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December 27, 2006-January 2, 2007

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The Byrne Report

News: R.I.P.

By Peter Byrne

The headline for a half-page story in the front section of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat caught my eye: "AMAZING FAT-FIGHTING SUPER PILL DEVOURS FAT!" The story (Oct. 6) looked just like a newspaper article. Reading it, I learned that I can lose 40 pounds by spending only $129! Oh, yeah, there was a tiny blurb at the top of the article: "Paid Advertisement."

When Santa Rosa's daily newspaper isn't flooding my snail box with pounds of junk called "Xpressmail," it is dangling the (slim) chance of winning a $1,000 gift certificate for subscribing. The company wants you to subscribe so that it can charge hefty rates to advertisers for pushing product to people with equity loans. The PD recently offered me 10 weeks for only $10. The next week it went down to 26 weeks for $13. Not worth it when the weather forecast on the masthead is obscured by a stick-um ad.

It is getting harder and harder to distinguish reporting from advertising as the PD's news hole shrinks. Stories and photos about shopping often take up 50 percent of the space on the front page, followed by rehashing gory traffic accidents, and little or no exposure of the power brokers who run Sonoma County. Indeed, the PD espouses a chamber of commerce mentality on most issues, as does its owner, the New York Times Company. A Sept. 17 editorial supporting the erection of a Wal-Mart store is a case in point. "Wal-Mart has suffered from negative publicity about its employment practices," the editorial wagged, as if the problem was poor public relations, not worker exploitation!

Bleys Rose, 56, has been a hard-working PD reporter for 17 years. He is head of the Media Workers Union at the daily. In an interview, Rose explained that management operates on a principle (developed through focus groups) that the paper's readers prefer lifestyle stories over articles about the government. (Supposedly, they like to read about teenage suicides, but not much about how the Santa Rosa chamber powerhouse, Agilent Technologies, profits off the Iraq War.) Rose says that PD profit margins were about 25 percent in 2000. Competition from Internet advertising has cut it down to 14 percent to 16 percent, which would be considered bountiful by most businesses. But not at the PD.

"The way the company saves money is by cutting staff, dumping healthcare costs on employees and not filling vacant positions," Rose remarks. Consequently, the newspaper cannot cover basic governmental meetings or investigate corruption. Instead, the company is dumping the town-hall beats and throwing financial resources into its consumer lifestyle magazines, Savor and Santa Rosa.

I asked PD publisher Bruce Kyse, who used to edit the PD, for an interview about these important matters. He declined, saying, "I generally don't think it's a good idea to talk publicly about the business end of our operations."

This is not surprising, considering that Kyse sits on the board of directors of the Santa Rosa Chamber of Commerce. His colleague, John Burns, publisher of the New York Times-owned Argus-Courier is a director of the Petaluma chamber. And the publisher of the North Bay Business Journal (also owned by the New York Times Company) is on the Santa Rosa chamber board. The two nonprofit chambers pull down $700,000 a year in government grants and spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on local newspaper advertising, according to their tax returns.

Chambers of commerce traditionally endorse chamber-friendly politicians and business-friendly ballot initiatives. For the Nov. 8 election, the PD and Santa Rosa chamber recommendations matched exactly, including opposing a campaign-finance-reform initiative. No shock there, since Sonoma County's premier political consultant, Herb Williams, also sits on the chamber's board.

Corporate chamber members fuel local elections with campaign donations to favored candidates. Interestingly, a national watchdog group, Public Citizen, just filed a complaint with the IRS accusing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce (also a nonprofit) for failing to report paying millions of donated dollars to manufacture attack ads for election campaigns. Naturally, components of the television and newspaper empires run by the New York Times Co. are not opposed to breathlessly reporting on mud-slinging political contests. When they heat up, companies splurge on political advertising.

In its newsletter, the California Chamber of Commerce brags that its members, which include the Petaluma and Santa Rosa chambers, used their nonprofit government dollars this year in Sacramento to successfully lobby the legislature to kill an increase in the minimum wage. It also killed various pieces of legislation to increase corporate taxes, to strengthen unemployment-insurance protections and to regulate the telecommunications industry. In short, the chamber's priorities are opposite to the needs of ordinary people.

Ditto with the Press Democrat.

Contact Peter Byrne or send a letter to the editor about this story.