Drinking in the dark

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Text by Sarah Phelan.
Q. “How many Irish does it take to change a light bulb. “
A. “Never mind, we’ll drink in the dark.”

I was reminded of this (potentially racist, but I'm part Irish, so screw it) joke yesterday during a two-hour conversation about the Chronicle that took place, mostly between media people, in the basement of the library, on St Patrick’s Day.

The fact that any reporters showed up to talk about journalism on St Paddy’s Day is a good indicator of just how troubled they are feeling about the state of the news industry.

Normally, reporters would be writing about folks drinking too many Irish car bombs, or, if they weren’t working that night, drinking too many green beers themselves.

Instead, they sat and talked about the challenges facing San Francisco’s main daily newspaper, and the future of journalism in the Internet age.

Now, you’d think this would be easy for a bunch of folks who are used to digging into other people’s business and publishing what they find out, including the for-profit-driven doings of this or that evil corporation.

Only this time, the folks being bullied are the workers at the San Francisco Chronicle, which is owned by Hearst. a privately held corporation. This means the Chronicle won’t be publishing the findings of its own journalists’ findings on this matter. Instead, it’s been running reports that have no bylines and sound like Hearst press releases.

And then there’s the disquieting reality that Hearst has refused to open its books to the unions that represent the workers at the Chronicle. This means that all Hearst’s claims, including the statement that the Chronicle is losing $50 million a year, remain just that: claims, until proven otherwise.

No one is disputing the fact that newspapers have been losing advertising revenue to the Internet. Or that few of us have figured out ways to recapture that revenue. Or that many of us have been laid off, suffered pay cuts and/or seen an end to our careers, even as more people read our stuff than ever.

So, are we going to drink in the dark, or shine some light on the situation?

Personally, I don’t want the Chronicle to die. I want it to improve. And, as an investigative reporter, I want proof that Hearst’s financial claims are real.

Long time Chronicle reporter Carl Hall, the local representative of the California Media Workers Guild, confirmed last night that Hearst refused the Guild’s requests to open its books.

Hall also confirmed that Guild members voted to accept the loss of 150 jobs and the elimination of seniority rather than risking calling Hearst’s bluff over the corporation's threats to close or sell the Chronicle.

Of course the workers did. They’re newspaper men and women. Like doctors and teachers, they love their jobs, no matter who is running the hospital, school or newspaper.

But I wonder if the rest of the media have fallen down on the job, by not challenging Hearst’s unsubstantiated claims, even as the entire nation is discovering that it has been Ponzi-schemed up the kazoo.

I was heartened to hear Chronicle forum panelist and social entrepreneur Tom Murphy point out that some of the industry’s current problems are related to the newspaper-buying binges that Hearst Corp. and Dean Singleton’s MediaNews indulged in during the past decade.

And it was interesting to hear Oakland Tribune editor Martin Reynolds, which itself got swallowed up by Singleton in recent years, admit that many newspapers chains are in a similar situation to the owners of foreclosed homes: “They are upside down on their mortgages, right now," Reynolds said.

Connect those financial dots to the fact that readership of the Chronicle is growing online, and you begin to realize that there is a way forward through all this, even if we haven’t figured it all out yet.

As Center for Investigative Reporting cofounder and forum panelist David Weir put it last night, ‘Don’t blame the Internet for journalism’s demise. The Internet is not a choice, it is a fact. It is a technical and historical reality.”