Reading the News

Guess which newspapers did the best job of covering the sale?

Articles about newspapers are seldom written with readers in mind. They’re stories about operational matters that only journalists care about, or rants by backseat drivers about how they’d run the paper if only they were editor. And so it was with coverage of the big Bay Area newspaper sale. Depending on where you read about it, you might not even know why you should care — but care you should. The deal will transform East Bay news coverage, not only in newspapers but also on the radio and TV stations that rely upon them.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates what’s at stake than the way the East Bay press covered this very event. If newspapers can’t tell readers why they are important, it’s no wonder that increasing numbers of people are concluding they’re not.

Most coverage reinforced the biases of the paper in which it appeared. The Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News recapped their own long histories. The East Bay Business Times followed the money. The San Francisco Chronicle obsessed on the surprise role of its own parent company. The San Francisco Bay Guardian dusted off its venerable storyline about a dire conspiracy to divide the newspaper market.

But perhaps no news organization betrayed more about itself than ANG Newspapers, the chain of impoverished local papers owned by triumphant bidder Dean Singleton. Coverage of the sale by Singleton’s Oakland Tribune, Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, and Tri-Valley Herald was dreadfully bad: thin as gruel, lacking in depth, and cravenly beholden to their owner’s perspective, but not even smart about that. Four of the seven people quoted worked for MediaNews — CEO Singleton, president Joseph Lodovic IV, ANG publisher Frederick B. Mott, and ANG executive editor Kevin G. Keane — but almost none of their comments answered any of the more interesting questions posed by the deal.

ANG’s coverage was a textbook example of what business reporting shouldn’t be — all numbers, company names, and financial details, with no effort to explain the company’s motivation, plan of action, or how the deal might change the lives of East Bay readers. It also was sadly typical of most ANG business coverage; perfunctory and press-release-driven, with little depth or nuance. If this was a preview of what to expect once Singleton owns everything — but maybe it’s not, since now he’ll have financial resources he’s lacked up to this point — the sale could be worse news than even the worrywarts have imagined.

Some of these same sins also applied to coverage by the Chronicle, the Associated Press, and even The Wall Street Journal. It was business coverage as sports reporting: who won, who lost, what the score was, but not much else.

Conspicuously absent in almost all these stories was any attempt to answer the questions that make this transaction more than just another “deal” in which a handful of executives walked away with multimillion-dollar severance packages. Which publications might be closed or transformed? Which writers or features might be added or removed? If old owner Knight Ridder was truly so virtuous and new owner MediaNews truly so disreputable, why then did MediaNews end up on top while the wealthier and more respected Knight Ridder is parted out like a stolen car?

Only two Bay Area newspapers distinguished themselves through their coverage of the deal — the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times. What does it say that the best coverage came from the papers that were sold and the worst from the East Bay’s new monopoly? Let’s try to remain optimistic, shall we?

The Merc was the only local paper to break any news about the deal, from the inside story of how Knight Ridder brushed off early hints that it put itself up for sale, to the tale of how CEO Tony Ridder was talked out of trying to buy back his local papers. Granted, the Merc had more invested in Knight Ridder’s death than any other paper, but covering your own company is a thankless, difficult task — which I learned firsthand during my four years at the Merc. The San Francisco Chronicle had both the resources and liberty to cover the sudden unraveling of a major Bay Area company and yet it was missing in action on a story it should have owned.

The Contra Costa Times, meanwhile, was comprehensive, upbeat, and yet skeptical, a worthy accomplishment for a nonunion staff that suddenly reports to a man infamous for making new employees reapply for their jobs. Only it addressed the question of which papers might go away, and only it seemed interested in how the sale might affect subscribers. Perhaps this focus on readers explains why the Times is the healthiest of all Bay Area dailies.

I bet Dean Singleton would agree with that statement. A few days before his big purchase, The New York Times quoted him as saying that most newspapers bore readers because too many reporters and editors write for one another, and not the public. Now he owns some publications that are precisely the kind of papers he talks about. Whether they continue to be so under his stewardship is the $1 billion question that readers should pay attention to. I’m hoping for the best but scared for the worst.

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