Tribune workers ask board to support journalism

Unionized workers act on worries about hedge fund’s control of parent company.

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Chicago Tribune newspapers on a sales rack.

Unionized newsroom employees at the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in its corporate family Wednesday asked the company’s board to reaffirm its commitment to journalism.

AP file

Unionized newsroom employees at the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers in its corporate family Wednesday asked the company’s board to reaffirm its commitment to journalism after the sale of a major stake to a hedge fund known for slashing editorial jobs.

The petition, signed by more than 430 people working in Chicago and five other U.S. markets, also asks the board to consider offers to buy its newspapers from local or “civic-minded’’ groups.

The move follows the acquisition of a 32% stake in Tribune Publishing by Alden Global Capital, known for gutting newsrooms at other papers it has acquired. The New York-based hedge fund has been accused of squeezing cash from its media properties to use in other ventures.

“Once they acquire a newspaper, they slash staff and raise prices and leave it wounded on the side of the road,” said Charles Johnson, home page editor at the Chicago Tribune. He said the editorial staff views Alden’s stake as “an existential threat.” Citing a need for continued investments in journalism, Johnson said of Alden, “This is not who should be owning newspapers in 2019.”

A spokesman for Tribune Publishing could not immediately be reached. Alden, controlled by Heath Freeman, did not immediately respond to a message.

The petition was delivered to the board Wednesday as part of negotiations for a first labor contract with five bargaining units at Tribune Publishing. The employees are members of the NewsGuild, a labor union that has made substantial inroads at the company. Chicago Tribune journalists became unionized in 2018 as part of the union’s local, the Chicago News Guild, which also represents editorial employees at the Sun-Times.

Tribune employees asked the board of the publicly traded company to back a shareholder proposal that it prepares an annual “journalism report” detailing its commitment to news. “Such a report is a routine and established way for companies to report on the economic, environmental and societal impacts of its business decisions. This is crucial information for investors, particularly as the number of seats on the board expands to include two Alden representatives,” the petition said.

Alden said last month it had acquired most of its stake from Michael Ferro Jr., former Tribune Publishing chairman, who exited the business. In becoming the leading shareholder, it has gotten two seats on the company’s board, which expanded to eight members from six. But Alden signed a so-called standstill agreement that limits its influence over company affairs through June 30, 2020.

The chairman of Tribune Publishing, David Dreier, indirectly acknowledged concerns about Alden in his published reaction to its stake. While welcoming Alden’s interest, his statement added, “The entire board believes that quality journalism is the company’s driving principle as we serve our communities and our shareholders. We look forward to working together to create new company successes.”

At the Chicago Tribune, alarm about the Alden deal surfaced in print when columnist Mary Schmich wrote a piece imploring a new owner to buy the paper.

Johnson said the worries have intensified employees’ desire for a just contract that would protect jobs. He said the bargaining units hope to have an agreement early in 2020.

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