Two weeks ago, a change took place that will alter the landscape of media in the East Bay from this point forward.
The sale of the Contra Costa Times by the McClatchy Co. in April 2006 gave MediaNews Group of Denver unprecedented concentration of ownership of newspapers in the Bay Area. Then it was announced that on Monday, the Contra Costa Times and ANG newspapers, the Bay Area division of MediaNews, will consolidate their newsrooms into one entity. They will reduce staff accordingly. Locally this will affect the San Ramon Valley Times and the Tri-Valley Herald, but it will also involve the Oakland Tribune and several other Northern California MediaNews-owned publications.
John Armstrong, vice president of MediaNews' California Newspapers Partnership, wrote in a memo to the staffs at the publications: "As we eliminate duplication of effort in our newsrooms, we will reduce the size of the editorial staff. It is our hope attrition will cover this reduction, but there is no guarantee that layoffs can be avoided."
"Streamlining" is not bad in and of itself. Reducing redundancy is a good business practice. It is also good when the result of streamlining is more time and resources to produce more and better products or services. But this is not the concept of this consolidation; this is to reduce costs and increase profits for the shareholders. And this cost reduction strategy is costly for the public. Fewer news gatherers means fewer local stories, less depth in coverage and lower quality.
Consolidating newsrooms is not a new concept, nor is it unique to California. Bigger newspaper companies have been swallowing up smaller ones for decades. The shareholders and owners benefit, but the demise of these smaller newspaper companies is detrimental to the health of a society because we lose a significant cog in the democratic process.
The success of democracy is in part dependent upon having a number of diverse, local, independent news organizations to be the "watchdogs" for the public. Media consolidation stifles independent voices and limits public access, leaving increased censorship of divergent views and less coverage of politics and local issues.
Newspapers are not just a business - they are a public trust and an integral part of the American democracy. While everyone understands the need to make a profit to cover expenses and employ the news gatherers, we must also take into consideration the importance of keeping local media strong. Owners and shareholders might need to give up the 20 percent profit margins, which they are keeping through reduction in staffing, to keep the newsrooms strong.
When we consolidate two, three, four newsrooms into one and eliminate the journalists, we silence a number of the "watchdogs," leaving only one voice to be heard. And if that one voice becomes weak, hindered or compromised in some way, well, it's the only one we have.
This reminds me of a John Mayer song lyric: "When they own the information they can bend it all they want."
Your thoughts and comments are encouraged.
Gina Channell-Allen, a 20-year journalism veteran, is publisher of the Danville Weekly and the president of the East Bay division of Embarcadero Publishing Co. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.