The merger of the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times with Dean Singleton’s Bay Area newspaper properties has already had one clear impact: There are fewer reporters and critics covering the news.
A former senior staffer at a Bay Area daily has been following the post-merger dailies, and he told us that the same bylines are now appearing regularly in the Merc, the Times and the Oakland Tribune. Where there were once several reporters covering a news event, several critics writing about music and culture, several sportswriters covering local teams, now there is often just one.
“Three months after MediaNews Group added two major Knight Ridder dailies to its far-flung Northern California newspaper group, news coverage is well on its way to being homogenized in this formerly competitive market,” the former staffer wrote.
We did our own checking, and his thesis holds true.
Before this summer, when Singleton began to take control of nearly every daily paper in the Bay Area, it was routine to see three different reporters covering major stories for the Merc, the Times and the Trib. In April, for example, each paper assigned a different staffer to cover the news of reports of how vulnerable the Delta levees were to an earthquake. The Times had Betsy Mason on the story; the Merc had Lisa M. Kriger, and the Trib had Ian Hoffman. Three different movie critics covered the release in May of the “Poseidon Adventure,” Barry Cain from the Trib, Bruce Newman from the Merc and Rnady Myers from the Times.
These days, it’s very different. The three papers all reported on a triple homicide in Oakland Nov. 24 - but all three stories carried the byline of Kirstin Bender. On Nov. 22, all three had headlines trumpeting new plans for a 49ers stadium - but the same story, by Mike Swift and David Pollack, ran underneath all three heads. A controversy on BART accepting liquor ads merited one story - by Kiley Russell - that ran in all three papers. When “History Boys” was released in late November, all three papers carried the same movie review, by Mary F. Pols.
In fact, out of ten major news, sports and culture stories we examined in November, nine carried the same bylines in all three papers.
None of the senior editors at the three papers returned our phone calls for comment. But Tom Barnidge, the Contra Costa Times sports editor, was willing to talk about the staffing changes. He told us that the use of single stories in all three papers was the result of the consolidation, and he argued that there was no need for all three papers to have beat reporters covering exactly the same things.
The problem with that theory is that it’s wrong: Even on straightforward beat stories, different reporters bring different perspectives to stories, develop different leads and sources, and provide different information. So when the Times, the Merc and the Trib lose their own independent staff reporters, the Bay Area readers lose, too.