Breaking the news
MediaNews and the seismic shift in Bay Area newspapers
"Our citizens may be deceived for a while, and have been deceived; but as long as the presses can be protected, we may trust to them for light." - Thomas Jefferson
Industries facing unprecedented financial pressures and massive consolidation are not unusual in today's global marketplace. One particular industry, however, has a unique niche in the broader world. It's an industry upon which the very health of our democracy may depend.
A variety of observers are sounding an alarm about the cost to our society of the diminishing number of diverse voices and declining quality of journalism. Some are offering radically different visions for the future of journalism:
* Professor John McManus of San Jose State University believes that newspapers are the "nervous system of democracy" and that the decline of newspapers and news coverage is a civic version of the debilitating disease ALS, leading to a paralyzed democracy.
* Sonoma State's Peter Phillips argues that "media consolidation is creating a new form of censorship in the United States and undermining democracy in the process."
* Stanford professor Ted Glasser says it's time to consider entirely new models; we should stop saying we have to accept the realities of the marketplace. He says we need to ask a different question: What kind of journalism do we need and what kind of conditions do we need to sustain it?
Ground zero: The Bay Area
Rupert Murdoch's purchase of the Wall Street Journal garnered much national attention recently, but the Bay Area is truly at ground zero for the developments that have prompted fears about newspaper consolidation.
The Bay Area media landscape has changed fundamentally in just the last couple of years - and the new dominant player on the scene is Dean Singleton's MediaNews. Only two years ago the three major daily papers in the Bay Area were the San Francisco Chronicle, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, with its local San Ramon Valley Times edition (the Chronicle being owned by the Hearst Corp., the latter two were owned by Knight Ridder). The Denver-based MediaNews owned the Oakland Tribune, the San Ramon Valley Herald, the Tri-Valley Herald and a number of smaller papers. Bay Area newspapers competed with each other for news coverage and advertising. There weren't as many independent voices as, say, 20 or 30 years ago, but there was still vigorous competition.
Then in 2006, Knight Ridder, under pressure from stockholders, sold its Bay Area properties. The deal resulted in almost every daily newspaper in the Bay Area being owned by MediaNews.
The Contra Costa Times Web site links to a list of 31 other MediaNews newspapers in Northern California alone, and that list doesn't include the weeklies it owns in the same area. Its holdings in Southern California are also extensive. In total, the company owns 57 daily newspapers and some 120 non-daily publications in 13 states and is the fourth largest newspaper company in the country.
On July 28, MediaNews announced a consolidation of the news operations of all its East Bay papers (as well as the San Mateo County Times and a number of weekly papers) along with accompanying staff cuts. MediaNews' East Bay publisher John Armstrong said the consolidation will "eliminate wasteful redundancies, streamline management and redirect staff and resources to our interactive services and other priorities, such as watchdog journalism."
John Bowman, former executive editor of the San Mateo County Times, had a different take about MediaNews' entry into the Bay Area - and this was before the recent talk of staffing cutbacks: "They're way past the point of diminishing returns, of penny-wise and pound-foolish ... Thin staffs provide less volume of news, less investigative and less enterprise stories ... Copy desks are so thinly staffed that they are making an incredible number of errors. These errors are in the headlines and (photo captions) so they are glaring. They are the kind of errors that destroy our credibility."
Faced with the prospect of deteriorating news quality, Bowman submitted his resignation after a 31-year career in the news business.
The one remaining major Bay Area paper not a part of MediaNews is the Chronicle. However, the Hearst Corp. contributed $300 million to help finance the Knight Ridder/MediaNews deal (via middleman McClatchy publishing company) and in return received a 30 percent interest in non-Bay Area holdings of MediaNews. Hearst and MediaNews have been discussing consolidating and cooperating in various operations, but were put on hold pending an antitrust lawsuit filed by former San Francisco political consultant Clint Reilly. The suit, which challenged the unprecedented consolidation, was settled shortly before trial last spring.
San Rafael resident Dan Fost has had a unique perch from which to view these developments - he was a reporter for the Marin Independent Journal for many years when it was owned by Gannett, before spending nearly a decade as the Chronicle's media columnist. He decided to leave the paper in August to become a freelance journalist. He says the Chronicle staff never could figure out why Hearst would subsidize Singleton's purchase of the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times and wonders whether the Reilly lawsuit prevented a consolidation of the Chronicle into the same media empire.
Fost believes there is still a lot of talent at the Chronicle, which has been directed by editor Phil Bronstein to focus more on journalistic crusades to solve civic ills and "master narratives," such as "Green Living" that cut across the Bay Area and to which almost any story can be tied. Fost observes that Singleton is clearly excited by the prospect of being able to sell the whole Bay Area in one ad buy, but laments that "newsrooms always get the worst of the deal." He says when he worked for Gannett, news staffing was not lavish - but it's even much smaller now with MediaNews. What makes him the saddest is that, on the whole, there are fewer people in journalism holding fewer people accountable - which can't be healthy for our society and our democracy.
UC Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett says it's "shameful that the U.S. Justice Department has walked away" from applying antitrust laws to the Bay Area consolidation. He says there are many other cities with examples of newspaper consolidation, but he can't think of any other area of similar size where the consolidation extends so far beyond the central city through the suburbs. He notes that "enforcement of antitrust laws is generally weak, and it has been super weak for newspapers because of their political clout."
News perspectives: And then there was one...
Neil Henry, a journalism professor at UC Berkeley and author of "American Carnival: Journalism under Siege in an Age of New Media," says the Bay Area has suffered more than most areas and that when fewer and fewer organizations own and deliver the news, it can't help but be harmful for democracy. What we need is a variety of sources. He points out that when we had a dozen independently owned papers covering a major story, there might be a dozen perspectives. Now, with MediaNews, they only need one reporter covering the story.
Henry covered Africa for the Washington Post between 1989 and 1993 using telexes and a 15mm camera. In those days all major television networks had bureaus in Africa, as did major newspapers and news services. Today there is no American television or cable network based on the continent. Coverage is limited to the New York Times, Washington Post, LA Times and some news services that can be counted on one hand. Henry points out that we are experiencing a great paradox of wonderful new tools and a dazzling array of information available on the Internet, but those who contribute the substance - journalists - are dwindling and endangered.
Award-winning media critic Ted Glasser says the Bay Area's media consolidation is emblematic of a larger problem and leads to three things: fewer journalists; homogenization of coverage (with the same story appearing in multiple newspapers); and journalism as an institution in our society ends up being the one institution that's not covered well by the media.
Glasser says the picture is not improving and the further we head down this path the more the story needs to be covered - and the less it is. That's the paradox.
Don't expect Bay Area daily newspapers, virtually all of which are a part of the deal, to make much of an effort to cover it - which is exactly the nature of the problem it raises.
Show us the money
While there has been minimal local coverage of consolidation, daily newspapers in general have been especially tuned in to the story of their own financial plight and have covered it as a major story in recent years. Daily newspaper readership is down mostly because younger adults are increasingly getting their information online or from sources other than newspapers.
The circulation of daily newspapers is dropping across the country, down more than 11 percent from 1990 to 2005. The local dailies are prime examples. The San Francisco Chronicle recently topped the list of 20 major dailies in percentage circulation decline, dropping 15 percent between March 2005 and March 2006, according to Editor and Publisher. The next largest decline was The Boston Globe at 8.5 percent.
Paid circulation declines coupled with decreased advertising revenue have clouded the future of daily newspapers. Craigslist and other online competition have drastically cut classified advertising revenues, which had been the major profit center for most daily newspapers. Much other advertising is also shrinking or moving online. The value of daily newspapers as businesses has also declined. The stock of the McClatchy Co., owner of the Sacramento, Fresno and Modesto Bees and other media holdings across the country, was recently downgraded to junk bond status by Standard & Poor's ratings service.
MediaNews' Singleton was quoted in his own Denver Post on Aug. 14 as saying that while advertising dollars may be falling away from large metropolitan dailies, newspapers with circulations between 20,000 and 250,000 are thriving. His perhaps overly rosy big-picture view isn't echoed locally. A July 20 memo linked from the San Francisco Peninsula Press Club Web site, written by one of his top executives, John Armstrong, tells another story. Reporting financial results for the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, which includes the Alameda Newspaper Group, for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2007, Armstrong says revenue fell $21.3 million, or 8 percent from the prior year, and operating profit dropped $4.5 million. Three-fourths of the decline came in advertising sales.
Armstrong spoke this month at the San Ramon Valley Exchange Club about the changing world of newspapers as their advertising revenues are lost to the Internet. As a necessary cost savings, he'd recently announced in the paper, the Times had to discontinue the popular format of its weekly TV section as well as reducing its Sunday Perspective to four pages. A reader responded that the Times should focus on quality and the rest will take care of itself.
"I wish it were that simple," Armstrong said. "Quality may not be enough to carry the day."
He said MediaNews was merging the news staffs from its combined papers to produce quality news coverage, including watchdog journalism. But he didn't say what the lack of competition would do to the product.
The former "Valley" section in the Sunday Times now uses the broad-reaching label of "East Bay." The lead story of the East Bay section Sunday, Oct. 21, was a ZIP code change in Discovery Bay; other stories on the front page were from El Sobrante, Walnut Creek and Livermore.
MediaNews president Joseph Lodovic told Bloomberg News last week that Singleton plans to cut costs by combining operations such as newsgathering. He cited copy editing as part of the process that could be done from a central site, but didn't mention work overload or lack of knowledge about subjects in other locations.
Where daily newspaper journalism is headed is unclear. Reports appear almost daily regarding cutbacks in newsroom staffs across the country. Major papers have cut back foreign bureaus as well as in their back yards. The San Francisco Chronicle announced May 19 one of the biggest cuts of any newspaper in the country. It planned to cut 25 percent of its newsroom staff by the end of the summer - 100 positions from a staff of 400. The San Jose Mercury News has cut its newsroom staff by about half over the last seven years. The Chronicle has a poignant tribute to departed staffers called "Colleagues Remembered" on its Web site. Publisher Frank Vega said that revenue from advertising and other sources wasn't keeping pace with the cost of running the paper.
An example of what's happening in the industry is contained in a statement from publisher David Hiller of the Los Angeles Times, the daily paper generally regarded as best in the West. The April announcement said the Times would offer voluntary buyouts in hopes of cutting its staff of 2,625 by up to 150 employees. Revenue for the Times and related units dropped 4 percent in the first quarter, compared to the previous year.
"The fact is we have to take actions to keep staffing in line with the revenue picture, which currently is falling in the core print business," wrote Hiller. "Up to 70 jobs could be cut from the newspaper's news operations, which would bring the newsroom staff to roughly 850. The Times news operation employed about 1,200 when the paper was purchased by Tribune Co. of Chicago in 2000."
In May the LA Times announced an additional cut of 57 more newsroom positions. Two consecutive Times editors, Dean Baquet and John Carroll, had resigned rather than preside over additional staff cuts.
Newspapers are dead! Long live newspapers?
Some popular wisdom has most print newspapers folding in the near future and news shifting online. Many in the blogosphere are already waving goodbye. There is one particularly troubling problem with that. If you trace the source of most serious news online, it generally leads back from Google or Yahoo! or sites such as Digg.com to newspapers. One survey of 100 bloggers found that 59 said their primary source of information is newspapers. Another 19 said their primary source is other bloggers. So 78 percent of bloggers get their information from newspapers or other bloggers. Of the remaining 22, it's unlikely that much of what they produced was original news. Rather, it's generally opinion and reaction in response to the news.
Newspapers, to compete with online sources, are transforming themselves into "information" companies and increasingly reporting news, when it happens, online. According to the Newspaper Association of America, more than 59 million people (37.3 percent of all active Internet users) visited newspaper Web sites during the second quarter of 2007, a 7.7 percent increase over the same period a year ago. However, with a few exceptions, the revenue to support online newspaper sites still largely comes from print. No one has figured out how the brave new world of multi-platform information providers can produce enough revenue, presumably from online advertising, to ensure the survival of serious journalism.
At the same time that daily newspapers are hemorrhaging due to online competition, they are feeding the beast that is devouring them. MediaNews, Hearst and McClatchy announced in April of this year that they were joining with Yahoo! Inc. and other leading U.S. newspaper companies in a "definitive agreement that expands a growing partnership combining the newspapers' unmatched local news and advertising reach with the technologies and audience of Yahoo!" Most of the newspapers will feature Yahoo!'s HotJobs online employment listings. There's clearly an element of schizophrenic behavior here.
The question these companies must be asking themselves: "Do we join them and share some revenue - even if it's not enough to keep us going - but risk providing enough content to allow them to continue their growth which undermines our basic business?" The trend is clearly toward joining, which may be based on the theory that "if we don't, someone else will, and we won't share any of the revenue."
Bloomberg reported that Dean Singleton wants 20 percent of MediaNews sales to come from the Web by 2012; it is currently 7 percent.
Anyone for a game of monopoly?
McManus, who has been the primary force behind "Grade the News," a project focused on examining the quality of news delivered by Bay Area media, believes that as newspapers decline, we suffer a loss of civic vitality. Staff in government departments who had been accustomed to reporters hanging around, begin to cut corners because they operate in the dark. He says the public is not upset because it is not aware.
What's happening, McManus points out, is that investigative and enterprise reporting suffers and news becomes more public relations and entertainment driven. As an example, he did an examination of the Mercury News coverage of the "finger in the bowl of chili" story and says it ran for 33 days from the day it broke to the day Anna Ayala was arrested. It was in the paper every day and on the front page 11 times. Iraq made page one once, and that was a human interest story.
McManus is author of the book "Market-Driven Journalism: Let the Citizen Beware?" in which he argues that the formerly revered practice of news reporting for the public interest is being superseded by the corporate driven "commodification" of news, treating it like any other product. He served as an expert witness in the Reilly lawsuit challenging the McClatchy-Hearst-MediaNews deal and believes that Reilly succeeded in exposing and delaying the Bay Area consolidation but didn't stop it.
He says MediaNews argued to the Bush Justice Department that it shouldn't stop the acquisition because news is no longer a monopoly of newspapers. Television, radio and the Internet provide a wealth of different sources for news. While this argument has surface validity, McManus' response is "name some." With minor exceptions, no solely Internet-based sources are really reporting on your local community.
Peter Phillips, an associate professor at Sonoma State University and director of Project Censored, argues that "Media consolidation is creating a new form of censorship in the United States and undermining democracy in the process." He describes a system where fewer than 10 major media corporations now dominate the U.S. news and information systems. Ninety-eight percent of all cities have only one daily newspaper and these are increasingly controlled by huge chains.
"Censorship in the United States today is seldom deliberate, but rather comes under the heading of lost opportunities," said Phillips. "Mega-merged corporate media are predominately interested in the entertainment value of news and the maintenance of high audience viewing/reading levels that equate to profitable advertising sales. Non-sexy or complex stories tend to receive little attention within these corporate media systems."
Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Lowell Bergman has a more critical perspective on the current state of Bay Area journalism. A UC Berkeley professor (and one who has focused on the national picture), Bergman has pointed comments about a variety of local media operations and sees the news gathering public interest function as what's in jeopardy:
* On the San Francisco Chronicle: "The people who are running the Chronicle have lost sight of why they're running a newspaper."
* Dean Singleton: "He's into making money. He's like Murdoch."
* Local TV: "Most local stations in San Francisco are making 30 percent profits." Federal FCC licensing standards at one time required more serious reporting. "The FCC now says that what's in the public interest is whatever the public is interested in."
The future is unwritten...
What does the future hold? McManus says one positive is that the value of news is continuing to increase. Our society, environment, economy and institutions are undergoing major changes due to new technologies and other forces. Knowledge remains a key to power, and its shelf life grows ever shorter. And with the global economy and global wars, we need information from even more distant places and we need updates more frequently. It's paradoxical that the most reliable source of the information we need about technologically driven changes is becoming a victim of the very technology it covers. McManus sees a rough five to 10 years as we transition to a more decentralized system of news gathering and reporting involving information accessible on a niche basis with micro-payments by the story or through specialized subscriptions.
Bergman believes that "sooner or later" a Bay Area Web site will emerge "where people go to find out what's going on. Something will happen, and there is no place riper than this area because it's been underserved (with serious journalism) historically."
Fost points to online magazines Salon and Slate (now owned by the Washington Post) as evidence that quality journalism can happen online and thinks there is a lot of potential, but sees a conundrum. The press is mentioned and protected as an institution in the Constitution, but is run largely as a for-profit enterprise whose first interest is to make a buck for shareholders. Fost would like to see the nonprofit world step forward and suggests Mother Jones and the Center for Investigative Reporting in the Bay Area as nonprofit examples. The risk is corporate sponsorships and attacks from the right (which Public Broadcasting has experienced), so the model is not perfect. He hopes the Chronicle can hold on long enough to do something great online but has a concern about a potential spiral of cutting content (the substance of its news and features) leading to fewer readers leading to fewer ads, leading to cutting more content.
Henry suggests that maybe the profit model for delivering news is out of date and points to the BBC (publicly funded serious journalism) as a successful, different approach.
Glasser says there are lots of people who recognize the problem in academia, but journalists are reluctant to talk about it in the context of national policy because of fear of government control. "It's a real fear, but I don't see the state as an enemy. National Public Radio provides the best radio journalism, and we forget how well it (government funding) has worked there."
The situation demands a better, more imaginative vision than we have had, says Glasser. We need to look beyond models of market-based journalism that have defined us for the past 200 years. We need to understand journalism in the same way we define other public resources such as schools, museums or libraries. We allow librarians to make independent judgments about what books to put in a library.
It has everything to do with the news agenda and the mosaic we need in a multicultural society, Glasser says. We have to stop saying we have to accept the realities of the marketplace. Our country has the opportunity to provide a leadership role and take a serious look at alternatives to market-based journalism.
Thomas Jefferson's concept of democracy was that in a society where a free and diverse press could write whatever it chose - while there would be abuses, exaggerations and inaccuracies - truth would ultimately emerge from an open marketplace of ideas. Newsbills and various forms of print from 200 years ago were more about the content - about conveying and advocating ideas - than about generating profits for enormous companies. Today that model has been largely turned on its head.
Knight Ridder (the newspaper company credited with the best, most objective coverage leading up to the Iraq invasion) dissolved because it was a publicly held company facing pressure from a major investment company stockholder. Others are in similar circumstances. Even the New York Times, which because of its two-tier stock structure has been somewhat shielded from such pressure, faced a protest from stockholders at its annual meeting in April led by a Morgan Stanley analyst. Daily newspapers, faced with Internet-related financial pressures, are rapidly joining electronic media and increasingly becoming small cogs in large corporations that consider news a product. This creates a formula for less meaningful news coverage and a society that is deprived of the serious, thoughtful and diverse information and views that Jefferson must have had in mind when he played a major part in crafting our democracy and enshrining protection for the press in the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Free, diverse, alert and seriously engaged media can provide the information and analysis needed to avoid realizing Elbert Hubbard's view of democracy as "a form of government by popular ignorance."
For serious journalism to triumph, consumers must demand quality and be willing to pay for it.
Perhaps George Bernard Shaw's view is more appropriate: "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve."
Sam Chapman is publisher of the Pacific Sun, a Marin County weekly newspaper that is part of the independent and locally owned Embarcadero Publishing Co., the parent company of the Danville Weekly and four other community newspapers. Dolores Fox Ciardelli contributed to this story.
Tales of two journalists
Two Bay Area journalists who worked for respected Knight-Ridder newspapers and who both have an obvious love for journalism have serious concerns about the future of local journalism in the MediaNews era.
Elisabeth Rubinfien worked for the San Jose Mercury News, most recently serving as metro editor, in charge of city and local coverage, for 12 years until she left in July. She saw the news staff decline from about 400 staff to around 200 and experienced the first year of MediaNews ownership. During Silicon Valley boom times she says the paper saw itself as being one of the best, certainly best in its size category. When its parent Knight Ridder dissolved in the McClatchy-MediaNews sale, many were sad to lose such a venerable and respected organization and "there was sadness that journalism in America would lose a national voice." This was particularly true because MediaNews in the Bay Area was not as respected as Knight Ridder. However, Rubinfien said there was a window when it looked like MediaNews might invest in "local."
"Dean Singleton talked about being positioned well to help define what the future of newspapers in the morning would be," she says.
While feelings were mixed, the dynamic process was an "exciting prospect." Maybe he would invest online in a big way. What they saw, Rubinfien relates, "was six months of hands-off followed by six months of cutting another 15 percent and shifting some resources to online. The contraction was at a point where they had to cut some local news gathering to do other things. Shifting resources is not investment."
Prior to the MediaNews purchase, Knight Ridder was already viewing foreign and national news as "commodity news" that can be obtained from the New York Times, the Washington Post or other sources. Readers can go to Web sites for the London Times, Al Jazeera or other sources. "While that's not untrue, it's dissembling," Rubinfien says. "If papers start believing what they are saying, close foreign bureaus and lay off staff, it will not be easy to re-create that capability."
Rubinfien sees MediaNews as doing a similar thing, only on a more local and regional level in the Bay Area. "The goal of newspapers has always been to produce something for everyone - watchdog journalism, fine writing, entertainment."
That said, sometimes you see decisions made that create a drift one way or the other. The Mercury News had devoted page three to a feature called "In Depth," which looked more closely at important issues. It recently eliminated "In Depth" in favor of a more chatty features and entertainment-oriented page. The paper had already cut special sections such as "Perspective," "Science and Health" and "Religion and Ethics."
"If you are supposed to be part of the process that exposes commodification and you are doing it yourself, you are part of the problem," Rubinfien points out.
A Knight Ridder colleague who worked in Contra Costa County and did not want her identity known says that what concerns her is that there is such a need for government watchdog journalism because the public needs and wants to know what's going on in the community. She hopes that more community newspapers will take up the task of covering city councils and schools "to keep the news out there because we're not going to get it from MediaNews." She says we're also not getting serious investigative reporting. The Contra Costa Times once had a four-person investigative team that was dismantled as a luxury it couldn't afford.
Rubinfien believes that the wonderful thing about a newspaper is that it helps build community. There is a "serendipity of exposure," which connects people on issues that they wouldn't search for on the Internet. While the Internet is a fabulous tool, its function is different from newspapers. She says she has great respect for the process that goes into news gathering with its many layers of checks and balances. It produces a reliable final result, something she doesn't see as the case with one person writing on the Internet.
For more information on media consolidation:
Grade the News: www.gradethenews.org
Media Alliance: www.media-alliance.org
Project Censored: www.projectcensored.org
The Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual State of the Media report can be found at www.stateofthenewsmedia.org/2007/sitemap.asp
Also see Free Press at: www.freepress.net/content/about
Media Reform Information Center: www.corporations.org/media
Columbia Journalism Review: www.cjr.org/index.php