News Analysis: 2008 Proved a Dismal Year for an Ailing Fourth Estate

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday January 07, 2009 - 06:27:00 PM

“... were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” 

—Thomas Jefferson, 1787 


For journalists and devotees of the printed page, 2008 proved nothing short of a catastrophe. A tsunami of downsizings, layoffs, bankruptcies and closures devastated an industry already reeling from the loss of advertising revenues and declining circulation as it struggled to come to grips with a brave new media world in which readers were rapidly migrating from print to pixels. 

For investors, news was equally bad, with newspaper stocks leading the avalanche that was the market collapse, dropping by an average of 83 percent in the year just ended. 

Reporters were laid off, editorial cartoonists eliminated, critics canned and local news truncated. 

And 2008 was also the year that Detroit became the first major American city without daily home newspaper delivery since before the Civil War, a reflection, perhaps, of the catastrophe that has befallen the once vital automobile industry, once Motown’s and the nation’s economic engine. 

With the smoke still rising from the ruins, the view for a reporter who started in the craft 42 years ago was appalling. 



The San Francisco Bay Area was especially hard hit, as California’s largest newspaper publisher, MediaNews owner Dean Singleton, ruthlessly downsized his Bay Area News Group (BANG), gutting the staffs of papers from Marin County in the North to San Jose in the south and east as far as Woodland. 

One of Singleton’s key moves after taking control of the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times in 2006 was busting the Media Workers Guild by incorporating the non-union Contra Costa paper into a new group he called BANG-EB, with the last two initials standing for East Bay. 

Though the subsequent downsizings and staff shiftings helped guild activists win a new union vote that incorporated all the BANG-EB papers, the guild couldn’t stop the downsizings. Nor could the union block the lump of coal Singleton dropped into this year’s Christmas stockings, the announcement that the company was skipping its annual 401k pension contribution. 

Word of a coming new wave of downsizings swept the BANG newsrooms in December, and the guild offered members a workshop on how to cope with life after the newsroom. 

Meanwhile, MediaNews is struggling, with the privately held company’s bonds recently downgraded to junk status. That in turn means bad news for the Hearst Corporation, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle and holder of a 31 percent ownership interest in BANG. 

Meanwhile, similar downsizings are under way in the Los Angeles basin, where Singleton has cornered the market on local papers in LANG, the Los Angeles News Group, leaving the downsized and now bankrupt Tribune Company’s Los Angeles Times its only major rival. 

Singleton is now California’s largest newspaper publisher, his figures towering over those for both Hearst and the Tribune Company. The state’s other major newspaper publisher, San Diego-based Copley, is now for sale and Singleton has been named as a potential buyer. 

One consequence of the consolidation is diminished coverage of local events. 


Dwindling coverage 

With the start of the new year, among the dwindling number of papers regularly covering the Berkeley beat, only the Daily Planet retained the same size newsroom staff as it had in the summer of 2003, though one reporting position added in the interim has been eliminated. The rest of the papers are functioning on reduced staffing, nearly 50 percent at the San Francisco Chronicle and even more in some of Singleton’s newsrooms. 

Local events that once drew reporters from the Oakland Tribune, Costa Costa Times, and—briefly—the East Bay Daily News, and occasionally the San Francisco Chronicle are nowadays often left to the Daily Planet to cover as it has been doing all along. 

And where BANG-EB appears, only one reporter usually files a story, leaving readers a much narrower range of perspectives on critical events in their communities. 

Another consequence of the print collapse is the loss of experienced reporters, with companies eager to push out higher-paid older reporters with their bigger salaries, longer vacations and heftier pensions. 

At the Los Angeles Times, the average age of vanished workers was 50, meaning that those journalists with the greatest experience and most wide-ranging perspective were nudged out the door. Some, undoubtedly, were examples of the dead wood that accumulates in any organization over time, but the Times lost some of its best and brightest. 

To quote from the Tell Zell blog briefly operated by Times journalists, “you were five times more likely to be laid off if you were 55 than if you were 25.” A full list of those layoffs is available at the blog, www.tellzell.com/2008/08/ doing-numbers.html. 

The blog itself went silent after executives made it known that dire consequences would follow should they be able to connect reporters and editors with creating the site, and nothing new has appeared on it since September. 


San Diego County 

Further to the south, in San Diego County, the newspaper landscape has been redrawn even more dramatically. 

I came to California in 1968, hired by the Oceanside Blade-Tribune to cover the City of Carlsbad immediately to the south. 

Though Carlsbad was a small town in those days, the city’s planning commission meetings were regularly attended by reporters from three to six papers, including the Carlsbad Journal, the San Diego Union, the San Diego Evening Tribune, the Vista Press, the San Dieguito Citizen, and even, on occasion, the Los Angeles Times, which briefly published a San Diego edition. 

My own paper’s coverage area also included the turf occupied by the Fallbrook Enterprise, the Escondido Times Advocate and a few smaller weeklies. 

Today the Vista, Oceanside, Carlsbad, Escondido, and San Dieguito Papers are gone, most of them folded into the North County Times, and the San Diego Union and Tribune have merged into a single paper. 

The North County Times itself has been hit by the downsizing tsunami, most recently by a 20 percent newsroom reduction in November. Shares of the parent company, Lee Enterprises of Davenport, Iowa, collapsed in 2008, dropping by 99 percent. 


Santa Monica 

After Oceanside, my next California paper was the Santa Monica Evening Outlook, where I covered courts. It was a great newspaper, run by two brothers who loved the business. 

The Outlook is long gone, swallowed up by Copley in 1983 and then folded after 123 years of publication on March 13, 1998, the same day Copley folded the nearby San Pedro News-Pilot. 

Also gone is the Outlook’s then-chief rival, the Westside zone edition of the Los Angeles Times, along with a host of other local papers in the Los Angeles basin. Most of the survivors are now owned by the same Dean Singleton who owns most of the Bay Area’s papers. 

The L.A. Times itself has since been twice sold, most recently to Sam Zell, who made his fortune on apartments and whose Tribune Company, which owns the Times, the Chicago Tribune and a host of other papers, was forced into bankruptcy last month. 

(Zell is also Berkeley’s biggest private landlord, his Equity Residential now owning the downtown apartment buildings built by Patrick Kennedy and David Teece.) 


Vanished memory 

The death of the Outlook, Blade-Tribune and other papers typically means the extinction of their websites as well. With the demise of the newspapers I once worked for, all of the stories I wrote have fallen into a sort of cosmic void. 

Run a Google search for the Blade Tribune, and you find scattered references, while references to the Vista Press (died 1995), Carlsbad Journal and San Dieguito Citizen are almost non-existent. The North County Times, their successor, offers online archive access only going back five years. 

Thus reporting done by the hundreds of journalists who worked at those papers over the years has no presence on the web, relegating the vital histories of the communities they covered to the scratched, dusty and often incomplete microfilmed archives resting in a handful of cash-strapped public libraries where the machines to read them may or may not be broken. 

As Nicholson Baker noted in Doublefold, his book on the systematic pulping of bound newspaper editions in local libraries and the Library of Congress, many of the microfilmed replacements are incomplete, and even those that are chronologically intact were improperly photographed with page edges truncated, losing sections of words. 

The same is true for the Santa Monica paper. In writing a story about Berkeley housing four years ago, I called a Santa Monica city official, and mentioned during the course of our conversation that back in the mid-century, a pair of urban renewal projects which had been targeted to clear out that city’s African American and working-class Jewish population had created the very conditions that led to the rise of the political machine headed by Tom Hayden and Ruth Yanatta Goldway and culminated in a rent control referendum and a City Council takeover. 

“I wasn’t aware of that,” said the official, who considered himself an expert on the city’s past. I sent him copies of a series I had written on that critical period in local history, and later received a letter of appreciation. 

He wouldn’t have found the stories online, nor in the library, except for an issue-by-issue search, since no index exists. 


What next? 

While Jefferson was born long before the age of the “netizen,” I have mixed feelings about the Internet as a successor to the role newspapers once played. 

Granted that the much-reviled MSM often failed in their duties to keep the citizens informed of critical events or biased their coverage of what they did cover behind the often-vacuous mantle of “objectivity,” yet they still supplied a community forum where a wider range of perspectives could appear than is on offer at a typical website. 

All too often, Internet sites are so focused on a single perspective that consideration of other approaches is reduced to invective, scorn and ridicule, stripped of all semblance of civility. 

Then, too, the imposition of the National Security State has created an unprecedented level of hatred of the press among some officials, with the greatest hatred directed at those with cameras. 

Perhaps sparked by the video of Los Angeles police beating the hapless Rodney King, police across the country are targeting journalists and citizens with cameras. 

Sites such as War on Photography (http:// nycphotorights.com/wordpress/), Photography is Not a Crime (http://carlosmiller.com/) and Schmuck Alert (www.schmuckalertcentral.blogspot.com/) regularly post stories about the harassment of journalists and citizens with cameras. 

The big problem for newspapers is figuring out their new incarnation, either on paper or online, in a way that can support reporters with the time and money needed to dig beyond surface impressions. 

The first casualty of downsizing is always investigation, the one thing that justifies journalism in the first place. 

Websites generally don’t have the money to support, say, a six-month dig into allegations of political corruption, and it’s questionable how fitting long-form reporting is for the LCD screen. 

Meanwhile, will anyone have time to read a newspaper? And if they do, will it be simply to reinforce existing prejudices? Just look at the comments readers append to any Oakland crime story on the Chronicle’s website to see reasons for concern. 

As Harvard’s Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated (www.youtube.com), the American middle class has been progressively destroyed, with two-income families replacing the single-earner households that accompanied the peak of the American press in the 1950s. 

With the average American laboring more hours per week than her counterparts in any of the other industrialized democracies, will anyone have time to read a paper? 

Or will we be relegated to the realm of the sound bite and screen blurb, increasingly seeking refuge from the bad news around us in the diversions of the tube, the iPod and the Xbox? 

At the end, after 44 years in journalism, I have many more questions than I do answers.