The beginning of the end for corporate journalism?
The front page of the Perspective section of The Denver Post from Sunday, April 8, 2018, in Denver. Controlled by the New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the newspaper was one of dozens ordered to make drastic cuts to staff and news gathering. | David Zalubowski / AP

The last few decades have seen enormous changes and restructuring of journalism and news reporting, especially at the local level. In the past, large daily newspapers assigned reporters to cover local news in small communities, providing timely coverage of current events in that area. However, this became increasingly expensive and decreased profitability. One by one, newspapers, unable to keep up with rising costs, have either merged, gone out of business, or been taken over by big corporations seeking to monopolize the flow of information to maximize investor profits.

News reporting at the local level has been severely curtailed or become completely nonexistent because of insufficient or negative profitability. However, the last few years have seen some developments that may offer hope for restoring unbiased news coverage, especially in small communities, that is not controlled by Wall Street and corporate interests.

One indicator of progress in providing news reporting and relevant information about local issues that is not controlled by big corporations is the recent acquisition by the newly formed, non-profit Corporation for New Jersey Local Media of 14 reputable weekly newspapers owned by the New Jersey Hills Media Group. With nearly 100,000 subscribers, they are the largest weekly newspaper group in New Jersey. The plan is to transition these newspapers to non-profit status. When completed, the New Jersey Media Group will become the largest weekly newspaper group in the country owned and operated by a non-profit corporation.

The Corporation for New Jersey Local Media was started by a bipartisan group of political professionals, including current office-holders and candidates from both political parties as well as experienced analysts and academics who share a common interest in supporting local news.

One of the advantages to non-profit status is the ability to supplement revenue from traditional sources such as advertising and subscriptions with foundation grants, fundraising events, tax-deductible contributions, and club memberships to support the mission of building strong communities and enhancing civic participation. Another advantage is that big advertisers will no longer be able to dictate news coverage by threatening to withdraw their sponsorship and squeeze or eliminate a newspaper’s profits.

As the transition is made to non-profit ownership, workers, staff, journalists, and editors will not only keep their jobs but actively engage with and advise the new ownership group on ways to improve their relationship with the local community. Another part of the process to advance local journalism is the establishment of a community advisory board, composed of residents from all 14 of the communities served by the media group, which will provide guidance, ideas, and feedback to the managing partners. Community and worker input, not the need to provide a high profit margin, will largely dictate how local news stories are covered.

At the other end of the spectrum of newspaper ownership is the conversion of the reputable and well-regarded Philadelphia Inquirer, one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers, to non-profit ownership in recent years. For half a century, the Philadelphia Inquirer, privately owned by financier Walter Annenberg, was influential in promoting the policies and values of the Republican Party. For his loyalty and financial support of the GOP, President Richard Nixon rewarded Annenberg with the post of Ambassador to the Court of St. James. A few years later, Annenberg sold his interest in the Inquirer to a national chain of newspapers, and for the next few decades, the paper changed hands several times from one corporate owner to another.

Facing bankruptcy, the Inquirer was purchased by financier and philanthropist “Gerry” Lenfest in 2014. Two years later, Lenfest transferred ownership of the newspaper to the Lenfest Institute For Journalism, a non-profit “public benefit” corporation which supports and subsidizes local journalism in the Greater Philadelphia region. The mission of the Lenfest Institute is to develop and support sustainable business models for regional news organizations. It is the first non-profit corporation in the country whose purpose is to promote local and regional news coverage.

Another example of non-profit, cooperative journalism is the Associated Press, which has been operating continuously since the 19th century. Originally established as a cooperative venture by several newspapers to provide relevant news coverage to all its member newspapers, it has since grown to hundreds of members in the U.S. and abroad. The AP does not operate by generating profits for corporate investors; instead whatever surplus it acquires is used to pay for its core mission of writing news stories to be distributed among its members.

A good example of the way in which non-profit cooperative journalism fills a vacuum created by corporate news outlets is the AP coverage of the civil war raging in Ethiopia. While corporate media was entirely focused on violence in Gaza and Israel, a popular topic which is good for ratings and good for profits, the AP has provided extensive coverage of the fighting in Ethiopia which has killed a thousand times as many civilians and is totally ignored by the corporate media. Because of the fighting and subsequent losses, the onset of widespread famine threatens to kill countless thousands more. Yet the corporate media giants turn a blind eye to what is happening in Ethiopia because the victims are Africans and there is no profit in reporting on what is happening in Africa.

John Leyba, former head photographer for The Denver Post, joins his former co-workers during a rally against the paper’s ownership group, Alden Global Capital, May 8, 2018, outside the paper’s office and printing plant in north Denver. Increasingly, organized labor is fighting back against corporate media giants. | David Zalubowski / AP

The war against corporate greed in journalism is multi-faceted and fought along many fronts. One is in the area of non-profits and cooperative newsgathering; another is the battle taking place between media giants and the journalists and staff members who work for them and facilitate their profits. As big corporations are consolidating their hold over media outlets and squeezing every penny of profit they can get at the expense of their employees, the workers are fighting back.

In New Jersey recently, community-based journalists employed by the massive Gannett newspaper chain voted almost unanimously to form their own union. The Gannett chain owns one in five of America’s newspapers, giving it enormous control over what many Americans are informed about. By organizing under the auspices of the NewsGuild and Communications Workers of America, career journalists will have more input into how their livelihood and profession affect what newsreaders and consumers learn about.

As in New Jersey, journalists and staff members at the New York Daily News also voted overwhelmingly to join the NewsGuild union. The Daily News is owned by another media conglomerate, Tribune Publishing, which is squeezing its employees while at the same time shopping the paper to an investment fund owned by vulture capitalists who plan to strip the Daily News of its assets and make a quick profit by selling the parts left over to predatory bottom feeders. The recently unionized workers were supporting a “White Knight” to take over the newspaper and operate it as a community resource, not a means for making a quick profit at the expense of employees and consumers of local news.

Despite the best efforts of the NewsGuild, Alden Capital Group succeeded in buying the Daily News and immediately began implementing its policy of cutting costs and increasing profitability by eliminating staff and reducing other expenditures, which will reduce its coverage of vital news and information to its readers. However, thanks to the NewsGuild and other unions protecting worker’s rights, Alden Capital has had a much more difficult time in making the changes they want.

In addition to the resistance from unions in New York, Alden Capital is also dealing with a pro-union movement among workers at their other newspapers. Despite intense anti-union efforts by the company, workers at the other newspapers voted overwhelmingly to join the NewsGuild. This will make it much more difficult for Alden Capital to carry out its mission of destroying news coverage and exploiting their employees to maximize their profits.

With an increase in the number of independent, non-profit newspaper chains such as the Corporation For New Jersey Local Media, philanthropic and community-serving organizations like the Lenfest Institute For Journalism, the presence of news cooperatives exemplified by the Associated Press, and successful union organizing efforts by workers in the news industry, there is increasing hope that we might see the beginning of the end for rampant destruction of traditional news reporting by predatory conglomerates like Gannett Newspapers, Tribune Publishing, and Alden Capital.

The trend towards cooperative, collaborative, and non-profit journalism is a positive one, but it is also up to consumers of news and information to reject corporate media and patronize as much as possible worker-centered and consumer-oriented journalism.


Ken Bank
Ken Bank

Ken Bank is a semi-retired business executive, part-time playwright, and freelance writer with masters degrees in business and history. He lives in New Jersey and is active in the local Democratic Party organization in support of progressive policies.