At Double Exposure Film Festival, Stripped for Parts Uncovers How American Journalists Fought a Private Hedge Fund Takeover

A Q&A with filmmaker Rick Goldsmith

Julia Knoerr
730DC

--

The documentary Stripped for Parts: American Journalism on the Brink tells the story of a secretive hedge fund’s takeover of America’s local news industry through the eyes of journalists who worked at the papers Alden acquired. Alden Global Capital gradually bought out local newspapers across the United States, laying off journalists to reap a profit with little concern for the news industry’s role as a public service. From the Bay Area, to Denver, to Baltimore, journalists fought back. We sat down with producer and director Rick Goldsmith to go behind the film and discuss the future of local journalism.

Photo courtesy of Rick Goldsmith.

The following responses have been edited for length and clarity.

730: How did you go about identifying the sources that you highlighted in Stripped for Parts?

RG: I was actually engaged with Bill Moyers, maybe one of the top journalists in our country, and we were discussing films that we might do together. Then one day I got an email from him, and he said, “I’m sitting here in the barber’s chair and reading this article, and this looks like a film that has to be made, and Goldsmith’s the one to make it.” I was a little bit floored. But the link that he put in the email drew me to an article which you see at the beginning of this film, the headline being something like: “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism, they might not stop anytime soon.” So that’s what got me into it. All you had to do was read the article, and it was about this kind of Denver rebellion that had happened, and then you start looking up who’s involved. There were articles in The New York Times already about it and articles in the local Denver papers about it. So I just followed the leads, and they drew me to the people in Denver and Boulder who were directly involved. It also took me to Julie Reynolds, who ended up being really, if anybody, the central character in the film, because she was doing the investigation of Alden Global Capital two years before I got into it and for several years after. I tried to stick as much as I could to people who were directly involved in the story as opposed to might have been writing about it or focusing on it second or third hand.

730: There was also a focus on The Baltimore Banner and everything that happened around Alden Global Capital acquiring Tribune Publishing and The Baltimore Sun. Do you have any thoughts on the relevance to the D.C. area in particular or anything that might be interesting to D.C.-based readers?

RG: What makes it interesting to me is now you have two fairly large news organizations, The Banner and The Sun, competing. I think it’s still too early to see how that plays out. But you have one that’s clearly geared more towards public service journalism, and you have the legacy paper, which has the heft of its legacy, of its background, of its history, but on the other hand has been taken over by a hedge fund. So it’s those kinds of things that I think will be interesting to play out.

I purposely kind of excluded The New York Times and The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal from my focus because they’re in a different category than virtually every other local paper in the country, in that they’re really national papers that do have a business model that still works.

730: The description of the film questions: “Who will control the future of the news?” You present different takes in the film, but could you expand a bit more on how you see that coming out of this process?

RG: What I hope that this film can do is contribute to the conversation. On the plus side, there is a tremendous amount of energy throughout mostly the journalism world, but in philanthropy as well, and other people that care about public policy.

But I’d say the people in the lead are journalists and journalism organizations themselves. There’s a tremendous amount of energy to find a way out of this problem that we have. The industry, the journalists of the newspaper industry, the news organization industry, they’ve been in it for a couple of centuries to make a profit, but also to provide a public service. The profession is there to provide a public service, and where we’ve gotten to is the collapse of the business model.

If we really want this public service, this profession, to thrive, we have to do something about it. I tried to go into those people who are looking at other solutions, whether they be small ones like startups, to bigger operations like The Salt Lake Tribune, which has become a nonprofit, and other newspapers that are becoming nonprofits, to some sort of composite model, such as partnerships between local newspapers and local radio stations. I don’t touch on everything in my film because I can’t, but I’m saying this to point out that I feel like there is some source of optimism because people are addressing the problem.

730: It was interesting how a lot of these different solutions focused on the professional journalism industry. One of the comments in the film was that the role of professional journalists is pretty distinctive from the role of citizen journalists or social media influencers or bloggers. Because the Internet is so prominent now, how do you see the roles of these nontraditional journalism industries, or how might they work together?

RG: The kernel there of what was positive was there was perhaps more of a partnership between community, community leaders and the people who were writing the stories, whether they had a professional journalism background or were stepping into it or were developing that. As much as we sometimes tend to glorify the newspapers of the past, they had a lot of shortcomings as well. One of them was that they were catering to generally an upper middle class, mostly white in the decades past, mostly male audience, and didn’t really cover poor communities, communities of color, labor; women’s issues for a long time, until maybe until last generation, were not covered.

So what we need to have is the best of both of those. We need to have people who are schooled in journalism, who know how to go through public records, who know how to get to sources, who can have an organization as well as their own skills that measure up to the powerful people that they’re covering. On the one hand, we need that, and citizen journalists are not going to really provide that, let’s face it. But on the other hand, you have a new awareness of the importance of community and journalism kind of working together, that it’s not top down. Otherwise you’re going to get some of the same shortcomings of the journalism of the past, which served the status quo and gave short shrift to the people who traditionally don’t have voices.

730: What was your intended audience for this film?

RG: My audience is, on a broad sense, anybody who cares about journalism, and that could be any one of us. I would like more people to care more about journalism, but it could be families, it could be community leaders, it could be teenagers, it could be your average person who just wants democracy to work. Because I truly believe that journalism is the lifeblood of democracy. Beyond that, I aim towards speaking to young people who are interested in journalism, who would go into journalism.

730: Is there any specific intention behind the initial communities you’re going to or the places you’re screening?

RG: Double Exposure was a very intentional choice. I had met some people at an investigative journalism conference that happens every year in the Bay Area in the spring. I spoke to somebody who was involved in the festival, and I kind of said in my mind that this is a perfect place for my film because it’s not only about filmmaking, it’s about filmmaking as it relates to investigative journalism. Beyond that, I think it’s mostly the calendar, what festivals are coming up and who might be interested in that. I just started to apply, and we’ll see what happens for that. We had our world premiere last week. We’re in the beginning stages of an impact campaign, which is super important for, I think, any film that wants to have a life out there. It’s not just film festivals. It’s reaching the communities, whether it be, in my case, journalism communities, or just other kinds of grassroots communities that care about journalism and use journalism, and figuring out how to interact with them, that hopefully the film could be a jumping off place for discussion. We’ve already started those discussions with some of those groups, and that will continue over the next few months.

730: Did you reach out to Alden Global Capital at any point? Why or why not?

RG: It was clear to me at the beginning that that was the thing to do. I think a few months into the project, after I had identified most of my main subjects and done a lot of investigative work on Alden Global itself, I reached out to the two principals, Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, and specifically Heath Freeman’s person got back to me. He was basically a PR guy. We probably had two or three discussions, but frankly, I felt like he was more feeling me out than trying to facilitate a meeting between me and Heath Freeman. And so as that became clear, I kind of said, this is not going to happen. But I already knew that their MO, both Randall Smith and Heath Freeman, was to not talk to reporters. In fact, during the first part of the first year and a half at least, maybe two years of filming that I did, the most common refrain, which you will also see in the movie a little bit, is other newscasters saying, “Well, we reached out to Alden Global Capital, and they said no comment, or they hung up.” So that was their MO. Like I said, it wasn’t until several years in that they gave any kind of interview to the press. I think that they felt like they were losing the PR battle in this battle over the Tribune company, but I felt like that was important to do, to reach out to them. At a certain point you understand that they’re not going to cooperate, and that that’s part of the story as well, that they’re not being transparent. Who should be transparent more than the publishers of a newspaper or a media news organization? Because that’s what they’re all about.

730: Is there anything else that you think is important for viewers or potential viewers to keep in mind?

RG: One of the things that I would add is it was intentional that I focused on the journalists themselves. George Seldes, who was a press critic in the last century and who I had done a film on, has said “The most sacred cow of the press is the press itself,” meaning they focus on everything but their own industry. And this was a case where not only did they focus on their own industry, this story would not have been told if not for the journalists who were directly affected by the hedge fund. You had journalists covering the story that nobody else was covering, in fact, a journalist that was working for a labor union. Then you had those same people being affected by this hedge fund and speaking out about it. People wouldn’t know about this hedge fund if not for the Denver rebellion, which was started by one bold, courageous editorial writer, Chuck Plunkett, who decided, “I’ve got to say something about it,” and he rocked the boat.

Nobody in or out of the industry knew the phrase Alden Global Capital before that happened. Now it’s almost a household word, Alden Global Capital, at least within the industry. So when I say it’s several layers of these journalists getting into it, the final layer is, to me, hedge funds and private equity and big corporations are taking up more and more–they’re controlling more and more of our work life, our home life. They’re into mobile homes now, hospitals, prisons, prison health care, and primary schools.

To me, hopefully, the example that these journalists provide us, of not being afraid to speak out, not saying, “Well, we just have to accept this as the way it is,” but “we can do something” — that mindset is changing, and that that can be absorbed and taken to heart by people not only in journalism, but in all walks of life in America. It speaks to the importance of people speaking up and being actively involved in their own lives, their own workplaces, their own communities.

Stripped for Parts will screen at the Double Exposure Film Festival in D.C. on Sunday, November 5th at 3pm.

--

--