Business

Tribune journalists react to the 'gut punch' announcement of hedge fund acquisition

Posted February 17, 2021 11:04 a.m. EST

— A version of this article first appeared in the "Reliable Sources" newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

"Gut punch." That's what Daniela Altimari wrote in reaction to Tuesday's news that Alden Global Capital, a widely feared hedge fund, is buying the rest of Tribune Publishing and taking the newspaper owner private.

Altimari is a statehouse reporter at one of Tribune's news outlets, The Hartford Courant, which has the distinction of being the oldest continuously published newspaper in America. Altimari spent the day doing what great local reporters do -- monitoring a legislative hearing about vaccinations, and reporting back to the public. Then she spent the evening reading and absorbing the Alden "gut punch."

"It's just devastating news," she said.

Reporters shared similar reactions across Tribune's markets, from New York to Orlando, Chicago to Virginia Beach.

Alden's takeover of Tribune -- which is still subject to some key approvals -- felt inevitable, given that the hedge fund became the company's largest shareholder in 2019 with about 32% ownership. But the announcement still stung.

"While this news isn't a shock to us, it is still incredibly heart-breaking," reporter Jennifer Sheehan of The Morning Call newspaper said. The Morning Call is a primary news source for Allentown, Pennsylvania and the surrounding Lehigh Valley.

"Over and over," Sheehan said, "Alden buys newspapers, cuts them to the bone, bleeds them dry and leaves the shell behind."

Sheehan, who like many Tribune journalists is active in a local guild, said she wanted readers to know that "regardless of today's announcement, we will not stop fighting to save local news."

Tribune management used predictably sterile language to present the deal on Tuesday evening. Philip G. Franklin, chairman of the Tribune board, alluded to the struggles of print publications as he talked about "driving digital growth and investing in high-quality content." He said Tribune's "positioning," which has involved drastic cuts, enabled the committee charged with reviewing Alden's takeover offer "to negotiate a premium, all-cash price, which the committee concluded was superior to the available alternatives."

The feedback from Tribune employees was anything but "superior."

Gabrielle Russon, a business reporter at the Orlando Sentinel, said "there are a lot of us who are truly sad right now. We love journalism. We care about what we do. And to watch our company being taken over by a hedge fund that has a history of destroying good newspapers is heartbreaking."

"It also hurts not to be together when we get such bad news like this," Russon added, "since our newsroom shut down during the pandemic and we're all working remotely. It's a strange, isolating time."

Tribune CEO Terry Jimenez said in an internal memo that "we will remain focused on our journalistic mission throughout this process."

The company's newspapers in Maryland, including the Baltimore Sun, will be sold and converted to nonprofit status as a part of the transaction. Stewart Bainum Jr., chair of the hotel chain Choice Hotels International, will lead the nonprofit.

Bainum and other Baltimore-area civic leaders had been campaigning for months to restore local ownership of the Sun, The Capital Gazette in Annapolis, The Carroll County Times and Tribune's other Maryland papers.

The guild that represents Sun reporters said Tuesday night that "this is a really happy moment for us," but "at the same time, we're devastated for our colleagues who could be sold to Alden Global Capital, and we're going to fight like hell right alongside them."

Jon Schleuss, the president of the NewsGuild, said he saluted Bainum's effort in Baltimore, adding, "We need more folks to step and invest in truly local news that's accountable to our communities."

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