Mercury News plans to cut one-quarter of newsroom positions this summer

On July 2, a list with 46 names of Mercury News journalists who would be laid off or not replaced after having resigned was circulated in the newsrooms. The list did not contain the name of an additional staff member who is thought to have committed suicide. That brings the total to 47. The newsroom is now authorized for 200 full-time employees.

By John McManus
Posted May 31, 2007
 

Sixty more newsroom positions – almost one in four -- are to be eliminated at the San Jose Mercury News this summer after a layoff moratorium negotiated with the local Newspaper Guild expires, Grade the News has learned.

John Bowman, executive editor at the San Mateo County Times until last week, said the staff reductions were discussed at an April meeting he attended at the Mercury News along with top editors of MediaNews, which now owns every paid daily newspaper around the San Francisco Bay but the San Francisco Chronicle. The proposed cuts would affect 24% of the 250 member Mercury News staff.

Mr. Bowman said he disclosed the layoff plan and resigned as executive editor of the Times because he was fed up with MediaNews' policies of trying to run newspapers short-handed.

"They're way past the point of diminishing returns, of penny-wise, pound-foolish," Mr. Bowman said of MediaNews' operations in the Bay Area.

David Satterfield, managing editor of the Mercury News, refused to discuss staff cuts.

"I'm not going to talk about that sort of thing," he said. "We don't share that widely.

"I think it has been a difficult start to the year," Mr. Satterfield added. "That's the word we keep getting from our advertising department."

Kevin Keane, vice president for news/California Newspaper Partnership-North, said, "I'm not in charge of the Mercury News. I'd prefer not to comment."

Susan Goldberg, who resigned as executive editor of the Mercury News in May and this week joined the Cleveland Plain Dealer in the same capacity did not respond to a phone call or an email message.

Both Mr. Keane and Ms. Goldberg were at the April meeting in which the staff reductions were discussed, according to Mr. Bowman.

"Sixty is huge; oh my God!" Mercury News business reporter Elise Ackerman, exclaimed.

"As far as I know nothing has been decided," commented Mercury News reporter Julie Patel. "If that's true, it would be devastating for the quality of the journalism that we do. It would definitely affect the public because there are fewer people providing quality information, translating public issues and engaging people in things that impact them."

Ms. Ackerman said the public has yet to realize how vital newspapers are in making a region a good place to live and do business.

A resident of downtown Oakland, Ms. Ackerman said prior MediaNews' cuts at The Oakland Tribune have deprived citizens of an effective champion against city corruption and mismanagement.

"The Tribune is actually doing a pretty good job of covering things that are important to me, but there are some really important things that aren't being covered right now," she explained. Among those are corruption in city hall and a soaring crime rate. The FBI is investigating a "pay to play" atmosphere in city government, she said, but not the newspaper.

"The Tribune reporters are good and hardworking, but this stuff doesn't get covered in the newspapers because they don't have the staff."

"When a newspaper becomes so weak it's not an effective counterbalance to the incredible arrogance of some public officials, it can't play watchdog for the public," Ms. Ackerman added. "I'm afraid the same thing will happen in San Jose."

At the Mercury News, she continued, "my colleagues go the extra mile to find out what's going on at city hall. They try very hard to keep city council accountable. It's a much more successful area as a result." Businesses are reluctant to locate in Oakland, she said, because of concerns about municipal corruption and crime.

"Any more cuts would obviously hurt the paper, hurt the community, hurt employees," said Luther Jackson, executive officer of the San Jose Newspaper Guild. "A paper is a critical part of the fabric of the community."

Jackson said the Guild would have to be notified of any reduction in force greater than 50 employees. He had received no such warning, he said Wednesday. The Guild negotiated a moratorium on further staff cuts until July when it agreed last December to accept the elimination of 35 Guild positions at the Mercury News. The newspaper employed approximately 380 journalists at its peak in 2001, Managing Editor Satterfield said.

Dennis Uyeno, lead salesman in the classified advertising department of the Mercury News and a San Jose Newspaper Guild vice president, said losses in the newsroom "will make it much harder to sell ads. If you want to sell advertising, you have to have a quality product."

He said many at the Mercury News had been hopeful MediaNews owner Dean Singleton would have used the resources of the two-time Pulitzer-winning paper to improve MediaNews' other Bay Area newspapers.

Former San Mateo County Times editor Bowman said the April meeting at the Mercury News may have been a factor in Ms. Goldberg's departure as executive editor. She had tried to spare the Mercury News some of the 60 position reduction, he explained, but was told the other MediaNews properties were already operating on such thin staffs they couldn't absorb further cuts. After the meeting, "she seemed pretty defeated," Mr. Bowman said.

Reductions in staff have been common at newspapers across the country in recent years. The San Francisco Chronicle announced May 18 that it would trim 100 newsroom jobs from its 400-member staff in coming months. Newspapers have been losing both subscribers and advertisers to the Internet, according to figures compiled by the Newspaper Association of America. Their most recent data shows those losses are accelerating.

While staff cuts at the Chronicle came in the context of a newspaper reportedly losing millions of dollars a year to operate, MediaNews reported a $4.3 million profit in the first quarter of 2007. According to a May report in the Denver Post, MediaNews' flagship paper, the profit was fueled by the acquisition of former Knight Ridder newspapers, such as the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and St. Paul Pioneer Press.

MediaNews' owns 61 daily newspapers and 120 nondaily publications.