As Chicago cleans up, meet the looters: Heath Freeman and Alden Global Capital

Lou Carlozo August 11, 2020

The Denver Post before Alden Capital… Photo Credit: RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post
… and after. Hey, Heath Freeman: Where’d everybody go? Photo credit: Katie Wood, The Denver Post

I’m not used to world news hitting so close to home—three and a half miles, in fact.

But on Monday morning, my coffee shop friend Shirley alerted me that Chicago businesses had been looted, ransacked and overrun by hundreds of people reportedly triggered by the shooting of 20-year-old Latrell Allen in the dirt-poor Englewood neighborhood. It was far from righteous protest in the George Floyd way, moving our African-American mayor Lori Lightfoot to demand swift action against the perps.

From the South Side to the Loop to the North Side, the tsunami of looting capsized in dramatic fashion at a Best Buy store I’d shopped at countless times in search of stereo cables and anime videos. The parking lot resembled a bomb site, with broken boxes and damaged vehicles strewn like toys in a temper tantrum.

Now what? My job at Qwoted is not to recap or report the news, but talk about what kind of job our news outlets are doing. That’s important, I think, because more than ever Chicago’s news media is struggling under gargantuan pressures.

And a different kind of looting looms over our city—not the kind that makes headlines, though it involves the people who write and edit them.

The greatest threat to the Chicago Tribune’s survival isn’t slipping ad sales or competition from a digital disruptor. It’s Alden Global Capital, a “vulture capital” firm that famously gutted the Denver Post and run by a just-turned-40 punk named Heath Freeman, Alden’s president.

Irony of ironies, Heath’s late father Brian Freeman (as detailed in a 1985 New York Times piece) was an investment banker whose clients included many labor unions, including one representing journalists and other workers at United Press International. He was by all accounts aggressive, abrasive, a workaholic and often an asshole. The Times story suggests that Heath (who was 5 at the time) and his fam were left to fend for themselves while Dad slaved without so much as a vacation for more than two years. But at least he was on the right side of the table. Alas, what made junior take Dad’s Jedi skills to the dark side of the force?

Last month, Alden came one inch closer to seizing total control of the Tribune, gaining one more board seat. Based on the track record, it seems all but certain Freeman and his crew will squeeze the Tribune dry for money, just as they did with the Fred’s Pharmacy and Payless Shoe Source. This article from Vanity Fair’s Joe Pompeo couldn’t state it any clearer in the headline: “The Hedge Fund Vampire That Bleeds Newspapers Dry Now Has The Chicago Tribune By The Throat.”

I like how Pompeo used “that.” Freeman would grammatically be “who,” but vampires are arguably non-human and thus, “that.”

Alden has systematically decimated staff at roughly 100 journalism outlets, including some bastions in the craft: the San Jose Mercury News, St. Paul Pioneer Press, and Orange County Register to name a few. As Alden gutted the Denver Post, Freeman’s and his cronies enriched themselves. In 2018, the Post’s own editorial board wrote:

“Denver deserves a newspaper owner who supports its newsroom. If Alden isn’t willing to do good journalism here, it should sell The Post to owners who will.”

To witness the looting up close, go to the actual Post editorial. Now, slide across the photo with your mouse and you can see the consequences of Alden’s gutting in almost real time. I’ll link to it again. These are people. Real people with families and real pride in their work. Real dreams and real mortgages. Sickening, especially since the Post was financially healthy when Alden took over.

Alden’s self-appointed board members appear to have given themselves free rein to use the struggling companies they control as personal cash cows, court records and SEC filings show.

It’s all detailed in a special website for Newspaper Guild members who work at Digital Media First, the Orwellian-named company Alden runs. Julie Reynolds spotlights in this piece how Freeman pocketed $340,000 as he and three other board members personally profited from the demise of Fred’s. Those same four people, the article notes, were nominated by Alden in a failed attempt to take over Gannett Co.

To understand how Freeman keeps score, he has all the markings of an entitled millennial frat boy (with apologies to all the good millennials out there). A former placekicker at Duke (who apparently went six-for-six), his prize possession is a Duke basketball jersey Christian Laettner wore when he drained a buzzer-beating two-pointer to defeat the University of Kentucky in 1992. (It’s at the 4:30 mark in this video.) It’s gone down in basketball lore as “The Shot,” and allowed Duke to advance from the Eastern Regionals to the NCAA title.

It’s one of the few biographical details we could glean about Freeman for some time because like good sneak thieves do, he likes to work in obscurity. In fact, his alma mater helps him with that sort of let’s-keep-mum thing, according to this 2019 piece from Indy Week:

“Freeman also gives Duke a lot of money—his family’s name is on the Freeman Center for Jewish Life—so the school, of course, refused [comment].”

Journalists will tell you, and I’m telling you, too: Legal or not, Alden employs the kind of looting that white collar asswipes routinely get away with. It’s fair to guesstimate that with the 1,000-plus journalists Alden has cut loose, it has realized far, far more in despicable gain for than all the Chicago looters collectively made off with this week.

Since I haven’t been at my beloved Tribune for some time, I may be in a position to do something about this. Perhaps not. But here goes:

Journalists, let’s find out all we can about Heath Freeman. You can look at his LinkedIn profile, though it doesn’t reveal much of anything except a few “likes.” Learn what you can and report it, even if you’re at one of the once-proud outlets he’s bled to the bone. Even if you lost your job at his hand. If that’s a dead end, here are the names of three other Fred’s board members, installed courtesy of Alden, who made out really well (six-digits well) on that travesty: Timothy A. Barton, Dana Goldsmith Needleman and Steven B. Rossi. Other Alden brass have LinkedIn pages that are more active than Freeman’s; you can find them here.

If we are taking down Confederate statues everywhere, why isn’t Duke taking Freeman’s name off a building? Hold them accountable. Ask tough questions. Make them squirm. Be relentless. The contact information for Duke’s public relations office is publicaffairs@duke.edu; 919-681-3788. If so moved, ask journalism students to start a Change.org or MoveOn.org petition imploring Duke to remove the name. Maybe even enlist Duke J students, much as we’ve seen enraged Liberty University students protest the embarrassing actions of their own personal antichrist, Jerry Falwell Jr.

Duke has, by the way, the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy: (919) 613-7410. How about giving them a jingle? They even sponsor—gag me with Freeman’s silver spoon—the James D. Ewing Lecture on Ethics in Journalism.

As for me,  I’m challenging you, Heath Freeman, to a public debate in the very public square you seek so mightily to destroy: the pages of a newspaper. Or, let’s do it right here, at Qwoted. Yes, I know, you are now recasting yourself as the guy trying to save local journalism, even doing a rare interview in the Washington Post last month. Did you see the last sentence of the headline? “No one’s buying it.” It’s the kind of lame-o makeover attempt that would make KKK consort David Duke pee his pants.

Pen versus pen. Mano a mano, Heath. Explain yourself. Instead of half-assed spin, face the journalists you cut off at the knees, and their families. If you think you can beat me, bet your Laettner jersey. Bet you won’t. You’re no buzzer beater. You are a buzzsaw to the heart.

“Lay off me,” you might think. Fine. If you would just lay off the Tribune, go hide somewhere with a virgin-colada umbrella drink and enjoy the zillions you’ve already siphoned off, you can leave these intrepid reporters alone to do their jobs: Paige Fry, Jeremy Gorner, Peter Nickeas, Gregory Pratt, Meghan Crepeau, Stacy St. Clair, Claire Hao, William Lee, Dan Hinkel, Annie Sweeney, John Byrne, and Javonte Anderson.

You see, these dozen Chicago Tribune writers did outstanding work reporting on Monday’s looting—every aspect of it, political, legal, social and economic—in a way I know I couldn’t. In a day of political spin this and sensationalistic that, they stayed true to the craft and gave it to readers straight, under the immense pressure of deadline, the possibility of harm and competition from global journalists. Every bit as important were the photographers who threw themselves into the heart of the shit storm: Terrence Antonio James, Antonio Perez, Jose M. Osorio, Stacey Wescott and Pulitzer Prize winner E. Jason Wambsgans.

Read their piece. See their work. You’ll get what I mean.

Do you, Heath Freeman, really want to yank this depth of reporting away from Chicagoans? For good?

Of course you do. Of course you will.

And once Alden calls the shots, how many of these reporters will you pick off just to fatten your wallet? 

Because if precedent means as much in life as it does the law, many if not most of these hard-working journalists will at some point become victims of the looting.

Lou Carlozo is the Editor In Chief at Qwoted. All opinions, well-reasoned or otherwise, are strictly his own. lou@qwoted.com

This week on Lou Carlozo’s Bankadelic podcast: The need for banks to embrace digital statements, and for statement vendors to do a better job.