Digital First Media closes mold-ridden Pottstown Mercury building

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Digital First Media has told employees that it will close the Pottstown Mercury building.

Digital First Media is closing the moldy Pottstown Mercury building at King and North Hanover Streets, telling employees to work from home or a printing plant about 45 minutes away in Chester County.

Edward Condra, senior publisher for the Philadelphia-area Digital First papers, told Mercury employees on Friday about the decision to abandon the three-story building that the NewsGuild of Greater Philadelphia contends could be a health hazard and needs a new roof.

Condra could not be immediately reached Monday for comment.

NewsGuild executive director Bill Ross and a Mercury employee confirmed the company’s decision. City officials said they were also informed.

Digital First Media, the nation’s No. 3 newspaper chain with a reputation for vicious cost-cutting practices and healthy profit margins, has already closed or sold the buildings for the Daily Times in Upper Darby, the Daily Local News in West Chester, and the Times Herald in Norristown.

Despite cutbacks, Digital First earned $160 million in profits on $939 million in revenue nationwide in 2017, according media analyst Ken Doctor, writing on the NiemanLab website at Harvard. The Philadelphia-area papers, a major hub for Digital First, contributed $61 million in revenue and $18 million in profits, and led the company with a 30 percent profit margin. The company is controlled by New York hedge fund Alden Global Capital LLC.

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Employees have abandoned the Pottstown Mercury’s third floor because of a leaky roof.

Mercury reporter Evan Brandt was at the meeting Friday when Condra informed editorial employees of the decision to close the building. “Having watched everything going on with this company and what they are doing with newspapers … it was just a question of when” Digital First would close the newspaper’s building, he said. He described the mood among employees as “resigned and angry.”

Mercury employees can travel to the Exton printing plant in 20 to 30 minutes, as long as there’s no traffic, Brandt said. But with tie-ups, the commute can take an hour. Brandt said he expects to work from home.

Years of cost cuts at Digital First Media, which reaches 48 million readers, are devastating newsrooms and fomenting employee dissent even as the hedge fund-controlled Digital First reaps huge profits. Philadelphia-area employees can earn significantly less than $30,000 a year.

The building closure came as employees had noted that a pungent mildew smell on the Mercury’s third floor had spread to the second-floor newsroom. One night in late April, Mercury sports editor Austin Hertzog walked out after smelling the mildew, and opted to work from home.

“Dayside people, you may want to make other accommodations for working Monday [and beyond?],” he wrote in an email later circulated to newsroom employees, calling the odor “aggressive.”

At the time, Condra told employees they could work from home. The NewsGuild had offered to conduct air-quality tests in the building but the company had said it would do its own tests, Ross said.

“I’m not surprised. This seems to be Alden’s pattern around the country — trying to sell off their properties with total disregard for readers and employees,” Ross said.