Is it Time to Rethink Strategy?

Feb. 19, 2021

The news this week of Alden Global Capital's purchase of Tribune Publishing means more metro newspapers have been swallowed by a hedge fund.

So it goes.

I don't use that phrase, made famous by Kurt Vonnegut in his book "Slaughterhouse-Five," in the way most people think Vonnegut meant it -- as a shrug of the shoulders and an "oh well, that's life." I care tremendously about those papers and hate to see what is to become of them. 

Vonnegut's "so it goes" was more about death and free will (or the lack thereof) -- in his case through the lens of World War II. 

In fact, one passage of the book is a conversation between Vonnegut and a filmmaker, who asked him if he was writing an anti-war book. Vonnegut pondered this and then said yes, he supposed it was, indeed, an anti-war book.

Are the hedge fund acquisitions of major metro newspapers across the country like wars and glaciers -- unstoppable?

Perhaps. Some will point to the fact that the Baltimore Sun was spared in this round of acquisitions. But for how long? That's yet to be seen.

Are we, as an industry, fighting an unstoppable force? And should we be taking a different approach to ensuring the future of local news? These larger chain newspapers are, in many cases, riddled with debt. And it is as hard to change their business models as it is to turn an ocean liner that's on a collision course with ... a glacier.

In the case of the Tribune properties, especially the Chicago Tribune, many inside and outside of the newsrooms pleaded for someone, anyone -- from local and national foundations to wealthy individuals -- to step forward and purchase their publications to make them locally owned and operated.  Heck, the Chicago Tribune was apparently even turning a 13 percent profit(!), albeit after a number of recent cuts.

Yet despite all of the pleas for acquisition, no one (outside of Baltimore) stepped up to the plate. As NPR's David Folkenflik quoted Chicago Tribune editor and publisher Colin McMahon, simply hoping a wealthy benefactor steps in is just "dreams and hope."

So it goes.

Are we putting our efforts into saving major metro newspapers at the detriment of others who also really need help, and could actually survive and thrive? I'm referring to the kinds of publications  -- rural community weekly publications that have no debt, a loyal audience, small staffs and profitability -- and the lean digital startups like those served by LION Publications that aren't tied to print and are able to adjust to market forces more easily than the giant chains.

Perhaps it is time to re-evaluate our priorities in the media ecosystem, and focus on the ones that have the best chances of survival. In the case of existing rural print publications, they can be had for a reasonable sale price, opening up more options for local, independent owners (and first-time buyers) who are willing to transform the business to continue sustainability well into the future through a diversification of revenue. And in the case of digital startups, those outlets may have a solid business model from the start; all they need is help acquiring an audience. 

I don't want us to write off the major metro publications. Far from it.  But I also wonder if more good can come from spreading out across the country and helping those who want it, and those who can be impacted greatly by providing them more attention, training and guidance. 

Let's get past the "dreams and hope," and let's take action.

How can we give them the shot they deserve?  An influx of new, highly trained local owners is a start. That means seeking out diverse, entrepreneurial minds in our industry, providing them with the business/publisher knowledge base needed to succeed, and making connections with current owners who want to see their publications continue with local ownership for many years to come. Access to favorable financing options is another must-have. Local and national foundations purchasing and holding publications until local, independent owners can be found and trained also would be beneficial. In addition, national journalism organizations should be coordinating with each other to make all of this happen as fast and seamless as possible.

And while we're at it, all of us in the industry can help shift the narrative and public awareness of local news from "rescue/save" language to language that is about investing in communities and acknowledging where legitimate economic opportunities do exist across the country. It seems that message is consistently obscured by talk of perpetual distress, which furthers the cycle of people unwilling to step forward to purchase publications, no matter much profit they bring in.

These things can be done, and truth be told they're happening, but it seems to be a piecemeal approach. 

So it goes? No. Let's go big, and let's make it happen for these small publications -- right now.