Skoog: Hedge fund-owned MediaNews Group hijacks 11 Minnesota papers

Bad news: news is going to get bad.

by Caroline Skoog

Newspaper publisher and classic Disney villain MediaNews Group, known by its trade name as Digital First Media, has acquired the assets of 11 local papers in a string of southern Minnesota suburbs. The publisher, controlled by the hedge fund Alden Global Capital, purchased the papers from Big Fish Works in a shifty transaction earlier this month. Terms were not disclosed. 

MediaNews Group (MNG) has a reputation for accumulating struggling local papers, ransacking its resources and staff, outsourcing work to other countries, undermining the information brought to these communities and walking away with millions of dollars. It’s the third largest newspaper publisher in the country. They’re everywhere. Like Taco Bell. MNG cares about quality newsrooms the way Taco Bell cares about quality food. 

They also own St. Paul’s Pioneer Press, although many of the paper’s employees are actively soliciting new, local ownership. MNG has slashed tons of jobs at The Pioneer Press since purchasing it many years ago, narrowing the newsroom down from 260 journalists to 50. All the while, MNG pocketed $10 million at a 13% profit margin from the paper in 2017. They use the struggles of modern journalism and reader habits to justify these unsustainable layoffs and then pocket a cartoonish amount of money from our community. Fifty journalists is bad news, but we wouldn’t ever read about it because it wouldn’t get reported. You can’t complain that journalism is dying when you’re the one killing it. 

This estranged hedge fund filters community-specific news from thousands of miles away while burning away jobs of members of the community. These are people’s livelihoods; this is our news, our stories that are being gambled. MNG is effectively a media consolidation factory. Through that lens, they’re very good at what they do. We see their lens a lot, too, because of their monopoly on information outlets.

There are alternative news outlets for some areas but not all. Pioneer Press is certainly not the Twin Cities’ only newspaper, but pretty much all of the mainstream news outlets are top-down ownership. Glen Taylor, a Minnesota billionaire, owns The Star Tribune, as well as City Pages and the Timberwolves and Lynx basketball teams. I don’t want to diminish Taylor or the paper, but I will say that I don’t think I have much in common with the guy. There’s nothing about him that makes me think we have any shared experiences, and so it’s hard to imagine we would find the same stories valuable. The Star Tribune is a reputable source — I appreciate their work, and they’re not owned by a hedge fund. But it’s dangerous to have information and money swimming in the same country club pool.

It’s not all hopeless. As more local media outlets converge with wealthy institutions and individuals, alternative media outlets grow more important. Citizen journalism and media organizations that don’t have any corporate or government stakeholders provide neighborhood coverage unmitigated by financial interests. For instance, Unicorn Riot, a nonprofit media alternative, utilizes a horizontal structure, meaning administrative directives are “executed in a bottom-up model which is then conducted by individual staff members, in accordance with the direction of our general staff,” as reported by their website. Unicorn Riot’s decentralized arrangement prevents crooked intentions from debasing their content; staff members must arrive at a general consensus before decisions get made, whereas major news outlets are at the will of corporate stakeholders or just an individual CEO. Free from corporate strings, the organization is able to fully and truthfully document social and environmental issues, often literally reporting from the picket lines. 

The rapid consolidation of media seems imminent, but luckily, independent sources work to fill the story gaps between civilians and aristocrats. There’s only so much action we can take to stop monopolistic hedge funds from advancing; at least we can investigate the news we observe. Above all, we need to fight for local journalism and reclaim our community stories. And if you have the funds, consider buying one or 12 of the Minnesota newspapers owned by MediaNews Group.