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Oct. 15, 2020, 10:31 a.m.
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Here’s how entrepreneurial local journalists are fighting back against Alden Global Capital

“I just determined that I would rather do anything else in life than to dismantle a proud newsroom and lay off my friends and colleagues and eventually be laid off myself.”

As senior editor for news at The Denver Post, Larry Ryckman watched in horror in the spring of 2018 while its New York-based hedge-fund owner, Alden Global Capital, ripped apart the daily.

“We endured cut after cut after cut. I had to lay people off,” he said. “We were under assault, really, from our own owners, and nothing that we did — not being faster, smarter, more digital — none of those things really matter when a hedge fund doesn’t really care about the community or the journalism that the newspaper it owns produces. It’s really about this quarter’s return.”

Ryckman walked away and, several months later, helped found The Colorado Sun, a website that specializes in the sort of public-interest journalism that Alden was unwilling to fund.

“I just determined that I would rather do anything else in life than to dismantle a proud newsroom and lay off my friends and colleagues and eventually be laid off myself,” said Ryckman, who serves as editor of the Sun’s 10-person newsroom. “So it was easy, frankly, as much as I loved being at the Post. It was easy to make that leap into the unknown to start up something new.”

Ryckman described the Sun’s rise during a panel discussion at the recent Radically Rural conference, an annual (and, this year, virtual) celebration of rural life organized by New Hampshire’s Keene Sentinel. The story Ryckman told about Alden was a familiar one. The hedge fund’s MediaNews Group, which owns about 200 papers, is widely considered the most avaricious of the corporate newspaper chains — “the hedge fund vampire that bleeds newspapers dry,” as one headline memorably put it.

Increasingly, though, communities are starting to fight back. Consider:

In rural Mendocino County, California, two former journalists at Alden’s Willits News founded a for-profit website, The Mendocino Voice, four years ago. Even with just two full-time staffers, the Voice is a vibrant source of news, with extensive coverage of the Northern California wildfires in both English and Spanish. And now the Voice is in the midst of transitioning to cooperative ownership, with plans eventually to build an editorial staff of about seven people.

“In part because we were both DFM [Digital First Media, a chain that was folded into MediaNews Group] workers, being able to create sustainable reporting jobs in local communities is a really big piece of this for us. We do think that local news is strengthened by having the worker piece of it more represented and financially supported,” Voice publisher and co-founder Kate Maxwell told me when I spent several days reporting on the Voice earlier this year, just before the pandemic hit.

Added managing editor and co-founder Adrian Fernandez Baumann: “I fundamentally believe that the workers should own the means of production. That’s also an important part of that.”

In Western Massachusetts, a group of local investors four years ago convinced Alden to sell The Berkshire Eagle and several sister papers in southern Vermont. The result was something of a revival for the Eagle, which was once considered among the best small dailies in the country: investigative reporting was expanded, a lifestyle section was added and some 50 people were hired, according to a 2019 story by The Associated Press.

“I want our newspaper to love its readers. And I want its readers to love the newspaper back,” executive editor Kevin Moran told the AP. “Because if they don’t have an emotional connection to the newspaper, they are not going to cry when you are gone.”

As has been the case with many papers, the pandemic has hit the Eagle hard — employees were furloughed for a week, and print days have been cut from seven to five. But one can only imagine how much deeper the cuts would have been if Alden were still in charge.

A local group is attempting to buy the venerable Baltimore Sun and convert it to nonprofit status. The Sun is owned by Tribune Publishing, of which Alden controls a 32% share. “We think that if it was controlled and in local hands that were really focused on its long term viability and vitality,” Michael Gallagher, one of the organizers behind the Save Our Sun campaign, told The Guardian that “it would be very important to the city’s future.”

Perhaps the most acute observer of Alden’s depredations is Julie Reynolds, a former employee of one of the chain’s California papers who regularly excoriates the hedge fund at a NewsGuild website called News Matters as well as other publications. She sees the rise of alternative media as an inevitable response to the chain’s hollowed-out coverage.

“There are a number of innovative news startups appearing in towns where Alden-owned papers are only a shadow of their former selves,” she told me via email. “A lot of these publications are small nonprofits that don’t necessarily replace the ‘paper of record’ in terms of being able to cover everything their hometown newspapers once did, but they’re often filling in with important investigative stories and coverage of underserved communities that the now-diminished mainstream papers can’t or won’t do.”

The decline of local news in Denver was many years in the making. As Larry Ryckman explained at the Radically Rural conference, at one time The Denver Post had a staff of about 300 journalists; its competitor, the Rocky Mountain News, employed another 300.

The News closed in 2009. The following year, Alden bought MediaNews Group, and the slashing began. Editor Greg Moore, a former managing editor of The Boston Globe, quit in 2016 as the cuts mounted. The fate of the Post became a national story in the spring of 2018, when Alden went on a bloodletting frenzy and the staff erupted in open rebellion. Today, Ryckman estimated, the Post has about 60 journalists — a reduction of about 90% compared to the Post and News staffs of years past.

Yet there are reasons to be optimistic about Denver. The Colorado Sun’s funding was originally going to be based on blockchain technology through Civil, which went under in June. Today the Sun is operating as a public benefit corporation, similar to The Philadelphia Inquirer: it’s a for-profit company, but it is not legally obligated to maximize profits, allowing it to reinvest revenues in newsgathering.

And though accessing the Sun is free, the site offers paid voluntary memberships, similar to the broadcasting model, as well as a variety of paid and free newsletters. A podcast launched recently as well.

Of course, a staff of 10 is a meager fraction of the number that served Denver residents at one time. But the site offers a good mix of stories on topics such as Covid-19, state politics, education and the environment. As I learned in researching my 2013 book, The Wired City, about the nonprofit New Haven Independent, a small staff can accomplish a lot if it’s not encumbered by the need to provide suburban coverage, sports, and the like and if it’s freed from the tyranny of print deadlines.

Nor is the Sun the only new journalism project in Denver. Last month marked the launch of The Denver Gazette, a conservative digital publication owned by Philip Anschutz, best known for his stewardship of the San Francisco Examiner and the Washington Examiner.

“Denver is a two-newspaper town again,” proclaimed Gazette editor Vince Bzdek, rather uncharitably making no mention of the Sun. So far, The Denver Gazette consists mainly of content from two other Anschutz properties — The Gazette of Colorado Springs and Colorado Politics. But that could change.

Denver is also covered by the alternative weekly Westword as well as Colorado Public Radio. So despite what’s happened to the Post, the city can hardly be considered a news desert.

There’s no question that forces other than corporate greed have taken a toll on local newspapers. The rise of the internet, the mass migration of advertising to Google and Facebook and changes in American culture that have de-emphasized the importance of community all represent challenges that would be difficult to overcome.

But there’s also no question that the rise of corporate chains has made it that much harder for local news to survive. When you’re squeezing out revenues to pay down debt or to fund your hedge-fund owner’s mansion-buying spree in Palm Beach, Florida, then you don’t have much left over to invest in the innovation needed to overcome those larger trends.

“I’m an irrepressible optimist,” said Ryckman at Radically Rural. “I guess you have to be to start a new media business these days. But I want people to understand why they should care and why it matters. And I think that those conversations, at least here in Colorado, are happening. I think people are beginning to see us in a different way and see that we are — to get on my soapbox — a pillar of our democracy, and that it is important to have a community forum where there’s a trusted source of information.”

Dan Kennedy is a professor of journalism at Northeastern University and a panelist on “Beat the Press,” a weekly media program on Boston’s WGBH-TV. His most recent book is The Return of the Moguls: How Jeff Bezos and John Henry Are Remaking Newspapers for the Twenty-First Century.

Photo of a vulture in Morelia, Michoacán, Mexico by Edson Maciel.

POSTED     Oct. 15, 2020, 10:31 a.m.
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