Chronicle Closure Threat Caps a Bad Week for Newspapers

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday February 25, 2009 - 08:01:00 PM

The San Francisco Chronicle has joined the ranks of potential newspaper casualties as the devastation of the nation’s print media continues to unfold. 

The Hearst Corporation warned Tuesday that closure might follow if unions don’t agree to major concessions, a move that would leave one of the nation’s most famous cities without a daily home-delivery newspaper. 

The privately held company announced Tuesday that absent “significant” staff cuts, “across the entire Chronicle organization, we will have no choice but to quickly seek a buyer for the Chronicle, and, should a buyer not be found, to shut down the newspaper.” 

Journalism blogger, former Chronicle executive and former Daily Planet board member Allen Mutter reports that, if the paper gets the cuts it wants, the move could eliminate up to 47 percent of the paper’s staff, though cuts in other areas would likely mean an even smaller staff total. 

Hearst is already engaged in shedding another link in its media chain, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, vowing to sell or close the award-winning publication next month.  

Should the Chronicle close, San Francisco would become the first major U.S. city without a general circulation subscription paper. 

The past seven days have been traumatic for the print press, already reeling from unprecedented financial and job losses last year. 

The owners of the Philadelphia Daily News announced they were seeing bankruptcy for the paper, once a member of the late Knight-Ridder chain. Sacramento-based McClatchy Newspapers purchased the chain, keeping some of its papers and selling others—including the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times—to help cover the costs of the purchase. 

Among the buyers of the Philadephia paper was one of the nation’s leading developers, Bruce Toll of Toll Brothers, a home-builder, which announced last week that it would provide six-month mortgage protection for buyers who lost their jobs. 

Meanwhile, the Bay Area’s other dominant newspaper owner, MediaNews, announced that it was withdrawing its lead Southern California newspaper from head-to-head competition with the Los Angeles Times. The Los Angeles Daily News will revert to a role it had abandoned three decades ago and retreat to its original home base in the San Fernando Valley, where it had begun as the Valley News and Green Sheet, a free paper, before its sale to a succession of owners, including, for a time, the Chicago-based Tribune Co.—current publishers of the Los Angeles Times. 

At the same time, the Daily News moved its news desk to West Covina, consolidating operations with other editors in the Los Angeles News Group, owner Dean Singleton’s counterpart to his northern California Bay Area News Group. 

Hearst’s fortunes are also partly tied to MediaNews, the owners of the largest single block of newspapers in California, dominating the markets surrounding the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst put up about $300 million to help Singleton buy the two Bay Area papers from McClatchy. 

Rumors have already been floating about a possible sale of the Chronicle to MediaNews, but urban dailies are currently a drag on the market. No one has bought the San Diego Union-Tribune (though Singleton reportedly talked with the owners), Hearst’s Seattle paper remains without a buyer, and there have been no takers for Denver’s ailing Rocky Mountain News. The latter two papers will close unless financial angels intervene. 

In Los Angeles, the Times itself is engaged in its own version of retrenching. Having already gone through a controversial redesign that ended its local news section, it is now going through yet another round of staff reductions, losing 14 writers and editors last Thursday. 

Controlled by Denver media mogul Dean Singleton, MediaNews owns both the Los Angeles News Group (LANG) and BANG, its Bay Area counterpart. 

After buying the two McClatchy papers, Singleton sliced off his East Bay holdings into a separate BANG-EB (East Bay), which enabled the company to end the Media Workers Guild representation in the East Bay, thanks to the majority of non-union workers at the Contra Costa paper. 

But the whole rationale of the move was lost when BANG-EB workers voted last year to unionize. On Wedndesday came an announcement from the guild that the company has agreed to talks aimed at merging the East Bay bargaining unit with the long-unionized Mercury News.  

The week also brought another chain to the shelter of bankruptcy court, the Journal Register Co., which owns 20 dailies in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Michigan. 

Another bit of bad news surfaced Tuesday when publisher A.H. Belo announced layoffs of about 100 workers at its Providence Journal, Rhode Island’s largest newspaper. 

Those cuts are part of the 500-job quota the chain had announced in January that it planned to eliminate. 

The print meltdown isn’t restricted to American shores. In England, the venerable Financial Times announced that it planned to cut editorial costs through a voluntary program, offering a three-day workweek and other options for working less over the summer.  

Meanwhile, the Berkeley Daily Planet is losing newsroom positions through attrition. A reporter who resigned in September was not replaced, and Managing Editor Michael Howerton is leaving to become assistant managing editor of the San Francisco Examiner.