Media News Group's Cluster Bomb

The nation's fourth-largest newspaper company is using a regional consolidation strategy to break the backs of local unions and lay off journalists and other staff.
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The nation's fourth-largest newspaper company is using a regional consolidation strategy to break the backs of local unions and lay off journalists and other staff.

Media News Group (MNG) -- the national chain that owns 57 daily newspapers, regionally "clustered" throughout California, the Mountain West and the Northeast -- solidified its control over Bay Area news by buying up the
Contra Costa Times
and the
San Jose Mercury News
in the wake of Knight-Ridder's recent fire sale.
With the move, MNG now owns every daily newspaper in the region except the
San Francisco Chronicle

It's trying to use this leverage to break the back of unions and jettison editorial staff.

Cluster, Consolidate and Cut

Earlier this summer, MNG management circulated a hit list of 46 Mercury News journalists to be laid off or not replaced. Typographers also lost 22 positions in San Jose when MNG outsourced production work to India and to nonunion contractors.

Other job cuts are reportedly on the horizon. But first MNG had to remove an obstacle.

In a letter to Newspaper Guild leaders earlier this month, Marshall Anstandig, the company's attorney, stated that MNG's corporate restructuring diminished the Guild's representation to "significantly less than 50% of the newly consolidated editorial group." In his view, this allows the company to dismiss the Guild as a bargaining representative of its employees.

"It follows [MNG CEO] Dean Singleton's business pattern of cut, consolidate and cluster," Guild organizer Amanda Ballantyne told Media Minutes this week. "But it was done in a way we believe to specifically bust the union, to get the union out of the whole scheme of things."

Bad Local News: The Offspring of Inbreeding

The Newspaper Guild has filed several unfair labor practice charges at the National Labor Relations board --- alleging that MNG violated federal law when it refused to hire union workers and transferred jobs to non-union employees.

Spokespeople for newspaper giants like to sugar-coat these sorts of cost-cutting efforts with terms like "clustering" and "synergy." In reality they translate to mean layoffs and cheapened news. Creating an inbred relationship between regional newsrooms degrades coverage, demoralizes staff and discourages readers.

We a recently received a letter from San Jose Mercury News reader who used to enjoy the paper with her morning cup of coffee.

"Since it has been taken over there is not much 'news' to read," she writes. "[And] this was a paper that has won awards for journalistic investigation, and was highly respected. ... My subscription is getting tenuous because my reason for reading the morning paper is being eroded daily."

From Anger to Action

Canceling subscriptions is one form of reader activism. But there are perhaps more productive ways to improve local media.

"We desperately need rules to prevent one-size-fits-all news from becoming the standard in our communities," FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps wrote in a recent op-ed.

We need your input," they wrote. "We believe we have the best chance in our generation to settle this issue of who will control our media and for what purposes."

The FCC will soon decide whether to allow a small number of media giants to buy up more local media outlets across the land.

While this specific ruling may not stop MNG's assault on quality journalism in the Bay Area, it has helped amplify calls for more accountable news at the local level.

This noise can be turned into action by urging the FCC to protect localism and supporting the Guild's ongoing efforts to safeguard local journalism across the country.

-- For more, listen to this week's "Media Minutes"

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