Bad News Continues In the News Biz

By Richard Brenneman
Thursday July 17, 2008 - 09:42:00 AM

It’s been a bad news month for American journalism, starting with layoffs of East Bay journalists. 

In the wake of 29 layoffs at Dean Singleton’s Bay Area News Group-East Bay (BANG-EB), the Media Workers Guild has brought legal action charging that the dismissals targeted union activists who successfully battled to win recognition for their local. 

Sara Steffens, chair of the new guild bargaining unit, was herself laid off as one of the 29 editorial staff members who lost their jobs through dismissal or voluntary buyouts. 

In a Tuesday e-mail to union members, Steffens said the Guild had filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board alleging that: 

• Layoffs targeted employees who were active in union organizing efforts, 

• Management discounted merit raises without bargaining with the Guild and “in retaliation for union activities, and 

• Laid-off workers were asked to waive their federal labor law rights in order to receive a company severance package. 

One of Singleton’s first moves when he took over the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News in August 2006 was to form BANG-EB, which combined his unionized East Bay holdings with the non-union Contra Costa Times. 

By that action he was able to create a new combined working force with a non-union majority. Decertification of the Media Guild local soon followed. 

Steffens and other union activists soon began organizing and won recognition when a slim majority of BANG-EB editorial employees voted to unionize on June 13. Two weeks later, BANG-EB announced that 29 editorial workers would lose their jobs July 11. 


Bad news 

Further south, Berkeley’s biggest corporate landlord was shedding reporters at a newspaper of his own, the Los Angeles Times. 

Chicago real estate mogul Sam Zell, whose Equity Residential bought out local developer Patrick Kennedy’s Berkeley apartment buildings, also bought out the ailing Tribune Co., a national chain with holdings that include the flagship Chicago Tribune and the L.A. Times. 

Zell’s takeover of the ailing company hasn’t stopped its hemorrhaging of cash and employees, witnessed by the events in Los Angeles this week on a day employees have dubbed “Black Monday.” 

A reported 150 Times journalists lost their jobs, a figure that doesn’t include publisher David Hillier, who was also given the boot out of the executive suite’s revolving door. 

Similar decimations are taking place across Zell’s media empire, coupled with newspaper redesigns marked by shorter stories and bigger, flashier graphics and fewer sections. 

The most ominous numbers, though, come from Wall Street, which former San Francisco Chronicle editor turned “New Media” venture capitalist Alan D. Mutter has been tracking on his blog, Reflections of a Newsosaur (http://newsosaur.blogspot.com/). 

In an entry Wednesday morning, Mutter reports, “In a historic rout, newspaper shares have lost nearly $4 billion in value in the first 10 trading days of July, an amount greater than the combined market capitalization of all but the three largest publicly held publishing companies.” 

One of the biggest hits has been taken by the Sacramento-based McClatchy chain, which had bought the ailing Knight-Ridder chain, which included both the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. 

McClatchy quickly sold the Bay Area papers to Singleton’s MediaNews Group, which already owned the Oakland Tribune, Fremont Argus and several other regional papers. 

All told, since Dec. 31, 2004, Mutter reports, the worth of McClatchy shares has plummeted from $5.7 billion to $387 million as of Wednesday morning, a decline of 93 percent. 

Even the venerable New York Times Co. has plunged 67 percent from year’s end in 2004, from $5.6 billion to $1.85 billion.