Reporters Aren’t Going Quietly as Vulture Fund Is Poised to Take Control of Tribune Publishing
One of the first phone calls Scott Maxwell received after he published his most recent column in the Orlando Sentinel on Friday morning was from his publisher.
Maxwell, 47, is a 22-year veteran of the Sentinel, and he’s been a columnist for most of that time. Last Monday, he and his colleagues who have worked at the paper for eight years or more received an email informing them of a new round of buyouts, the latest of several they have been offered in recent years.
This time, though, the buyouts must have seemed a little more insidious. Late last year, Alden Global Capital, the New York hedge fund that has gained a reputation for snatching up beleaguered papers around the country and then strip-mining them for profit, acquired a 32 percent stake in Tribune — which owns the Sentinel as well as the Baltimore Sun, the Hartford Courant and the New York Daily News, among others — and a week ago, evidence of Alden’s influence at the company began to creep into public view.
Maxwell was undeterred by the buyout offer, however, and sat down to write an impassioned column in which he explained why, perhaps against his better judgement, he would be staying on. The column, which also included testimonials from Maxwell’s coworkers on their devotion to the paper, wasn’t a shot across the bow, exactly, but it did carry some level of risk.
“I would say I was a little bit more anxious or personally invested in that one than the average one I write,” he told Mediaite in a phone interview over the weekend. “There’s no doubt about that.”
So when the Sentinel’s publisher, Nancy A. Meyer, called, it was something of a relief to find out that he had her support. She wanted to tell him how much she liked the piece and to say she was glad he had decided against taking a buyout. “That was actually the way she learned, was from the column,” Maxwell said.
Whether that sense of camaraderie will persist is an open question. This June, Alden is poised to acquire even more of a stake in Tribune when a standstill agreement that has limited the hedge fund from buying up more shares expires at the same time that another agreement will allow Patrick Soon-Shiong, the owner of the Los Angeles Times, to offload his stake in Tribune to a willing buyer. If Alden acquires a controlling stake, Tribune employees can expect a lot more bloodletting.
“I don’t think anybody looks at Alden and says, ‘Yeah, I’d like them to take over my newspaper,’” Maxwell said.
Since November, when Alden bought up a third of Tribune’s shares, there have been murmurings of protest from Tribune journalists scattered around the country. In December, hundreds of Tribune employees signed a petition urging the company’s board of directors to consider purchasing offers from “local” or “civic-minded” entities.
And this weekend, the New York Times ran an opinion piece by two investigative reporters at the Chicago Tribune, David Jackson and Gary Marx, who worry that their paper will be decimated if Alden gains control of Tribune Publishing. “Unless Alden reverses course — perhaps in repentance for the avaricious destruction it has wrought in Denver and elsewhere — we need a civic-minded local owner or group of owners,” they wrote. “So do our Tribune Publishing colleagues.”
“The alternative,” they added, “is a ghost version of The Chicago Tribune — a newspaper that can no longer carry out its essential watchdog mission.” Jackson and Marx did not respond to a request for comment from Mediaite, but Jackson told CNN that “Trib editors strongly warned against publishing” the op-ed.
The piece was reminiscent of an editorial published two years ago in the Denver Post, which is owned by a subsidiary of Alden, Digital First Media. The editorial, titled “As vultures circle, The Denver Post must be saved,” was an indictment of Alden’s “cynical” business strategy. “If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here,” the editorial said, “it should sell The Post to owners who will.”
Chuck Plunkett, the editor who published the piece, resigned a month later, about a week after Dave Krieger, the editorial-page editor at Boulder’s Daily Camera — which is also owned by Digital First Media — was fired for self-publishing a scathing critique of Alden, against his publisher’s wishes.
For his part, Maxwell hasn’t heard from anybody at Alden regarding his own column. “I would imagine in the grand scheme of things I’m just a pimple on the butt of what Alden would really care about,” he said. “I can’t claim to know everything about them, but I don’t think they’re really caring about the individual people or products. I think it’s a spreadsheet from what I’ve gathered.”
Alden did not respond to a request for comment from Mediaite.
“Never has this paper told me what I can or cannot cannot write,” said Maxwell, who previously did stints at the Winston Salem-Journal and the Chapel Hill Herald, which no longer exists. “I have written things that the publisher has not been fond of on more than one occasion. If that changed, I would probably leave the business.”
In the meantime, he said he is at peace with his decision not to take a buyout, in spite of the looming threat Alden poses. “They don’t have a majority share now,” Maxwell said. “We focus on the things we can focus on — and right now, that’s journalism.”
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