Marriage of convenience

Longtime owners’ sale of the Paradise Post to a huge corporation spells the loss of a true community newspaper

FULL COURT PRESS<br>Paradise Post Publisher Randy Goldberg says the paper had as many as 20 potential buyers “traipsing though the place” while it was on the market. He said the old owners considered the possibility of splitting up the paper and the printing press and selling each separately. But in the end they decided to sell it as one business. The press, the largest in Northern California, prints some 200 publications per month, including this paper and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Paradise Post Publisher Randy Goldberg says the paper had as many as 20 potential buyers “traipsing though the place” while it was on the market. He said the old owners considered the possibility of splitting up the paper and the printing press and selling each separately. But in the end they decided to sell it as one business. The press, the largest in Northern California, prints some 200 publications per month, including this paper and the San Francisco Bay Guardian.

Photo By Tom Angel

After 57 years of independent ownership, the Paradise Post has joined the growing ranks of small-town newspapers scooped up by remote corporate owners whose main goal is to turn a profit, often at the expense of serving the local community.

Now, one month after the sale of the Post and its accompanying printing operation to the giant Denver-based MediaNews Group, it’s unclear what it means in the long run for the spirited and sometimes quirky little paper.

Since its first issue rolled off the press in 1945, the Post has served as a voice for the Paradise Ridge, aggressively covering town politics, crime, sports and business news for the pine-tree-nestled retirement town. And it has offered a diverse range of voices in columns on its editorial pages; voices ranging from the thoughtful and aging liberal Jack Jamison to more libertarian-minded Don Illa, who once tried to start a county militia, to the conservative musings of school teacher Russ Neal.

The paper has been a consistent award-winner, pulling in more than its share of California Newspaper Publishers Association prizes, annually beating out other papers of its size from across the state.

But will the paper, as part of the California Newspaper Partnership (CNP), a division of MediaNews, be able to retain its small-town flavor? Or will it morph into a slick money-making product cranked out by a soulless conglomerate—the same corporate behemoth that has also purchased the Chico Enterprise-Record, the Oroville Mercury-Register and the Red Bluff Daily News?

Will the Post follow a growing daily-paper trend, already instituted in the Chico and Oroville papers, and begin charging to run obituaries, an important and much-read service in this retirement community?

And what will become of the sense of competition that until now has existed between the E-R and the Post? The papers’ overlapping coverage areas helped create a rivalry that motivated reporters to get stories first or at least tell them in more interesting and detailed ways than the competition. But already the two papers have started sharing photo credits, and the Post plans to start using the MediaNews Group wire service.

According to figures from last November, circulation of the E-R in Paradise is 3,440 for the Monday through Saturday paper and 3,673 on Sunday. In nearby Magalia the numbers are 1,211 through the week and 1,207 on Sunday, with another 32 subscriptions in the mountain town of Stirling City. The total Paradise Post circulation—the paper is published three times a week—for the Ridge is 8,306.

How will those figures change as the Post enters into this new relationship, this marriage of convenience, with the E-R?

Under the stewardship of Donrey Media, which had owned the Chico and Oroville papers since the mid-1980s, the Mercury-Register turned into little more than a clone of its sister paper, the E-R, sharing all sections but the front. That metamorphosis was hastened in 1996, when a government U-2 spy plane crashed into the paper’s offices and printing press. So far there is little to indicate MediaNews will strap the Post with a similar fate.

MediaNews is owned by newspaper mogul Dean Singleton, a frequent target of media critics who bemoan the trend of corporate chain ownership of newspapers.

When MediaNews, which now operates 48 papers across the country, purchased the E-R in 1999, media commentator Ben Bagdikian predicted, “In the absence of [daily] competition, it is possible that the people of Chico won’t see much difference between Donrey and Singleton.”

John Morton, a newspaper industry consultant and columnist for American Journalism Review magazine, said that, while Donrey often emphasizes profits over news content, Singleton frequently gets a bad rap.

“I think Singleton has improved a lot of his newspapers,” Morton said. “He’s not a bottom-line-oriented operator, like some are.”

In the latest issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, however, writer Scott Sherman, who spent time with Singleton and his top-level cronies researching his story, wrote: “On Jan. 20, I sat in on MediaNews’s weekly publishers’ meeting where the Paradise Post deal was under discussion. ‘Is there a union there?’ inquired one of Singleton’s lieutenants. ‘No,’ replied another. ‘Why do you think they call it Paradise?'”

For the past 25 years, the Post was owned by two fiercely independent newspaper men, Rowland Rebele and Lowell Blankfort, who said they realized the importance of maintaining autonomy for their publishers and editors. They’ve owned a number of newspapers in different parts of the country, incorporating each as an individual entity so each stood alone. The Post was their second purchase, in 1977.

Blankfort is an old-time liberal and Rutgers University graduate who’s traveled the world, met with leaders including Cuba’s Fidel Castro and written a column for a London paper—in competition with a fledgling columnist named Art Buchwald.

Blankfort also wrote briefly for the U.S. Army’s Stars & Stripes. This was just prior to the Korean War, and he said he didn’t appreciate it when a colonel instructed him to pen his stories about the soldiers in Korea in an uplifting—and often false—light so as to not hurt the morale of other American soldiers stationed around the world.

“After that I decided that was not the kind of newspaper I wanted to work for,” Blankfort explained, “even though it was run by the government; or maybe because it was run by the government.”

After returning to the States, Blankfort got a job writing a front-page column on world news for The Wall Street Journal, a job that paid $79 per week.

At some point during his stay with the Journal, he said, he experienced an epiphany.

“I decided if I was going to stay in the newspaper business and thrive I’d better own one,” he said. “In this culture you’re really better off in most cases owning things than working for someone else.”

In the 1950s, Blankfort, armed with $5,000 he’d received through a stock option in a magazine he’d worked for, took his first wife and traveled across the country looking for a paper to buy. He made it all the way to the West Coast, where he purchased a newspaper operation in the town that would become Pacifica, just south of San Francisco.

He said he used the paper to help push for Pacifica’s incorporation, just as he would do 20 years later in Paradise.

After a few years, Blankfort decided he wanted to travel again, so he decided to sell the paper. That is how he met Rebele, who was looking to buy a newspaper company for himself.

ODD COUPLE<br>Former Post owners Lowell Blankfort…

Courtesy Of Paradise Post

“He didn’t have enough money,” Blankfort recalled. “So he bought another paper, a smaller one, and he did a good job with it.”

During negotiations for the purchase that never materialized, the two men agreed to go into business together one day. About a year later, Blankfort sold his paper and promptly took off on a nine-month trip around the world.

“I had just gotten out of the Navy and out of grad school,” Rebele said. “I was looking to buy a weekly, and I met Lowell because of his paper, the Pacifica Tribune. I put together a group of investors and was ready to make the move.

“But I never did because I was advised to get into something with only my own capital at risk—my Navy savings—instead of a lot of other people’s capital. But in the course of those negotiations Lowell and I became good friends.

“I did buy a paper in Coalinga,” Rebele said. “Then he and I exchanged ideas and decided among ourselves that he would sell his paper and I would sell mine and we would go into business together.

“Lowell then went on a world trip, and I thought maybe I’d never see the guy again. He went to write a series of articles for National Geographic magazine. But that never came off because the film was stolen.”

Eventually, Blankfort and Rebele did meet up again and went into business together in 1961, buying a paper called the Star News in Chula Vista, which is in San Diego County. They sold that paper in the 1970s and purchased the Post.

They went on to buy a number of other papers or newspaper groups, including two in Colorado, one each in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Illinois and the North County News in Monterey. The Post was their largest paper, both in circulation and size of its printing operation.

“We always purchased a paper or group individually,” Rebele said. “Then we’d incorporated that group individually. Our classic pattern was to name someone who worked on the paper, someone who was ready to become publisher—maybe the editor or in some instances the ad director—to become publisher. We would also give that person a share of interest in the paper and an opportunity to get a larger interest through sweat equity and by achieving goals.

“We often called Paradise the flagship of the Rebele-Blankfort group, even though we never were organized as a group,” Rebele explained. “Each paper was incorporated separately and had its own board of directors, its own publisher. We wanted to do it that way because we believe in editorial independence.”

In recent years, they’ve sold all their papers—the Post was the last. The still have joint ownership in a number of other businesses, including a motel and mini-storage in Amarillo, Texas.

Blankfort said he’s not sure what sort of changes the Post will go through under the new owners.

“Well, I think their policy is to be generally independent,” he said, “but I don’t think that they are strong on the politics. You could say they are members of the ‘green party,’ in that they look out for the green [of money].

“I understand Singleton is fairly conservative, but I don’t think they intend to get involved in the politics of the community. I think they are essentially a business, and of course we were a business too. I think they will put out a credible newspaper, but in my case I was unlike most newspaper owners. I come out of an editorial background and was a major in history and political science—that is my thing.

“Phillip Wrigley, the chewing gum king who once owned the Chicago Cubs, said that baseball is too much of a business to be strictly a sport. But it is also too much of a sport to be strictly a business. I feel the newspaper is the same thing. It is too much of a public service to be strictly a business, but it is too much of a business to be strictly a public service.”

Rebele is proud of his and his Blankfort’s history in the newspaper industry.

“What Lowell and I gave to the paper, besides capital for growth and for development,” he said, “was what expertise we had, Lowell in the editorial area and me principally in advertising and production.”

Three factors, Rebele said, told them it was time to sell: a lack of interested heirs; no one on staff interested in buying the paper; and the fact the two had reached their 70s.

“Which is not that old,” Rebele quickly pointed out. “It just seemed that it was time to make a move. You can’t wait forever, and we’d owned the Post for 25 years—a wonderful 25 years.”

With no heirs interested in getting into the newspaper game, coupled with expensive investments, including an estimated $700,000 to update the Post’s huge printing press, the two men started looking for a buyer. There were three or four interested parties but only one able to complete the deal.

So they sold to the only suitor that could afford the rumored $10 million price tag. Now, with MediaNews at the helm, the Post’s journalistic independence could well be swept away, a victim of modern economics and corporate control.

The new owners insist that little will change, at least on the surface. Newsprint, bought in bulk with other papers in the chain, will come cheaper; classifieds and other advertising will most likely become consolidated among the three Butte County publications; and news stories will probably be shared.

Rebele and Blankfort say that, while they wish they could have sold to another independent owner, reality dictated otherwise. They remain cautiously optimistic that the Post will retain its small-town flavor.

“Every time an independent paper sells, it is upsetting to me,” said Blankfort. “But the reality is [that] the name of the game is capitalism, and whoever has the most capital can do the most things. We would have been delighted to have sold to an independent. We’re not unhappy that it had to be Singleton, but candidly I would have preferred to have an independent owner.”

MediaNews Group is the seventh-largest newspaper company in the United States, with operations throughout California, the Rocky Mountain region and the Northeast. MediaNews is privately owned. The company also owns a CBS television affiliate, in Anchorage, Alaska, and radio stations in Alaska and Texas.

and Rowland Rebele both describe their longtime business partnership as “a marriage without sex.” Blankfort is an unabashed liberal and Rebele is a moderate conservative.

Photo By David Alexander

Post employees are unsure what to expect, though already, one noted, the Post’s longtime offer of an additional monthly check to serve as reporters’ gas allowance has been replaced by a required mileage report.

Longtime Publisher Randy Goldberg, not wanting to detail his future with the company, says his focus now is to make sure the ownership transition goes smoothly.

“I’m very positive,” he said. “Change is frightening in general, so we’ll just have to wait and see for a while. [The new owners] were very nice. They came down and met with the staff, and [CNP head] Scott McKibben put himself right in the middle of everyone and was open and honest and very complimentary.”

Recently named Managing Editor Rick Silva said he expects the new owners to stay the course but admits anything could happen.

“Dean Singleton and McKibben’s mantra is local, local, local,” Silva noted.

“I’m not saying it’s never going to happen. We heard that Channels 12 and 24 would stay separate, and look what happened,” he said, referring to the recent merging of the two Chico television stations’ news programs. “But from what I’ve heard Singleton is known for keeping things separate.”

For his part, McKibben says not to worry about any drastic moves.

“I really don’t think you’re going to see much change,” he offered. “We go in and let the local management teams manage the papers. There will be some invisible changes. We will buy their newsprint because we can buy bigger quantities, and we will do their payroll out of a centralized location. But they will have more daily autonomy than they have had.

“As I understand it, Lowell was pretty involved on the editorial side, and he will continue to write a column, but we will edit and approve them.”

The Post will most likely improve in some areas, benefiting from the rich resources afforded by the deep pockets of a large company. But the question remains: Will it keep its small-paper charm?

Goldberg has a copy of the first edition of the Post framed and hanging on the wall of his office. It is dated Sept. 7, 1945.

The banner says the paper’s circulation is 2,000 and declares it is “Dedicated to the Betterment of Our Community.”

And right on the front page, next to the top-of-the-fold story about the death of prominent attorney Major McGregor, is the paper’s policy, which includes the promise that, “The columns of the Post shall always be open to the use of the public, business, religion, politics or any worthy comment.”

Goldberg is a gregarious, trim man in his early 50s. He took the job on Oct. 1, 1991, following an exhaustive search by the two owners—Rebele actually lived in Paradise and acted as the paper’s publisher for 10 months before Goldberg was hired.

Before coming to the Post, Goldberg worked for Copley newspapers and before that with McGraw-Hill in the Southern California city of Montebello.

He discounts the idea of any major changes for the Post in the near future.

“The editorial staff is running the way it’s been since [longtime former Editor] Linda [Meilink] left,” he said (see sidebar, page 16). “Maybe a little bit differently,” he added—Silva is conservative, Meilink was moderate in her political leanings.

“The paper’s editorial board is still basically the same,” Goldberg said. “No one tells us what to write.”

In last year’s general election, the Post endorsed all Republican candidates for state office, comfortably reflecting the conservative bent of a majority of Paradise voters.

So far, Goldberg likes what he’s seen of his new bosses.

“They seem to be men of their words,” he said. “I had no idea what to expect. No idea. So far it’s been just delightful. But then, this is a good paper, very strong in the market. Why would they change anything?”

Goldberg said he is not worried about losing the motivation that comes from competing with the E-R.

“I don’t know if that will ever go away,” he said. “Even though the E-R is now a sister paper, there will always be that competition because we are so close together [geographically]. And it is still our paper, our entity; hopefully it will be a friendly competition.”

He said so far there has been little in the way of reader reaction to the paper’s change of ownership, though he was ready for it and compared it to writing a controversial story and then waiting for the thunderous storm of reader reaction that never comes.

“I mean, this is a momentous thing. The Paradise Post has been bought out, but no one seems to be reacting. I think they are just waiting and looking to see what happens.”

He said his duties under the new owner are pretty much the same.

HANDS ON THE WHEEL<br>Post Editor Rick Silva began at the Post in 1994 as a sports writer with a style all his own. He says his conservative leanings will not give the paper a new political direction and notes the editorial board remains left of center.

By Tom Angel

“I’m writing a short weekly report and a short monthly report,” he said. “I used to just write one long monthly report. And I’m doing a budget, something I haven’t done for years.

“Like anything else, we will be watched for how we perform. If all goes well, things will be fine. If not, they will come up and ask, ‘What’s going on?’ It was like that with Reb and Lowell. If we were doing well, they would come in and pat us on the head. If things were not going well, they’d kick us in the butt.”

For his part, Silva said he’s established a relationship with E-R Editor David Little.

“Now, when I walk in at the E-R, I don’t feel like I’m going to be thrown out,” he said. “So far we’ve had one meeting, and for now we will stay apart [editorially]. David and I feel the same about this.”

Silva said he has used the MediaNews Group wire a few times on business stories.

“I would like to create a Northern California news service for times when there is not enough local news. I don’t want to have the E-R’s staff writers’ bylines show up in our paper. I don’t want to offend our readers.

“If a story that ran in the Wednesday E-R shows up in a Thursday Post, people will start asking, ‘Why bother to pick up the Post?'”

McKibben said the notion that more and more papers are falling into fewer hands is both exaggerated and not necessarily a bad thing.

“I don’t think that criticism is justified, unless the company that buys the paper makes the paper a worse newspaper,” he said. “Size doesn’t matter. There are some companies that have seven or eight papers, and they are bad papers. Then there are companies like Knight-Ridder that have something like 38 papers that include Pulitzer Prize winners.

“It comes down to whether the company is committed to putting out good papers or just making money. You have to do both. No one owns even 10 percent of the circulation of the nation’s newspapers, which is something like 60 to 62 million.”

MediaNews’ 47 daily newspapers in 10 states have combined daily and Sunday circulation of 1.7 million and 2.3 million, respectively.

I’ll disclose here that I have a deep affection for the paper. I worked for Rebele and Blankfort for two stints, initially as the first managing editor for the Senior Post, a monthly tabloid aimed at the town’s majority population of retirees, and later for the Post as a beat reporter and associate editor.

My time with the Post began in March 1993 and ended two years later, when I came to work for the News & Review. It was a great tenure, filled with experiences that could happen only at a small-town paper.

I remember one late-night incident when a group of us were working to meet deadline. A production assistant asked then-Editor Linda Meilink what she wanted put on the front-page teaser of the television guide.

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said, distracted by another deadline matter. “Say ‘Africans run wild in Paradise.'” She was referring to an upcoming concert featuring a group of entertainers visiting town from an African country. She was kidding, of course, in that crude way people laboring in the trenches sometimes do. But the remark, which out of context could be considered racist, made it onto the guide.

The next morning, when we arrived at work, we were met with the twisted, blanched faces of the editor and publisher. Go, they said, and retrieve as many papers as you can from the porches, driveways and front yards of our subscribers. Put the genie, they were ordering, back into the bottle.

Post photographer Bill Goidel and I, realizing the fruitless nature of the task, opted to go have breakfast instead and muse about possible fallout from the community. That morning perhaps 100 papers were pulled away from sleeping Paradise residents before they could read the offensive words.

The most amazing thing was the total absence of fallout: no calls, no complaints, not a peep. This was a reminder of the conservative, Caucasian population that makes up the Post readers. (We joked that that the local locksmiths and hardware stores saw a sharp increase in the sales of dead-bolt locks over the next few days.)

Then there was the story, broken by the Washington Post on Father’s Day 1993, that President Bill Clinton had a half-brother living in Paradise. The town was immediately swarmed by press folks from across the nation, including The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times and national magazines. For days we at the Post staked out the modest home of Leon Ritzenthaler, awaiting our turn to talk to the man of the hour—or at least 15 minutes.

Instead he was whisked off on a cross-country junket, touring the East Coast and getting a chance to meet Geraldo Rivera, his favorite daytime television host.

In the end, gaining an interview with the suddenly celebrated Ritzenthaler required my drinking Southern Comfort whiskey from a goldfish bowl at 9 in the morning outside the Bambi Inn in the mountain community of Butte Meadows during a chili cook-off sponsored by the notorious hillbilly men’s club called the Clampers.

Ritzenthaler was a member in good standing—soon to be named treasurer based on his instant popularity—and I had to prove to his brother Clampers that I was worthy of talking with him. Apparently my willingness to consume whiskey from a fish bowl before noon was all the proof they needed.

After the excitement passed and the big-time journalists all went home, I realized the real story here was that the half-brother of the president of the United States couldn’t register his aging Chevy pickup because he couldn’t afford to get his engine to pass the state smog test.

But I had no desire to bring such news to light and bring grief to a decent man. I think such is the nature of a small-town paper.

Meilink, whose work ethic and feisty nature were greatly appreciated by Blankfort and Rebele, left the Post a little less than a year ago, taking a job with a New York Times-owned paper in Sarasota, Fla.

She was replaced by Silva, the former Post sports editor, who up until just a few weeks ago continued to work under the title “acting managing editor.”

Meilink’s stint with the Sarasota paper was short-lived, though, lasting less than a month.

“Her independence," noted Rebele ironically, "was just too much for a corporate-owned paper."