CHRIS POWELL: Is infamous hedge fund Alden stripping or saving newspapers?

Published on Sunday, 30 May 2021 15:34

Nearly everyone wanted Tribune Publishing Co. to be purchased by someone other than Alden Global Capital, since the hedge fund is seen as an "asset stripper." Indeed, months before acquiring the shares of Tribune it didn't already own, Alden had managed the neat trick of stripping the Hartford Courant of its own building, leaving Connecticut's largest newspaper homeless.

But while nearly infinite money lately has been floating around the country and zillionaires abound, nobody offered more than the $633 million Alden offered to take Tribune private. Despite the decline in the newspaper industry, Tribune is said to remain profitable and to have millions in the bank, and the eight newspapers it owns apart from the Courant include some storied titles: the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News, and the Baltimore Sun.

So the lack of other bidders suggests wide scorn for the industry's future.

That's why bemoaning Alden is so hypocritical, as it was the other day when U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal joined Courant journalists at a protest rally. "Get a better buyer," Blumenthal implored, even as his own family easily could have afforded becoming a major partner in a rival bid – but didn't.

But rich people indifferent to the public interest in sustaining newspapers are not the main culprits of the industry's decline.

Troubled as they are, newspapers remain the country's primary source for serious news, news beyond idle distraction and titillation – news about government, community, business, and life in general. Television and radio pirate newspapers shamelessly. Some state and local internet news sites do great service but their "business model" is only charity and thus not so reliable.

The biggest problems for newspapers are the public's diminishing interest in serious news and the country's worsening demographics. Literacy and civic engagement long have been declining while poverty and violence have been increasing, especially in cities like Chicago, Baltimore, and Hartford. It takes courage enough to invest in the newspaper business generally, and heroism to invest in newspapers in disintegrating cities.

Even in Connecticut it is a matter of general indifference that half the state's high school graduates never master high school English and math and so enter adulthood unprepared to be citizens, much less newspaper readers – or readers at all.

So horrible as it may seem, for the moment there may be nothing to do but to root for Alden, especially since before acquiring Tribune it already had acquired a hundred papers across the country and was the country's second largest newspaper chain. Alden President Heath Freeman says the company's goal is "getting publications to a place where they can operate sustainably over the long term."

Of course to "operate sustainably" may require weakening Alden's papers more. But then the content of nearly all newspapers long has been weakening along with their circulation. For in the end the investment newspapers rely on most is not that of their owners but their subscribers, and nobody needs a newspaper just to keep up with the Kardashians.

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MURPHY'S AWFUL ADVICE: If the United States is ever attacked again, nobody should seek advice from Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy.

“Israel," Murphy said the other day, "has the right to defend itself from Hamas' rocket attacks, in a manner proportionate with the threat its citizens are facing.”

But no country wins a war with a "proportionate" response to attacks. Wars are won with enough force to defeat the enemy and eliminate its war-making capacity. Japan started its war with the United States by sinking a few ships at Pearl Harbor, but the United States won the war by sinking nearly all Japanese ships and leveling the whole country, concluding with the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In a recent newspaper essay Murphy also wrote that schools need fewer police officers and less student discipline and more counselors and social workers. But disruptions by students in school are helping to drive the exodus from the cities. Murphy misses that problem and the underlying one, since he fails to ask:

Where are all the messed-up kids coming from?

Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester.

Posted in The Bristol Press, Column on Sunday, 30 May 2021 15:34. Updated: Sunday, 30 May 2021 15:37.