POTTSTOWN, Pa. — An essential worker drove his cluttered Toyota Corolla through the early spring emptiness, past a sign outside a closed parochial school asking people to pray. Time to bear witness in a pandemic.
He pulled up to the closed Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School, where masked employees were distributing bags and boxes of food. Dozens of cars waited in line for curbside pickup.
In the global context of the coronavirus, the moment was small. But to those who live around a Pennsylvania place called Pottstown, the scene reflected both the dependence on subsidized school meals and the yearning to connect in an unsettling time of isolation. It was a story.
Evan Brandt, proud reporter for a once-proud newspaper — The Mercury — emerged from his Toyota with press identification dangling from his neck, the photo old enough to be of someone else. The newspaper’s last staff photographer left years ago, and Brandt, grayer and heavier at 55, had not updated his image.
Forget dashing foreign correspondents and “All the President’s Men”: Daily journalism often comes down to local reporters like Brandt. Overworked, underpaid and unlikely to appear as cable-news pundits, they report the day’s events, hold officials accountable and capture those moments suitable for framing.
But they are an endangered species being nudged toward extinction by the most important news story in decades: the coronavirus.
The economic paralysis caused by the pandemic has clobbered a newspaper industry already on the mat. With revenues plummeting, substantial layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions have followed in newsrooms across the country.
Meanwhile, the hedge funds and private equity firms that own many newspapers often siphon away profits rather than reinvest in local journalism. Frequently associated with this business model is the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, which controls The Mercury, Brandt’s employer for 23 years.
Nearly all of his colleagues who didn’t quit have been laid off or bought out, effectively making him the last reporter covering Pottstown. His newspaper’s distinctive building was abruptly emptied and later sold, so he works in his attic, surrounded by a display of 36 journalism awards, many for public service.
“To remind me that the work is important,” Brandt said.
He keeps another memento as well: a photograph of the time he paid an unannounced visit to the Long Island, New York, mansion of the president of Alden Global Capital.
He had a question he needed to ask.
A Town Between Acts
Pottstown, a town of 23,000 about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is like many American places: between acts. The iron and steel industries are all but gone, leaving the town’s former prosperity to linger in the worn storefront grandeur along High Street.
The Mercury was imagined into reality in 1931 by Shandy Hill, a seasoned editor, and William Hiester, a young man with a passion for journalism — and, more essential, access to family wealth.
For the next several decades, The Mercury abided by an understood compact: In exchange for some updated version of a coin pressed into a newsboy’s ink-smudged hand, the newspaper provided you with information and context that could not be gleaned from reading school board minutes or watching local-access television.
“It’s as old as the press in America itself,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst. “It all starts with what your elected officials are doing and what they’re doing with your tax money. This was so baked into the DNA of newspapers that nobody thought about it.”
Nancy March, a former Mercury editor-in-chief, said she took pride in the time-intensive enterprise reporting that provided the people of Pottstown a voice. What it felt like, for example, for a mother to lose a child to the now-overshadowed epidemic of opioids.
“It gave them a place to work through their story,” March said.
Its editorial writer, Thomas J. Hylton, won the newspaper’s second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for essays that championed open-space preservation to ward against suburban sprawl.
Its first Pulitzer, though, reflected the intimacy between newspaper and community. In 1979, Mercury photographer Tom Kelly III won for arresting images of a man on the loose and covered in blood, moments after he had killed his pregnant wife and attacked two family members.
When word of his award erupted in the newsroom, Kelly walked over to another Mercury employee sweeping the floor: the father of the slain young woman. He hugged the man and told him he was sorry.
‘You Made a Difference’
Brandt graduated from college and worked at suburban weeklies before joining The Mercury in 1997. Soon after, the Goodson Newspaper Group sold it to Journal Register Co.
The newsroom had a phalanx of editors, three photographers, a few sports writers, and several reporters writing hard news, soft features and in-depth investigative pieces. They shared a sense of mission.
“You made a difference in the world because you were telling people’s stories,” recalled Eileen Faust, an editor at The Mercury from 2003 to 2014.
Life and the news continued, as did the decline of a newspaper industry hobbled by changing reading habits and vanishing advertising sales.
The Journal Register Co. teetered, and the ensuing cutbacks brought an unnerving quiet to its newspapers, including The Mercury.
In 2011, the Mercury’s owner, the Journal Register Co., was bought by Alden Global Capital. The hedge fund’s publicity-shy owners, Randall D. Smith and Heath Freeman, were often referred to as vulture capitalists, having made their fortunes by buying and monetizing distressed properties.
Their MNG Enterprises — also known as MediaNews Group — controls about 200 publications.
Newspaper acquisitions may not seem to make much business sense, given that readership and advertising have been declining for decades. But vultures feast on remnants.
First, there is the real estate that can be sold off. Then there is the profit realized by shrinking expenses — including the staff and news coverage — while still collecting the advertising and subscription revenue.
“They’re extracting significant profits, and they’re not investing,” Doctor said. “When they can no longer extract a profit — or enough of a profit — they’ll turn out the lights in Pottstown.”
But here’s the rub: Would the fate of The Mercury have been any different if Alden Global Capital hadn’t bought it?
The Mercury isn’t in the Berkshires, for example, where local investors bought The Berkshire Eagle from an Alden subsidiary in 2016 and promptly announced a radical business plan in direct opposition to that of the previous owners: to increase readership and revenue “by improving the quality and quantity of the content.”
Alden declined to answer questions about business practices frequently derided as rapacious.
The Aggressive Smell of Mildew
Rainwater often fell through the roof of the Mercury building. The smell of mildew invaded from the stairwell.
Finally, in April 2018, an editor working on a Sunday night had to leave.
A month later, the company instructed the few remaining Mercury employees to vacate.
Complying with the order, Brandt walked past a paper sign saying THE MERCURY EDITORIAL DEPARTMENT and into a newsroom of empty desks. An inveterate keeper of records, he now had to sift through his hoard of once-urgent reports, long-forgotten agendas and yellowing newspaper clippings.
The Pottstown newsroom for The Mercury moved to the third-floor attic of the Maxfield-Brandt home.
The company had established a newsroom hub for its area newspapers at a printing plant about 20 miles from Pottstown. The Mercury was now little more than an editor working from home, a couple of sports writers, a courts reporter in the Montgomery County seat of Norristown — and Brandt, alone in Pottstown and scrambling as always to stay on top of everything, everywhere.
Brandt is also responsible for covering more than a dozen other governments and school districts.
On one Tuesday this year, seven newsworthy public meetings were taking place simultaneously. Brandt was also juggling a congresswoman’s town-hall gathering; the Phoenixville school district’s disproportionate suspension of students of color; and a proposal for 700 homes and several shopping centers in New Hanover.
Brandt might wish that Alden would take its cue from Lancaster, an hour’s drive away, where the Steinman family announced last year that it would forgo dividends and reinvest profits back into its newspaper, LNP. The publisher, Robert M. Krasne, said the company faced the same industry challenges but was committed to putting its readers first.
But Brandt realizes the Alden Global Capital goliath is concerned about its investors, not the desires of some $46,342-a-year newspaper reporter with a son in college and a wife with health problems. If anything, the hedge fund is benefiting from his conviction that what he does matters.
“I think of it as a calling, the same way that some people are called to the priesthood,” he said.
A Provocative Question
One day you’re in Pottstown, frantically striving to keep up with the news. The next, you’re standing outside a multimillion-dollar mansion 240 miles from home, holding a handmade sign that says “INVEST IN US OR SELL US.” Such is the desperation of a frustrated newspaperman.
In the spring of 2018, Brandt and his family visited his father and stepmother on eastern Long Island. Work worries, as always, accompanied him.
The mildew. The many colleagues who had left. The Sisyphean struggle to report everything that Pottstown needed to know.
And, just added, a recent Newsonomics column by Doctor for Harvard University’s Nieman Lab. Its headline: “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.”
Doctor reported that Alden’s newspaper subsidiary had earned $160 million in its 2017 fiscal year. This included $18 million — at an astounding 30% profit margin — from its Philadelphia-area newspapers. Among them: The Mercury.
The numbers, Brandt recalled, “grilled my onions.”
Early on a sunlit afternoon, Brandt drove his Corolla to the Freeman mansion. This is his account of what happened next.
As Brandt was posing with his cardboard sign for a photograph to circulate on social media, a woman driving away from the home stopped to ask if he needed help. He asked if Freeman was home. She looked at his T-shirt and sign, said no, and drove away. But he could hear music echoing from the house.
Brandt knocked on people’s doors for a living, so why not knock on this one? But given Freeman’s reputation for reticence, he knew he might get to ask only one question. His choice:
What value do you place on local news?
In other words, what is local news worth? Not in monetary terms, but in terms of an informed electorate; an accountable government; a sense of place.
Let us pause to note that of the many questions sent in writing to Alden Global Capital for this article, the only one its spokesmen addressed concerned Freeman’s recollection of this incident. They responded not by answering the question but by referring to A.G. Sulzberger, publisher of The New York Times:
Would The New York Times likely terminate the employment of a staff member who showed up randomly unannounced demanding to question Mr. Sulzberger at his home? That’s why we are unclear why The New York Times is choosing to glorify this improper intrusive conduct.
Back to Montauk. Brandt recalled that as he waited in the foyer, Freeman appeared upstairs, shirtless and with a baby in his arms.
For a fleeting moment the two men locked eyes: the fit, bare-chested multimillionaire and the rumpled newspaperman from Pottstown who made 46 grand a year and had a question.
Alden Global Capital shook its head and walked away.
‘Living the Dream?’
Outside the closed elementary school, the local effect of a global pandemic continued to play out.
Brandt finished his interviews and headed toward his car. He passed a teacher he knew who was holding an “I Miss You” sign for her students.
“Living the dream?” he asked.
“Not my dream,” she answered.
The quick exchange underscored how this was no dream: These are the new realities. Life has been transformed, and local newspapers, once central to that life, are diminished or gone.
The vacant Mercury building was sold, as is, to a local engineer last year for $440,000. The plan is to convert it into a boutique hotel.
Former Mercury employees and a few others were invited to take what they wanted before Dumpsters received the accrued memories of a once-proud newspaper.
Brandt took some things, including a piece of copier paper bearing four words. He taped it to his attic door.
The sign says this:
THE MERCURY EDITORIAL DEPARTMENT