Just Call It the Tribune

The consolidation of East Bay newspapers makes sense, considering the past two decades. But what's with the new name?

When the owners of the Oakland Tribune announced last week that they were changing the newspaper’s name in November to the East Bay Tribune, it marked the end of a long era. The Tribune has been a basic part of Oakland’s fabric for 137 years. Last week’s announcement also prompted more handwringing about the decline of newspapers in general and Oakland’s loss of news-making clout in particular. In truth, however, the Tribune hasn’t really been the Oakland Tribune for many years, and readers of the paper will likely notice few changes other than the new name on the masthead.

Close observers of the Tribune know that it hasn’t been an Oakland-centric newspaper for a long time. Over the past two decades, MediaNews, the parent company of the Tribune and its sister papers in the East Bay, has gradually and steadily downsized the Trib‘s newsgathering abilities to cope with the decline of newspaper readership and the corporation’s staggering debts. It’s common knowledge in the industry that former MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton greatly overextended his company in the past fifteen years, repeatedly borrowing huge sums in order to buy more newspapers and build an empire. MediaNews, as a result, was forced to squeeze every penny it could from its papers to pay its massive bank loans, and the Tribune and its sister publications were no exception.

Singleton’s decision to borrow even more money in 2007 to buy the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News only made the debt problems worse. Consequently, the quality of these respected newspapers has declined in the past few years, as MediaNews has slashed expenses and laid off reporters, editors, and photographers to satisfy its creditors. And while it’s true that newspapers across the country have downsized rapidly in the past decade, the debts that Singleton accumulated made the problem even more acute in the Bay Area.

As such, daily readers of the Tribune and MediaNews’ other Bay Area publications have come to realize in recent years that their local newspapers aren’t that local. Any visit to an East Bay newsstand would have revealed that the Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, the Daily Review of Hayward, the Argus of Fremont, and even the San Jose Mercury News had basically become the same newspaper. That’s because in order to save money, and make up for the fact that each paper no longer had enough reporters and photographers to do comprehensive news coverage, MediaNews required the publications to share stories. So much so that the only thing that distinguished the publications in recent years, besides the differing mastheads, was where the stories appeared in each paper.

Alameda County readers, in fact, have been well aware of this trend, because MediaNews actually began it in the mid-1990s after it purchased the Tribune from the Maynard family and combined its operations with the Daily Review, the Argus, the Alameda-Times Star, and the Tri-Valley Herald in Pleasanton. The Times-Star has been the most glaring example of this consolidation: In the past fifteen years, it’s usually only had one or two reporters at a time covering the island city. It’s no secret for many subscribers of the Times-Star that they’ve actually been reading a version of the Tribune — under what amounted to a fake name.

From this perspective, it came as no surprise, then, that MediaNews honchos finally decided to end the charade. As of November 2, the Tribune, the Times-Star, the Daily Review, and the Argus, along with the West County Times, which serves the Richmond-El Cerrito area, will become known as the East Bay Tribune. And why not? They’ve all been basically the same paper for many years.

Likewise, the charade east of the hills is ending, too. The Contra Costa Times, Valley Times, Tri-Valley Herald, San Joaquin Herald, and East County Times will all become known as The Times. And finally, the San Mateo County Times, which for years had awkwardly shared stories with the Tribune and other East Bay papers owned by MediaNews, will be more fittingly absorbed by the San Jose Mercury News.

The consolidations, meanwhile, will be further cemented by layoffs. MediaNews, which, now, after bankruptcy, is run by the banks that loaned Singleton all that cash, also announced last week that it’s cutting about forty newsrooms jobs at its Bay Area newspapers. Fewer reporters, editors, and photographers, in turn, will continue to erode the quality of the publications while increasing their homogeneity.

Still, there’s one aspect of the MediaNews announcement that doesn’t seem to make much logical sense. And that’s the name: East Bay Tribune. First off, it has to be one of the blandest names for a newspaper anywhere. But then again, it’s hard to expect creativity from a company that calls itself MediaNews, and calls its local news operation: Bay Area News Group, or (embarrassingly) BANG for short.

Even so, why not just call the Tribune — the Tribune? After all, many readers have referred to the paper by that name for a long time. Plus, the Contra Costa Times is becoming just The Times. Why not do the same for the Trib?

But by insisting on the East Bay Tribune, MediaNews has alienated Oaklanders unnecessarily. And to what end? Does the company think that putting East Bay in the title will make the name change more palatable for subscribers in Richmond, Alameda, Hayward, and Fremont? If so, then the company appears to be misreading these communities. Readers who have grown up with their local papers probably aren’t going to be happy that the names Argus, Daily Review, etc. will no longer exist. And simply slapping East Bay in front of Tribune probably isn’t going to change that fact.

Three Dot Roundup

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