Last week, the new corporate owners of the Virginian-Pilot and Style Weekly laid off 21 people at the New York Daily News. It’s just the most recent cut by Tronc, Inc., which has moved design and production jobs from New York City to Tronc headquarters in Chicago, leaving editorial positions unfilled.
If previous acquisitions by the conglomerate are any indicator, Tronc’s purchase of family-owned Virginian-Pilot and its subsidiaries this week bodes ill for readers and journalists in Richmond and throughout the Commonwealth. Tronc already owns the Pilot’s chief competitor, The Daily Press, after a 1986 acquisition when the firm was still the Tribune Company. Representatives deny a merger between the two is coming, but confirmed that all of the outlets, including Richmond-based Style Weekly, “will operate as part of Tronc’s Southeast region,” according to a letter from Tronc Chairman and CEO Justin Dearborn.
Both Frank Batten Jr., the last member of the family that owned the Pilot for more than a century, and Dearborn described the sale as a benefit to the Pilot. Dearborn and other Tronc representatives have floated the idea of coordination between the Pilot and its former rival as a benefit to readers, but in addition to layoffs, previous media consolidation efforts by Tronc have resulted in repackaged stories that lose their local vibe and shrinking papers.
Such was the case in Connecticut after the firm, then known as Tribune, made a similar acquisition in 2000. Tribune bought the Hartford Courant, the state’s largest daily newspaper, along with the New Haven Advocate, an alt-weekly which the Courant had purchased a year prior. While the much-lauded Courant, America’s oldest continuously published newspaper, is still around, the Advocate was eventually scuttled and, tragically, retooled into an online calendar of events called CT Now.
Joshua Mamis, former publisher of the Advocate, said that the new corporate owners didn’t understand what they’d purchased, and sorted the two papers into different buckets as part of a business strategy that discounted the real strengths of the outlets. He said, “They thought they were getting the real journalism advertising from the Hartford Courant, and that they were just getting the bar and entertainment money from us.”
“They wanted us to be about rock and roll and partying, but that audience was already lost to the internet,” Mamis continued. “The pressure to do lightweight entertainment instead of real reporting was intense because, first off, reporting costs more money, and second, they really misunderstood the audience. We couldn’t get any investment in reporting because they didn’t think we needed it. They didn’t take us seriously as journalists.”
Mamis was laid off in 2011 after 18 years at the Advocate. He couldn’t speak about current Tronc management, but described working for an out-of-state chain as being a continual push for bigger profits. “They just keep saying, you need 10 percent returns, now 12 percent returns,” he said.
Andy Bromage, an editor at the Advocate under Mamis, said he was proud to take the position in 2006, drawn by the paper’s “legacy of fearless, hard-hitting journalism.” While working for the Advocate, Bromage would become one of Connecticut’s most respected journalists, creating a state government beat that broke big stories despite ever-shrinking resources.
When he was hired, he said, “We had eight, eight and a half, full-time people in editorial, and…whenever someone would move on to another job, they wouldn’t replace them,” he said. “I’d take what felt like the long walk to Josh Mamis’s office, and say, “Am I getting this position back?” and he’d just shake his head.”
Mamis fought to keep the paper at full strength, but said, “There was no argument we could make that we needed new investment. We couldn’t invest in our website or new reporters, because then we wouldn’t make the margins. Whatever we brought in–woosh, gone–it went straight out to Chicago.”
The issue wasn’t sustainability, Mamis said. “We made money. You didn’t have to cut staff to make money, it was the margins.”
By the time Bromage left, in 2009, the paper was down to just four full-time editorial staffers. The loss of reporters, photographers, designers, and editors was supposed to be covered by a buzzword that Virginia readers are seeing after Tronc’s latest acquisition: Coordination.
Along with the New Haven Advocate, Tribune had acquired its sister sites in Bridgeport and Hartford. The three alt-weeklies went from local control to consolidated control. “We use to share stories from time to time, evergreen stuff, but really, the papers produced their own stories that were local to their markets,” Bromage said. By 2009, though, a new executive editor had been hired to “sync up” all of the weekly coverage between the three papers, something that Bromage said accelerated the collapse of the Advocate.
Instead of individual editors and news teams, the papers shared stories and reporters, and Bromage said they “got smaller each week, and advertisers dropped off…It was less local, less compelling, and less interesting. It was clear that [Tribune] just wanted to wring out every cent from the advertising, they didn’t want to invest in local journalism.”
Like Mamis, Bromage no longer works as a journalist and didn’t want to make predictions specific to Tronc. Both men noted that the firm has been through multiple overhauls since they worked there. In general, though, he was skeptical about out-of-state ownership. “Local papers do great work because they’re there, they can make decisions based on conditions on the ground, not from a thousand miles away,” he said, adding, “I see journalism as a public trust, the idea that it should just be a for-profit enterprise doesn’t seem right.”
When asked what the acquisition might mean for Virginia media, Bromage was sympathetic but blunt. “I hope they don’t suffer the same fate, because it was pretty shitty.”
Mamis said he misses the Advocate and alt-weeklies in general, which have declined following consolidation and corporate buyouts of independent media. He said, “It used to be, if you visited a city for the first time, you’d go into a cafe and pick up the alt-weekly, and really get a sense for the city. Maybe it’s just my age, maybe people who are 25 years old don’t need that anymore, but it feels different now. You don’t get that sense of vibrancy.”
When asked how people can fight for their local media, Mamis said it was up to the outlets. “The local daily and the alt-weekly are things people love to hate. It’s hard to go from that to saying, ‘Oh, you better appreciate what you have before it’s gone.’ I don’t begrudge that, it’s human nature,” he said. “It’s really going to be up to the team at Style Weekly to be their own advocates and push hard.”
Bromage, who described himself as more happily balancing work and home life since leaving the field, had advice for reporters feeling squeezed. He said, “Keep doing the good work you’re doing, because it matters to the community, but at some point, if you’re just breaking your back to make your corporate overlords more money and they’re not supporting you, ask yourself, what am I doing?”