Here at NPQ, we have regularly tracked two stories regarding local journalism. On one hand, there is a growing trend of layoffs and a hollowing out of local news. Last March, Tom Stites noted in NPQ that “a quarter of all US newspapers have failed since 2004.” At the same time, Stites himself is part of a rising movement of nonprofit or, in Stites’ case, co-op forms of local journalism that are creating a new more civically minded form of journalism that provides communities with the information they need.
Which trend will prevail remains uncertain, but Alden Global Capital’s May 21st purchase of Tribune Publishing for $635 million ($17.25 a share) was not a good day for local journalism. As Katie Robinson of the New York Times observes, the sale “underscores the growing might of financial firms in a consolidating media industry. Investors, seeing opportunities to buy distressed assets at bargain prices, have swooped in over the past decade, with plans to make money by drastically cutting costs, laying off workers, combining operations, and selling off real estate holdings.” Alden is now the second-largest owner of newspapers nationally, trailing only Gannett.
Tribune Publishing owns the Chicago Tribune, but it also owns the Baltimore Sun; the South Florida Sun-Sentinel; the Orlando Sun-Sentinel; the New York Daily News; the Hartford Courant; the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk; The Morning Call in Allentown, Pennsylvania; and the Daily Press in Newport News, Virginia, as well as various smaller publications. At the time of its sale, the company employed nearly 3,000 people.
Alden has a well-earned reputation for ruthlessly cutting newspaper staff. Back in 2018, the editorial staff of the Alden-owned Denver Post took the highly unusual step of denouncing the paper’s owners in a published editorial, writing, “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”
Nationally, a 2020 study by Penelope Muse Abernathy, published by the University of North Carolina, estimated that Alden and Tribune Publishing combined own 207 publications, including 70 newspapers, with over five million readers. “In one six-year period, according to the NewsGuild union, Alden cut staff at guild-represented papers by an average of 75 percent,” reports David Folkenflik for National Public Radio.
Already, steps to strip cash from the business and lay off staff have begun. The Associated Press reports that Alden “wasted little time installing new leadership and saddling the newspaper chain with $278 million in debt it took on for the acquisition.” The new owners also are seeking to reduce staff levels by encouraging employees to accept a voluntary buyout. According to Keith Kelly of the New York Post, the buyout “provides eight weeks’ severance for all staffers with three years or less of service. It provides 12 weeks for staffers with four or more years and then one additional week’s pay for each year of service.”
And so, consolidation continues. Abernathy’s study calls attention to the long-term trend, writing that, “At the end of 2004, the largest 25 chains (as measured by number of papers, not circulation) owned only a fifth of the 8,900 papers and less than a third of the 1,472 dailies. Fifteen years later, the 25 largest chains own a third of the 6,700 surviving newspapers in the country and 70 percent of the 1,260 dailies.”
But while Tribune Publishing has become another statistic in the consolidation trend, it didn’t have to be. Unlike many cases, philanthropy had time to respond. This is because Alden first acquired a 32-percent share of the company in 2019 and its intentions to acquire the entire company were hardly a secret. Indeed, Vanity Fair published an article about the threat of acquisition in February 2020.
But philanthropy ultimately fell short. For a time, it appeared that Alden and Baltimore philanthropist and hotel owner Stewart Bainum Jr. had reached a deal wherein Alden would purchase Tribune Publishing, but divest itself of the Sun, enabling the Baltimore paper and affiliated local we