Paper Cut

December 4, 2011

Print journalism has lost another body part, this one right close to home.

Next Thursday will end the 110-year-old life of the Humboldt Beacon, a weekly covering mostly the southern part of the county, a victim to both financial and media woes.

Last week, from the only daily in this neck of the woods, the Times-Standard, which also publishes the Beacon:

The Humboldt Beacon newspaper — a local institution that has informed the Eel River Valley for more than a century — will cease publication next month, Times-Standard Publisher Dave Kuta announced Monday.
The Beacon’s last issue will be Dec. 8.
The Times-Standard will also cease publication of its Monday print edition after Jan. 2.
The two cost-saving moves will be accompanied by the layoffs of a Times-Standard photographer and the Humboldt Beacon editor.

And although the story also cites Kuta’s assertion all “the decisions are local,” a good-deal of the problems most-likely filtered down the industry’s food-chain.

(Illustration found here).

In a scenario that’s repeated itself all over the world the past decade, a shitload of local newspapers no matter the size, are owned by humongous media corporations — in our little patch of northern California, both the Times-Standard and the Beacon are owned by a company most-appropriately named the MediaNews Group, which according to a spiel on its site, ‘we impact nearly 20 percent of the nation’s households.’
MediaNews not only own little papers like ours up here (along with a slew of such along the length-and-breath of California) — 55 dailies in 11 states — but also some so-called worthies like the Oakland Tribune, The Denver Post, and The Detroit News.
The Tribune will also end Monday publication in January.
And apparently, MediaNews is creating belt-tightening measures all over its empire.
However, local is always down river.

Although MediaNews is called “privately owned,” in reality, it’s a child of a parent company, called the Affiliated Media Group, which as it works, now calls itself The Cross Agency, which in turn, is a subsidiary of Cross MediaWorks, Inc. — a provider of media sales and advertising services to the television advertising industry.
Earlier this month, it was reported Cross MediaWorks will team with Beat the Traffic, a leading provider of real-time traffic information for broadcast media and mobile devices, to help TV stations monitor highway conditions via simple, inexpensive tools.

Meanwhile, back to the group formerly called Affiliated Media.
In January 2010, Affiliated Media filed for bankruptcy: The company listed debt of $500 million to $1 billion and assets of $100 million to $500 million in Chapter 11 documents filed today in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Wilmington, Delaware.
One thought on the impact to journalism, posted at the time:

In the last line of the lengthy and complicated press release that originally announced the filing, the company said the post-Chapter 11 structure of MediaNews will create “a platform from which to develop, grow and participate in the consolidation and re-invention of the newspaper industry.”
Translated into plain English, this means William Dean Singleton, the ever-resilient chief executive of MediaNews, will use his newly streamlined balance sheet to pursue his long-time passion for extracting profits from struggling newspapers.
In even plainer English, this means merging profit-challenged properties in multi-newspaper markets and consolidating their operations at every level – in the newsroom, in the ad department and throughout the production chain — to wring fatter profits from what remains.
In the plainest English, this likely means more lost jobs.

Yes, indeed.

In 2008-09, newsrooms nationwide lost 5,900 workers, the largest one-year drop in employment ever for an industry census, according to the American Society of News Editors — though a loss of only 5,200 in 2010 must be considered good.

As a witness of such ‘belt-tightening,’ or better phrased, the gutting of  local newspapers, or like the Humboldt Beacon, out-right closure, I have both seen the operation and been a victim.
In July 1998, after a near-20-year hiatus from organized journalism (vs freelance), I landed a spot on The Five Cities Times-Press-Recorder, a bi-weekly in Arroyo Grande, California, on the state’s Central Coast (about half-way between LAX and SFO).
Just a few weeks earlier, the TPR had been purchased by the Pulitzer Publishing Co. from local media semi-magnates Dick and Maxine Blankenburg, who had owned the newspaper since 1959.
The TPR, and a nearby small, rural weekly, The Adobe Press (also published by the Blankenburgs), were folded neatly under the wing of The Santa Maria Times, a property Pulitzer had only recently acquired — Santa Maria, located inland about 50 miles south of Arroyo Grande, and is the biggest city on the region, even Santa Barbara to the south, or my then-hometown, San Luis Obispo, to the north.
And the Santa Maria Times at that time sucked — one of the worse newspapers in the world — bad writing, errors in stories, bad layout, bad editing, you name it. (I don’t know if it’s any better nowadays).
Pulitzer had a wonderful name for such entities as the TPR: Pulitzer Community Newspapers (PCN).

PCN division VP Tom Jackson, in announcing the acquisition of the TPR, spelled out the philosophy, but most ironically:

“The emphasis on quality editorial content and community service of these publications is consistent with our philosophy, and we are determined to preserve their status and role in the community.”

PCN then slowly sucked the TPR near dry.

During its heyday under the Blankenburgs — Dick and Maxine had built a decent print-media operation with its press running 24/7/365 — the TPR carried a newsroom staff of about two dozen and covered one of the fastest-growing areas of California
When I arrived at the paper, there was between eight and 10 reporters, a couple of photographers and some lay-out people — at the time, the TPR was still in the ‘paste-up’ mode of layout, way-behind technologically.
Slots at the paper were either out-right eliminated, or those positions shifted to the Santa Maria Times.
Or reporters were given more responsibilities with the same pay.
In December 2000, my slot at the TPR vanished — I was editor/writer for two newspaper sections, along with being the unethical ‘Special Sections‘ editor (worked directly with advertising) — and became a general news reporter with my newsroom hours reduced.
I quit the TPR for a few months in 2001, but returned to cover politics.
When I finally left in 2004 in a salary dispute, the staff there was down to about five.

Despite Pulitzer‘s slash-and-cut newspaper style, it too bought the bullet: In 2005 Lee Enterprises Inc., a multi-media outfit, bought Pulitzer for $1.46 billion, which led Pulitzer chairman Michael Pulitzer to joyfully exclaim, “They share the same tradition and journalistic values that Pulitzer does. In my opinion, we couldn’t have found a better match for the company.”
And this from a January 2005 St. Louis Post-Dispatch story on the transaction:

Early speculation inside the Post-Dispatch newsroom centered on a buyout by newspaper giant Gannett Companies Inc., publisher of USA Today.
But in the end, it was the lesser-known Lee, a quiet company whose profit margin is the envy of the newspaper industry.

And what comes around, stays around: Just this past Friday, Lee Enterprises announced it’s preparing to file a prepackaged Chapter 11 bankruptcy within the next 10 days, claiming a big chunk of its roughly $1 billion debt comes from the Pulitzer deal — The company tried to refinance debt earlier this year but had to pull the deal amid lackluster demand.

Now one wonders will the TPR go the way of the humble Humboldt Beacon?

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