It’s a familiar story

North Sacramento Valley has experienced MediaNews consolidation

A Chico Enterprise-Record press operator checks the colors of a freshly printed newspaper. Several MediaNews papers are printed on the Enterprise-Record’s printing press.

A Chico Enterprise-Record press operator checks the colors of a freshly printed newspaper. Several MediaNews papers are printed on the Enterprise-Record’s printing press.

Photo By Chelsey Shoop

There once was a time when the newspapers in communities like Red Bluff, Chico and Oroville were owned by longtime local families.

Now the paper sitting on the welcome mat comes from a corporation—and in Northern California that company probably is MediaNews Group.

Diversity in media ownership is a thing of the past and has been since companies such as MediaNews discovered small-town papers could turn a big profit. Story-sharing, newspaper clusters and corporate alliances have become standard operating procedures.

In 1999, MediaNews bought all of Donrey Media Group’s papers, which had enjoyed a large presence in the area since the 1970s. Over the next four years, William Dean Singleton’s company bought the rest of the 22 newspapers it now possesses in Northern California. The list includes the Chico Enterprise-Record, Paradise Post, Red Bluff Daily News and Oroville Mercury-Register.

Singleton controls all but one of the daily newspapers in the North Sacramento Valley, the lone exception being the Redding Record Searchlight, owned by rival E. W. Scripps Co. Competition here is more about internal bragging rights, since MediaNews papers regularly share stories. Ownership seems settled—although Singleton and Scripps have formed business alliances, they have steadfastly held onto their properties.

Chico Enterprise-Record editor David Little worked for the paper before and after Singleton walked around the office building. Little said not much has changed since the sale.

“The common concern you hear is about cutting jobs—if you consolidate news operations, you consolidate jobs,” Little said. “Since MediaNews purchased the newspaper from Donrey in 1999, I think we’re down one person. I feel pretty lucky to say we’ve only lost one person.”

When an outside corporation takes over a local paper, another concern is what the new company will consider news. Little said his paper has a local-reader focus: “People aren’t going to pick up the paper to see what’s going on around California. They care about what’s happening in Northern California.”

The Enterprise-Record and Mercury-Register team up and share stories, Little said. The front pages typically differ unless there is a slow news day; most of the other paper’s content goes inside. MediaNews papers comprise their own news service that provides further shared content.

“The philosophy is each newspaper is there to serve the community they’re a part of,” said Jay Harn, publisher of the Red Bluff Daily News. “We do share bylines, but we overlap when we should. When we do, it increases our coverage area.”

Susan Brockus, an assistant professor in Chico State University’s Journalism Department, has done research on corporate media ownership and is familiar with the effects of newspaper collaboration on local levels.

“The result,” she said by e-mail, “is fairly predictable: Stories are shared across the clustered newspapers, which means that people living in a particular region gain knowledge about neighboring communities that they might not otherwise have if each of the newspapers was owned by a different company. In theory, clustering would have a positive impact on creating and maintaining cultural identity across a region.”

The downside often cited about such consolidation—raised anew regarding Singleton’s buy-up of Bay Area papers—is “cookie-cutter journalism.” A broader coverage area using fewer writers adds up to a more profitable business, but in the world of communication different voices add different perspectives.

Brockus said remote ownership is the real problem, regardless of the company.

“That’s what really has an impact on a community,” she wrote. “Change of management over time reduces institutional memory. In other words, you can take the skill set needed to be a journalist anywhere, but knowledge of a community has to be learned and conveyed.”

There’s little worry about ownership changes at North Sacramento Valley newspapers. Deborah Smiddy, president and publisher of the Record Searchlight, says that, while Scripps and Singleton may eye each other’s properties, “ours is not for sale and his is not, either.”

Interestingly, the rivals sometimes cooperate. In Denver, the MediaNews-owned Denver Post and Scripps-owned Rocky Mountain News have a joint operating agreement, Smiddy said, whereby the editorial departments operate separately but the business aspect is conjoined.

“It’s good competition [now],” she said, “but I think that in the future there may be areas that we may partner on things.”

Chico and its neighboring communities are familiar with this sort of cooperative competition, as their MediaNews papers have operated this way for years. Regarding his relationship with the Paradise Post, the E-R’s Little says: “We want people in Paradise to pick us up and not them. Really the only thing that changed in our competitiveness is that [Post editor] Rick [Silva] and I talk and that we are cordial to each other. The competitiveness hasn’t changed.”