The hedge fund that owns the East Bay Times cares nothing about journalism’s highest award
Growing up in Livermore, my first job was delivering a daily newspaper, the Tri-Valley Herald. My route was small—just 60 or so papers. That was enough. I was a skinny kid and the Sunday and Wednesday editions were especially bulky. Back then, the Herald was part of a small, locally owned newspaper chain. It was heftier than its primary competitor, the Valley Times, which was essentially a localized version of the Walnut Creek-based Contra Costa Times.
Today, none of those newspapers exists—or at least not in their old forms. Thanks to consolidation in the industry—the purpose of which is to maximize profit by, say, running ad sales and production out of one shop—there are far fewer daily newspapers.
The Herald was purchased in 1985 by the Alameda Newspaper Group, a subsidiary of MediaNews Group (MNG), which was then run by newspaper magnate Dean Singleton, a Colorado publisher with a fondness for consolidation. If his name is familiar, it’s probably because he purchased the Chico Enterprise-Record and Oroville Mercury-Register back in the late ’90s from Donrey Media Group. It’s hard to keep up with the acquisitions of mega media companies, but it appears as though Donrey has been sold multiple times since then.
I started working at the Chico E-R just out of college in the early aughts, when that paper and its sister publication in Oroville operated mostly autonomously—each had its own editor, editorial staff, advertising departments and so on, although editorial content was oftentimes shared. I liked my job, but working for a corporate giant wore thin after a few years, especially as the cost of living increased and the already abysmal pay remained stagnant.
Things got dicey at the E-R in 2006, the year before I jumped ship. MNG, under Singleton, took on hundreds of millions of dollars in loans to purchase more newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. Four years later, its parent company filed for bankruptcy. Singleton was forced out by the creditors who took majority ownership under the terms of the bankruptcy, and MNG merged with another company under the banner of Digital First Media. That Denver-based company is owned by a hedge fund out of New York called Alden Global Capital. Its primary objective is maximizing profits, not quality journalism.
To that end, the firm has slashed newsrooms and sold assets. Most of its papers, including Butte County’s, have felt the squeeze. The Oroville paper has a single reporter and operates out of Chico at the E-R’s facility, a building on East Park Avenue that the parent company once owned but now rents.
The same is true for the other Digital First papers. Still, important reporting continues to come out of them. A recent example is at the East Bay Times, the consolidated version of the Contra Costa Times and several other papers in my old stomping grounds. Rebranded under that masthead in 2016, the paper, including three editorial staffers who are Chico State alums, just won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news for coverage of the Ghost Ship fire in Oakland.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that hedge fund cares nothing about journalism’s highest award.