You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.
That’s how Madisonians might feel if they wake up one morning and discover that their morning daily newspaper has been bought up and hollowed out by a “vulture capital” group.
Alden Global Capital is making a hostile takeover attempt to acquire a controlling interest in Lee Enterprises, which owns the Wisconsin State Journal as well as other dailies and weeklies in more than 70 other markets. Alden has a reputation for buying papers and then wringing out every last dollar of profit by cutting costs to the bone and laying off reporters and editors.
Some of you are going to be quick to remind us that the State Journal has already been reduced from what it was once. It’s true that the news room has suffered hits similar to what virtually all newspapers have gone through over the last couple of decades, due mostly to the migration of advertising to online platforms. But we’re lucky it still exists at all and it has more or less stabilized recently. Alden would take the cuts to a new level.
Lee is fighting off the takeover attempt, arguing in a letter to shareholders that Alden’s offer substantially undervalues the company. That’s probably the best argument for shareholders who are mostly just concerned about getting the most out of their investment. But let me make a case for fighting off Alden because of the value of the State Journal to the community.
Even in its reduced state, the State Journal does a good job of covering state government and the city of Madison. Dean Mosiman is, well, the dean of city hall reporters. His tenure goes back to before I started serving as mayor in 2003. His beat these days is mostly city budget and land development issues, but those can be extremely complex, and Dean understands them better than any other reporter. Dean also has done several deep dives into complex issues. When I was mayor, his series “Life & Death on Allied Drive” won awards and influenced the direction of city policy. Today, Allied Drive, once the most troubled neighborhood in the city, is much improved. His loss alone would be a huge blow to journalism in Madison.
Veteran reporter Chris Rickert must be thought of as a thorn in the side of both the Madison school board and the police department. He keeps after both to release public information they would rather not have in the hands of the public. (That’s a topic for another day, but I am both perplexed and concerned about the decline in transparency at both the schools and the cop shop.)
For my money, cartoonist Phil Hands is one of the best in the business anywhere. His work often raises the hackles of liberals and conservatives, alternately. Hands and editorial page editor Scott Milfred keep up a lively banter on their weekly podcast. And I appreciate the paper’s generally left-center, independent views on its editorial page, though progressives must like their recent addition of liberal columnist Esther Cepeda, who has a national following.
Barry Adams does some of the most fun — and often profound — feature reporting anywhere in journalism.
As a baseball fan, I wish the paper would assign its own reporter to follow the Brewers instead of relying on national news services, but Badgers sports are important to this town’s economy and culture and the Journal invests a fair amount of resources into that.
If Alden gets ahold of Lee you can say goodbye to most of that. I’m glad that the Cap Times appears to be safe from Alden, and I’m still in awe of the heroic work of a handful of journalists to save Isthmus, now operating as a nonprofit. It’s also a good thing that alternative venues for news, like Madison 365 and the Wisconsin Examiner, have popped up in recent years. But the thing I most appreciate about the State Journal is that it still tries to practice good old balanced, objective journalism, something that’s fallen out of fashion in recent years.
For all its shortcomings, in Madison, the State Journal is matched for journalistic resources only by the Cap Times and, of course, that paper ceased publication as a daily newspaper years ago.
Alden is aiming to pick up board seats at Lee’s annual meeting in March. Let’s hope they fail.
A version of this piece originally appeared in Isthmus.
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