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Southern California News Group asks for public support — and perhaps a shift to nonprofit status — amid cuts

Southern California News Group asks for public support — and perhaps a shift to nonprofit status — amid cuts
The Orange County Register newsroom at its former Santa Ana office in 2012. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The Southern California News Group, which includes the Orange County Register and Los Angeles Daily News, is pushing back against its owner, Digital First Media, calling for public support in the face of steep cuts that have hollowed out its newsrooms.

A series of opinion articles published in print Sunday across the local chain urged readers to pay for professional journalism and pondered a nonprofit ownership model that "plows proceeds back into smart local reporting and civic engagement."

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In 10 articles that went online Friday, editors and current and former reporters didn't mention Digital First or its controlling owner, Alden Global Capital, by name — eschewing the approach taken by the Denver Post, another DFM paper, which referred to Alden as "vulture capitalists" in its own editorial published earlier this month.

But SCNG Executive Editor Frank Pine wrote that the loss of journalists keeping a watchful eye on communities is a threat to democracy and that if the "Fourth Estate as we know it is to survive, it will require ownership that is invested in its long-term success and a strategy that prizes purpose over profit."

"We're not giving up," he wrote. "We do, however, need your support."

The message to readers comes amid sagging fortunes for the nation's newspapers, which are struggling with declining circulation and advertising revenue as readers shift toward free, online news. Journalists, facing repeated job cuts, are lashing out against investors that they say have strip-mined still-profitable enterprises and pocketed the money.

In addition to immediate financial pressures, journalists see their calling to report the truth under attack from purposely inaccurate articles that are amplified on social media. President Trump frequently lambastes mainstream reporting and has called major news organizations the "enemy of the American people."

The dual threat to jobs and quality journalism has spurred union drives at papers across the country, including one at the Los Angeles Times, in which journalists this year overwhelming voted to join the NewsGuild-Communications Workers of America.

The articles from SCNG come amid a larger rebellion against owner Digital First Media, which publishes nearly 100 newspapers.

The company, in various forms over the years, scooped up many of the papers in Northern and Southern California and became known for aggressive cuts and sharing reporters across publications. Two years ago, it purchased the Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise, beating out the parent company of the L.A. Times. SCNG now has more than 20 weekly papers and 11 dailies, including the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Riverside Press-Enterprise and the Daily Breeze in Torrance.

In a lawsuit filed in March, a minority shareholder in Digital First alleged Alden has used the publisher's money to make investments that would benefit Alden and are unrelated to journalism. On April 6, the Denver Post published its series of articles, calling on Alden to sell the paper if it couldn't support good journalism. A few days later, Neil Chase, executive editor of Digital First's Bay Area News Group, which includes the San Jose Mercury News and the East Bay Times, referred to that push for a sale in his own article: "The union that represents our employees has been saying the same thing for months. They're right."

Digital First did not respond to an email seeking comment and Alden did not return a voice message seeking comment. An attorney representing Digital First also did not return a message seeking comment on the lawsuit.

In Southern California, Pine wrote that SCNG newsrooms have seen their staff cut "by nearly half in just the past two years." SCNG had 315 newsroom employees before a recent round of more than 65 layoffs. In its editorial, the Denver Post editorial board wrote that in recent years its staff has been slashed to less than 100 from more than 250 — and that's before a layoff of 30, which is supposed to be completed by July.

At its peak size in the 1990s, the Mercury News had a newsroom staff of 440, according to the Pacific Media Workers Guild. The newsroom as of January had only a staff of 39 represented by the Guild, with some additional non-union staff.

In an interview, Pine said the articles were meant to explain to readers why subscription prices have gone up while page counts have gone down, as well as the effect of having fewer professional watchdogs in their communities. "With fewer reporters, we provide less local reporting," he said. "Communities that used to get three or four stories a week may now only get one."

A shift to nonprofit status could be an option to preserve robust, local journalism, he wrote. Pine said that he's unaware of any formal effort to turn the papers into a nonprofit. Nonprofit ownership provides some stability for media properties but isn't by itself a recipe for success as newspapers strive to adapt to the decline of print — and print advertising revenue — and the shift to digital platforms, some industry executives and analysts said.

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"It doesn't make a great deal of difference in this climate whether you have a nonprofit owner or a for-profit owner," media analyst Ken Doctor said.

In his article, Pine also noted billionaires professing a passion for journalism have recently "stepped up to buy major newspapers." That includes the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune; billionaire Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong has agreed to purchase the papers from Chicago-based Tronc in a $500-million deal that is still pending.

Soon-Shiong told The Times that before he agreed to purchase the paper, Tronc planned to lay off up to 20% of The Times' staff and close its Washington, D.C., bureau.

Pine declined to comment on whether Digital First should sell. He did say the "old business model for journalism doesn't work anymore and if we are going to be successful long term, we need to develop a new business model that supports the journalism."

Times staff writer James Peltz contributed to this report.

Follow me @khouriandrew on Twitter

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