It’s far too premature to write about the demise of the San Francisco Chronicle, but it may be fair to say that the moves taking place over at the once-mighty newspaper’s headquarters these days have a faint murmur of a death march.
Highly respected editors and reporters some consider among the most talented at the paper are being called into meetings and then quietly escorted from the building at Fifth and Mission streets, leaving those behind in shocked silence. It is the grim, somewhat inevitable consequence of an organization that lost its way and panicked in its efforts to finda way out.
I note this with great sadness — many of the people being fired are longtime friends and colleagues, highly respected practitioners of their craft. And the bloodletting has just begun. By the time it ends, 100 people — one-fourth of the Chronicle’s reporting and editing staff — will be gone, the highest employment toll in an industry in which newspapers are adapting to smaller profit margins and some are staggering to their next indeterminate phase.
The face of journalism is a grim mask these days. What is happening at the Chronicle is happening at newspapers all across America and certainly resounding in California, where the San Jose Mercury News and the Los Angeles Times are laying off droves of top-notch reporters and editors in an effort to balance the books. In recent days at the Times alone, nearly a half-dozen journalists with Pulitzer Prize pedigrees have departed, a case that normally would grab headlines in trade publications, but is being duplicated so often that’s it has almost become standard fare.
“It’s not even about survival anymore,’’ said one Chronicle writer I talked to this week. “Now it’s a question of timing.’’
These are tortuous times for anyone who cares about the news business. Not only are newspapers struggling to adapt against an onslaught of new media, they are increasingly faced with the old-line prospect of delivering bottom-line profits in an increasingly competitive and shrinking market.
Those that fail to adapt, or adapt quickly enough, find themselves cutting costs, sometimes at all costs. One of the reasons I am in this perch is because this newspaper and its sister publications in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore have embraced a fresh model, relying on a formula of local news, snappy presentation and targeted, steady growth in circulation and advertising. In an industry of the tried and true, it is the new and experimental. The old ways are all leading to the same path, a fact underscored by the rapid ownership transfer of venerable newspaper chains such as Times Mirror, the Tribune Corp. and Knight-Ridder.
What’s excruciating about the situation at the Chronicle is not that the Hearst-owned paper is finally owning up to reality, but that it’s taken so long. The Chronicle has lost, by its own estimation, at least $60 million a year since Hearst took over the paper in 2000. Other organizations would have immediately pounced on the fact that the paper’s editorial staff far exceeded that of any newspaper in its circulation class, but not Hearst, which bravely and blindly announced that there would be no layoffs after the acquisition.
Yet even when new management decided to try to slash union costs and reduce staff, it simply could not. After 13 years toiling at the Voice of the West, I took a buyout from the Chronicle in 2005 along with about 100 other journalists when the paper made a brief acknowledgment that it was in the midst of an economic seizure. And how did it react? By promptly hiring about half that many journalists back, as if new blood would somehow reinvigorate it.
By the time MediaNews took over the former Knight-Ridder papers in San Jose and Contra Costa County, Hearst realized that it was being strangled by a near monopoly. It desperately tried to cut a deal with MediaNews to create a business partnership that would cut its distribution and marketing costs, only to see the agreement scuttled by a federal antitrust lawsuit.
Once that deal went south, so did any hope that the Chronicle could survive its money-losing ways. Last month came the inevitable announcement that layoffs were on the way, with the shocking exit of such high-level editors as Robert Rosenthal, John Curley and Jim Finefrock.
Yet it’s just the beginning. I left the paper during a period of horribly low morale, and today, that would be considered a high time. Lists are being drawn up of the next 80 journalists to go, and the terms voluntary and involuntary layoffs are no longer indistinguishable.
Journalism used to be guided by the ideal “without fear or favor.’’ Now, sadly, it’s flooded with fear.
Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at email@example.com or call him at (415) 359-2663.