July 1, 2021

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital, true to its cut-and-slash reputation, has bought out and let go at least 10% of the newsroom workforce since it acquired Tribune Publishing six weeks ago.

I am extrapolating — but only a little — from statistics compiled by the NewsGuild, which has local chapters in all Tribune newsrooms except that of the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida.

As of late last week when buyout applications were approved or turned down, the guild’s tally showed 73 union news staffers at former Tribune publications and a few from smaller Alden papers had accepted buyouts from a total of 533. That is an attrition of roughly 13.5%.

Several individual papers took a worse hit. Union newsroom staff at the Chicago Tribune went from 111 to 87 (-21.6%), The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press from 46 to 38 (-17.4%) and The (Allentown) Morning Call from 32 to 25 (-21.9%).

The buyout was offered to non-union staff, too. The guild’s Julie Reynolds reported that 16 in that group from the Chicago Tribune were also approved and are leaving. Editors and other non-union news staff at other papers doubtless took the offer, but I don’t know how many. Buyout totals were not available from the Sun-Sentinel.

Altogether that suggests that well more than 100 have departed.

An Alden spokesperson did not reply to my questions on the buyout results. (As is typical for buyouts, not all applications were accepted if the company deemed the positions essential).

A longer time frame shows even deeper losses since Alden took a 32% ownership stake in late 2019 and gained several seats on Tribune Publishing’s board of directors.

In its campaign against acceptance of Alden’s $630 million takeover bid this spring, the guild documented that Tribune had already been stripping out positions and expenses while under Alden’s influence, with most papers down 20 to 30% in 18 months.

The Chicago Tribune, the largest of the papers, had 169 guild positions in May 2018, double the count now after the buyouts. As has been reported elsewhere, the June round of departures includes star columnists Mary Schmich, John Kass, Eric Zorn and Heidi Stevens. Farewell columns have abounded.

A small exception to the news staffing squeeze is Tribune’s Chicago-based design and production studio, which has grown from 38 to 55 positions. That reflects the transfer of layout and copy editing work, formerly done at individual papers, to the shared studio.

Meanwhile, nothing has been heard over the last six weeks from Maryland businessman and philanthropist Stewart Bainum Jr. He had a tentative deal to buy The Baltimore Sun from Alden for $65 million (once it gained control of Tribune) back in December 2020. That infusion of cash was even part of Alden’s first takeover bid. That deal ultimately fell apart over how much Alden would charge for “shared services” as the Sun pivoted to independent ownership. Alden found other financing.

After the deal for just the Sun fell through, Bainum tried to put together a coalition of independent hometown buyers and mount a counter-bid to Alden’s for the entire company. But he was unable to bring on board an interested buyer in Chicago for the Tribune. The Tribune Publishing board declined to delay the sale as Bainum sought financing.

In a May 21 statement, as Tribune Publishing shareholders were approving Alden’s offer, Bainum said he was disappointed his effort to buy Tribune fell short and was turning back to Baltimore and “evaluating various options.”

His short statement concluded, “In the days ahead, I expect to make an announcement that might just make some news on its own.”

That hasn’t happened yet. Secondhand sources are telling me that there is little prospect that Alden and Bainum will come to terms and resurrect their deal to sell him the Sun, which he could then convert to a nonprofit. Instead, Bainum, who has allies in the Baltimore philanthropic community, seems to be aiming at an ambitious nonprofit digital startup. A model could be The Daily Memphian, which launched in 2018 with a staff of 25 in a city with an established newspaper (Gannett’s Commercial Appeal).

It may be until fall before such a venture comes together, my sources say, if it comes together at all.

That leaves the question of what Alden will do next with its nine former Tribune metros. With the tight-lipped company uncommunicative on its business plans, it is not even clear whether it will merge Tribune papers into its MediaNews Group and that chain’s 70 dailies — as Gannett did with the former GateHouse chain over a period of 18 months.

Alden has had access to Tribune’s books for a long time — creating a window to plan moves once the takeover deal was complete. Given that time frame, the buyouts could be a substantial one-time resizing that will hold for some time.

Experience shows, however, that one should never underestimate Alden’s proclivity to cut more.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
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