At the San Jose Mercury News, reporters have been instructed to wait at home on the morning of March 7. If they don’t get a phone call by 10 a.m. telling them that they’ve lost their jobs, they should head to work.
Long the oracle of Silicon Valley technology and the go-to spot for government and community news in Santa Clara County, the Mercury News has pared back coverage on several fronts as its news staff has shrunk to about 200 from twice that number in 1999.
What’s happening in San Jose is being repeated to a greater or lesser degree across California. Buyouts and layoffs are being imposed at newspapers all over the country, of course, but California is especially vulnerable because of the severity of its real estate downturn. Along with real estate, advertising in related categories such as home furnishings, hardware and even big-box electronics retailing has been slowing, newspaper executives say.
Today, the Los Angeles Daily News will say goodbye to 22 more editors and reporters, paring its newsroom to 100 people from nearly twice that many a few years ago. Editor Ron Kaye gave the news in a tearful address to his staff Wednesday.
Employees at The Times have until 3 p.m. Monday to respond to a voluntary buyout offer aimed at eliminating 100 to 150 jobs, 40 to 50 of them in the newsroom. If not enough people volunteer, layoffs will make up the balance.
Experts say the American appetite for news is as strong as ever. Even big-city papers such as The Times that have suffered sharp declines in print circulation in recent years have seen their total audiences grow, when viewers of their Internet sites are included. Political candidates, corporations, even churches find that they can lure more traffic to their websites by slapping on a news “ticker” or a digest of wire-service stories.
The problem is that few news organizations have yet found a way to make the kind of money online that they had generated from print.
“Citizen journalists” -- unpaid volunteers, mainly -- have stepped into the breach here and there, but research by the Washington-based Project for Excellence in Journalism shows that most of what they are producing is commentary rather than eyewitness accounts of news events or meat-and-potatoes coverage of school board meetings and the like.
“If a newspaper reduces staff by 20%, some portion of that community is going to be operating in the shadows in a way it was not before,” said Tom Rosenstiel, director of Project for Excellence.
Although specialized outfits such as Bloomberg News in business and TMZ in celebrity news have sprung up profitably at the same time that newspapers have been cutting back, their turf is narrow.
Sam Zell, chief executive of Chicago-based Tribune Co., corporate parent of The Times, KTLA-TV Channel 5, the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers and TV stations across the country, visited The Times’ Washington bureau Tuesday to deliver a message about priorities to the news staff there. In a fractious meeting, Zell said The Times had many more newspeople in Washington than in Orange County and that those numbers ought to be reversed. As for foreign news, Zell has said in other forums that journalists tend to like it more than readers do.
If Zell’s point is that the real money is in local news, the recent experience of the Daily News, the Orange County Register and the regional dailies ringing the Bay Area -- all more locally oriented than The Times -- has been a discouraging counter example. Their inability to keep ad revenue from falling at double-digit percentages year over year has led to staff reductions that further hobble local news coverage.
The Mercury News is part of the Bay Area News Group, a chain of 23 daily and 12 weekly newspapers owned by Denver-based MediaNews Group, which also owns the Daily News, the Long Beach Press-Telegram, the Torrance-based Daily Breeze and other papers in Southern California. MediaNews claims total paid daily circulation in California of 1.1 million, making it the state’s biggest news operation in that category.
At the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, which includes the Oakland Tribune and Contra Costa Times, all but a handful of the approximately 1,100 employees have been offered a voluntary buyout with a maximum of six months’ pay. The group hasn’t announced how many staff reductions it wants to achieve, but if it can’t reach its target through voluntary buyouts, it will resort to layoffs that come with a maximum of only three months’ severance.
The Times’ buyout program -- which grants one week’s pay per six months of service, up to a maximum of 52 weeks -- also has a stick. The severance is identical for buyouts and layoffs, but Publisher David D. Hiller said that if staff reductions were necessary next year, severance would be half this year’s amount. The reductions will bring the newsroom head count to below 850 from about 875 now. At its peak about a decade ago, the newsroom had more than 1,200 employees.
The maximum severance for Daily News workers is six weeks’ pay.
The Daily News and the independently-owned Orange County Register have tried to address their staffing problems creatively with informal coverage-sharing initiatives worked out editor-to-editor rather than at the corporate level.
“We’re taking their Angels stories, and they’re taking our Dodgers stories,” said Brent Hopkins, a veteran reporter and steward of the newspaper’s union.
Still, he noted that the Daily News has been forced to cut back its business section to a single page and drastically reduce its coverage of areas outside the core San Fernando Valley.
Consolidation among papers in the Los Angeles area not only has thinned out the press box at baseball games but has affected coverage of government.
Where six or eight reporters once routinely covered the Board of Supervisors and county agencies, now there are only two or three on the county beat, said Joel Bellman, a longtime spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
“I think people are losing any understanding of what local government does and how it figures in people’s lives,” Bellman said. “There is the paper there, but there is no substantive understanding of the government beat anymore. We simply fade away like the Cheshire Cat.”