A Sunday night scoop for the Wall Street Journal: “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.

[Gannett owns the Ahseville Citizen-Times in North Carolina.]

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.

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…”