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Departing Chron and Merc journalists say financial decisions are hurting those newspapers

The ongoing layoffs at the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News are a human drama as well as a financial one, particularly given the relationship between the parent companies of those two publications: the Chron’s Hearst Corp. and Merc owner MediaNews Group.

An anticipated 160 journalists and their editors are being cut from the Chron and the Merc, which means, of course, less news for you. The names of which editors were slashed by the Chron surfaced first on the local blog Ghost Word while the rest made it to the Web in an internal Bronstein memo leaked to industry watchers, a painful irony considering what news execs say is killing journalism jobs.

Those who have been let go paint an interesting picture of what happened and what’s to come. “When Frank Vega, the new publisher, got here a couple of years ago, he said only three things can happen: We can fix it. We can sell it. Or we can shut it down. They haven’t fixed it yet, so those other two things are what they have to be considering,” John Curley, a deputy managing editor let go from the Chronicle recently after more than two decades with the paper, told the Guardian.

An annotated photo of Curley’s desk at the Chron appeared on Flickr.com last week and elicited two successive waves of heartfelt e-mails and calls after the popular industry blog Romenesko linked it.
Early in his career, Curley worked in New Jersey under David Burgin, who was famously fired and rehired several times by MediaNews honcho Dean Singleton at a number of the company’s papers before briefly working at the San Francisco Examiner, once owned by Hearst before it took over the Chronicle. Curley also worked for Jim Bellows, an influential editor in American journalism, at the Los Angeles Herald Examiner.
“Even though this is officially termed a ‘reduction in force,’ I am surprised and dismayed that the organization thinks it can have a future without me,” Curley wrote below the photo on his Flickr profile. “To be honest, I thought I'd get the chance to help lead the paper where it needed to go to compete successfully in the digital age. But instead, off I go.”

Insiders told us managers at the Chronicle reiterate over and over that the paper will never be the New York Times. To be fair, Bronstein likes to change up his low expectations from time to time. Last year, he told media hound Michael Stoll in a piece for the SF Weekly that the daily can’t be another Los Angeles Times either.

Sunday editor Wendy Miller, an industry veteran of more than two decades who spent her last seven years at the Chron before being let go just recently, told us, “There’s no answer to that except, ‘Of course we can’t be the New York Times. But we could be the very best regional paper we could be and as good at doing in-depth regional stories as the national papers are at doing what they do. There’s not a lot of imagination in Chronicle management. They’re not a very flexible group.”

Chron executive editor Phil Bronstein told Editor & Publisher that the paper will focus more on local news, but he said it will also have to do fewer stories now. And staffers told us he’s admitted during recent meetings that he’s not quite sure what to do in order to save the paper.

The Chron has lately continued its strong coverage of police misconduct in San Francisco but chose to relegate a superb story about one problem officer to the back of the June 7 edition in the local section.

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