Commentary

Don’t let a predatory company weaken local news coverage even more in Virginia

December 1, 2021 4:02 pm
The Richmond Times-Dispatch's downtown office building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia-Mercury)

The Richmond Times-Dispatch’s downtown office building. (Ned Oliver/Virginia-Mercury)

It’s no surprise journalists at the Richmond Times-Dispatch and other newspapers around the country are fighting a takeover bid by Alden Global Capital. It’s one of the most rapacious hedge funds targeting the media industry today, and its arrogant executives have proven they don’t care a whit about the carnage they unleash on communities.

Writers, photographers, editors and others know they could lose their jobs or be saddled with more tasks – in ever-smaller newsrooms – under Alden’s leadership. Its execs crave profits above all else; civic duty be damned. 

Think of them collectively as a dismissive, less-cuddly Scrooge McDuck for the modern times. Or Gordon Gekko on steroids.

Obviously, journalists are on edge.

Virginians of all stripes, though, should also be concerned: Alden would gut what little remains of local coverage in many communities – school board and city council meetings, actions by municipal officials, neighborhood disputes and the like. 

When no one watches the local folks who wield power, there’s no way to hold them accountable. Scandals go unchecked. National outlets simply don’t provide that sort of reporting. 

“Our jobs are at stake, and further cuts to our already lean newsroom weaken our ability to cover our communities in deep, meaningful ways,” Holly Prestidge, president of the Richmond Newspapers Professional Association and an RTD reporter, told me by email Tuesday. “The impact will be severe, and at a time when reliable, professional news reporting is needed more than ever.” 

She’s not exaggerating. 

Her comments came the same day The Washington Post published a sobering, multipart account of what local stories could be lost in the current landscape. It said that since 2005, about 2,200 local newspapers across America have closed. “News desert” has entered the lexicon because of the increasing loss of daily and weekly publications in communities around America.

There are many pieces to this puzzle, so bear with me:

Lee Enterprises is based in Davenport, Iowa. Its 10 daily newspapers in the commonwealth include the Richmond Times-Dispatch, The Roanoke Times and (Fredericksburg) Free Lance-Star. The combined seven-day paid average of those dailies is 159,000, a company spokeswoman told me. The company also owns newspapers in Charlottesville, Danville, Bristol, Martinsville, Lynchburg, Waynesboro, Culpeper, Rock Mount and Wytheville.

Nationwide, Lee owns 75 daily newspapers in 26 states (including Virginia). Its biggest papers include the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The Buffalo News and Omaha World-Herald. 

Alden, based in New York City, already owns about 6 percent of Lee Enterprises. The company last week made an offer for the rest, proposing a cash purchase at $24 a share

Alden earlier this year acquired Tribune Publishing, getting The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot and (Newport News) Daily Press as part of the deal. ( I worked a total of 21 years at those two papers, and I expressed my disdain about Alden’s practices and then-pending acquisition in a column in January.) With about 200 publications under its belt, Alden is now the second-largest newspaper owner in the nation, behind only Gannett. 

The former Virginian-Pilot building in Norfolk. (Style Weekly)

Events moved quickly after news of Alden’s latest takeover aspirations became public. 

First, the Lee chain adopted a so-called “poison pill” plan to protect itself from a hostile takeover while the company’s board considered Alden’s offer. The plan “will provide Lee’s Board and our shareholders with the time needed to properly assess the acquisition proposal without undue pressure while also safeguarding shareholders’ opportunity to realize the long-term value of their investment in Lee,” Chairman Mary Junck said in a news release.

Then, representatives of Lee’s 12 unionized newsrooms, including the Times-Dispatch, urged Lee’s board to reject Alden’s overtures. The two-page missive is a concise, collective shot at the ogre Alden has been in the industry since forming in 2007. 

“Alden has cut their staffs at twice the rate of competitors, resulting in the loss of countless jobs,” the letter said. “They’ve fostered unhealthy and untenable workplaces that make it impossible to retain talent. They’ve shuttered physical newsrooms to leave journalists working from their cars, and at properties they lease, Alden stiffs local landlords for the rent.”

Not exactly a community steward or winner of a Better Business Bureau award.

“Thousands of us will lose our jobs, and the communities we serve will never recover,” the letter says. “Cities with weakened or shuttered newspapers have lower voter turnout, higher taxes, more corruption and increased polarization. Our democracy suffers and Alden reaps the rewards.”

The Lee Enterprises spokesperson declined to comment on the unions’ letter.

The unions obviously have a stake here. Their accusations about Alden, though, are familiar ones. Take a look at how media outlets have described the ruthless company:

• “A Secretive Hedge Fund is Gutting Newsrooms,” The Atlantic, Oct. 14. The story, which chronicled Alden’s recent acquisition of Tribune Publishing, including the Chicago Tribune, relayed this anecdote about its modus operandi during takeovers: “The new owners did not fly to Chicago to address the staff, nor did they bother with paeans to the vital civic role of journalism. Instead, they gutted the place.”

• “The Hedge-Fund A**hole Who Is Destroying Journalism Came From Duke,” Indy Week, 2019. It focused on Heath Freeman, the president, co-founder and (semi-)public face of Alden. The writer summed up Alden’s cynical strategy this way: “Buy struggling newspapers on the cheap, fire the journalists, f—- over their communities, sell their buildings, profit.”  

• “Alden Global Capital mounts takeover bid for Lee Enterprises,” Poynter.org, last week. The story noted the firm “announced cuts at Tribune as soon as the deal closed. Besides investing little in news, it lags the industry in technology upgrades.”

Alden officials didn’t respond to my attempts to reach them. The listed phone numbers, on government documents and other sources, didn’t work. The company’s website is useless. Still, I didn’t feel slighted, because the company usually refuses to answer reporters’ questions or engage with the public.

Nor were the unions wrong about the havoc that less coverage causes. The University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media has researched extensively on the impact of dwindling local news. 

“Numerous government and foundation studies have found that for a community to reach its full potential, it must be civically healthy and inclusive,” it said in one report. “But, in many communities today, there is simply not enough digital or print revenue to pay for the public service journalism that local newspapers have historically provided.”

It’s abundantly clear what Alden will do if it gets more control of newspapers in the commonwealth.

If Virginians want to prevent that scenario, speak up. If you own stock in Lee Enterprises, even better: Don’t let a predator company weaken news coverage in the state.

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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]

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