Why journalists at the nation's largest newspaper chain are nervous

Posted January 15, 2019 3:20 p.m. EST

— The revelation sent a shudder through newsrooms across the country, from the southwestern border up to the northern Great Plains: MNG Enterprises, the hedge-fund owned company also known as Digital First Media, was submitting a bid to take over Gannett, the publisher of USA Today and about 100 other newspapers.

That concern can be traced to the Rocky Mountain region, where turmoil at the Denver Post last year served as a cautionary tale about MNG's stewardship.

MNG, largely owned by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, has earned a reputation for imposing deep cuts at its newspapers -- even in an era defined by painful newsroom layoffs

"They do have a reputation for being pretty much the worst of the worst," Dan Kennedy, an associate journalism professor at Northeastern University, told CNN Business last year, adding that the company has a "relentless focus on the bottom line."

The company burnished that reputation with its ownership of the Denver Post, where MNG cut staff by a third last March, resulting in the loss of 30 jobs.

Employees at the Post fought back. The paper's editorial board ran a piece in April calling on someone to save it from the "vultures" at Alden. In May, Post employees staged a protest outside Alden's headquarters in New York City.

A number of Post employees eventually resigned in protest, with some going on to form their own crowdfunded publication, The Colorado Sun. The Post, meanwhile, has been left to produce a paper with a staff of roughly 60; for comparison, the paper's newsroom had more than 200 employees as recently as 2007.

It's a grim precedent for journalists at Gannett, the country's largest newspaper chain with a portfolio of publications that, like the Post, cover regions of national interest and areas that will be battlegrounds in next year's presidential election. And, of course, those papers are dedicated to covering all manner of local issues that usually go unnoticed by national publications.

If it happened at the Post, the largest news organization in Colorado, why couldn't it happen at Gannett-owned papers like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Detroit Free Press, the Des Moines Register or the El Paso Times?

It's why Larry Ryckman, who left the Post last year to serve as editor of the fledgling Colorado Sun, warned Gannett journalists of their would-be owners.

"There's no doubt about what would follow [Gannett's sale to MNG]," Ryckman said Monday on Twitter. "This is another reminder of why we need strong, independent, locally owned news organizations."

Gannett journalists probably didn't need the warning to imagine how the pillaging of the Post could be replicated in their own newsrooms -- although MNG is doing its part to win over the skeptics.

In a statement, MNG spokesperson Renée Soto said that the company "has extensive operational experience and a successful track record in the newspaper industry, enabling us to run newspapers profitably and sustainably so that they can continue to serve their local communities."

Still, the news of a possible MNG takeover alarmed many in the Gannett network. And the alarm bells might have rung the loudest at the Detroit Free Press. MNG already owns the paper's intracity rival, the Detroit News, and a Free Press reporter who spoke with CNN Business said that the speculation over Gannett's sale has already prompted chatter of a possible merger between the two publications.

"We're really concerned here in the newsroom," the reporter said. "Nobody thought it could get worse."

A reporter at the Argus Leader, a Gannett-owned paper in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, said that colleagues were immediately concerned when they heard that MNG could be their new parent company.

"Everyone knew the name and what it means for a paper," the reporter told CNN Business, adding that the prospect of an MNG takeover had inspired talk of updating resumes.

But one reporter at the El Paso Times noted that, under Gannett's ownership, newsrooms have already faced significant cutbacks. "It definitely has people's attention and there is a bit of unease," the reporter said of the possible sale. "But it doesn't feel more intense than the worry over what Gannett has in mind for us."

All three reporters spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

Employees at Gannett papers were already bracing themselves for a round of buyouts this month, and the company has endured its share of financial setbacks. Gannett has lost more than 40% of its value in the last two years, a decline that MNG alluded to in a letter to Gannett's board of directors on Monday.

"Frankly, the team leading Gannett has not demonstrated that it's capable of effectively running this enterprise as a public company," MNG said. The company also used the letter to trumpet two of its media acquisitions, saying that both the Orange County Register and the Boston Herald were "left for dead" before it took over.

"MNG stepped up and invested in them when others wouldn't, saving many of those jobs and providing for new jobs," the letter said. "We improved operations and made them viable and profitable by providing them with new leadership, a seasoned executive team and a new strategy when others clearly had failed."

For now, Gannett journalists are left to wait and hope for a better fate than the one that met many staff members at the Denver Post. And, much like those journalists, some have gone public with their appeals.

Brett Kelman, a reporter at The Tennessean, the Gannett-owned paper in Nashville, posted what amounted to an open letter Monday on Twitter.

"Dear @Gannett: I've worked for you for 11 years," Kelman said. "We do important journalism in many great communities that depend on us. Through thick and thin, I have loved this job. Please don't sell to these hedge-fund vampires."