April 24, 2017 Last Updated 11:42 am

East Bay Times, fresh off Pulitzer win, suffers newsroom layoffs

Northern California used to be home to family-owned newspaper chains that proudly specialized in local news coverage, but consolidation by private equity owners has led not to cost savings and more profits but rather staff cutbacks and losses

Many, many days ago I worked in the East Bay at a daily newspaper called The Valley Times. In fact, it had just become a seven-day-a-week paper before I arrived, and it was struggling to beat a much bigger rival called The Tri-Valley Herald. But the company had brought in a new General Manager (they wouldn’t call them publishers, but the job was the same), who in turn hired me to run Classifieds.

I was young, but had worked in classifieds for both Hearst and Copley in LA, and when my boss’s boss screwed me over for a promotion I jumped ship and headed north. At that time our company had three daily newspapers that served the East Bay, and soon enough launched a fourth. Our rivals had four papers, as well, plus there was the Oakland Tribune.

Fast forward a few years, and after I left for McGraw-Hill, the newspapers in question changed hands several times and eventually ended up being owned by MediaNews Group, now part of Digital First Media. Today there is only one daily newspaper left that covers the entire area (though the San Francisco Chronicle also circulates there, and did back then, as well), and it still can’t seem to continue without layoffs.

Last week the Pacific Media Workers Guild questioned the strategy of Digital First Media in the Bay Area:

A Guild committee raised questions Thursday about the announced shutdown of the East Bay copy desk by Digital First Media, owner of the Bay Area News Group, and demanded negotiations before the company consolidates editorial production in Southern California.

The consolidation as outlined by DFM management would cause 20 more layoffs from a shrunken roster of about 90 Guild-represented employees in the East Bay.

The layoff announcement came only a week after the East Bay news staff was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for “relentless” breaking news coverage of the deadly Ghost Ship warehouse fire in Oakland.

The same cutting back of copy editing, the Guild says, has occurred at the Mercury News (the paper in San Jose, for a long time owned by Knight-Ridder, and once the home of the largest classified section in America thanks to the growth of Silicon Valley).

Sadly, there is no real strategy here other than a desperate attempt to stay in business. The situation is dire, though, not simply because the newspaper group in question is suffering ad losses as other chains are, but because the chain is owned by a private equity company, Alden Global Capital, which has no clue as to what to do. It rolled up properties, as PEs are expected to do, and like a game of musical chairs finds there is no place to go now.

But the chain’s mismanagement goes back decades, so I have little sympathy for the company. (I am shocked to see that at least one of the managers who could never make a budget in all the years I worked there remained with the company until recently, despite a record so bad he could run the Cleveland Browns.)

But I do have sympathy for the staff that has to put up with this behavior. The East Bay Times just won a Pulitizer for its coverage of the Ghost Ship fire – though I would been happier about it had it been won by The Oakland Tribune, just one of the papers merged into the East Bay Times – so the timing could not be worse.

“We’ve known for a long time that this hedge fund values little beyond its bottom line. Laying off people in this fashion serves only to underscore that truth,” Derek Moore, president of the San Francisco-based Pacific Media Workers Guild, said.

The company lays off staff because that is what it knows to do. Selling advertising and subscriptions… not so much.

The Contra Costa Times, The Valley Times, The San Ramon Valley Times, the West County Times, the Fremont Argus, the Hayward Daily Review, the Tri-Valley Herald, Alameda Times-Star, the Oakland Tribune… none of the papers I knew when I worked in Northern California exist today (and there were actually a couple more launched after I left).

Somewhere in hell there is a special spot for incompetent newspaper and magazine company executives… and private equity company officers.

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