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Investigative reporters’ New York Times op-ed calls for new owners at The Chicago Tribune
By Julie Reynolds
Two senior members of the Chicago Tribune’s investigative reporting team have taken a bold step in the escalating fight to keep Tribune newspapers from the grip of hedge fund greed.
An unprecedented opinion piece by Tribune reporters David Jackson and Gary Marx ran in Sunday’s New York Times, warning that the impending takeover of Tribune Publishing Company by hedge fund Alden Global Capital presents “an urgent threat.”
The piece is part of an upwelling of journalists’ vocal resistance that promises to be the Chicago equivalent of 2018’s “Denver Rebellion” at the Alden-controlled Denver Post.
The story garnered international press coverage in CNN, The Guardian, The New York Post and other outlets. Jackson later told CNN that his editors “strongly warned against publishing” the piece.
Alden, known for gutting Digital First Media newspapers of staff and resources at alarming rates, acquired 32 percent of Tribune shares in November, which makes it the largest shareholder in the company. It has already nabbed two board seats and is poised to acquire even more Tribune stock after June 30, when an agreement prohibiting Alden from increasing its ownership stake expires.
Tribune Publishing owns the Chicago Tribune, the Daily News (New York), The Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant, The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.) the Orlando Sentinel, the Sun Sentinel (South Florida), The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.), the Daily Press (Newport News, Va.), and the Capital Gazette (Annapolis, Md.)
Together, Tribune papers have won a combined 64 Pulitzer Prizes, according to the op-ed.
“Alden’s strategy of acquiring struggling local newsrooms and stripping them of assets has built the personal wealth of the hedge fund’s investors,” the reporters wrote. “But Alden has imposed draconian staff cuts that decimated The Denver Post and other once-proud newspapers that have been vital to their communities and to American democracy.”
“We believe that Alden is an existential threat, not just to this newspaper but to every newspaper in the chain,” Marx told CNN after the piece ran.
“That really came to a head this month when our management offered us buyouts shortly after Alden acquired” a stake in the Tribune, Jackson told PBS station WTTW.
“We’ve gotten tremendous support from the other reporters,” Marx told the station, “and we felt like we needed to take our battle nationally. Alden Global Capital is obviously based in New York City and the biggest platform in the world is The New York Times.”
Marx told WTTW he and Jackson have been working to identify possible local investors who they hope will buy the paper.
While much of the social media explosion that followed was favorable, a few took note of the piece’s view that the rising number of nonprofit news sites “have relatively tiny readerships and specialized missions. To have impact, they often partner with major news organizations like ours.”
Stephanie Lulay, cofounder and managing editor of Block Club Chicago, “a nonprofit news organization dedicated to delivering reliable, nonpartisan and essential coverage of Chicago’s diverse neighborhoods,” tweeted a spirited thread in defense of Chicago’s nonprofit news scene.
It ended with: “I’m all for saving what’s good about the Trib, & I’m behind the @chicagotribune journalists all the way. One question: Are you all behind us?”
Buyout details emerge
In their Times piece, Marx and Jackson warned that it appears Alden’s downsizing has already begun: “In a signal of what may happen in Chicago, on Jan. 13, we and other newsroom staff members were offered buyouts. Now, we are bracing for the sight of colleagues with decades of experience walking out with cardboard boxes in their arms and tears streaming down their faces.”
Since Alden acquired its stake, a number of Tribune reporters have spoken out about the hedge fund’s bleak record. Pulitzer-winning columnist Mary Schmich in December issued a call for new owners. “But hurry. History won’t wait,” she added.
This week. Peter Nickeas, a Nieman and Dart Fellow who covers violence and breaking news for the Chicago Tribune, tweeted an extensive thread describing details of the buyout offer’s nondisclosure and other restrictive terms.
“Got the buyout letter today. One of the terms is, you have to agree to not seek employment with the company after. So if you take the buyout you’re also ruling out newspaper jobs in a bunch of other cities in the future.”
Got the buyout letter today. One of the terms is, you have to agree to not seek employment with the company after. So if you take the buyout you’re also ruling out newspaper jobs in a bunch of other cities in the future.
— Peter Nickeas (@PeterNickeas) January 22, 2020
As to the nondisclosure agreement, Nickeas wrote, “if you take the buyout and in the future take issue w/ coverage or columnist … you’d be limited in what you could say. Which if you leave journalism for advocacy or political work, could be tricky.”
On Wednesday, Josh Noel, who covers “beer, cannabis and food” at the Tribune, shared a headline stating that Tribune Publishing will pay a $56 million dividend to its shareholders.
“Can I tell you how frustrating it is to hear about ‘the ongoing headwinds we face in our industry’ after a headline like this?” he asked.
The Tribune’s buyout letter, Noel showed, cited “the ongoing headwinds we face in our industry” as its reason for downsizing staff. Below is an excerpt from that letter:
Still, the seeds of resistance are spreading among journalists across the country.
“Reporters Aren’t Going Quietly as Vulture Fund Is Poised to Take Control of Tribune Publishing,” states the headline for a story about Marx and Jackson’s op-ed by Matthew Kassel of Mediaite.com.
Scott Maxwell of the Orlando Sentinel wrote a column about why he and others will not take the buyout, despite Alden’s track record.
“We’re not martyrs,” Maxwell wrote. “We just really like journalism. And we fear for what our community would be without a vibrant daily newspaper.”
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