be voided and the Tribune board should be forced to vote again.

Maybe this time Patrick Soon-Shiong, the billionaire owner of the Los Angeles Times, can be persuaded to stop Alden. As a 25% owner of Tribune before the sale, Soon-Shiong could have said no. Instead, he abstained, and did it in a manner that allowed the transaction to go through.

I’m also lighting up the Bat Signal again for Jeff Bezos.

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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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