More complaining about Alden Global Capital’s dismemberment of the storied newspapers it recently acquired from the Tribune chain appeared this month in a long and — to journalists, anyway -– infuriating essay in The Atlantic magazine by its reporter McKay Coppins.
This dismemberment, Coppins noted, includes the Chicago Tribune’s former headquarters, the landmark Tribune Tower, which has been converted into an apartment building.
But at least what remains of the newspaper still has modest offices in an industrial area across town near the newspaper’s press. Another former Tribune property, the Hartford Courant, no longer has even that much. Somehow Alden acquired the Courant’s headquarters on Broad Street in Hartford and kicked the newspaper out even before acquiring the Courant itself and the other Tribune papers. The Courant now seems to be entirely a work-from-home operation, and like several other Connecticut papers, including the Journal Inquirer, now is printed by the Springfield Republican. The Courant’s address has become a post office box.
From Los Angeles to Chicago to Baltimore to New York and to Hartford, how the mighty have fallen, though the journalists who remain in the formerly great papers of old soldier on bravely and sometimes well.
Of course the dismemberment of the former Tribune papers is just part of the decline of serious state and local journalism generally. But while Alden may seem especially predatory in its liquidations, the company is not a cause but just a symptom of what has gone wrong with the news business — and not just the rise of the internet and the transfer of advertising there but, more so, the public’s loss of interest in state and local news.
This is in large part a matter of declining demographics.
After all, newspapers survived major challenges from competing new technologies before — first radio and then television, whose main products are entertainment, not news, and whose state and local news reporting always have been and remain weak. Even now anyone who wants to be well informed about state and local government and community events and to participate in public life has to subscribe to a newspaper.
While some places — including Connecticut — now have a few internet sites providing state and local news, most are niche operations that don’t attempt to serve any area comprehensively. They concentrate on government and their audiences tend to be smaller even than newspaper audiences. They are not any more profitable than most newspapers, and many are operated as nonprofits supported by donations, if sometimes large ones from foundations. This method of operation is hardly a business plan and may subject the internet sites to more political pressures than advertising subjects newspapers to.
But if more people wanted state and local news and commentary, newspapers and news-based internet sites would have more readers, and as their audiences grew, they might become profitable from increased advertising.
The movement to convert newspapers to nonprofits and to operate internet news sites that way presumes that substantial interest from the public is no longer attainable.
It is hard to argue with that presumption. After all, throughout the country and even in Connecticut most young people, the products of social promotion, graduate from high school without ever mastering basic math and English. Most gain little if any knowledge of the country’s history and civics. Even in Connecticut, a comparatively wealthy and well-educated state, the typical high school graduate or college freshman cannot identify the three branches of government. (You know: the lawyers, the teacher unions, and the liquor stores.)
That is, most young people are not being prepared to become citizens in a democracy, much less followers of state and local news.
This may be the underlying reason Alden is liquidating so much of the former Tribune papers, draining away their capital, like their real estate, and why no one outbid Alden for the Tribune papers with the confidence that solid journalism could be made profitable again. For the future isn’t just disruptive technological change but also social change, which may be far more disruptive.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.