Employees at the San Diego Union-Tribune had no idea they’d receive an email Monday afternoon bearing news the paper had been sold. Not just to anyone, but MediaNews Group — a subsidiary of notorious hedge fund Alden Global Capital.
News from their new owner’s human resources team followed less than thirty minutes later: Staff reductions were forthcoming, and buyout packages would be made available, said MediaNews Group executive Sharon Ryan in a company-wide email. In a subsequent email, employees would learn they had only until next Monday to file buyout paperwork.
“To learn that you’re getting acquired, learn that there’s going to be layoffs, and then learn you’re getting sold to this horrible company all within an hour — there’s just so much information,” one staffer said. The staffer, along with several other current employees, spoke with The Objective on the condition of anonymity, as the Union-Tribune is not unionized.
The employee went from being unfamiliar with MediaNews Group and its parent company to then “immediately seeing everybody and their mother on Twitter, tweeting about how we’ve basically been thrown out to the wolves.”
Another staffer said they felt physically unwell: “I was sidelined by it. I literally cried myself to sleep last night and then woke up at 3 or 3:30 in the morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. Of course, the newspaper still goes on, so I still have stories to file today.”
The barrage of information on Monday devastated the San Diego Union-Tribune’s staff and seemed to take the paper’s management by surprise, too. The sale resurfaced questions about billionaire Patrick Soon-Shiong’s commitment to the San Diego paper since acquiring it with the Los Angeles Times in a $500 million deal five years ago and putting both under one roof called California Times.
Alden Global Capital, a hedge fund based in New York, trails Gannett as the second largest newspaper-owning enterprise in the country. As detailed in a lengthy 2021 feature in The Atlantic, the hedge fund’s subsidiaries gut news operations and typically cut staff following acquisition.
“I don’t know what the next few weeks or months are going to hold for me,” one staffer told The Objective. “I don’t want to give them a reason to lay me off — to have my name be on the chopping block when it comes time.”
That uncertainty isn’t foreign for Union-Tribune staffers who’ve been at the publication longer than five years. The San Diego paper has had five different owners since being sold by the Copley family in 2009 and faced several rounds of layoffs throughout. Right now, it has 220 employees; 108 work in the newsroom, according to the Union-Tribune.
Surprise, anger, and devastation at news of the sale
All current employees who spoke with The Objective said news of the sale seemed to have taken the paper’s editor-in-chief and publisher, Jeff Light, by surprise as well.
Light told staff he learned what happened on Monday, too.
Employees took issue with California Times president and chief operating officer Chris Argentieri’s company-wide email, in which he wrote that Soon-Shiong and California Times “made a good faith effort to rebuild and support both news organizations.”
Those who spoke with The Objective said they did not sense a good-faith approach — especially if the end result was selling to a subsidiary of Alden Global Capital.
“It’s just disingenuous to say that they did everything they could do,” one staffer said. “If you asked me who would be the worst company to sell the paper to, it would’ve been MediaNews Group. I can’t believe there wasn’t a better option.”
Several current staffers told The Objective that over the past five years it was obvious that the Los Angeles Times received considerably greater resources to expand its staff and hire reporters — perks that didn’t make their way to San Diego.
“While the stability of the ownership to me has been welcome, there hasn’t been a lot of investment — and I don’t mean strictly in dollars — in the Union-Tribune that I could see as a reporter,” one staffer told The Objective.
Staffers said the news also took them by surprise since they kept hearing from management that the Union-Tribune was in the green despite narrow margins.
“Our newsroom is profitable,” one staffer said. “The L.A. Times has its own struggles and has not been profitable for a number of years. It feels like we’re being the sacrificial lamb that is slaughtered because they want to save the other newspaper — it just feels like they never really cared about us.”
Since the first two emails on Monday afternoon, Union-Tribune staff has been peppered with more emails from the paper’s new owner, staffers said. Those include one email requiring staffers to file new employee paperwork by end of day Tuesday and another email setting a deadline of next Monday to accept buyout packages.
One staffer felt as if the series of events on Monday had been long-planned considering MediaNews Group rolled out a new HR system with logins and passwords for employees and rapidly shared voluntary separation plans — within less than a half hour — following the news of the sale.
“We had to switch to a whole new Workday [online HR system] all of a sudden to basically fill out all the paperwork that you would fill out if you had a brand new job,” another staffer told The Objective. “It’s very overwhelming, and I think the way that it was handled — it doesn’t seem like anybody really cares about us as reporters or us as a newspaper.”
‘A reporter’s worst nightmare’: 2021 acquisition rumors become reality
The news on Monday was eerily similar to a Wall Street Journal exclusive story from February 2021, which broke news that Soon-Shiong was supposedly fixing for a deal to sell the Los Angeles Times and San Diego Union-Tribune at the time.
“Mr. Soon-Shiong has also considered selling or transferring management of the San Diego publication to another company, possibly Alden Global Capital Inc.’s MediaNews Group, which owns several papers in the areas between the two cities,” Lukas I. Alpert reported.
Soon-Shiong refuted the story on Twitter later that day, saying, “WSJ article inaccurate. We are committed to the @LATimes.”
Several users replied to Soon-Shiong’s tweet, noting an omission of any commitment to the San Diego Union-Tribune. Andrew Dyer, who then covered the U.S. military for the newspaper, said he also wondered why the Soon-Shiong excluded the Union-Tribune in a tweet doubling down on his commitment to stewarding journalism.
But more importantly, he remembered the anxiety among his colleagues when the Journal story first broke.
“People were freaking out,” Dyer told The Objective. “Your paper being sold to a hedge fund is a reporter’s worst nightmare.”
It was a stark emotional contrast to Dyer’s first summer at the Union-Tribune when he started as an intern in 2018 — right as Soon-Shiong inked the deal to purchase the paper.
He said he remembers when Soon-Shiong initially visited the Union-Tribune‘s newsroom — there was excitement and hope for the future since the billionaire effectively saved the newspaper, along with the Los Angeles Times, from Tribune Publishing and the years of layoffs the company brought with its ownership.
Dyer, who now covers the same beat for San Diego radio station KPBS after over four years at the Union-Tribune, can’t help but look back and wonder if the Journal exclusive either delayed or altered the deal Soon-Shiong was reportedly seeking back then.
“The thing is that, particularly with Alden — this is the boogeyman,” Dyer said. “You’ve got other bad actors out there, but this is the worst one. For Patrick Soon-Shiong to sell to the worst buyer he could find, it is just devastating.”
Alden Global Capital also acquired Tribune Publishing in May 2021, making the hedge fund an even bigger newsroom parent company. That deal needed a two-thirds shareholder approval to go through, and Soon-Shiong had a notable 24% share in Tribune Publishing stock.
Though he didn’t participate in the vote, the outcome ended up meeting the minimum approval threshold anyway, which led to Soon-Shiong walking away from the deal with at least a $150 million profit, according to Poynter.
Staffers wait for an uncertain future — for both their jobs and the paper
Right now, the Union-Tribune’s staff remains in limbo. They have until this coming Monday to decide if they want to take a buyout, but haven’t yet heard more about additional changes to both the paper and their jobs.
The Union-Tribune’s sale spurred conversation online about MediaNews Group’s sparse compensation for staff — as low as $40,000 a year — to report on dozens of communities in some of the most expensive housing markets in the country.
One former reporter for a paper owned by MediaNews Group said she made $16 an hour in Chico, California, and later $24 an hour in Marin County, California. Another journalist said he was offered just $16 an hour to join a Colorado paper he interviewed for in 2021.
“A recent SCNG job listing for a reporter offered a $45,000 salary at best,” the Orange County Press Club wrote in a statement. “We challenge anyone to explain how a journalist is expected to live in Southern California on this wage in 2023. Alden should focus on paying its employees a livable wage rather than acquiring new properties.”
And the San Diego Union-Tribune sale is just one piece of major industry news in 2023, a year that has already seen more job cuts than all of 2022. The sale dropped jaws the same day the New York Times announced plans to slash its sports section, though still retaining the employees, and the Los Angeles Times announced cuts to parts of its daily sports coverage.
Other Southern California publications have also recently announced job cuts: About two weeks ago, nonprofit news organization Voice of San Diego issued at least one layoff. The Los Angeles Times announced it would be laying off more than 70 employees just last month, a decision that blindsided staff. Southern California Public Radio employees and its union were taken aback when management announced about 20 employees would be laid off last month.
In the meantime, staffers continue to wait for what’s next and worry not just for themselves, but for the impact the sale will have on San Diego journalism and its many communities.
“I elected to make this place my home — I love it,” one staffer said. “I raised our family here. I think part of a really good place to live is having a reliable local news operation. I’m just very concerned that that won’t be the situation going forward.”
Omar Rashad is the government accountability reporter at Fresnoland, where he covers local government and public spending in Fresno, California.
This piece was edited by Janelle Salanga. Copy edits by Curtis Yee.
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