The media hasn’t been so much indifferent as sneeringly amused by the complaints of American workers whose jobs have been eliminated by the financial rapine of Wall Street under a false flag of creative destruction. But they aren’t sneering or laughing anymore now that the financial parasites have figured out how to prey upon their industry:
The scene was somehow even grimmer than I’d imagined. Here was one of America’s most storied newspapers—a publication that had endorsed Abraham Lincoln and scooped the Treaty of Versailles, that had toppled political bosses and tangled with crooked mayors and collected dozens of Pulitzer Prizes—reduced to a newsroom the size of a Chipotle.
Spend some time around the shell-shocked journalists at the Tribune these days, and you’ll hear the same question over and over: How did it come to this? On the surface, the answer might seem obvious. Craigslist killed the Classified section, Google and Facebook swallowed up the ad market, and a procession of hapless newspaper owners failed to adapt to the digital-media age, making obsolescence inevitable. This is the story we’ve been telling for decades about the dying local-news industry, and it’s not without truth. But what’s happening in Chicago is different.
In May, the Tribune was acquired by Alden Global Capital, a secretive hedge fund that has quickly, and with remarkable ease, become one of the largest newspaper operators in the country. The new owners did not fly to Chicago to address the staff, nor did they bother with paeans to the vital civic role of journalism. Instead, they gutted the place.
Two days after the deal was finalized, Alden announced an aggressive round of buyouts. In the ensuing exodus, the paper lost the Metro columnist who had championed the occupants of a troubled public-housing complex, and the editor who maintained a homicide database that the police couldn’t manipulate, and the photographer who had produced beautiful portraits of the state’s undocumented immigrants, and the investigative reporter who’d helped expose the governor’s offshore shell companies. When it was over, a quarter of the newsroom was gone….
What threatens local newspapers now is not just digital disruption or abstract market forces. They’re being targeted by investors who have figured out how to get rich by strip-mining local-news outfits. The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self.
Hey, it’s just capitalism, right? It’s just capitalists maximizing efficiency, right? Besides, all those journalists can just learn to code, right?
After all, these days, people don’t need newspapers any more than they need buggy whips.