A Special City Loses Its Voice
The death of the Oakland Tribune is leaving its city without a voice. Moreover, its killing symbolizes the contempt that newspaper publishers feel toward the communities they purportedly serve.
This week, the Tribune, where I began my career, was combined with four other papers owned by the Bay Area News Group, which calls itself BANG. The historic paper, which was founded in 1874, will now share the title East Bay Tribune. The News Fix blog on the website of KQED, the San Francisco public television and radio station, quoted a union official as saying 120 jobs would be eliminated, 48 from newsrooms, in this and other BANG consolidations.
Oakland, a city of almost 400,000 across the bay from San Francisco, is an American urban classic. Oaklanders — African-Americans, whites, Latinos, Asians and people of other races and ethnicities — have survived a declining industrial economy, crime and racial tensions. Oakland, as a city, is both nondescript and fascinating. Great African-American and country and western music was nurtured there, as were the Black Panthers and the Hells Angels. Today, it can be as mean as its National Football League team, the Raiders, or as smart as Billy Beane (who is portrayed in the book and forthcoming movie “Moneyball”), general manager of Oakland’s American League baseball team, the Athletics.
Through it all, the Oakland Tribune covered the city like a blanket, as they used to say, although the blanket once had gaping holes when it came to reporting on race or Democratic politics. That was the situation when I started my career on the Tribune, my hometown paper, as a copy messenger, rising to rewrite/reporter.
In the mid-1950s, the Oakland Tribune was a prosperous last gasp of the old-time newspaper days. Eight editions a day rolled out of the Tribune Tower, in the heart of the working-class city’s downtown, beginning at shortly after 9 a.m. until late in the afternoon. First was the Red Streak, then the Green Streak, the Blue Streak and the Blue Streak chaser, all for sale on the street with the opening stocks, the midday stocks and the closing stocks; the ball scores; the late horse racing scratches, entries and results; the airplane crashes; the kidnappings and the murders.
The biggest stories were splashed across Page 1 under a headline of the kind reserved in later decades for the beginning or end of a war. In between the four streaks, there were the home editions, the D, the D*, the E and the E*, with the same stories but with a more conservative makeup. In the fourth-floor city room, a bank of rewriters pounded out new leads or new stories for each edition, spurred on by the cry from the city desk to “smoke it up.”
This was how America, at least urban and suburban America, used to get its news.
It has been many years since news was delivered in that fashion. The Internet, with its multitude of informers, and television are now America’s main sources of news. Yet the obligations that faced us typewriter-era scribes remain. In fact, they exceed in complexity anything we could have imagined.
Take the region whose papers are now consolidated under the East Bay Tribune title. It covers four distinct areas, each with its own city hall, courthouses, law enforcement, schools, hospitals and the many other aspects of civic life that help people and also provide great opportunities for incompetence and corruption. How can all this be covered by a decimated BANG staff?
BANG is consolidating six more papers, including the once-excellent Contra Costa Times, under a different banner. This new organization, amalgamating under the title of The Times, will face the same impossible task of reporting on its myriad communities without the staff needed to do the job. Most illustrative of BANG’s disdain of its civic responsibility is the way the organization is reducing its coverage in one of the few places in the United States that is innovative and increasing employment and profits, Silicon Valley. The San Jose Mercury News, nationally famed for its coverage of the Valley, has been cut down to BANG size, and the San Mateo Times, which reported on northern portions of the area, is being folded into it.
I understand the bad economics of the business. BANG’s parent, MediaNewsGroup, faced with declining revenues, is cutting expenses, as is its parent, Affiliated Media Inc., which has filed for bankruptcy protection.
But cutting staff is really bad economics. News, and plenty of it, brings in readers, page views, followers and clicks — fans who keep up the advertising rates. Reducing news drives them away. So does the elimination of a masthead that bears the name of the readers’ hometown.
In addition to losing readers, these false economies are destructive to democracy. The huge retrenchment in the federal government is being felt in city halls, county hospitals, schoolhouses, courts, statehouses and many other institutions. It’s as important for journalists to cover this destruction as it is to report on the Washington decisions that mandated the cutbacks. Such reporting can’t be done with a skeleton staff.
The staff cutbacks also leave these institutions unguarded against corruption. An energetic beat reporter, constantly reporting, tweeting, blogging, videoing and writing stories, is a scary sight to a corrupt official.
BANG and the other budget cutters could manage their staffs better to avoid or at least minimize layoffs. Bosses might be smart and improve their staffing deployment. What about asking some of the top reporters how to do this instead of firing them? As an ex-manager, I know it can be done. A newspaper shouldn’t leave decisions that affect the very identity of the publication to the chief financial officer or the frightened bureaucrats in human relations.
Recapturing the old days of newspapers is impossible. But it is possible to emulate the spirit of those hard-digging journalists who were dedicated to covering their cities and towns. If today’s publishers had that dedication and a sense of civic responsibility, they would figure out how to get a real bang for the buck and democracy would be better served.