Do newspaper hedge funds violate a reporter’s free speech?

Today in America, a local newspaper will close, and hedge fund owners of a local newspaper will significantly reduce the staff in a newsroom.

This closure and reduction in staff has two impacts:
people lose jobs and communities lose news.

In 2021, my wife and I canceled our hard copy subscription to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Increased subscription cost, shrinkage in news coverage, and reduction in staff drove our decision.

For years, newspaper ownership was local. Today, many surviving newspapers are owned and run by corporate hedge funds. Hedge fund newspaper owners have one goal—making a profit. Heartless hedge fund owners know the quickest path toward a profit is to make staff cuts.

Cuts in staff can reduce the quality of the newspaper, impact news coverage, and make newsrooms a fragile mess. Morale in depleted newsrooms is dismal.

Let me be clear, I have no expertise in newspaper management. But, as a person who for years depended upon newspapers for news, I’m concerned about the impact hedge fund operators are having on our newspapers.

Specifically, I’m troubled about the lack of detailed reporting when a hedge fund purchases a newspaper. I sense that remaining reporters and editors are handcuffed from reporting the severity of the changes implemented in newsrooms.

Clearly, the newspaper reports on the buyout. Those stories always focus on promises from the new owners and changes in internal leadership related to daily operations.

But, weeks after this announcement, the newspaper goes silent. After a hedge fund takeover, the gutting of newsroom staffs is not reported. Rarely do newspaper readers find articles about these reassignments, resignations, and firings. Why is this?

The First Amendment of our Constitution guarantees freedom of the press. To me, that guarantee raises these questions:

Shouldn’t remaining reporters and editors be able to write about these significant newsroom reductions without fear of retribution?

Don’t the readers of a newspaper have a right to know how the newspaper is being impacted by such changes?

When people in our communities are impacted in a negative way, isn’t a guiding principle of journalism to report their stories?

Isn’t it just as important to report about the impact of a newspaper buyout as it is to report about similar challenges in a local corporation or municipality?

In my mind, the answer is yes.

Yet, I’m certain hedge fund newspaper owners and their attorneys would disagree.

At this very moment, a disagreement is taking place in a decimated newsroom.

A reporter submitted a balanced story about the impact of reducing newspaper staff. The story is reviewed by an editor and the publisher. The editor wants to run the piece, but the publisher refuses. My question is this—has that reporter’s right of free speech and freedom of press been violated by the publisher’s refusal?

No matter where we look in America, we have multiple challenges. Newspapers are the heart of reporting about our challenges. When newspapers are closed, bought out, and newsrooms ravaged, the heart of our democracy is challenged.

At this critical time, America needs the integrity of reporters and editors to report our condition. That reporting must include the internal challenges facing bought out newspapers.

These internal challenges can’t go unreported. It is time for newspapers in America who are not controlled by corporate hedge funds to pool their financial and human resources to report on the gutting of newspaper newsrooms. This pooling of resources should also include newspaper related nonprofits and schools of journalism.

With urgent diligence, these stories must be researched and reported. Reporters and editors from non-hedge fund controlled newspapers are equipped to report these stories with truth and without fear of retribution.

If this eviscerating of newsrooms can be honestly reported, then maybe the collective conscience of newspaper takeover planners and their investors will be jarred.

That jarring should include people who still rely upon newspapers for their news. Readers deserve to learn about the frailty of freedom in these newsrooms.

Failure to report this story isn’t an option.

Failure to report ensures more buyouts and carving up newsrooms.

That template will continue to erode our freedom of the press.

And that’s not good for America.

Author’s note: I know this piece is an imperfect commentary. I sent the piece to three major newspapers in America hoping that one might take it. But, no paper took the piece, and I’m not surprised.

How much longer can newspapers hold on? Photo by Bill Pike

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