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 chewing up and spitting out American businesses, the politicians enabling them, and the everyday people fighting back. Find the full package here.
We had maybe 25 to 30 people on the editorial staff when I started at the Mercury in ’97. Ten reporters. Lots of copy editors. Weekend editors. Features editors. It was a bustling place. I was very surprised at how much news there was in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a town of 21,000 people. But when you cover everything, there’s a lot.
There’s no point on the timeline where you can say, “This was when it started shrinking.” There were always financial constraints. Whenever anyone left, there was always the question of, “Will they be replaced?” The benefit of being in a union was the longer you could hang on, the harder it was for them to get rid of you.
We got purchased in 2001 by a notoriously cheap chain called Journal Register Company. We had a union contract that spelled out the number of reporters we would keep in the newsroom. We had, I think, two more than the contract required. They immediately laid off those two people.
Under JRC, we went through, I want to say, two bankruptcies. During that time, we would give up concessions to keep the place going. Finally, JRC went under. 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 got a guy named John Paton. He actually wanted to try to save newspapers. For about two years, it was an exciting time.
Finally, Alden got tired of the bleeding. Almost every quarter, or every other quarter, you would get an email that said, “We’re looking for volunteers to quit.” It wasn’t about, “How good is the paper?” It wasn’t about, “How do we raise revenues?” It was always just about, “How do we get to this profit percentage?” The answer was always cut, because you don’t have to spend money to do that. They had this brutal phrase they called rightsizing. But we never seemed to get to the right size.
When I realized that the actual plan was to kill us and just to do it slowly, that’s when I really began to get my back up. This wasn’t just us suffering layoffs and cuts because of a dying business model. It was a managed decline. How do we extract the most value from the patient we’re killing? We were working harder and harder for people who didn’t care who you were, didn’t care what you were doing, didn’t care 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 break point for me. (Alden did not respond to requests for comment.)
I would say I’m the last guy at the paper devoted to Mercury coverage. Although stories about budgets, big expenses, local officials behaving badly are not always the most read stories, they’re what I call constitutional functions for the local press. We don’t have a First Amendment so I can cover a car crash.
Other people who work for the paper don’t work in Pottstown anymore. They work either at home or at the printing plant, which is where my official office is. I can’t ask the company to reimburse me for expenses for a home office because their answer is you got an office down here whenever you want. You could work at home, or you could drive 40 minutes south, clock in, drive 40 minutes back to cover things in Pottstown, then drive 40 minutes south, write it up on a computer in the office, then drive 40 minutes home.
I just laugh at it. I could get supplies there, but it’s such a pain in the ass. I just go to Staples. The first time I did that, I put in an expense. I got called by the deputy publisher, who said, “Don’t ever do that again. If you want supplies, you can come down here.” I’m like, do you have a great deal on notebooks? Because I used a coupon.
I ended up at Alden president Heath Freeman’s house after Julie Reynolds wrote a story about Alden that ran in the Nation. She used land records to report that Freeman had just purchased this house out in Montauk. She used the records to determine that not only had he bought the house and a pond next door, but he was expanding the size of the house by a third. Most frustratingly, she calculated how many reporters could have kept their jobs for another two years for what he spent on that mansion.
My wife, my son, and I were driving out to the end of Long Island, where my father and my stepmother live. I thought to myself, maybe I’ll go look. Maybe I’ll go out there and get a picture. Then I thought, maybe I’ll take a picture and put it on Twitter. Maybe I’ll be in the picture. Maybe I’ll hold a sign. My wife, who has way better penmanship, wrote me up 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 stood in the driveway. My stepmother took my picture.
Then, a woman who I assumed to be Mr. Freeman’s wife drove out to the end of the driveway. She rolled the window down and asked if she could help me. I asked if Mr. Freeman was home. She looked at my shirt and my sign and said, “No, he isn’t.” Then I heard Dave Matthews blasting from the back porch. I thought, yeah, he’s home. So, what do you do? I’m not going to go yell at my boss and tell him you’re ruining my life and destroying journalism. Because he’d made it pretty obvious he didn’t care about that.
I decided I’ll interview him. I’m walking up to his door from the driveway thinking you’d be lucky to get one question. The question I came up with was “What value does local news have?” Not “How much can you sell it for? What’s its value?” I never got to ask that question. A housekeeper opened the door. He was at the top of the stairs. She said, “This man’s here to see you.” Like wife, like husband: He took a look at me and my shirt, and he just shook his head and walked away.
The real evidence of their disregard for the whole operation is they left everything when they sold the building. They left the desks. 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 probably the most valuable asset we had, which was the clip files. Forty or 50 years of clips of everything that’s happened in the town.
They sold the building to a woman who runs an engineering firm across the street. She is in the midst of converting it into a boutique hotel and whiskey bar. I think the clientele she’s eyeing are the parents of Hill School students. They haven’t taken the sign down yet. My guess is they’ll leave it there for the cachet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bar was called the Press Room or something like that. I think people whose kids go to the Hill School would love the charm and nostalgia of that.