Union Vote Set for Bay Area Newspapers

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday June 05, 2008 - 10:02:00 AM

Media mogul Dean Singleton’s union-busting moves at his Bay Area newspapers have hit a major roadblock—a regional unionization vote scheduled for next month. 

With two-thirds of potential members signing cards declaring their intent to go union, “we have a clear majority,” said Carl Hall, the San Francisco Chronicle science reporter who has taken leave from his job to head the campaign for the Media Workers Guild. 

The June 13 vote will come 11 months after MediaNews Group (www.medianewsgroup.com) withdrew recognition from union contracts at the Oakland Tribune and four other East Bay newspapers. 

Guild organizers and potential members gathered May 31 at Live Oak Park in Berkeley for a barbecue and to rally in support of the campaign in the run-up to the election. Members of the Teamsters were on hand to offer both support and donuts. 

Singleton, a Texas-born journalist turned media magnate, has cornered the market in suburban papers in the state’s two major media markets, the Bay Area News Group in the north and the Los Angeles News Group to the south—BANG and LANG. 

Holdings of Singleton’s MediaNews Group reach across the country, stretching from Vermont to California, with his newspapers claiming a combined daily circulation of 2.6 million, with 2.9 million on Sundays. 

His Bay Area papers include the Alameda Times-Star, Fremont Argus, Hayward Daily Review, the Contra Costa Times, the Marin Independent Journal, the Milpitas Post, the Oakland Tribune, the San Jose Mercury News, the Vallejo Times-Herald, the Pleasanton Tri-Valley Herald and the former Hills chain of community weeklies, the Albany-El Cerrito Journal, the Montclarion and the Berkeley Voice. 

Singleton acquired his Bay Area holdings from different owners, starting in 1986, with the purchase of the chain that owned the Hayward, Fremont and Pleasanton papers.  

He bought the Oakland Tribune in 1992, and he bought his largest local papers—the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News—on Aug. 2, 2006, from Sacramento-based McClatchy Co., which had needed to sell them off to cover the cost of other papers it had purchased when buying out the assets of the previous owner, Knight-Ridder. 

His latest regional acquisition was the Santa Cruz Sentinel on Feb. 2, 2007. Five months later, the Sentinel’s editorial offices left Santa Cruz for Scotts Valley, the end of a 150-year presence in the city center. Three months later the company closed its Santa Cruz pressroom and began printing at the Mercury News. 

A similar move on May 20, 2007, took the Oakland Tribune newsroom from its landmark downtown tower to Airport Corporate Center on Oakport Street near the sports edifice formerly known as the Oakland Coliseum.  

MediaNews runs BANG, LANG and its other California companies as a division called the California Newspaper Partnership. Former Knight-Ridder executive Steven Rossi was name group CEO earlier this year. Rossi had been president of Knight-Ridder’s newspaper division prior to the company’s sale.  

Unlike most media conglomerates, MediaNews isn’t a publicly traded company, and on April 9 corporate Chief Financial Officer Ronald A. Mayo filed notice with the Securities and Exchange Commission that the company would no longer make public financial filings with the agency. 

Singleton has acquired the reputation of being a ruthless manager, and he pink-slipped workers at his earlier regional buys, rehiring some of the workers but invariably reducing his workforce in the process and eliminating seniority. 

According to the Sacramento Business Journal, MediaNews outsourced customer service operations to Philippine call centers last month for the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times. 

Singleton’s market corner is weakest in the Bay Area’s two major university towns, Palo Alto and Berkeley, where rival papers continue to be published and a new one is being launched. 

His East Bay Daily News, which covered Berkeley for a while, has folded, and its counterpart across the bay, the Palo Alto Daily News (PADN), is facing new competition. 

According to a blogger and former newsman-turned-corporate executive and investor, a new paper is being launched there this week, the Palo Alto Daily Post, by Jim Pavelich and Dave Price. [See http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/2008/05/newspaper-war-in-silicon-valley.html] 

Pavelich and Price are no strangers to the region’s media wars. The duo founded the Palo Alto Daily News, which they sold three years ago to Knight-Ridder along with four companion publications. That chain then added the East Bay Daily News, and their creations were sold to Singleton when he bought out the area Knight-Ridder papers from McClatchy. 

In addition to the new daily, which a Sunday PADN posting called the “brazenly named Palo Alto Daily Post,” the community is home to a third paper, the Palo Alto Weekly. 

A look at www.paloaltodailypost.com website Wednesday carried this message: “This domain was recently registered at namecheap.com. The domain owner may currently be creating a great site for this domain. Please check again later!” 

The former Hills Newspapers, acquired by the Contra Costa Times chain and re-sold to Media News, are community weeklies distributed free on the west side of the East Bay hills. They reprint many stories from the other Singleton papers, although they have different names and there’s a page or so of local coverage in each paper. 

The Planet is now the only independently-owned newspaper covering Berkeley on a regular basis. Two alternative weeklies, the San Francisco Bay Guardian and the East Bay Express, also offer occasional Berkeley news. 

Busting labor 

The Contra Costa Times, unlike the Mercury-News, wasn’t a union shop, and on July 26, 2007, the newly purchased papers were combined with Singleton’s other holdings to form BANG-EB (for East Bay). 

The five Alameda County papers had all been part of the ANG papers, and workers were covered under a union contract. But with the addition of the Contra Costa Times and its affiliated papers, suddenly the new group had a non-union workforce majority. 

“He didn’t include the Mercury News, which has a union contract and would have given the group a union majority,” Hall said. 

The other shoe dropped three weeks later, when, on Aug. 13, MediaNews Group announced it was withdrawing recognition of the Northern California Media Workers Guild [http://mediaworkers.org/] at the five BANG-EB papers where it had contracts: the Tribune, the Argus, the Daily Review, the San Mateo County Times and the Tri-Valley Herald. 

That same week, the union filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board, charging that the withdrawal of recognition violated federal labor law, and one week after the withdrawal, the national union announced it was funding an organizing campaign targeting all the BANG-EB papers. They call it One Big BANG. [see http://onebigbang.org/] 

The national Media Workers Guild is bankrolling the campaign with $500,000, which Hall is coordinating with the help of two paid staffers and three organizers who report for Singleton’s East Bay papers.  

Together with the Contra Costa Times, the BANG-EB group has a combined circulation of 334,274 on weekdays and 349,758 on Sunday, according to the MediaNews web site, which uses figures as of March 31, 2007. 

Adding in the Mercury-News, Independent Journal, Vallejo Times-Herald and Santa Cruz Sentinel, the combined circulations of Singleton’s Bay Area papers total 647,761 on weekdays and 678,948 on weekends. 

Declining circulation figures have devastated Bay Area newsrooms, and news holes—the amount of print space devoted to stories and photo coverage of events—have steadily dwindled as readers turn away from print in the hand to pixels on the screen. 

The April 4 edition of Editor & Publisher, the industry’s leading trade publication, reports that the region’s other major publication, Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle, has an audited weekday circulation of 370,345 and 424,603 on Sundays—though the newspaper’s own website feature “About the San Francisco Chronicle” still reports the figures for September 2002, when average daily circulation was 512,129 and 539,563 on Sundays. [www.sfchron.com/about/index.php] 

The same Chronicle web page that reports the six-year-old circulation figures also declares that the paper has “an editorial staff of over 500 reporters,” though a series of buyouts and unfilled positions has brought the numbers down to about 300. One downsizing last year cut 100 newsroom jobs. 

Total readership nationally hit the lowest level since the 1946. 

Another take on the union struggle at Singleton’s papers is here: 


And for more on media layoffs nationally, see Papercuts, a blog that tracks downsizings [http://graphicdesignr.net/papercuts/] 


Bread, wed 

On other local media newsfronts, one paper is a lot richer and gay times are ahead for another. 

The San Francisco Bay Guardian may be getting more than twice the cash a jury awarded in the paper’s lawsuit against SF Weekly and Village Voice Media. 

Finding that SF Weekly display advertising rates had been priced below cost to cripple the Guardian, jurors had awarded the paper $6.3 million. The higher figure set by San Francisco County Superior Court Judge Maria J. Miller adds interest costs to the award. 

She also barred the Village Voice Media paper from selling ads below cost unless it could prove the rates were not aimed at undercutting the Guardian. 

Another alternative weekly that once belong to VVM has found a unique way to celebrate the state Supreme Court ruling that overturned a voter-passed ban on gay marriages. 

The East Bay Express, now an independent, will be hosting a pair of “Wedding Wednesdays” June 25 and July 2 that will feature a dozen matrimonials each for same-sex couples—and they’re even throwing in the support of a wedding planner. 

“The twelve couples selected will receive a wedding ceremony, catered reception, honeymoon prize packages, professional photos, a published wedding announcement, and local media publicity,” declared a press release from publisher Jody Colley. “This is a fun, unique marriage alternative to City Hall, and is our newspaper’s way of sharing in this historic celebration.”