Over the past four decades, private equity has become a powerful and malignant force in our daily lives. In our May/June 2022 issue, Mother Jones investigates the vulture capitalists who chew up and spit out corporate America, the politicians who allow them, and the ordinary people who fight back. Find the full package here.
We had maybe 25 to 30 people in writing when I started Mercury in ’97. Ten journalists. Lots of copy editors. Weekend editors. Feature editors. It was a busy place. I was very surprised at how much news there was in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a town of 21,000 people. But when you cover it all, there’s a lot.
There’s no point on the timeline where you can say, “That’s when it started to dwindle.” There were always financial constraints. Every time someone left, there was always the question, “Are they going to be replaced?” The advantage of being in a syndicate was that the longer you could hold out, the harder it was for them to get rid of you.
We were bought in 2001 by a notoriously cheap chain called the Journal Register Company. We had a collective agreement that stipulated the number of journalists we would keep in the newsroom. We had, I think, two more than the contract required. They immediately fired these two people.
Under JRC, we had, I mean, two bankruptcies. Meanwhile, we were giving up concessions to keep the place going. Eventually the JRC went bankrupt. Alden [Global Capital, a hedge fund that has partnered with PE firms in some of its biggest newspaper takeovers] bought the company. They appointed a new board of directors. To their credit, they had a guy named John Paton. He actually wanted to try to save the newspapers. For about two years, it was an exciting time.
Eventually, Alden grew tired of the bleeding. Almost every quarter, or every two quarters, you received an e-mail saying: “We are looking for volunteers to quit smoking”. It wasn’t about asking “How good is the paper?” It wasn’t about “How to increase revenue? It was always pretty much, “How do we get to this profit percentage?” The answer has always been cut off, because you don’t have to spend money to do it. They had this brutal expression they called resizing. But we never seemed to get the right size.
When I realized the real plan was to kill us and do it slowly, that’s when I really started to pick myself up. It wasn’t just us who were suffering layoffs and cuts because of a dying business model. It was a controlled decline. How do we extract the most value from the patient we kill? We were working harder and harder for people who didn’t care who you were, what you were doing, what you were trying to do for the community. They were only interested in the number next to your name: your salary. Finding out how much money Alden was making was kind of the breaking point for me. (Alden did not respond to requests for comment.)
I would say that I am the last guy in the newspaper devoted to Mercury cover. Although stories of budgets, big spending, bad behavior by local elected officials are not always the most read stories, these are what I call constitutional functions for the local press. We don’t have a first amendment so I can cover a car accident.
Other people who work for the paper no longer work in Pottstown. They either work from home or at the print shop, where my official office is. I can’t ask the company to reimburse me for the cost of a home office, because their answer is that you have an office here whenever you want. You can work from home, or you can drive 40 minutes south, time it, drive 40 minutes to cover things in Pottstown, then drive 40 minutes south, write it on a computer at the office, then drive 40 minutes to go home.
I just laugh about it. I could get my supplies there, but it’s so boring. I’m just going to Staples. The first time I did this, I put in an expense. I was called by the associate editor, who said, “Don’t ever do that again. If you want supplies, you can come here. I’m like, do you have a lot on laptops? Because I used a coupon.
I ended up at Alden’s chairman, Heath Freeman, after Julie Reynolds wrote a story about Alden that was published in the Nation. She used the land records to report that Freeman had just purchased this house in Montauk. She used the records to determine that not only had he purchased the house and a pond next to it, but that he was expanding the size of the house by a third. More frustratingly, she calculated how many journalists could have kept their jobs for another two years for what he spent on this mansion.
My wife, son and I were driving to the far end of Long Island where my father and stepmother live. I thought to myself, maybe I’ll go and see. Maybe I’ll go over there and take a picture. Then I thought, maybe I’ll take a picture and put it on Twitter. I might be in the photo. Maybe I’ll hold a sign. My wife, who has much better penmanship, wrote me a sign with the Newspaper Guild mantra of the day, “Invest in us or sell us.” I was wearing a shirt that said, “News Matters.” We were standing in the aisle. My mother-in-law took my picture.
Then a woman who I assumed was Mr. Freeman’s wife drove out at the end of the driveway. She rolled down the window and asked me if she could help me. I asked if Mr. Freeman was at home. She looked at my shirt and my sign and said, “No, it’s not.” Then I heard Dave Matthews explode from the back porch. I thought, yeah, he’s home. So what are you doing? I’m not going to yell at my boss and tell him you’re ruining my life and destroying journalism. Because he had made it pretty obvious, he didn’t care.
I decided to interview him. I walk to her door from the driveway thinking you’d be lucky to have a question. The question I asked was, “What is the value of local news?” Not “How much can you sell it? How much is it worth?” to see you.” Like wife, like husband: He looked at me and my shirt, and he just shook his head and walked away.
The real proof of their contempt for the whole operation is that they left everything behind when they sold the building. They left the offices. They left the filing cabinets. They left filing cabinets with people’s personal financial information, people’s social security numbers, people’s pay stubs. They left behind probably the most valuable asset we had, which was the clip files. Forty or 50 years of clips of everything that happened in the city.
They sold the building to a woman who runs an engineering company across the street. She is transforming it into a boutique hotel and whiskey bar. I think her target audience is the parents of Hill School students. They haven’t removed the sign yet. Guess they’ll leave it there for the stamp. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bar was called the Press Room or something. I think people whose kids go to Hill School would love the charm and nostalgia of that.