.The Berkeley Daily Planet: A Personal Obituary

A former longtime reporter details the rise and fall of Berkeley's hometown newspaper.

Unlike most of the other papers for which I have reported, the Berkeley Daily Planet never made one dime.

Advertising green and not printer’s ink is the life blood of any newspaper, and neither of the paper’s two regimes could find enough business and classified advertisers to stem the flow of red ink on the corporate ledgers.

The Berkeley Daily Planet also was a misnomer, but it’s the brand that Becky and Mike O’Malley bought when they took over the last remaining assets of a six-days-a-week newspaper founded by Peninsula-based investors and which had published between April 7, 1999, and November 22, 2002. The final print incarnation began as a twice-weekly under the O’Malleys on April 1, 2003, and it eventually became a weekly publication. I was hired three months after the O’Malleys took over, and was laid off four months before the presses stopped on February 25, 2010.

While the first version of the newspaper aimed at a general audience, carrying wire service stories on national and international events along with a sports page, the second incarnation focused more narrowly, with its greatest emphases on land use and reader submissions in the form of letters to the editor and op-ed commentaries. In a town filled with transient students and renters, the paper chose to report on topics of more interest to property owners and older residents. Rock concerts, blockbuster films, and poetry slams were rejected for classical music performances, opera, theater, and art-house cinema reviews. Most advertisers look for younger readers.

Writing an obituary for the Berkeley Daily Planet may seem premature since the paper is still maintaining a web site and one reporter. But it’s safe to say that with the layoffs of all the staff except for reporter Riya Bhattacharjee and the demise of the print edition, it’s the end of a raucous era in a city known as the home of the Free Speech Movement.

The death of a newspaper isn’t big news these days, unless it’s a major daily like the Rocky Mountain News. But the Berkeley weekly’s demise was noted by a few papers and on web sites that track newspaper layoffs and closings — sites with names such as Newspaper Death Watch and Paper Cuts.

It’s also open to question whether any newspaper devoted to Berkeley could make enough money to pay full-time reporters and give them the time to dig deeply into community events. But I was able to do that for most of my time at the newspaper.

That’s because my primary beat was land use.

Much of my time was devoted to meeting coverage: At various times I covered the Berkeley Planning Commission, the Zoning Adjustments Board, the Downtown Area Plan Advisory Committee, the Landmarks Preservation Commission, assorted other special committees, along with occasional city council coverage. With the exception of the council meetings, I was usually the only reporter at most of the meetings which focused on one of the city’s key disputes, the development question.

Such reporting was once the bread and butter of community newspapers, accounts of government in action by reporters writing to keep the public informed of critical events that will shape the future of the places where they live and work. And the issue is critical. As I reported over the course of two city council elections, the development industry comprises the largest bloc of contributions to municipal candidates in a city where the Planning and Development Department is funded by developer-paid fees.

In addition to my coverage of local government, I also reported extensively on Bay Area tribal casino projects and their backers, the toxic histories of major proposed development sites in Richmond, the implications of the University of California at Berkeley’s $500 million, BP-funded agrofuel research grant, and other campus conflicts.

But the paper’s narrow focus and the newspaper’s development-critical editorial take — along with a fair number of op-eds and letters — alienated development and smart-growth advocates, along with an unknown number of potential advertisers and their dollars. In fact, just how long the O’Malleys could keep the paper going was a frequent topic of employee conversations.

Becky O’Malley wasn’t the easiest editor I’ve worked with, in part because a lot of her expectations were never voiced. And, like many of her critics, she lets her anger show.

I was hired as managing editor and was demoted after six months, basically because we had different expectations of my job and what a newspaper’s role should be. I was much happier as a reporter anyway, and she didn’t cut my pay.

She’s also the most assertively outspoken of the editors I’ve known, and on several occasions she shouted out during public meetings. But the one time I included her outbursts in a story, the sentence vanished during the editing process.

Other reporters left in frustration, one — Judith Scherr — very publicly. In a widely reported e-mail, she declared, “After 2.5 years of being insulted, berated and lied to by the Daily Planet’s executive editor — and having my stories distorted by the deletion of quotes from persons Becky O’Malley hates and the addition of her nasty remarks about such people — I have left the Planet.”

Two other reporters, while commenting on O’Malley’s strong personality, said they left more from frustration at the paper’s narrow focus. Her temperament also produced stronger reactions in the community than anything I’d seen before. People either like her or loathe her, and some of the latter still tried to use her. But she has a vision of the community shared with many of her readers, and she provided a platform for some good journalism.

One of her traits is a love of boisterous encounters, and, to a degree I’ve never seen before, she opened the pages of her paper to wide-ranging discussion of contentious issues by a broad spectrum of the community. She also espouses left-liberal politics, another potential snag with attracting advertisers.

O’Malley’s never been short of opinions herself, and her editorial pages featured often-cantankerous letters and commentaries written by some very smart — and sometimes daft — people. And that’s what landed the paper in its penultimate struggle.

Headlined “Zionist Crimes in Lebanon,” a 701-word commentary appearing in the Planet on August 8, 2006, ignited a firestorm still smoldering today.

Iranian-born Kurosh Arianpour, a former Berkeley resident and Cal student, had e-mailed the submission from India, where he was continuing his education. Arianpour’s argument, triggered by the latest round of battles between Israel and rocket-firing militants on the Lebanese border, espoused a classic trope of 20th-century anti-Jewish bigotry, contending that Jews were hated because of “their racist attitude that they are the ‘Chosen People.’ Because of this attitude, they do wrong to other people to the point that others turn against them, namely, become anti-Semite if you will. Since they think they are the Chosen People they can murder Lebanese and Palestinian children at will.”

Two joint letters to the editor quickly followed. Nine rabbis and the leaders of fourteen Jewish community groups signed the first “to express our pain and disappointment at your use of your newspaper for promoting hatred against Jews.” They called Arianpour’s commentary “not only hurtful and hateful but dangerous.”

The second letter, written by Rabbi Ferenc Raj of Berkeley’s Congregation Beth El, called the commentary an example of racism that “violates all that our city and region stands for” and called for a public apology from Becky O’Malley. Accompanying the rabbi’s signature were those of the mayors of Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville, Assemblywoman Loni Hancock, state Senator Don Perata, and four members of the Berkeley City Council.

But the real damage came from a threefold campaign — web site, direct mail, and in-person visits — which aimed to strip the Planet of advertising, credibility, and support by branding the paper as an anti-Semitic, violence-provoking left-wing rag. The three leading provocateurs, all militant Zionists already angered by the paper’s role as a forum for pro-Palestinian voices, intensified their attacks in 2009, describing themselves as representatives of three distinct organizations.

John Gertz, a producer who markets the Zorro brand inherited from his father, launched DPWatchdog.com, a strident and provocative web site designed, he said, to promote the newspaper’s reform.

Jim Sinkinson, an Oakland-based publicist and publisher, sent repeated mailings to advertisers, warning them that continued support of an anti-Semitic newspaper would cost them their Jewish and right-thinking clientele. He even included a stamped postcard they could send the Planet to cancel their ad contracts. Sinkinson, who earns his livelihood teaching public relations types how to spin the press, signed his letters as a representative of East Bay Citizens for Journalist Responsibility, a group never heard from before or in any other context.

Dan Spitzer, a travel writer and frequent writer of letters to the editor of Bay Area papers, made in-store visits, carrying the same message, this time on behalf of the Israel Action Committee of the East Bay, the one organization that did antedate the attacks.

After I wrote extensively about the campaign, I was attacked in turn, even accused of conspiring to plot a violent attack on one of the groups. As Gertz wrote on his web site: “Reporter Richard Brenneman certainly seems to be acting like a guru crazed cultist. We believe that this is in keeping with his personal history. We believe that he may even have sent a coded message to fellow cultists calling for violence against us (a kind of Chauncey Bailey/Your Black Muslim bakery situation in reverse, where it is the newspaper that goes on the attack). For security purposes. We cannot give you details at this time, but his action caused us to seek police protection.”

Suffice it to say that the police never even bothered to call me.

Simultaneous with the attack, the economy was tanking. The paper lost one of its mainstay advertisers when Elephant Pharmacy went bust in February 2009, and another when Berkeley’s Green Motors closed late last year.

Business closings and lost advertising have killed scores of papers in recent years as readers migrated to the online world and publishers struggled to find ways to ways to recoup them on the Internet, and those impacts were magnified at the Planet, which had never made a profit. In addition, city code enforcement officers were cracking down on graffiti-sprayed newsracks, levying fines and ordering removal of multi-paper “pods” on the city’s streets — vital for distribution of free papers, including the East Bay Express.

The culminating blow came to light after two reporters were laid off last October, when the paper learned that its outside accounting firm had been underreporting payrolls to the state, and apparently siphoning off payroll taxes, leaving the newspaper with a tax liability that could run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. O’Malley announced the fraud in the February 4 edition, reporting that payroll-processing firm “Clickbooks had been cashing our checks, all right, but they had been significantly underpaying the taxes and pocketing the difference. We are now engaged in the painful process of trying to figure out how much we still owe the various government tax collectors.” The Planet wasn’t the only victim of the fraud, O’Malley said, and the total loss to up to 100 local businesses could run into the millions.

A week later came the announcement that print version of the Planet would end with the February 25 edition.

Two historians, one an academic and the other a passionate amateur, offered me some perspective on the Daily Planet and its place in their domain.

Gray Brechin, who holds a doctorate in geography from UC Berkeley, wrote about the consolidation of San Francisco newspapers early in the 20th century in his landmark 1999 book, Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power, Earthly Ruin, where events paralleled those of the most recent wave of mergers and acquisitions. “I really think it’s a tragedy,” he said of the Daily Planet’s folding as a print publication. “It’s such a rare thing for any community these days to have an independent family-owned newspaper to serve as a forum for open discussion of issues important to the community.”

Brechin said he was certain the news brought smiles to many of his colleagues at the university. “The biotech people will be delighted,” he said, along with the paper’s foes on either side of the town/gown divide. “It’s really sad that the paper’s critics were willing to sacrifice the paper for their own agendas.”

In describing the potential impacts on the local scene, Brechin cited one of his favorite California authors, Upton Sinclair, who wrote in The Brass Check, “It does not destroy the steel trust if there are a few independent steel makers, it does not destroy the money trust if there are a few independent men of wealth, but it does destroy the news trust if there is a single independent newspaper to let the cat out of the bag.”

Richard Schwartz is Berkeley’s unofficial town historian and the author of several books on its history, including Earthquake Exodus, 1906: Berkeley Responds to the San Francisco Refugees, Eccentrics, Heroes, and Cutthroats of Old Berkeley, and Berkeley 1900: Daily Life at the Turn of the Century. Schwartz said he relies heavily on newspaper archives at the Berkeley Public Library and the university’s Doe and Bancroft libraries in researching local history. “The Planet had a focus on land use and covered it in great depth,” he said. “It covered the political scene in a way that can’t be done otherwise. Without the paper, there’s nowhere out there to give us the insight on those issues. We’re going to be flying blind.”

The Daily Planet isn’t the first Berkeley newspaper to fold, and it’s not the last paper published in the city — that honor goes to the Daily Californian. Collections in the three libraries include at least 23 now-vanished papers ranging from the Berkeley Advance (1905-06) to the West Berkeley News (1892-95). The last mainstream paper, the Berkeley Gazette, folded in 1984. The Berkeley Barb, the city’s famous alternative newspaper, had folded four years earlier.

Looking back at the paper and its controversial editor, Brechin said, “I, like everybody else in Berkeley, have had problems with Becky O’Malley. But I really developed a respect for her because she didn’t shy away from controversial issues, including the Palestinian question.”

While ostensibly mourning the paper’s loss, John Gertz offered this at his web site: “The Daily Planet announced today that it is ceasing print operations, effective February 25. It will apparently continue on, at least for a while, as some kind of online echo chamber for Marxist and jihadi opinion, devoid of reportage.”

But a lot of people in Berkeley will miss the printed paper, both for its articles and for the sense of community the paper provided. The paper’s supporters also will no longer have a newspaper to champion their causes. And with the Berkeley Daily Planet no longer a visible presence in the community, even its foes may feel a certain nostalgia for the paper, as well as the absence of a potent symbol onto which they could blame their own failures.


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