The news in late 2019 that Alden Global Capital, a New York investment firm known for slashing staff at its newspapers, bought a large stake in Tribune Publishing Co. spurred efforts in Baltimore, Chicago, Allentown, and in other cities to recruit local owners.
Now, Alden is expected to acquire complete control of Tribune on Tuesday, after winning shareholder approval Friday. Advocates for local ownership of Allentown’s Morning Call, which runs one of the largest newsrooms in Pennsylvania, say they plan to keep fighting to save their newspaper despite the odds stacked against them.
“We are all disgusted by the news of what happened and concerned about the future, but we’re not going to give up,” said Kim Schaffer, executive director of Community Bike Works, an Allentown nonprofit that works with youths.
A strong local paper is crucial to the group’s work, said Schaffer, who is among nonprofit leaders brought together by NewsGuild union leaders in Allentown to drum up support for local ownership.
Beyond relying on the Morning Call to “cover stories about the issues that are important to our mission around school funding and youth development,” Community Bike Works also gets most of its volunteers through the newsroom’s coverage, Schaffer said.
Across the United States, Alden Global, which owns about 100 newspapers through the MediaNews Group, has pursued a business model that involves cutting staff to the bone and selling real estate at the publications it acquires.
“They have earned this moniker of being vulture capitalists. We’ve seen in city after city how they absolutely drain the resources of these properties,” said David Boardman, dean of Temple University’s Klein College of Media and Communication.
“While they say many of the right things in terms of the importance of local news and their commitment to it, their record indicates absolute disregard for it,” said Boardman, who is also chair of the Lenfest Institute, which owns The Inquirer.
Alden acquired the Reading Eagle out of bankruptcy two years ago for $5 million. Employees had to reapply for their jobs as the company came out of bankruptcy with 111 jobs, down half from when it entered the process. Last year, Alden sold the Reading Eagle building in downtown Reading for $2.3 million.
The Morning Call building in downtown Allentown was sold in 2016, and the newsroom was closed last year during the pandemic.
Alden Global Capital was one of several hedge funds that acquired The Inquirer and Daily News out of bankruptcy in 2010. And it held a minority stake when the newsroom and tower on North Broad Street were sold in 2011. Alden sold its interest to a group of local owners in 2012.
Before the Reading deal, Alden already owned several newspapers in suburban Philadelphia, in Norristown, Pottstown, West Chester, and Delaware County, in addition to the Trentonian. Combined NewsGuild membership plummeted 70% at the Delaware County Times, Pottstown Mercury, Norristown Times Herald, and the Trentonian, after Alden took over in 2013, a union official said.
MediaNews Group did not respond to an email Monday seeking comment on the Tribune deal.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) is among those worried about what will happen at the Morning Call. “Any time local news organizations are bought up by hedge funds, there’s a risk that jobs will be lost and local journalism will be diminished,” he said.
After Alden’s 2019 investment in the Tribune company, the push to find local owners for its papers, which include the Hartford Courant, the Orlando Sentinel, and the New York Daily News, came closest to succeeding at the Baltimore Sun.
Hotel magnate Stewart Bainum struck a preliminary deal to buy that paper for $65 million, with plans to operate it as a nonprofit, but that deal stalled and Bainum turned his attention to a failed bid for all of Tribune.
Jennifer Sheehan, Morning Call features writer and union vice chair, is among those who have led the opposition to Alden in Allentown. She said individuals interested in acquiring the Morning Call did not want to be identified.
Sheehan said prying loose the Morning Call from Alden would not be easy. Its newsroom staff numbers about 45 and serves a region with a strong economy. “I think it would have to be a really high price,” she said.
Boardman said he’s not optimistic about that scenario.
“I don’t think Alden has any intention whatsoever of piecing these newspapers out,” Boardman said. “I really think their long-term plan is really just harvest what they can.”
Update: An earlier version misstated the timing of the sale of the Morning Call building. The building was sold in 2016, and the newsroom was closed last year during the pandemic.