Paper trail

Deep cuts at the Chronicle and the Mercury mean less journalism and accountability for the Bay Area
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gwschulz@sfbg.com

Up to 160 journalists and editors being cut from the payrolls of the Bay Area's biggest two daily newspapers will flood a shrinking media job market, forcing many from their homes and making it difficult to pay their rents or mortgages.

But it also means something else: less news, and therefore less accountability and diminished democratic debate.

That was the sad conclusion of many observers and media professionals after the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News both revealed recently that they'd be laying off about a quarter of their respective newsroom staffs.

"Something has to give," Chron editor Phil Bronstein told Editor and Publisher recently. "If you have 15 priorities, sometimes the bottom three or four don't get done. You may have to do fewer stories, and you can do that."

The disturbing pronouncements by their parent companies, the Hearst Corp. and MediaNews Group, even led some veterans who weren't immediately facing pink slips to leave on their own accord, unable to stomach the sorry state of their profession. Yet even as the bloodletting began in earnest at the Chron last week, Bronstein hadn't presented much of a game plan for how Hearst actually expects to continue operating a major metropolitan newspaper.

"There's no question that with the Bay Area — like other big metro markets — the diminishing number of journalists will definitely impact the public," just-departed managing editor Robert Rosenthal, who announced he was leaving two weeks ago as the cuts were about to begin, told the Guardian.

The paper even started a blog for fallen staffers to exchange leads on new opportunities. Among the first posts was a public relations gig in San Francisco, which to many earnest reporters is like crossing over to the dark side.

Despite its lagging finances, the Chronicle has still been the city's main paper of record — based mostly on its extensive resources and large newsroom — no matter how many blogs, online journals, and alt weeklies claw at its heels, or whether people consider it a poor paper.

But Sunday editor Wendy Miller, who was squeezed out last week, told us that the paper has been promoting sensationalism while failing to put some of its best stories from beat reporters high on the Sunday front page. As an example, she pointed to Carrie Sturrock's regular education coverage, like recent stories on far-flung alternative-energy research at Stanford University and the punishing collection tactics of student-loan agencies.

"That front page too often is driven by crime and tabloid and goofy local stories," said Miller, an industry veteran of more than two decades who spent her last seven years at the Chron. "I think this is too sophisticated of a market for a front page like that. While I do think there's a lot of good work that we do, we don't play it well.... We don't put our very best work on the cover often."

Now the situation could grow worse, as changes are certain at the paper along with the layoffs. It's not clear, for instance, that its Sunday edition will contain an Insight section anymore, laid-off editor Jim Finefrock, who spent more than 30 years at the paper, told us last week just after he cleaned out his desk.

Washington bureau chief Marc Sandalow was let go after more than 20 years at the Chronicle, 13 of them inside the Beltway, and the paper has also made an effort to cut the job of fellow longtime DC reporter Edward Epstein. The moves would halve the bureau's staff and cast doubt on how the Chron would continue its knowledgeable stories on some of the most powerful members of Congress, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen.

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