Two weeks ago, John Bowman reluctantly cut short a 31-year career in the news business that spanned investigative reporting as a TV journalist in Louisville, Ky., editing The Business Journal in San Jose, the Daily Review in Hayward and the San Mateo County Times.
He typed his resignation and walked out of the executive editor's office in the nearly empty cavern of a building that houses the San Mateo County Times. As he and other journalists describe it, it's a structure that mirrors the season – cold in winter and newsroom temperatures nearing 100 degrees in a recent heat wave.
The heating and air conditioning went without repair for months. Thieves have sawed out the copper hot water pipes and stripped some of the building's wires. Rats have been a problem and maggots have been discovered in the women's bathroom. OSHA has been by to inspect.
In Bowman's view, the condition of the building is a metaphor for journalism under Dean Singleton, the self-made Denver entrepreneur who now owns almost every paid daily newspaper surrounding San Francisco, San Pablo and Monterey bays.
MediaNews now owns 14 daily and more than a score of weekly newspapers in the region with a combined print run approaching 1 million copies. Whether you go online, subscribe, pick up a free community weekly from the lawn or grab a free daily from a news rack, most of the words and photos that make your community real to you are now produced by MediaNews.
Given newspapers' importance providing the first word of events and issues later broadcast or blogged and given MediaNews' ownership domination, an inside view of the newspaper giant may prove valuable to those of us who now depend on it.
It was not the deteriorating condition of the Times building that drove Mr. Bowman to quit. The building is to be torn down soon and the property sold; the new offices will be more modern.
It was, he says, the steady deterioration of the quality of news as MediaNews executives stripped an already thin staff of underpaid reporters and editors. The problem has only worsened, he says, since the merger last year with former Knight Ridder properties -- the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Palo Alto Daily News and its sister papers on the Peninsula, the Hills community newspapers in the East Bay and Silicon Valley Community Newspapers to the south.
Beyond 'penny-wise and pound-foolish'
"They're way past the point of diminishing returns, of penny-wise and pound-foolish," Mr. Bowman says of MediaNews.
When he was the managing editor of the San Mateo County Times from 2002 to 2004, Mr. Bowman commanded a staff of four editors and 12 full-time reporters. When he returned in April as executive editor he was putting out the paper with only three editors and eight reporters. San Mateo County has 21 cities and more than 700,000 residents.
"Thin staffs provide less volume of news, less investigative and less enterprise stories," he says.
Mr. Bowman clearly admires his journalists and says many could work at bigger papers, were they hiring. He worries where they can find housing in the Bay Area when MediaNews pays its reporters an average of $30,000 to $35,000 a year.
The San Mateo County Times has seen its presses unbolted and shipped away. The copy editors -- who check stories for errors and style, put headlines on them and position them in the paper -- have been moved out of the newsroom where they could consult easily with reporters and editors about stories. To cut costs, they've been transferred some 30 miles away to Pleasanton, to a central copy-editing desk, and their numbers have been reduced.
"Copy desks are so thinly staffed that they are making an incredible number of errors," says Mr. Bowman. "These errors are in the headlines and [photo] cutlines so they are glaring.
A distant copy editor mistook Pacifica for Half Moon Bay in this headline.
"They are the kind of errors that destroy our credibility," he complains.
He showed the front page of the April 23 Times. The centerpiece story was about an event in Pacifica, but the headline placed it miles south, in Half Moon Bay. On the same front page a story about the salary gap between men and women claimed to continue on page 6, but copy editors forgot to put the rest of the story in the paper. The day before, the local front page contained a story about a San Mateo County Board of Supervisors meeting, but the headline attributed the action to Redwood City.
"These mistakes are not made by reporters and editors," he fumes, "but every member of the public thinks we don't know the difference between Pacifica and Half Moon Bay."
"The copy editors are just as dedicated and serious about doing journalism as I am," Mr. Bowman explains. "They simply don't have the time or resources to do the job."
MediaNews takes advantage of the proximity of its papers to one another by sharing content as well as centralizing copy editing. But it does so, with fewer and fewer staff, says Mr. Bowman.
A copy editor mistook Redwood City for San Mateo County in this headline.
"The average reader of the Oakland Tribune or Daily Review, or Tri-Valley Herald or Fremont Argus or San Mateo County Times would be appalled or even a little frightened if they knew how we put out those newspapers," he says. On weekends and holidays, he says, each of the five papers has only one reporter working. A single editor is on duty for all five.
"What was unthinkable two years ago is now standard operating procedure."
Local news going uncovered
In recent years, as readers have been able to turn to the Internet for national and international news, consultants have been telling newspapers to emphasize the local coverage no one else is providing. But MediaNews papers have so few reporters in each city they serve, Mr. Bowman says, they are missing a lot of local news.
At the Daily Review in Hayward, where he worked as editor in 2004 to earlier this year, Mr. Bowman says, "we had six reporters to cover an area of 344,000 people. A six-person staff is really less than that when stretched over seven days of publication." The papers' local news sections "are frightfully small on many days. Once you get past the local front, you're dragging in stuff from wherever you can get it."
Inside the San Mateo County Times, the sports, features and business sections each day are produced by East Bay MediaNews reporters for East Bay audiences, he explains. That can be embarrassing, he notes, when the sports section favors coverage of the Oakland Athletics over the San Francisco Giants. "People in San Mateo don't identify with the East Bay as much as with San Francisco and the South Bay."
Even editorials are centrally composed, he says. "To make the paper appear more local, the site editors are asked to write two a week for their paper."
These editorials are written not by editorial writers but by news editors, he adds. "Very few serious newspapers would think of allowing this basic conflict [between the opinion and fact-gathering sides of the newspaper] to exist."
Media News Executive rejects criticism
"Wrong on all counts!"
That's how Kevin Keane, the editor in charge of most of MediaNews' Bay Area newspapers, responds to comments by Mr. Bowman about the chain's operation.
To the charge that the centralized copy desk makes frequent errors," Mr. Keane says, "There's no question that the one copydesk has had some problems, but it's a solid operation."
The optimum solution, he says, is the traditional one with the copy desk in the same newsroom with reporters and other editors. But, he adds, "We're just not in a position to function like that."
MediaNews is moving toward a centralized copy desk next year that will serve all of its papers in the region, he explains, including the Mercury News. When pressed as to why each paper couldn't retain its copy editors, he responds, "We're just not."
To the charge that MediaNews misses important local stories due to lack of reporters, Mr. Keane replies that because adjacent MediaNews papers share content with each other, including the former Knight Ridder papers, "The count of Bay Area stories has never been greater. Those are stories that these newspapers didn't have before."
On major regional stories like the tanker truck fire that collapsed a section of the MacArthur Maze in Oakland, he explains, he was able to coordinate 20 reporters from across the region, resulting in a more complete story. Previously, many of those reporters would have been competing with MediaNews journalists.
Asked if the common MediaNews practice for everyday stories of having a single reporter cover for multiple papers serves the public less well than having reporters and newspapers compete, Mr. Keane responds: "Absolutely not! There's nothing lost from the standpoint of the readers. It doesn't make sense to have these redundancies anymore."
To the charge that MediaNews is violating journalism ethics by failing to separate its news editors from its opinion writers, he concedes, the ideal is separation between the paper's opinion on its editorial page and its reporting on news pages. But at small papers of the size of MediaNews' in the Bay Area, he argues, combining the two is a common practice nationally.
Finally, to the charge that the incorporation of the former Knight Ridder newspapers into MediaNews did not produce the additional staffing and opportunities for depth that MediaNews reporters anticipated, Mr. Keane argues that the bargain was kept from the readers' standpoint. Readers of MediaNews papers now get quality regional reporting from the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times they didn't receive before the merger.
Mr. Bowman's complaints against MediaNews are shared within the company. Interviews with journalists at several of the chain's papers confirmed and expanded his observations.
Josh Richman covers politics and legal affairs for all Bay Area MediaNews papers from an office at the Oakland Tribune. He belongs to the elite "regional" group of reporters who cover issues rather than places. Currently there are five regional reporters, down from eight before the merger with the former Knight Ridder papers, he says. Reporters who specialized in covering topics like higher education, social issues and immigration have not been replaced.
Another reporter who specialized in covering African American issues in Oakland left months ago and her position has not been filled, he adds.
"We haven't had a dedicated Alameda County reporter since 2003," Mr. Richman says. The county includes four MediaNews papers.
"The Tri-Valley Herald has just two reporters left at its home office," he says. The paper now relies on Contra Costa Times reporters to cover the area.
Why short-staffing matters
He provides an example of why short-staffing matters: Last Tuesday Mr. Richman had to choose between two important local trials -- the sentencing of a Newark day care operator for child pornography (including photos of local children) and the closing arguments in the case of marijuana advocate Ed Rosenthal in San Francisco.
He chose the latter and ended up covering the child porn sentencing a day later. He also had to rely on quotes from a San Francisco Chronicle story. It was embarrassing, he says, to run an important local story a day late and base it on a press release and another newspaper's quotes.
To add insult to injury, he says, the central copy desk cut the story from 23 inches to 10 and bumped it off the front page due to a miscommunication.
"If we had a copy editor in house," he complains, "we could go across the room and say 'hey, that's not good.'"
With the copy desk 25 miles away in Pleasanton, he adds, "it's hard to know who to call over there. We don't know who is on duty and who is working on the Trib that day."
The centralized copy desk had been tried earlier by MediaNews he notes. "It was considered a miserable failure." Because of low pay and overwork, turnover of copy editors who normally work on Oakland stories, he says, was 100 percent last year.
The merger disappoints
"What really ticks people off," Mr. Richman says, "was that last summer when the merger [with former Knight Ridder papers] was being announced [MediaNews Vice President for News] Kevin Keane said we'd have more people to do things, more resources to bring to bear on the news. This is one of those cases of fuzzy math. We're not seeing the addition he spoke of. All I'm seeing is a bunch of subtraction."
Another MediaNews journalist who is familiar with the San Mateo County Times says hopes were high before the merger. "I bought into a lot of the hype when this deal was first being arranged. I was willing to let myself think these guys were trying to create a new media experience here. I've been thoroughly disillusioned in a very short time with that possibility ever occurring."
The journalist asked not to be named to avoid management retribution.
At the Times, the journalist says, a single reporter covers the entire northern half of San Mateo County, which includes Daly City, South San Francisco and Burlingame, among other municipalities. The same reporter is also expected to cover housing, transportation and faith and family issues for the paper. "Needless to say, it's impossible," the journalist says. "News is not getting covered and this person is feeling immense stress."
Errors made by the centralized copy editing desk, the journalist complains, are routine, sometimes even comic. "One day there was a blank space on the front page where a photo was supposed to go. What concerned me was that there was no noticeable alarm that this had occurred. There's no connection to the community, so why be embarrassed by anything?
'Doing the best we can'
"We're all doing the best we can," the journalist says, "but I think I speak for a lot of us when I say we're acutely aware that we're failing the readers. We're not given the resources to succeed."
Another MediaNews journalist familiar with the Times, but also unwilling to be named, notes that staff vacancies are not being filled because reports from the smaller Daily News chain on the Peninsula can substitute for staff reports.
Despite the short staff, the journalists says, a Times reporter recently won a James Madison Award for excellent government reporting from the Northern California chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.
All of the journalists interviewed for this story agree that morale at MediaNews is very poor; most journalists are angry and disappointed with MediaNews executives.
After hearing of MediaNews' plans to reduce the newsroom staff at the San Jose Mercury News by one-quarter, one of the newspaper chain's veterans says: "Surely there's no economic necessity for this drastic a cut, unlike the argument Hearst can make for the Chron.
"One thing you hear a lot about with the mergers is efficiencies," says the journalist, "but there's not much discussion of preserving quality and journalistic values."
Former Executive Editor Bowman looks back on his career with chagrin: "The newspaper business I got involved in, some say it's dying. I say it's dead. The last 10 years of my career has been hospice care."