Chronicle Newsroom Slashed, East Bay Express Goes Indie

By Richard Brenneman
Tuesday May 22, 2007

It was good news/bad news in the Bay Area media world last week. 

The good news came in the announcement that a local chain newspaper was going independent; the bad news was the proclamation of the wholesale downsizing of the area’s largest news staff. 

Village Voice Media, owner of both the East Bay Express and the SF Weekly, revealed an agreement to sell the Express to a group of buyers including local editor Stephen Buel. 

The bleak news came Thursday, when San Francisco Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega tersely announced that the paper would slash its newsroom staff by 25 percent—for a total of 100 jobs, or 80 reporters and 20 editorial managers. 

Blogger and media maven Allen Mutter (part-owner of the Berkeley Daily Planet in its previous incarnation) reported that when combined with an additional 60 jobs lost in the last two years, the cutbacks will amount to 35 percent in newsroom strength. 

Mutter wrote that the paper had lost more than $330 million since Hearst bought in seven years ago. 

“When Hearst bought the paper, they committed to keeping all the reporters at both the Chronicle and from the Examiner. So at a time when other newspapers were cutting jobs, the Chronicle was contractually obliged to keep those it had,” Buel said.  

The news nonetheless came as a shock to some Chronicle reporters, prompting one to quip to a Daily Planet reporter, “The way things are going, we’ll be the same size as you guys before long.” 

Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism and a revered figure in the world of working journalists, said the move poses serious risk for the Chronicle. 

“By substantially cutting back on the paper’s ability to produce detailed stories about local events, they could greatly reduce the Chronicle’s appeal to its readers,” Bagdikian said. “If they go for brevity or less detail, they make themselves less competitive with broadcast media and with other newspapers.” 

He said the downsizing is especially shortsighted in light of the paper’s essential monopoly on news on its side of the bay, and in light of the “short-sighted” agreement Hearst had concluded with the firm that dominates daily news coverage of the rest of the Bay Area. 

The MediaNews Group owns 12 Bay Area newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times, San Jose Mercury News and the Marin Independent Journal. 

Under an agreement between Hearst Corp. and MediaNews, the two papers contemplated cooperating on advertising sales and distribution of their papers. But a lawsuit filed by San Francisco entrepreneur Clint Reilly apparently scuttled the proposal, at least for the moment—though details of the settlement are sealed and accounts of its contents differ. 

Peter Scheer, executive director of the California First Amendment Coalition, said the Chronicle’s cutbacks weren’t unexpected, “especially because they hadn’t done so in the past couple of years even though they’re losing tons of money.” 

Blogger Tim O’Reilly, whose O’Reilly Radar blog covers tech issues, had predicted the layoffs back in March, when he reported on a newsroom meeting called by Editor Phil Bronstein, who, he wrote, had lamented that the news business “is broken, and no one knows how to fix it...And if any other paper says they do, they’re lying.” 

Tim Redmond, executive editor of the Bay Guardian, called the cutbacks “tragic, all those reporters, 80 of them, looking for jobs, and there aren’t any. These are people with mortgages, with children in college, with rent to pay.” 

On the other hand, he said, “it’s ridiculous that the virtual monopoly newspaper in this city can’t make money.” 

Redmond said the Chronicle made its biggest mistake when it decided to become a regional newspaper rather than concentrating on San Francisco. As a result, he said, “their market penetration in San Francisco is abysmal. They fought a competitive war they couldn’t win.” 

Chronicle editorial and managment representatives either didn’t return calls for this story or declined to comment on the record. 

While downsizing has become the norm in newsrooms across the nation, most of the recently announced reductions are smaller in scale than Hearst’s. A random sample of recent downsizing in other newsrooms includes: 

• 50 of 383 newsroom workers at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Star-Tribune, announced on May 8. 

• 71 journalists at the Philadelphia Inquirer, 17 percent of that paper’s editorial department. 

• 36 reporters and four editors at the Akron, Ohio, Beacon-Journal, with the cutbacks, announced in August, matching the Chronicle’s one-journalist-in-four level of severity. 

• 80 newsroom workers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, announced as part of a wide-ranging restructuring on Feb. 15. 

Other papers have been gradually cutting back their newsrooms, including the Los Angeles Times, which cut 62 newsroom jobs three years ago and offered buyouts to more last month.  

And if cutbacks aren’t enough, some newspapers are shutting down, including the King County Journal in Kent, Wash., which folded in January, with 40 workers losing their jobs after a buyout and consolidation. 

The decline of print has also hit the magazine sector, with Time Inc. announcing in January plans to eliminate 300 magazine jobs, after axing more than 600 workers last year. 

The week also witnessed the Oakland Tribune’s abandonment of the building it had called home for most of the last century and a move to more industrial quarters near the Building Formerly Known as the Oakland Coliseum. 

While dour is the mood of the day in the Chronicle’s newsroom, Buel and his staffers are smiling at the East Bay Express in Emeryville, following last week’s announcement that Village Voice Media (VVM) had agreed to sell the paper to Buel and a consortium of investors. 

Hal Brody, a former alternative weekly publisher and record industry figure, heads a group of three investors who have a 50 percent stake in the paper, while Buel heads a group of another five which controls the other 50 percent, including Kelly Vance, the paper’s veteran calendar editor and co-founder of the Express. Brody is president of the independent Express, and Buel remains as editor.  

While Buel wouldn’t confirm reports which had the Express alone losing $500,000 every year, but he did say that the previous owner, New Times—which owned the paper outright between 2001 and late 2005 before merging with VVM—“doesn’t do well in places with competition.” There has been no announcement about the fate of the SF Weekly, Village Voice Media’s other Bay Area newspaper, which is rumored to be losing $1 million a year or more. SF Weekly’s main competitor in the San Francisco alternative market is the Bay Guardian. 

“It will be wonderful to be independent again,” said Buel, although the paper will continue to maintain a cooperative advertising sales program with SF Weekly, he said. 

He added, “If you look at the paper in the past year or so, you will see that it has gotten a lot thinner.” The chain does well in places like Denver, Phoenix and Miami, he said, “which are basically suburban markets, which are not competitive. But they didn’t do well here.” 

Now, “out from under the ax of New Times, we will be able to make a much better paper,” Buel said. 

The paper remains the target of a lawsuit about Village Voice Media’s advertising sales practices filed by the Bay Guardian, charging that the chain owners engage in predatory advertising pricing designed to corner the market and drive competitors out of business. 

Buel said the Express will still be a defendant in the suit, but that VVM has assumed all responsibilities for the litigation as part of the sale. 

How much did the new owners pay? Buel isn’t saying, but he did say he’d refinanced his home to help pay the tab. 

What lies ahead? 

“You won’t see a lot of changes right away if you look at the paper,” he said. 

One major change to happen soon will be a return of events listings, currently offered only on the website, to the print paper.  

Buel said the paper will also reorient itself to its previous home turf of Oakland, Berkeley, Albany, Emeryville, Piedmont and environs. New Times/VVM had expanded distribution to all of Alameda and Contra Costa counties.