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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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.

There are no good guys in the battle between Gannett and Digital First Media

Ben Bagdikian had Gannett’s number (1976 photo via Wikipedia)

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

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.

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What the new owner of the Los Angeles Times can learn from Jeff Bezos

Washington Post executive editor Marty Baron (left) and Jeff Bezos in 2016. Photo from a Post video.

Last week a years-long ownership crisis at the Los Angeles Times may have come to an end. Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire surgeon and entrepreneur, purchased the Times from tronc for a reported $500 million.

Drawing on the lessons I write about in my new book, “The Return of the Moguls,” I e-talked with Dave Beard about what lessons Soon-Shiong could learn from Jeff Bezos’ vision for The Washington Post, and why other billionaire owners both good (John Henry of The Boston Globe) and bad (Sam Zell, who ran the former Tribune newspapers into the ground) have had a rougher go of it.

Our conversation is now up at Poynter.org, and I hope you’ll take a look.

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