Another Rough Month for The Mainstream Media

By Richard Brenneman
Wednesday April 01, 2009 - 09:24:00 PM

In 2008, reports Paper Cuts, a weblog that tracks U.S. newspaper closings and staff reductions cost, the country’s papers lost at least 15,859 jobs. 

So it’s an ominous sign for 2009 that cutbacks in the year’s first three months are nearly half of the total for all of last year. (See http://graphicdesignr.net/ papercuts) 

As of early Tuesday afternoon, March 31, the website was reporting at least 7,562 newspaper positions have vanished so far in 2009, a year in which major newsrooms have shut down their presses, including Denver’s Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. And that number had risen by 237 in the previous four hours. 

Another longstanding luminary in the American media constellation has largely abandoned print. The Christian Science Monitor printed its last weekday edition Friday, March 27, and now appears online daily and in print once a month. 

March came in lion-like and has shown no sheepish qualities, mauling media companies by the day. 

In Michigan, the 174-year-old Ann Arbor News announced March 23 that it will cease daily publication and be reincarnated under a new corporate ownership as a twice-weekly paper with a daily online presence. 

Reporters and other employees of the New York Times learned March 25 that they would either have to take a 5 percent across-the-board pay cut and 10 days of unpaid leave or face up to 70 newsroom layoffs. 

That was on top of 100 business operations workers who were handed their pink slips as the same time, and not counting the 2008 total payroll reductions of 1,364 positions, according to a story in the paper’s March 26 edition. 

One major reason for the layoffs was made clear in an announcement that same day from the Newspaper Association of America, which cited a 20.6 percent drop in advertising revenues for the fourth quarter of 2008 compared with the same period a year earlier.  

The ensuing layoffs have struck at more than 300 papers so far this year, with the 2009 total of publications certain to top the 428 chalked up by Paper Cuts last year. 

Between last year and this, the blog also counts more than 120 newspapers which have vanished, or like the San Francisco-based AsianWeek, migrated to an online-only existence. 

Closer to home, MediaNews, the corporate parent of most Bay Area newspapers, won major concessions from its newsroom unions in March, with layoffs, mandatory unpaid leave and pay concessions all thrown into the mix. 

The Media Workers Guild also announced March 24 that it had agreed to drop plans for a merger of the union’s East Bay chapter with the San Jose unit, a move which would have given the union greater bargaining power and restored a separation the chain had won after it bought the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times and unseated the union’s East Bay membership. 

The privately held, Denver-based company also won agreement from Moody’s, a bond rating service, to stop listing MediaNews bond issues, which Moody’s had just downgraded to a lower status on the junk scale. 

A large chuck of the junk-rated paper is held by the Bay Area’s other major publisher, Hearst, which is also privately held. 

The Hearst Corporation has also won similar concessions from employees to those won by publisher Dean Singleton for his own Bay Area papers—which include the Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Alameda Times-Star, Fremont Argus, Hayward Daily Review, Marin Independent Journal, Milpitas Post, Vallejo Times-Herald and the Pleasanton Tri-Valley Herald. 

The Hearst employee concessions, approved by Media Guild members in a March 13 vote, followed the company’s repeated threats to close the paper unless unions knuckled under. 

The Bloomberg news service reported Tuesday that 120 San Francisco Chronicle employees have accepted buyouts in the latest round of layoffs, and KTVU reports that the paper’s editorial cartoonist, Tom Meyer, and Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kim Komenich, both bought buyouts. 

The media mayhem hasn’t been restricted to the mainstream media. 

In California, the crisis has brought about the March 26 closing of Los Angeles CityBeat, a respected alternative weekly. 

Additionally, during 2008 at least 10 California newspapers reduced the number of days they print and distribute editions each week, according to a March 29 Associated Press story. 

Both the San Mateo Daily News and the Palo Alto Daily News dropped one printing day a week, while the San Francisco Examiner cut back free home delivery days to twice a week while still replenishing news racks with daily editions. 

The Mercury News is also following suit—at least in part—by eliminating all but Sunday delivery to subscribers in San Francisco and other communities outside the metropolitan San Jose area. 

Sunday papers will still be delivered, and subscribers can sign up for paid online-only subscriptions to the daily edition. 

According to a letter from the paper’s circulation department mailed to subscribers in the affected areas, “Economic factors force us to focus our delivery resources on our local market, so this change is being made on all subscription deliveries in this region.” 

Online access to the paper’s website may retreat behind a pay wall, the letter indicates, apparently reversing the paper’s May 18, 1998, announcement of free Internet access for all. The paper had previously restricted access to paid subscribers. 

California’s largest newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, is one of the two major stars in the Tribune Company’s newspaper constellation. The chain is based in Chicago and named for the flagship Chicago Tribune. 

The company, controlled by real estate magnate Sam Zell—who is also Berkeley’s biggest landlord—had filed for bankruptcy in December. Now its major Chicago rival, Sun-Times Media Group, has taken the same course, filing in Delaware bankruptcy court Tuesday, March 31. 

Nationally, the news for print papers isn’t good, with Rasmussen Reports polling results released March 4 finding that only 30 percent of U.S. adults read a newspaper daily, and only 8 percent read newspapers online on a daily basis. 

The woes of print media are reflected in a decline in the sales of newsprint, which dropped 14 percent overall last year, the New York Times reported March 20.  

According to an April 1 Bloomberg story, AbitibiBowater Inc., North America’s largest newsprint supplier, is struggling and may be forced to seek the protection of bankruptcy court, queueing up with many of their largest customers.