The Tribune Tower rises above the streets of downtown Chicago in a majestic snarl of Gothic spires and flying buttresses that were designed to exude power and prestige. When plans for the building were announced in 1922, Colonel Robert R. McCormick, the longtime owner of the Chicago Tribune, said he wanted to erect “the world’s most beautiful office building” for his beloved newspaper. The best architects of the era were invited to submit designs; lofty quotes about the Fourth Estate were selected to adorn the lobby. Prior to the building’s completion, Mc Cormick directed his foreign correspondents to collect “fragments” of various historical sites—a brick from the Great Wall of China, an emblem from St. Peter’s Basilica— and send them back to be embedded in the tower’s facade. The final product, completed in 1925, was an architectural spectacle unlike anything the city had seen before—“romance in stone and steel,” as one writer described it. A century later, the Tribune Tower has retained its grandeur. It has not, however, retained the Chicago Tribune.
To find the paper’s current headquarters one afternoon in late June, I took a cab across town to an industrial block west of the river. After a long walk down a windowless hallway lined with cinder-block walls, I got in an elevator, which deposited me near a modest bank of desks near the printing press. The scene was somehow even grimmer than I’d imagined. Here was one of America’s most storied newspapers—a publication that had endorsed Abraham Lincoln and scooped the Treaty of Versailles, that had toppled political bosses and tangled with crooked mayors and collected dozens of Pulitzer Prizes—reduced to a newsroom the size of a Chipotle.
Spend some time around the shellshocked journalists at the Tribune these days, and you’ll hear the same question over and over: How did it come to this? On the surface, the answer might seem obvious. Craigslist killed the Classified section, Google and Facebook swallowed up the ad market, and a procession of hapless newspaper owners failed to adapt to the digital-media age, making obsolescence inevitable. This is the story we’ve been telling for decades about the dying local-news industry, and it’s not without truth. But what’s happening in Chicago is different.
In May, the Tribune was acquired by Alden Global Capital, a secretive hedge fund that has quickly, and with remarkable ease, become one of the largest newspaper operators in the country. 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.
Two days after the deal was finalized, Alden announced an aggressive round of buyouts. In the ensuing exodus, the paper lost the Metro columnist who had championed the occupants of a troubled public- housing complex, and the editor who maintained a homicide database that the police couldn’t manipulate, and the photographer who had produced beautiful portraits of the state’s undocumented immigrants, and the investigative reporter who’d helped expose the governor’s offshore shell companies. When it was over, a quarter of the newsroom was gone.
The hollowing-out of the Chicago Tribune was noted in the national press, of course. There were sober op-eds and lamentations on Twitter and expressions of disappointment by professors of journalism. But outside the industry, few seemed to notice. Meanwhile, the Tribune’s remaining staff, which had been spread thin even before Alden came along, struggled to perform the newspaper’s most basic functions. After a powerful Illinois state legislator resigned amid bribery allegations, the paper didn’t have a reporter in Springfield to follow the resulting scandal. And when Chicago suffered a brutal summer crime wave, the paper had no one on the night shift to listen to the police scanner.
As the months passed, things kept getting worse. Morale tanked; reporters burned out. The editor in chief mysteriously resigned, and managers scrambled to deal with the cuts. Some in the city started to wonder if the paper was even worth saving. “It makes me profoundly sad to think about what the Trib was, what it is, and what it’s likely to become,” says David Axelrod, who was a reporter at the paper before becoming an adviser to Barack Obama. Through it all, the owners maintained their ruthless silence— spurning interview requests and declining to articulate their plans for the paper. Longtime Tribune staffers had seen their share of bad corporate overlords, but this felt more calculated, more sinister.
“It’s not as if the Tribune is just withering on the vine despite the best efforts of the gardeners,” Charlie Johnson, a former Metro reporter, told me after the latest round of buyouts this summer. “It’s being snuffed out, quarter after quarter after quarter.” We were sitting in a coffee shop in Logan Square, and he was still struggling to make sense of what had happened. The Tribune had been profitable when Alden took over. The paper had weathered a decade and a half of mismanagement and declining revenues and layoffs, and had finally achieved a kind of stability. Now it might be facing extinction.
“They call Alden a vulture hedge fund, and I think that’s honestly a misnomer,” Johnson said. “A vulture doesn’t hold a wounded animal’s head underwater. This is predatory.”
When Alden first started buying newspapers, at the tail end of the Great Recession, the industry responded with cautious optimism. These were not exactly boom times for newspapers, after all—at least someone wanted to buy them. Maybe this obscure hedge fund had a plan. One early article, in the trade publication Poynter, suggested that Alden’s interest in the local news business could be seen as “flattering” and quoted the owner of The Denver Post as saying he had “enormous respect” for the firm. Reading these stories now has a certain horror-movie quality: You want to somehow warn the unwitting victims of what’s about to happen.
THE MODEL IS SIMPLE: GUT THE STAFF, SELL THE REAL ESTATE, JACK UP SUBSCRIPTION PRICES, AND WRING OUT AS MUCH CASH AS POSSIBLE.
Of course, it’s easy to romanticize past eras of journalism. The families that used to own the bulk of America’s local newspapers— the Bonfilses of Denver, the Chandlers of Los Angeles—were never perfect stewards. They could be vain, bumbling, even corrupt. At their worst, they used their papers to maintain oppressive social hierarchies. But most of them also had a stake in the communities their papers served, which meant that, if nothing else, their egos were wrapped up in putting out a respectable product.
The 21st century has seen many of these generational owners flee the industry, to devastating effect. In the past 15 years, more than a quarter of American newspapers have gone out of business. Those that have survived are smaller, weaker, and more vulnerable to acquisition. Today, half of all daily newspapers in the U.S. are controlled by financial firms, according to an analysis by the Financial Times, and the number is almost certain to grow.
What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local- news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self.
The men who devised this model are Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, the co-founders of Alden Global Capital. Since they bought their first newspapers a decade ago, no one has been more mercenary or less interested in pretending to care about their publications’ long-term health. Researchers at the University of North Carolina found that Alden-owned newspapers have cut their staff at twice the rate of their competitors; not coincidentally, circulation has fallen faster too, according to Ken Doctor, a news-industry analyst who reviewed data from some of the papers. That might sound like a losing formula, but these papers don’t have to become sustainable businesses for Smith and Freeman to make money.
With aggressive cost-cutting, Alden can operate its newspapers at a profit for years while turning out a steadily worse product, indifferent to the subscribers it’s alienating. “It’s the meanness and the elegance of the capitalist marketplace brought to newspapers,” Doctor told me. So far, Alden has limited its closures primarily to weekly newspapers, but Doctor argues it’s only a matter of time before the firm starts shutting down its dailies as well.
This investment strategy does not come without social consequences. When a local newspaper vanishes, research shows, it tends to correspond with lower voter turnout, increased polarization, and a general erosion of civic engagement. Misinformation proliferates. City budgets balloon, along with corruption and dysfunction. The consequences can influence national politics as well; an analysis by Politico found that Donald Trump performed best during the 2016 election in places with limited access to local news.
With its acquisition of Tribune Publishing earlier this year, Alden now controls more than 200 newspapers, including some of the country’s most famous and influential: the Chicago Tribune, The Baltimore Sun, the New York Daily News. It is the nation’s second-largest newspaper owner by circulation. Some in the industry say they wouldn’t be surprised if Smith and Freeman end up becoming the biggest newspaper moguls in U.S. history.
They are also defined by an obsessive secrecy. Alden’s website contains no information beyond the firm’s name, and its list of investors is kept strictly confidential. When lawmakers pressed for details last year on who funds Alden, the company replied that “there may be certain legal entities and organizational structures formed outside of the United States.”
Smith, a reclusive Palm Beach septuagenarian, hasn’t granted a press interview since the 1980s. Freeman, his 41-year-old protégé and the president of the firm, would be unrecognizable in most of the newsrooms he owns. For two men who employ thousands of journalists, remarkably little is known about them.
If you want to know what it’s like when Alden Capital buys your local newspaper, you could look to Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, where coverage of local elections in more than a dozen communities falls to a single reporter working out of his attic and emailing questionnaires to candidates. You could look to Oakland, California, where the East Bay Times laid off 20 people one week after the paper won a Pulitzer. Or to nearby Monterey, where the former Herald reporter Julie Reynolds says staffers were pushed to stop writing investigative features so they could produce multiple stories a day. Or to Denver, where the Post’s staff was cut by two-thirds, evicted from its newsroom, and relocated to a plant in an area with poor air quality, where some employees developed breathing problems.
But maybe the clearest illustration is in Vallejo, California, a city of about 120,000 people 30 miles north of San Francisco. When John Glidden first joined the Vallejo Times-Herald, in 2014, it had a staff of about a dozen reporters, editors, and photographers. Glidden, then a mild-mannered 30-year-old, had come to journalism later in life than most and was eager to prove himself. He started as a general assignment reporter, covering local crime and community events. The pay was terrible and the work was not glamorous, but Glidden loved his job. A native of Vallejo, he was proud to work for his hometown paper. It felt important.
A month after he started, one of his fellow reporters left and Glidden was asked to start covering schools in addition to his other responsibilities. When the city-hall reporter left a few months later, he picked up that beat too. Glidden had heard rumblings about the paper’s owners when he first took the job, but he hadn’t paid much attention. Now he was feeling the effects of their management.
It turned out that those owners—New York hedge funders whom Glidden took to calling “the lizard people”— were laser-focused on increasing the paper’s profit margins. Year after year, the executives from Alden would order new budget cuts, and Glidden would end up with fewer coworkers and more work. Eventually he was the only news reporter left on staff, charged with covering the city’s police, schools, government, courts, hospitals, and businesses. “It played with my mind a little bit,” Glidden told me. “I felt like a terrible reporter because I couldn’t get to everything.”
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