News Guild fights to save newspapers from vulture capitalists
News Guild members make clear their reasons for wanting to prevent a takeover by Alden Global. Photo, courtesy of The News Guild

CHICAGO —The Chicago News Guild plans a mass rally for May 15 to publicize its campaign to save the Chicago Tribune and allied papers from the predatory private venture fund, Alden Global Capital. The rally will be at Freedom Center, 560 West Grand Ave.

The newspaper faces an existential threat from Alden, which already holds one-third of Tribune Company stock and wants to buy up and buy out the rest for $630 million.

That deal would bring Alden control not just to the Tribune and its suburban papers, but the Baltimore Sun, two Florida papers, the New York Daily News, the Hartford (Conn.) Courant and others. The Tribune Company board is scheduled to vote on Alden’s offer on May 21.

Alden is infamous for “vulture capitalism”: Swooping down on local and regional newspapers, taking them over, firing almost all of the staffers, slashing coverage to the bone, selling off real estate, and then closing the papers and walking away with all the money.

Left in its wake: Broken people, suffering families, journalists stripped of their jobs—which to them are really more callings to give people news and analysis about their hometowns—and “news deserts.” And worst of all, the operation deals a blow to democracy since newspapers, if run right, hold government and corporate officials accountable for deeds and misdeeds. Alden Global, of course, has shown no propensity for exposing corporate misdeeds.

Local newspapers are vulnerable because publishers failed to adapt to the precipitous crash in advertising revenue with the advent of the Internet. Ads used to account for 70%-80% of a typical paper’s income.

Now subscriptions provide 70%-80% of much lower revenue, and ads are 15% or so. That leaves local and regional papers running deep in the red. The results range from closures (Cleveland, for example) to mergers followed by web-only publishing (New Orleans) to bankruptcy to Alden takeovers and ensuing carnage (Denver and others).

The rally has two objectives: Make Chicagoans aware of Alden’s threat to local news and democracy itself and persuade wealthy Chicagoans to join a syndicate, now being put together by Maryland multimillionaire Stewart Bainum. He originally got into the fray after the Washington-Baltimore News Guild’s “Save Our Sun” campaign. The syndicate says it would buy the Tribune Company, create a non-profit foundation, and then turn it over to the foundation.

Foundation non-profit ownership has saved local and regional papers in Salt Lake City, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Fla., and most recently, Philadelphia, among others.

The national News Guild, a Communications Workers sector, joined the fray May 4 with a detailed letter, stocked with financial analysis, to Tribune Company shareholders, filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission. It urged them to vote Alden down.

The letter notes a new Tribune publisher with 25 years of news business experience has taken the Chicago paper into electronic publishing in ways it never explored before—and that is full of potential ad revenue from metro Chicago. By contrast, Alden’s candidates to run the Trib have zero news business experience and little interest in it.

“Our members stand for journalism and organizations that create quality journalism, which is vital for political accountability and democratic governance at all levels,” TNG’s letter says. But Alden “has demonstrated a consistent policy of liquidating rather than building.” The letter also quotes independent valuators’ conclusions that Alden’s $17.25/share bid for Tribune stock is “a low-ball bid” that Bainum and other investors could likely beat.

Local newspapers have long been at the forefront of crucial struggles for justice all over the country. For example, in South Dakota and Iowa, it was local newspapers that first exposed the criminal negligence of Smithfield and other big meatpacking companies regarding the protection of workers and the communities from the illness and death caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In Flint, Michigan, the local press first exposed the poisoning of the water supply by the Republican governor and his henchmen.

A free and vibrant press is as important to the functioning of democracy as free elections and legislative bodies that represent the people’s interests. The “Fourth Estate,” as it has been called, is, in many ways, a final check on whether or not democracy is actually functioning. This cannot happen when corporate vultures like Alden Global take over the very institutions supposed to be a check on outfits like them.

John Wojcik contributed to this story.


CONTRIBUTOR

Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but a holy terror when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.

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