In early May, there were four writers left on staff at the Press-Telegram. When longtime columnist Tim Grobaty and two others, Melissa Evans and Jeremiah Dobruck, left weeks later, somewhere Agatha Christie began humming in her grave, counting down to none.
The three abandoned ship when opportunity called. According to Grobaty, Pacific6, an investment firm that includes former Molina Healthcare CFO John Molina amongst its ranks, asked them to join its latest local venture – a new publication focused solely on Long Beach.
“I think we all left for the same reason,” Grobaty said. Working at the Press-Telegram under the ownership of parent company Digital First Media was no longer tenable due to that firm’s ownership, Alden Global Capital. Alden is a hedge fund that has been called out in recent months by its own newspapers, such as The Denver Post, for slashing newsrooms and cannibalizing their resources even as they continued to turn profits.
An article about Alden in The Nation that ran last September was titled, “How Many Palm Beach Mansions Does A Wall Street Tycoon Need?” with the subhead, “As many as destroying American’s hometown newspapers can buy him.”
“Every penny we were making was going to them,” Grobaty said. “The CEO owns a number of Palm Beach mansions and has made some bad investments. And he just goes back and gets more money from us,” he lamented. Three reporters and a columnist were hardly the resources necessary to cover a city of 470,000 people, he said of the state of the Press-Telegram when he left it. “It was really depressing being there. Everybody was looking for work. I was thinking about retiring.” When this new opportunity came up, he jumped at it.
The new publication, which according to Grobaty may be solely online, will likely have about 12 people on staff to begin with. “There’s going to be Press-Telegram people there. There are going to be some other people from SCNG, some other papers,” he said. SCNG stands for Southern California News Group, a group of papers within Digital First Media that include the Press-Telegram, The Daily Breeze, the Orange County Register and others.
“I’ll be writing columns and editing, and mentoring after a fashion. We’ll have some young people joining us in addition to people not quite as old as me, but [who are] experienced people,” he said, chuckling. “We’ll have a calendar and cover food and entertainment as well as hard news.”
When asked if he’ll be able to get away with using four-letter words, he replied, “I haven’t tested that yet. I don’t think it’ll be like the Orange County Weekly. . . . I hope to get the occasional word in there that you might hear on TV, but not HBO. Primetime swear words.”
David Sommers, a spokesperson for Pacific6, told the Business Journal that the format of the publication – online, in print, or both – has not yet been determined. “We’re closely considering every option available, with the primary goal being that which best serves the needs of the readers of the publication and the residents of this community,” he said.
The goal is to launch the publication by July 1 or sooner, according to Grobaty.
Grobaty was unsure of the Press-Telegram’s future. “It’s getting a lot of publicity and they’re kind of reacting by throwing a bunch of people in there to make it look busy. I don’t know how long that’ll last,” he said. In the end, he speculated, “The only way to fight Alden is to starve them out.”
Although the Press-Telegram met its financial target in its last fiscal reporting period – 17% profit, according to Grobaty – writers were still laid off. “I’m not mad at the Press-Telegram at all. This isn’t about the Press-Telegram. It’s about Alden,” Grobaty said. “And the only way to beat them is to not make any money at all, and then they’ll leave us alone finally. But by that point we won’t have any advertisers or subscribers, so someone is going to have to come in and buy us and try to build us up again, I guess.” Correcting himself, he said, “Or, them.”
“When I started working at the Press-Telegram we had 44 people in our features department and about 60 in our news department. And we had dozens of sports. We had travel editors, society editor, religion editor,” Grobaty recalled. But this many people aren’t necessary to pull off a publication these days, he noted. “You need more than three or four people to do it. But 12 is a pretty good start, because you can cover courts and crime, [and] tell people what’s going on. You can do a lot swith 12 people. It’s not prohibitively expensive for wealthy people [to fund].” He added, “It’s easy for me to tell people to spend their money on us.”
Eric Morgan, communications director for SCNG, responded to an inquiry about the Press-Telegram’s current staff with the following statement: “We have dedicated full-time staff, and an extended network of skilled freelance contributors, specifically covering Long Beach and news events and institutions within the city that impact the entire region. In addition to the Press-Telegram daily newspaper, Southern California News Group also has dedicated staff covering the greater Long Beach area for the 52,000-circulation Grunion Gazette weekly newspaper across 11 ZIP Codes.” Morgan added that SCNG is replacing journalists who recently left the Press-Telegram.