The news came almost in tandem, a worthy encapsulation of the media’s plight under capitalism. First, after great effort, the journalists of the New York Daily News achieved an important milestone: they formed a union for the first time since the 1990s.
The celebration, though, was short-lived. The new union soon learned it would have to contend with Alden Global Capital, the predatory hedge fund that acquired the rest of Tribune Publishing, the owner of the Daily News, the Chicago Tribune, and other local newspapers. The $630 million deal, announced on February 17, came after Alden became the company’s largest shareholder in 2019.
As recently detailed by Branko Marcetic in Jacobin, there are few fates worse for a modern newspaper than becoming a property of Alden Global Capital. The rapacious hedge fund maximizes whatever profit its newspapers can produce by enacting deep and lasting cuts to staff. “They’re shameless about cutting. They don’t care about the social value of the news, at least not in any meaningful way,” Gregory Pratt, the Chicago Tribune City Hall reporter, told NPR. “They will say that they do. They will argue to the contrary, but their actions where they gut newspapers across the country say otherwise.”
The New York City–based hedge fund already owns more than two hundred newspapers and various publications across America. It manages to stand out in a world of conglomerates and billionaire owners in its zeal to lay off journalists. Other oligarchs, like Rupert Murdoch, like to try to keep their properties afloat and even make occasional concessions, in their own way, to the social value of news. When not producing gutter tabloid material, Murdoch’s Post remains an important watchdog outlet in New York City, where it has led the way in reporting on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s nursing home scandal.
Alden newspapers, by contrast, are rapidly reduced to shells of their former selves, their pages cut, their coverage areas drastically shrunk. The hedge fund is at the forefront of the sort of asset-stripping capitalism that stands behind many of the worst inequities of the neoliberal economy. The endgame for Alden Global Capital is to squeeze the last drops of profit from a newspaper before throwing it in the trash. The towns and cities the newspapers serve mean nothing to them.
This is what the new Daily News union must now contend with. Like many once robust big city newspapers, the Daily News has endured crushing cuts in recent years. Though it was imperfect, the News of a few decades ago could assign reporters to regular beats writing about the problems of the city’s working class and poor. Neighborhood bureaus held power to account on a hyperlocal level that no longer exists.
With the news business in such a precarious state, journalists need to organize against the behemoths like Alden Global Capital who seek to destroy them. This will be incredibly difficult. They have little leverage in an industry with few job openings, and many former and aspiring reporters looking to break into the field. Alden knows this. Still, absent radical change, like a massive expansion of public funding for news or an explosion of new nonprofits, unions are our best bet to wage a fight — even a rearguard fight — against the worst trends facing the industry. The retrenchment of news should not be inevitable.