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'Project Mayhem': Reporters Race To Save Tribune Papers From 'Vulture' Fund

The Baltimore Sun‘s Liz Bowie is leading reporters across Tribune properties to find civic-minded owners for the chain’s newspapers before a hedge fund with a record of slashing cuts buys the company.

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Journalists working for the storied newspapers of Tribune Publishing Company are racing against the most intense deadline of their careers to find new owners for their company before May 21.

That’s when the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, infamous for stripping newsrooms to the bone, is poised to make good on its plans to buy the chain in a $635 million deal. Alden already holds half of Tribune Publishing’s publicly traded shares.

Under the leadership of a veteran education reporter for Tribune’s Baltimore Sun, Liz Bowie, journalists have banded together to stop Alden. Bowie has galvanized colleagues and helped organize peers at the chain’s other newsrooms, which include the Chicago Tribune, the New York Daily News and the Hartford Courant. These journalists are determined to shape their own destiny. And they call the effort “Project Mayhem.”

“I felt that if the numbers of reporters and editors were significantly reduced, that would change everything,” says Bowie, who has worked at the Sun for more than three decades. “And so I didn’t feel I wanted to be part of a newsroom that couldn’t do good work anymore.”

Alden first surfaced as a player at the company in late 2019, when it acquired 32% of Tribune Publishing’s shares.

A few months later, Bowie and some like-minded colleagues kicked off a movement that would give birth to Project Mayhem. They called it “Save Our Sun.”

They sought a local buyer, idealistic about their own intentions but clear-eyed about those of Alden, which soon took over half the Tribune company and made clear it wanted complete ownership.

Save Our Sun won the support of journalists, local politicians and Baltimore Orioles Hall of Famer Cal Ripken. Privately, Bowie and a few colleagues conferred with the civic leaders and the heads of major regional philanthropies. Some of the people they talked to were also speaking with Maryland-based hotel magnate Stewart Bainum Jr. Earlier this year, Bainum agreed to buy the Sun for the respectable sum of $65 million from Alden once its purchase of Tribune Publishing went through. He wants to run the paper as a nonprofit enterprise.

But Alden slow-walked the Baltimore side deal, according to several people with knowledge of the negotiations, demanding a pricey five-year contract to continue sharing things the Sun would need immediately, such as content from the other Tribune papers and the company’s content management systems. Incensed, Bainum cut off the deal, and in March, he sought to mount a challenge to Alden for Tribune.

Suddenly, the entire company was in play once more and Alden’s grip did not seem assured. (Through a spokesman, the hedge fund has declined to comment to NPR.) Reporters from other Tribune newspapers who have joined Project Mayhem now connect with Bowie on a dedicated Slack channel and in weekly Zoom meetings to try to replicate her alchemy.

“Liz Bowie and I, we probably talk at least twice a week. I mean, I talk to her more than I talk to my in-laws,” says Jennifer Sheehan, who covers food and entertainment for the Allentown Morning Call in the Lehigh Valley, an hour north of Philadelphia. “We’re just always updating each other on the latest, even if it’s like, ‘Boy, we’re really worried about X, you know?’ ”

Sheehan says that of all the corporate owners out there, she considers Alden the worst.

Alden’s “callous disregard” for journalism

Alden, which already owns roughly 100 daily newspapers, has said it wants to build a sustainable path for them. But it is better known for slashing its newsrooms in Denver, the Bay Area and elsewhere. A report by the NewsGuild, which also represents nearly 1,000 journalists at Alden’s newspapers in the Digital First Media chain, found Alden shifted more than $100 million away from its newspapers in a risky investment in the Fred’s discount retail and drugstore chain. The deal, and ultimately the whole retail chain, faltered and then imploded entirely.

“One of the things that makes news organizations vital and essential, particularly for local news, is the ability to have institutional knowledge,” says Martin Reynolds, the former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune in Northern California. “Folks who cover specific beats relative to city government, relative to schools, a community, whatever it may be.”

Reynolds worked his way up from an internship at the Oakland Tribune to the top newsroom job just a few years before Alden Global took control. A steady erosion of staff became an avalanche, he says.

“People would leave. Folks would not be rehired. And what then ends up happening is you have less and less capacity to cover the vital institutions that people need to make the decisions to help govern their lives,” Reynolds says. “What we saw was just a callous disregard for the importance of that reporting capacity.”

Ultimately, Alden merged the Oakland Tribune with other papers in the region and laid off much of the staff. One leading industry analyst has called Alden “vultures.”

Adds Matt DeRienzo, formerly a publisher and news executive over Connecticut newspapers owned by Alden Global Capital: “Their business plan is to dismantle local journalism. It’s not that it is happening to them because of market forces; it is part of their model.”

Back in February, NPR obtained audio of Chicago Tribune Editor-in-Chief Colin McMahon speaking to his newsroom. McMahon, who also serves as chief content officer for Tribune Publishing, said Alden demanded among the highest profit margins in the newspaper business.

Tribune’s papers are already profitable, McMahon told staffers of his Chicago paper, earning between 10 and 13% profit margins. Alden believed it should be above 20%, he said. That would mean roughly doubling the profit margin — from newspapers already deeply slashed under waves of prior Tribune corporate management. The Sun‘s newsroom, for example, is less than a quarter of the size that it was just over 20 years ago. (Disclosure: I was a reporter at the Sun from 1994 through 2004. )

A rival bid surfaces

Earlier this year, as Bainum sought to put together a $680 million bid for the entire company, versions of Save Our Sun surfaced across the chain, hoping to win community support and attract possible buyers for each paper. A surprising number emerged. Looking to join the effort to keep Tribune out of Alden’s hands, Florida investor Mason Slaine shot a note to Gabrielle Russon, a business reporter at the Orlando Sentinel who covers Disney World, with a generous offer.

“When I saw that email, I had to reread it a couple of times just to make sure. I felt like I was imagining something,” Russon says. "$100 million and someone so supportive of the papers? I was worried it was a joke.”

It helps that these journalists work in newsrooms are represented by unions and are active in them. Bowie says the resurgent NewsGuild provided funds for the “Save Our Sun” movement and aided her research in Baltimore.

“The structure for the union has also allowed us to talk openly with each other,” Bowie says. “It allows us to speak out about our pay and our working conditions — and that’s protected speech.”

The guild has been a longtime presence in Baltimore. It is new in newsrooms in Allentown, Annapolis, Chicago, Orlando and several papers in Virginia; a formal vote to win recognition at the New York Daily News is set to occur next week, according to a guild organizer in that newsroom.

Yet nothing — nothing — in this tale runs smooth. Swiss philanthropist Hansjörg Wyss, who made his billions from medical devices, joined forces with Bainum a few weeks ago to help outbid Alden for Tribune. He withdrew last Friday. He had concluded his dreams of transforming the Chicago Tribune into a national paper to rival The Washington Post and others would cost too much, according to three people with detailed knowledge of events.

Tribune Publishing’s special committee assigned to evaluate offers to buy the company says Bainum is no longer viewed as a credible suitor. Yet newsroom union leaders say they believe he will be able to return with a viable and binding offer to top Alden and beat that deadline, a month from now.

“A year ago, we thought, ‘Well, we have nothing to lose and everything to gain’,” Bowie recalls. “Why don’t we just start this crazy, crazy idea off to see if we can find a buyer for our newspaper? Now we’re sitting in a place where the entire company might be sold in the next couple of weeks.”

“I think that the journalists of Tribune see this as a really unique moment in an effort to save local news,” she adds.

Even if Bainum’s bid falls short, Bowie says, it “opens this door a crack to the idea that newspapers across the country should be owned by local owners and that there’s a way to revive these institutions and not just say they’re dead, let’s kill them off.”

“I hope that this really starts a movement,” Bowie says. “Very seriously, I hope this starts a movement to revive newspapers all over the country.”

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