In the many reports on the fight for Tribune Publishing, the damage already done to the newsrooms at its nine metro papers may have been overlooked.
Since hedge fund Alden Global Capital acquired a 32% share of stock in November 2019, the NewsGuild calculates that staff fell 30.4% in one year. Alden, of course, now has a contract, subject to shareholder approval, to buy the rest of Tribune’s stock for $17.25 a share.
Should rival bidders Stewart Bainum Jr. and Hansjörg Wyss prevail with a bid of $18.50, a share that has been financed but is not final, they will face substantial rebuilding to maintain the company’s record of journalistic excellence.
In a forum last Wednesday, the Guild provided some damning paper-by-paper specifics:
- The Morning Call of Allentown, Pennsylvania: Newsroom down 22%. No reporter based in the county seat of Easton. No editor dedicated to sports, business, politics or state news.
- The Baltimore Sun: Newsroom down 10%. No investigative reporters. No sports editor for more than a year. Of the eight reporters who shared a Pulitzer Prize last year for exposing corruption that led to the resignation of the mayor, only three are left.
- Chicago Tribune: Newsroom down 32%. No reporters dedicated to covering the South Side or West Side of the city. No reporter based in Springfield, the state capital. Discontinued the weekly Spanish-language Hoy in a city that is now a third Latinx.
- Chicago suburban papers: Newsroom down 32%. No reporters based in nearby Elgin or Waukegan. Only four reporters based in six populous core suburbs. One reporter covering the arts.
- The Hartford Courant: Newsroom down 30%. One editor for politics, business and breaking news. No features or opinion editors. No reporters based in surrounding towns, which together have a population of 770,000.
- The Virginian-Pilot of Norfolk and Daily Press of Newport News (Tribune publishes the two neighboring papers under separate nameplates but most functions have been combined): Newsrooms down 33%. No state reporter. One opinion writer for the two papers. No beat reporters for transportation, environment, business or the shipyard industry.
Since news staffing totals for the industry are no longer compiled, I can’t say how these losses compare to the norm, influenced in 2020 both by continuing financial trends and pandemic damage to advertising.
Alden’s influence at Tribune appears to be great. At first, in late 2019, it had two board members. That was increased to three last year when Alden founder Randall Smith joined. The three “independent” directors are all from financial rather than publishing firms. CEO Terry Jimenez, the seventh board member, was promoted from chief financial officer a year ago when veteran publishing executive Timothy Knight departed.
Alden currently has a standstill agreement that prohibits it from buying more Tribune Publishing stock on the open market until July 1.
That deadline could be pushed back, as it has been once already. Even so, Bainum and Wyss, searching for potential local buyers in markets other than Baltimore and Chicago, are under time pressure as well as a possible higher bid by Alden if they are to win control of the company.