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Aug. 25, 2011, 10 a.m.

The newsonomics of loss

It’s not just newspaper employees who suffer when a newspaper dies, as is happening to MediaNews’ papers in the Bay Area. It’s a loss felt across the community.

Editor’s Note: Each week, Ken Doctor — author of Newsonomics and longtime watcher of the business side of digital news — writes about the economics of news for the Lab.

The Bay Area News Group’s announcement Tuesday caused a few ripples, and some head-scratching. “About 120 lose jobs in Bay Area News Group re-branding, streamlining,” read Poynter.

Hadn’t we read that story before? Didn’t MediaNews already reorganize its Bay Area papers? Hadn’t it cut lots of jobs? Didn’t it change its circulation reporting methodology to get one big number for readership — and ad sales? Yes, yes, and yes, plus a litany of other related re-orgs that may have confused us.

In short, Bay Area News Group (BANG), which has had 15 separate titles, announced it was combining 10 of those titles into two new ones (the East Bay Tribune and the Times), closing a printing plant and gaining other production efficiencies. Gone into history will be such titles as the Oakland Tribune, the San Mateo County Times, and Contra Costa Times, along with another 8 percent of the overall workforce — or another 120 or so jobs, 48 in newsrooms.

It’s one sad tale of decline, further decline, and then more. MediaNews’ experience isn’t unlike that of many of its brethren; it just offers a breathtaking vista of newspaper loss — and reader loss. I, too, was inured when I first saw the news break, and a bit confused about what was new news and what was old news. Then, yesterday, Bay Area public radio station KQED’s Forum with Michael Krasny did an hour on the massive new changes, and asked me to participate, along with David Weir (associated with Salon, the Center for Investigative Reporting, and now 7×7), and Newsosaur analyst Alan Mutter.

We heard from a number of callers. A few shared concerns about the news emergency. Some were willing to pay for news; others were devout advocates of the church of free news. One call, though, stayed with me.

A woman named Laurie called, saying she was court-appointed conservator. She talked about elder abuse.

Two colleagues and I have been working for 15 years on a very elaborate scam by a couple of individuals, and they’ve taken hundreds of thousands of dollars, homes and cars; it’s very complex…The news is our last great hope for justice for these elders. The Adult Protective Services has been cut. The two detectives we’ve worked with are being laid off. The DA’s office is too strapped. We’ve been working with a reporter, to get in front of people to show the outrage. The crime just goes on and to see the newspapers get cut back is really hard.

This is loss.

It’s a breakdown in which the press is both cause, given its weakness and lesser ability to call attention to such outrage, and a victim of collateral tech-driven damage. We live in a society that knows how to measure lots of things financially, but less and less non-financially. Sophisticated metrics tell us how well we’re doing with hard value and throw up their hands at things that can’t be measured but are deeply felt.

It isn’t simply the sad loss of middle-class journalism jobs, as lamentable as that is, just as so many other good jobs that have disappeared in recent years. It’s a community loss, and points to the wider impact of news cuts on the society in which we live. That’s often forgotten as we focus too narrow on industry loss.

The Bay Area News Group cutback, in fact, reflects much of what we are coming to miss. So let’s look briefly at this newsonomics of loss, a function of our times, even as much is being rebuilt — and gained — at the same time:

  • Identity: The soon-to-departed (in November) Oakland Tribune is 137 years old. It will be subsumed under the East Bay Tribune nameplate. The East Bay Tribune will stretch from Oakland south to Fremont, a stretch of 27 miles and at least 1.5 million people, many of whom don’t feel connected to the geography Media News now asserts. Newspapers are all about community identity; they have both reflected it and provided rallying symbols of it. Business efficiencies may argue for “East Bay,” but readers’ senses of what’s local are something else again. With this decision, Oakland, for one, has lost something of itself.

    Dori Maynard, president of the Maynard Institute, and daughter of Robert Maynard, who revived the Oakland Tribune before selling it in 1992 to MediaNews, summed it well this week: “It was a newspaper that you had to read and people took pride in reading….My father died knowing that Oakland had a newspaper and that was really important to him……[Former MediaNews CEO Dean] Singleton kept it going for a long time.” (For a contrarian view of how MediaNews damaged the Maynard legacy, check out Zennie Abraham’s SFGate post.)

  • Reporting: Most of the jobs cut in this re-org are on the production and printing side of the business as BANG closes one of its four regional printing plants. However, 48 jobs are being cut from the East Bay newsrooms, about a quarter of the unionized editorial workforce, and that’s got to affect news-gathering. The company has already moved regional production from San Jose to Walnut Creek, to take advantage of a lower-cost union contract. Like most companies, Gannett and Tribune among them, MediaNews is templatizing as many sections (common business and tech sections, for instance) and pages as it can, cutting out production and design, while trying to preserve reporting. Yet, the reporting loss already has been huge, with the best estimates saying that newsroom size of the Bay Area papers overall has been cut in half over the last 10 years. That’s hundreds of reporting jobs, with the once-Top 10 Mercury News now operating in a semi-empty building.

    How much of the reporting that does see the light of day will be “local”? Each of the new consolidated titles — the East Bay Tribune and the Times — will have single metro sections. That means what’s local to reader won’t really be local to another. Regional, while valuable, isn’t local, and in fact, has seemed to be a hindrance to metro papers as they try to find some footing in the increasingly digital news reading world. Is MediaNews’ move here a smart one, or one that makes its new titles even less vital of a read for its audience?

    How many elder abuse-like stories never see the light of day? How many corruptions, large and small, are unfound? We don’t know; we don’t know what we don’t know.

  • Community leadership: Many chains are cutting their executive costs by combining publisher and ad director positions, with the actual duties concentrated on the ad (revenue-producing) side. Both business and editorial oversight of newspapers increasingly happens at the corporate level. BANG appears going down that road as well, though I couldn’t verify how much. Clearly, though, further homogenizing newspaper titles and operations furthers this trend. As community publishers disappear, community groups — from chambers of commerce to Rotaries to library boards — lose a key connection to the paper. A publisher is often the business face, sometimes more popular than other times, but serves as a connection to an important civic institution. Neither editors nor ad directors, no matter how well they perform, can fulfill that role.

While putting a semi-optimistic face on the changes, with talk of rebranding, there is little mistaking what’s behind MediaNews’ moves. Like all newspaper chains, it is struggling with year-over-year ad revenue losses. It is tentatively trying to find some small, new digital circulation revenue. It is experimenting with new tablet products, like its TapIn launch. It is hoping and praying a double-dip recession (“The newsonomics of the next recession“) doesn’t blow it off the financial tightrope it is already walking. Without a permanent CEO (Dean Singleton moved aside in January and has only been replaced by interim Gordon Paris), this company heavily directed by Alden Global Equity is doing everything it can to operate in the black, preventing financial loss, even as all the other losses mount.

In short, it is hunkering down, while it tests some digital initiatives. This MediaNews restructuring, with all its implicit and explicit loss, seems less a strategy than a new phase of a holding pattern, as the old newspaper industry hangs suspended in disbelief and disorder.

At the end of the KQED hour, Oakland Tribune editor Martin Reynolds called in, plaintively responding to several callers’ statements that the quality of local journalism had declined. He acknowledged that much had been cut (the Tribune’s newsroom in 1995 had 40-plus people, and that’s down to a mere dozen today), but talked about the dedication of the current staff and the good journalism they produce.

It was a good coda.

It’s important to mark the multiple losses, and let what has been lost sink in for a short time. Then, it’s important for all the journalists still employed — those remaining at MediaNews’ Bay Area properties, those at the financially reeling Chronicle, those at national model start-ups Bay Citizen and California Watch and those at news staff-building KQED, among others — to do what journalists need to do: Forget the uncertain business around them and report the news as best they can.

Nothing (witness Jim Romenesko passing into semi-retirement this week) lasts forever. But there’s always news that needs reporting.

Oakland Tribune entrance photo by Gretchen Anderson and Tribune shadow logo photo by George Kelly, both used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Aug. 25, 2011, 10 a.m.
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