It didn’t have to turn out this way.
Local investors — especially in a prosperous town like Chicago — could have stepped forward to block a hedge fund from gaining control of several of the nation’s top daily newspapers.
But, despite the admirable efforts of Maryland hotel magnate Stewart Bainum and a few others, the shareholders of Tribune Publishing Co. voted Friday to accept a $633 million offer from Alden Global Capital.
In addition to the Chicago Tribune, the newspapers include the Orlando Sentinel; the Baltimore Sun; the Hartford Courant in Connecticut; the South Florida Sun Sentinel; the New York Daily News; the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md.; The Morning Call in Allentown, Pa.; the Daily Press in Newport News; and the Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. All have been assets to their cities and regions for many years.
It’s a terrible turn of events, if not a surprising one, because Alden has a proven record of slashing newsroom jobs in cities from Denver to San Jose and beyond and failing to invest in ways that might make its newspapers sustainable in the long run.
Whatever its misleading public statements may claim to the contrary, Alden is only interested in the short run: the next quarter’s and next year’s profit-and-loss statements.
“Devastating” is how Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of Harvard’s Nieman Foundation and the former top editor of the Chicago Tribune, put it soon after the vote.
And, she told me, this outcome “represents a failure of civic leadership” in many communities, but particularly Chicago. After all, the city’s many corporations include Boeing, United Airlines and Walgreens. There’s a healthy population of plutocrats along the shore of Lake Michigan.
“Chicago’s wealthy class failed the city by refusing to rescue the Chicago Tribune from a hedge fund,” wrote Mark Jacob, a former Tribune editor. “A newspaper is both a watchdog and a binding agent. The weaker the media, the more inequitable a city is allowed to be. Rich Chicagoans sent a signal that they do not care.”
It’s not as if these papers are lost causes. They are still profitable in almost all cases, said Rick Edmonds, the Poynter Institute’s media-business analyst, though far less so than in their heyday decades ago. But “the sector is out of favor,” he said.
That’s been increasingly true since print advertising — newspapers’ lifeblood for decades — plummeted more than a decade ago. Digital revenue, both advertising- and subscription-based, is harder to come by. But there are local newspapers around the country that are finding their way to long-term sustainability in the digital world.
And even in their shriveled states, local newspapers still are doing the crucial work of holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable and helping to knit together communities.
But 21st-century success isn’t easy in the newspaper business. It requires enlightened ownership, which often means local ownership like that of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune and the Boston Globe.
The just-sold newspapers are essential to their communities’ well-being. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to make a more sweeping statement: that healthy local journalism is essential to the functioning of American democracy.
But it’s dwindling, as more local papers either close their doors or become mere shadows of what they once were.
“We’re slowly replacing a functional press with PR spam, hedge fund dudebros, trolling Substack opinion columnists, foreign and domestic disinformation, brand-slathered teen influencers, and hugely consolidated dumpster fires like Sinclair Broadcasting,” tweeted the tech journalist Karl Bode, as news of the vote circulated online.
I’d only argue with one word: “slowly.”
Now the Tribune deal hastens that pace. (There was some uncertainty shortly after the vote about Los Angeles Times owner Patrick Soon-Shiong’s statement that, as a major shareholder in Tribune, he had abstained; his non-vote ultimately was counted as a yes, but the delay only made the outcome slightly more agonizing.)
“It’s very bad news for these publications and their communities,” Edmonds said. “It’s possible that Alden will change its stripes, but their recent mode is to cut and cut, and not to reinvest.”
Bainum’s efforts to buy the Baltimore Sun look even more admirable now. It’s still possible that he’ll be able to separate the Sun from the pack even now by buying it from Alden. If not, he said Friday that he intends to plow money into digital newsrooms in Maryland.
Imagine that: a civic-minded rich guy who understands the value of local journalism.
It’s appalling, and tragic, that he’s in such sparse company.
Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.