From the publisher:
Based in Austin, Jim Hightower is no stranger to controversy. He’s a political pundit who leans solidly to the left. But for the first time, Creators Syndicate refused to distribute his weekly column (which we’re printing below) to their member newspapers. While the editor said she liked it, she told Hightower that she couldn’t risk offending her biggest customers.
The controversial topic: hedge fund newspaper owners. Giants like Digital First Media (owner of The Denver Post and Boulder Daily Camera) and GateHouse Media (new owner of The Pueblo Chieftain) together own more than 1,500 newspapers.
While they have great journalists toiling away on their behalf, hedge funds aren’t interested in journalism, truth, the First Amendment or community service. Hedge funds (being hedge funds) are interested in profit — at the expense of everything else. Their goal: cut until they can cut no more, demand ever-higher profit margins and then shut the whole thing down when the product is a mere shadow of its former self.
The Colorado Springs Business Journal believes in businesses. But not all business models are sustainable, good for the community and provide equal benefit to their customers and clients. The Business Journal is proud that we have local ownership; that wasn’t always the case. And when Dolan Media went public (and eventually into bankruptcy), the repercussions echoed from its Minneapolis headquarters all the way to Colorado Springs. Local stories for local businesses stopped being the top goal for the company. Instead, profits became the sole measure of success. With that, came invariable cuts. It was like death by a thousand papercuts.
When John Weiss purchased the paper, it breathed new life into a vital community asset. We don’t answer to shareholders or to a corporate board. We answer to our own values, ethics and solid news judgments. And we answer to our readers, advertisers and supporters. While we’re a business, we are built on a foundation of fair, balanced, accurate reporting. We value local ownership — and you should too. Support the CSBJ: buy a subscription, purchase an ad, attend an event.
— Amy Gillentine Sweet, Publisher
A two-panel cartoon I recently saw showed a character with a sign saying: “First they came for the reporters.” In the next panel, his sign says: “We don’t know what happened after that.”
It was, of course, a retort to Donald Trump’s ignorant campaign to demonize the news media as “the enemy of the people.” But when it comes to America’s once-proud newspapers, their worst enemy is not Trump — nor is it the rising cost of newsprint nor the “free” digital news on websites. Rather, the demise of the real news reporting by our city and regional papers is a product of their profiteering owners. Not the families and companies that built and nurtured true journalism, but the new breed of fast-buck hucksters who’ve scooped up hundreds of America’s newspapers from the bargain bins of media sell-offs.
The buyers are hedge-fund scavengers with names like Digital First Media and GateHouse Media. They know nothing about journalism and care less, for they’re ruthless Wall Street profiteers out to grab big bucks fast by slashing the journalistic and production staffs of each paper, voiding all employee benefits (from pensions to free coffee in the breakroom), shriveling the paper’s size and news content, selling the presses and other assets, tripling the price of their inferior product — then declaring bankruptcy, shutting down the paper and auctioning off the bones before moving on to plunder another town’s paper.
By 2014, America’s two largest newspaper chains were not venerable publishers who believe that a newspaper’s mission includes a commitment to truth and a civic responsibility, but GateHouse and Digital First, whose managers believe that good journalism is measured by the personal profit they can squeeze from it. As revealed last year in an American Prospect article by Robert Kuttner and Hildy Zenger, GateHouse executives had demanded that its papers cut $27 million from their operating expenses. Thousands of newspaper employees suffered that $27 million cut in large part because one employee — the hedge fund’s CEO — had extracted $54 million in personal pay from the conglomerate, including an $11.6 million bonus.
To these absentee owners and operators, our newspapers are just mines, entitling them to extract enormous financial wealth and social well-being from our communities.
The core idea of the “civic commons” is that we are a self-governing people, capable of creating and sustaining a society based on common good. A noble aspiration!
But achieving it requires a basic level of community-wide communication — a reliable resource that digs out and shares truths so people know enough about what’s going on to be self-governing. This is the role Americans have long expected their local and regional newspapers to play — papers that are not merely in our communities, but of, by, and for them.
Of course, being profit-seeking entities that are usually enmeshed in the local moneyed establishment, papers have commonly (and often infamously) fallen far short of their noble democratic purpose. Overall, though, a town’s daily (or, better yet, two or more dailies) makes for a more robust civic life by devoting journalistic resources to truth-telling.
But local ownership matters, as some 1,500 of our towns have learned after Wall Street’s corporate demigods of greed have swept in without warning to seize their paper, gut its journalistic mission, and devour its assets. For example, Digital First, a huge private-equity profiteer, snatched the St. Paul Pioneer Press and, demanding a ridiculous 25 percent profit margin from its purchase, stripped a newsroom staff that numbered 225 just two decades ago down to 25.
As Kuttner and Zenger reported in American Prospect, these tyrannical private equity firms are paper constructs that produce nothing but profits for faraway speculators. They note that the blandly named entities only exist “thanks to three loopholes in the law” — the first lets them operate in the dark, the second provides an unlimited tax deduction for the massive amounts of money they borrow to buy up newspapers, and the third allows them to profit by intentionally bankrupting the paper they take over.
Our right to a free press is meaningless if Wall Street thieves destroy our communities’ presses. The good news is that many enterprising people are devising ways to rescue their newspapers. For more information, go to dfmworkers.org.
—Jim Hightower, jimhightower.com