Now that the MediaNews Group, owner of nine metro dailies surrounding San Francisco, has bid for the San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, it may be instructive to look at the practice of sharing reporters and centralizing publishing known as clustering.
Denver-based MediaNews is one of the nation's leading practitioners of clustering – a way of operating multiple newspapers in a region by sharing, as much as is practical, the reporting, opinion, advertising, printing and distribution functions.
In essence, an owner treats its collection of newspapers in a region more like one larger newspaper with editions under separate nameplates "zoned" for various cities or counties than as independent or competing papers.
A review of MediaNews papers' staff structure in the East Bay and on the Peninsula reveals that most of the journalists listed on those papers' Web sites aren't actually located in those communities.
Pros and cons
Clustering advocates make two key claims about its effect on journalism: It saves newspapers that would otherwise go bankrupt; and it allows a collection of smaller papers to combine their resources so they can produce investigative and other reporting-intensive stories they otherwise could not afford to publish.
Skeptics argue that having fewer reporters compete to serve the public reduces the quality of journalism and the diversity of viewpoints available to the public. They also say that MediaNews doesn't spend enough on its Bay Area newsrooms to consistently produce journalism of the quality of the Mercury News or Contra Costa Times, despite having a combined Bay Area circulation greater than either Knight Ridder paper.
To see how clustering works at the Bay Area's MediaNews papers, Grade the News interviewed Mike Oliver, the regional editor of ANG papers and two former ANG staff writers. ANG, formerly called the Alameda Newspaper Group, includes all nine Bay Area dailies owned by MediaNews as well as less frequently published newspapers in Milpitas and Pacifica.
The tightly integrated ANG "core" dailies include the Oakland Tribune, Alameda Times-Star, Daily Review in Hayward, Argus in Fremont, Tri-Valley Herald in Pleasanton, and San Mateo County Times. Also part of ANG, but operated more independently, are the Marin Independent Journal, Times-Herald in Vallejo and Reporter in Vacaville. We also examined the staff rosters for all ANG papers.
According to their Web site lists of newsroom staff, the Marin Independent Journal, the Times-Herald and Reporter each have their own small team of journalists. Increasingly they share some news stories with sister ANG papers, but currently not journalists.
The six core ANG papers, however, are closely coordinated with a two-tiered news staff, all reporting to one executive editor, Kevin Keane, who works in Oakland. At the flagship Oakland Tribune, you'll also find most of the first tier: regional reporters covering broad issues like transportation, education, politics, sports and business. Stories written by these reporters appear prominently in all core ANG dailies from San Mateo to Pleasanton.
The second tier consists of reporters who work on location around the Bay. Their stories appear primarily on the pages of their home paper. But if a local story packs strong human interest or applies around the Bay, it will appear in multiple core ANG papers.
Few journalists at each ANG paper
With the exception of the flagship Tribune, a minority, sometimes a small minority, of the news staff listed for each core ANG paper on its Web site, actually work at that paper.
If you examine the roster of the Freemont Argus, for example, of 52 reporters and editors and editorial assistants named, only nine are unique to Fremont. At the Daily Review, 11 of 54 news staff listed are unique to Hayward. Across the bay at the San Mateo County Times, 24 of 67 staff listed are unique to San Mateo.
By contrast, the two Bay Area Knight Ridder papers on the sales block jointly list only one common staffer, a new media manager, among a combined total of 432 news staff at the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times. The Times and Mercury News have recently begun to share some stories in their sports sections and political stories from Sacramento.
ANG Regional Editor Mike Oliver says the positives of clustering far outweigh any negatives.
'We have jobs'
"The way I see it is we have jobs," he said. "I'm not so sure that would be the case without this arrangement. There might even be less papers. Separately these papers wouldn't be financially viable."
Mr. Oliver conceded that staff at his level are not privy to MediaNews' financial circumstances. "But what I've been told, [is] at least the Oakland Tribune has been in deep financial straits. This model was designed to create efficiencies."
"One thing it's allowed us to do journalistically," he continued, "is allow us access to do stories at the level of papers of much greater circulation. We've done some pretty good work that stands up to the best work of the Chronicle and the Mercury. Those kind of projects are not typically going to be generated by a paper the size of the Daily Review or the Fremont Argus."
'Fewer voices slicing, analyzing and dicing issues'
Two former ANG reporters agreed that pooling resources permitted ANG to hit the occasional journalistic home run. But they were critical of the way ANG operates routinely. Both said they left in order to earn more money. Both criticized ANG for asking reporters to cover too much with too little time and few resources.
Robert Gammon, now a reporter for the weekly East Bay Express, said "ANG staff is way overworked -- at least a story or two every day. You can do that once in a while, but day in, day out it's a grind. Stories end up being superficial sometimes because of that."
Readers may not notice, however, because of ANG's local monopoly, Mr. Gammon added. "You don't really know what you're missing out on if you're the only paper in town."
The second former ANG reporter, who requested anonymity to avoid retribution, said: "Travel was always a fight. You scrap and fight for every expense and you learn how to do things on the cheap. You don't do things as well or in depth, generally."
Clustering also eliminated competition among reporters and different angles on important stories, the reporter said. There are "fewer voices slicing, analyzing and dicing issues. When you cluster you don't get that. You get one. That's the tragedy of clustering."
Currently MediaNews owns a total of 22 newspapers in Northern California and eight more in Southern California.