Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Blue Day for Bay Area Journalism

Well, the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times will soon belong to MediaNews, owned by the notorious cost-cutter Dean Singleton.

It’s a blue day for the Bay Area.

Knight-Ridder, which until recently owned the papers, was a newspaper firm that cared about quality journalism. For the most part, it poured resources (the amounts differed year to year) into making a good product. Its papers had a mix of investigative pieces, local news, lively columnists, and those extra sections that provide a peek into culture – food, books, and features.

Even during the last few years when once-amazing profits dropped, Knight-Ridder papers meant quality. That’s why it’s such a shame – and a disgrace – that a single shareholder looking to increase his own profits was able to force the sale of the chain.

Equally difficult to fathom is the fact that McClatchy bought Knight-Ridder and then decided to dump the Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, the Monterey County Herald and the St. Paul Pioneer Press. They weren’t profitable enough, even though they circulated in areas where the average home costs more than $500,000.

So Singleton has bought the four cast-off papers for $1 billion, essentially cutting McClatchy’s debt in half.

There are some weird permutations where Hearst Corp. will actually buy the Monterey and St. Paul Papers to increase the percentage of their ownership in the Bay Area papers, but I am too mad to explain it. Read about it here.

This means that the Bay Area, with one of the most literate, knowledgeable populations in the United States, will be reading papers put out by a company devoted to profits over good journalism. The only paper of any size in the Bay Area not to be owned by MediaNews will be the San Francisco Chronicle, which hemorrhaged more readers and money last year than any other paper in the country.

The winner in this may be the New York Times, which already distributes something like 50,000 papers to homes in the Bay Area. With shorter stories, less analysis, and less news in Bay Area publications, readers may turn there to keep up.

Dan Gillmor, a former Mercury News journalist turned blogger, says the deal smells funny. He even uses the word collusion.

The only good feeling I have sits with my former colleagues, the reporters of the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. For the most part they are smart, quick, and determined to produce an excellent product. Perhaps their determination may carry the day; I know they will want to continue to do in-depth reporting as long as they can. I wish them luck.

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