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Local Media, Reporters Matter: Chicago Tribune Is Proof

February 17, 2021

Not for the first time do I stress the importance of supporting local media. From subscribing to a local newspaper and supporting businesses that advertise on a local radio station. Local media and the newsrooms they populate with reporters and journalists are one of the foundations that keeps our democracy strong. News and information is a vital component for an engaged citizenry.

With that being said it was not shocking news, as the reports on the negotiations have been known for weeks, that Tribune Publishing, publisher of the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers, has agreed to be acquired by Alden Global Capital in a deal valued at $630 million. But it was still very unsettling and troubling to learn of the outcome as the consequences are enormous. This is far more than just a news headline to be treated in a fast cavalier manner.

As a result of the deal, there is soon to be one of the largest newspaper operations in the United States. But that does not make it a boon for news consumers, or a win for the newspaper profession, or hard-working journalists who ferret out the news for each edition. Far from it! The reason is due to Alden being a hedge fund with a history of deep cost-cutting at its other newspaper properties.

But there is also a more fundamental issue to consider with the amassing of properties in large media companies. When papers are owned in such a fashion opposing views are marginalized and Op-Ed pages are watered down. Or with some local papers due to budget cuts, there is not even an editorial staff to ponder the issues of the day. For the sake of our democracy, I again make the case as to why there must be regulations to stop and undo the consolidation of our news, in any medium, into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

When it comes to the iconic Chicago Tribune I shudder to think of the future. The newsroom has already shrunk roughly 30 percent since November 2018, from about 165 journalists in the union to 118 presently. Those are not just jobs. No, far more important those numbers are news reporters who head around the city to meetings and neighborhoods to gather the stories which inform readers. And with the knowledge of what happens in the city comes the sense of community and connections which is also a vital component to democracy.

I have been posting for years about the woes of the newspaper industry in the digital media age. I have written about the revenue from the industry being cut in half between 2008 and 2018 because of a ruinous decline in print advertising. And to the gut of the matter that means during that same time frame newsroom employment declined 25%. (Pew Research)

When it comes to hedge funds it comes as no surprise I rank them alongside those who sold cure-all elixirs door-to-door at one time in our nation. They are best termed as “vulture capitalists”. Soulless, too. It also should come as no shock Alden has done great harm to other papers they have bought and chopped up in their all-consuming zeal to make money. The reason so many people are exercised over the recent deal is that local news suffers when newsrooms are pared down and the voices and events of those nearest to the reader are not reported.

When a hedge fund looks to break apart a newspaper and treat it as only a cash cow there is a deep price paid for by the local community. When newsroom owners view profits as the only goal, quality, reliability, and accountability suffer in the editions of the paper that hit the streets and land in the mailboxes.

Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild-Communication Workers of America, whose local chapters represent newsroom employees in Chicago, Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando, and other cities, expressed his views on the Alden deal concisely and to the point.

“Alden has a history of running newspapers into the ground, This isn’t good for workers, the company, shareholders, or the communities.”

I have no problem with money being made by a business, but I do have deep concerns when the goal is money over ‘anything else’. In this case, ‘anything else’ is the local news that will be short-changed from being reported. I do not wish to be viewed as having only sentimental or nostalgic “back in the day” perspectives that are brought to this issue. While I was raised with a daily newspaper in our Hancock home, and have subscribed to at least one daily paper during all my adult years my purpose of writing this post is due to a long-lasting truism. Journalists do work continuously to get the facts sorted, copy written, and edits made under deadlines and tremendous pressures so that we can learn the news we need to know as citizens.

Short-term profits for hedge funds at the expense of iconic news operations or the needs of news consumers are appalling. We need regulations to stop and undo the consolidation of our news, (be it radio, newspapers, or broadcast television), into the hands of fewer and fewer people.

I end this post where I started. I urge readers to subscribe to their local newspaper. Paying for quality journalism should be viewed as just as important as paying for other needed services in our lives.

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