Why newspaper owners aren’t to blame and what’s hot in town
It’s easy – maybe even funny – to blame homeowners for falling newspapers.
Consider that investors in hedge funds owned a third of the American dailies before Alden Global Capital announced its plans last month to acquire Tribune Publishing, a company that has nine major metro dailies. These guys on Wall Street are driven by profit rather than the goodwill of the community.
This profit-driven thinking is played out locally with devastating results. An example: the Beaver County Times. In 2017, when Calkins Media, a family business, owned the newspaper, it had 37 newsroom staff, with editors for news, sports, and reporting, as well as an editor and department. of photography – all the traditional features of newspapers.
First of all, Calkins sold the newspaper and several others, including the Ellwood City Ledger, at the GateHouse Media subsidiary of New Media Investment Group, bringing New Media’s total to 144 dailies and 684 community publications nationwide.
It takes some research to try and see all the way to the top, first looking to see that private equity firm Fortress Investment Group owned New Media and Japanese banking conglomerate SoftBank owns Fortress.
SoftBank is the second largest publicly traded company in Japan, behind Toyota, and the 36e largest in the world. There is a long road between Beaver County and Tokyo’s Minato district.
But the story does not end there.
GateHouse Media bought Gannett, a larger publisher, in 2019 to form the nation’s largest newspaper company in terms of circulation, taking with it the Beaver County Times. The combined company owns 500 newspapers, or one in six published in the United States
Again, investors had a big role to play: New York-based private equity firm Apollo Global Management provided a $ 1.792 billion loan to finance the purchase.
the new owners said they could save at least $ 275 million per year through “the increased scale of the new organization, the sharing of best practices, the exploitation of existing infrastructure, the rationalization of facilities and other wise cost reductions.”
These words of big business have brought about many major changes in small Beaver County.
The Times now has seven newsroom employees, up from 37 when Calkins owned it in 2017, reduced by buyouts, layoffs and departures. At the moment, it doesn’t have an editor itself, but borrows one from the Ellwood City Ledger.
Journalists are discouraged from posting local articles in favor of regional articles that could also be published in the company’s other newspapers in Erie, York and Bucks County, near Philadelphia.
Rather than developing rhythms by getting to know their sources, the few remaining journalists sort through the news daily, responding to the latest news, trying to quickly find what they can and reporting it in a few words.
Internet clicks determine content decisions, so the newsroom strives to give people more sensational stories, clickbaits that grab attention rather than substantive stories and in-depth information that inform community decisions.
It would be easy to blame the distant financial investors sitting in the lavish skyscrapers of Tokyo and New York for crushing local newsrooms, and it wouldn’t be wrong. We could also complain about the owners of Post-Gazette, the Block family, by reducing the number of draw days to just two now, and that wouldn’t be wrong either.
It might even help us feel better about our own righteousness, upholding the purity of the local newspaper. But these downsizing decisions by newspaper publishers large and small are a symptom of newspaper decline, not the cause.
Yes, investors are circling around dying publications like vultures, eager to squeeze out the last pennies through “smart cost cuts.” We can rightly point out that global corporations are bringing together conglomerates with hundreds of newspapers like the Beaver County Times, shrinking newsrooms beyond what seems possible and making a profit.
This is all true, but that doesn’t mean they are causing the problem. We newspaper consumers (or, indeed, former consumers) created the crisis by changing our daily habits. Once we started offering free information online, we broke the model of subscribers paying for local news, advertisers paying to present their messages to us.
Those days are over and they will not return.
We all have a role to play in the decline of dailies. It’s not that any of us made a malicious decision, but this technology has shaped our lives and our culture so much that it no longer makes sense to walk all the way down the aisle under rain to pick up a printed newspaper.