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Destroyer of newspapers eyeing America’s oldest

If You Ask Me

The fate of America’s oldest, continuously published newspaper, the 256-year-old Hartford Courant, is in the hands of a man accused by 21 United States senators of “the reckless acquisition and destruction of newspapers,” including some of the nation’s best.

Heath Freeman, the 40-year-old head of the New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital, discovered a decade ago that many of the newspapers facing bankruptcy due to the Great Recession and the competition of electronic media could be saved with thoughtful economies and a disregard for that thing called journalism.

“We saw an opportunity,” Freeman told The Washington Post, a paper fortunately owned by Amazon’s billionaire Jeff Bezos, “to help fix the broken model.”  He started by acquiring MediaNews Group, the owner of more than 50 papers, including the Denver Post, and initiating deep staff cuts.  Staff members there have staged protests, asking the hedge fund to sell the paper to someone who will restore its journalism.

Brutal cuts in the staffs of the MediaNews chain prompted the 21 senators to urge the hedge fund to stop ruining the papers in the states they serve but Freeman responded that he’s actually the savior of the newspaper business. It reminds me of the major in the Vietnam War who said he ordered his troops to “burn the village in order to save it.”

Times have been very tough for print journalism, even those not in the saving hands of Alden Global Capital.  

The industry’s news monopoly was first breached by radio news nearly a century ago. Then, television newscasts killed evening newspapers and local TV newscasts became the public’s primary source of news. But nothing has been as devastating as the internet. In the current century, the number of employees at U.S. newspapers has been cut in half, according to the Pew Research Center.

But newspapers “saved” by Alden Global have seen their staffs cut by more than 70%, says the Communication Workers of America, the union representing news and other staff members at many large city newspapers. When I worked for the Courant long ago, the Newspaper Guild would occasionally try to unionize the staff and the paper’s response would always be the announcement of raises. It always worked.

But while labor unions have suffered declining membership in recent years, except in the public sector, newspaper unions have thrived. The Harvard-based Nieman Foundation, devoted to promoting high journalistic standards, says unionization is the result of accumulated rage over downsizing, years without raises and worsening health benefits.  

The weekly Courant, founded in 1764, and the daily, which dates to 1837, were locally owned until 1977 when the paper was bought by the Los Angeles-based Times Mirror Corp. It continued to prosper — its newsroom staff peaked at nearly 400 in 1994 — until it was sold to another media giant, the Tribune Company, along with the rest of Times Mirror in 2000.

Tribune has had a rocky history of bankruptcy, multiple owners and takeover attempts by conservative outlets Fox and Sinclair in recent decades. Today, Alden Global is getting close to full control of the company and the Courant, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun and other notable newspapers.

Reporters and editors at many of these papers, including, presumably, the Courant, have tried to find deep-pocketed local owners to save their papers from further cuts by Alden’s self-designated savior Heath Freeman. The Hartford City Council is considering a resolution urging the hedge fund to stop “decimating” the paper’s staff.

Local ownership by families or chains run by financially successful journalists named Pulitzer, Scripps, Sulzberger, Hearst and McCormick accounted for the newspaper’s golden era but even then, you’d find an occasional Heath Freeman.

Probably the most notable and ruthless was Frank A. Munsey, who was immortalized in a memorable obituary/editorial by the great Midwestern editor, William Allen White.

At his death in 1925, Munsey left an empire of major city newspapers he created by buying, merging and terminating properties with his eye always on the bottom line. Here was White’s “tribute:”

“Frank Munsey contributed to the journalism of his day the talent of a meat packer, the morals of a money changer and the manner of an undertaker. He and his kind have about succeeded in transforming a once-noble profession into an 8 percent security. May he rest in trust.” 

The more things change … .

 

Simsbury resident Dick Ahles is a retired journalist. Email him at rahles1@outlook.com.

 

 

 

 

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