Newspaper owners are coming for your democracy

These are tough times for the newspaper industry, tougher times for people who make their living as ink-stained wretches, and it’s no picnic for readers either when the newspaper owners talk to us as if we’re stupid on those occasions when they talk to their customers at all.

We know what a dying newspaper looks like, we know when the news is lighter and the physical size of the paper itself approaches “brochure” more than newspaper.

So when the owner of the Denver Post — also the owner of the St. Paul Pioneer Press — laid off 30 percent of the staff yesterday, there was only lipstick left to put on the pig.

The paper couldn’t even come up with more than five paragraphs of copy to describe its own demise. There’s some in-depth coverage.

“The Denver Post will emerge on the other side still doing important work that impacts the lives of our readers – stories that inform them, move them, surprise them and entertain them. We will continue our aggressive, groundbreaking efforts to find ways to reach and connect with those readers,” Editor Lee Ann Colacioppo told her remaining employees.

She’s been there for 20 years and she gave it to her employees about as straight as any editor has.

But what’s happening is a death rattle on the doorstep.

“I don’t understand the business plan,” Jesse Aaron Paul, political reporter at the Post, tells Washington Post media writer Margaret Sullivan. “How does cutting off a leg help you keep running?”

It doesn’t.

Alden Capital, the hedge fund that owns Digital First, knows how to make money while stripping its properties. They don’t buy newspapers; they buy debt at a discount. The company is burning every paper it owns to the ground. The Wall Street tycoon gets richer with every blaze.

Readers are at least smart enough to see what’s happening, and they’re taking their frustration out by refusing to buy the papers, thus hastening their demise.

“Increasingly, your typical daily newspaper is owned by someone who is actively destroying the local journalism we want to preserve,” Matt DeRienzo, an independent newspaper publisher and former employee of Digital First in Connecticut, wrote on Medium in January.

For sure, the digital world has created the oxygen for the blaze that’s wiping out newspapers. But DeRienzo says the hedge funds are supplying the gasoline.

Digital First didn’t give a new paywall much time to work. It started in January when John Ingold, a reporter at the paper, made an impassioned series of pleas on Twitter for people to support its work.

Ingold went to yesterday’s beheadings, then went back to work.

“Be a noisy subscriber,” Matt DeRienzo prescribed in his essay on how to support a newspaper whose owners are destroying it.

A week ago, there was a faint glimmer that some readers around Minnesota are doing just that.

In the Red Wing Republican Eagle, publisher Neal Ronquist asked for “everyone’s help” to save the newspaper industry.

Ronquist was responding to pushback from readers of RiverTown Multimedia’s papers (a division of the ubiquitous Forum Communications) decision after the company closed offices in several cities — Woodbury, for example — where it owns newspapers. It did so while telling readers the journalism wouldn’t suffer.

We’ve embraced technology, resulting in the automation and centralization of many processes and tasks. This has allowed us to retain, and employ, content generators and sales professionals in the communities we serve.

We’ve shrunk the number of buildings we own and operate. We continue to support the communities we cover even as our physical footprint dwindles; it’s because the evolution of our business no longer requires enormous pieces of equipment, or high volumes of people. Just as many factories have reduced in size or number as technology has changed, so have we. One reporter with a smartphone has literally replaced dozens of people compared to 30 years ago. Same goes for a sales representative with a tablet.

The readers who know what lipstick looks like are correct. There’s a relationship between quality journalism, and the people available to do it.

“His point about how the newsrooms are producing more content than ever is incredibly inaccurate,” a former RiverTown journalist told me. “I hope he doesn’t believe that.

“One year ago… literally… there were 38 FTEs (fulltime employees) in RiverTown newsrooms. Today there are 22.”

It is the nature of corporate executives to try to put the best spin on bad news, but it’s  counterproductive  — not to mention: hypocritical — when the business is  local journalism.

What might have been a more honest message from newspaper execs to the readers?

“We’re coming for your democracy. For God’s sake, stop us while you still can!”

  • Jim in RF

    Went through this when I dropped the PiPress. Aside from service issues, renewing doesn’t help with the product by reinvesting; it’s just more $$ to be shaved off by the owner. It really is a death spiral.

    • Jim in RF
      • Yeah, I know, everybody has a story.

        Look at the big picture.

        • Gary F

          You don’t buy a used car from the classifieds, you don’t look through help wanted section looking for a job. You read the box score of the ballgame on your phone app. You subscribe to the Athletic. My wife gets a gazillion emails and texts from the stores she buys from. You catch a release your walleyes, so less fish to wrap. They make a nice plastic roll dispenser with masking tape already stuck to the plastic. So I guess that leaves potting training a puppy, and I have a cat. A left leaning editorial board I’ve stopped reading. And local news that I will miss.

          • Barton

            The news print makes a good lining for gardening beds each year.

          • Gary F

            And my friend says newsprint is best for glass cleaning. And its not wide enough for most bird cages.

          • Barton

            I do use it when I clean the windows each spring….

          • Gary F

            worms love it.

          • Yeah, big joke. Funny stuff.

            Elderly people are being abused in Minnesota. Did you smartphone force the politicians to confront the problem? Your birds. Your fish? Your baseball team?

            No?

            Huh..

          • Gary F

            Some things I will miss. But the paper as a business has not been able to change their business model to keep in touch with the times. But then, so much talk about “diversity” from the editorial board lacking any center -right members. That is, if your view of diversity includes center right opinion. The center right reader was the first to leave once there was more competition. We took our dollars elsewhere.

          • The opinion page isn’t reporting. It’s opinion.

          • Gary F

            But it gets sold in the same package. By buying a newspaper for its stories on nursing homes and city hall, you are also buying the editorial opinion.

          • But one is opinion and one is factual depth. The impact of a newspaper is the latter more than the former. But, you’re right, we certainly seeing more people willing to give up the latter to get the former. That’s a bug, not a feature.

          • Rob

            If it chaps your cookies that much to feel like your center-right dollars are “supporting” op/ed pages that don’t ape your ideology, read the paper for free at your local library, or borrow a copy from a friend or co-worker.

          • Joseph

            Wasn’t it when the local TV news stations started doing investigative stories on the Elder-Abuse stories that politicians actually started to really care about the problem?

          • Jim in RF

            If you’re saying the PiPress’s opinion page is leftist you haven’t seen the PiPress in awhile. They’re still swift-boating HRC.

          • Rob

            Sounds like you’re cutting off your nose to spite your face.
            Here’s a pro tip: Just read the news, and skip the op/ed pages.

  • Barton

    I know I am part of the problem: I get my news off the internet and MPR. Except the Sunday paper – but I take a national paper, not the local paper. I do pay for the online access to the local (as well as 2 national and 1 international) news organization. But those costs are cheap in comparison and I never click on the ads, so I know there is no extra ad revenue going to the organizations.

    All that said, there has to be a way to get an altruistic organization to buy and make a run with the news papers. Hedge funds and other investment vehicles are always going to put their shareholders before the product: they are basically required to do so by SEC rules. And really, it is their whole purpose.

    • // my news off the internet and MPR.

      the dirty little secret, of course is the internet and MPR follow what the newspapers are reporting. Everyone does. Newspaper set the news agenda, it’s what politicians respond to.

      No body has the resources of journalists that newspaper do, so it only makes sense.

      When newspapers die, every other form of journalism is going to die too.

      • Barton

        That is true. MPR: “according to the Washington Post this morning….” The internet sites I’m using are (for the most part) actual print media (Strib, NYT, The Guardian, but not Minnpost, which is still an aggregator).

        • MrE85

          There is plenty of original copy in MinnPost. Unless all you read is The Glean.

  • SPHINX

    I’ve been following the slow development of Civil — an independent platform that’s driven by blockchain technology (set to launch this season). Whether or not it will work, I don’t know. What I do know is that the ad/publisher-driven model of journalism is not working.

    https://www.cjr.org/business_of_news/civil-says-the-future-of-media-is-blockchains-and-cryptocurrencies.php

  • Rob

    Am I a bad person because I read the online versions of the PiPress and the Strib, rather than subscribing to the dead tree versions – which would be delivered to my sidewalk or to the far end of my driveway?

    • It’s not for me to say. But I think people need to recognize that newsrooms provide the content to both the dead tree and the digital platforms and they’re badly mistaken if they think the demise of one does not lead to the demise — or significant degradation — of the other.

  • Guest

    Blogs don’t do investigative journalism. Folks purchase / subscribe / read online to get news. Many have dropped out because one side is the “tone” of the paper.

    I say to get back revenue from all sides, have an editor help two from each side of an issue write a JOINT article, where each side presents its points and responds. No need for put-downs or sound-bites, but a real in-depth view of how each side sees the facts and responds to the other.

    YES, it would be hard to hash out enough so both can put their name to a joint article but who better than a newspaper? Get a real journalist to score the facts and an editor to keep from slinging mud.

    Folks want news to form their own opinion, nobody likes to be told what their opinion should be. Few want to listen to both talking past the other guy, but want a real response to a real question.

    • You want two reporters on each story? Each responsible for telling all sides of the story?