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Gutting the Local Paper: Dean Singleton, Tom Honig, and the Santa Cruz Sentinel
Newspapers across the country are in decline. Reporters are being sacked, buildings sold, and operations consolidated. It’s all the fault of the Internet. Print journalism – financed by ad revenue and classifieds – can’t compete with free websites like Craigslist and have seen a huge decline in their profits. Publishers are being forced to make “very difficult” decisions, firing significant numbers of staff in order to make ends meet. It was inevitable that this crisis would reach Santa Cruz, and the layoffs at the Sentinel are just part of this general decline.
At least, that’s what corporate media executives want you to think.
On February 3, 2007, Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Matt King announced that the paper had been sold to the California Newspaper Partnership, a majority of which is owned by the MediaNews Group and its CEO Dean Singleton. Focusing on MediaNews’ ownership of 11 Bay Area dailies - including the San Jose Mercury News, Monterey County Herald, San Mateo Times, Contra Costa Times and the Oakland Tribune – Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Tom Honig proclaimed, “This will improve our content simply because we will have so much good journalism coming in from all over California.” The article further stated that, “CNP President and Mercury News Publisher George Riggs… said the Sentinel will continue to be printed locally and that no layoffs are planned.” MediaNews, chosen over a group of local investors headed by writer and real-estate businessman Geoffrey Dunn, paid approximately $45 million for the acquisition of our local paper.
On March 7, Tom Honig announced that the Sentinel’s downtown press would be shut down and the paper printed in San Jose. On February 15 – less than two weeks after CNP President George Riggs promised the exact opposite, MediaNews informed the Sentinel’s in-house press workers (members of Local 4N of the Graphic Communications Conference of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters) that they would not be honoring their contract and that all workers would be fired except for a handful willing to take significant pay cuts to drive over the hill. It is unclear whether MediaNews’ blatant violation of the workers’ contact was illegal, but breaking unions has long been a strategy of MediaNews’ CEO Dean Singleton. The press workers’ contract was not set to expire until 2009.
Matt King wrote the goodbye story to the Sentinel press and its close to 40 workers on April 29. It had been operating in Santa Cruz since 1856.
On June 26, King wrote his last in a series of stories on MediaNews’ gutting of the Sentinel. Although this time, it was his own job that was being cut. In a short note on his Sentinel blog, King wrote the only notification the paper would ever give about the firing of 20% of its reporters – including Matt King, Roger Sideman, Soraya Gutierrez, Daniel Lopez, Isaiah Guzman, photographer Kate Falconer, and Max DeNike and Jonathan Whitaker (both from the Copy Desk). Sentinel Editor-In-Chief Tom Honig had King’s blog removed from the site by the next day, and there was never any article on the layoffs.
Thanks to King’s goodbye post, the willingness of a few of the fired reporters to speak with the press, the weekly papers, and the online alternative media, the news got eventually got out. But, for the most part, it hasn’t been contextualized and analyzed.
WHITEWASHING OF THE SENTINEL
When I read the list of laid off Sentinel employees, I noticed a trend. Gutierrez, Lopez, Guzman. All Latino, and all fired. I spoke with another fired reporter and asked if there were any non-white reporters left at the Sentinel. Nope. In fact, Roger Sideman – the former University and environment reporter – was the only Jewish reporter there as well. So how is it that the Sentinel managed to ‘fire’ their diversity?
There’s more. With each reporter dismissed, an area of news was dismissed. Over at Bruce Bratton’s site – BrattonOnline – locals were submitting names on who they wanted to go. Many of us have been fed up with the Sentinel (or Senile as it’s frequently called) and some of its reporters for decades, so it wasn’t too hard to name names. The list included people like Jondi Gumz – the campus reporter turned ‘at large’ business reporter turned successful Republican candidate for the Scotts Valley school board, Laina Farhat-Holzmann – the columnist with a taste for Islamophobia, Don Miller – the editor who published amateur pictures of his family’s trip to Disneyland, on-screen newsgirl Shana McCord, and more.
Of course, none of the most-disliked staff were fired, no editors (with the biggest salaries) got the axe, and the paper’s endless stream of fluff articles remained intact. Instead, the Sentinel fired what was considered to be their best reporter in Matt King (K-12 Education), their reporter covering some of the most contentious issues of the decade (Roger Sideman, who reported on the university, its expansion, and the environment), and virtually all of their South County staff – including Soraya Gutierrez (Capitola, Live Oak, Aptos, Soquel), Daniel Lopez (Watsonvile/Pajaro Valley & Latino Issues), Kate Falconer (Pajaro Valley photographer), and Isaiah Guzman (Pajaro Valley Sports). While it looks like there are still a handful of people reporting on South County news, it’s clear that news affecting the Latino community is going to take a disproportionately big hit. It also doesn’t help that there isn’t a single South County reporter left that speaks Spanish.
While it will take a little time to see how these changes will affect overall news, if the past month is any indication, things aren’t looking good. On July 29, the Sentinel announced that it’s leaving town and moving to Scotts Valley. As had been suspected after the closure of the in-house press, MediaNews put the entire downtown building on sale for $6 million, and it looks like they’ve already got a buyer – Fowler Property Acquisitions – the same San Francisco-based company that owns the old Borland building the Sentinel’s moving into. Is this just a cost-cutting/profit-producing move, as Sentinel publisher Dave Regan suggests, or is the papers’ geographical move – to a whiter and more conservative suburb – also going to be reflected in its content? Regan, echoing the continued remarks of Editor-in-Chief Tom Honig, says, “we will continue to do the same kind of coverage we've always done for the city and the county." But if so, why was South County news targeted for the largest cuts? This doesn’t seem to make much business sense either – the Southern part of the county is growing faster than anywhere else. How does racism play in – both in terms of which reporters were fired, and which content to preserve and prioritize?
I’m not suggesting that Tom Honig is racist, although I’m sure he is in the way that most conservative white men are. But how is it that – in the 21st century, in a majority ‘minority’ state – you end up with a newspaper with all white reporters? How is it that you don’t have any Spanish-speaking reporters for a county with a large immigrant population? And how is it that the City Desk Editor (Kurtis Alexander) is also the reporter on the Census, “Diversity” (do an article on your lack of diversity in your newsroom, I dare you), UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo, the Environment, Capitola, Aptos, Live Oak, Soquel, and ‘general news’? Is the expansion of the university, global warming, diversity, news from four towns and other stories all able to be covered by one person? Meanwhile, there are three reporters covering crime, another three covering entertainment, fashion and food, three covering sports (including two on surfing alone), and another two on obituaries. When we have twice as many reporters covering surfing than we do on ‘Latino issues’ in a county where 30% of the population is Latino, there’s a problem. Where are the Sentinel’s priorities?
In comes the journalism teacher. Local newspapers, s/he says, make their money off of fluff stories – their bread and butter. Little Johnny hit a homerun at the high school baseball game. This poodle’s all dressed up for the 4th of July. Warm weather in store for the weekend. There’s a reason why the international news page is on the back of the comics – its good business! Of course, the Sentinel does more than just fluff stories (they’ve learned to turn press releases into articles), but it still doesn’t equate to good, investigative journalism. In an interview with the Good Times’ News Editor Peter Koht, the Sentinel’s Editor-in-Chief Tom Honig is the first to admit it: “Honestly we haven’t done investigative and in-depth reporting in recent years anyway.” He acknowledges the importance of it, but says the paper is going to have to “listen to the community” to figure out how to do those in-depth pieces. But is Honig, and more importantly, MediaNews CEO Dean Singleton really interested in ‘listening to the community?’ No one asked us who we wanted owning the paper – local investors or a huge corporation. No one asked us what the papers’ priorities should be – good reporting on issues that affect our lives, or fluff that makes us to go online to find real news. No one asked us if we wanted the in-house press shut down, dozens of people laid off, and our paper sent to Scotts Valley. And no one asked us if we wanted to be lied about it all.
PROFITS AND ‘THE DECLINE OF PRINT JOURNALISM’
In a March 9 blog post, Tom Honig tells us that, “what the Sentinel faces are economic realities that are affecting newspapers across the country. And those realities have led to cutbacks.” It seems that everyone’s bought into this idea – after all, it’s always in the papers. But how many of us have actually looked at the facts? According to a fired reporter I talked with, the Sentinel made a profit last year. Looking at the statistics, you can also see that Ottaway (the company, part of Dow Jones, that used to own the Sentinel before it was sold) made a profit (the first six months of 2006, they made $32 million in profits, a margin of 19%), as did Dow Jones as a whole ($17 million in profit, a 3% margin for the same period), and MediaNews, the new owners ($4.3 million in the first quarter of 2007, about a 1% margin). According to the Project for Excellence in Journalism, the 13 publicly traded media conglomerates had a profit margin of just below 20% in 2005 – so high that “the average pre-tax operating margin for these companies was still higher than the high-flying pharmaceutical or oil industries.”
So if newspapers are still making millions in profits, what’s the problem? Apparently it’s not just the profits that Wall Street is looking for, but profit growth. They want newspapers to not just make money, but make more money every year. They make the mistake of thinking that newspapers are something that should be profited off of, rather than keeping an eye on those in power. Of course, that’s the mistake of capitalism in general… profiting off of sick people (pharmaceuticals and for-profit hospitals), poor students (student loans industry), and even making million dollar salaries in the “non-profit” industry.
One of the other statistics frequently referenced is readership. Many articles, in speculating the ‘death of the newspaper,’ refer to a rapid downturn in the number of people reading newspapers on a daily basis. This is a cause of concern, but it’s much more complex than merely saying that people in the U.S. are becoming less and less informed each year. The Online Journalism Review, a project of the University of Southern California’s school of journalism, notes that, “more than 80 percent of American adults read a newspaper each weekday in 1964, but only 58 percent did in 1997,” and “most analysts predict that fewer than half of adults will read the paper every day by the end of this decade.” Here’s the key part though – this is a trend that has been ongoing for at least 40 years! So while the Internet may be receiving much of the blame, the rise of television may be the more appropriate culprit.
So less people are reading newspapers. Ok. But does that necessarily translate into a less informed society? What about all the people that watch TV news? What about those polls that showed that people (mostly younger folks) who watch The Daily Show on Comedy Central are more informed than the viewers of any other news outlet? What about the stats that showed that the 2004 youth vote was the highest it’s been for over a decade, and those articles, around the same time that claimed today’s youth are one of the most informed generations in decades? The polls show us as disillusioned, not trusting politicians, and being pessimistic about our futures. Sounds like we’re plenty informed!
Newspaper readership doesn’t necessarily translate into whether or not a particular group is informed. Still, investigative journalism plays an extremely important role in providing a check on those in power. This investigative work is almost exclusively done by newspapers – although less and less each year, as papers are gutted by the likes of Dean Singleton. As many have said, bloggers don’t usually do investigative journalism – they collect articles and information and provide a different analysis. That’s very different from talking with anonymous sources, doing an in-depth study of corporate accounts, etc. Even Indymedia reporters (if that’s what you want to call those of us that actually write articles, rather than just flame people in the ‘comments’ section) rarely do ‘investigative’ journalism – we talk with people, document events that would otherwise be ignored, and provide context and historical analysis for various community struggles.
Newspapers are not only important – they are invaluable, and (at least for now) irreplaceable. Think of how many organizing strategies rely on working the press, based on the knowledge that bad press hurts profits and helps to mobilize the community. Remember those articles that got cops fired and politicians to resign. Remember that Nixon was forced out of office by a couple of reporters in their 20s.
Now, this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be critical of newspapers. After all these years, they (and most of society) still believe in the flawed concept of ‘objectivity’ – as if people can somehow disconnect their moral judgments from how they talk about an issue. Many of them – like the Sentinel – have a brutal history of harming and encouraging violence against poor folks, people of color, women, queers, and all those that dare to defy the normative. Newspapers have also played an integral role in the production of nationalism – where ‘national’ news is more prominently featured, even if it’s in Maine, than ‘international’ news, though it could be as close as Tijuana.
WE DIDN’T LIKE THEM ANYWAYS – THE SENTINEL GUTTING AS AN OPPORTUNITY
Knowing that newspapers are both vital and harmful, what can we hope for with the Sentinel and news in our community? Things look bad with MediaNews’ gutting of the Sentinel. Even Editor-In-Chief Tom Honig (before Dean Singleton was his boss) said that, “a large part of MediaNews’ success is based on aggressive cost controls, rather than journalistic excellence.” But how many of us actually liked the Sentinel anyways?
When the presses were closed down, we got sad – ‘cus those workers didn’t deserve to lose their jobs and the press is a part of our local history. When the reporters were fired, we got mad – ‘cus they were some of the best the paper had and the Sentinel will surely be worse than it already was. But when the paper moves to Scotts Valley, could it possibly be time for us to be glad?
Of course the paper won’t be any better in the old Borland building off the freeway. But could this be an opportunity that we’ve been waiting for? We didn’t like the Sentinel anyways – we read it because it was all we had. As the San Jose Mercury News got bought by MediaNews and were hit by cuts, they gradually stopped covering Santa Cruz stories. While the Metro and especially the GoodTimes do some decent reporting, they’re still only weeklies with one or two news staff each. They can’t handle the constant onslaught of protests, scandals, and such. Mostly, they compete over who has the best annual fashion issue.. wedding issue.. food issue.. and provide folks with show times and reviews.
Now, what would happen if we had a real newspaper? One that we could be proud of – a paper that would cut through Mike Rotkin’s bullshit and this “progressive” image to reveal what’s really happening in town. This wouldn’t be a paper run by the false “objectivity” patrol, but people who have strong convictions and aren’t afraid to be honest about them. It wouldn’t be free from debate – in fact, far from it. But it would be a different kind of debate. It wouldn’t ask the question, “how do we make downtown safer” and only give us the options of security cameras on every block, more cops, or some vigilante group, like the Sentinel suggested not too long ago. Instead, it would be a real debate – how do we get together to provide livable jobs, healthy neighborhoods, and diverse communities? How do we finally get some affordable housing ‘round these parts? Where’s the line between challenging corporations and being an anti-growth/anti-diversity NIMBYist? The Sentinel has been allowed to frame the issues and distort the news for far too long. In a city such as Santa Cruz, there’s no reason why a center-right rag like them should have a monopoly on news. Progressive people will pay for another, better, paper. Progressive businesses will advertise in another, better, paper. It’s only a matter of folks getting together and making it happen.
Of course, this newspaper wouldn’t just be a newspaper. Not if we were true to the community ideals that we profess. It’d be online. It’d have a way for folks in the community to contribute articles to it. It’d be a facilitator of communication between radicals and progressives. It would have a unique structure – maybe one that we haven’t seen before. It would take a little start up money, but we’re in Santa Cruz… there’s gotta be enough folks with money who hate the Sentinel. You start with a small staff, prove yourself, do your outreach, and get bigger. Before long, you’re influencing local politics and starting to keep the bosses accountable for once.
You might say, ‘but we already have Santa Cruz Indymedia!’ Although that’s sweet, we know that we need more than SC-IMC – we need investigative journalism that reaches folks on a large scale. To get that kind of reporting, you have to have full-time staff who have the time and know-how to get the information that our community needs so much. SC-IMC may be part of the solution, but not all.
The Sentinel’s gutting is a shame. But what did we expect? When your local paper is sold to the folks responsible for taking the “Tribune” out of Oakland’s Tribune Tower, you better expect some major changes, regardless of what they tell you. What it comes down to is trust. Will you trust yourselves to make the paper that you’ve always wanted? Or will you stick with Dean Singleton, Dean’s Daily and hope for the best?
“Dean Singleton's extraordinary business savvy has made him a full-fledged member of the American elite. He earns more than a million dollars a year; he cavorts with presidents and senators; he is a leading member of Denver society. His primary residence, where he lives with his wife, Adrienne, and three children, is a stunning mansion in Denver's wealthiest neighborhood, a mansion that contains eleven bathrooms and an elevator, since he has difficulty climbing stairs. Singleton also owns four cattle ranches in Colorado, along with a home on Cape Cod where, during the summer months, he goes sailing with the musician James Taylor.” – From The Evolution of Dean Singleton
P.s. If we are stuck with the Scotts Valley Sentinel – or Dean’s Daily if you prefer - I challenge the paper to only write one editorial per investigative story. No in-depth reporting? No editorials! If they have time to write editorials every other day, then they have time to do some real stories.
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Local papers help MediaNews report profit. San Francisco Peninsula Press Club. 17 May 2007. http://penpressclub.org/2007/05/local-papers-help-medianews-report
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