Karma, media ownership edition

USA Today is owned by Gannett, which means USA Today is reporting on its owners and its would-be owners:

In a cost-cutting move last year, The Denver Post relocated from the city’s downtown, where the newspaper had been based for more than a century, to quarters in its printing plant in a neighboring county. Reporters and editors found that their new workplace had the feng shui of a run-down casino, with no windows to let in sunlight and a constant ambient hissing from the presses.

But they hoped the move represented an end to the bloodletting that had occurred at the newspaper since hedge fund Alden Global Capital took over in 2010, said Larry Ryckman, then a senior news editor. Layoffs and turnover had left only about 100 journalists in the newsroom, a third of its staff during the paper’s heyday.

That hope was dashed a couple of months after moving offices, when it was announced 30 more positions would be cut. It was then that Ryckman came to believe that the firings would only end when the newspaper closed for good: “We were under attack by our own owners.”

What would follow was a newspaper mutiny, including editorials slamming its own ownership, allegations of censorship and mass resignations.

Most any journalist who has worked at a newspaper in the last couple of decades has come to expect layoffs and other cuts as the new reality of the industry, including at Gannett Co., USA TODAY’s owner. As audience has shifted to digital products, including online news, the unrelenting trend has ravaged profits from print circulation and advertising. Increasing digital subscriptions have not easily offset print’s legacy profit sources.

But journalists and industry insiders familiar with Alden regard its methods of acquisition and management of distressed newspaper properties as a particularly ominous force in the industry in which staffs are decimated and properties sold off for investment elsewhere at the expense of a newspaper’s prospects for long-term survival.

If Alden’s latest plans come to fruition, it will be bringing its ownership style to a newspaper near virtually every American. MNG Enterprises, which also operates as Digital First Media and is owned by the hedge fund Alden, has launched a hostile takeover bid for Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper publisher by paid circulation. With a national newspaper in USA TODAY and 109 local brands in cities around the country, Gannett would make for a unique – and landscape-shifting – acquisition for MNG.

In a note to clients on Monday, analysts Douglas Arthur and Craig Huber described Alden’s reputation for “strip-mining” newspapers it purchases “until the very last iota of cash flow has been squeezed from it.”

Ken Doctor, an analyst who writes about the media business on his website, Newsonomics.com, said the hedge fund is alone among owners of struggling media properties in that it doesn’t reinvest in its journalism or harbor any long-term survival strategy for the newspapers it owns. Doctor said that MNG purchasing Gannett “would signal a local newspaper capitulation to the inevitability of further decline toward closure at some point.”

But in a letter sent Monday, MNG derided Gannett, of which it says it already owns a 7.5 percent stake, for a “series of value-destroying decisions made by an unfocused leadership team” and cast itself as a guardian angel for the industry. “We save newspapers and position them for a strong and profitable future so they can weather the secular decline,” MNG declared.

Gannett has said it is reviewing the proposal. Some analysts have said they believe MNG’s offer, of $1.4 billion, is too low. Gannett declined to comment on what impact the potential sale might have on the company’s journalism.

In interviews with roughly a dozen journalists who experienced Alden’s takeover in Denver, a dire picture emerges of what happens when the hedge fund comes for the newspaper in your town. They described crippling personnel cuts, corporate meddling and a stewardship that results in a newspaper being hollowed out to a shell of what it once was.

A spokesperson for MNG, Paul Caminiti, did not respond to specific questions for this article but issued a statement crediting the company’s “successful track record” enabling it “to run newspapers profitably and sustainably so that they can continue to serve their local communities.”

Alden’s Digital First owns about 200 publications, including The Mercury News in San Jose, California, the Los Angeles Daily News and the Boston Herald. Perhaps nowhere has its ownership been as contentious as in Denver, a city with a storied history of once-thriving newspapers.

The Denver Post, first published in 1892, had waged a decades-long war with the Rocky Mountain News. In 2007, each newspaper employed more than 200 journalists, according to Kevin Vaughan, a former reporter at both papers. But shrinking profits gave close quarters to the feud when the rival newspapers were forced to move into the same office building, and ended it altogether in 2009, when the Rocky shut down for good.

In 2010, when Alden acquired the Post’s bankrupt parent company, the newspaper’s journalists were expecting the kind of cuts that have become commonplace in the industry – but not the carnage that ensued, Ryckman said.

Chuck Plunkett, then The Post’s editorial page editor, described a “yearly grind” in which layoffs followed even the best journalistic results, such as when he said roughly twenty staffers were cut after The Post won its ninth Pulitzer Prize in 2013 for coverage of the Aurora movie theater massacre.

That’s a familiar pattern for the company, according to Kat Anderson, an administrative officer at the Pacific Media Workers Guild, a union representing journalists at several San Francisco area newspapers. She said that MNG also laid off about twenty staffers at the East Bay Times in the wake of the Oakland-area newspaper’s Pulitzer win for its coverage of the “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire.

Dana Coffield, whose decade-long tenure at The Post until 2018 included a stint as its second-in-command editor, said the ongoing cuts crippled the newspaper. “If you lose a pint of blood you don’t notice it, but if you lose 6 of your 8 pints you’re going to feel it,” Coffield said. “That’s how it felt at the end – like not knowing if you could stand up and keep going.”

Making the layoffs more troubling to those weathering them are revelations that the company apparently was earning ample profits but reinvesting them in non-journalistic enterprises with questionable results.

Doctor, the analyst, has obtained financials showing that Digital First earned a $160 million profit in 2017. The privately held company has disputed the figure while not releasing detailed financial information. On Monday, the company boasted of a profitability margin exceeding 16 percent in 2018.

In a contentious meeting with staffers at The Post’s office last June, MNG Chairman Joe Fuchs described a strategy of “survivability and consistency,” which included making “Warren Buffett-style investments in some other things.”

In the recorded meeting, Fuchs allowed that at least one of those investments, into the struggling Fred’s pharmacy chain, was “not very successful.” The $158 million investment is now worth roughly $20 million.

Alden has made a variety of investments in other publicly-traded companies unrelated to media and communications, federal regulatory filings show. The hedge fund made a quick profit by selling most of its stake in furniture store Pier 1 Imports in January 2017, before the company’s stock plummeted. Alden’s other investments have included holdings in Mechel PAO, a Russian mining giant that has been criticized for pollution, and a Brazilian state-run energy company, the filings show.

Ryckman said removing hard-fought profits from local journalism for such investments drove home his belief that “we were working for the bad guys. And none of us got in this business to work for the bad guys.”

The trouble in Denver reached a boil over last spring, when journalists in The Post’s opinion section responded to the continuing layoffs with a bold statement: a full page of columns blasting Alden as “vulture capitalists” and calling for new ownership to save the newspaper. Editorial page editor Plunkett said he was forced to resign soon thereafter.

Then-senior news editor Ryckman said he was effectively barred from assigning reporters to cover the backlash against the newspaper’s own ownership. When he insisted on writing an article about Plunkett’s resignation, Ryckman said, editor-in-chief Lee Ann Colacioppo only allowed the story to be published only after removing explicit references to Alden Global Capital. Colacioppo did not respond to a phone message seeking an interview for this story.

Ryckman said it was “the first time in my career I was told to take facts out of a story for no reason having to do with journalism.” He resigned the next day.

Post chairman and former owner Dean Singleton also quit, saying of Alden: “They’ve killed a great newspaper.”

Journalists from The Post traveled to Manhattan to protest outside of Alden’s offices last May. “They didn’t speak to us – they never do,” said current Post reporter Elizabeth Hernandez. “They don’t care about journalism. That’s very clear.”

Several editors and reporters who left the newspaper, including Coffield and Ryckman, have started a grassroots rival publication called The Colorado Sun.

Plunkett described the current state of The Denver Post now as “a shell of a newspaper” full of content repurposed from other sources. Ryckman called the loss of local reporting “not just bad news for journalists” but also “for communities. It’s bad news for democracy.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, despite facing a raft of critical articles in The Post last year concerning a series of sexually suggestive text messages he sent to a member of his security detail, said he has considered government intervention to save publications like The Post from being gutted.

“It’s an essential part of our democracy and vital to those who value sound reporting for these mainstream publications to survive,” Hancock said.

Ryckman said: “It makes me sad to contemplate what’s going to happen to Gannett papers coast-to-coast if this sale goes through. … They’ve put these newspapers into a death spiral.”

Former Denver Post reporter Brian Eason, in describing corporate entities like MNG, said that he believed newspapers aren’t just “dying from natural causes. Greed is killing them.”

The irony here is that most of what this story accuses Gannett’s would-be buyer of is what Gannett has done in the past. When was the last time Green Bay-area readers read the Green Bay News–Chronicle? Gannett succeeded in buying and then closing the News–Chronicle in 2005, the culmination, if you want to call it that, of two decades to kill off the News–Chronicle, as chronicled in Richard McCord’s The Chain Gang, and by the News–Chronicle itself:

The Green Bay News-Chronicle is printing one more obituary today – its own.

The News-Chronicle, dead at 32, survived by its sister and stepsister newspapers. Remains on view in a red coin box near you – at least for 24 hours. Private burial in the bottom of a birdcage someplace.

Such, of course, is the fate of all newspapers; it’s a disposable medium. That, to those who work in them, is part of their charm. We may write something that is remembered, but there’s always a deadline the next day. We may botch something royally, but like a baseball player making an error, we have a chance to do something memorable the next day to make people forget it.

There’s always the next issue. Until today.

Volume 33, No. 175 marks the end of the line for a newspaper that was formed in strife and never seemed to lose that background. It was never the newspaper it could have been, but it was more than it had any right to be.

The biggest victims of Gannett have been readers of and advertisers in Gannett’s Oshkosh, Fond du Lac, Sheboygan and Manitowoc newspapers, which are essentially one not-very-good newspaper.

Don’t believe me? Facebook Friend Brian Fraley posted five Sunday front pages:

Gannett last year closed its Appleton printing plant and prints all 10 newspapers not named the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in West Milwaukee. That may seem like inside baseball to you, but consider what WLUK-TV reported:

“Starting (Monday), our print deadlines will be moved up,” wrote Robert Zizzo, Press-Gazette editor. “That means we won’t be printing next-day results of UW-Green Bay, St. Norbert, Badgers, Brewers and Bucks games. Those results, as well as those of the leagues they play in, will be in the following day’s newspaper. Same with lottery numbers.”

Both Zizzo and Ed Berthiaume, news director for The Post-Crescent, emphasize the shift to digital products and away from the paper itself.

“Yes, we still publish print newspapers, but that is one piece of what we do, and the print edition is no longer a vehicle for breaking news. Maybe it never was. The bulk of our readers are now accessing our content on their phones, tablets or desktops long before the newspaper rolls off the presses,” Berthiaume wrote.

The move comes as the Gannett papers continue to see declines in circulation.

According to the Alliance for Audited Media, for the period ending on Dec. 31, 2017, the Press-Gazette’s daily circulation was 34,105, down from 52,993 on Sept. 30, 2007. In the same roughly 10-year period, Sunday circulation fell from 78,094 to 45,853.

The numbers are similar in Appleton. Daily circulation fell from 50,639 to 30,817. Sunday circulation fell from 64,989 to 37,614, according to Alliance figures.

“I’m not naïve enough to believe that these changes will be popular with our print-only readers. It will be painful for those of you who can’t or won’t activate the digital access that comes with your print subscription,” Zizzo wrote. “Believe me, if we could continue to give you the newspaper of 20 years ago, while still serving our growing digital audience, we would.”

“It’s a new reality for the print edition. We are going to do everything in our control to keep the print edition of The Post-Crescent alive, informative and entertaining. But reversing the hands of time is not an option,” Berthiaume said.

Journal Sentinel readers don’t appear enamored of the changes Gannett has imposed on them since the print side of the late Journal Communications was purchased by Gannett. And now Gannett appears to be in fear of having done to Gannett what Gannett has done to itself.

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