The shrinking Bee

What the repackaged Bee means for local journalism

Illustration By Andrew Nilsen

The pages are smaller, the stories are shorter and the front sections have more graphic “pop.” The comics are in a different place every morning. These are some of obvious elements of the new redesigned Sacramento Bee, which hit doorsteps and news boxes last week.

But that’s just the wrapper—only the most obvious results of a more profound and difficult repackaging at the daily newspaper. The parking lot is half full. The employee cafeteria has been closed. The in-house doctor is out. And every day there are fewer reporters and editors to bring us the news.

“There are fewer people to keep an eye on the government or the police. We’ve just got less horsepower,” said Ed Fletcher, the Bee’s county government writer and the local union representative.

The financial troubles afflicting the Bee and its parent company, the McClatchy Company, are well-documented, often in the Bee’s own pages.

Ad sales are declining—damn you, Craig Newmark—and readership is migrating to online news sources. And McClatchy stock prices are plummeting—largely due to the company’s $2 billion debt it took on when it acquired the Knight Ridder newspaper chain in 2006.

All of these factors combined earlier this year to prompt McClatchy honchos to shed 1,400 jobs or 10 percent of its workforce, 80 of those jobs at the Sacramento paper.

“The layoffs were disconcerting,” said Matt Weiser, who writes about water issues for the Bee, and who has been with the company for about three-and-a-half years. “The old-timers told me, ‘McClatchy doesn’t do layoffs.’ But then they did.”

In fact, no actual reporters were fired. But that’s no comfort, of course, to the photographers, paginators, copy editors and other personnel who got pink slips. And the number of bylines in the daily paper has been shrinking right along with the page size—thanks to a company hiring freeze and the fact that some reporters are taking buyouts or just jumping ship.

According to Fletcher, the Bee’s newsroom is down 28 people since this time last year—that’s about 10 percent of the staff, including reporters and editors.

“People can feel it. There are beats that have been vacant for months, beats that are pretty vital.”

The Bee no longer has a full-time energy reporter, and in a time of rising health costs and political wrangling over health care, the Bee no longer has a reporter dedicated to covering the business of health care. The bureaus in surrounding communities like Elk Grove and Folsom are shrinking, too. In fact, Fletcher said, the newsroom staff is about 11 percent below the industry standard for a paper with our circulation size. That standard, he said, is one person for every 1,000 circulation.

The Bee’s new look was foremost about saving money on paper and ink. But the result is less room for stories. Many of the eight writers SN&R talked to spoke of the new mandate to “write shorter and tighter.”

That can be tough for reporters like Weiser, who often have to tackle arcane policy issues in their beats. “I cover complicated stuff. It takes a little room to explain to readers what’s going on,” he noted.

And like other reporters who spoke to SN&R, he worries that the shrinking news hole at the Bee will sometimes shortchange readers. “I think people pick up the paper expecting some real depth and analysis in their stories,” he added.

On the other hand, Weiser and most of the writers SN&R spoke to seem to agree that something has to give. The Bee’s new editor, Melanie Sill, is reportedly no fan of “process stories,” the regular updates about government meetings and wonky policy stories that, while often informative, can be deadly dull. There’s room for the investigative piece, there’s room for good watchdog reporting, Weiser said. “If we do fewer of those process stories, perhaps we’ll also be able to do more stories that dig a little deeper.”

That’s what Sill is hoping for, too. “I’m actually a bit of a policy wonk myself,” she said. “The challenge is to find better ways to tell those stories. We can’t do all of the things we’ve done for the last 10 years. But we can do more issue stories, investigative stories and profiles.”

What all this shrinkage means for the Bee—and for the Bee reader—really depends on how you package it.

“With more people we could do more, that’s absolutely true. We can’t do, quantitywise, what we used to do,” Sill told the SN&R. “But we can do better on quality.”

Or, as another writer said on background, “They like to talk about ‘doing more with less.’ But that’s bullshit. We’re doing less with less, and everybody knows it.”

And though reporters aren’t happy about the shrinking paper, it’s better than the alternative. “While the narrower format offers less real estate on page one and other section fronts,” Fletcher said, “most newsroom staff understand the times we’re facing and would rather trim the paper than further trim personnel.”

Sill’s arrival in Sacramento last fall also brought a new focus on using the Web to break stories sooner, and to offer more and more frequent content to readers online.

By one writer’s account, the previous executive editor Rick Rodriguez, “was just clueless about the technology.” Sill, on the other hand, has a reputation as someone who “makes Web sites sing.” hasn’t quite sung yet, but Sill says the newly redesigned Bee Web site is coming this fall.

But the Web site is a demanding taskmaster for daily journalists who for years filed their stories, well, daily.

“There’s increasing pressure to grind even harder. It used to be that you were asked to do a story by the end of the day,” Fletcher explained. “Now we’re writing a draft for the Web, then maybe another draft for the Web, then writing a story by the end of the day.”

He says the shrinking staff and expanding Web work “makes for an extremely stressed staff.” The grind gets harder when there’s a story that requires multiple updates throughout the day, as when the Bee did wall-to-wall coverage of the California wildfires online.

Sill acknowledged the pressures created by the Web this way: “There’s not a person working in journalism today whose job isn’t changing. It won’t mean longer hours, but the pace is going to be different.”

When asked if more cuts were coming to the Bee newsroom, Sill said none are currently planned, and that “We believe the core of our future is high-quality reporting.” Still, she noted, “We’re just not in the time of guarantees.”

And that uncertainty is taking its toll. “Morale is up and down. You get the round of layoffs and everybody is talking about getting out,” Fletcher explained. “A couple of weeks go by, and we all love what we do, so morale goes up. Then you get more bad news and it goes down again.”

One of the folks trying to get off the roller coaster is Bee Capitol reporter Judy Lin, who left last week to take a job with The Associated Press, a wire service that sells its stories to newspapers around the state and around the world. She’ll be continuing to write state budget stories and other Capitol coverage. But the AP has a different revenue model than the daily paper. It’s not as dependent on advertising sales and doesn’t have the same shareholder pressure to salvage profits with deep cuts. “I just think it’s a little more stable,” said Lin, who began her reporting career with AP. While the Bee has kept a reasonably robust Capitol bureau going, Lin said, other papers are slashing their Sacramento coverage.

“The press corps in the Capitol is shrinking. This is a way for me to keep doing what I love to do.”