In 2016, a wealthy Utah family bought The Salt Lake Tribune, Utah’s biggest newspaper. Now, the owner has shrunk the 90-person newsroom to just 56, citing waning ad revenue and dropping print circulation. It joins a growing pattern across the country and the Mountain West.
The Hunstman family bought the paper from a hedge fund, which news industry analyst Ken Doctor says he’s seen many times before.
“It’s a game I call 'billionaire bingo,'” says Doctor, who runs the website Newsonomics. “It depends which billionaire you get.”
He told KUER’s RadioWest that billionaires are capable of turning newspapers around. Take the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
“They, too, were bought by a billionaire, a man named Glen Taylor, the wealthiest man in Minnesota,” says Doctor. “It’s a very parallel story. But he stayed the course. He modestly reinvested and he put a new strategy into place and they are making a success of it.”
The owner of The Salt Lake Tribune, Paul Huntsman, says he invested $1 million in the publication. But two years and a million dollars, Doctor says, “is simply not enough” time or money.
Earlier this year, The Denver Post laid off 30 people and media company Lee Enterprises cut staff at Wyoming’s Casper Star-Tribune and the Billings Gazette in Montana. The company owns other papers in Montana and Idaho.
“Legacy news outlets have a unique mission to serve the public good,” Detroit journalist Anna Clark writes in the Columbia Journalism Review. “That makes the recent news of layoffs, cuts, buyouts, and closures not just sad, but dangerous.”
And, she says, the way that owners are treating them – whether they’re local billionaires or far-flung hedge funds – is bad news.
“Private equity funds, hedge funds, and investment groups had been scooping up newspapers for more than a decade, with devastating consequences for journalism,” writes Clark.
Of particular concern is a New York hedge fund called Alden Global Capital, which owns the majority of Digital First Media, one of the country’s largest newspaper chains. DFM owns publications across the country, including The Denver Post, Boulder’s Daily Camera, and until 2016, The Salt Lake Tribune. Doctor recently wrote that the groups have been “milking profit out of the newspapers it is slashing to the bone.”
The CJR reported that “a recent lawsuit claims Alden sucked money out of the newspapers it owns in order to make risky investments in Greek sovereign debt and a troubled pharmaceutical chain, among other areas.”
But Doctor says not all newspapers are set on that track of inevitable demise. For example, local owners bought a number of publications including the Berkshire Eagle from Digital First Media, grew the newsroom and are now working to rebuild readership.
“We will find a model,” says Doctor. “The question is how low we’re going to go down on civic knowledge … until we get to that point.”
Meanwhile, back in Salt Lake City, Utah State University journalism professor Matthew LaPlante told RadioWest he’s getting a lot of questions from worried students asking if it’s still worth trying to become a journalist.
“And what I tell them is this: ‘I don’t know when newspapers will take their last breath. But I do know that it’s going to happen sooner if we don’t have good people going to work for newspapers, and they still play a vital role in our community. It’s going to be tough. And you’re going to be fighting what might feel like an unwinnable fight. But it’s a good fight. It really is.”
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, Yellowstone Public Radio in Montana, KUER in Salt Lake City and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado.