The latest threat to northern journalism


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ALBANY – It’s hard to determine which obnoxious creature most resembles Alden Global Capital.

Ticks, leeches and other leeches are usually too small to cause the wreckage that the secret hedge fund is infamous for. They are more often a nuisance than a killer.

A vulture ? Of course, we’ve all heard of “vulture hedge funds”, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Vultures usually eat the dead, while Alden prey on living businesses.

So I’ll go with the boa constrictor, a snake that gains strength by feasting on the living before going in search of its next victim.

Yes, that’s Alden for a T.

Sadly, the serpentine hedge fund has quietly become a major owner of US newspapers, employing a fine profit strategy of cutting costs, gutting staff, selling real estate and increasing subscription costs. Decline in readership inevitably follows, of course, as the newspaper fades to inevitable death.

This business model, if it can be called that, will be recognizable to anyone who saw the decline of Troy Record, Saratogian, and Kingston Freeman after Alden wrapped all three in his embrace.

“It’s well documented that their goal is to get every penny they can from local produce without worrying about local news,” said Barbara Lombardo, who worked for the Saratogian for 38 years and was the newspaper’s editor when Alden was came to town in 2012.

As part of the squeeze, Lombardo was eventually made the record editor, and she watched him and the Saratogian weakened by cut after cut. Unable to take it any longer, she accepted a buyout offer in 2015, retiring before she had expected.

“The staff was downsized so severely that I didn’t feel proud of what I was producing,” said Lombardo. “There are talented and dedicated journalists who continue to work in these newspapers, but they are working with too few resources.”

Today, the Record does not even have an office in Troy while the Saratogian site gives a mailing address in … Massachusetts. I hate to say it, but both are examples of the wreckage Alden left in cities across the country.

Another is the Chicago Tribune. It was a profitable newspaper when it was acquired by Alden earlier this year, but you can guess what happened next.

The new owners “emptied the place,” according to a profile of Alden published last month by The Atlantic. The magazine went on to describe how “one of America’s most famous newspapers” was quickly “reduced to a newsroom the size of a chipotle.”

It’s a grim reading. More depressing is learning that the Manhattan-headquartered hedge fund may not be finished with upstate New York.

Alden is now heading to Lee Enterprises, which owns, among many other newspapers across the country, the Glens Falls Post-Star, Auburn Citizen and Buffalo News.

“Our interest in Lee is a reaffirmation of our substantial commitment to the newspaper industry and our desire to support local newspapers over the long term,” the hedge fund wrote in a letter to Lee’s board of directors.

Yes, it’s true. Relax. The boa only wants to give you a warm hug.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Lee responded to the takeover bid by adopting a shareholder rights plan that is expected to delay a potential acquisition by at least a year. Yet there is no doubt that Alden poses a very real threat to Lee’s newspapers and the communities they serve.

Yes, the newspapers had problems before Alden started to take it over. As everyone knows, the internet has radically changed the business model and Alden is not the first owner to impose the cuts.

Ken Tingley, former editor of the Post-Star, was there as the debt-ridden Lee imposed cuts. But this business, he said, is nothing like Alden.

“I’ve always felt Lee cared about journalism and their communities,” Tingley said. “When you see something like Alden happening, you think, Oh my God, there won’t be any concern for journalism and local communities.”

I know newspapers aren’t the only businesses destroyed by predatory hedge funds. The destructive side of modern capitalism is not a new story.

And of course, polls showing declining media confidence suggest that many Americans are not saddened by the gutted newspapers. The media must restore confidence, I know that.

But please understand that what Alden is doing is undeniably sinister. It’s bad for the country, bad for democracy.

As the Atlantic article noted, studies show that political corruption and government budgets skyrocket when local media coverage disappears. Voter turnout and civic engagement are declining. This is the big picture.

On a more basic level, it’s just good to know what’s going on where you live. Connecting to each other and to our communities is important and gives meaning to our lives, which is why I am convinced that there will always be a market for local news.

Newspapers like the Post-Star and the Buffalo News may have a bright future, despite all the difficulties the industry has faced. They can make their hometown better places. But not if Alden takes their lives first.

[email protected] â–  518-454-5442 â–  @chris_churchill

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