Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Philly's Digital First Papers Face Harsh Cuts

Years of cost cuts at Digital First Media, the nation’s No. 3 newspaper chain with 48 million readers, are devastating newsrooms and fomenting employee dissent even as the hedge fund-controlled Digital First makes huge profits on beaten-down papers, where some reporters earn less than $30,000 a year.

According to, reporting and editing staffs at papers such as the suburban Pottstown Mercury have been decimated, newspaper buildings sold off for millions of dollars, and editing and writing functions centralized in distant hubs.

Last month, the Denver Post editorial page editor posted a broadside on the paper’s own website with the headline “As vultures circle, the Denver Post must be saved” — aimed at the New York hedge fund that controls the newsroom through Digital First, Alden Global Capital LLC.

The Post has said it would cut 30 percent of editorial employees in a newsroom that has shriveled to fewer than 100 staffers from about 250 a few years ago.  Earlier this month, union members at Digital First papers picketed outside Alden’s New York office.

And despite the vicious cutbacks, Digital First earned $160 million in profits on $939 million in revenue in 2017, according to the NiemanLab at Harvard. The Philadelphia-area papers, a major hub for Digital First, contributed $61 million in revenue and $18 million in profits, and led the company in profit margin, with a surprising 30 percent. The piece was headlined: “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism that it might not want to stop anytime soon.”

Experts now warn of “ghost papers” and a “turn-the-lights-out scenario” for many Digital First publications. As the company extracts profits from its newspapers it also fails to transform them into viable media assets for the digital age — despite its name.

The NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia says that staffing in editorial, circulation, and advertising at the Times Herald  in Norristown has plunged 73 percent over the last six years, to 12 union-covered employees, among them three reporters. The Mercury has seen an 83 percent drop to 19 union-employees.

Alden acquired its vast newspaper chain after the 2008 financial crisis. The core of its portfolio is the former NewsMedia Group chain and the Journal Register Co., which owned the Pennsylvania suburban papers and The Trentonian. Other Philadelphia-area newspapers owned by Digital First include the Ambler Gazette, Glenside News, Main Line Suburban Life, Main Line Times, North Penn Life, Times Chronicle, and the Willow Grove Guide, according to the group that audits newspaper circulations.

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