San Diego Union-Tribune buyouts: New owners ‘vulture fund' or ‘transforming media'?

Hedge fund Alden Global Capital, the U-T's sixth owner in 14 years, bought the paper last week for an undisclosed sum

I used to cover a school district. And then I covered a region of school districts. And then I covered half the school districts in North County. And then I covered all the school districts in North County. And then I covered all the school districts in San Diego County. Plus the colleges.

Gary Warth, a Union-Tribune reporter with 39 years of journalism experience who took the buyout

Many long-time employees of the San Diego Union-Tribune have opted to leave the paper, which was sold last week to a hedge fund, NBC 7 has learned.

The new owners of the U-T, Alden Global Capital — which has been variously called a "vulture hedge fund" and "the grim reaper of American newspapers" in coverage of it and its subsidiaries — wasted no time in its first week moving to shed staff via buyout offers, and some of the publications' most seasoned journalistic voices have exercised that option.

NBC 7 reached out to Alden and its subsidiary MediaNews Group regarding this story, but never heard back from Alden. A publicist for MNG replied with a copy of the statement that was sent to employees when they were informed regarding the sale. That statement is posted in full below.

One senior staffer told NBC 7 that he expected the figure of departing staffers to be "substantial."

Why are they leaving? For some, the money may sound good. But for another, Alden's MediaNews Group (MNG), which on its website states that it operates "68 daily and more than 300 weekly publications" across the country, has come under fire by journalists for its cost-cutting methods, including deep staff reductions in its papers' newsrooms. The website carries the motto, "Transforming the future of media."

Some staffers, however, may simply feel like it's time to retire.

Who's Leaving?

Here is a partial list of journalists who are leaving the paper, many of them voices San Diegans have been reading for decades:

  • Greg Moran, investigative reporter, 33 years
  • Joshua Emerson Smith, senior environment reporter, joined the paper in 2015
  • Sam Hodgson, director of photography and video
  • Gary Warth, reporter focusing on homelessness, credited with 33 years of service
  • Dana Littlefield, an editor who has been at the paper in various roles since 2000
  • Diane Bell, city columnist, 40+ years with the paper
  • Deborah Brennan, political reporter who also covered education, 13 years
  • Kate Morrisey, immigration reporter, with the paper since 2016
  • Merrie Monteagudo, research manager, 35 years
  • Jeff Light, publisher and editor-in-chief, editor since 2010
  • John Wilkens, feature writer, at the paper for the past 35 years
  • Steve Breen, Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist, joined the paper in 2001

This list will be updated as information comes in — Ed.

Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Announces Departure

On Thursday, NBC 7 learned that the Union-Tribune's publisher and editor-in-chief, Jeff Light, who "joined the Union-Tribune as editor in March 2010," announced he would leaving the paper on Friday as well. Shortly after 9 a.m., he sent the following note out to the staff:

Thank you to everyone at the U-T. It has been a special experience for me and I hope for others as well.

For 13 years, my idea of the company was that we could all work together, shoulder to shoulder, directed only by our shared love of our work, our belief in one another and our ability to learn together. 

The Union-Tribune is a special place. Those of us who are leaving will walk away with a sense of achievement that I hope is not missed in all the tweets and coverage of our story.

People who have read the Union-Tribune for the last decade are the ones who know the value of our work. People who work here are the ones who know the experience we built together. It has been extraordinary.

I believe that journalism is one society’s greatest callings, one of the best things a person can do with their life. So it has been for me.

Thank you to everyone who made it possible.

The next chapter for the U-T, like the last one, will rest in the hands of many of the colleagues I now say goodbye to – wonderful people who are dedicated to truth-telling and community service. 

I know you all are up to the task!

– Jeff

The Union-Tribune's Six Owners in 14 Years

Many San Diegans who have grown up and grown old with the San Diego Union-Tribune, which has been publishing in one form or another (including digitally) since the 1860s, are concerned about Alden and MNG's plans to "transform" the local paper, which has been on a financial roller-coaster for the past dozen-plus years.

The U-T was owned for decades by the Copley family, which, to be sure, profited heavily from the paper and slapped their name all over institutions around town with a portion of the proceeds. While the publication has changed hands many times since then, what has transpired in the past week or so feels more dire for the local media landscape.

The first sale, in 2009, was to the private Platinum Equity firm, which cut the staff till the business stabilized financially, then it was flipped three years later to developer "Papa" Doug Manchester, who sold off the physical properties the business had shepherded through the decades (including its landmark Mission Valley headquarters). Then, in 2015, it was sold to the Tribune Publishing Company, where it joined a stable of other high-profile papers, including the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. 

Then, a stranger turn than most in 2018, when L.A. billionaire transplant surgeon Patrick Soon-Shiong, who already owned a piece of Tribune Publishing, bought the UT and LAT outright for a cool half a B.

Some would describe Soon-Shiong's tenure as a sort of benign neglect, one that benefitted the LA Times but, like any good physician, did little harm to the patient in San Diego.

As U-T reporter Greg Moran, who's been with the paper since '91, tweeted:

We have pretty much rung all the changes in types of ownership at the @sdut in past 15 years.

  • Longtime family owners (Copley, 2009)
  • Private equity sharks (Platinum Equity, 2009)
  • Local wacky rich guy (Manchester, 2011)
  • Out of town corporate (Tribune) becomes out of town clown car of digital guys who think they have the secret sauce, don't. (Tronc 2015)
  • Out of town wacky rich guy (Soon-Shiong, 2018)
  • Hedge fund (Media News Group/Alden, 2023)

The 'Vibe From MediaNews'

While the news last week that San Diego's editorial print legacy was to take another twist in the path might have felt like no big surprise to the region's residents, the latest sale seems different to many, including experts in the publishing field.

"They have a reputation which is pretty well-earned of going into papers, looking at what staffing is and reducing it fairly dramatically, not just the news side – that’s the whole of the operation," said Rick Edmonds of the Poynter Institute, a self-described "global leader in journalism excellence."

To the uninformed, the name of the new owners at Alden summons the image of patrician bankers. A name chosen to inspire soothing goodwill, no doubt: In fact, the name "Alden" has British roots and means, depending on the vine you take, "old friend" or "wise protector." What harm could another set of deep pockets do to a paper that has changed owners so many times?

The news wasn't long in coming. In fact, it arrived just minutes after the staff learned of the sale via e-in-boxes:

"No different than the changes announced last month at the Los Angeles Times last month, the U-T will also need to make some difficult staffing decisions as we assume management," Sharon Ryan, executive vice president of California for MediaNews Group, informed employees. "Reductions will be necessary to offset the slowdown in revenues as economic headwinds continue to impact the media industry. We will seek efficiencies in business operations, distribution and production while striving to support and prioritize the robust local newsgathering needed to serve the communities that rely on the Union-Tribune for excellence in journalism."

A longtime employee of the paper told NBC 7 that the same day the staff was told about the sale, buyout offers were sent out, with workers given a week to make a decision about the rest of their lives. Multiple staff members confirmed to NBC 7 that workers who agreed to the buyouts were offered two weeks of pay for their first year of service, and a week of pay for each subsequent year they worked at the U-T, capping at a total of 40 weeks. If an employee takes a buyout, they are typically prevented from collecting unemployment insurance as well, dependent upon whether the employer challenges the claim.

UPDATE: An employee of the paper who took a buyout told NBC 7 on Thursday that the staff had been instructed that the company "will not contest the unemployment compensation claim for any employee volunteering for separation. Employees separating under this offer will be considered to have their positions eliminated"— Ed.

Not surprisingly, the news of the sale was met with shock and disappointment by the publication’s staff.

“And then, frankly, to see who the buyer was and, knowing their reputation and knowing people who have worked at MNG papers … and are no longer working there, it was very disheartening," Moran told NBC 7. "It was, you know, it was very — I thought, of all the entities to be sold to it was probably the least desirable, to me, personally.”

Alden and its subsidiary MediaNews Group have cut a swath across the print landscape, with critics saying its operators gut news operations in a matter of days after purchase. Buyouts are typically offered first, followed by layoffs, cutting already withered newsrooms. With the departures of senior staffers, newsrooms lose institutional knowledge of the communities they cover, contacts acquired over decades of reporting and their brushes with corruption that have led them to know when and where to look to uncover governmental and institutional malfeasance.

Among Alden's targets in California: The Orange County Register, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, the Long Beach Press-Telegram and San Bernardino Sun. Sixteen papers in Northern California were snatched up by the Alden, Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo reported, and where once stood 1,000 journalists between their readers and scores of city halls, now there were 150.

Which isn't to say the U-T is what it once was. While there were at one point some 400 writers, editors, reporters and others working beats around San Diego, that figure has now atrophied to 108, according to a report by the paper after the sale. But that number will now fall.

"I will say, I think — I’m gonna try to be careful about when I say this, I guess, but, and it could just be my age and those things I mentioned but — this feels different than other times we have been purchased," Moran said. "This feels different, and it could just be that I’m 62 instead of 55 or whatever, but I think the experience of working here is going to be much different going forward. It has been changing a lot over many years but it’s just something — I feel this is going to be a very different kind of place and one that I’m not sure is for me."

Alden and MNG as Transformers of Journalism?

In its defense, Alden and MNG’s defenders argue that they’re not shutting papers down; rather, they're making changes that allow their publications to survive in an ever-shrinking market in which they compete with a million other attractions for eyeballs, everything from Netflix to the New York Times digital version.

In the statement sent to employees last Monday, Ryan pointed to those market forces as the cause for the cuts.

“It’s no secret that our industry faces substantial revenue pressures brought on by big tech aggregators who redistribute our original content for their own profit, at the expense of our staff, diminishing our readership and causing declining advertising and circulation revenues,” Ryan wrote. “Despite impressive news reporting and a hardworking staff, the U-T has not been immune to these pressures.”

Some critics of Alden/MNG point out that, despite the staff reductions, the papers do continue publishing.

"From my observations, there’s less [journalism after MNG buys publications], but they have no particular ideological ax to grind and they hire editors, particularly, who will make the best of what have, so it’s almost like a non-interference in terms of how the coverage is done," Poynters' Edmonds told NBC 7, adding later, "While [Alden’s] emphasis is on the bottom line, it’s not — and they keep buying papers — it’s not obvious that they’re making a lot of money at ‘em…. They still think they know how to run these operations."

Even the U-T's Moran, whose take on the purchase is far from rosy, offered one somewhat supportive observation.

"If you look around, you know, the papers that they have still do, you know, they have journalists that do very good stories and, you know, I think — not that it’s the only measure — but if you look at, sort of, awards competitions … there are: The San Jose paper wins stuff, the [OC] Register does stuff," Moran said.

Whether to Take the Buyout

In its reporting, the U-T went on to state that it was unknown how deep the cuts would be in the downtown newsroom — essentially an admission by the paper that the owners weren't communicating that information to its workers. The new owners told workers to submit buyout requests by 10 a.m. on Monday, with MNG deciding whether to "accept" those requests by Wednesday at noon, with the employees' last day on Friday if they were being bought out.

"There are things to weigh," said Gary Warth, a reporter with decades of experience, about the calculus of his career's twilight. "It’s like: 'Don’t walk away from a job that you have. You still need a job.' And then it’s like, 'I have got a lot of years that would apply to my severance so that’s a comfortable cushion.' But then, that’s gonna run out, so what do I do after that? And then, on the other hand, it’s like, 'OK, I’ll stick it out, and then I’ll get laid off! And then I’ll miss the opportunity for getting severance.' So those are the things that go through your head."

"[The] new owner is offering buyouts through next Monday. If the company does not 'reach a sufficient number of employees' to take buyouts, 'the company will lay off additional employees,' the staff was informed," the paper reported.

Employees at the UT who did not take the buyout may be targeted for layoff regardless if there are not enough takers. Two workers told us that, if that was the case, severance of a week's pay for every year of service would be offered, with a cap of 12 weeks. Then, of course, former employees would be able to file for unemployment insurance.

While Warth is nearing retirement age, he acknowledges that you’re not supposed to work forever.

"There are some reporters older than me, and we all love our jobs," Warth said. "We all, like, work hard everyday and try to do the best we can. And I enjoyed being out in the field and talking with people and telling stories. You know, so, I don’t want to over-romanticize it but, you know, it’s kind of in your blood that it’s like, you know what you’re doing after this many years."

Statements from Alden and MNG

NBC 7 attempted to contact Alden Global Capital for this report but has been unsuccessful in its efforts. A visit to the hedge fund's website yielded a single homepage photo of what appear to be redwood trees and the statement "Alden Global Capital is an investment manager based in West Palm Beach, FL." Its LinkedIn page contains a link to that same site and describes it as a "financial services" company with 10-50 employees.  

Last Wednesday, a publicist for MediaNews Group sent NBC 7 a copy of the statement sent to the U-T’s employees earlier this week. Here it is in full:

San Diego Union-Tribune Colleagues,

We are pleased to announce that, effective today, the iconic San Diego Union-Tribune will join our portfolio of news organizations including MediaNews Group and Tribune Publishing Company, leaders throughout the nation in local news and community journalism. MediaNews Group will manage the operations of the Union-Tribune under a management services agreement.

This valued acquisition enables MediaNews Group to advance its stewardship in California as the largest provider of news and information across the state as we continue our commitment to ensure newspapers remain viable well into the future.

It’s no secret that our industry faces substantial revenue pressures brought on by big tech aggregators who redistribute our original content for their own profit, at the expense of our staff, diminishing our readership and causing declining advertising and circulation revenues. Despite impressive news reporting and a hardworking staff, the U-T has not been immune to these pressures.

No different than the changes announced at the Los Angeles Times last month, the U-T will also need to make some difficult staffing decisions as we assume management.

Reductions will be necessary to offset the slowdown in revenues as economic headwinds continue to impact the media industry. We will seek efficiencies in business operations, distribution and production while striving to support and prioritize the robust, local newsgathering needed to serve the communities that rely on the Union-Tribune for excellence in journalism.

More information will be provided throughout the day on changes you can expect, including buyouts we are offering in an effort for staff reductions to be voluntary. We look forward to working with you to meet the challenges of our industry and deliver on the Union-Tribune’s commitment to the people of San Diego.

Sharon Ryan

Executive Vice President, California

MediaNews Group

What's Next?

While some at the U-T may stay the course and attempt to remain in their chosen profession, as is often the case, others will take the other tine of the fork, leaving the business and the rest of us, smaller. One former reporter, Craig Gustafson, who is currently a digital services coordinator for the city of San Diego as well as a veteran of both the Associated Press and the U-T, tweeted out a plea on their behalf last Tuesday.

This article originally stated that Gary Warth had 44 years of experience as a journalist; the correct figure was 39 — Ed.

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