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We had maybe 25 to 30 people in the editorial office when I started Mercury in ’97. Ten reporters. Many copy editors. Weekend editors. It has editors. It was a lively place. I was very surprised at how much news there was in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a city of 21,000 people. But when you cover it all, there is a lot.
There is no point on the timeline where you can say, “This was the moment it started to shrink.” There were always financial constraints. Whenever someone left, there was always the question “Will they be replaced?” The advantage of being in a union was that the longer you could hold out, the harder it was for them to get rid of you.
We were bought in 2001 by a notoriously cheap chain called the Journal Register Company. We had a union contract that indicated the number of journalists we would keep in the editorial office. We had, I believe, two more than the contract required. They immediately fired those two people.
Under the JRC we have suffered, I mean, two bankruptcies. During that time, we would have given up on concessions to keep the place alive. Ultimately, the JRC went bankrupt. Alden [Global Capital, a hedge fund that has partnered with PE firms in some of its biggest newspaper takeovers] bought the company. They have appointed a new board of directors. To their credit, they have a guy named John Paton. He actually wanted to try and save the papers. For about two years, it was an exciting time.
Eventually, Alden got tired of the bleeding. Almost every quarter, or every other quarter, you would receive an email saying, “We are looking for volunteers to quit.” It wasn’t about “How good is the paper?” It wasn’t about “How do we increase revenue?” It was always just “How do we get to this percentage of profit?” The answer has always been cut out, because you don’t have to spend money to do it. They had this brutal phrase they called rights. But we never seemed to get the right size.
When I realized the real plan was to kill us and just do it slowly, that’s when I really started getting up: it wasn’t just us who were being fired and cut due to a dying business model. It has been a managed decline. How do we extract the maximum value from the patient we are killing? We were working harder and harder for people who didn’t care who you were, didn’t care what you were doing, didn’t care what you were trying to do for the community. They only cared about the number next to your name: your salary. Finding out how much money Alden was making was a breaking point for me. (Alden did not respond to requests for comment.)
I would say I’m the last guy at the newspaper he’s dedicated to Mercury coverage. Although stories about budgets, big spending, local officials behaving badly aren’t always the most read stories, they are what I call constitutional functions for the local press. We don’t have a First Amendment, so I can cover a car accident.
Other people who work for the newspaper no longer work in Pottstown. They work at home or at the printing house, which is where my official office is located. I can’t ask the company to reimburse me for my home office expenses because their answer is that you have an office down here anytime you want. You could work at home, or you could drive 40 minutes south, check in, go back 40 minutes to cover things in Pottstown, then drive 40 minutes south, write it on a computer at the office, then drive 40 minutes to home.
I just laugh at it. I could stock up there, but it’s such a pain in the ass. I’m just going to Staples. The first time I did it, I put up an expense. I was called by the deputy editor, who said to me: “Don’t ever do that again. If you want supplies, you can come down here. I’m like, do you have a big deal in your notebooks? Because I used a coupon.
I ended up at Alden chairman Heath Freeman’s house after Julie Reynolds wrote a story about Alden running in the nation. He used the land records to report that Freeman had just bought this house in Montauk. He used the logs to determine that not only had he bought the house and a pond next to it, but he was expanding the size of the house by a third. The most frustrating thing is that he calculated how many journalists could keep their jobs for another two years for what he spent on that mansion.
My wife, son and I were driving towards the end of Long Island, where my father and stepmother live. I thought to myself, maybe I’ll go and see. Maybe I’ll go out there and take a picture of myself. Then I thought, maybe I’ll take a picture and put it on Twitter. Maybe I’ll be in the photo. Maybe I’ll keep a sign. My wife, who has much better handwriting, wrote me a sign with the Newspaper Guild of the day mantra: “Invest in us or avenge us.” I was wearing a T-shirt that read “News”. We stayed in the driveway. My stepmother took my picture.
Then, a woman I thought was Mr. Freeman’s wife drove to the end of the driveway. She rolled down the window and asked if she could help me. I asked if Mr. Freeman was home. He looked at my shirt and my sign and said, “No, he’s not.” Then I heard Dave Matthews explode from the back porch. I thought, yes, he’s home. So what do you do? I’m not going to yell at my boss and tell him you’re ruining my life and destroying journalism. Because he had made it pretty obvious that he didn’t care about that.
I have decided that I will interview him. I’m walking to his door from the driveway thinking you’d be lucky to get a question. The question that came to my mind was “What is the value of local news?” Not “How much can you sell it for? What’s its value?” I never got to ask that question. A housekeeper opened the door. She was at the top of the stairs. She said, “This man is here to see you.” As a wife, as a husband: he glanced at me and my shirt, he just shook his head and walked away.
The real proof of their contempt for the whole operation is that they left everything behind when they sold the building. They left the desks. They left the filing cabinets. They left files with people’s personal financial information, people’s social security numbers, people’s paychecks. They left probably the most valuable asset we had, which were the clip files. Forty or 50 years of clips of everything that happened in the city.
They sold the building to a woman who runs an engineering firm across the street. She is about to turn it into a boutique hotel and whiskey bar. I think the clientele you are looking at are the parents of the Hill School students. They haven’t removed the sign yet. My guess is that they will leave it there for the cachet. I wouldn’t be surprised if the bar was called a Press Room or something. I think people whose children go to Hill School would appreciate the charm and nostalgia of it.