Local To A Point

The news in ANG Newspapers is local. Their salary negotiators are not.

Dean Singleton’s mantra is “Local, local, local.” He built his newspaper empire on small and midsize dailies weighted heavily with local news. But on April 26, when he announced his plans to become the Bay Area’s dominant newspaper owner, he said “local” meant more to him than just news content. It was an essential part of his purported decentralized management style. “We let local management make all the decisions,” the San Jose Mercury News quoted him as saying.

“Lean Dean,” as Singleton is sometimes called because of his history of sucking the profits out of newspapers in order to buy more, promised to take a hands-off approach to two of the Bay Area’s best dailies, the Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. He vowed not to cut salaries, and said he would let “local managers” handle the Mercury News‘ upcoming labor negotiations. The Merc‘s contracts with three of its five unions, including reporters, copy editors, and photographers, expire June 30.

But if Singleton keeps his word, it will mark a sharp contrast to how he has operated his existing East Bay news chain, ANG Newspapers. In my six-plus years as a reporter at ANG, both for the Daily Review in Hayward and the Oakland Tribune, Singleton’s imprint on the papers was unmistakable. It’s true that local managers made most of the day-to-day decisions, but if they failed to adhere to his strict policy of maximizing profits and cutting costs — they were gone. Singleton churned through four publishers in my six years there.

Labor negotiations at ANG were no less centralized. During the nearly three years I spent on the labor negotiating team representing unionized employees (I was the vice chair of the union that represented reporters, photographers, and copy editors), ANG’s management team was led by MediaNews vice president Jim Janiga — a close adviser to Singleton who neither worked for ANG nor lived in Northern California. His bargaining team included three ANG managers, but he outranked them all on the MediaNews corporate ladder and he called all of the shots.

Janiga’s often-caustic approach to negotiations reflected Singleton and MediaNews’ anti-union sentiments. Janiga talks with a Texas drawl and can appear charming, reasonable, and friendly — much like his boss, Singleton. But he also is both vengeful and bullheaded and has a volcanic temper. Above all, he’s virulently anti-union. During one of our early negotiating sessions, he equated unionized reporters with the mob-connected Jimmy Hoffa of the Teamsters. Janiga made the comment with a smile — but he wasn’t joking.

In fact, he appeared uncomfortable just to be seen with union members. He steadfastly refused our requests to negotiate at the Tribune Tower in downtown Oakland or at the Northern California Newspaper Guild offices in San Francisco. Instead, he preferred to spend MediaNews’ cash on East Bay hotel conference rooms — and demanded that we share the costs, knowing that our only source of revenue was from reporters’ dues.

When I arrived in early 1998, ANG employees were on the verge of completing twelve frustrating years of trying to convince Janiga and Singleton to agree to the first union contract at the papers. When the deal was inked that summer, it was widely viewed as one of the most anti-employee pacts in the newspaper business. It called for the starting reporter’s salary at the Oakland Tribune to be $26,000 a year. Nonetheless, ANG reporters and photographers were relieved to at least have a contract. Janiga, however, quickly spoiled the upbeat mood. In a mean-spirited letter to every employee, he announced that the company was immediately ending the life insurance plan for union members — because it wasn’t included in the new pact.

He did much the same thing a few years later during the prolonged negotiations for the next contract. From the beginning of negotiations in 2001, we made it clear that one of our top priorities was gaining domestic partner benefits for employees. But Janiga immediately rejected our proposal. So in the ensuing months, we attempted to pressure him into changing his mind with the help of East Bay gay and lesbian groups. In response, Janiga and ANG management granted domestic partner benefits to all non-union employees, but continued to refuse them to us.

It would be nearly two years before Janiga agreed to grant domestic partner benefits to union employees. From June 2001, when negotiations began, to January 2004, when we finally signed the second contract, he repeatedly employed such stalling tactics. He often said he was too busy with other MediaNews issues to meet with us — and when he did, he usually dismissed our proposals out of hand. His hardline stance angered union members, but it saved ANG a lot of money. Because of the way the first contract was written, Janiga and ANG refused to grant cost-of-living raises to union employees during the thirty months between when the first contract expired and the new one was signed.

The current contract, which is in effect until January 2007, is by no means a great pact either. There are a few improvements — such as 3 percent annual raises (the first contract made no such guarantees). But Janiga refused to grant retroactive pay raises, and the starting annual salary for reporters is now just $29,120.

It wasn’t for lack of trying on our part. When Trib reporter Sean Holstege, then the chair of the union, and I sat down in my backyard in early 2001 and came up with our proposal for the new pact, we borrowed heavily from the contract at Singleton’s flagship paper, the Denver Post. The Post has a decent contract — not as good as that of the Mercury News — but far better than ANG. We knew Janiga wouldn’t give us everything the Post reporters had, but we hoped to convince him that the only way to spur growth at ANG, stop the constant turnover of employees, and transform the papers into good local dailies was to invest in the staff. Janiga told us bluntly that we had no business trying to tell MediaNews how to run its operations.

It’s true that Alameda County cannot match Denver’s population growth or its retail advertising base. It’s also true that Singleton saved the Tribune from closing when he bought it in the early 1990s. But during the last two decades, he has proven over and over that his business model for ANG was not to invest in the newspaper chain and attempt to turn it into the best one he could. Instead, he squeezed as much as was humanly possible from ANG’s underpaid staff to pay off debts he took on buying newspapers elsewhere.

The resulting effects on ANG’s employees and on the quality of the papers were multifaceted — and nearly all bad. The low pay — especially for the Bay Area — prompted many of the chain’s best reporters in the past decade to leave. Recent examples include Sean Holstege, who is now at the Arizona Republic; Matthew B. Stannard and Benny Evangelista, who both went to the San Francisco Chronicle; and Kim Vo and Lisa Fernandez, who went to the Merc. (Disclosure: Holstege, Stannard, and Vo are my friends, and Fernandez is my wife.) Don’t get me wrong: There are still several top-notch reporters, photographers, and editors at ANG. But many of them feel stuck there unless they’re willing to leave the Bay Area. In the past half-decade, both the Merc and the Chron have laid off more newsroom employees than they have hired.

As a result, ANG’s five newspapers now have fewer than two dozen really good reporters, who are surrounded by dozens of completely inexperienced ones, along with veterans not good enough to jump to a better paper. The low pay and lack of benefits also make it difficult for ANG to attract and keep top-quality editors, who can inspire and teach young reporters. Consequently, the newspapers appear at times to be entrenched in mediocrity, riddled with typos and chockfull of superficial stories that few people read.

So what does this all mean for the Merc and the CoCo Times, where reporters and photographers both are paid much better than at ANG? The big question is whether Singleton needs to siphon money from his new acquisitions to pay the more than $1 billion in total debt that MediaNews will have following the close of the deal. If ANG serves as any kind of model, then Singleton’s “local management” will spend no more money on staff than it absolutely has to; it certainly won’t invest in the papers to make them better.

Singleton will probably keep his promise and not cut salaries of current employees. But the Times is nonunion, so it will be relatively easy for him to replace higher-paid reporters with lower-paid ones as the veterans leave the paper over time. If so, the results will mirror ANG. At the Merc, meanwhile, don’t be surprised if Janiga leads the “local managers” in contract negotiations. And if I know Janiga, he will dig in his heels and demand that Merc be able to hire new reporters at far lower salaries.

But I hope that I’m wrong. I hope that Singleton purchased the Merc and the Times because he wanted to buy himself credibility, and that he plans to treat them like the Denver Post and at least maintain their current levels of journalistic excellence. And maybe he will finally decide to invest in ANG. In the past couple of years, he has made a few smart hires at the chain, including its new executive editor Kevin Keane. But if treats his new purchases as he treated ANG in the past, any hopes he has of gaining credibility will be lost.

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