Battle for the Soul of ANG

The sudden "resignation" of ANG Newspapers publisher P. Scott McKibben gives some employees a cause for hope.

Word first broke at the Fremont Argus. Within hours, Gerald Grilly, the chief operating officer for MediaNews Group, dropped the bomb before a shocked group of Oakland Tribune employees. As Grilly made his way to the Tri-Valley Herald and Hayward’s Daily Review, two of the other dailies published by the chain’s subsidiary, ANG Newspapers, phone calls were flying out of the Argus and Trib newsrooms. Soon, everyone knew the score: P. Scott McKibben, the hard-ass, high-flying ANG publisher who had steered the organization through six years of boom times and recession, was fired.

Well, not exactly fired. For both “personal and professional” reasons, McKibben had decided to move on with his life and, wouldn’t you know it, replacement publisher Beverly Jackson had already flown in to take over. But what editorial staffers at the chain’s seven newspapers heard was McKibben’s head rolling down the stairs. One ANG employee claims to have watched as Nancy Conway, the company’s elated executive editor, doled out the high-fives.

For years, the MediaNews Group and its founder, Dean Singleton, have religiously followed a formula of focusing on local affairs and cutting costs so ruthlessly that the news coverage is often left in the hands of reporters in the twilight of their careers or underpaid cubs who leave as soon as they can. To its credit, it’s kept alive papers that were written off long ago, but the reporting has been merely adequate, the writing is often denuded of any spark, and the editorial leadership disappoints its own staff time and again. To many of the company’s reporters, who have fought over their contract for years, McKibben embodied the company’s policy of staring down unions at all costs, bleeding the papers white, and kicking money upstairs to finance boss Singleton’s relentless newspaper-buying spree. Now that McKibben is gone, some reporters are indulging the cautious hope that a new, more generous policy may be in the air, and that maybe they won’t have to be ashamed of their own product much longer.

McKibben insists that he made the decision to leave, but if so, it came at considerable cost to his own personal prestige. As publisher of one of the East Bay’s two dominant newspaper chains, McKibben breathed such rarefied air and enjoyed such stellar company that his fall from grace is particularly staggering. He is president of the Oakland Chamber of Commerce, and counts among his personal friends Oakland City Manager Robert Bobb and Raiders owner Al Davis. He lives in Ruby Hills, an exclusive Pleasanton gated community and country club, and he’s organized black-tie charity affairs that became the events of the season. One staffer claims that reporters at the Tri-Valley Herald were forced to cover these events and puff up his beneficence, although the publisher denies forcing such vanity duty on anyone working under him. At the Super Bowl, McKibben sat with Virginia Senator George Allen. “He saw himself as a growing force in the community,” one ANG staffer says. “It was clear that his stature was important to him.”

So were his right-wing politics, which one reporter claims he “wore on his sleeve and loved to flaunt it in the liberal East Bay.” At a December 2000 lunch to honor reporters who had worked for the chain for five years, McKibben held up the ceremony while he gloated over George Bush’s victory in the Supreme Court. “For five minutes, he giddily went on about how pleased he was that Bush was president,” one reporter says. “People looked at each other and cringed. I would have felt that way even if I were a Republican.” And disgruntled staffers claim he applied this conservatism only too vigorously to labor negotiations, which have stalled for years. “I think he’s at front and center of everything that’s wrong with our contract talks,” one reporter says.

McKibben refuses to comment on anything related to labor negotiations, but claims that the company was relatively healthy during his tenure, and even contributed to the revitalization of the East Bay’s inner cities. “We were one of the businesses that led to the renaissance of downtown Oakland,” he says. “In 1998, when we agreed to lease the Trib tower, there was nothing but pigeons down there.” Still, there’s no doubt McKibben became the personification of company labor policy, which has led to worsening morale and anger in the newsroom, where starting reporter salaries remain a miserly $27,000. Not for nothing is one union newsletter called the ANGer.

But on the labor front McKibben was only carrying his chief executive officer’s water. For years, Singleton’s antilabor credentials have made him one of the most hated newspaper magnates in America: He wiped out the union at a Paterson, New Jersey paper in the early 1980s, fired sixty staffers two days after buying the Trenton Times in 1980, and has reduced the Oakland Tribune‘s staff from 630 to 280 since buying it in 1992. Scott Sherman wrote a recent profile of Singleton for the Columbia Journalism Review, in which he relays an anecdote about MediaNews’ latest newspaper purchase, Northern California’s Paradise Post. “Is there a union there?” one of Singleton’s lieutenants asked during a meeting. “No,” answered a second. “Why do you think they call it Paradise?”

But if you read Singleton’s tea leaves, you can find evidence that his days of no-frills, grow-at-all-costs journalism might be coming to an end. For the last few years, Singleton has thrown himself into transforming the Denver Post, his flagship property, into one of the nation’s preeminent newspapers — a project that hasn’t exactly worked out. And Sherman’s profile described Singleton delivering a recent speech on the state of American journalism. “Newsroom cost cuts have gone far enough — perhaps too far,” Singleton said. According to several ANG reporters, these were almost exactly the words Grilly, the MediaNews COO and hatchet man, uttered when he introduced its new publisher last week.

Over the years, Singleton has pursued a monolithic business plan. Borrowing as much money as possible, he has bought up small suburban papers in regional “clusters” throughout the country, stripped them to the bone, centralized operations such as copy editing and layout, and marketed them as a block to national advertisers. But this strategy hasn’t netted him the 20 percent-plus profits of a Knight Ridder, which owns the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News. According to its latest annual report, MediaNews managed to make money during the Internet boom years only by selling off some of its assets. Although the company has stabilized its profits in the last two years, it’s laboring under almost $1 billion in debt and recently had its credit rating reduced to junk-bond status. According to newspaper industry analyst John Morton, MediaNews will find it tough to leverage itself and grow much further: “The debt does put a restraint on MediaNews making any significant acquisitions.”

That’s too bad for Singleton, ’cause one property he’d probably sell his kids for just went on the market. The family that owns the Orange County Register, one of the country’s largest (and most conservative) suburban papers, recently announced that it was for sale. Singleton already owns a cluster of small papers in the Los Angeles suburbs, with the Daily News being the jewel in his LA crown; if he could pick up the Register, he could surround the Los Angeles Times with a ring of MediaNews papers and challenge it for circulation supremacy. But raising the estimated $400 million may be out of his reach. “If he’s got the financial wherewithal, yeah, he’d love to buy the Orange County Register,” Morton says. But to raise the money, the analyst believes Singleton would have to sell off another one of his biggest properties: “The only ones that are big enough to make an impact, I don’t think he’d want to dump.”

In addition, Citizen Singleton is waiting for the Federal Communications Commission to end its longtime ban on “cross-ownership,” or owning a paper and a television or radio station in the same market. If the FCC opens that door, Singleton would love to snatch up a few Denver broadcast stations. But again, that costs money, and MediaNews is at the end of its credit line. The only way left for Singleton to raise capital, Morton suggests, is to boost circulation. And that means making his newspapers better.

Which explains why some ANG reporters are fantasizing that Singleton has decided quality journalism is good for business, and that McKibben, who describes himself as a “financially disciplined publisher,” was not the man for the job. In their wilder dreams, sportswriters would no longer have to pull double duty as copy editors, reporters would make enough money to consider sticking around, and the papers would get hungry and edgy. It’s a dream that was vaguely echoed by new publisher Beverly Jackson when she reportedly promised more money for editorial on her watch.

Still, ANG staffers have grown used to the feel of the lash on their backs. They’ll believe it when they see it.

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