One recipient, Block Club Chicago, hopes to “supercharge” operations with the funding
WATCH: E&P Reports welcomes Shamus Toomey and Stephanie Lulay of Block Club Chicago, and the American Journalism Project’s Anna Nirmala and Sarabeth Berman to talk about venture philanthropy and nonprofit local news:
A pilgrimage back to the battlefields of Gettysburg
By Gretchen A. Peck
Growing up in a then-small town in mid-state Maryland, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania always beckoned from the north. As 5th-graders, we’d travel to Camp Round Top for a standard-curriculum introduction to cabin life and campfire songs. Those who could afford it trekked up to places like Seven Springs for high-school ski trips. Towns like York and Reading appealed to our parents for stuff like farm-fresh canned goods and outlet shopping. It was rare to venture far enough east or west to get a taste of the big cities in Pennsylvania. I didn’t see Pittsburgh until I was well into my 40s, and Philadelphia eluded me until I was in college and in control of my own journeys.
Though it felt like an epic adventure back then—through the wide-eyed but impatient eyes of a child — Gettysburg was an easy day-trip destination for parents and teachers who wanted to leverage some pretty remarkable local history. As a kid, I went there twice. Both times are etched in my memory still — one a fond trip; the other, a not-so-fond trip involving a banana-seated bicycle and a flashy Mercedes-Benz.
The fonder of those two trips was with my main pal, my great-grandmother, Ruth. She was always rather independent and still felt comfortable behind the wheel of one those iron-horse American-made cars and station wagons she used to drive. I can’t be certain if she pitched the idea of a day trip to Gettysburg because she was intrigued by the history herself, or if she was just looking for a way to keep a precocious kid occupied for a span of time, but northward we went to the battlefields of Gettysburg.
I knew about Gettysburg’s history, probably because I’d read about it independently. I was a voracious, above-grade reader with an affinity for history and historic fiction. I don’t know what I expected of the battlefields there, which I knew to have claimed the lives of thousands of men, but as we drove Gettysburg’s rolling hills and past its stacked stone walls, I found them to be just pretty countryside, but otherwise unremarkable. It was hard to imagine them littered with the bodies of dead and dying soldiers. Then again, it was hard to imagine fellow countrymen turning on one another at all. It didn’t sit well with me then, as a child, and doesn’t now.
At the museum commemorating the pivotal battle, there was an interactive display — what they refer to as a cyclorama — a painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux that offers a 360-degree depiction of the battleground’s horrors and the spoils of war. The artist shied not away from the gore, and viewing the battlefield like that helped me to imagine what those bucolic fields looked like in July 1863. I spun around, taking it all in, aghast at the blood and carnage.
There was another artifact from the museum that I thought I remembered so vividly—an old wooden table used as a makeshift operating table. As a child, I stared in horror at the rough-blade saws they used for amputation with little to soothe the wounded soldiers. The table had what appeared to be a stain, and I gasped at the thought that no one had thought to wipe away the blood before putting it on display.
Before we headed for home, my great-grandmother bought me a fold-out miniature depiction of the cyclorama, on glossy postcard stock. I unfolded it on my lap and studied it the whole way home.
I was in my 40s when I went back to Gettysburg on a cold misty-mountain day, the end of a brief but cathartic pilgrimage back to where I began. Decidedly middle-aged by then, I had new perspective on childhood homes and places of significance around my hometown. I toured it with my parents, and we spoke of memories, avoiding the hardest ones. After the visit, I packed my truck and headed north toward home in Pennsylvania. I toyed with the idea of stopping in Gettysburg, but it was threatening to rain and I kept that in the back of my mind as an excuse not to make the pitstop.
But something compelled me to retrace the steps my great-grandmother and I had walked together decades before.
I thought of her as I bought my ticket, and wandered through the exhibits. She felt beside me as I ascended the long escalator to the theater-in-the-round where they cyclorama painting is on display. I could practically hear her laughter when I walked up to the display of the operating table to see that the “stain” I’d remembered was most likely just the natural grain of the wood and some wear and tear — the blood I’d conjured were just a child’s imagination run amok.
I brushed by families and stood by myself reading the plaques and watching the video clips throughout the exhibit. I thought about the toxicity of politics, how it inherently divides up the nation into neat little categories, largely based on where and to whom we’re born. I thought of the barbarism of the war, the hand-to-hand, eye-to-eye combat, an intimate, personal war waged among neighbors and families and fellow countrymen.
It seemed to me then, even as a child, a wholly absurd notion. I felt men were to blame and women had to suffer their consequences. Now that members of Congress like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) openly flirt with the idea of civil war, like it’s the stuff of romantic nostalgia, I can no longer blame the barbarism on men alone. I do imagine that the civil war the Congresswoman pines for will not be so “fairly” fought, with men in uniforms on rural battlefields, but instead through cowardly acts of terror.
By the time I found my middle-aged self in Gettysburg back on that misty day, the nation’s politics had once again turned toxic, like a sepsis from a wound that never really healed. It’s exponentially worse now — in 2022, as we sit — so much more vitriolic, hateful, and steeped in a scourge of misinformation.
Before I left Gettysburg in my wake for that third time in my life, I stopped in the gift shop — now, a gift shop on steroids — and bought water for the ride home, a soldier bag for my husband (he’d hate it if I called it a murse, which it is), and a mug depicting the Gettysburg address for me. Just outside the gift shop sat a table where visitors could “Send a Message to the Troops” via postcard. I filled one out, and hoped it found someone out in some far-off “battlefield” and makes her or him feel thought-of and important.
I stopped to snap a selfie with a bronze statue of President Abraham Lincoln before getting on the road, just long enough to hear a strange conversation unfold between a father and son coming up the path to see the museum. “Lincoln,” the child exclaimed when he saw the statue where I was taking my selfie. “Take a picture of me, Daddy,” the little boy pleaded. There was an awkward pause before the father said, “Nah. Nah. Not now. Besides, he was on the other side.”
I thought of my great-grandmother again in that moment, by all accounts a church-going, southern, conservative Republican woman to her core. There was never any question how she came down on such matters. Slavery was immoral, a sin, and a war fought on slavery’s behalf — pitting neighbor against neighbor, countryman against countryman, brother versus brother — was, too. This was not up for debate.
She’d brought me to that hallowed battlefield to instill that in me.
It felt tragic, almost surreal, to see a child brought to that solemn place and taught otherwise — its lessons not just missed but mistaken, misrepresented, warped. Once again it feels surreal to see members of Congress masticating the possibility of bloodshed, or to read articles by pundits pondering whether Civil War in the United States is inevitable or has already begun.
With new local owners, former Gannett-owned newspapers benefit from reinvestment
By Gretchen A. Peck
Gannett remains at the top of the leaderboard for newspaper ownership. It publishes over 1,000 weekly titles and more than 100 dailies, amassed over the years through independent acquisitions and headlining mergers. But the company turned heads in the newspaper world when it recently began selling off some of those newspapers, mostly small-market and community titles that local owners were eager to buy.
The shadow of hedge fund and corporate ownership leaves newsrooms in fear they’ll be picked clean
By Gretchen A. Peck
This summer, Alden Global Capital acquired Tribune Publishing and its titles, from small community newspapers to major metro titles like its flagship, The Chicago Tribune, and The Baltimore Sun. It wasn’t the first newspaper acquisition for this hedge fund firm, nor is it the only firm of its kind eyeing the nation’s newspapers. But this acquisition was profound, making Alden Global Capital the owner, in effect, of more than 200 newspapers across the land. It was a deal rife with drama, as the Tribune newsrooms publicly pleaded for some other savior. In the end, no eccentric billionaire philanthropist descended on the scene to save them. Instead, the newsrooms steeled themselves for the future.
Relationships with sources are more scrutinized and more complicated than ever
By Gretchen A. Peck
Access journalism. Follow threads about the press or conversations among journalists and it’s bound to come up in discussion. Fundamentally, access journalism occurs when reporters value landing a source more than the information gleaned from that source.
But what do readers, viewers, or other members of the public mean when they use the term as criticism? Is it simply expedient and pithy, just a new way to disparage the press?
More importantly, what does the practice or appearance of access journalism mean to the trust audiences and the public place in their news sources? And how should we prepare new journalists coming into the field for navigating the access minefield?
Audio is a platform unlike any other, in that it closes the distance—physically and cognitively—between the listener and host and guests. In conversations with people who podcast, you’ll hear the word “intimate” used a lot to describe the relationship between listener and the voices emanating from their earbuds. It’s as if there’s no one else in the equation, as if you’re being told a story just for you.
For news organizations increasingly reliant on audience more than advertising, audio is proving to be a platform that makes those connections, builds trust and familiarity, and solidifies those relationships.
My father-in-law died just two springtime’s ago. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of him—often, fondly and expressed with laughter. Sometimes, it’s with regret.
We’d come north to be closer to him after my mother-in-law passed away. We knew he’d need our attention and care as the years compounded. These were bonus years, we felt, when got to know him, when we spoke of meaningful things, including his reflections on life, people, history, politics, and even war. He’d tell us his catalog of stories, as if he’d never told them before, as if we hadn’t heard them dozens of times. We knew that one day, we’d miss hearing him tell them.
That day didn’t come until he was 95 years old, after he’d led a full life, equal parts remarkable and ordinary.
There are days when we feel the deep, profound loss, a black hole that cannot be sated, always threatening to suck you into its mysterious depths.
Those are the days when I think of all the questions we neglected to ask, all the memories he never got to share or didn’t want to.
Through his eyes, we’d seen the world in a different way. He could change your way of thinking with his perspective. He did that for me on numerous occasions, about things that I already thought I’d had all figured out—poverty and frugality, simplicity, curiosity, race, charity, death, religion, friendship, family, humor, war.
What a privilege to have had the time with him, I know, and I’m especially aware of it today, when so many families gather to mourn their loved ones who never came home from war. I think of their generations of loved ones deprived of the simple moments strung together to make a complicated, fulfilled life. I think of those who never got to say goodbye, left with medals, mementoes and incessant, gnawing what-could-have-beens.
My father-in-law and all four of his brothers served in WWII, and they each came home to their family—perhaps not whole and unscathed, but alive. I’m sure not a day passed for any of them when they didn’t think of their fellow Americans, their brothers and sisters in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps, who perished.
One of the stories my father-in-law used to tell was how he’d come back home from his “island-hopping” tour of the South Pacific and made a pitstop in San Francisco before making the cross-continental trek home to New Haven, Connecticut. He called home right away. His father answered in an impatient bark: Who the hell is this?
It’s me, his third eldest son said into the receiver, explaining his current location.
His father softened, but pointed out that it was the middle of the night in New Haven, Connecticut, and that he’d been awoken from a sound sleep by the phone call.
When my father-in-law told this story, he’d chuckle at the memory. Who the hell is this, he’d say, imitating his father’s gruff-Yankee tone.
Of course, his parents, siblings, and community must’ve been relieved. One son was on his way home—news worth a sleepless night, which is why we’d all laugh along during his retelling.
Today, I think of all those families who didn’t get a call like that, who received entirely different, generationally devastating news, instead. May we take today to be still and reflect on their profound loss and sacrifice.
With a federal antitrust suit against Google and Facebook, a single newspaper publisher seeks to level the playing field
By Gretchen A. Peck
Tech giants Google and Facebook aren’t strangers to antitrust litigation and Congressional scrutiny, but in a first-of-its-kind case, the two companies have been named as defendants in a federal antitrust lawsuit filed by a newspaper publisher.
The plaintiff, HD Media Co., LLC, is the West Virginia-based publisher of seven titles, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Charleston Gazette-Mail and the Herald-Dispatch, a historically significant newspaper that dates back to 1871.
On Jan. 29, the publisher filed its lawsuit in the Southern District of West Virginia. To small community and regional newspaper publishers across the nation, the action may seem like David squaring off against a two-headed Goliath.
It is the final full day of the 45th President’s Presidency. Retired Presidents go on to any number of new passions and pastimes. In his 90s, Jimmy Carter is still building homes for the poor. Bill Clinton started a philanthropic foundation – in his own name, of course. George W. Bush took up painting, and Obama reinvented himself as a film producer.
Donald J. Trump’s post-Presidency may be a bit more complicated, and – considering the number of legal defenses he may need to mount – quite expensive.
Sculpting the image Prior to his candidacy, many Americans were more familiar with Donald J. Trump the TV personality/Mark Burnett-created persona – or Trump, the serial philanderer – than they were with Trump, the real estate guy or, later, Trump, the brand guy. To hear the President recount his career, it was lucrative and luxurious. Leveraging his friends in the media – and his sometimes PR rep, “John Baron” – he regaled us with name-dropping anecdotes, sexual scandal, and gold glitz.
Brand image has always been paramount to Donald Trump. He slapped his name across buildings and casinos, board games, boxes of butchered meat, bottles of beer, wine and water, a model agency, ghost-written titles, and even a sham of a “university.” These were the Trump business brands. They tend to come and go.
But Donald J. Trump is also a political brand – a brand he’s been cultivating for decades, long before the infamous escalator descent.
Here’s a clip of the President being interviewed by Oprah Winfrey, who prompted him to flirt aloud with the idea of a Presidential bid, way back in 1988.
Though the President is fond of telling his rally crowds that he isn’t, by nature, a politician, Trump has been honing his political image for decades.
His donations to local, State and national political candidates were spread across progressive and conservative ideologies. He’s given modest donations to Mitch McConnell, George W. Bush and his brother, Jeb, and John McCain. He also gave money to Andrew Cuomo, Chuck Schumer, Hillary Clinton, and the man who bested him in the 2020 election, the 46th President, Joseph R. Biden.
Trump seemed less to have political principle and more to desire political access and sway. He didn’t want to drain the swamp; he wanted to lord over it.
As his one-term Presidency comes to an end, gone are the easy grifts, gone are the Trump steaks, the failed casinos, the fraudulent university, and the PGA tournaments held at Trump clubs.
Gone now is the Presidency, and should he be impeached a second time, gone is the opportunity to run again.
But the images of the Capitol under siege – a writhing sea of Trump- and MAGA-paraphernalia on display – prove that Trump’s political image somehow still sells.
The Presidency as profit center
There are theorists who’ve suggested that Trump didn’t really want to be President and that he didn’t expect to win. Rather, they surmise, his ego led him to the campaign, and his eye for opportunism got him vested in the idea.
Though candidate Trump promised the nation that he’d divest from his businesses and put his adult children in charge of the Trump Organization, there’s no evidence that he ever did that, and his children appear to have their own political aspirations.
Some of that money didn’t just buy accommodations; it bought access to the President.
Every time the President went to play golf at one of his courses – reportedly, nearly 300 trips from the start of his Presidency to the end of 2020 – taxpayer monies were automatically dumped into his coffers.
Mar-a-Lago proved politically lucrative for the Trumps. As recently as New Year’s Eve – while the world wrestled with a global pandemic – Mar-a-Lago hosted a maskless gala at upwards of $1,000/plate, with the promise of rubbing elbows with the President on the dance floor, to the tune of aging 1990s pop stars.
He stood them up.
But not all of the Trump properties reaped this good fortune, especially those that didn’t afford access to the Trump family. The Doral Golf Club, for example, was hobbled even before the pandemic hit, and last year, the club laid off approximately 500 employees.
When one door closes …
Two years into the Trump Presidency, during a long weekend in New York City, I saw firsthand the waning popularity of the Trump brand. I walked around Trump Parc, which occupies prime real estate on the edge of Central Park. The ground floor of the building – formerly occupied by retailers – mostly sat empty. FOR RENT signs were perched in some of the windows.
One of the few occupying businesses – an Asian antiquities dealer – was closed, on a bustling springtime weekend.
The skyscraper at Columbus Circle that bears Trump’s name stood tall over the crowded, perpetually-in-motion intersection. At dusk, the building was cast in shadows, the lights inside softly illuminating the rooms behind the tinted glass. Most of the building was dark, with fewer than a dozen rooms seemingly occupied. I stopped and watched it for a while. A few levels up from the street, I observed a man sitting in a chair, pulled up close to the glass, looking out over the relative chaos below. His legs were crossed, and he leaned back into the chair, taking it all in, alone and still. It felt … prophetic.
Some formerly Trump-branded buildings and businesses have removed reference to his name altogether.
The Trump Plaza condo board in West Palm Beach voted unanimously to remove the Trump name from the complex.
Americans have long had an affinity for celebrity and power. Places where Presidents walked are hallowed ground. This is the land where we erect placards and charge admission to see historic provenance – think, “George Washington slept here.”
If you were to browse the marketing copy of Trump’s former estate in Fairfield County, Connecticut – listed for sale by its current owners for years – you’d find no mention at all of the property’s past affiliation with an American President.
It would appear that Donald J. Trump’s personal and business brands have been greatly diminished by his controversial Presidency – particularly its seditious conclusion. However, his political brand endures. And Trump’s most committed fans buy his swag like tweens buy boy-band merch.
Banners. Flags. Bumper stickers.
MAGA hats. T-shirts.
Hoodies. Leggings. Puzzles.
Car, truck and boat wraps.
Even flagrantly hazardous plastic straws – to simultaneously sip and own the libs.
What is the value of the Trump-family political brand? It’s hard to say. How much of a cut does the Trump family get through official licensing? How much of it represents others now profiteering off the Trump brand?
How much did the President raise with fundraising campaigns like “Stop the Steal?”
How enriched have the Trumps become?
It must be a sizable sum of wealth – a money grab so attractive the President deemed it worthy of destabilizing democracy.