March 2, 2016 Last Updated 9:49 am

Bay Area News Group announces end to the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times nameplates

Flailing newspaper chain, owned by Digital First Media, will consolidate its Bay Area daily newspaper properties into two titles: the East Bay Times and The Mercury News

The San Francisco Bay Area is both home to one of the nation’s wealthiest and most highly educated populations, as well as a web of daily community newspapers, almost all of which have changed ownership in the past couple of decades.

For many years the San Francisco Chronicle dominated the market, owned by the DeYoung family. But the paper was famously the butt of a joke told by Jason Robards playing Ben Bradley in All The President’s Men: “Send it to the Chronicle in San Francisco. They’ll print anything.”

Bay Area newspapersThe competing paper was owned by Hearst, the San Francisco Examiner. In the South Bay Knight Ridder owned the San Jose Mercury News and during the rise of Silicon Valley it became one of the country’s most successful papers, running massive Classified sections each Sunday morning.

In the East Bay, Dean Lesher had formed a group of newspapers** that took advantage of the growing suburbs of Contra Costa County – while his rival, Floyd L. Sparks, published the Bay Area News Group and its Alameda County papers. Finally, the Oakland Tribune was published by one of the few African-America publishers in the country, Robert C. Maynard.

That was the picture of the newspaper world of the Bay Area two decades ago – dozens of papers each battling it out in many communities. Then the consolidators came in.

Hearst acquired the Chronicle in 2000 and dumped the Examiner on the Fang Family, essentially ending the Examiner as a player in the market. Dean Singleton came in and bought out the Bay Area News Group aftert the death of Sparks in 1988, and shortly after Dean Lesher died in 1993 his papers were sold to Knight Ridder. Knight Ridder was later bought by McClatchy who sold the Lesher papers to Singleton. Singleton’s company was eventually folded in Digital First Media.

And there you have it: instead of many newspapers owned by many newspaper owners, we have Hearst in San Francisco, with the surrounding papers owned by Digital First Media. And nobody is making any money.

Today it was announced that Digital First Media – that is, MediaNews Group – that is, Bay Area News Group (confused yet?) – will be consolidating its titles into just two brands: the East Bay Times and The Mercury News. The move was, of course, portrayed as something readers wanted.

“Readers have been quite clear with us about how much they like their newspapers and what they want more of, and we’re changing to serve them better. We’ll give them better focused front page stories that cover national and Bay Area news from each region’s point of view,” Sharon Ryan, president and publisher at Bay Area News Group, told staff in a memo.

Ryan was previously the CFO at Knight Ridder’s St. Paul Pioneer Press, and before that worked at the Audit Division of
Arthur Andersen & Co.

EastBay-MN-300In reality, the papers had already been consolidated, with news content merged, local offices closed. All that remained was the unique names of the individual papers. This illusion that the newspaper owner actually cared about the communities they served will finally be dropped once and for all and readers can be told they are actually just all the same.

Not surprisingly, the circulation levels for these papers are plummeting. The San Jose Mercury News which a decade ago had more than 250K in circulation now is under 150K, The CCT is now over 100K thanks to its consolidation of area papers, while the Oakland Tribune, the poor Oakland Tribune, is read by only 20,000 subscribers today. The Daily Review and The Argus, which serve Hayward and Fremont respectively, were part of the chain founded by Sparks and will now join the CCT and Oakland Tribune as the East Bay Times.

It is hard to overstate just how many incredibly poor decisions have been made by Bay Area newspaper executives over the years. It is the reason why, when I hear that the Internet is killing newspapers, I can only laugh. Newspaper executives are killing newspapers, Internet companies are merely picking up the business being thrown away.

Just list the errors: McClatchy reached too high and bought out Knight-Ridder for $6.5 billion, then had to dump many of the properties to pay off a portion of the debt. McClatchy is today trying to keep its share price over $1 or else be delisted. MediaNews Group, meanwhile, whose business practice was to buy family owned papers and then make severe cuts (because it was assumed that they were “fat” with personnel), filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in 2010, but still only sees one way to do business.

The old cliché about rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic certainly applies to the Bay Area News Group. It has taken much and made little with it. The good news is that now it might be possible to sell off these properties to a new owner, the price has certainly been driven down considerably (last year Digital First Media admitted that it could not reach a deal on its newspapers holdings and pulled them off the market).

** I was recruited to work at Lesher Communications from Copley Newspapers in Southern California in 1988, and worked there until joining McGraw-Hill. During my time at Lesher we launched a new local daily newspaper, the San Ramon Valley Times, in order to exploit the growing, wealthy communities of the area. Local, local, local was Dean Lesher’s philosophy.

The Tribune can trace its history back to 1874, and for many years was owned by former House Representative Joseph R. Knowland. The paper was a conservative leaning daily for many years, but as Oakland became more ethnically diverse, and the surrounding counties grew, the paper began to struggle against its competitors (Sparks and Lesher).

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