October 21, 2020

A Reporter’s Lonely Mission When the Writing Is on the Wall

POTTSTOWN, Pa. — An essential worker drove his cluttered Toyota Corolla through the early spring emptiness, past a sign outside a closed parochial school asking people to pray. Time to bear witness in a pandemic.

He pulled up to the closed Lower Pottsgrove Elementary School, where masked employees were distributing bags and boxes of food. Dozens of cars waited in line for curbside pickup, many with children eager to spot their teachers.

In the global context of the coronavirus, the moment was small. But to those who live around a Pennsylvania place called Pottstown, the scene reflected both the dependence on subsidized school meals and the yearning to connect in an unsettling time of isolation. It was a story.

Evan Brandt, proud reporter for a once-proud newspaper — The Mercury — emerged from his Toyota with press identification dangling from his neck, the photo old enough to be of someone else. The newspaper’s last staff photographer left years ago, and Mr. Brandt, grayer and heavier at 55, had not updated his image.

After snapping smartphone photos with a forefinger protruding from a cut in his latex glove, he interviewed several people, including a counselor dressed as a kid-friendly Tyrannosaurus. Dinosaur to dinosaur.

Forget dashing foreign correspondents and “All the President’s Men”: Daily journalism often comes down to local reporters like Mr. Brandt. Overworked, underpaid and unlikely to appear as cable-news pundits, they report the day’s events, hold officials accountable and capture those moments — a school honor, a retirement celebration — suitable for framing.

But they are an endangered species being nudged toward extinction by the most important news story in decades. The coronavirus.

The economic paralysis caused by the pandemic has clobbered a newspaper industry already on the mat. With revenues plummeting, substantial layoffs, furloughs and pay reductions have followed in newsrooms across the country.

Meanwhile, the hedge funds and private equity firms that own many newspapers often siphon away profits rather than reinvest in local journalism. Frequently associated with this business model is the Alden Global Capital hedge fund, which controls The Mercury, Mr. Brandt’s employer for 23 years.

Nearly all of his colleagues who didn’t quit have been laid off or bought out, effectively making him the last reporter covering Pottstown. His newspaper’s distinctive building was abruptly emptied and later sold, so he works in his attic, surrounded by a display of 36 journalism awards, many for public service.

“To remind me that the work is important,” Mr. Brandt said.

He keeps another memento as well: a photograph of the time he paid an unannounced visit to the Long Island mansion of the president of Alden Global Capital. Basically, his boss’s boss’s boss’s boss’s — who knows how many bosses?

He had a question he needed to ask.

If Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” were set in Pottstown, Evan Brandt would be the omniscient Stage Manager, eyeglasses kept on a string, reporter’s notebook waving from his back pocket. People stop him to say hello, or make some “fake news” joke or just ask what’s the latest. He usually knows.

Pottstown, a town of 23,000 about 40 miles northwest of Philadelphia, is like many American places: between acts. The iron and steel industries are all but gone, leaving the town’s former prosperity to linger in the worn storefront grandeur along High Street. The trains trundling through carry only freight; there hasn’t been passenger service in 40 years.

Mr. Brandt demonstrated his command of all things Pottstown during nickel tours of its five square miles in his 2014 Corolla. The interior is Coffee Stain Casual.

Here was the former site of the Mrs. Smith’s Pies factory; the tins are still made in Pottstown. Here, the old Bethlehem Steel plant; its steel supports the Golden Gate Bridge. And here, in this old bank building, the Blue Elephant, one of several new restaurants in town.

Mr. Brandt also drove past Pottstown places that might not be there if not for The Mercury — if not for him.

See this handsome brick building? Nearly 20 years ago, he and a photographer exposed a chemical company’s risky storage of hazardous materials, leading to the warehouse’s closure. Now it is part of Montgomery County Community College.

And see that small Y.M.C.A. building? A lot of disadvantaged families depend on it. Coverage by The Mercury and Mr. Brandt helped to salvage the Y’s presence in town after the organization had announced plans to close its Pottstown location.

“Evan is the voice of the voiceless,” said Johnny Corson, the president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. “He speaks for the little people. If we lose him, we’re in trouble.”

Mr. Brandt’s meandering excursion finally came to a blond-brick building at the corner of North Hanover and King Streets. A vertical marquee identified this empty local landmark:

The
M
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C
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Named after the messenger of the gods. Dedicated to being “frank and fearless in all matters.” The smallest newspaper to win two Pulitzer Prizes. Ubiquitous, once.

The Mercury.

Mr. Brandt never forgot the example set by staff photographers who would race to every fire and crime scene as though traffic laws did not apply on deadline:

“If you came back to the newsroom and you didn’t smell like smoke, you hadn’t done your job.”

The Mercury was imagined into reality in 1931 by Shandy Hill, a seasoned editor, and William Hiester, a young man with a passion for journalism — and, more essential, access to family wealth.

For the next several decades, The Mercury abided by an understood compact: In exchange for some updated version of a coin pressed into a newsboy’s ink-smudged hand, the newspaper provided you with information and context that could not be gleaned from reading school board minutes or watching local-access television.

“It’s as old as the press in America itself,” said Ken Doctor, a news industry analyst. “It all starts with what your elected officials are doing, and what they’re doing with your tax money. This was so baked into the DNA of newspapers that nobody thought about it.”

The Mercury chronicled everyday Pottstown life, the bowling league scores and high school victories, the honor rolls and alumni reunions. It covered the “crime of the decade”: the tawdry 1982 murder of a millionaire developer. It established the annual Operation Holiday campaign that provides food and gifts to underprivileged children.

Nancy March, a former Mercury editor in chief, said she took pride in the time-intensive enterprise reporting that provided the people of Pottstown a voice. What it felt like, for example, for a mother to lose a child to the now-overshadowed epidemic of opioids.

“It gave them a place to work through their story,” Ms. March said.

The Mercury also crusaded: pushing for local government reform, fighting for the rights of crime victims, exposing deplorable conditions at a local institution for people with developmental disabilities. Its editorial writer, Thomas J. Hylton, won the newspaper’s second Pulitzer Prize in 1990 for essays that championed open-space preservation to ward against suburban sprawl.

Its first Pulitzer, though, reflected the intimacy between newspaper and community. In 1979, the Mercury photographer Tom Kelly III won for arresting images of a man on the loose and covered in blood, moments after he had killed his pregnant wife and attacked two family members.

When word of his award erupted in the newsroom, Mr. Kelly walked over to another Mercury employee sweeping the floor: the father of the slain young woman. He hugged the man, and told him he was sorry.

Image“Evan is the voice of the voiceless,” said Johnny Corson, president of the local chapter of the N.A.A.C.P. He was interviewed by Mr. Brandt in February at High Street Terminal, a local food court.

To understand Mr. Brandt, you should probably know that he was voted “most individualistic” at Pleasantville High School, in New York’s Westchester County.

He graduated from college and worked at suburban weeklies before joining The Mercury, in 1997. Soon after, the Goodson Newspaper Group sold it to the Journal Register Company, known then for shrinking its newsrooms.

Even so, the Mercury newsroom hummed with irreverent camaraderie. Staff members joked about the ghost of the founding editor lurking among the old newspapers in the basement, and referred to the paper’s mascot, the god Mercury, as “Skippy.”

The newsroom had a phalanx of editors, three photographers, a few sportswriters, and several reporters writing hard news, soft features and in-depth investigative pieces. They shared a sense of mission.

“You made a difference in the world because you were telling people’s stories,” recalled Eileen Faust, an editor at The Mercury from 2003 to 2014.

Mr. Brandt and his wife, Karen Maxfield, bought a charming Victorian house in what is known as the “numbered streets section.” Their one child, Dylan, attended Pottstown High School, where he would become salutatorian.

Life and the news continued, as did the decline of a newspaper industry hobbled by changing reading habits and vanishing advertising sales. Many newspapers, caught off guard by the explosion of the internet, exacerbated this failure with a sluggish embrace of digital journalism and marketing.

The Journal Register Company teetered, and the ensuing cutbacks brought an unnerving quiet to its newspapers, including The Mercury. “It just got smaller and smaller,” Ms. Faust recalled.

A sorrowful ritual developed: the pillaging of a vacated desk for a computer mouse, a keyboard, any office necessity in short supply.

“I took the chair of the guy behind me,” Mr. Brandt said.

Business deals consummated far from Pottstown were not only affecting livelihoods, but also the concept of an informed electorate. Its staff diminished, The Mercury could no longer produce the once-standard profiles of candidates for the Borough Council, the Board of Commissioners, the State Legislature.

Meanwhile, many newspaper owners were struggling to convince readers to pay for the journalism that the papers had been freely providing online. The Business 101 concept of consumer demand had been fractured.

“I blame the public a little bit,” said Ms. March, who retired as the Mercury’s editor in 2016. “People do not recognize — do not champion — what we do. I walk around my community and they thank me. But they don’t want to support it. They don’t want to pay for it.”

In 2011, the Mercury’s owner, the Journal Register Company, was bought by Alden Global Capital. The hedge fund’s publicity-shy owners, Randall D. Smith and Heath Freeman, were often referred to as vulture capitalists, having made their fortunes by buying and monetizing distressed properties.

‘To make a huge profit in the newspaper business, you have to cut, cut, cut, and be willing to see the product get worse year by year.’

Their MNG Enterprises — also known as MediaNews Group — controls about 200 publications, including The Denver Post and The Boston Herald. It also has a 32 percent stake in the Tribune Publishing Company, which owns several major newspapers, including The Chicago Tribune, and has recently indicated interest in buying the McClatchy chain of newspapers.

Newspaper acquisitions may not seem to make much business sense, given that readership and advertising have been declining for decades. But vultures feast on remnants.

First, there is the real estate that can be sold off, such as the 25,000-square-foot Mercury building. Then there is the profit realized by shrinking expenses — including the staff and news coverage — while still collecting the advertising and subscription revenue.

“The truth is, to make a huge profit in the newspaper business, you have to cut, cut, cut, and be willing to see the product get worse year by year,” Mr. Doctor said. “They’ll have a number, and they will cut whatever they have to — to meet that number.”

Alden has systematically contracted its newsrooms, perhaps most famously at The Denver Post in 2018, after which the staff revolted by publishing articles demanding, unsuccessfully, that the newspaper be sold to a concern that appreciates local journalism.

“They’re extracting significant profits and they’re not investing,” Mr. Doctor said. “When they can no longer extract a profit — or enough of a profit — they’ll turn out the lights in Pottstown.”

But here’s the rub: Would the fate of The Mercury have been any different if Alden Global Capital hadn’t bought it?

The Mercury isn’t in the Berkshires, for example, where local investors bought The Berkshire Eagle from an Alden subsidiary in 2016 and promptly announced a radical business plan in direct opposition to that of the previous owners: to increase readership and revenue “by improving the quality and quantity of the content.”

The Mercury is in Pottstown, which is like so many other communities around the country, where the local Herald or Journal or Sentinel is operating on fumes and the idealism of its own Evan Brandt.

Alden declined to answer questions about business practices frequently derided as rapacious. In March, the senators of Illinois, Dick Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, expressed alarm over the potential Alden takeover of The Chicago Tribune, and called on the hedge fund to “reverse course and put an end to policies that have hollowed out local newspapers and their staff across the country.”

In a response first reported by The Seattle Times, Mr. Freeman — the president of Alden Global Capital — framed his hedge fund’s media operations as a noble rescue mission: saving newspapers from bankruptcy or liquidation and operating them in a sustainable, responsible way. He said it had never closed a daily newspaper, though many have been gutted, and he complained about “erroneous” coverage without providing specifics.

He said that newspapers were muddling through the early stages of digital transformation, while Google and Facebook were devouring the advertising revenue they depended on. “And if local newspapers do not reset to these economic challenges,” he wrote, “they may cease to exist.”

Rainwater often fell through the roof of the Mercury building, forcing employees to use buckets, wastebaskets and even a potted plant to catch the drips. The smell of mildew invaded from the stairwell.

Finally, in April 2018, an editor working on a Sunday night had to leave. He later advised colleagues by email to work from home because the odor had become “aggressive.”

A month later, the company instructed the few remaining Mercury employees to vacate.

Complying with the order, Mr. Brandt walked past a paper sign saying THE MERCURY EDITORIAL DEPARTMENT and into a newsroom of empty desks. An inveterate keeper of records, he now had to sift through his hoard of once-urgent reports, long-forgotten agendas and yellowing newspaper clippings.

“I had 10 file drawers of just paper,” he said.

He filled a box with choice documents and mementos. A “Bush Para Presidente” button from the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. A gum-wrapper origami swan made by a Buddhist monk protesting outside the nuclear plant in nearby Limerick. That “photo of the century,” based on his idea for how to greet the millennium.

In January 2000, a Mercury photographer, perched on a fire engine’s elevated platform, snapped a portrait of more than 2,000 local residents — including Mr. Brandt, his wife and his son — gathered outside Borough Hall, some holding large letters spelling out POTTSTOWN.

“I was careful not to rip it when I took it down,” he said.

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Mr. Brandt saved a gum-wrapper origami swan made by a Buddhist monk protesting outside the nuclear plant in Limerick.

The Pottstown newsroom for The Mercury moved to the third-floor attic of the Maxfield-Brandt home, sharing space with discarded toys and bags of Christmas ornaments. Out for display came the Bush campaign button, the origami swan and the photo of the century.

The company had established a newsroom hub for its area newspapers at a printing plant about 20 miles from Pottstown. The Mercury was now little more than an editor working from home, a couple of sportswriters, a courts reporter in the Montgomery County seat of Norristown — and Mr. Brandt, alone in Pottstown and scrambling as always to stay on top of everything, everywhere.

Over the years he has attended hundreds of Pottstown Borough Council meetings, becoming as much a fixture as the Pennsylvania and American flags along the back wall. Which meant that the only place he would be on the first Wednesday of February was in his front-row seat, listening as the Council slogged through a 23-item agenda of reports, amendments and complaints about a resident with too many dogs.

The corporate consolidation of news operations has pushed The Mercury to a much earlier 6 p.m. deadline, eliminating any chance that news from a night meeting will appear in the next day’s paper. So Mr. Brandt live-tweeted the meeting; wrote a quick article for his blog that he then shared on Facebook and Twitter; and, in the morning, updated the article for Friday’s editions.

Mr. Brandt is also responsible for covering more than a dozen other governments and school districts: Limerick, Lower Pottsgrove, Upper Pottsgrove, West Pottsgrove, New Hanover Township, Douglass Township, Phoenixville, Boyertown …

He can’t bear to think of communities not knowing about a proposed tax increase, or the politics behind a town official’s ouster, or yet another public agency violating the open-meetings law by conferring in private. But it’s impossible to be everywhere.

‘I think of it as a calling, the same way that some people are called to the priesthood.’

On one Tuesday this year, seven newsworthy public meetings were taking place simultaneously. Mr. Brandt was also juggling a congresswoman’s town-hall gathering; the Phoenixville school district’s disproportionate suspension of students of color; an $8.2 million plan for a new town building in Lower Pottsgrove; and a proposal for 700 homes and several shopping centers in New Hanover.

The demands of election coverage only intensify his frustration. Stretched too thin to profile the dozens of candidates in more than a dozen communities — once de rigueur for newspapers — he does what he can when he can, sometimes with bare-bone questionnaires.

Mr. Brandt, the local shop steward for the NewsGuild union, believes that Alden Global Capital has no lasting commitment to Pottstown, to an informed electorate or to any other lofty ideals embodied by the best of newspapers. He likens the hedge fund to a bad transient neighbor.

“You rent an apartment, open all the walls, sell the plumbing, and rip out and sell the hardwood floors,” he said. “Then you walk away. You don’t pay the rent, and you don’t care about your neighbors.”

Mr. Brandt might wish that Alden would take its cue from Lancaster, an hour’s drive away, where the Steinman family announced last year that it would forgo dividends and reinvest profits back into its newspaper, LNP. The publisher, Robert M. Krasne, said the company faced the same industry challenges but was committed to putting its readers first.

But Mr. Brandt realizes that the Alden Global Capital goliath is concerned about its investors, not the desires of some $46,342-a-year newspaper reporter with a son in college and a wife with health problems. If anything, the hedge fund is benefiting from his conviction that what he does matters.

“I think of it as a calling, the same way that some people are called to the priesthood,” he said.

As if detecting hubris in his words, Mr. Brandt quickly added, “I can do this and question authority and get paid for it — or I can be in jail.”

One day you’re in Pottstown, frantically striving to keep up with the news. The next, you’re standing outside a multimillion-dollar mansion 240 miles from home, holding a handmade sign that says “INVEST IN US OR SELL US.” Such is the desperation of a frustrated newspaperman.

In the spring of 2018, Mr. Brandt and his family visited his father and stepmother on eastern Long Island. Work worries, as always, accompanied him.

The mildew. The many colleagues who had left. The Sisyphean struggle to report everything that Pottstown needed to know.

And, just added, a recent Newsonomics column by Mr. Doctor for Harvard University’s Nieman Lab. Its headline: “Alden Global Capital is making so much money wrecking local journalism it might not want to stop anytime soon.”

Mr. Doctor reported that Alden’s newspaper subsidiary had earned $160 million in its 2017 fiscal year. This included $18 million — at an astounding 30 percent profit margin — from its Philadelphia-area newspapers. Among them: The Mercury.

The numbers, Mr. Brandt recalled, “grilled my onions.”

He had also been reading the NewsGuild dispatches of Julie Reynolds, a former reporter for an Alden-controlled newspaper in California who had been investigating the dealings of Alden’s co-founders, including how they spent their fortunes. Mr. Freeman, for one, was in the process of expanding a $4.8 million waterfront mansion he had bought in Montauk.

With his onions sufficiently burned, Mr. Brandt decided to visit Mr. Freeman, a half-hour’s drive away. His father, the writer Anthony Brandt, feared he would risk arrest. His stepmother, the writer and former newspaper reporter Lorraine Dusky, said she would accompany him. His wife agreed to do the lettering for his sign.

Early on a sunlit afternoon, Mr. Brandt drove his Corolla to the Freeman mansion. He carried a notebook and wore shorts and a black “News Matters” T-shirt. This is his account of what happened next.

As Mr. Brandt was posing with his cardboard sign for a photograph to circulate on social media, a woman driving away from the home stopped to ask if he needed help. He asked if Mr. Freeman was home. She looked at his T-shirt and sign, said no, and drove away. But he could hear music — Dave Matthews Band? — echoing from the house.

Mr. Brandt knocked on people’s doors for a living, so why not knock on this one? But given Mr. Freeman’s reputation for reticence, he knew he might get to ask only one question. His choice:

What value do you place on local news?

In other words, what is local news worth? Not in monetary terms, but in terms of an informed electorate; an accountable government; a sense of place.

Credit…Lorraine Dusky

It would be a provocative question, posed by a proud professional in his mid-50s whose cherished world was vanishing around him. Posed to a 40-ish vulture capitalist who surfaced well after the local newspaper model was already damaged, but who was now profiting from and perhaps accelerating its decline.

A woman who answered the door invited Mr. Brandt into the foyer and asked whether he was expected. Most certainly not, he said.

Let us pause to note that of the many questions sent in writing to Alden Global Capital for this article, the only one its spokesmen addressed concerned Mr. Freeman’s recollection of this incident. They responded not by answering the question but by referring to A. G. Sulzberger, the publisher of The New York Times:

Would The New York Times likely terminate the employment of a staff member who showed up randomly unannounced demanding to question Mr. Sulzberger at his home? That’s why we are unclear why The New York Times is choosing to glorify this improper intrusive conduct.

Back to Montauk. Mr. Brandt recalled that as he waited in the foyer, Mr. Freeman appeared upstairs, shirtless and with a baby in his arms.

For a fleeting moment the two men locked eyes: the fit, bare-chested multimillionaire and the rumpled newspaperman from Pottstown who made 46 grand a year and had a question.

Alden Global Capital shook its head and walked away.

Outside the closed elementary school, the local impact of a global pandemic continued to play out. Cars received bags of subsidized food, while children in back seats exchanged doleful, safe-distance waves with their teachers.

It was just one of many coronavirus moments that Mr. Brandt has been chronicling. The parades outside Pottstown Hospital to show support for health care workers. The impact of isolation on people struggling with substance abuse. The shortage of laptop computers for disadvantaged homebound students — that is, until someone read his article and donated $60,000.

Mr. Brandt finished his interviews, including the one with that Tyrannosaurus-costumed counselor, and headed toward his car. He passed a teacher he knew who was holding an “I Miss You” sign for her students.

“Living the dream?” he asked.

“Not my dream,” she answered.

The quick exchange underscored how this was no dream: These are the new realities. Life has been transformed, and local newspapers, once central to that life, are diminished or gone.

The vacant Mercury building was sold, as is, to a local engineer last year for $440,000. The plan is to convert it into a boutique hotel.

Former Mercury employees and a few others were invited to take what they wanted before dumpsters received the accrued memories of a once-proud newspaper. Among the remnants were confidential personnel files that should have been destroyed years ago.

In the basement, where the ghost of an editor was said to reside, were bound volumes of old editions, and on the third floor, cabinets packed with clipped articles filed and arranged for quick research. What in newspaper parlance is called the morgue.

Bits of Mercury history went this way and that. The public library retrieved a few items of interest. The historical society stored some old editions in a garage. Fire buffs left with files related to — fires.

Ms. Faust, the former editor, took several files, including ones labeled Missing Persons, Unsolved Murder — and Richard Greist, who, 40 years ago, was photographed by a Mercury employee moments after killing the daughter of another Mercury employee.

Ms. Faust had no idea what she would do with all this material. She just didn’t want it lost forever.

Mr. Brandt also took some things, including a piece of copier paper bearing four words. He taped it to his attic door, and passes it now whenever he has to write about a Pennsylvania place in the time of a pandemic.

The sign says this:

THE MERCURY EDITORIAL DEPARTMENT