One size fits all

The McClatchy-Singleton deal raises fears of monopoly and cookie-cutter journalism

POWER BROKERS <br>McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt and MediaNews owner William Dean Singleton share a moment on stage at a recent newspaper convention.

McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt and MediaNews owner William Dean Singleton share a moment on stage at a recent newspaper convention.

Photo Courtesy of AP PHOTO

It’s usually nerve-wracking for employees when their company is sold, but when those who work for Knight Ridder papers like the San Jose Mercury News got the word in March that the McClatchy Company would be taking their corporate reins, it was cause for celebration.Under McClatchy, the Sacramento, Modesto and Fresno Bee newspapers developed a reputation for fearless news and investigative reporting. In terms of labor relations, database editor Griff Palmer said, “[McClatchy] couldn’t have been more adversarial than Knight Ridder,” and Merc employees were genuinely excited about the sale.

But McClatchy CEO Gary Pruitt’s abrupt announcement that 12 papers would be jettisoned because they didn’t fit the Sacramento-based chain’s high-growth profile caused those same workers to shudder.

Then, in late April, McClatchy announced that four of those papers, including the Merc, were being sold to a company with a much different reputation than McClatchy’s. The Denver-based MediaNews Group, run by William “Lean” Dean Singleton, is notorious in the newspaper industry for slashing payrolls and running papers on the cheap.

“It was elation quickly followed by deflation,” when Mercury News employees found out they were being dumped, said Palmer, who also serves as secretary-treasurer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild.

Singleton already has extensive holdings in Northern California, including all but one of the daily papers in the North Sacramento Valley. In Butte County, he owns the Chico Enterprise-Record, the Oroville Mercury-Register and the Paradise Post (see “It’s a familiar story,” page 16). MediaNews’ Northern California group also boasts the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal and a suite of smaller papers.

If the McClatchy sale goes through (it must be approved by regulators), Singleton will pick up three more major-circulation dailies in the Bay Area—the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times and the Monterey County Herald—and snap up 30 more community newspapers.

This push by MediaNews to claim so much of the Bay Area and Northern California media landscape matches a similar move in Southern California, where Singleton tried to encircle the Los Angeles Times by folding eight papers into the Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

The current transaction is troubling to observers who fear that the market will be dominated by one voice, and that those papers will deteriorate under pressure to put the bottom line ahead of good journalism.

In 1992, when Singleton bought the troubled Oakland Tribune, it had a staff of 630. He cut it to 280, according to a profile in the Columbia Journalism Review.

At a press conference shortly before the deal with McClatchy was confirmed, Singleton said MediaNews papers were evolving to suit readers’ tastes better. He predicted “more information, more entertainment and less long series that we love to do but our readers hate to read,” according to Editor & Publisher magazine.

For example, Singleton said, “It’s fun to send people to Iraq during the war, but it is not nearly as important to the local community as covering local injustice.”

When Singleton came to visit the San Jose Mercury News, he gave assurances that there were no immediate plans for staff cuts. “He said, basically, nobody is going to get canned,” said Palmer.

Still, in a recent filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission, MediaNews makes it clear that its strategy is “to increase operating cash flows at acquired newspapers by reducing labor costs.”

It’s too soon to be sure what MediaNews has in store for the Merc, Palmer said. But he added that McClatchy helped shape the Merc’s fate. “I think part of Gary Pruitt’s legacy rests on what Singleton does. If Singleton turns the Mercury News into a mediocrity, he is answerable for his decisions.”

But Pruitt dismissed any notion that McClatchy would be to blame for the Merc’s woes under Singleton.

“I’m not going to respond to a hypothetical about that,” Pruitt said. “I don’t expect the Mercury News to be driven into the ground. I expect it to do well. It’s clearly a great paper.”

In almost every newspaper account of the McClatchy-Knight Ridder deal and the subsequent plan to sell off parts of the Knight Ridder empire to MediaNews, the only papers talked about are the major-circulation daily newspapers.

There is another category of papers that has mostly escaped attention—dozens of community newspapers, small-circulation dailies and weeklies like the Berkeley Voice, the Cupertino Courier and the Redwood City Daily News. These papers may seem like small potatoes, but they play an important role in these communities by providing intensely local coverage of such things as local government and high-school sports.

“We’re fiercely local,” said Dale Bryant, executive editor of the Silicon Valley Community Newspapers, a string of eight papers that MediaNews will inherit.

Bryant said that her papers are so focused on the local picture that it wouldn’t make sense to mess with their formula. “I can’t speak to the big picture, but in the smaller picture, I don’t think much is going to change,” said Bryant.

But at other papers, reporters are concerned about “clustering,” a strategy MediaNews uses to spread fewer reporters over a wider regional area. One reporter, working on a story that affects more than one community, might see her byline appear in six or seven papers the next day.

If done right, Griff Palmer said, clustering can be much more efficient and even strengthen local papers. But there is a danger too. “What you worry about is the use of reporters as just interchangeable parts,” said Palmer. Clustering can also mean a lack of any sort of “local personality,” he added, and, at worst, “cookie-cutter journalism.”

Gene Firpo, an ad representative for the San Mateo Daily News (part of another group of papers that will be acquired by MediaNews), fears the worst. His paper goes head to head with a paper that Singleton already owns, the San Mateo County Times.

“I think people are going to be bailing. Everybody knows how Singleton operates; he comes in and he cuts.”

If you look at a map of media ownership in the Bay Area, it’s not surprising that some critics of the deal are crying “monopoly.”

As part of the deal, MediaNews will be getting some help from the Hearst Corporation, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle. Hearst will buy the Monterey County Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press and then “contribute” them to MediaNews in exchange for stock in MediaNews operations outside the Bay Area.

The only major dailies remaining will be the Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. And the vast majority of community papers would be owned by MediaNews, leaving a small handful of independents and alternative weeklies (like the paper you hold in your hand now).

There has been concern about what the “partnership” between Hearst and MediaNews will mean. “These are the two big media companies in the Bay Area, and this deal puts them in bed together,” said Berkeley law professor Stephen Barnett. “It’s bad news. It dampens what little competition was left.”

The prospect of MediaNews owning so many papers, along with the partnership between the two competitors, prompted six Bay Area congressional members to ask the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to review the deal for anti-trust concerns.

“We are concerned that this transfer could diminish the quality of and depth of news coverage in a Bay Area of more than 9 million people,” the representatives wrote in a letter to the DOJ.

Media activists also have condemned the deal because they fear it will undermine vibrant local journalism—an institution that is struggling as it is.

“Anybody who reads newspapers can tell you that different papers give you different takes on the news,” said Erin Poh, a union rep from the Northern California Media Workers Guild. “Now, most of the news will be brought to you by one editorial voice.”

But Barnett said he doesn’t think the newspaper corporations will have any trouble getting past federal regulators. “Anti-trust enforcers don’t pay attention to ‘editorial voices.’ They’re concerned about revenue,” said Barnett.

“I’d be very surprised if [the DOJ] took action. They haven’t gone after anybody for anti-trust in years,” said Barnett.

While today’s DOJ may not see a monopoly, Barnett said, the effect of such consolidation is obvious. “This deal shows how competition in the newspaper industry is being dismantled, brick by brick,” he said.

News & Review’s R.V. Scheide and Chrisanne Beckner contributed to this story.