New York CNNBusiness  — 

A version of this article first appeared in the “Reliable Sources” newsletter. You can sign up for free right here.

Vultures circling Gannett

Cara Lombardo’s unsettling Sunday night scoop for the WSJ: “A hedge-fund-backed media group known for buying up struggling local papers and cutting costs is planning to make an offer for USA Today publisher Gannett, according to people familiar with the matter.”

The would-be buyer is Digital First Media, which in turn is controlled by Alden Global Capital. The operation already owns dozens of local papers. It is notorious for slash-and-burn tactics. Last year, employees at the Denver Post garnered national support when they rose up against the “vultures” at Alden.

Now Alden, through Digital First Media, is looking to acquire Gannett and its dozens of papers. Digital First will “offer to buy Gannett for $12 a share, they said, which would represent a 23% premium over Friday’s closing price of $9.75,” Lombardo reports. She says Gannett has rebuffed past approaches from the firm…

→ Jim Romenesko tweeted: “Haven’t newspaper employees suffered enough?”

→ Remember, Gannett CEO Robert Dickey is scheduled to retire in May… The CEO search is actively underway…

What’s going to happen next?

Per the WSJ, “Digital First Media wants Gannett to hire bankers to consider a sale, enter into talks with Digital First about a deal, review its strategy before hiring a new CEO and halt acquisitions of digital assets.”

What’s left to cut?

WSJ’s Keach Hagey tweeted: “After watching what Gannett has done to my hometown paper – cutting most of the staff, outsourcing printing so far away local sports scores can’t appear the next day – I’m fascinated to learn what fat Digital First thinks is left…”

Worried tweets from journalists

Brett Kelman, who works at Gannett’s Nashville paper The Tennessean, wrote: “Dear @Gannett: I’ve worked for you for 11 years. We do important journalism in many great communities that depend on us. Through thick and thin, I have loved this job. Please don’t sell to these hedge-fund vampires.”

Niraj Warikoo, who works at Gannett’s Detroit Free Press, wrote: “If DFM takes over Gannett, it will basically be the end of the American newspaper industry.”

Tamara Chuang, who previously worked at the Denver Post and now works for a homegrown rival, wrote: “Ex Digital First Media employees and existing staff” are “hyperventilating all over Twitter tonight in shock and disbelief…”

This is the age of “ghost newspapers”

Hearing about this possible battle made me more afraid of “ghosts.” Have you heard of this concept before? Researchers and activists have started to make reference to “ghost newspapers.”

Penelope Abernathy defined it this way last fall: “As hundreds of small weeklies and dozens of dailies vanished from the U.S. news landscape in recent years, thousands of other dailies and weeklies became shells, or ‘ghosts,’ of their former selves. Many of these papers are still published — sometimes under the same name as in the past — but the quality, quantity and scope of their editorial content are significantly diminished. Routine government meetings are not covered, for example…”

Stephen King helps out Maine’s main paper

“This is a hoot,” Dan Kennedy writes, and he’s right: “After the Portland Press Herald made it known that it would drop freelance-written reviews of local books as a cost-saving measure, Maine’s favorite author, Stephen King, lodged a protest on Twitter and urged his followers to do the same. The Press Herald responded that if King could persuade at least 100 people to buy digital subscriptions, they would restore the reviews to the Sunday edition, known as the Maine Sunday Telegram.”

That was on Friday. By Sunday, the paper had gained 200 new subscribers using the promo codes KING and CARRIE.

Kennedy adds: “I hope this doesn’t become a habit. Hey, let’s tell everyone we’re going to stop covering restaurants unless we can sell 1,000 more subscriptions. Still, this is a great story. I’m glad King’s influence did the trick.”

Shutdown, week four

How many times can we say “no end in sight?”

All the polls are pretty clear: Trump and the GOP are sharing most of the blame for the shutdown. That’s not surprising, given the fact that Trump forced it to happen and that he only has the support of 40% of Americans. CNN’s poll makes it clear that Trump’s much-hyped, much-scrutinized prime time address didn’t move public opinion in his direction at all. His disapproval rating has climbed five points since last month…

Call it the “conservative media shutdown?”

That’s what I asked Oliver Darcy on Sunday’s “Reliable Sources.”

His POV: “Trump understands that conservative media personalities like Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh hold the keys to his base – and so it’s unlikely he’s going to stray from them on the govt shutdown / border issue. Democrats are effectively negotiating with the right-wing media…”

“Game of Thrones” will return on…

April 14. HBO aired a new teaser clip for the series on Sunday night, ahead of “True Detective,” and announced “Sunday, April 14 as the debut date for the show’s six-episode, eighth and final season.” Brian Lowry has more here…


– New column by E.J. Dionne: “The media’s bias should be toward democracy” (WaPo)

– Jim Rutenberg, writing about “the progressives’ political caper in Alabama,” warns that “reality-warping attacks are now coming from inside the house…” This looks likely to get worse in 2020… (NYT)

– Viacom is “in talks to sell a majority stake in some of its China operations after running into difficulties trying to scale its business” there… (WSJ)

– Another take on Bob Iger’s salary: He “missed out on a $60 million bonus, but still collected a record payday last year…” (Bloomberg)

– Amanda Whiting’s latest: “Meet Britt McHenry, the Fox News star for Millennials…” (Washingtonian)

Sorry, Mr. President, the Post is not for sale

The National Enquirer flipped on Trump last year. But Trump has not flipped on the Enquirer.

On Sunday night he lobbed a middle school insult at WaPo owner Jeff Bezos and praised the Enquirer without citing the tabloid by name.

“So sorry to hear the news about Jeff Bozo being taken down by a competitor whose reporting, I understand, is far more accurate than the reporting in his lobbyist newspaper, the Amazon Washington Post,” Trump tweeted. “Hopefully the paper will soon be placed in better & more responsible hands!”

The Enquirer’s parent company, of course, “admitted to federal prosecutors that it made a hush money payment to an ex-Playmate in order to help Trump in the 2016 presidential election,” CNN’s Erica Orden noted. The Post declined to comment…

One-two punch from the Times and the Post

The greatest competition in news continues: The NYT owned Friday night with, “F.B.I. opened inquiry into whether Trump was secretly working on behalf of Russia.”

The WaPo owned Saturday night with, “Trump has concealed details of his face-to-face encounters with Putin from senior officials in administration.”

Trump’s fans on Fox played “blame the media” on Sunday, but these two stories showcased the profound concern that exists *within the federal government* about Trump’s behavior.

So why are these stories leaking? And why now?

The most-read story on the WaPo website right now…

…Belongs to Post columnist Max Boot. It’s a list: “18 reasons Trump could be a Russian asset.”

Boot says, “I can’t think of anything that would exonerate Trump aside from the difficulty of grasping what once would have seemed unimaginable: that a president of the United States could actually have been compromised by a hostile foreign power.”

White House’s hollow responses

When the Post’s Greg Miller reached out for a comment, a spokesman for the W.H. only spoke on condition of anonymously. After the story hit, Sarah Sanders called it “outrageously inaccurate,” but didn’t say what was inaccurate. If journalists are going to devote time to these “responses,” we need to emphasize just how hollow and meaningless these quotes are…

Trump’s defense strategy: Phone a friend

“Phone a friend” was my favorite lifeline on “Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.” And it’s exactly what Trump did on Saturday night, phoning into Jeanine Pirro’s show and going through his list of grievances. “Your audience knows that I’m a straight shooter,” Trump told Pirro. He said things like, “I haven’t actually left the White House in months,” even though he’s been to Iraq and Camp David and Texas in the past few weeks. Pirro let it all slide, like usual. To her credit, she did ask, “Are you now or have you ever worked for Russia, Mr. President?” Trump called it “the most insulting thing I’ve ever been asked,” but didn’t just say “no…”

>> Peter Baker’s lead on “So it has come to this: The president of the United States was asked over the weekend whether he is a Russian agent. And he refused to answer.”

Top reactions

>> Chris Cuomo tweeted: “The question and has always been: if there is nothing wrong, why lie, conceal and distort?”

>> Juliette Kayyem on CNN: “I personally think that what Mueller is heading to, is not only the indictments, but also a report that discloses the extent to which Trump and his family are compromised by the Russians.”

>> Jonathan Turley’s column: “What if there were no collusion or conspiracy but simple cognitive bias on both sides, where the actions of one seemed to confirm precisely the suspicions of the other?”

Read more of Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” newsletter… And subscribe here to receive future editions in your inbox…

How much longer will we have to wait?

Here’s what I said at the start of Sunday’s “Reliable Sources:”

The news is not just a “rough draft of history.” It’s a woefully incomplete rough draft – there are gaping holes in the story. Sometimes the most important facts, the single most important details, are not filled in until years later. Sometimes the secrets are buried so deep. Other times, the truth is staring us all right in the face, but it’s so uncomfortable that we try to look away.

So what will the final draft say about President Trump? What does Robert Mueller know that we don’t? And how much longer will we all have to wait for answers?