Happy newsrooms look so much alike, they could almost be taken from a movie set: Phones ring, keyboards clack, the white noise of innumerable interviews fill the room. Desks are covered with files and newspapers and family photos. As deadline approaches, editors start yelling for copy or barking at reporters with questions about sources. The art department dickers with layout staff over the best image for a page, while assistants frantically look for a file photo. It might be hard to believe, but those stereotypes actually happen in newsrooms across the country.
Unless the newsroom is not happy. At the San Diego Union-Tribune's headquarters in Mission Valley, the third floor newsroom is eerily quiet. The cavernous space is filled with cloth-lined cubicles and clean desks, stacked with powered-down computers staring blankly ahead. An occasional news-clipping is still pinned to the side of some cubes like an epitaph. The reporters working the phones seem to whisper their interviews, and when they walk down the long rows between desks, they do so quickly, as if being chased. When reporters talk, they use hushed tones.
And all of that was before David Copley, the owner of the U-T's parent company, Copley Press, announced on July 28 that the paper's for sale. No U-T staffer would speak on the record for this story, and indeed, even some former staffers preferred anonymity. But one insider source said the newsroom had “a meltdown” that day. Another said the reporters “freaked out.”
“It's described to me as mortuary-like, a funeral home,” said Preston Turegano, a former arts reporter who worked for the Union-Tribune for 36 years before taking a buyout in December 2006. Turegano said he still speaks regularly with U-T employees. “I tell you, the anxiety, the level of fear, the worry—it's all there. One of the things they put out a year ago, everyone was going to have to justify their existence, because they knew they were paring down the workforce. You were going to have to prove to them why you were indispensable. It scares the shit out of you. I think now it's only gotten worse, now that it's for sale. I'll talk to people who worked at the Union-Tribune, and some of them went through [previous newspaper] sales, and they say it's worse than anything.”
The announcement of the sale marked the culmination of several years of stripping down the company and its flagship newspaper amid circulation drops that exceeded the national average and declines in advertising and classified revenues. In December 2006, the U-T bought out some senior staff to save on salaries; in 2007, Copley sold off its Midwestern papers; last year, there were more buyouts, and since not enough staffers took the offer, there were layoffs; they closed down the Washington bureau; the Books Section was eliminated as a standalone; and this Sunday will be the last week of the standalone TV listings.
As a result of the various layoffs, staff members have had to do multiple jobs and abandon the depth of reporting they used to maintain on their beats. The U-T will not comment on departmental staffing levels, but Turegano said the arts department has gone from 14 reporters to five. The most recent high-profile layoff was film critic David Elliott. His reviews were replaced with wire copy and freelance work, but also writing from other U-T staffers.
Recently a visitor to the U-T offices spotted a notice on the bulletin board that read: “Anyone looking to write a movie review, please see the Arts Editor.”
The U-T's 1,214 workers seem to have cause to worry about their jobs.
“In normal times, San Diego would be a hugely attractive market, and your airport would be crowded with corporate jets from all the media companies,” said Conrad Fink, a University of Georgia professor who says newspaper management is his “principal bag.” These days, the major newspaper chains like McClatchy and The New York Times simply aren't looking to buy. “So you'll probably end up with a non-newspaper type of investor.”
While it's possible that the paper will be purchased by some kind of savior more interested in the community service of a local newspaper than the bottom line, more likely this kind of investor will be interested in wringing the remaining profits. The U-T is a privately held company, so its profit margins are not known, but Fink and other experts say it's reasonable to assume there's a 10-percent profit margin. That's substantially better than businesses in other industries, though a significant drop from the days when profits were in the 20- and even 30-percent range.
“The name of the game for private equity is fix it and sell it. They don't buy it for long-term—that's not their game,” said Ed Atorino, an analyst for The Benchmark Company. “They would look to make a profit. That would require improving the bottom line directly.”
One technique for saving money could be to reduce the size of the coverage area. Rick Edmonds of the nonprofit Poynter Institute pointed out that both the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and the Dallas Morning News have reduced their distribution areas to save on delivery costs and the cost of staff who report on those areas. The U-T distributes to all of San Diego County and parts of Imperial and Riverside counties.
“If you're distributed over a really wide area, yes, you're distributing papers, but you're not really penetrating those markets especially,” Edmonds said. “People don't come to shop in the center city, so you have circulation that may not be of too much use to most of your advertisers.”
But in the end, the best way to get to the bottom line is to cut staff. Some papers have begun outsourcing functions to Indian companies. Express KCS designs advertisements for more than 100 American newspapers, including the Oakland Tribune and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Last month, the Orange County Register announced a one-month experiment to send copy-editing work to another Indian company called Mind Works, and a SoCal news website, Pasadena Now, even considered having Indian reporters watch City Council meetings via webcast and report back.
But even if a new owner outsources some functions, a corporate buyer would likely consolidate administrative work like payroll and benefits into its already existing functions. It might also look to senior staff, both editorial and otherwise, as a place to eliminate big salaries.
Edmonds wondered aloud whether Copley had eliminated the corporate managers who oversaw the Midwestern papers. Turegano and other former staffers told CityBeat they hadn't noticed the departure of top-level editors or the legal and corporate types who do administrative work.
The people who may be safe from a new owner's headman are the ones most closely associated with the paper: People like editorial page editor Bob Kittle or columnists like Gerry Braun and Ruben Navarrette Jr.
“Most new owners believe they're buying the newspaper's good will more than anything else,” said John Morton, a newspaper analyst and head of Morton Research. “They're usually leery of doing anything dramatic to the newspaper for fear of alienating its longtime readers.”
Some observers, notably voiceofsandiego.org co-executive editor Scott Lewis in a recent column, argue that a new buyer can only help the community by focusing the paper more on local coverage and getting wire coverage off the front page. But Fink and other analysts are far less optimistic.
“I've been in this business for 50 years, and I can't tell you there's a link between high profitably and high quality in journalism,” Fink said. “The outside entrepreneur comes in and says, ‘Show me the linkage between journalism and profitability.' You and I hope it's there; you and I feel instinctively that it is there. But you can't prove it.” Comments? Tips? Write to email@example.com