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Hedge Fund Alden Global Capital Poised To Acquire Tribune Publishing

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Most local newspapers have been gutted by changes in how people consume the news and by choices made by their owners, often investors without any dedication to journalism itself. Alden Global Capital already owns about 200 newspapers. It has struck a deal to acquire the Tribune Publishing newspaper chain. That includes the Chicago Tribune and sister papers in Baltimore, Hartford, Orlando and elsewhere. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, several wealthy philanthropists and entrepreneurs have entered the fray to try to win all of Tribune.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: This winter, the hotel magnate and philanthropist Stewart Bainum Jr. emerged with a deal to buy The Baltimore Sun from Alden. Ted Venetoulis is advising Bainum and says he sees a public service mission for the paper.

TED VENETOULIS: He wants to build up this legacy institution and make it really function for its community.

FOLKENFLIK: Venetoulis is a long-time civic leader there and says the Sun is an important part of the city's life.

VENETOULIS: His intention is just not to get in this and then cut people and shrink it and shrink the newsroom. This is just the opposite. It's to rebuild it as a formidable information institution in this region. And I think he can do it, particularly with a nonprofit model.

FOLKENFLIK: There's been some friction between Bainum and Alden, however, and now he may gather partners to make a pitch for the whole chain. They could include the Swiss-born billionaire and philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss, who wants to buy the Chicago Tribune, and the Florida investor Mason Slaine, who has his eye on the papers in Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. Given the financial struggles, why buy a paper? Some want a place at the table. After Mort Zuckerman bought the New York Daily News, the billionaire real estate mogul appeared on TV far more often as a pundit, as he did here on MSNBC.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: You're one of America's business leaders. Is this economy turning around?

MORT ZUCKERMAN: I think it's getting better. I don't know...

FOLKENFLIK: The Alden hedge-funders keep a much lower profile. They declined interview requests. Journalists who have worked for Alden share horror stories. They say communities' understanding of themselves dry up as local news withers.

MARTIN REYNOLDS: So let's just get granular.

FOLKENFLIK: This is Martin Reynolds, the former executive editor of the Oakland Tribune in the Bay Area. Alden bought it in 2010 as part of buying a big newspaper company out of bankruptcy.

REYNOLDS: One of the things that makes news organizations vital and essential, particularly for local news, is the ability to have institutional knowledge - right? - folks who cover specific beats relative to city government, relative to schools, a community, whatever it may be.

FOLKENFLIK: Reynolds worked his way up from his start as an intern to getting the top newsroom job just a few years before Alden Global took control. A steady erosion became a collapse.

REYNOLDS: People would leave. Folks would not be rehired. And what then ends up happening is you have less and less capacity to cover the vital institutions that people need to make the decisions to help govern their lives. And what we saw was just a callous disregard for the importance of that reporting capacity.

FOLKENFLIK: In 2016, Alden folded the Oakland Tribune into a regional publication, erasing more than 140 years of history. The hedge fund makes good profits by relentlessly consolidating costs and not just in Northern California. Matt DeRienzo was a publisher and news executive in Connecticut for newspapers owned by Alden Global Capital.

MATT DERIENZO: Their business plan is to dismantle local journalism. It's not that it is happening to them because of market forces; it is part of their model.

FOLKENFLIK: Several Tribune newsrooms have desperately sought other bidders, led by the union at The Baltimore Sun. Their efforts inspired the civic-minded investors who have stepped forward, their ambitions grand and their chances of success uncertain.

David Folkenflik, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE FLASHBULB'S "I CAN FEEL IT HUMMING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.