The good news is that Apollo Global Management has ended its effort to acquire Digital First Media, the newspaper chain that publishes 70 some papers across the country, including the Monterey Herald and the Santa Cruz Sentinel.
It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Apollo. It is a very successful investment fund and it has made sizable profits for its many investors. It manages some $160 billion in assets and it apparently is very good at what it does. But what it does is make money, not run newspapers.
If Apollo had completed the deal, worth somewhere in the universe of $400 million, it would have been one large investment fund buying the newspaper group from another large investment fund, the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. Months of talks broke down, however, apparently because the parties couldn’t agree on price. Which is a good thing, I believe, because the transaction very likely would have led to continued shrinkage of the staffs and contents of the newspapers. I’ll explain my thinking in a bit.
This leaves the future of the Herald, the Sentinel and their various stablemates in a limbo of sorts. Digital First Media officials said two rather contradictory things Thursday — that the chain isn’t for sale but that they may be selling off pieces, either regional clusters of newspapers or individual papers.
As we and others have reported previously, there are local groups interested in buying both the Monterey and the Santa Cruz papers. One is headed by Geoff Dunn, a writer, educator and filmmaker who has been involved with alternative weeklies in Santa Cruz and elsewhere for decades. He was involved last year in brokering the sale of small dailies in Santa Clara and San Benito counties along with a Santa Cruz weekly and he continues to pursue Digital First Media operations on the Central Coast and elsewhere in Northern California.
Other groups have expressed interest in other Digital First holdings around the country, but DFM has deferred discussions with most of them while pursuing a package deal with Apollo. If it starts negotiating with groups here and elsewhere, it is likely to become a complicated financial chess game with other newspaper groups proposing trades and other newspaper operations making plays for various configurations of newspapers. (As it stands, the Monterey and Santa Cruz papers are part of Digital First Media’s Northern California group along with papers in Chico, Red Bluff, Vacaville, Vallejo, Red Bluff, Fairfield, Eureka, Mendocino, Ukiah, Clear Lake, Woodland and Paradise. The San Jose Mercury News is part of the company’s Bay Area News Group along with the Contra Costa Times and several closely affiliated papers in the East Bay. At different times, the Sentinel has been part of both groups, as has the Marin Independent Journal.)
I am encouraged for several reasons. I believe local ownership could help restore at least some of the quality at the local papers. Corporate operators are by definition far more interested in profits than in journalism. Also, I believe the right kind of local ownership would be in much better position to make improvements.
Here’s why. As the U.S. newspaper industry has suffered large losses in advertising, circulation and revenue, the impression has been created that they are barely profitable if at all. The reality is that many newspapers have made respectable profits in recent years, not by increasing circulation or their advertising linage but by cutting expenses. With the Apollo deal falling apart, there already is talk of new budget cuts for the DFM papers starting in July. If the deal hadn’t fallen apart, budget cuts would have been on the near horizon anyway, or at least that’s what I think.
What sets local ownership apart from investment banker ownership is that local investors would have much less incentive to cut in order to create the kind of returns that hedge funds and other asset managers proudly offer their clients. Potentially, local investors motivated by public spiritedness might even be able to reinvest some of the profits and rebuild the newspapers.
Am I dreaming? Probably so. But until today, I was expecting to watch the continued decline of most DFM newspapers, including the Herald, where I once held the editor’s title. Now, I feel there is at least a possibility of recovery and the public benefit that goes along with it.
In the past few months, I have given talks to various community groups, including the League of Women Voters of Monterey County, the Gentrain Society at Monterey Peninsula College and the Carmel Valley Association and each was keenly interested in the future of the Herald. The people in the audiences are more involved in public affairs than most folks and a relatively high percentage of them still subscribe to the Herald even as they complain about its dwindling daily report.
I told them about the potential Apollo purchase and the local possibilities, which at the time seemed remote. After each talk, several people came up to me or called or emailed to say that newspapers remain extremely important to them, that they would be following the sale process closely and would be pulling, pulling hard, for local ownership. For the sake of the Herald and the Sentinel and the communities they serve, for the sake of the readers and the advertisers, for the sake of all, let’s hope it works out.