Journalists from the Pioneer Press and other newspapers in the Digital First chain rallied together last week in New York, demanding their bosses at Alden Global Capital invest in journalism – or sell to new owners who will.
The protest channeled growing outrage among employees at Alden-owned publications across the country, sparked by reporting from Harvard University’s Nieman Lab showing Digital First had the industry’s highest profit margin last year.
The report broke down revenues and expenses at several Alden-owned publications, revealing that Pioneer Press workers delivered a tidy $10 million profit for the hedge fund in 2017. The newspaper’s profit margin is 13 percent, a number considered healthy – if not robust – for the industry.
The numbers stunned Ferraro and other members of the Minnesota Newspaper and Communications Guild, who have watched the Pioneer Press newsroom shrink from over 100 journalists to less than 50 since Alden seized its majority stake in Digital First eight years ago.
Ferraro called the report “shocking.” Capitol reporter Dave Orrick, a spokesperson for the Pioneer Press Guild unit, said the numbers show Alden is more interested in wringing short-term profits out of Digital First newspapers than in making them viable for the long haul.
“It’s a highly profitable company reducing staff at the expense of the core product,” Orrick said. “That is paradox in most business models. It is an eventual disaster in the case of a community newspaper.”
Turning up the heat
To avoid that disaster, newspaper workers are fighting on multiple fronts, including the court of public opinion.
Outside Alden’s offices last week, they carried signs demanding the hedge fund “invest or sell” and “get out of our news.” Although Alden refused to meet with the workers or receive their petition with 11,000-plus signatures, the action drew coverage from several prominent media outlets.
Alden’s top executives “were probably in their mansions somewhere or vacationing on a tropical island” during the protest, Ferraro said. “But they knew we were there. We’ve just got to keep this campaign going.”
Bending a global hedge fund to their will won’t be easy, but Digital First workers are finding strength in numbers – even as those numbers dwindle. Despite being spread out in newsrooms across the country, journalists are taking Alden to task with a consistent message and united voice.
That’s the power of a union, Orrick said.
Workers at 12 Alden-owned newspapers share an international union, the NewsGuild-CWA. The union creates “infrastructure,” Orrick explained, for workers across the newspaper chain to come together, strategize and amplify each other’s voice.
“We don’t have to go searching around LinkedIn for who we know, who might be a friendly face to try to create a network,” Orrick said. “That national network already exists.”
Guild members leveraged their collective strength in bargaining two years ago, forming a united front in contract talks with Digital First and winning raises for the first time in years.
They’ve also hired an investigative reporter of their own to dig into the hedge fund and Digital First’s business practices. The findings, published on dfmworkers.organd in national publications, have helped poke holes in the narrative that the Internet is killing newspapers (it’s actually Wall Street), and served as fodder for supporters relentlessly targeting Alden on social media with the hashtag #NewsMatters.
Search goes on
Still, Orrick acknowledged the Guild’s successes have been “measured” to this point. The pursuit of new ownership – locally and across the Digital First chain – continues.
“The fact is we’re trying to sell something we don’t own to some sort of entity or parties that we don’t have any standing to bargain with,” Orrick said. “So it’s a bizarre situation in that sense.”
Ferarro believes the Pioneer Press’ best hope is a new owner with local ties and, perhaps, a sense of civic responsibility, pointing to Mankato billionaire Glen Taylor’s acquisition of the Star Tribune four years ago.
“I would think a lot of business people would be happy with a $10 million annual profit,” Ferarro said. “We are still, I think, doing really well with our coverage of a lot of communities, we are still the No. 1 choice in the east metro, and we have a really loyal base of readers.
“Let’s hope someone likes the numbers, likes the good journalism we’re doing in the east metro and we can move on from this disaster.”