Along with three other East Bay newspapers, the Oakland Tribune will be folded into the new East Bay Times and cease operating as a daily newspaper in April. Photo by Brittany Murphy.

Oakland Tribune to be folded into a new multi-city publication

on March 17, 2016

After an announcement from the Bay Area News Group (BANG) on March 1, Oakland found itself on its way to becoming a city without a daily newspaper: In April, the Oakland Tribune will be folded into a new multi-city publication called the East Bay Times, along with the Contra Costa Times, the Daily Review that serves Hayward, and their Fremont counterpart, the Argus.

“These changes are prompted by a desire to sharpen our content offerings and are supported by extensive research conducted last fall in which readers requested a focus on regional news that impacts their daily lives. In surveys and conversations, readers also said they want important national and world coverage plus news about their community. It was quite clear to us how much you like your newspaper and what you want more of, and we’re changing to serve you better,” wrote BANG president and publisher Sharon Ryan in a letter to Contra Costa Times subscribers, crediting a 2015 readers’ survey as the main motive for the merger.

According to the 2015 survey, a whopping 87 percent of surveyed readers in Alameda County support BANG’s decision. “Eighty percent are our longtime subscribers and 20 percent former subscribers, and they have been supportive of this change,” said BANG’s vice president for audience Dan Smith in an interview this week.

“We haven’t released our survey data because we’re worried about competitors getting the information, but we are confident that our research is sound, and that the readers will be happy with the coming East Bay Times,” said Smith.

According to a letter Ryan released to the BANG staff, around 20 percent of the newsroom staff will be released from their current jobs, with some being laid off and others being offered a voluntary buyout. According to Smith, the news group is offering 23 buyouts to senior employees over the age of 60 who have been with the paper for at least 20 years. Thirty newsroom staff meet the criteria.

“This is the first time I’ve seen such a collapse. These are major mastheads with at least 150 years of history between them. I feel it’s a great loss to lose these papers,” said union representative Kat Anderson of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, which represents journalists at both BANG and the San Francisco Chronicle. Anderson says that a hedge fund’s intention to save money and the digitalization of news everywhere are behind the merger. BANG is owned by Digital First Media, a New York publishing company under the reins of hedge fund Alden Global Capital. “This is due to these vulture capital funds that take over businesses and analyze where they can cut costs, and that includes the personnel” at a newspaper, said Anderson.

While print news publications may not be doing well because of the “shrinking of subscribers,” she said, Anderson points out that people still enjoy reading newsprint, despite the wave of digitalization that has been leaving traditional news publications scrambling to keep up. She said that budget cuts are almost immediately reflected in the quality of the news that is being produced, as fewer reporters are able to cover their beats. This results in readers treating the local papers as supplements to the news they find in online publications, she said. “This is a chicken and egg problem: If you keep cutting staff, you keep cutting quality,” Anderson said.

The BANG proposal to release older reporters would cause considerable damage to future newsroom operations, said Anderson. “If they took it [the buyout], then the media would have obliterated their veteran reporters. They are the ones who know the community and know what works in a story. If you get rid of the whole strata of journalists, who’s going to mentor the new reporters and tell the editors what to do?” she asked.

There is a complicated history to what is occurring, said Rick Edmonds, media analyst for The Poynter Institute, a non-profit school for journalism in St. Petersburg, Florida. Newspapers have pursued the strategy known as “clustering” for a long time, in which companies with relatively similar operations merge into one or gather in close proximity, allowing them to employ a single accounting department to manage sales and business functions. Clustering is sometimes a way for smaller firms to enjoy economies of scale, usually reserved for bigger companies. In a nutshell, the collaboration would ideally result in pooled talent, suppliers and information, Edmonds said.

California already has several such clusters, one being the shared ownership of the Los Angeles Times and the San Diego Union-Tribune. In May 2015, the Chicago-based Tribune Publishing Company acquired the San Diego paper and merged it with the Los Angeles Times to combine the readers of both papers.

In 1997, the Monterey County Herald was reported by The New York Times to have put itself in a better position to fight back against bigger and more profitable news publications by joining the Knight-Ridder Inc. chain, which then owned six Bay Area papers, including the San Jose Mercury News.

Edmonds noted that the notion of combining many papers into one is “theoretically better for business visibility and adds sales to national clients who wouldn’t advertise with smaller papers.” He also says it’s possible that news digitalization is causing a drop in newspaper revenue, as competition from different news sources allows people to read national and global news on mobile devices and smartphones, making readers skip information-gathering from the Oakland Tribune and the Contra Costa Times.

“With Oakland being less prosperous now, this is certainly disadvantageous for papers, especially with less advertising,” said Edmonds, a difficulty that is notably pronounced when major tech companies like Google and Facebook are looking for advertisers and are unlikely to collaborate with local newspapers.

“There may be a sense of loss for people in Oakland because they used to have a paper serving them specifically,” Edmonds said, but he also refutes what he feels is a misconception about the news industry: That newspapers are closing left and right. “That’s not really the case. There was a Los Angeles and Long Beach paper combination, and The New York Times and The Guardian are far smaller than what they used to be,” said Edmonds, all done to cut back on costs and operate on a more effective scale. Overall, Edmonds believes that newspapers all around the country are not closing down or disappearing; they are simply sizing down or merging into larger media groups.

Some Digital First Media workers slammed BANG’s plans on dfm.org, a website detailing the “News Matters” campaign run by the Guild. In a blog post written on the Bay Area newspaper merge, BANG’s decision is described by an anonymous employee as “Adding insult to dedicated staff who have remained and produced more than ever despite years of pay cuts, unpaid furloughs, downsizing and benefit loss, the company news was framed by management as a ‘rebranding’ and streamlining to better serve readers.”

But Smith says he expects readers to accept the change. “The criticism and agitated reactions we’ve been hearing about? That mainly came from the media,” Smith said.

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