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. 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. for $80 million in an arrangement very similar to what the companies created here, according to Securities and Exchange Commission filings. A few newsroom job cuts were announced recently at the News-Times.
MediaNews already owned the Connecticut Post, located about 20 miles away, and the deal included another nearby paper in New Milford. Combined, the three make a cluster, just as Singleton likes them, which enable him to thin and share staff and other resources between the publications as he’s been doing in the Bay Area.
Thin, of course, equals cutting more journalists.