Bay Area journalists protest job cutbacks under hedge fund newspaper ownership
on November 21, 2019
On Tuesday, journalists from around the Bay Area gathered in front of the pergola at Lake Merritt to denounce what they say are a decline in working conditions at The East Bay Times, San Jose Mercury News, and Monterey Herald as a consequence of nearly a decade of ownership under MediaNews Group and its hedge fund owner, Alden Global Capital.
People held signs with the hashtag #SaveLocalNews paired with statements like “Stop Wall Street Looting,” “Invest in our papers or sell!,” and “Alden Global is Killing Journalism in Your Community,” while speakers, standing on a soapbox, took turns speaking through a megaphone. Journalists attending the rally on the clock did not hesitate to flank the makeshift stage and position microphones, cameras, and notepads inches from the speakers. Predictably, none of the speakers flinched.
Reporters from the three papers described working in newsrooms where layoffs, understaffing and low pay undermine their ability to do their jobs. They blamed the executives of Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund in New York, for divesting from the newspapers and using those profits to fund other businesses.
Alden Global Capital owns MediaNews Group, which also goes by the name Digital First Media, a Denver-based company that oversees 30 daily newspapers in California, including The East Bay Times, Mercury News and Monterey Herald.
“We are gathered here today to tell the folks in the Lipstick Building in mid-town Manhattan, 3,000 miles east of here: Your day is coming. We are coming for you,” said George Kelly, a breaking news reporter for The East Bay Times.
In a phone call prior to the rally, Michael Applegate, executive officer at the Pacific Media Workers Guild, the union that represents journalists at the three papers, said that between 2009 and 2011, Alden Global Capital acquired MediaNews Group through gradual stock purchases and conversions of debt into equity. According to Applegate, since the hedge fund’s acquisition of MediaNews Group, the newspapers have lost at least 248 jobs.
Representatives from MediaNews Group and Alden Global Capital did not return repeated requests for comment.
Union officials representing the three Bay Area papers are currently in negotiations with officials at the MediaNews Group over the reporters’ next three-year work contract. So far, according to Thomas Peele, an investigative reporter who writes for The East Bay Times and Mercury News and is the vice chair of the East Bay News Guild, MediaNews Group staff have only said “no” to reporters’ demands, which include raising salaries. The two sides are scheduled to be back at the bargaining table on December 20.
(Peele is a lecturer at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, which produces Oakland North.)
“We we’re already suffering from the downturn in the industry, but Alden essentially took a cut and ripped it open,” said Robert Salonga, a criminal justice reporter with Mercury News and vice chair of the Mercury News Guild, in an interview at the rally.
Danielle Landaker, who has worked at The Monterey Herald for almost 20 years, described what staffing cuts look like at her paper. She said that when she first started her job, there were between 100 and 125 people in the newsroom. Today, she said, “I’m one of probably four people in the office.”
Annie Sciacca, a reporter for The East Bay Times and secretary for the East Bay News Guild, said she started noticing how poorly her paper was faring under Alden’s ownership following a round of buyouts and layoffs in 2018. “Why are we losing talent and institutional knowledge from our papers?” she recalled wondering.
“Our message is to basically invest or sell to someone who will care about the news,” Sciacca said.
Due to staffing cuts, the journalists who remain are often overworked, protesters said, which can mean important events go uncovered. “As recently as 10 years ago, there were three or four people who were covering the amount of material that I am now,” Salonga said. Consequently, he continued, “no one is keeping an eye on really critical processes for the public. And what that ends up translating to is more corruption, more bad deals for the public.”
Leonardo Castaneda, a reporter on demographics and income inequality for The Mercury News, said that in his one year at the paper, he’s noticed problems with the small workforce, too. “City council meetings go unreported because we have one reporter covering five cities and they just can’t be at everything all the time,” he said. This poses problems for residents who want to exercise their rights, Castaneda said, because if people find out about consequential government decisions late—or not at all—“it makes it harder for them to take action.”
Under Alden Global Capital ownership, the protesters said, workers’ pay has also stalled. Peele said in a speech that staff at the three papers have received one raise in 10 years, no longer receive company contributions to their retirement funds, and pay for high-deductible health insurance.
“I think our plight can be best summed up this way: For journalists living in the Bay Area, the rent is too damn high and the pay is too damn low,” he said to the crowd, which responded with a round of applause.
But, despite difficult working conditions for staff, the California newspapers under MediaNews Group generate big profits for the company, according to Applegate. In 2017, said Applegate, these newspapers made $41 million in profits, a 21 percent profit margin.
“Our California papers bring in twice the profit percentage as highly successful papers like The New York Times and The Washington Post,” said Julie Reynolds, who worked at The Monterey Herald for 10 years as an investigative reporter, and upon leaving the paper in 2015 began investigating Alden Global Capital. From the soapbox, Reynolds said that rather than paying journalists, Alden has been “investing money from your community into unrelated and very questionable businesses around the world,” like the Fred’s pharmacy chain and Payless shoe stores, both of which were liquidated this year.
After speakers had taken their turn on the soapbox, the crowd gradually dispersed.
Speaking to Oakland North, Peele said he doesn’t know if his union will eventually strike to secure their demands, but, he said, “We’re not going to settle for nothing.”
For now, he said, “I don’t know if there’s a lot of morale in the newsroom. There’s a lot of empty desks in the newsroom.”
That same day as the protest, The Chicago Tribune reported that Tribune Publishing’s largest shareholder, Michael Ferro, sold his 25.2 percent stake in the company to Alden Global Capital. Tribune Publishing operates The Chicago Tribune, New York Daily News, The Baltimore Sun, and other local newspapers.
This story was corrected on November 22, 2019 to reflect that Thomas Peele does not write for the Monterey Herald.
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