Single town? - Page 3

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In fact, one of the most interesting ideas about the deal comes from a former Chronicle assistant managing editor, Alan Mutter, who writes a blog called Reflections of a Newsosaur (newsosaur.blogspot.com). Mutter suggests that the deal might lead to the end of real newspaper competition in the Bay Area, for once and for all. "Hearst," he speculates, "hopes at some point to work with MediaNews to extricate itself from the costly problem posed by the San Francisco Chronicle, which is widely believed to be losing about $1 million per week."

The idea: Down the road, Hearst merges the Chron with MediaNews or, if the Justice Department won't allow that, the two companies enter into a joint operating agreement. A JOA works like this: The two companies share all printing, business, sales, and distribution operations, run two theoretically separate newsrooms, and at the end of the day split the profits. The Chron and the Examiner were run for years under a JOA, and it was terrible for readers: With no economic incentive to compete, both papers stagnated. But it can be the equivalent of a license to print money.

"Unlike some publishers who shun JOA relationships," Mutter notes, "Dean Singleton has embraced them and seems to be making them work in places like Denver and Detroit. Is the San Francisco Chronicle next on his list?"

Imagine what a near-complete monopoly of Bay Area dailies in the hands of a notorious cost-cutter would mean. For starters, we can count on more standardized, conservative politics (at least the Knight-Ridder papers opposed the war). Perhaps all reporting and editing would be consolidated into one newsroom, in San Francisco or San Jose. Like Clear Channel radio stations, many smaller papers might wind up with little or no staff, nobody to answer the phone, nobody to take local tips and cover local news ... they'd be nothing but shells of once-thriving community newspapers. They would have abandoned the crucial local-watchdog role of a daily newspaper (and made life more difficult for the few remaining independents).

The fact that this is a possible, even likely, scenario is alarming. In short order, one company could control every major daily in the Bay Area (except the Examiner and the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat) fixing prices, sharing markets, pooling profits, and keeping ad rates artificially high and the quality of journalism abysmally low.

Have there been discussions around this? What is Hearst's real interest here, and how does it jibe with Singleton's dream of a massive regional "cluster"? Until we know the answers, the MediaNews-McClatchy deal should never go forward.