Alden Global Capital's MediaNews Group, the same hedge fund currently feeding off the St. Paul Pioneer Press, has acquired 11 more Minnesota community newspapers, based mostly in the suburbs south of the Twin Cities.
Rumors about the sale have swirled for weeks, but the papers’ parent company, Big Fish Works, finally announced the sale on Thursday in a brief article. The sale closed on Wednesday, and the terms of agreement “were not disclosed.” Affected newspapers in the chain cover Chaska, Chanhassen, Eden Prairie, Lake Minnetonka, Jordan, Prior Lake, Savage, Shakopee, International Falls, Hutchinson, and Litchfield.
Staff have been requesting comment from Big Fish CEO Mark Poss for more than a week. He has not responded, and the only emplyees speaking about the purchase have done so anonymously, for fear of losing their jobs. An employee who spoke to City Pages says they learned of the sale on January 23, in a darkened room, watching a garbled video call from Poss. They preferred not to include their pronouns, so we'll use "they" to refer to them.
“The volume was really quiet,” they say. Poss read a short “prepared statement” about the buyout and asked employees if they had any questions. According to the News Matters blog, employees were re-interviewed for their jobs the last week of January and given 48 hours to accept new offers. Ever since then, employees have been talking quietly in huddles around the office, waiting for something to happen.
There’s reason to be anxious. MediaNews Group—which also didn’t respond to interview requests—is known for acquiring otherwise profitable newspapers, slashing jobs, and basically leeching money out of them until they die. If that sounds brutal, you should hear how Vanity Fair described it: a “hedge fund vampire” and the “grim reaper of American newspapers.” Its victims range from the Boston Herald to the Baltimore Sun to the New York Daily News.
The employee who spoke to City Pages says they know little about what this will mean, but it doesn’t look good. The company was already losing people, and the hush surrounding the sale feels ominous.
“We had a digital reporter who just started with us recently who didn’t get an offer,” the employee says. “There’s no illusion as to who has bought us. We all know their reputation…. This uncertainty and silence feels like a very deliberate thing.”
A few former employees spoke openly on the subject. Amanda McKnight, who worked at Big Fish for about six years, says she’s been afraid the company might go this direction for a while.
“Things were tumultuous,” she says. “That’s the nature of local news, I guess, these days.”
She remembers Big Fish—where she mostly worked on the Shakopee Valley News—as chronically understaffed and overworked. She “guarantees” every reporter was putting in overtime they weren’t supposed to, struggling to adequately serve a community that was still “thirsty” for news.
“We had one reporter covering the whole city of 45,000 in Shakopee,” she says.
That isn’t to say she didn’t enjoy her work, or that there weren’t victories during the struggle. In 2017, she and colleague Jo Herrera put weeks of work into an investigation that eventually led to the police investigation of Shakopee Superintendent Rod Thompson, who ended up pleading guilty to embezzling from his city’s public school district the next year.
Neither McKnight nor Herrera depend on Big Fish for their paychecks anymore, but they’re saddened to see the sale. And worried.
“People really rely on the news there,” says Herrera, who worked as a digital editor from 2016 to 2018. “All of these papers were the only [publications] focused on these towns… and they’re still serving a really important part of civic life for these towns.”
The Big Fish employee who spoke to City Pages says everyone still at the wheel will do the best they can to “keep putting out good papers.” Meanwhile, McKnight, who lives in the area, took it upon herself after she left the company to start her own news blog to “supplement” Big Fish’s coverage: The Shakopean. She did it partially because she “loves” journalism, but also because she’s scared for her community.
“I’m really afraid there might come a time when Shakopee doesn’t have its own designated reporter,” she says.
Full disclosure: The author of this story is a former employee of Big Fish.