A group of 11 community newspapers owned by Red Wing Publishing Co. have been sold to MediaNews Group, owner of the St. Paul Pioneer Press and more than 100 newspapers across the country.
MediaNews, which is controlled by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, acquired the assets of several southwestern suburban Twin Cities papers as well as publications in Litchfield, Hutchinson and International Falls. Terms of the deal, which closed Wednesday, were not disclosed.
In an interview, Red Wing Publishing’s Arlin Albrecht said that post-sale, “there are certainly going to be changes that we will be melancholy about.” But he said the “best prospect for sustainability for the staff is a large organization with financial wherewithal.”
Family-owned Red Wing Publishing is the parent of Big Fish Works, which in turns operates three news groups, the largest being Southwest News Media. Southwest owns the Chaska Herald, the Chanhassen Villager, the Eden Prairie News, the Savage Pacer, the Prior Lake American, the Shakopee Valley News and the Jordan Independent. All are weeklies.
The deal also includes a digital-marketing agency and two commercial-printing plants, including one in Hutchinson.
Red Wing Publishing, which does not own the twice-a-week Red Wing Republican Eagle, has been in operation for more than 50 years. The company was built by Albrecht, a one-time reporter who worked his way up in the newspaper business.
Big Fish CEO Mark Poss said in a statement that “the economics of our industry have changed dramatically over the past 20 years. … Responding to this constant evolution requires expensive technology, resources and training, making it more difficult for small independents to keep up.”
New York-based Alden Global Capital, through its MediaNews/Digital First arm, has been snapping up dozens of newspapers over the past several years. Its publications include the Denver Post, the Boston Herald, the Mercury News of San Jose, Calif., and several other publications in Northern California. The company is known for taking a sharp ax to the publications it buys, cutting costs and shedding employees.
In 2010, when Alden Global bought a controlling interest in then-bankrupt MediaNews, the Pioneer Press had 276 newsroom, advertising and circulation employees represented by the Minnesota Newspaper Guild, the union said. Because of worker reductions, that number is now 83, according to the union, which also represents newsroom employees at the Star Tribune.
The Denver Post — in a highly unusual move — published an editorial in April 2018 decrying big staff cuts made under Alden’s stewardship, calling the hedge fund “vulture capitalists.” Alden had “embarked on a cynical strategy of constantly reducing the amount and quality of its offerings,” the Post’s editorialists wrote.
In November, Alden disclosed that it had bought a 32% stake in Tribune Publishing, owner of the Chicago Tribune, the Baltimore Sun, the Orlando Sentinel and several other papers. Alden became Tribune’s largest shareholder in the deal. In January, Tribune newspapers offered voluntary buyouts for employees.
MediaNews and Pioneer Press executives did not respond to requests for comment.
Executives at the Pioneer Press have already interviewed the employees at Red Wing Publishing’s newspapers, and all but a handful were offered jobs, Albrecht said. MediaNews agreed to recognize staffers’ accrued vacation and other benefits, he said. The company has an estimated 120 to 150 employees.
Albrecht, 82, grew up on a dairy farm near Chippewa Falls, Wis., and got into journalism as a reporter after graduating from college in River Falls. He became managing editor at the Republican Eagle in the 1960s and at one point went to Vietnam to cover the war for hometown readers.
He and his wife, Marilyn, who also worked at the family papers, long owned Red Wing Publishing until transferring their stake in recent years to a trust for their daughter Becky Poss. She is active in management and is married to CEO Mark Poss.
“What is being sold now is really the remnants of Red Wing Publishing,” Albrecht said, referring to the MediaNews deal. “We sold the bulk of it frankly at the top of the market years ago.”
In 2001, the company sold the Red Wing Republican Eagle and newspapers in the eastern Twin Cities metro area and western Wisconsin to Fargo-based Forum Communications. “Community newspapers have really nose-dived since then, and I consider that quite unfortunate,” Albrecht said.