Latest in a series of posts about the Morning Call
“Our goal here tonight is to bring more members of our community into the know about the state of things at your local newspaper with regard to potential hedge fund ownership. . . . We are at a crossroads.” Kayla Dwyer, reporter and Secretary of the Morning Call Guild
“The boat will continue to sink unless we can find top leadership that cares about serving our communities and whose commitment extends beyond short-term profits.” Bill White
Gadfly attended the “Reimagining the Morning Call” meeting last night.
Kayla Dwyer laid out the purpose of the meeting.
The Morning Call has “shrunk over time.” Industry forces have been “challenging.” The internet has been “a major source of competition.” The Morning Call news staff has shrunk by about 40% over the past few years. The Morning Call no longer has even a physical location. The Morning Call’s parent company is poised to be taken over by Alden Global Capital, known in the media as “Destroyer of Newspapers.” Alden cares nothing about news or serving a community. Its business model is to “extract large profits” by cutting and slashing. The Morning Call Guild of journalists has embarked on a campaign to find an “alternative ownership model,” is looking for a way to bring the Morning Call back under local control. They need community support, and the purpose of this meeting was to start to foster community awareness. Our councilwoman Olga Negron was one of the panelists and expressed strong support for the Guild’s efforts.
Though it was not the purpose of this meeting to elaborate on any of the possible alternate ownership models in detail, Gadfly was intrigued by several mentioned.
Gadfly was also struck by awareness that the future of news might not be in print news but that the key element in whatever future form was insuring the presence of real journalists.
Gadfly is vitally interested in this subject. Followers know that his very existence is the result of a growing void in local mainstream news coverage.
And even he is retiring soon, with no replacement yet secured.
When I started at The Morning Call in 1974 — I know, I’m old — we considered ourselves a newspaper of record.
Meetings, police news, courts, elections all were covered extensively throughout our then nine-county region. We covered county councils, school boards, supervisors, commissioners, zoning boards, planning commissions, sewer commissions.
As someone who attended a lot of those meetings, I can tell you that many were really dull. The Call eventually came around to the idea that we should be more selective about covering ultra-routine meetings and instead use some of that time to develop more interesting stories in these communities.
But even when there’s nothing much happening, there’s value in the local media’s showing their faces in these communities, at least occasionally. More often than not, our reporters were the ones reminding officials that they were about to violate the sunshine law, letting readers know their government wasn’t functioning the way it should or just reporting community news that might affect their lives.
Our focus on very local news was so great that we at one time had five bureaus, not counting Harrisburg and Washington, and put out five different editions for readers in disparate parts of our circulation area.
Meanwhile, we were producing outstanding investigative and other in-depth stories that made a difference in our communities. Our commitment to excellence was reflected as well in our feature and sports sections, our photography and our innovative approaches to newspaper design.
Now, thanks to wave after wave of layoffs and buyouts and the closure of our bureaus and now even our home office’s building in Allentown, officials in many of our communities are less likely to see a reporter in the audience or stories about their government, so residents often have to look elsewhere for news about what’s happening.
It’s reasonable to blame some of this on the societal changes that have eroded newspaper readership. But I blame a lot of it on our sale to Tribune Co. in 2000. We were saddled with a succession of inept, even vile, corporate leaders who built up enormous debt and tried to slash their way to higher profits, mostly fleeing with millions in golden parachutes while the employees went years without raises and endured wave after wave of layoffs and buyouts.
The talented, dedicated people who have remained have worked valiantly to produce what still is a very good newspaper. But the boat will continue to sink unless we can find top leadership that cares about serving our communities and whose commitment extends beyond short-term profits.
That does not describe Alden Global Capital, which has been stalking Tribune and now is the front runner to purchase it. Its reputation as the destroyer of American newspapers is well deserved. In its quest to strangle profits from newspapers large and small, this New York hedge fund has eliminated the jobs of scores of journalists, leaving behind the bleached bones of once-vibrant news gathering organizations.
The good news is that there are active efforts to rescue the Call and other Tribune newspapers from Alden’s clutches.
How can you help? Letters to the editor would be great, both to help educate other readers and to offer content that can be amplified on social media to a broader audience, including Tribune shareholders.
I recognize that we’ll never return to the days of five editions and the newspaper of record. But there’s still time to save and ideally reinvigorate a critical force for ensuring that people in the Lehigh Valley are informed about what’s happening in their communities.
Kayla Dwyer, a reporter from the Morning Call reached out to me to talk about the many issues reporters are having with the paper. Their biggest concerned at this point, an investor far from here will end up purchasing the paper and it will become worse than already is to this point. Big pockets trying to eradicate local papers are paying attention and purchasing them to dry them out. A few local reporters that are real journalist and are from the Lehigh Valley are reaching out to community leaders to express their concerns and to hear ideas. Please understand that this is a concern from local reporters not the MC administration. Re-imagining our Morning Call as our community paper! Even if its turn into a non-profit local newspaper! What do you think? Interested in hearing more about it or sharing your ideas? Join us in virtually on March 31st at 7:00 pm. For more details about the meeting, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Hope to see you on March 31st. Here is the registration link for the forum: https://bit.ly/3sTfhoa
The mystery bidder willing to plunk down $30 million to $40 million to buy The Morning Call Media Group is a former investment banker who said he sees the newspaper and the Lehigh Valley community it serves as providing a foundation for a sustainable business for years to come.
“There are many encouraging examples of both large global news organizations as well as small community news organizations that survive and eventually prosper based on improving the quality of the news service,” said Gary Lutin, a 73-year-old Manhattan resident who chairs The Shareholder Forum, which provides information to help investors make sound decisions. “That is the way to assure a sustainable news organization.”
In a phone conversation Friday night, Lutin confirmed he is the bidder — previously only known as “Bidder C” — who submitted an offer to Tribune Publishing on March 10 to buy The Morning Call. Lutin kept his comments mostly limited and spoke in generalities, with the process so early on.
Tribune, in a U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing Tuesday, said it referred the proposal to Alden Global Capital, the hedge fund that announced Feb. 16 it was acquiring the 68% of Tribune stock it doesn’t already own. Alden representatives have not responded to inquiries from The Morning Call recently, including one Friday night after the newspaper spoke to Lutin.
“Alden has expressed interest in talking with me once their acquisition is concluded and they are in a position to discuss what will then be their property,” Lutin said.
In the case of The Morning Call and its nearly 100 employees, other bids for the newspaper could come together, including a nascent effort from a group of community and business leaders organized by Tony Iannelli, president and CEO of the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce.
However, splitting a single newspaper away from a chain, which has centralized many operations and outsourced printing to neighboring states, isn’t easy to do. It also remains unclear whether Alden, if and when its acquisition is complete, would be willing to part with a profitable newspaper.
“I do know a little bit about the area, but my interest in this is not sentimental,” Lutin said Friday. “It’s a very practical thing. I’ve analyzed the units that Tribune has and based on the information available, this was one of a few that looked like they might be attractive opportunities. And when it became appropriate to narrow it down to one, this looked like the best one.”
With his bid preliminary, he declined to discuss specifics of how he would run The Morning Call if his offer is successful. But speaking generally about news publishing, Lutin said he believes in a commonsense approach, such as establishing a governance structure that would provide for “board representation by community interests and by the publisher’s own journalists who are reporting on what concerns the community.”
By the way, in Gadfly’s last post on this meeting, he suggested we inventory what sections of the Morning Call we now read, those of us who are till subscribers. Follower JR pointed out that I forgot the obituaries. Sigh. Yes. At a certain age you find yourself reading the obituaries.