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News / Clark County News

From the newsroom: Documenting journalism’s junkyard

By Craig Brown, Columbian Editor
Published: April 13, 2024, 6:09am

I am afraid of rats. My wife doesn’t like snakes. And journalists are scared of a company called Alden Global Capital.

Unlike the first two fears, which are more like phobias, there’s good reason to fear Alden and its effect on American newspapers.

The hedge fund buys papers, then lays off much of the staff, particularly in the newsroom. The profits for the shareholders are greatly increased at these “ghost newspapers,” but there’s hardly anyone left to carry out journalism’s core mission: to find and report important stories so that citizens can know what their government is doing.

When advertisers and readers give up in disgust, Alden closes the paper and sells the remaining assets. Just last week, Alden subsidiaries announced the closure of 10 small newspapers and a printing plant in Minnesota.

“Many newspapers throughout the country have been challenged during the past decade or longer by changing lifestyle habits, especially by the dramatic shift in advertising revenue from local print publications to digital options such as Google, Facebook and Amazon,” the company wrote in its closure announcement. And this is true. But award-winning documentary filmmaker Rick Goldsmith has documented the special pain Alden brings to its newspapers and their readers.

Goldsmith’s film is titled “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink.” The Columbian is sponsoring a showing at 6 p.m. May 2 at the Kiggins Theatre in downtown Vancouver. Afterward, Goldsmith and Columbian Associate Editor Will Campbell will discuss the film and the issues it raises. Tickets cost $15 and are on sale now at columbian.ticketbud.com/journalismdocumentary.

Not long ago, the same sort of event was held in Oakland, Calif., where one of Alden’s holding companies oversaw the demise of the Oakland Tribune. Before the showing, Goldsmith was interviewed by film critic and journalist Randy Myers.

“The award-winning documentary describes the ethically questionable business tactics of Alden, its founder Randall Smith and president Heath Freeman,” Myers wrote. “It also tells stories of brave journalists, particularly reporters at the Denver Post, who stood up to their bosses at risk of losing their jobs. The film, which could have been an outright downer about the decrepit state of journalism, morphs into a thoughtful overview of a new path for journalism, via a nonprofit model.”

Goldsmith talked with Myers about why he made “Stripped for Parts.”

“(What) became apparent as the No. 1 thing was that these people, illegitimate owners of newspapers, were not connected to the communities. And they saw no purpose in making their newspapers good newspapers. … I read about (Alden founder Randy Smith’s) mansions in Florida and the sucking out of the profits and putting them either into other business ventures or personal mansions. … It was one thing after another. It was like the step of evilness kept going up with each new thing I found out,” Goldsmith said.

“Now what we’re finding out is that private equity and hedge funds — which are almost the same thing — are buying up so much of our daily lives. You know they’re in trailer home parks. They’re in hospitals. They’re in prisons. They’re in schools. And it’s the same model that they use for those things. So where does that leave the average person? With institutions that are weaker and don’t serve the public, and without a voice. What these newspaper men and women were showing is that you’ve got to use your voice.”

The Columbian has faced, and continues to face, its own challenges. I believe its fourth-generation family ownership will be the secret to its enduring success. But the screening of Goldsmith’s film and the discussion to follow will show what is happening to the local news in too many communities.