Monday, July 13, 2020

Last reporter at Pennsylvania paper is still asking the hard questions, even to the hedge fund that is bleeding it

Evan Brandt
(NYT photo by Haruka Sakaguchi)
Newspaper reporters play an integral role in local democracy, "but they are an endangered species being nudged toward extinction by the most important news story in decades: the coronavirus," Dan Barry reports for The New York Times. "The economic paralysis caused by the pandemic has clobbered a newspaper industry already on the mat. With revenues plummeting, substantial layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions have followed in newsrooms across the country. Meanwhile, the hedge funds and private equity firms that own many newspapers often siphon away profits rather than reinvest in local journalism."

One such hedge fund is Alden Global Capital, which controls the Pottstown Mercury in Pennsylvania, about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia. The Mercury has served the town of 23,000 since 1931, and is the smallest-circulation newspaper to have won two Pulitzer prizes: in 1979 for spot news photography and one in 1990 for editorial writing, Barry notes. But after three successive owners that whittled the paper down for maximum profit, the Mercury has one reporter left: Evan Brandt, 55.

Pottstown, Penn. (Wikipedia map)
Brandt worked at suburban weeklies before joining the Mercury in 1997. "Nearly all of his colleagues who didn’t quit have been laid off or bought out, effectively making him the last reporter covering Pottstown," Barry reports. "His newspaper’s distinctive building was abruptly emptied and later sold, so he works in his attic, surrounded by a display of 36 journalism awards, many for public service."

Brandt has adapted to his lone-wolf status. Because Alden consolidated the Mercury's printing with other nearby newspapers, the Mercury has a 6 p.m. deadline that makes it impossible for him to cover evening borough-council meetings for the next day's paper, so he often shares meeting notes on social media and his blog, then writes an article for the print edition the next day, Barry reports.

Brandt is responsible for covering more than a dozen other local governments and school districts, Barry writes: "He can’t bear to think of communities not knowing about a proposed tax increase, or the politics behind a town official’s ouster, or yet another public agency violating the open-meetings law by conferring in private. But it’s impossible to be everywhere. The demands of election coverage only intensify his frustration. Stretched too thin to profile the dozens of candidates in more than a dozen communities — once de rigueur for newspapers — he does what he can when he can, sometimes with bare-bone questionnaires."
Brandt visited the home of Alden co-owner
Heath Freeman to ask what value he places
on local news. He didn't get an answer.
(Photo by Lorraine Dusky)

"Evan is the voice of the voiceless," local NAACP President Johnny Corson told Barry. "He speaks for the little people. If we lose him, we’re in trouble."

Former Mercury editor Nancy March told Barry that she blames the public a little for the Mercury's downfall: "People do not recognize — do not champion — what we do. I walk around my community and they thank me. But they don’t want to support it. They don’t want to pay for it."

Brandt, the local shop steward for the NewsGuild union, reserves a healthy dose of blame for Alden, believing that the company "has no lasting commitment to Pottstown, to an informed electorate or to any other lofty ideals embodied by the best of newspapers." He told Barry that Alden is like a transient neighbor: "You rent an apartment, open all the walls, sell the plumbing, and rip out and sell the hardwood floors. Then you walk away. You don’t pay the rent, and you don’t care about your neighbors."

In 2018, news industry analyst Ken Doctor wrote in a column for Harvard University's Nieman Lab that Alden had earned $160 million in profit in fiscal 2017 from "wrecking local journalism," including $18 million—a 30% profit margin—from Philadelphia-area newspapers such as the Mercury. Brandt was incensed by the column, and became even angrier after reading that Alden co-owner Heath Freeman was expanding a $4.8 million mansion in Montauk, New York, Barry reports.

Since Brandt was in Long Island visiting family, he decided to drive to Freeman's home and try for an interview, Barry reports: "Given Freeman’s reputation for reticence, he knew he might get to ask only one question. His choice: What value do you place on local news? In other words, what is local news worth? Not in monetary terms, but in terms of an informed electorate; an accountable government; a sense of place. It would be a provocative question, posed by a proud professional in his mid-50s whose cherished world was vanishing around him. Posed to a 40-ish vulture capitalist who surfaced well after the local newspaper model was already damaged, but who was now profiting from and perhaps accelerating its decline." Freeman shook his head at the question and walked away.

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