It’s been almost five months since my last column on the state of Connecticut’s news media. At that time, I pronounced the media landscape in my home state to be “mostly thriving.” Now I’m not sure how long I can cling to that notion in the face of a recent development that could result in consolidation on a grand scale.
Last month, the Journal Register Company, which owns three daily newspapers and 20 weeklies in Connecticut, was acquired by Alden Global Capital, which has been described as “a secretive hedge fund that specializes in distressed opportunities.”
Fair enough, you say? Since Alden has a stake in several other media companies, it should come as no surprise that the company would want to get its hands on more properties, especially the now-profitable JRC, which quickly emerged from Chapter 11 in 2009. And Alden has reportedly been a leader in the movement toward online content — a perfect fit with the JRC’s “digital-first” business model. Furthermore, in many of its other media acquisitions, Alden has merged operations. The JRC started consolidating its printing facilities at least 10 years ago, a fact that surely caught Alden’s attention as it considered whether to buy out the company.
But Alden is also the lead bank in the rescue of Tribune Company, surely the largest multimedia operation in Connecticut — and one of the largest in the country. In addition to the state’s leading newspaper, The Hartford Courant, Tribune owns Fox-61, WTXX (channel 20) and a group of alternative Connecticut weeklies. Meanwhile, Alden has a stake in LIN TV, which owns WTNH (channel 8).
What happens if, as rumored, Alden emerges as majority owner of the wretched Tribune after the media giant comes out of its seemingly interminable bankruptcy — the largest in U.S. media history? I’ll tell you what will happen. A New York City hedge fund will become by far the dominant media corporation in the Nutmeg State.
As Harlan Levy of the Journal Inquirer reported, “Having so much of the state’s media in the hands of one company raises concerns since Alden could offer discounted ad rates across multiple media that would undercut competitors.” And what’s more, Alden has a stake in 13 top multimedia corporations in dozens of states coast to coast, giving it an advantage in national advertising.
The FCC’s rules on cross-platform ownership in major media markets seem to shift whenever the occupant of the White House changes, so it’s unclear to me whether Alden would face legal challenges in assuming control of Tribune. But state Attorney General George Jepsen told Levy that The Connecticut Unfair Trade Practices Act “could come into play if the company pushed down advertising rates below competitive levels artificially because of its size and arguably was competing with other newspapers unfairly.”
It is also possible, as Quinnipiac journalism professor Paul Janensch has suggested, Alden might flip its Connecticut properties after a few years, or buy more newspapers in the state, form a separate company owning all of them and then sell that.
But one troubling fact would remain: for an undetermined period of time, a single company could wield enormous editorial control over the media outlets in a small state. Would Alden, for example, devalue its product by adopting a monotonous cookie-cutter approach to production and coverage? Would the Alden media offer tough coverage of companies in which Alden has a stake? Probably not, judging by the unwillingness of Alden’s principal, Randall Smith, to give interviews to the news media or release information about his company.
And what would be Alden’s approach to its editorial pages? When I was the editor of a small weekly in upstate New York, I endorsed George W. Bush for president over Al Gore. My company’s board of directors were a diverse lot, but they seemed to have one thing in common: they were all died-in-the-wool Democrats who still felt it was important for my paper to have a editorial voice that was permitted to stray from its ownership. Would Alden be similarly open-minded? Don’t bet on it.
It’s been two and half years since state Rep. Frank Nicastro, D-Bristol, floated the idea of government assistance to troubled newspapers in the state. If a secretive hedge fund winds up owning a huge chunk of Connecticut’s media, those organizations could use a different kind of assistance — help in taming the beast.
Terry Cowgill blogs at terrycowgill.blogspot.com and was an award-winning editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. He is host of Conversations with Terry Cowgill, an hour-long monthly interview program on CATV6 on Comcast’s northwest Connecticut system.