Sharks in the water, Vermont papers in the lifeboat

Further developments in the selloff of Digital First Media, the corporation that owns more than a hundred newspapers — sorry, media properties — nationwide, including the Brattleboro Reformer and Bennington Banner. And it’s not happy news.

Capital New York is reporting that a couple of slash-and-burn private equity giants have emerged as the front-runners. Apollo Global Management and Cerberus (ooh) Capital Management have similar investment strategies: buy up troubled companies, engage in ruthless cost-cutting, goose the profit margins, and then sell within a few years.

Previous reports had two newspaper chains involved in the bidding: Gannett and Gatehouse, discussed previously. Apollo and Cerberus have an edge, in that they are interested in buying all of DFM’s properties in one go, as DFM would like to do. Other bidders, it’s believed, want to buy bits and pieces.

DFM is the creation of a private equity fund, and has already engaged in round after round of cuts. As Capital New York puts it:

What could a P.E. purchase mean for the papers—and their “digital-first” operations—themselves? By standard practice, Apollo and Cerberus quickly apply reorganizations to find cost-cutting efficiencies. Layers of management and staffing are taken out, centralization of processes are put in place and technology is used to cut the costs of pesky humans.

… All newspaper companies have seen massive cuts… [but] the papers in this deal have seen more than their share of efficiency-wringing. Peer publishers will tell you tell that DFM looks “wrung out.”

Maybe we’ll get to find out if the three-headed helldog has a tighter grip than DFM. Which would be bad news for southern Vermont news readers, who are already underserved.

By the way, DFM itself is less than two years old. Its CEO, John Paton, sought to encourage journalism’s (supposed) next wave by pushing into multimedia digital content. The experiment hasn’t gone well; Paton’s primary backer, Alden Global Capital, has run out of patience with him. So much for the digital future; its only legacy at papers like the Reformer and Banner is shrunken papers and empty newsrooms.

The future: more of the same, at best.

Will somebody please hurry up and invent the future of news already?

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