A hedge fund with a reputation for laying off journalists, selling buildings and slashing newsroom budgets has proposed buying Lee Enterprises, one of the last large independent newspaper chains in the United States.
The proposal comes just months after Alden purchased the Tribune newspaper chain despite an aggressive public campaign by Tribune journalists who cast an Alden takeover as an apocalyptic outcome for local journalism and begged for alternative buyers. Alden already owned a significant portion of shares in Tribune before it made its move to buy up all of its newspapers. With Lee, Alden owns about 6 percent of shares and appears to be following a similar pattern.
Journalists and union leaders decried Monday’s development — the latest in a saga of corporate consolidation and changing ownership in an industry suffering from accelerating rounds of cutbacks and layoffs.
“Alden continues to lie about caring for local news as it makes a play for Lee Enterprises,” tweeted Jon Schleuss, president of the NewsGuild union. “The vulture fund should not be allowed to own any newsrooms. Period.”
Alden’s purchase of Tribune made it one of the largest newspaper owners in the country, second only to Gannett, which is in debt to the private equity firm Apollo. Another newspaper chain, McClatchy, was acquired by Chatham Asset Management last year. A takeover by Alden of Lee would put yet one more major chain under the control of an investment firm — this one with a track record of slashing staffs and selling the real estate assets of its newspaper properties to drive profits.
A spokesman for Lee did not immediately return The Washington Post’s inquiry.
“Alden is cast as the bad guy, which is fair because they really loot these papers,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute. “But they are a symptom as much or more than the cause of the troubles — the newspapers are already wounded animals.”
In 2018, Lee signed a deal with Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway to manage BH Media, which included the Omaha World-Herald in Nebraska, the Waco Tribune-Herald in Texas and the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia, among other properties. Buffett told Yahoo News the next year that because of a decline in advertising, the newspaper industry “went from monopoly to franchise to competitive to … toast.” In March 2020, he sold 49 weekly and 30 daily newspapers to Lee in a $140 million cash deal.
Those newspapers included several Virginia publications, such as the Times-Dispatch and the Floyd Press, which months later fired its only full-time journalist after she participated in a local public radio interview about cuts made to the paper.
Other reporters saw major cuts following the Lee takeover. The Roanoke Times newsroom went from about 60 journalists to 30, said Amy Friedenberger, who left the newspaper in August after seven years. “At a certain point, you can’t handle the stress of waking up every day and wondering if your last byline was the final one for the Roanoke Times.”
Still, “it really scares me” to think of an Alden takeover, she said, citing its reputation for cost-cutting. “This will lead to fewer journalists and less journalism,” she said.
Experts shared her sentiment. “Lee ran their properties in a very tight way,” Edmonds said, “but Alden will go further.”
Alden already owns two major Virginia newspapers, the Virginian-Pilot and the Daily Press. Henri Gendreau, who took a buyout from the Roanoke Times in April and has since started a weekly Roanoke newsletter, said an Alden takeover of more than a dozen Lee-owned news outlets in Virginia would be “devastating.”
“It’s really a dark day for anyone who cares about having reliable sources of news and information in their communities,” he said.
In the decade plus since Alden bought into the newspaper industry, the number of employees at U.S. newspapers has been halved, according to the Pew Research Center. But Alden’s cuts have been more aggressive — more than 70 percent of unionized staffers, according to data from the Communications Workers of America union. And its circulation losses have been steeper, according to Alliance for Audited Media.
The letter Alden sent Monday is a nonbinding proposal; the company said the offer would be an all-cash deal and it would not need financing, or an outside loan, to close the deal.
Alden had also made financial security a central theme in its push to buy Tribune, which had been debt-free with $250 million cash on hand at the end of the first quarter, before the $633 million purchase. But Alden ended up saddling Tribune with debt. According to Securities and Exchange Commission filings, Alden took out $278 million in loans for the deal, including a $60 million loan provided by another Alden-owned media company that was borrowed at 13 percent interest over six years.
Immediately after Alden’s deal was approved by Tribune shareholders, journalists companywide were offered voluntary buyouts. But the fate of the newsroom is not the top concern for the board of directors in charge of Lee’s fate, said Poynter’s Edmonds: “Unless they can make the case that they can make the company more valuable than this bid, their fiduciary duty is that they ought to pursue a sale.”
Following news of Alden’s bid, Lee’s stock jumped more than 20 percent — from $18.49 on Friday to more than $22 as of Monday afternoon.