Tribune Publishing, which publishes the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers across the country, has agreed to a deal to be bought by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, which is already the company’s largest shareholder.
But the deal has the newsroom journalists worried.
The agreement values the company at $630 million. Tribune journalists fear that Alden’s history of deep cuts at other newsrooms means an important public voice in the city could be diminished.
“Alden Global Capital is known as the destroyer of newspapers for good reason,” said Gregory Pratt, a politics reporter at the Tribune and president of the Chicago Tribune Guild. “The Chicago Tribune is full of dedicated journalists who are passionate about keeping the public informed, so anything that threatens that is of highest concern.”
In an emailed statement to the Tribune, Alden said: “Our commitment to ensuring the sustainability of robust local journalism is well established and this is part of that effort.”
WTTW News was unable to reach Alden and the company’s website does not provide any contact information.
A spokesperson for Tribune Publishing said the company was “not commenting beyond the press release” announcing the sale agreement.
The deal has been approved by the Tribune's board but still requires approval from other shareholders and faces scrutiny from regulators.
Pratt said there had been little communication about the deal to newsroom staff.
“If Tribune Publishing cares what the journalists in the newsroom thinks they have never shown that,” said Pratt. “There was basically no communication with the newsrooms about this.”
Charles Whitaker, dean and professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, said that newsroom journalists have reason to be fearful of an Alden takeover given the hedge fund’s track record.
“We know they own hundreds of newspapers across the country. We know that in many of those markets they have gone in and slashed newsrooms staffs. We know that they are largely, as hedge funds are wont to be, in the business of making money and maximizing profit. And that’s not necessarily the business of journalism,” said Whitaker, who expects them to introduce more cost-cutting measures to an already lean newsroom.
The Chicago Tribune has fallen on hard times since once dominating the region’s media landscape, says Brian Hieggelke, editor and publisher at free weekly newspaper Newcity.
“The Chicago Tribune, back at the beginning of my career, was just an absolute dominant media company in Chicago and really in the country with a flourishing broadcast business, a chain of major newspapers anchored by the Chicago Tribune. They bought the Chicago Cubs. They really were the lord of Chicago and they used to have a reputation in the business world of being a really well-run company,” said Hieggelke. “They stumbled and fell in the early 2000s when they bought the Los Angeles Times. (The) timing was terrible. The price turned out to be way too high and it put them in a bad position and then they fell into a run of really bad ownership.”
While Pratt acknowledges a challenging newspaper environment, he also blames poor management and ownership for the Tribune’s current plight.
“The problem with the Chicago Tribune since 2008 is that it has been owned by a string of turkeys who do not actually care about improving the business and figuring out ways to make it work, but who are trying to get a buck out of it, strip money out it, and then leave,” said Pratt. “There’s ways to run a newspaper profitably and that serves the community, and the Tribune has had a string of owners that do not have an interest in that – and some of whom who have just been flagrantly incompetent.”
Pratt’s hope is that a deep-pocketed and civic-minded Chicagoan or group may ultimately bring back local ownership and commitment to investing in local news as has happened at other newspapers. Alden signed a nonbinding agreement to sell the Baltimore Sun to the Sunlight for All Institute, a public charity established by the chairman of Choice Hotels International Stewart Bainum Jr. in December.
But Pratt acknowledges that finding a new buyer may take some time if it happens at all.
“The campaign in Baltimore didn’t happen overnight, it took many, many months if not years to save a newspaper from a bad corporate owner. And so, do I think we are going to wake up tomorrow and somebody is going to save us? I don’t know when, but it’s definitely possible,” he said.
In the meantime, despite the uncertainty, Pratt says the newsroom continues to do its best to serve it readers.
“People are concerned and frustrated but they are also proud of the work they do and plan to keep doing it,” said Pratt.