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February 14-21, 2007

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Community Newspaper Holdings, We Hardly Knew Ye

The Sentinel departs its distant corporate owner and joins the growing MediaNews empire

By Steve Hahn


When the MediaNews Group's California Newspaper Partnership bought the San Jose Mercury News from the McClatchy Company last August, the company announced plans to cut more than 70 positions. Earlier this month, the same media company acquired the Santa Cruz Sentinel from Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., an Alabama-based company that had itself bought the Sentinel from Dow Jones subsidiary Ottaway Newspapers Inc. just last October.

Noting that he has had little conversation so far with MediaNews, Sentinel editor-in-chief Tom Honig cautions that his comments are tentative and that details could change as the new owners hammer out the specifics. However, he's optimistic that the integration of resources at these papers could broaden the Sentinel's coverage of topics it doesn't always have time to report on.

"My guess is, in principle, we will have access to stories we wouldn't ordinarily have," says Honig of MediaNews' burgeoning empire, which also includes the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey Herald and over 15 other papers extending from the Central Coast to the San Francisco Bay Area.

Honig anticipates including more stories about Sacramento politics, state and national sports and the high tech industry. The Sentinel already relies heavily upon wire service stories for coverage of these topics including a golfing story in last week's Sports Section from, you guessed it, MediaNews.

But MediaNews' tendency to share reporters and resources has drawn fire from critics of the fourth-largest newspaper business in the nation, who say such business practices could hurt readers over the long run. Cutting personnel from the newsroom and consolidating various papers' printing operations into one center are common practices for the profit-focused MediaNews Group, which has even gone so far as to outsource advertising production from its Northern California papers to India, according to the Newspaper Industry website (www.newspaper-industry.org).

After the San Jose Newspaper Guild went to bat for employees at the Mercury, MediaNews reportedly backed down on half of its layoffs, eliminating 35 jobs instead of 70. Meanwhile, the Sentinel is reporting that it will continue to print the paper at its local printing press and likely avoid layoffs.

While this kind of conglomeration can theoretically streamline the editorial process, freeing up reporters to focus more energy on covering local events, John McManus, project director for gradethenews.org, warns of dangers for citizens when a single owner in a large geographical region, such as the Central Coast of California, imposes this system of "clustering."

"News is too complex, particularly the important issues, for a single perspective," says McManus. "I think what's likely to happen is that the breadth of information will diminish as one reporter covers for multiple papers, rather than having multiple reporters and news organizations compete. Generally when you have less competition, people and institutions being what they are, the public is served less well."

McManus also notes that since the Sentinel already receives wire stories from Sacramento and Washington, readers shouldn't necessarily expect a huge increase in articles on these topics.

Honig says he doesn't anticipate too much will change in the paper's coverage of local events. "It's not going to change our focus, obviously, which is on Santa Cruz County," he says.

The sale also ties the Sentinel to a company that has come under serious government scrutiny. San Francisco businessman Clint Reilly has filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Hearst Corporation, publisher of the San Francisco Chronicle, violated antitrust laws by contributing financing to help MediaNews purchase the San Jose Mercury and the Contra Costa Times. The lawsuit accuses the companies of conspiring to control the San Francisco Bay Area region's newspaper market. The United States Department of Justice is also investigating.

McManus is concerned that MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton is managing his newspapers through the lens of "economic rationalization."

"I think newspapers are trying to maintain their traditionally high profit ratios at a time when they are bleeding advertisers and subscribers, primarily to the Internet," he says. "Generally when any industry becomes less profitable you see consolidation."

This economics principle has relatively benign effects on society when it plays out in most industries, McManus believes, but can be more insidious when a business integral to the fabric of a democracy is at stake.

"Every news organization has blind spots and sacred cows," McManus says. "Blind spots are areas of coverage that just don't occur to a particular newsroom or editor. Sacred cows can be major advertisers, sibling companies or friends of the publisher. When there's only one publisher across the entire Bay Area, there's no one to expose MediaNews' sacred cows and no one to point out the gaps in their coverage."


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