By Dan Kennedy
In April 2020, I questioned whether Report for America should be placing journalists at newspapers owned by cost-cutting corporate chains.
RFA is a program that enables news organizations to hire young journalists for about two years at a fraction of the cost, with a grant from RFA and additional fundraising covering 75%. The dilemma is that though these news organizations clearly need help, and the communities they cover benefit from that help, there is at least a theoretical chance that their chain owners will take it as an incentive not to hire someone at full cost.
At the time, RFA co-founder Steven Waldman defended those placements, saying in part that “half of our placements are in nonprofit, and others are in locally owned commercial entities. But we do indeed have some placements in newspapers that are owned by chains. Our primary standard is: Will this help the community?” (His full answer, as well as comments from the other co-founder, Charles Sennott, are here.)
Now Report for America has encountered an unexpected hazard to doing business with chain owners. McClatchy, owned by Chatham Asset Management, a hedge fund, has decided not to apply for any RFA journalists next year. The apparent reason, according to Feven Merid at the Columbia Journalism Review: Waldman hurt their feelings in an op-ed piece he wrote for the Los Angeles Times earlier this year. Merid writes:
Sources tell CJR that McClatchy’s decision came in response to Waldman’s hedge-fund criticism. Kristin Roberts, McClatchy’s senior vice president of news, would not confirm the company’s plans, and did not respond to questions concerning the company’s reaction to Waldman’s hedge-fund critiques.
McClatchy owns several dozen papers in 14 states, including important outlets like the Miami Herald, The Sacramento Bee and The News & Observer of Raleigh, North Carolina. The chain staggered under piles of debt for many years before finally collapsing into bankruptcy a few years ago. Chatham bailed them out and has thus far proved to be a more benevolent owner than, say, Alden Global Capital, the most notorious of the hedge-fund owners. Indeed, Waldman’s op-ed specifically mentioned Alden.
But if Merid’s sources are correct, then it seems that Chatham executives have a bad case of rabbit ears.
Waldman’s op-ed, headlined “How to Stop Hedge Funds from Wrecking Local News,” calls on Washington to take steps that would encourage chain-owned newspapers to divest their holdings and make it easier for independent local owners to step up. He wrote:
It could offer incentives for owners to sell these papers to local interests by waiving capital gains taxes if the acquirer is a local nonprofit organization or public benefit corporation. It could give a time-limited payroll tax break to the acquiring organizations. Congress could also, through the Small Business Administration or Commerce Department, provide loan guarantees for low-interest financing for such transitions or special tax credits, similar to those available to businesses operating in enterprise zones.
Antitrust action to break up the chains could be in order as well, according to Waldman.
At the moment, 31 RFA journalists work at 21 McClatchy news outlets. The chain’s decision to spurn future RFA journalists won’t hurt the prospects of young reporters and photographers, since there will no doubt be plenty of other newsrooms that participate. But it will hurt the communities that those papers serve unless the chain suddenly decides to go on a hiring spree.
It’s an absurd situation, and I hope the folks at Chatham and McClatchy come to their senses.