It’s easy — maybe even fun — to blame owners for the downfall of newspapers.
Consider that hedge fund investors owned a third of U.S. daily newspapers before Alden Global Capital announced plans last month to purchase Tribune Publishing, a company with nine major metro dailies. These Wall Street types are motivated by profits rather than community goodwill.
That profit-first thinking plays out at the local level with devastating results. One example: The Beaver County Times. Back in 2017 when family-run Calkins Media owned the newspaper, it had 37 newsroom employees, with editors for news, sports and features, plus a managing editor and a photography department — all the traditional features of newspapers.
First, Calkins sold the newspaper and several others, including the Ellwood City Ledger, to New Media Investment Group’s GateHouse Media subsidiary, bringing New Media’s total to 144 daily newspapers and 684 community publications nationwide.
It takes some research to try seeing all the way to the top, looking first to see that private equity firm Fortress Investment Group owned New Media and that the Japanese banking conglomerate SoftBank owns Fortress.
SoftBank is Japan’s second-largest publicly traded company, behind Toyota, and the 36th largest in the world. It’s a long way from Beaver County to the Minato ward of Tokyo.
But the story doesn’t end there.
GateHouse Media purchased Gannett, a larger publisher, in 2019 to form the nation’s largest newspaper company by circulation, taking The Beaver County Times along with it. The combined company owns 500 newspapers, or one in six published in the U.S.
Again, investors had a big role to play: Private equity company Apollo Global Management, based in New York City, provided a $1.792 billion loan to finance the purchase.
The new owners said they could save at least $275 million a year from the “increased scale of the new organization, sharing of best practices, leveraging existing infrastructure, facility rationalization and other judicious cost reductions.”
Those big business words have meant a lot of major changes in little Beaver County.
The Times now has seven newsroom employees — down from 37 when Calkins owned it in 2017, reduced through buyouts, layoffs and attrition. At the moment, it does not have any editor of its own, instead borrowing one from the Ellwood City Ledger.
Reporters are discouraged from filing local stories in favor of regional ones that also could run in the company’s other newspapers in Erie, York and Bucks County near Philadelphia.
Rather than developing beats by getting to know their sources, the few remaining journalists perform daily triage on the news, responding to breaking stories, trying to find out what they can quickly and reporting it in a few words.
Internet clicks drive content decisions so that the newsroom strives to give people more of the clickbait, sensational stories that draw attention rather than the substantive, in-depth ones that inform community decisions.
It would be easy to blame distant financial investors sitting in plush Tokyo and New York City skyscrapers for crushing local newsrooms, and it wouldn’t be wrong. We also could rant about the Post-Gazette’s owners, the Block family, cutting print circulation days down to just two now, and that wouldn’t be wrong either.
It might even make us little guys at the bottom feel better about our own righteousness, defending the purity of the local newspaper. But these downsizing decisions by newspaper publishers large and small are the symptom of newspapers’ decline and not the cause.
Yes, investors are circling dying publications like vultures, eager to squeeze out the last few pennies through “judicious cost reductions.” We can rightly point out that global companies are assembling conglomerates with hundreds of papers like The Beaver County Times, shrinking newsrooms beyond what seems possible and making profits.
That’s all true but it does not mean they are causing the problem. We, the newspaper consumers (or, really, former consumers), have created the crisis by changing our daily habits. Once we started going online for free news, we broke the model based on subscribers paying for local news with advertisers paying to put their messages in front of us.
Those days are over, and they are not coming back.
We all have a role to play in the decline of daily newspapers. It’s not that any of us made a malicious decision but that technology shaped our lives and culture so much that it no longer makes sense to walk out to the end of the driveway in the rain to pick up a printed newspaper.