Editor’s note: Digital First Media announced on Sept. 12 that it will consider a sale of part or all of its assets.
This is second in our series: FIRE THE OWNERS
We love journalism and we’re damn sick and tired of seeing corporations destroy it.
So we’re fighting back. And we’re getting immediate, widespread attention.
Members of Pacific Media Workers Guild are launching an effort to find or build community-based enterprises to free nearly a dozen newspapers in the Bay Area and Monterey from the grip of the Digital First Media hedge fund and its MediaNews Group subsidiary, which routinely sell off their papers’ assets, send employees packing and exert downward pressure on remaining workers’ pay and benefits in order to quench their executives’ interminable greed.
Papers included in this rescue effort are The Argus (Fremont); Contra Costa County Times (Walnut Creek); East County Times (Antioch); The Daily Review (Hayward); Monterey County Herald; The Oakland Tribune; The San Jose Mercury News; San Mateo County Times; San Ramon Valley Times; Tri-Valley Times; and West County Times.
New York-based DFM is squeezing its newspapers’ profits “while refusing to give hard-working employees long-overdue wage increases,” the PMWG said in a statement posted Sept. 8 to its web site (mediaworkers.org). “We are joining employees at newspapers including the Denver Post, Detroit News and St. Paul Pioneer-Press in encouraging the hedge fund to sell the newspapers to local stewards who would care more about producing quality journalism and less about selling off real estate.”
Thanks to social media, news of the campaign is spreading quickly in the targeted communities and among journalists.
And it’s apparently making some people in management nervous. In at least one locale, company brass called the strategy stupid, obviously ignoring or unaware that it’s newspaper employees across the country, not The Newspaper Guild or its locals, who planned and are carrying out the effort.
In the Bay Area, at least two news outlets picked up the story on day one of the effort. SF Weekly posted a report by Erin Sherbert and KQED-FM reporter Nina Thorsen interviewed PMWG Executive Officer Carl Hall.
In the journalism trades, veteran media-watcher Jim Romenesko included an item in his Morning Report on Monday and tweeted “Guild Seeks Buyers for Digital First Papers.” Editor & Publisher carried a link to The Newspaper Guild’s press announcement.
The experience of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat underscores that community-based ownership can be realized and that it can foster vigorous local journalism while employees get fair compensation and decent working conditions.
After the New York Times Co. sold the Press Democrat and two affiliated papers in January 2012 to Daytona, Fla.-based Halifax Media Group, six investors led by Darius Anderson, a Sonoma-based investor and Sacramento lobbyist, formed the partnership Sonoma Media Investments LLC, which purchased the papers that November.
The scenario is in sharp contrast to that elsewhere in the Bay Area and in Monterey, where DFM/MNG has been systematically shredding newsroom, sales and business staffs, and the depth and breadth of journalism have consequently suffered.
The Herald “is an important resource for Monterey County and it’s a lot easier to dismantle if you are sitting in a Manhattan office and not having to look residents in the face,” said Phil Molnar, who chairs the PMWG unit at that paper.
Molnar reported in early February that DFM’s principal owner, Randall D. Smith, and Herald publisher Gary Omerick proposed to extend by 18 months a three-plus-year-old pay freeze “and eliminate the cap on what employees pay for medical insurance.”
“The Herald has been around for 92 years and we’ve only been owned by a hedge fund for the last four or so years. I can think of no better example of why that is a bad thing than to note the drastic cuts in coverage and quality Herald readers are faced with daily,” Molnar said.
“Our best example of how local ownership is better comes from the Santa Rosa Press Democrat. They’ve reinvested in the very things our owners have cut, and regular people in Santa Rosa tell me they are subscribing again because the paper is better than ever. When does anyone hear that about their hometown paper anymore?
“A fellow guild member once sent me this article and told me to ‘read it and weep.’
Mercury News crime-beat reporter and long-time PMWG activist Robert Salonga said he likes to think that there are people in Silicon Valley with sufficiently deep pockets “who recognize the value of having robust local media.”
Salonga has been with MNG’s Bay Area News Group since 2007, helping to form the Local’s BANG unit. He joined the Mercury staff in 2012. “We haven’t had any across-the-board raises – cost of living, that sort of thing – since I joined the (BANG) company. They’ve also eliminated the 401k matching contribution. We’ve all endured pay cuts. The company instituted forced (unpaid) furloughs three or four years ago – a week or longer. (Health) insurance premiums have risen and we have a narrower array of health insurance options.”
Dealing with management toward a new contract, he added, “is pretty much like talking to a wall.”
DFM/MNG pleads poverty to justify its take-aways “and we know that’s not necessarily the case,” Salonga said. “The company is still profitable, making money through chucking off assets.” Whatever revenue results from the hard work of the employees, “we’re seeing very little of it,” he said. The company’s quest for profitability “is mostly about cutting expenses. There’s no investment in improving the product,” and with so few reporters left, the quality of journalism doesn’t come close to that of a decade ago, he said. “It’s like buying new delivery trucks but there’s less and less in them.
“Newspapers,” Salonga continued, “are supposed to be a community asset, a public service. It’s high time to make a push for reinvestment into the field and into the craft – content delivery in print and online. Professional news-gathering has never and will never go out of date.”
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First in series: Wanted: Local buyers for hedge fund-owned papers
Second in series: Guild news staffs launch effort to resuscitate journalism
Fourth in series: Fiscal challenges led to diminished San Mateo Times