David Jackson and Gary Marx, investigative reporters for the Chicago Tribune, are desperately seeking a solution to a possible acquisition by Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund that currently owns 32% of Tribune Publishing. In addition to the Chicago Tribune, the publisher owns The (New York) Daily News, The Baltimore (Maryland) Sun, The Hartford (Connecticut) Courant, The Orlando (Florida) Sentinel, The (South Florida) Sun-Sentinel, the Daily Press (Virginia), The Virginian-Pilot (Virginia) and The Morning Call (Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania). The New York Times published an op-ed piece by Jackson and Marx on January 19.
In November, Alden expanded its ownership in Tribune Publishing to 32%. It agreed to put any further expansion on hold until June 30, 2020. In exchange, Tribune Publishing added two seats to its board to be occupied by Alden representatives. Then, two weeks ago, Tribune Publishing offered voluntary buyouts to staff with eight or more years at its publications. Terms of the severance package were not disclosed, but the company is likely to make involuntary cuts if not enough employees take advantage of the offer. Jackson and Marx were among the employees offered buyouts.
In their op-ed, they voice their concerns about Alden’s plans. Here are excerpts:
Aldens strategy of acquiring struggling local newsrooms and stripping them of assets has built the personal wealth of the hedge funds investors. But Alden has imposed draconian staff cuts that decimated The Denver Post and other once-proud newspapers that have been vital to their communities and to American democracy. Those newsrooms, which put a spotlight on local political corruption, have served as forums for community voices and have driven the coverage of regional television, radio and online outlets, wrote Jackson and Marx.
…the alternative is a ghost version of the Chicago Tribune – a newspaper that can no longer carry out its essential watchdog mission. Illinoiss most vulnerable people would lose a powerful guardian, its corrupt politicians would be freer to exploit and plunder, and this prairie metropolis would lose the common forum that binds together and lifts its citizens, they added.
In a January 26 article, Worried Reporters Make a Plea: Please Buy Our Paper, Marc Tracy of The New York Times outlines additional efforts by Jackson and Marx to save the Chicago Tribune and quality, local journalism by trying to find other buyers. According to Tracy, the veteran reporters have been reaching out to potential investors including billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong who purchased the Los Angeles Times and other California newspapers from Tribune for $500 million in 2018. Dr. Soon-Shiong is a 25% owner in Tribune Publishing.
In an interview with CNN Business, Marx said, Were doing everything in our power to try to stop them.
He also said, We believe that Alden is an existential threat, not just to this newspaper but to every newspaper in the chain.
This is a terrifying time, not just for the newspapers in the Tribune Publishing chain, but for all newspapers whose quality journalism and connection to community are suffering in the name of profit. As conglomerates like Gannett and GateHouse join forces, the voice of local journalism is dying and the valuable check-and-balance system that journalism provides to democracy is getting lost. Media organizations – including magazines – are slashing print schedules, print sizes and coverage – to remain sustainable.
And when hedge funds and other financiers sink their hooks into media organizations, they are looking to turn a profit as quickly as possible, cutting overhead and staff. They hold different values and are driven by different missions. We feel for Jackson, Marx and others at Tribune Publishing and other media organizations caught in the crossfire. We hope they find a benefactor, but even if they do, there will be another wolf around the corner.