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News / Life / Clark County Life

‘Stripped for Parts’ NW premiere: Documentary exposes how ‘vulture’ capitalism destroys local newspapers

The Columbian is sponsoring the screening and a Q& A with award-winning filmmaker Rick Goldsmith at the Kiggins in Vancouver

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: April 25, 2024, 6:08am
3 Photos
Journalists and activists protest outside the headquarters of hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018.
Journalists and activists protest outside the headquarters of hedge fund Alden Global Capital in 2018. (Photos contributed by Rick Goldsmith/“Stripped for Parts”) Photo Gallery

If you’re a newspaper reader, you probably already know the depressing conventional wisdom about print journalism: It’s been on the decline for decades thanks to an obsolete business model. Given the glut of free (albeit low-quality) news and free classified advertising available on the internet, daily newspapers reliant on subscriptions and ads for cashflow just can’t keep up.

While there’s undeniable truth in that picture, a celebrated documentary film screening May 2 at Vancouver’s Kiggins Theatre explores a much darker and underreported side of the journalism story: The role that “distressed investing” has played in undermining and degrading newspaper companies from coast to coast.

Filmmaker Rick Goldsmith will attend the Kiggins screening of his documentary “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink” and take questions from the audience. His film explores how one particular Wall Street hedge fund, Alden Global Capital, has made a practice of buying up faltering newspapers — not to bolster and rebuild them, but simply to bleed them to death.

“We’ve been hearing for the last decade or so that newspapers are dying, they’re dinosaurs,” investigative journalist Julie Reynolds says in the film. “Because of the internet, because they didn’t know how to monetize and didn’t see it coming. That’s the popular narrative, why newspapers are in trouble today.

If You Go

What: “Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink”

Plus: Q&A with filmmaker Rick Goldsmith and Columbian Associate Editor Will Campbell

When: 6 p.m. May 2

Where: Kiggins Theatre, 1011 Main St., Vancouver

Tickets: $15, columbian.ticketbud.com/journalismdocumentary

“There’s this bigger problem,” Reynolds says. “There’s an industry that’s out to destroy newspapers and doing it deliberately.”

According to Goldsmith’s film, Alden Global Capital’s strategy is to take advantage of today’s tough media landscape by taking over newspapers, cutting newsrooms jobs and then allowing the predictable decline in quality and circulation to lead, inevitably, to closure.

That’s a trend with huge implications for American life and the health of democracy, journalists in the film insist. But the story hasn’t been adequately told because newspapers are usually loathe to report on themselves. Journalists are trained to stand apart from the story, not become part of it, Reynolds points out.

But Reynolds’ many investigative pieces about Alden, which started seizing and squeezing faltering newspapers and whole newspaper chains in 2011, eventually led to a revolt in print. When Alden abruptly cut dozens of newsroom jobs at The Denver Post in 2018, the newspaper took the radical step of angrily editorializing against its corporate owner and against “vulture capitalism” on its front page.

“Consider this … a signal to our community and civic leaders that they ought to demand better,” the editorial declared. “Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”

“Stripped for Parts” demonstrates that Alden’s Byzantine strategy for profiting off the distress of struggling newspapers even extends as far as flipping their real estate. Large, valuable old newspaper buildings, centrally located in many American downtowns, are perfectly positioned for resale.

“The grim reaper of American newspapers” is what Vanity Fair magazine has called Alden Global Capital.

And who cares? Everybody should. The film points out that professional local journalism, while never perfect, has long been a key to government accountability, civic health and tight-knit communities. According to the American Journalism Project, the disappearance of local newspapers tends to be followed by declines in voter and civic engagement, increases in public and private corruption and greater polarization between people.

Journalism gene

Fortunately, the “Stripped for Parts” story isn’t entirely downbeat. The film explores several victories against Alden’s takeover campaign as well as journalists’ innovative strategies for keeping their profession alive.

Turning to super-rich patrons is one way but the film underscores how iffy and complicated that can be. Turning to local communities for direct support is another, as The Columbian has done with its Community Funded Journalism effort, which began in 2022 and now supports five full-time reporters in our newsroom. This hybridized model — pairing traditionally private, for-profit funding streams with tax-deductible donations — is on the rise across the nation.

Goldsmith’s admiration for the journalists he interviewed only increased, he said, as they challenged him not to just to recycle common wisdom about newspapers, but to make sure his facts were correct and his conclusions were solid.

“My goal in making this film was less to expose Alden Global Capital to the world … (than) to give the film’s audiences a feel for these men and women, who risked their reputations and/or their livelihoods, to save, re-invent and rebuild journalism,” Goldsmith writes in the film’s press packet. “I consider ‘Stripped for Parts’ their collective story.”

Contacted by The Columbian, Goldsmith said he doubts that journalism is in real danger of dying out because some people are always hungry for the truth.

“I think there’s a journalism gene,” he said. “People who have that gene, from a young age, they’re the ones who look at the world and say, ‘That’s nonsense. I don’t believe it. I want to find out what’s going on.’ My theory is the journalism gene never goes away.

“No matter what happens with the financial aspect of it, people who are born with the journalism gene, and people who care about democracy, they’re going to figure it out,” Goldsmith said. “The answer to the journalism crisis hasn’t been discovered yet. But really good, smart, passionate people are working on it.”