“60 Minutes” correspondent Jon Wertheim did a strong piece that aired Sunday night about the grim state of local newspapers, in part because of how hedge funds, such as Alden Global Capital, have bought them up and gutted them. My colleague, Poynter media business analyst Rick Edmonds, has written extensively about this topic. But it was good to see “60 Minutes” put out a piece for its wide audience.
I had a chance to talk by phone with Wertheim on Sunday just a few hours before his story aired.
“It’s not stop-the-presses news that the newspaper industry is in decline,” Wertheim told me, “but I thought this angle that there are all these external forces of being cannibalized from within was a story that hasn’t been told so much.”
Wertheim said most assume that it’s because readers’ habits are changing — that people prefer reading news on their phones rather than an actual print newspaper. And, yes, that’s partly true. But many people, he said, aren’t aware of the damage being done by these hedge funds.
Of course, when hedge funds come in and slash resources and staff, the impact stretches well beyond the newspaper. It impacts communities, which might lose the watchdogs who hold those in power accountable. One such person that Wertheim featured in his piece was Evan Brandt, who literally is the last journalist standing at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
“Evan Brandt is absolutely a heroic figure,” Wertheim said. “What he has been asked to do and is doing is nothing short of heroism. And we’re all trying to figure out this model. There’s a new idea all the time. Let’s go hyperlocal, let’s pivot to video. We’re all trying to solve this riddle while the news still happens. And these guys on the front lines — it’s absolutely heroic work that they are doing under pretty challenging circumstances.”
There are papers that are thriving, with The New York Times leading the way. Several other newspapers — such as The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and The Wall Street Journal — benefit from incredibly wealthy owners. Some other local papers, such as The Star Tribune in Minneapolis, have found success, too.
But what about the majority of papers? What happens to them over the next decade? I asked that question of Wertheim, who, by the way, also continues to write for another legendary publication — Sports Illustrated — that has had its challenges in recent years.
“I’m not entirely convinced that the billionaire benefactor is the perfect answer either,” Wertheim said, “but it’s better than the alternative. … I think there are a lot of people that care about solving this riddle.”
He added, “The fact that despite all the challenges and all the uncertainty and no one knows quite where this train is going, you still have people who value this and have the skill set and they want to get in, and their eyes are wide open … you still have a lot of young people who think this is important and they want to get into it. I think that ought to be a real source of optimism. And, at the same time, someone has got to solve this riddle.”
Wertheim and the Report for America reporters featured in the piece still believe there’s an audience for local news and know how important it is.
The issue is hedge funds such as Alden don’t seem interested in solving the riddle. They seem more interested in making money. As Wertheim pointed out in the piece, there’s nothing wrong with making money. But Alden is making lots of money and still cutting resources and staff at many of its papers.
Heath Freeman, the president of Alden, turned down interview requests from “60 Minutes.” But Alden’s PR team passed along the message that Alden is committed to providing “robust, independently minded local journalism.”
“Not only was it astonishing to me, but I think it’s fairly telling that someone overseeing thousands of journalists did not see fit to sit down for an on-the-record interview,” Wertheim said. “You’re essentially the boss of thousands of people whose job it is to hold people accountable and you don’t make yourself available for an interview — that was fairly striking to me.”
In addition to the piece that aired on “60 Minutes,” here’s the “60 Minutes” overtime piece with more.
This piece originally appeared in The Poynter Report, our daily newsletter for everyone who cares about the media. Subscribe to The Poynter Report here.