Monday, March 13, 2006

Bad News for Bay Area Journalism

At first I was happy when I heard McClatchy Newspapers was going to buy Knight-Ridder. McClatchy, an esteemed chain that started when James McClatchy started the Sacramento Bee in 1857, is respected for its high quality journalism.

But, as they say, the devil is in the details. McClatchy will pay $4.5 billion for the chain, but will sell 12 of the Knight-Ridder papers, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, and the two Philadelphia papers, because they are not in "growing markets".

That sucks. The Mercury is an excellent newspaper, one dedicated to its community and in-depth reporting. I worked there for nine years and saw how the paper lifted the quality of all the newspapers in the Bay Area. Competition works in the newspaper business; reporters hate to be scooped so they hustle to get there first. Mercury reporters always wanted to be in front of Chronicle reporters and the tension made for some good journalism. If the quality of the Mercury News drops, it will affect the rest of the region's papers as well.

I also don’t understand McClatchy’s reasoning. The Mercury and The Philadelphia Inquirer are two of the country’s most distinguished papers with many Pulitzer Prizes between them. But they are not good enough because their profit margins aren’t high enough?

The other newspaper chains that were prowling around Knight-Ridder do not have such good journalistic reputations and I am afraid the Merc will go to one of them. The most obvious buyer is Dean Singelton’s MediaNews, based in Denver. Singeleton started his career by buying a chain of East Bay papers that included the Fremont Argus and Hayward Daily Review, later adding the Oakland Tribune and the Marin Independent-Journal.

Singelton quickly put his imprint on the papers – i.e. he cut staff and emphasized shorter, less fully-reported pieces. He’s used the same m.o. for his papers in Dallas and Denver. Not one of those papers is as good as the Mercury News or even the Contra Costa Times. This bodes badly for Bay Area journalism.

All this started when the largest minority holder of Knight-Ridder stock forced a sale by complaining his stock price was too low. The sale continues the sad and dangerous trend of selling news to the highest bidder. News is regarded now as a commodity, not a public right.


Richard said...

What I don't understand is why McClatchy wouldn't get economies of scale by keeping the Merc & CC Times with their other California papers -- say, by consolidating their state capitol bureaus.

The Miami Herald was once a great paper, but in the last few years it has declined a lot (so that Tribune's South Florida Sun-Sentinel is the better paper now). Maybe McClatchy will improve it, but as someone who's lived in both cities, I don't understand why Miami is a "growing market" and San Jose isn't.

bookfraud said...

" But they are not good enough because their profit margins aren’t high enough?"

that about sums it up. newspapers are desperate, and, sadly, readers aren't demanding the type of high-quality reportage that should make or break a newspaper. there are plenty of readers who care, of course, but i wish there were more of them.