When Alden Global Capital announced its plan to take over Tribune Publishing—the Chicago-based media conglomerate that publishes the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, Orlando Sentinel, and the New York Daily News—earlier this year, it presented itself as a savior. Alden manages newspapers across the country, in Denver, Boston, and San Jose, California. “Our commitment to ensuring the sustainability of robust local journalism is well established, and this is part of that effort,” a press release read.
There are many villains in the plight of local news in the twenty-first century, but Alden Global Capital is, along with Facebook and Google, among the most dastardly. A vampiric hedge fund, it has no history of supporting “robust” or “sustainable” local journalism. Instead, it has only proven adept at cutting costs—meaning jobs and reporting—to ensure its papers continue to produce double-digit profits for the fund and its investors. It has left decimation in its wake, gutting papers and leaving many communities without much in the way of meaningful journalism.
“They aren’t destroying journalism. They just don’t care about journalism,” former Mercury News Group executive editor Neil Chase told Poynter last year. “And they don’t have an end game—they want to come out with more money than before. Buy or sell, they are good either way.”
Good news is rare in journalism, and in local news in particular. But on Sunday evening, Tribune Publishing’s employees and readers got some good news. Hotel honcho Stewart Bainum and Swiss billionaire Hansjörg Wyss had put together a $680 million bid for the papers, $45 million more than Alden’s bid. It is, for the moment, a stay of execution—Alden will have the opportunity to make another bid. It’s also a glimmer of hope, albeit one that only underlines just how dire the economic climate for local newspapers is at the moment.
Alden Global Capital may very well up its bid. The hedge fund’s model is aided by amassing as many papers as possible, and there just aren’t very many papers left to acquire at the moment. Gannett and Gatehouse merged in 2019, creating the largest newspaper chain in the country. But there is good reason to hope that Alden will stand down. As Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton wrote in a perceptive analysis of the situation, Alden is already Tribune’s largest shareholder. Having bought its shares for an average price of around $12.75, Alden makes bank no matter which bidder wins. “If Bainum and Wyss are successful, Alden’s shares will have increased in value 45 percent in less than a year and a half. That’s not a bad return in the newspaper business these days,” Benton writes.
Tribune Publishing is swinging between the two models that have dominated the media in recent years—cost-slashing private equity firms and mercurial billionaires who promise to act as stewards. The damage done by the former is well known at this point. Hedge funds and the like have little interest in building sustainable local news outfits and are famous for underinvesting in digital products. They are interested in maximizing their return in the short term. These acquisitions are based on the idea that local news institutions are dinosaurs, about to go extinct; they are acquired by funds with the intention of extracting as much profit as possible before they go under completely.
The very rich guy model is more attractive, though that isn’t necessarily saying much. The best-case scenario has been epitomized by The Washington Post under Amazon’s Jeff Bezos. It has been faddish in recent years to suggest the Bezos model as the solution to any cash-strapped local news outfit of reasonable size and prestige. But it’s still not clear just how applicable this model is. Bezos has been very up-front about his unwillingness to run the Post at a loss—it has been profitable since 2016—and the newspaper benefits enormously from its status as a true national outlet. A local or regional newspaper faces much more difficult odds and is, by definition, competing for a much smaller pool of potential readers and subscribers.
Bezos is also literally the richest person alive. He acquired the Post for $250 million, which is basically a rounding error when compared to his net worth. (It is also worth underlining the fact that it is almost certainly not an accident that Bezos decided to plant his flag in Washington, D.C., given the importance of federal policy to Amazon.)
Even if you find a rich person, it’s not guaranteed that everything will work out. Patrick Soon-Shiong purchased the Los Angeles Times from Tribune in 2018. That paper proceeded to hire dozens of journalists but, three years later, Soon-Shiong appears to be growing frustrated with his investment. The newspaper has been without an executive editor since December. In February, The Wall Street Journal reported that he was eyeing the exits in a sale that could deliver the paper to Alden’s hands. Soon-Shiong has vigorously denied the report, but it nevertheless shows that a sale to a wealthy owner is not automatically a golden ticket, particularly if losses continue to mount.
There are other models emerging. Bainum, one of the leaders of the bid to snatch Tribune Publishing from Alden, had previously sought to free The Baltimore Sun from its clutches and turn it into a nonprofit. This could be a viable long-term solution—and, from a distance, it certainly seems more appealing than the turbulence that often follows acquisitions by hedge funds and the wealthy—but it’s one that’s still in its early stages of development; it’s not clear how large a nonprofit newsroom could be, for instance.
What is clear, however, is that there is a serious vacuum of local news across the country. On Monday, NBC’s Brandy Zadrony reported on Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which attempted to fill the news void with a Facebook group that spiraled into predictable confusion and acrimony.
For the moment, the situation with Tribune Publishing is more clear-cut. If Bainum and Wyss succeed and save Tribune Publishing from Alden, there will be an enormous amount of goodwill. Then the hard part will start.