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

The riveting tale of a scandalous trust-fund lawyer by long-time crime reporter Jaxon Van Durbeken was placed far from the June 10 Sunday edition’s front page as well.

Miller told us she was displeased with what the daily was choosing to promote on its Sunday front-page and wished it would more often showcase thorough local reporting done by beat reporters.

The Chron’s financial desperation is well-known by now, confirmed months ago by Hearst attorneys in federal court when local businessman Clint Reilly was suing the company along with MediaNews to stop - or at least limit - a $300 million investment scheme the two would-be competitors planned that has since enabled MediaNews to dominate most of the Bay Area’s newspapers outside of the Chron.

Hearst lost approximately $1 million a week last year, and all told, they’ve more or less dumped $1 billion into the paper, including its purchase price, since buying it in 2000. Sources say the losses are now closer to $2 million a week.

The company first announced in May that it was eliminating 100 newsroom employees out of its 400 total. We’re told that some guild cuts were officially enacted June 8 with more expected soon afterward, but no one’s entirely sure who’s accepted buyouts so far and much uglier terminations could take place soon. At the same time, nine editors were sent packing.

The Chron’s managing editor Robert Rosenthal announced he was leaving before the axe fell on the newsroom proclaiming that he couldn’t stomach the bloodshed.

The coincidence couldn’t be more profound. He spent much of his career at the respected Philadelphia Inquire before joining the Chron after growing dissatisfied with the Inquirer’s decision in 2001 to downsize more than 100 people under former owner Knight-Ridder, which also once owned the Merc.

“What I believe is that the real innovators are the journalists,” Rosenthal told us. “In the industry, the people who are not the innovators are on the business side. They’ve looked at this as a very traditional challenge and now they’re getting caught up in a whirlpool of change.”

At the Merc, expected cuts for the paper were first disclosed by John Bowman, who quit recently as editor of the San Mateo County Times, also owned by MediaNews Group. Bowman had grown angry over what the cuts had done to his own paper, and opened up like a geyser to GradetheNews.org telling them that shortcuts on copy editors were causing egregious errors even in headlines.

State workplace safety cops are investigating the San Mateo paper’s offices where Bowman contends the building is without air and rats are a concern. Spokesperson Dean Fryer of the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health wouldn’t discuss the case while it remains open. But federal records show MediaNews was fined $800 last fall for an asbestos-related complaint at the company’s nearby Los Gatos Weekly-Times.

The Merc and the Times are run by a consortium of companies called the California Newspapers Partnership with MediaNews at the helm and include the Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune. Online ad revenue actually went up last quarter for MediaNews along with its general profit margin while the cost of newsprint is going down, all good signs for Singleton’s wallet.

But print ad income and circulation, which continue to butter the company’s bread, remain on a downward march, according to earnings statements, and Singleton still must service the hundreds of millions in debt he accrued in recent years storming the nation in a frenzied haste to buy up both daily and weekly papers big and small.

In fact, the business press in recent stories about the company’s performance failed to point out that the Denver-based company is doing yet more big deals with Hearst in other cities. The two joined efforts last quarter to purchase the News-Times in Danbury, Conn.

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