In 2017, I got fascinated with the subject of how private equity was killing newspapers. The usual story was that print papers were succumbing to a combination of free news on the internet, the loss of advertising to the likes of Craigslist, and the fact that electrons were a lot cheaper than trucks and trees. But as my reporting revealed, the story wasnt true.
Newspapers didnt make as much money as in their glory years, but they still turned a profit. What was killing them was private equity, as shadowy firms like GateHouse and Alden Global Capital bought more and more of Americas newspapers and stripped them bare.
My cover piece ran in December 2017 under the headline Saving the Free Press From Private Equity. Andsomething very rare for meI had a co-author. More on him in a moment.
This month, almost four years after I wrote, The Atlantic discovered the story. Their piece, The Men Who Are Killing Americas Newspapers, by McKay Coppins, covers much the same ground that I did, and adds some nice detail on the people who run Alden Global Capital and how they operate. As the Prospect had reported, the worsening pattern of news deserts, where nobody is covering local news, is primarily the work of private equity.
Since the Prospect ran our piece, GateHouse has taken over the traditional chain Gannett, and rebranded itself as Gannett. But its still the same private equity outfit, and the pillaging continues.
In the meantime, I can report a sliver of good news. When I was reporting the story, I was introduced to a man named Ed Miller, a former small-town editor, who knew more about just how private equity destroyed newspapers than anyone Id met. The reason was that Ed was currently working at the Provincetown (MA) Banner, which was slowly being stripped and strangled by GateHouse.
This is the kind of coverage that should be happening in thousands of American towns and cities.
Ed knew so much that I invited him to become my co-author. Since he was undercover, we had to give him a pseudonym. We came up with Hildy Zenger: Hildy for Hildy Johnson, the star reporter from the Hecht-MacArthur classic The Front Page; Zenger for John Peter Zenger, the printer who won the first press freedom case in 1735.
But what Ed really wanted to do was to start his own paper, to compete with the Banner and to demonstrate that a locally owned paper can break even, treat its reporters decently, and be an important part of a communitys civic life. And so Ed and his wife and publishing partner Teresa Parker managed to raise $350,000 in start-up capital, half of what they needed over a five-year march to break-even, and began publishing The Provincetown Independent as a print weekly in October 2019.
The Indie, which you should look at, is a wonderful success. It is written and edited with verve and wit, by an editorial staff of 12. The Banner, meanwhile, is down to one local employee. Thanks to the Independent, civic life on Outer Cape Cod has re-emerged in a form vividly intelligible to citizens.
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Reading the paper, you have a sense of what the local issues actually are, rather than having to rely on gossip and third-hand information. Who is behind the effort to resist the building of affordable housing that most locals want? Why did the town of Wellfleet lose track of more than a million dollars, and who was protecting the incompetent town accountant?
How did the local Stop & Shop encumber the deed to a property that the town of Eastham purchased, with a restrictive covenant prohibiting any competing food markets? How did Provincetown contain the superspreader COVID event that occurred on a rainy holiday weekend when people were packed in bars and clubs?
Among the lovely things the Indie does is to run serious obituaries, which really paint a portrait of a persons life, at time when most papers now use paid obituaries as profit centers. The paper also has a terrific arts and culture section, called Arts & Minds, as befits a community with a lively arts scene.
You could say that Provincetown has a rich civic life, but every town does. It only becomes visible when somebody shines a light on it.
This is the kind of coverage that should be happening in thousands of American towns and citiesand could be if the free press was not being pillaged by private equity. If I were not happily serving at the Prospect, Id want to go work for the Indie.
The entire year-round population of the four towns covered by the IndependentProvincetown, Truro, Wellfleet, and Easthamis 12,546. The papers October paid circulation (after the tourists have gone home) is 4,577. About a third of those are off-Cape mail subscribers. Meanwhile, the rival Banners circulation has plummeted. It was about 5,500 when GateHouse bought it in 2008. Its July circulation was 1,734.
The Independent operates as a for-profit, with shareholders, but has an affiliated nonprofit which it uses to raise money to pay writers. According to Miller, despite the pandemic, the paper is slightly ahead of schedule in its plan to break even.
Its a shame that the Independent is a one-off. There are just a tiny handful of newly launched local papers that either compete with private equity or were purchased back to local ownership from private equity, such as the venerable and outstanding Berkshire Eagle, which Ed Miller and I wrote about in our Prospect piece.
All politics is local; and in a sense, so is all news. If we want to repair civic life and political democracy in America, we need to start with a free and conscientious press.