By Tim Hunt
Laughing out loud and crying insideUploaded: Mar 8, 2016
As a long-time newsman and commentator, I almost laughed out loud at the latest spin from the Bay Area News Group about its coming consolidation of newspapers. The organization that owns all of major dailies in the Bay Area with the exception of the San Francisco Chronicle next month will eliminate the more than 150-year-old Oakland Tribune in favor of the East Bay Times that will cover Alameda and Contra Costa counties.
In the South Bay, the Mercury News will continue and absorb the San Mateo County Times.
For Livermore Valley residents, the “local” coverage has been at best laughable since the earlier decision that folded the Tri-Valley Herald and the Valley Times into the Contra Costa Times with one for all of Contra Costa County. For local residents, that meant we could keep up on all of the Antioch and Richmond news we were interested in, but there was so little valley coverage that it was easy to cancel and save some money. That move shuttered the Tri-Valley Herald masthead, which was the oldest continuous published paper in Alameda County, dating to 1874.
If the editors and bean counters had stuck with their original plan of one paper on the I-880 corridor called the Tribune and one of the I-680 corridor called the Times, this area would have been better served. As is, we have received almost no Alameda County news (that might improve in the new configuration because editors will deem it “regional”). What will not be better is any truly local news.
I understand the challenges of the bean counters who must produce a return for the hedge fund that now controls the papers. Print advertising revenues have fallen every quarter since 2006 including double-digit drops during some stretches (a truly ugly trend). From the high in 2006, print reviews have fallen by more than 50 percent nationally. If you happen to buy the daily, just look at the advertisements in the front section to determine what demographic the advertisers believe read print dailies.
What’s sad, but understandable, is that the combined newsroom will shrink below 200 employees-the Mercury/News alone had more than 300 newsroom staff at its height, while the former ANG Newspapers had more than 200. It’s an accurate reflection of the plunging revenues and the reality that digital is growing, but needs to accelerate mightily to fill the revenue gap.
Two long-time staffers, Daniel Borenstein and Lisa Wrenn, wrote an opinion piece in Sunday’s editions explaining it would be different, but there was value to the more regional approach. In some areas--sure. In other areas, if the San Jose coverage tilt persists (that may lessen depending upon how the production staffing is organized), there will be no difference except local Tri-Valley coverage will be worst still.
Regionally, the Port of Oakland is a huge economic driver for the East Bay and much of the state—not that you would know it from reading the daily. For valley residents who work in the Silicon Valley, the San Jose focus in business worked well—for others, they missed plenty of news.
The last iteration of dailies was three editions with some sections (sports, lifestyle) staying nearly the same in all papers. I suspect—without any direct information—we will see more of that given the layoffs in newsroom production staffing.
When I used to speak to service clubs and others interested in the newspaper business, I routinely said that the public is best served when you have two (or more) competing news organizations that perform well financially. This valley had that for more than 20 years when Sparks Newspapers (then ANG Newspapers) and the Lesher papers banged heads.
Readers and advertisers were very well served—now, thanks to the economics of print, resources are stretched beyond what any of us could imagine just 10 years ago.