Hedge-fund vultures eye Gannett

Last night, The Wall Street Journal’s Cara Lombardo reported that MNG Enterprises Inc. is planning a bid for Gannett, the publishing powerhouse that owns USA Today as well as important local papers such as the Arizona Republic, the Detroit Free Press, and Iowa’s Des Moines Register. The scoop might normally have passed under the radar as standard-issue jockeying—except MNG Enterprises is better known as Digital First Media, the prolific private-equity-backed publisher that has become an industry byword for cost-cutting and job-slashing.

The largest shareholder of Digital First Media, which owns about 200 publications nationwide, is Alden Global Capital, a New York-based hedge fund that specializes in investing in troubled companies. The names Digital First and Alden made headlines last April after flagship paper The Denver Post ran an editorial excoriating them as “vultures” alongside a striking all-staff photo, from 2013, with tens of since-laid-off employees blacked out. A few weeks later, the editor of a neighboring Digital First title, Boulder’s Daily Camera, was fired over a similar rebuke; then, in early May, the Post’s editorial page editor himself resigned, accusing Digital First executives of further attempts at censorship (CJR published a critical editorial he said was spiked). As tensions rose, staffers from Digital First papers as far away as California traveled to protest outside Alden’s New York offices. Buyout campaigns were mooted, then fizzled.

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Given this raw context, yesterday’s Journal report elicited immediate concern among media reporters and local-news watchers, many of whom noted that Gannett titles nationwide are in a sad enough state without the prospect of further cuts. Keach Hagey, Lombardo’s colleague at the Journal, tweeted: “After watching what Gannett has done to my hometown paper—cutting most of the staff, outsourcing printing so far away local sports scores can’t appear the next day—I’m fascinated to learn what fat Digital First thinks is left.” Nieman Lab’s Joshua Benton added that “Digital First is the worst owner of newspapers in America and they will do their best to draw blood from even Gannett’s already desiccated stone.” And the LA Times’s Matt Pearce warned Gannett that, if Digital First is knocking on its door, it should “lock the deadbolt.”

It’s too early to say how Digital First’s courtship will play out. It has raised the idea in the past and been rebuffed, according to Lombardo, who adds that “it isn’t clear whether Gannett will be receptive now.” Although Robert Dickey, Gannett’s CEO, emailed staffers last night to tell them that a new proposal had yet to be communicated, Digital First confirmed its intentions this morning. Dickey is set to retire in May, with Gannett yet to name a replacement. Lombardo reports that Digital First, which already holds a 7.5 percent stake in Gannett, wants to broker a strategy review before any leadership change is finalized, and hasn’t ruled out pushing changes to Gannett’s board if it isn’t successful. While Gannett stock has rebounded of late, it’s trended down over several years. Digital First, which is relatively profitable, is pressing the case that a sale is Gannett’s best bet.

Even if Digital First’s latest power play comes to nothing, it’s an important reminder of the power hedge-fund owners wield over local news. And if it does presage a successful bid, journalists—and readers—nationwide should brace for more big papers to be stripped for parts.

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Below, more on the dire climate for local news:

  • A unified front: CJR covered last year’s tensions at Digital First titles in detail. Corey Hutchins tracked sister papers’ different responses to The Denver Post’s editorial stand, and interviewed Julie Reynolds, a freelance reporter who made Alden the focus of her work. Meg Dalton, meanwhile, went downtown to Alden HQ to cover the protests there.
  • Milking profits: Last May, Nieman Lab’s Ken Doctor tallied the profits Alden has made by cutting newspapers to the bone. In addition to The Denver Post and other titles, Digital First’s Southern California and Bay Area news groups have seen eye-watering staff reductions—with The Mercury News, for example, reduced to around a tenth of its peak size.
  • More Bay layoffs: On Friday, the East Bay Express, an alt-weekly in California (which is not owned by Digital First), laid off almost its entire editorial staff, The Mercury News’s David DeBolt writes. The Express won a Polk award in 2016 after exposing a police sex scandal in Oakland, but is now shifting to a freelancer-driven model as print revenue declines. A court’s ruling that the paper illegally denied overtime to a former staffer has exacerbated its financial problems.
  • The King of local news: After Maine’s Portland Press Herald announced it was scrapping its Sunday review of local books, local author Stephen King took to Twitter to voice his disapproval. Spying an opportunity, the paper replied that if 100 of King’s followers bought a digital subscription, it would reinstate the book reviews. The gambit worked: by Sunday, the Press Herald had 200 new subscribers.


Other notable stories:

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UpdateThis post has been updated to reflect the breaking news that Digital First Media confirmed its proposal to acquire Gannett.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.