Newsrooms fight their owners to save local journalism

camillefassett

Reporter

newsroom
Wikimedia Commons

Journalists from over 50 newspapers stood outside a high rise in midtown Manhattan on May 8 to protest the decimation of their newsrooms by hedge fund owners like Alden Global Capital, centering national attention on the issue in the process.

The journalists that chanted and waved signs outside the hedge fund’s headquarters recently are used to reporting the news, rather than becoming it. But sometimes, the stories journalists need to tell are about themselves. As decisions made at the Alden Global Capital headquarters to slash the budgets and staff of newspapers are eroding local journalism across the country, journalists are taking center stage. Some have even called this “a fight for their lives.”

When journalists chanted, “What do we want?”, the response was a resounding “New owners!” (“When do we want them? Now!”)

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital controls Digital First Media (DFM), one of the largest newsroom chains in the United States. DFM owns 97 newsrooms across the United States according to its website, including the Denver Post, the Salt Lake Tribune, the East Bay Times, and the Pottstown Mercury.

Bay Area News Group investigative reporter Thomas Peele said that Alden will do anything to achieve its bottom line. “Alden is ruthless. It by far is outpacing other newspaper companies in profits. It is the worst actor. Other private equity firms that own newspapers seem to be taking smaller profits and not burning down their own houses the way Alden is.”

Just a decade ago, The Denver Post employed over 300 people. But since Alden Global Capital acquired the paper in 2011, the paper has laid off much of its newsroom, leaving just 70 staff remaining. And a new round of cuts from Alden, somewhere around 15%, is expected soon.

A similar story is playing out at other outlets owned by Alden. Since Alden Global Capital took over the Saint Paul, Minnesota, Pioneer Press in 2012, it has lost over half of its newsroom staff through layoffs, buyouts, and attrition. DFM-owned Chico Enterprise-Record has gone from 45 full-time newsroom staff to just four.

The Denver Post remained profitable in 2017 before the latest round of cuts, and it has a long history of hard hitting, quality journalism. It’s not unique among DFM-owned outlets, many of which produce award-winning journalism despite unprecedented budget cuts and increasingly limited resources.

But newspaper staff refuse to go down without a fight. Employees have taken to tweets, editorials, and finally, to the streets. Last month, 55 of the remaining staff of The Denver Post published an open letter in opposition to the censorship and destruction of the paper, and demanded new owners.

“It has become vividly clear that [Alden Global Capital and Digital First Media] are undeserving of owning The Denver Post and of serving you. It has become vividly clear that they must either invest in the newspaper or sell it to someone who cares about Colorado, and they must do it immediately,” the statement reads.

DFM could sell its newspapers to owners who care about local journalism, and who are prepared to invest resources into newsrooms, and it wouldn’t be unprecedented: After an 18-year struggle with lack of resources and conflict with its owners, the Los Angeles Times was finally sold to billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong. "Ultimately, this decision is deeply personal for me. As someone who grew up in apartheid South Africa, I understand the role that journalism needs to play in a free society," Soon-Shiong said about the purchase. While it’s too early to celebrate this as a victory, the Los Angeles Times’ organizing committee is cautiously optimistic about the future of the paper now that it has return to local ownership.

In an editorial for The Denver Post, former reporter Ricardo Baca wrote about the May 8 protest in New York: “To an extent, this is the opposite of what we’ve been trained to do since Journalism 101. But these are also desperate times, and if we don’t speak up now, then we will be destined to witness the demise of our city’s largest and most essential news-gathering operations — and what would happen to democracy then?”

The Denver Post’s editorial page editor Charles Plunkett quit in protest after he said a newsroom executive refused to run his editorial that included criticism of Alden Global Capital and DFM. With a policy in place that any editorials mentioning the paper’s owner must be approved by the DFM chief operating officer, articles critical of DFM were being rejected. “I was being boxed in so that I couldn’t speak,” said Plunkett. DFM is even considering eliminating the Post’s editorial section completely. Other key newsroom executives followed suit and resigned soon after, including senior editors and the Post’s previous owner Dean Singleton.

Thomas Peele told Freedom of the Press Foundation that DFM/AGC “has effectively banned its papers from publishing anything critical about the company.” He thinks that newsroom staff need the protection of unions to speak out in this environment, and “other DFM newsrooms need to unionize if the journalists in them want to publically join this fight.”

DFM reported a 17% profit margin last year, and profits of $160 million. If hedge fund newspaper owners like DFM chose to invest in newsrooms, they could invigorate local journalism. Instead, they are profiting off of dismantling local newsrooms, and it’s a travesty.