More Bad News for East Bay, Los Angeles Journalists

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 04, 2009 - 06:42:00 PM

The downward spiral of West Coast newspapers continues, with most East Bay reporters now scrambling to figure out just when to take an unpaid week off. 

Workers at all the newspapers in Dean Singleton’s Bay Area News Group-East Bay (BANG-EB) will be taking the unpaid leave over the next two months. 

Sara Steffens, chair of the California Media Workers Guild bargaining unit negotiating for a new contract with BANG-EB, told members the union had agreed to the company proposal, “hoping to help avoid further layoffs.” 

Furloughs will also be required at the San Jose Mercury News and the Monterey Herald, which are not part of the BANG-EB group. 

Singleton’s MediaNews Group, parent of BANG and the similarly structured Los Angeles News Group as well as other newspapers in the West and Northeast, is struggling with the same catastrophic declines in advertising revenues as the rest of the news business. 

His chain rings the bay, from Marin County on the north to Monterey County on the South, and from San Jose to Woodland. 

Since acquiring the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News, Singleton has become the state’s leading newspaper magnate, controlling the largest single group of subscriptions in the state. 

The state’s number two media mogul, Chicago real estate billionaire Sam Zell, owns the Los Angeles Times. His Equity Residential real estate firm also owns the largest single group of non-university residential units in the City of Berkeley. 

Zell’s apartment company reported Wednesday a rare loss for the fourth quarter of 2008, taking a 13-cent-a-share hit. Earnings for the full year totaled $2.18 a share, down from $2.39 in 2007. 

While both Singleton and Zell have laid off about half their California reporting staffs, Zell has raised the stakes to a new level with a company-wide order that penalizes grumpiness on salary reviews, a move that has roused media bloggers to new heights of ridicule. 

“New Job Performance Requirement: Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” headlined Business Week blogger Cathy Arnst. 

“We believe a positive attitude is crucial to our changing culture and all that must be accomplished for our company to be successful,” declared a company-wide memo announcing the change. 

Arnst captured some of the mockery at her blog, as did Newspaper Death Watch, a blog which reported one notable comment: “The beatings will continue until the morale improves.” 

“I don't have to work at the Tribune to know how journalists there felt as they read this. Winnecke’s memo is an offense to their self-regard as grownups,” said Chicago Reader blogger Dilbert at the Trib. 

The popular celebrity culture blog The Gawker dubbed Winnecke’s epistle “what may be, without exaggeration, the single most stupid internal memo ever sent to a newspaper staff.” 

The controversial memo came 10 days before the announcement from Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein that the paper was laying off 300 more workers, 70 of them from the Times’ already severely diminished newsroom. 

That brings the news staff down to less than half of what it had been when Zell bought the Times, according to LA Observed, a popular blog covering media and politics in California’s Southland. 

At the same time, the Times announced it was killing its popular local news section, integrating the local news with the world and national stories in the front section, a move that sent shockwaves through the Los Angeles political and media communities.