Deep cuts at the Chronicle and the Mercury mean less journalism and accountability for the Bay Area
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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. Dianne Feinstein, who are only now attaining major leadership positions.
"I always knew it would mean extremely unpleasant belt-tightening," Sandalow told the Guardian, referring to the paper's hundreds of millions of dollars in losses since Hearst took it over in 2000. "I just didn't think it would be suffocation."
Bronstein apparently is unsure of how the Chron can even begin to change the course of its unique money-losing trajectory. Despite the industry being wounded by fleeing subscribers and competitive Web outlets, most newspapers are still making big profits, with the Chron being a fairly rare exception. Sources add that the job cuts might save just $8 million or so per year, not nearly enough to make up for the paper's staggering losses, for which no one had any reasonably good explanations.
"Something's not right with our structure," John Curley, a deputy managing editor who'd been at the paper for more than 20 years, told the Guardian. "There isn't another metropolitan daily that has a dominant position the way the Chronicle does that loses money."
Indeed, SFGate.com is among the most regularly visited newspaper sites in the country, and the model has greatly expanded the paper's readership. But Curley explained that local advertisers "don't necessarily want to reach someone in Zurich who might be interested in reading our political analysis." For most papers, online ads still generate remarkably little revenue.
The company initially announced in May that it was eliminating 100 newsroom employees out of its total of 400. We're told that some guild cuts were officially enacted last Friday, with more on the way, but no one's entirely sure who has accepted buyouts so far, and much uglier terminations could take place soon. "People are terrified," one source said. "Their phone rings, and they don't want to answer."
At the same time, nine members of the top brass, including two deputy managing editors, Curley and Leslie Guevarra, were sent packing. Bronstein worked hard to appear assured of the paper's future in Editor and Publisher, telling the journal recently that the Chron would be focusing more on local news as part of its strategy, with less of a "buffet-style," but he offered few specifics. He nonetheless told staffers during recent meetings that he doesn't really know what to do and invited them to offer their own solutions.
The mood's been decidedly glum at a modest SoMa dive known as the Tempest, where Chron staffers are known to commonly lurk and where some of the recent sendoffs for departing staffers have been held.
"Business has been very good for me this week," a bartender there said late at night on June 8. "But I know 25 percent of these people won't be coming back. This won't be good for business in the long run."
As for the Merc, www.GradetheNews.org  fueled the rank and file's worst fears by first reporting that 60 newsroom positions at that paper would get the ax, in addition to the 35 union employees who were shoved out last December.
The paper got the tip from John Bowman, now former executive editor of the San Mateo County Times, also owned by MediaNews, who disclosed the layoffs to the public after deciding he was "fed up" with MediaNews honcho Dean Singleton's slash-and-burn business strategy.
Amid the chaos, the Merc's brand-new top editor, Carole Leigh Hutton, sent a memo to staffers begging them to remain calm and "focus some of that energy on doing the journalism we do so well" instead of indulging in rumors at the watercooler about what was planned.
Furious over cuts at his paper, Bowman decided to quit the same day that he talked to GradetheNews about an April meeting he attended with other MediaNews editors at which the layoffs were discussed.
Singleton, the industry's undisputed king of consolidation, months ago cut some copyediting jobs and moved others to a single hub in Pleasanton where its Tri-Valley Herald was formerly located. Bowman told GradetheNews the move had caused "an incredible number of errors," including glaring geographical mistakes even in headlines.
"You want copy editors who know your city, who know your beat, who can ask great questions and help make your story better," Luther Jackson, executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild, told us. "That's just a general rule, I would say. Copy editors are really underappreciated in general."
Jackson added that Bowman's figure of 60 isn't set in stone, and while the paper has admitted it plans to initiate more layoffs soon, it still hasn't decided how many. GradetheNews also interviewed reporters at "several of the chain's papers" who echoed Bowman's complaints and wrote that some of the papers are dreadfully short of reporters, including beat writers who specialize in specific local subjects.
We never heard back from Bronstein, Singleton, California Newspaper Publishers Association executives George Riggs and Kevin Keane, or former Merc executive editor Susan Goldberg, who high-tailed it out of San Jose recently for a job at the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
But Merc business reporter Elise Ackerman, who's worked at the Peninsula daily for seven years, told us the paper's union plans to provide execs with suggestions on how to improve the paper and boost income, though she didn't give details.
"I do think that this is really just a rough transition, and I was really impressed with Carol Leigh Hutton," Ackerman said carefully. "She's communicating very clearly.... I don't think that she's going to preside over the bloodletting that we saw at the Chron." *
For more on this evolving story, visit www.sfbg.com .