Oakland Trib’s Fight for Life : Publishing: Editor Robert Maynard’s latest rescue effort calls for a 25% staff reduction. Failure would make Oakland the nation’s largest city without a newspaper of its own.
One sultry evening last week at UC Berkeley’s rustic Faculty Club, Robert C. Maynard held captive an audience of East Bay business and civic leaders with an impassioned plea for grass-roots help to save his newspaper.
Earlier that day, the Tribune had announced drastic measures, including a staff reduction of more than 25%, designed to pare the Oakland paper’s out-of-line costs and stave off bankruptcy.
What Maynard, who himself took a 20% pay cut, wanted from his audience was support in rustling up subscriptions and advertising. At stake, in his view, was the survival of Oakland’s prime watchdog and news lifeline.
“I know you do not want to see Oakland, California, become the largest city in the United States without its own newspaper,” he told the group.
Maynard, however, knows full well that it will take more than a few subscriptions to bail out the Tribune. Plagued by steep declines in advertising and readership, empty coffers, outmoded facilities and competition from other Bay Area newspapers, the 116-year-old daily is fighting for its life.
Although Maynard maintains that the cutbacks will put the Tribune on firm financial footing, many staff members fear that the paper has begun a downward spiral from which it might not emerge. They wonder how they will continue to put out a worthy product once Maynard slices the staff to 500 from 725, on top of previous reductions.
Gallows humor pervades the small, unkempt newsroom, reflected in a hand-lettered sign that appeared at an employee’s desk Tuesday, the day workers were to submit routine records of work hours: “Act of Faith Day: Time Cards.”
Underscoring the situation’s severity was the resignation last Friday of Paul R. Greenberg, a director and owner of the 21% of the company that Maynard does not hold. It was Greenberg, a Los Angeles lawyer, who devised the financing package that enabled him and Maynard to buy the Tribune from Gannett Co. in 1983. Gannett loaned the pair most of the $22 million. With the purchase, Maynard became the first black owner of a major metropolitan daily.
Greenberg quit, he said, because he considers Maynard too weak a manager and the company too short of funds to launch a successful resuscitation effort. What is needed, he said, is to find a buyer with deeper pockets and stronger management. But Maynard is dead set against selling.
“I see rebuilding as the most viable option,” Maynard said in an interview at his cluttered office in Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland. “The whole purpose in the restructuring is to build for the long haul.”
If Maynard, 53, sounds like a cockeyed optimist in the face of harsh realities, perhaps he can be forgiven. He has for years defied skeptics who gave the Tribune up for lost when he bought it.
That was four years after he was brought on board by Gannett as editor, the first black to head newsroom operations at a metro daily. Exuberant and charismatic, he had by then established himself as an advocate for minority journalism.
The Brooklyn-born son of immigrants from Barbados, Maynard in the 1960s became White House correspondent for the Washington Post at a time when blacks were rarely hired by mainstream newspapers.
In 1977, he left the Post and, with his wife, Nancy Hicks Maynard, a former New York Times reporter, co-founded the Institute for Journalism Education in Berkeley, a minority training organization.
As editor of the Tribune, he used Gannett’s plentiful resources to increase news space, sharpen coverage and build staff, especially minorities.
“When I came here with Gannett, there were only two or three minorities on the staff,” he recalled. “That’s where the building of a paper that reflected this city began.”
In recruiting young blacks, Maynard sold the idea of working at the Trib as a “chance to be on the ground floor” of something important, said Lonnie Isabel, whom Maynard hired away from the Boston Globe.
Many called it “following the Maynard vision,” said Isabel, who moved to Newsday last August as assistant national editor after 8 1/2 years as a writer and editor at the Tribune. (Although many such experienced minorities have been lured away, Maynard said minorities still make up 20% to 25% of the staff.)
As owner, without Gannett’s funds, Maynard had to adapt to a hand-to-mouth approach. He immediately won $10 million in concessions from unions, in the process shifting from compatriot to adversary.
To attract readers, the newspaper launched a variety of zoning efforts--often unsuccessful--to reach into ever-distant suburbs in Contra Costa County, many of them affluent and white and unafflicted by the kinds of urban problems common to Oakland. Millions of dollars were spent opening satellite offices and shuffling people around. Some staff members became disillusioned, contending that Maynard was a better guru than businessman and that he let circulation and advertising needs dictate coverage.
“We were tough on the city administration in Oakland and very tough on the school board (but) kissed up to the suburbs,” one former reporter said. “Once we had a story about a pancake breakfast in Montclair (an affluent section of the Oakland Hills) on the front page of the paper. It turned people off.”
In the meantime, Maynard had to deal with a personal crisis: prostate cancer. He said he has been in remission for nearly three years.
Maynard, bearded and somewhat portly, points with pride to the paper’s achievements. A series on patronage in the school system prompted important reforms. In April, the paper won a Pulitzer Prize for photo coverage of October’s Bay Area Quake.
Ironically, the quake also hastened the latest cutbacks. The tremor put out of commission many of the Tribune’s regular advertisers, notably the Emporium Capwell department store and other merchants that depended on Emporium to draw customers. (The Tribune building also was hit; it still shows cracks from the quake, and Maynard said repairs so far have cost $250,000.)
The quake also delayed the long-awaited downtown Oakland renaissance on which the Tribune has pinned many of its projections.
Advertising revenues are now 10%, or between $3 million and $4 million, below pre-quake levels, an erosion that Maynard calls a “catastrophe.” And circulation has more or less steadily declined to about 130,000.
Key to the survival plan--which is being headed up by Mrs. Maynard, the company’s senior vice president of marketing--will be the response from the six unions with which management must negotiate cutbacks.
Norman Golds, the Tribune’s wire editor and vice chairman of the newspaper’s unit of the Northern California Newspaper Guild, noted that union representatives are attending a convention in New York this week, putting on hold negotiations over proposals to reduce staffing.
Although some industry observers say the unions remain bitter and antagonistic after years of making concessions, Golds said they intend to cooperate.
“We understand the company does have financial difficulties,” he said, “and we want to help them in every way possible to keep the company running.”
A 23-year veteran of the paper, Golds, 58, has weathered four ownerships and frequent layoffs and cutbacks. For the first time, he said, he is considering taking the company up on its offer of an early retirement buyout.
The staff, he said, is “glum.” As one employee put it, “We’re all looking for jobs.”
Maynard says the pessimism is understandable.
“It will take another year or so . . . for people to get used to the idea that the Tribune can be a profitable and economically healthy organization,” he said.
What must happen first, he realizes, is a scaling back of the once lofty goal of rivaling the San Francisco dailies. Instead of “trying to be all things to all people,” the paper will now concentrate on the corridor of towns stretching from the Carquinez Strait on the north to Fremont on the south, forgoing coverage of Contra Costa County suburbs further inland.
“What we’ve had to do here is be very humble,” Maynard said. “It’s a challenge to our creative intelligence to find a way to live within our means.”
Gannett Co. acknowledges that Maynard so far has paid none of the substantial interest on its loan, which has a principal amount of $17 million. But an executive maintains that the media company, based in Arlington, Va., has no intention of calling the loan, at least not yet.
“Bob is a friend,” said Douglas H. McCorkindale, vice chairman. “We’re not going to do anything that would put the Oakland Tribune in jeopardy.”
Tom Goldstein, dean of Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, agreed that the Tribune has “got a tricky struggle.” But he refuses to count Maynard out. “He has been able to keep it afloat when many had written it off.”