Why didn’t anyone save the Pioneer Press?

The Berkshire Eagle, based in Pittsfield, Mass., was once one of America’s great local newspapers. I know. I had to compete with it in the early days of my career in journalism and that sort of competition was good for the citizens of the area we served, where most of the media was owned by local people who gave a damn about such things.

Daniel Pearl covered the northern part of the county for the Eagle. He went on to a career with the Wall Street Journal before he was beheaded by militants in Pakistan where he’d gone to investigate alleged links between American Richard Reid (the “shoe bomber”) and Al-Qaeda. Pearl cut his teeth working at a local paper. Lots of great journalists have.

“It is not our duty as newspapers to give readers what we think they ought to have, but to give the readers what they want,” Dean Singleton, the boss of MediaNews, declared when he bought the place in 1995.

“There are people who carp about the Eagle,” said Alan Cooperman, who once toiled for the Eagle, and then the Washington Post and then the Pew Research Center. “And frankly, they never have seen other local papers in communities this size. There are a handful of other papers as good – there are maybe a handful that are better – and there are boatloads full that are nowhere near as good.”

A couple of weeks ago, the Eagle, which is nowhere near as good as it was, was sold by the hedge fund that’s presided over its decline.

A group of local leaders saw what that sort of mentality led to and decided they’d seen enough. They bought the paper to return it to local control and higher quality.

The Berkshire Eagle was owned by the same outfit that owns the St. Paul Pioneer Press, which somehow is still in business after being ravaged by the out-of-towners.

In today’s Star Tribune, businesses columnist Lee Schafer refuses to gloat about the doom that is ahead for the paper.

“This outcome isn’t good for our region and it’s not even good for the Star Tribune, which prints the Pioneer Press and distributes it in some areas,” he writes.

Investors making their living at the distressed end of the market are an unusual bunch even by the standards of hedge funds. They often buy into sinking companies other investors work hard to avoid, perhaps by buying claims on the assets of a company through deeply discounted bank loans or other debt instruments. Alden jumped into the newspaper industry just as major publishers including the predecessors to Digital First were sliding into bankruptcy several years ago.

As a fund manager, Alden collects its fees mostly from a slice of profits on realized investment gains. To complain that it seems to lack interest in maintaining news organizations as civic institutions is like complaining that a new puppy seems to bark too much.

For a firm like Alden everything is for sale at the right price, of course, but even if local investors now emerge as buyers for Digital First assets a new golden age isn’t likely to start.

We can, argue, of course, that the best days of newspapers have occurred. But it’s undeniable still that newspapers — and the people who work for them — set the agenda for public debate. They are not irrelevant.

It’s unlikely that there are any local angels on this side of the river who will rise to the opportunity as the locals in Massachusetts did; there’s a lot more money in western Massachusetts than eastern Minnesota.

There’s also still a sense of civic responsibility by the upper crust that has vanished over time elsewhere.

And, no doubt, there are people who are only too happy to continue to watch the slow death of a newspaper, as if they or the region somehow benefit from the mentality.

What’s done is done. What’s likely to happen is likely to happen. The Pioneer Press’ long goodbye will get a little longer. But we’re still left wondering why the area — and, in particular, its local leaders — didn’t appreciate the value of a local newspaper when they had a chance to make a difference.

Related: The plot to save the Pioneer Press from its hedge fund owners (City Pages)

On ‘harvesting’ the Pioneer Press (MinnPost)

From the archive: The miracle of the daily paper (NewsCut)