FARGO — The news that a hedge fund named Alden Global Capital made an offer to buy the owner of the Bismarck Tribune created a ripple among journalists and newshounds, but not many others. It should have.
This is bad news for North Dakota's capital city and citizens of the state.
It is good news for unscrupulous politicians and various other untrustworthy n'er-do-wells who don't want light shined on their activities.
Alden Global Capital purchases newspapers and guts them, laying off journalists and squeezing the oxygen out of newsrooms to maximize short-term profits. What's left is a wheezing shell of what once existed, in an industry already crushed by modern pressures.
It has bid to buy Lee Enterprises, which owns about 100 daily newspapers including the Bismarck Tribune.
Alden is vulture capitalism. And it's done its deed dozens of times around the country, including some of America's biggest and most influential newspapers. The Chicago Tribune. The New York Daily News. The Denver Post.
An article last month by The Atlantic provided an in-depth look at what Alden was doing to local news and compared it to strip-mining.
"The model is simple: Gut the staff, sell the real estate, jack up subscription prices, and wring as much cash as possible out of the enterprise until eventually enough readers cancel their subscriptions that the paper folds, or is reduced to a desiccated husk of its former self," wrote McCay Coppins.
But that's business, you say. That's how capitalism works. Who cares?
Communities should. State leaders should. Other businesses should.
Newspapers and our corresponding websites, even in our less-robust state than 10 years ago, still have the most reporters and largest audiences in many communities. Bismarck Tribune publisher Gary Adkisson told Forum News Service the newspaper has 16 or 17 news staffers, including editors, news reporters, sports reporters and photographers.
That's a fraction of what the Tribune was in its heyday, but still the biggest newsroom by far in the state capital. It's a top-notch newspaper with some great reporters covering state government and the energy industry.
Those reporters keep an eye on state government, exposing the shenanigans of elected politicians and appointed officials. They shine light on the doings of the oil, coal and gas industries and their enablers in the capitol building.
That's in danger if Alden acquires the Tribune.
The Tribune is a competitor of The Forum and Forum Communications Co. We have three reporters based in Bismarck, fighting for readers and subscribers. Our reporters often break stories from Bismarck, and sometimes follow up on work from Tribune journalists. It works the other way, too.
This is how healthy journalism operates. If Alden gets its claws into the Tribune and slashes, nobody wins. Least of all the citizens of Bismarck and North Dakota who depend on the Tribune for their news.
A healthy democracy cannot survive on talk-radio, blogs and Facebook alone.
Hopefully, it never reaches that point. Alden acquiring the Tribune moves us one step closer.