Alden sets its sights on Tribune and a shudder runs through what’s left of two Virginia newspapers

January 12, 2021 12:01 am

The former offices of the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. (Style Weekly)

People who value local journalism should be trembling at the announcement that a notorious hedge fund — dedicated to wringing out every last penny of profit moreso than informing the public — has targeted Tribune Publishing. The Chicago-based company’s media outlets include The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, billed as the state’s largest newspaper, and the (Newport News) Daily Press. 

The two publications in Hampton Roads already are shells of their former selves.

Yet if Alden Global Capital wins a nonbinding proposal valued at $520 million, it could gut what presence remains in the community of the papers and their websites. Tribune acquired the Daily Press a few decades ago, and it bought The Pilot in mid-2018.

I worked at both Hampton Roads papers from 1997 to 2018, primarily as an editorial writer and columnist. I’m keenly aware of the cuts in staff size, revenue and news coverage that have occurred over the years, even before the Batten family sold The Pilot to Tribune. 

It hurts to see how the journalists who remain are so hamstrung. Employees don’t even have a main office to work from, for goodness sakes! Many are reporting and editing from home during the pandemic.

Ownership by Alden, however, would be even worse. 

A caricature of a villain couldn’t do justice to this secretive, rapacious crew based in New York City. It owns 32 percent of Tribune Publishing. Current and former journalists at its roughly 200 publications – overseen by the operating company MediaNews Group – regularly complain about the company’s tactics, neglect of local communities and desire to squeeze from its outlets as much money as possible. 

And then squeeze some more.

Here’s what I’m talking about:

• In late 2019, the Denver City Council asked Alden, which owns The Denver Post, to invest in local journalism or divest its interest in the local and regional papers it owns. “Since Alden Global Capital took control of MediaNews Group in 2011, its newspapers including The Denver Post have been gutted, their staffs slashed and many of their assets sold,” the proclamation said.

• Alden and its president, Heath Freeman, chopped a combined editorial staff of 16 regional papers in Northern California from 1,000 employees all the way down to 150.

• Employees at the suburban Philadelphia dailies dealt with rats, mildew and falling ceilings, industry analyst Ken Doctor reported. Those are appalling workplace conditions.

Vanity Fair, in a long, scathing article last year, noted how reporters at the Monterey (Calif.) Herald had to crank out two or three stories a day because of staff cuts. Plus, they had to buy their own pens, calendars and manila folders. “Then the hot water in the bathrooms was turned off. The gutters were never repaired and staff creatively arranged house plants to try to soak up the leaks.”

• Twenty-one U.S. senators, including Virginia’s Tim Kaine, wrote a letter to Alden’s leaders in 2019 urging the company to end its bid to buy Gannett’s newspapers. (Alden ultimately failed.) “Your newspaper-killing business model is bad for newspaper workers and retirees,” they wrote, “bad for communities, bad for the public and bad for democracy.” 

I wanted to get Heath Freeman’s take on all this, but the Alden honcho is notoriously hard to reach. The company’s website is ridiculously sparse. There’s no spokesperson listed. I tried contacting him on; no response.

I called the phone number listed in a Securities and Exchange Commission filing, and finally reached an employee Thursday. She declined to give me her name, but took my message, saying there’s no guarantee Freeman would call back. 

She also noted people often email Freeman. Well, can I have his email address, then? No, she said. 

Thus this irony: A man with hundreds of newspapers doesn’t like telling the public about his company; his decision-making process; nor his involvement in the communities where his newspapers publish. He did give an interview for a lengthy profile in with The Washington Post last year, but that was the exception. 

The headline on that article? “Heath Freeman is the hedge fund guy who says he wants to save local news. Somehow, no one’s buying it.” Ouch!

It’s not like conditions have been great with the Tribune papers in Virginia. My onetime colleagues are still reporting and writing under tough circumstances, and they’re still producing in-depth series. 

But The Pilot and Daily Press are facing the same headwinds many papers and their digital sites nationwide have encountered over the past decade or so. Advertising dollars, a key source of revenue, have shrunk. Supervisors have chopped staff repeatedly, and those who remain have more tasks. The Pilot and Daily Press are quasi-merged now, which is  different than before Tribune bought the former.

Denis Finley joined The Pilot in 1987 as a photographer. He rose through the ranks to become editor in 2005, a job he held for 10 years. 

Unfortunately, as I saw up close, much of his tenure was devoted to reducing newsroom staff: It was a robust 272 employees in 2003, when he became managing editor. When he first became editor, he still had 252 newsroom employees to cover South Hampton Roads, a region that includes the large cities of Virginia Beach, Chesapeake and Norfolk.

“It was a dream,” he told me.

Cuts began in earnest, however, in 2008, during the Great Recession. By January 2009, the newsroom staff had already dropped to 193. “The revenues just cratered,” Finley said last this week. More rounds of layoffs and severance offers followed. 

It was a relief when layoffs weren’t ordered in a given year; forget about adding staff. We had furlough days. The size of the paper dwindled, and we eventually stopped printing a separate local section. 

“It got to be so stressful,” Finley said. “You could see what was coming down the road.”

About six months after Tribune bought the paper, I took the generous severance package the company offered in late 2018. I knew I would likely lose my columnist job, which I cherished.  Plus the workload would be heavier for anyone who remained. 

Then in early 2020, more reporters and photo staffers accepted buyouts. Many longtime veterans – with tons of knowledge about Hampton Roads – have left over the past decade. 

The result? The core Tribune group in Virginia of The Pilot, Daily Press and two smaller publications now has about 70 newsroom employees combined, I learned. An executive declined to confirm the figure. Style Weekly, an alt-weekly publication focusing on Richmond, is also part of the family.

Tribune corporate folks didn’t answer my questions about Alden’s bid, instead referring me to a Dec. 31 news release. “No assurance can be given that Alden’s proposal, or any other transaction, will be consummated.” 

Tellingly, nothing was mentioned in the brief release about a sale’s potential impact on the communities in Tribune’s markets.

Kris Worrell is editor-in-chief of Tribune’s Virginia Media entities. I asked Worrell, given Alden’s mercenary reputation, what would be the response on leadership and local news coverage if a sale occurred? 

“We don’t know what will happen or what may or may not change,” she said, “but we remain committed to covering our communities with energy and passion.” That’s overly optimistic corporate-speak.

Don’t be fooled. Less energy, fewer people and diminished passion will be the reality if Alden buys Tribune.

There’s no mystery at all.

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Roger Chesley
Roger Chesley

Longtime columnist and editorial writer Roger Chesley worked at the (Newport News) Daily Press and The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot from 1997 through 2018. He previously worked at newspapers in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Detroit. Reach him at [email protected]