Margaret Sullivan: “Vulture Capitalists Are Circling My Old Newspaper”

From a Washington Post story by media columnist Margaret Sullivan headlined “Vulture capitalists are circling my old newspaper. Here’s why we need to fight them off.”:

Horror is not too strong a word for how the news hit me. Alden Global, the most rapacious of the ownership groups currently wrecking local newspapers, wanted to buy my old paper, the Buffalo News.

My reaction came partly from sentiment. The daily, one of two that came to my family’s door throughout my childhood, was where I got my start as a summer intern, eventually becoming its top editor. A decade ago, I was still in that job. Over the years, I had hired scores of journalists and, helped by a talented group of editors, had overseen the coverage of everything from the assassination of a local abortion provider to the high cost of being poor in one of the nation’s most impoverished cities. We certainly weren’t perfect but we did a lot of important work.

My reaction also came from hard knowledge of what has happened elsewhere.

When Alden buys a paper, the results are unfailingly negative for the community. It had already happened in Denver, San Jose and a multitude of other places. Alden slashes newsroom staffs, sells off its real estate and focuses on wringing out the last possible drop of revenue while ignoring long-term sustainability, hence earning the name “vulture capitalists.” I knew this from years of covering the news media and from writing a book about the dire effects on our democracy when local news declines. In short, we become more politically polarized and less engaged in our communities.

Democracy itself is suffering as local news fades. The Yale historian Timothy Snyder, who wrote “On Tyranny,” describes this as the most troubling media story of our time, a major contributor to the loss of a common basis of reality that’s necessary for successful self-governance.

The Buffalo News has been relatively stable under its current owner, Lee Enterprises, especially compared with other papers around the country.

Warren Buffett, whose Berkshire Hathaway owned the News while I was there, got out of the newspaper business by selling his dozens of papers to Lee. In 2018, he praised the company as one that “has led the industry in overall innovation and performance, all while faithfully fulfilling its public trust.”

Our newsroom employed about 200 people for several decades; after a long, slow decline, it’s down to about 80. And yet, digital subscriptions have increased, and the staffers I’ve talked to believe the paper continues to be profitable, though not nearly at the sky-high levels of the 1990s. The Buffalo News still has a strong local staff and fine reporters in Washington and Albany. It has even done some hiring and right now has several job openings for reporters.

So the notion that the main news source for my hometown might be destroyed was gutting. So was the flurry of texts and phone calls from News staffers who were afraid for their livelihoods and hoped that I might have some insight or reassurance. I didn’t have much to offer.

But in the weeks since the Alden announcement, some hope has emerged. First, and most important, the Lee board of directors soundly rejected Alden’s bid for its 90-some papers across 26 states, and used a defensive maneuver to block Alden’s efforts to take control of its board.

That hardly resolves the situation, though — and in the meantime, Alden is now fighting back in court, suing Lee and calling its defensive move improper. It may just be that Lee is holding out for a higher offer from Alden. As one of my Post colleagues darkly predicted, we still know what’s going to happen in the end; all that’s really happening now is haggling over the price.

The second bit of encouragement is that Lee’s stock price has risen sharply over the past week, a development that to Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, suggests “that Lee can remain independent and pursue its growth plans.”

I’d love to believe that. What I do believe is that local news organizations, including legacy newspapers like the Buffalo News, can survive in the new era if they behave strategically and wisely. They have to continue to move steadily into the digital present and future, while deepening the bonds with their communities and not alienating their loyal longtime readers. One absolute necessity is providing enterprising journalism that serves the public interest — something that is impossible without adequate staff and resources.

“There will be no return to the good old days of fat profits and large newsrooms,” wrote Jim Heaney, a former News investigative reporter who runs a Buffalo-based nonprofit news organization. Buffalo is fortunate to have a public radio station, four television stations that cover local news and Heaney’s Investigative Post, in addition to the Buffalo News, which remains a reasonably robust if much smaller news source than before.

I agree with Heaney’s assessment, and at the same time, I believe there is a path forward. But that path must exclude any hedge fund owner demanding unreasonably high profits and wanting them immediately.

Newspapers in Boston, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and other cities with forward-thinking owners, most of them rooted in the local community, are finding their way forward. My old paper might be able to do that, too — but not under Alden.

The immediate disaster has been averted, and these new developments offer a reprieve.

I fervently hope that Lee’s directors, no doubt still influenced by Buffett, will continue to do the right thing. They have the power to give their newspapers a chance to survive and even — just possibly — to thrive.

Margaret Sullivan is The Washington Post’s media columnist. Previously, she was the New York Times public editor, and the chief editor of the Buffalo News, her hometown paper.

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