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TIME FOR WEEKLY TO PICK UP THE PACE

With the Trump administration looming like greedy locusts, much is being written about what the media can and should do to help limit the destruction nationally. Simultaneously it will be a great and horrible time to be a journalist covering a president who thinks he’s king.

In his war with the press and other modern realities, Trump has enlisted legions of foot soldiers who believe the New York Times is the ultimate enemy though many of them have never read it. We are entering a time of the new regime communicating with its subjects via Twitter and expecting them to get the rest of the story from the Russians via Facebook.

It’s an upside world, with the traditional media mortally wounded though they have never been more important. Though the right and much of the left dismiss the media, we remain dependent on the newspapers and the networks to deliver most of what we know about this new order.

But what about the local situation? Does the quality of local news matter in this time of national calamity? I say yes, of course, but there is no denying that, overall, much of local journalism seems to be slipping toward irrelevance.

If Medicare and Social Security are diminished, we may know the national ramifications but who will tell us about the impact at home? If Trump tries to punish California for voting intelligently on Nov. 8, who will tell us about grants that have gone missing or field offices being closing? Of friends being loaded into trains? If you think we can count on KSBW and the Monterey Herald to keep us up to speed, you’ve been away for a while.

Just as numerous advocacy organizations are regrouping, news organizations nationally are reconsidering their missions, and it certainly is not too soon for a community conversation about the state of the local media. Consider this a status report and a call to action. A diminished news corps plays into the hands of the Trumpistas nationally and also makes it much harder for the public to follow along as corrupting influences chart the course for our institutions locally.

The one bright spot, the only bright spot locally, has been the success of the Monterey County Weekly in filling in some of the gaps created by the erosion at the Herald and the Salinas Californian. At the end of this report, look for some thoughts about what the community can do to encourage the Weekly – and possibly others — to take on a larger load.

As some of you know, I was an editor at the Monterey Herald for more than a dozen years and then the chief editor for a couple of years until the bosses there became tired of my ways. (Cost-cutting played a role.) I still have friends at the paper and at other media outlets that I will be mentioning. Media people tend to look at media critics the same way police officers look at Internal Affairs and I’m hoping they won’t take my analysis too personally.

For decades, and longer, the Herald was the dominant news organization of Monterey County. Arguably, it now shares that distinction with the Weekly and KSBW. How times have changed.

THE HERALD

The Herald was founded in 1922 by Col. Allen Griffin, a real-life Army colonel with a distinguished military career both before and after becoming a newspaperman. Newspapers back then were different. They were solidly black and white and equally stodgy but they took stands. They pointed out problems in their communities and campaigned for solutions. Griffin fought, with some notable success, for preservation of historic buildings, especially Monterey’s Colton Hall, elimination of coastal blight, eradication of billboards, and for trees. He had some influence on how Highway 1 was configured as it snaked through the Peninsula.

The colonel was a Republican but Democratic administrations repeatedly tapped him for trade missions. He was a member of every important organization in town and he was eager to share his opinions, either in conversation or in print.

Unfortunately, 14 years before his death, the colonel sold the Herald in 1967 to the Block family of Ohio, which operated it as part of a small chain. In a trade of assets, the Herald was then acquired in 1992 by a larger chain, the E.W. Scripps Co. It was traded again in 1997 to the Knight Ridder chain, which made it part of bigger and better brand name after a rocky beginning.

The Knight Ridder chain began its Peninsula tenure by firing the news staff and forcing the employees to apply for their old jobs. It was an unsuccessful attempt at union-busting and it cost the Herald much goodwill in the community. Some strong people were lost in the process.

The good news was that Knight Ridder was one of the largest and most prestigious newspaper chains in the country and the Herald, for a period, had the resources it needed to serve the community adequately.

I joined the paper in 2000 as city editor, heading the local news operation. Many have grown weary of my recitation of how many people worked for the Herald when I started and how many remain, but the information remains informative.

The newsroom back then employed almost 50 ink-stained wretches. The “cityside” news operation, producing the local report on courts, crime, politics and the like, amounted to 24 people. Today, the entire newsroom staff numbers about a dozen and the volume of local news has declined almost as dramatically. Good public officials like seeing a reporter in the room when the council or commission meets. Bad public officials prefer to work in the dark.

While the end of the 20th century had been fat years for the newspaper industry – with annual returns for individual properties often exceeding 20 percent and even 30 percent – the new century was not quite as kind. Contrary to the impression you may have, the high profits continued at many newspapers but only because managers were forced to trim costs so dramatically. Initially, it amounted to mere belt-tightening. Eventually, it would become a case of self-destruction, selling of the seed corn.

Under pressure from investors used to fabulous profits, Knight Ridder put itself on the auction block in 2006 and was sold to McClatchy Newspapers, a smaller but relatively prestigious chain based in Sacramento. Unfortunately for the staff and the readers, McClatchy spun off the Herald and several other KR properties to MediaNews Group, William Dean Singleton’s chain of bargain-basement, cost-cutting newspapers.

DIGITAL FIRST

There were some twists and turns after that and each brought expense cuts and layoffs mirroring national trends. Eventually, the MediaNews Group morphed into something called Digital First Media, which tried to revitalize its holdings by putting greater emphasis on breaking news online rather than in print. It was a sound idea but it was executed slowly and the ownership, a New York-based hedge fund, lost interest.

Of significance locally, Digital First also acquired the Santa Cruz Sentinel in 2013, presenting the opportunity for cost-cutting through consolidation. Early on, the publisher and ad director of the Herald were assigned to the same duties at the Sentinel and soon after the editor of the Sentinel, Don Miller, was assigned the same role at the Herald, displacing me.

There were and are obvious opportunities for the two papers to share some of their journalistic roles as well but they have been slow to take advantage of the geographic closeness, seemingly intent more on controlling costs than on increasing reach. Recently, the features pages of both papers have been produced by the Sentinel and the two papers help each other out with some sports coverage, but otherwise there has been little overlap.

Since 2013, copy editing and page layout for the Herald, the Sentinel and several other Digital First papers have been handled by a crew based at Digital First’s paper in Chico. That enabled the coastal papers to lay off several copy editors. The only remnant of the old copy-editing staff in Monterey is workhorse wordsmith Christy Hoffknecht, who is responsible for coordinating matters with the Chico desk.

In charge of the news operation is Miller, who spends more than half his time in Santa Cruz and who had been expected to have retired by now. He was the longtime No. 2 editor in Santa Cruz, working for many years under the now retired executive editor of the Sentinel, Tom Honig. Honig now works part time writing editorials for the Herald and the Sentinel. (After leaving the Sentinel, Honig worked briefly for the David Armanasco PR operation in Monterey and for the Panetta Institute.)

In some ways, Miller and Honig are more at home in Monterey than in Santa Cruz. The Sentinel for decades was a sharply conservative voice in an increasingly liberal community. (I worked there, too, for a couple of years before moving to the Herald.) In private and in editorials, they were openly hostile to the city’s left-wing politicos, though the tone has moderated in recent years. For years, before taking on their Peninsula responsibilities, they regularly attended the Panetta lecture series and became fairly chummy with former Monterey Mayor Dan Albert, the Cannery Row fellows and others from the Peninsula power structure.

EDITORIALS

Honig may not be a registered Libertarian but he should be. Miller’s political leanings are not as clear as Honig’s but he is no rocker of boats. They are joined on the editorial board by Publisher Gary Omernick and Phyllis Meurer, the former Salinas City Council member and wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer, who now works for the Panetta Institute. Together, they have supported most development projects, including the ill-considered Monterey Downs, and all pro-development candidates. Phyllis Meurer, in fact, played a leadership role in a ballot measure campaign intended to advance the Monterey Downs project, which has since died a natural death.

To some extent, most daily newspapers attempt to reflect their communities editorially. In much the same way that the Sentinel was never in tune with Santa Cruz, the current Herald leadership seems to have misread the Peninsula and the rest of Monterey County, which is a deep shade of blue. It may not be as liberal as Santa Cruz, but few places are. The paper has become a constant champion of Cal Am Water and seldom misses an opportunity to dismiss environmentalists as nettlesome obstacles to progress.

Under Miller is City Editor Dave Kellogg, a veteran editor who spent much of his career with the sports staff at the San Jose Mercury before becoming sports editor at the Herald. Few editors anywhere work harder under more trying circumstances. Having too few reporters to supervise does not make the job easier.

Many recognizable names are gone from the cityside news operation. Larry Parsons, Virginia Hennessey, Julia Reynolds, Dennis Taylor, all departed. Significantly, they were among the strongest writers ever to work for the Herald, and Hennessey and Reynolds were two of the strongest investigative reporters. What remains is a small reporting crew with a big heart but limited range.

The only survivor in the sports section is John Devine, who has covered high school sports in Monterey County longer than anyone. Few reporters anywhere work harder.

Covering county government and the all-important water beat is Jim Johnson, who is remarkably thorough and accurate but who seldom endeavors to dig beyond Cal Am Water’s official line even though water and Cal Am’s role in delivering it amount to the most important local stories of the time. You may have noticed that when something big happens in the water world, such as another setback for the deslination project or another Cal Am rate increase, the Herald quotes Cal Am’s spokeswoman at length but seldom seeks input from the company’s highly visible critics such as George Riley and Ron Weitzman.

Claudia Melendez Salinas covers education, social services and immigration-related issues while sharing Salinas coverage with Johnson. Melendez is a champion of the underdog, which helps her stand up to the challenge of being responsible for covering a dozen or more school districts, several colleges and other important topics. She is responsible for some the paper’s most ambitious reporting of the past couple years.

James Herrera was the Herald’s longtime graphic artist when he was pressed into service as a reporter, mostly covering Seaside and Marina. He has done an admirable job of mastering the basics but lacks the experience to dig much beyond the official agendas. He is doing a job that two reporters once handled.

Carly Mayberry’s experience is mostly in the entertainment industry. She has done solid work covering the city of Monterey and other lighter assignments but, like Herrera, isn’t generally equipped to push officialdom for details beyond what it wants to give up.

Tommy Wright was a young and ambitious sportswriter when he was reassigned to cover courts and cops for the Herald. Again, he has done an admirable job under difficult circumstances but it would take many years of experience and strong supervision before he could be expected to produce work like court reporter Virginia Hennessey put out on a regular basis.

I don’t mean to criticize any individuals here. Blame for the Herald’s deficiencies rests squarely with the ownership. But no matter where the fault rests, what the community is left with is an inadequate daily report from an overburdened news staff and superficial analysis by an opinion staff with little local foundation. Yes, this is the opinion of a disgruntled former employee, but that does not mean it is wrong.

Once there were separate news, sports and features staffs. Now the sports staff is one person and there is no features staff. Two photographers remain, solid professionals Vern Fisher and David Royal. I’m betting one will be gone within a year.

Over the past year or so, Melendez has produced some strong work on school-related topics and on a troubling rape case but the others have had virtually no time to address anything beyond the daily grind. Investigative reporting, or the euphemistically named enterprise reporting, takes time and time is money. The shareholders don’t like to share.

SALINAS

The situation at the Salinas Californian is even more dire. It is owned by Gannett, the nation’s largest newspaper chain, which has contented itself over the years with watching its products deteriorate in order to keep the cash flowing in the corporate direction.

Forever, the Californian was a six-day weekly but it now publishes only three times a week. Its Alisal Street headquarters was recently sold and the staff soon will move to smaller quarters. A short-term rental would seem prudent.

With the looming retirement of veteran journalist Roberto Robledo, who has handled just about every newsroom task, the news staff will be down to two reporters and there is an open question about whether it will remain that way. Columnist and City Hall reporter Jeff Mitchell once covered the Salinas hospital’s troubles well and he has produced significant City Hall coverage but he now works principally on health issues under a special grant, so his voice is usually missing from the daily report.

The newspaper offices close at 5 p.m. and so does the search for news. Salinas is better off with the Californian than without it, but that’s the about best that can be said of the situation.

THE WEEKLY

Fortunately, there is the Monterey County Weekly. Usually, weekly papers in communities with dailies are called alternative papers, but the Weekly has become required reading.

Originally known as Coast Weekly, the paper was formed in 1988 by Bradley Zeve of Carmel Valleyy, who has become an active figure in alternative press organizations. While most papers of its type focus largely on entertainment and food, the Weekly has put greater energy into coverage of government, politics and the environment.

For much of the time I worked at the Herald, I found that the Weekly covered pretty much the same topics and, with a weekly deadline instead of daily deadlines, often did a better job explaining the fine points. I was surprised, and still am, that it didn’t adopt a flashier strategy but it has worked out well for the community.

In my humble opinion, the Weekly has unnecessarily expended much of its energy in recent years with its online effort, breaking daily news on its website, often interesting crime news of relatively low importance. With the recent departure of Editor Mary Duan, a true newshound, that seems to have fallen off, which will be a good thing if it results in more time for more thoughtful journalism.

The editorship of the Weekly has been a bit of a revolving door in recent years, in large part because of short-staffing in the management ranks and a grueling workload. Veteran reporter Sara Rubin is the interim editor and, by all appearances, has earned the permanent title but I’m hoping she can negotiate for some additional help with production duties.

There is little to fault with the Weekly’s news coverage — except for volume. The reporters have been breaking stories with some regularity, much more often than their counterparts at the dailies or the TV stations, and they weigh in frequently with solid explainers on long-running stories or environmental issues. They have done well with the Monterey Downs saga and the continuing story of severe erosion issues surrounding the Cemex plant in Marina.

My first suggestion for the Weekly – and I’m hoping for some community support here – is that it step things up.

The Weekly’s news staff numbers about eight plus the occasional intern. I don’t have any real numbers, but it appears to grown little if any over the last decade. True, most papers have lost staff; some have lost most of their staffs because of tight times. But the status quo isn’t going to position the Weekly to take a bigger role in protecting the community from the bad guys nationally and locally.

The paper is thick with ads, so I feel comfortable guessing that Zeve has the assets needed to greatly expand the news staff and the space to be filled with news. If he’s waiting for encouragement, here it is.

My second suggestion is in the same vein. It’s also about stepping up.

Back when I used to hire talented young reporters, one of the first pieces of advice I gave was to think big. Don’t try to be one of the better reporters on this staff, Be the best and then be better. If you didn’t have the ability to succeed here, I wouldn’t have hired you. Think bigger.

I have similar advice for the Weekly. Don’t settle. I’ll use this as an example, but don’t think I’m picking on you, David Schmalz.

Schmalz has done a lovely job covering the Cemex issue and several others in his relatively brief time at the Weekly, but he received perhaps the most attention for his recent piece on financial issues surrounding the family of Monterey Downs promoter Brian Boudreau.

It was a fine account, well researched and well packaged, but the information had been sitting around for a while and didn’t really connect significantly with the Monterey Downs controversy. People acted as if Schmalz had a Pulitzer on his hands. The community is starved for investigative reporting and anything that hints of it is likely to received outsized appreciation.

The point is simply this. Good work needs to become routine and truly special work is needed with some regularity unless we’re willing to concede victory to the dark forces. There is plenty of trouble to be explored in Monterey County and, given what’s happening in the rest of the county, the list of topics will only grow.

I could go on and on about the important local topics that have received no or little attention from the local media, including, in some cases, the Partisan. The Herald and the Weekly have written about the controversy over city rental practices at the Wharf but neither has provided anywhere near the depth that Willard McCrone has in the Partisan. Schmalz has written some interesting pieces about some funny real estate transactions involving developer Nader Agha and his downtown headquarters, but no one else has followed up.

The county Board of Supervisors is putting growers in charge of monitoring groundwater in the Salinas Valley, all but ignoring the interests of environmentalists and the general public, but the topic hasn’t made print.

There’s funny business afoot at Carmel’s City Hall but no one including the Carmel Pine Cone is picking up on it and the Pine Cone probably won’t bother with it until someone manages to offend the publisher.

ELECTRONICS

Oh, TV. Almost forgot.

KSBW does one thing exceedingly well. With a small news crew, it manages to cover almost every significant piece of breaking news in not one county but three – Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito. The news director, the assignment editor, someone there is a magician.

Beyond that, KSBW and, to an even greater extent, KION, shouldn’t even be mentioned in a discussion of news involving process, procedure or politics. In fact, it should be discouraged from covering topics such as Fisherman’s Wharf leasing policies or desalination because the staff has neither the time nor the expertise to cover them well. A bad news story is probably worse than no story at all.

So where does that leave us? Here’s where.

Under the current ownership, the Herald is almost a lost cause. Unless the entire news business goes through a dramatic turnaround, the staff will continue to shrink and the quality will continue to slide. The Herald has one of the most expensive subscription rates in the nation. I’m not recommending that anyone stop reading it or stop advertising in it, but I wouldn’t suggest anyone put a lot of energy into trying to fix that situation.

I suggest that people who don’t read the Weekly start reading it. (It’s free and you can find it in news boxes all over the county). And when you see something you like, let them know. And when you see something you don’t like, let them know. If you know of news, call ‘em up. If you think they are missing the news, call ‘em up.

If you advertise, advertise with the Weekly. Don’t cancel your Herald or KSBW ads but increase your budget and get your face in the Weekly.

No, I’m not getting a commission. My relationship with that publication has been a rocky affair. I thought its endorsement of Dave Potter in the last election was absolutely indefensible. Some onlookers at one recent event thought Zeve and I might have been on the verge of actually scuffling over something I had written. But it is locally owned, clearly headed in the right direction and obviously has the potential to help fix some of the things that need fixing around here if Bradley is willing to spend a buck or two.

Finally, the community should also look for other opportunities to increase the amount of time, energy and space committed to uncovering and solving the community’s problems and trumpeting its achievements. To that end, the Partisan and some of its supporters are contemplating an effort to expand our range and upgrade our offerings with a structure that involves more than a couple of old guys popping off now and then. Yes, we would be in competition with the Weekly and the rest, but competition’s a good thing.

We’re thinking a Web production with more features, wider participation, and a more sustainable financial structure. The plan isn’t even a plan yet, it’s that amorphous, but you will be hearing more about it. If you have encouragement or support to offer, if you’d like to be part of it, chime in below or send me your thoughts at calkinsroyal@gmail.com.

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Some good news in Newspaperland?

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vintage newsboyI did a little happy dance today because of some encouraging newspaper news out of the east. If you’re interested in journalism and public affairs, you might want to look for your tap shoes too.

The good news is that Apollo Global Management has ended its effort to acquire Digital First Media, the newspaper chain that publishes 70 some papers across the country, including the Monterey Herald and the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

It’s not that there’s anything wrong with Apollo. It is a very successful investment fund and it has made sizable profits for its many investors. It manages some $160 billion in assets and it apparently is very good at what it does. But what it does is make money, not run newspapers.

If Apollo had completed the deal, worth somewhere in the universe of $400 million, it would have been one large investment fund buying the newspaper group from another large investment fund, the Alden Global Capital hedge fund. Months of talks broke down, however, apparently because the parties couldn’t agree on price. Which is a good thing, I believe, because the transaction very likely would have led to continued shrinkage of the staffs and contents of the newspapers. I’ll explain my thinking in a bit.

This leaves the future of the Herald, the Sentinel and their various stablemates in a limbo of sorts. Digital First Media officials said two rather contradictory things Thursday — that the chain isn’t for sale but that they may be selling off pieces, either regional clusters of newspapers or individual papers.

As we and others have reported previously, there are local groups interested in buying both the Monterey and the Santa Cruz papers. One is headed by Geoff Dunn, a writer, educator and filmmaker who has been involved with alternative weeklies in Santa Cruz and elsewhere for decades. He was involved last year in brokering the sale of small dailies in Santa Clara and San Benito counties along with a Santa Cruz weekly and he continues to pursue Digital First Media operations on the Central Coast and elsewhere in Northern California.

Other groups have expressed interest in other Digital First holdings around the country, but DFM has deferred discussions with most of  them while pursuing a package deal with Apollo. If it starts negotiating with groups here and elsewhere, it is likely to become a complicated financial chess game with other newspaper groups proposing trades and other newspaper operations making plays for various configurations of newspapers. (As it stands, the Monterey and Santa Cruz papers are part of Digital First Media’s Northern California group along with papers in Chico, Red Bluff, Vacaville, Vallejo, Red Bluff, Fairfield, Eureka, Mendocino, Ukiah, Clear Lake, Woodland and Paradise. The San Jose Mercury News is part of the company’s Bay Area News Group along with the Contra Costa Times and several closely affiliated papers in the East Bay. At different times, the Sentinel has been part of both groups, as has the Marin Independent Journal.)

I am encouraged for several reasons. I believe local ownership could help restore at least some of the quality at the local papers. Corporate operators are by definition far more interested in profits than in journalism. Also, I believe the right kind of local ownership would be in much better position to make improvements.

Here’s why. As the U.S. newspaper industry has suffered large losses in advertising, circulation and revenue, the impression has been created that they are barely profitable if at all. The reality is that many newspapers have made respectable profits in recent years, not by increasing circulation or their advertising linage but by cutting expenses. With the Apollo deal falling apart, there already is talk of new budget cuts for the DFM papers starting in July. If the deal hadn’t fallen apart, budget cuts would have been on the near horizon anyway, or at least that’s what I think.

What sets local ownership apart from investment banker ownership is that local investors would have much less incentive to cut in order to create the kind of returns that hedge funds and other asset managers proudly offer their clients. Potentially, local investors motivated by public spiritedness might even be able to reinvest some of the profits and rebuild the newspapers.

Am I dreaming? Probably so. But until today, I was expecting to watch the continued decline of most DFM newspapers, including the Herald, where I once held the editor’s title. Now, I feel there is at least a possibility of recovery and the public benefit that goes along with it.

In the past few months, I have given talks to various community groups, including the League of Women Voters of Monterey County, the Gentrain Society at Monterey Peninsula College and the Carmel Valley Association and each was keenly interested in the future of the Herald. The people in the audiences are more involved in public affairs than most folks and a relatively high percentage of them still subscribe to the Herald even as they complain about its dwindling daily report.

I told them about the potential Apollo purchase and the local possibilities, which at the time seemed remote. After each talk, several people came up to me or called or emailed to say that newspapers remain extremely important to them, that they would be following the sale process closely and would be pulling, pulling hard, for local ownership. For the sake of the Herald and the Sentinel and the communities they serve, for the sake of the readers and the advertisers, for the sake of all, let’s hope it works out.

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Apollo Global Management boss Leon Black bought one version of Munch’s “The Scream” for $119 million, the most ever paid for an artwork at auction

After months of silence about the future of the Monterey Herald and 70 or so sister papers, some news has ascended out of the East. It isn’t the good kind. The trade papers are reporting that the frontrunner to buy the Digital First Media chain is the very large private equity firm Apollo Global Management.

If you are involved in high finance, you likely know about Apollo. It manages about $160 billion of investor and shareholder money and specializes in acquiring distressed businesses and extracting profits from them by whatever means necessary.

In other words, Apollo is similar to but larger than the company that now owns Digital First Media, Alden Global Capital. Apollo owns a long list of businesses you’re familiar with, including Coldwell Banker and Century 21 Real Estate, Caesars Palace, Norwegian Cruise Line and Carl’s Jr. In 2013 it bought a company with a strong local presence, McGraw-Hill Education.

That is not to say that Apollo is in the restaurant, real estate, gaming, cruise line and educational publishing businesses. It is in the business of buying companies, taking them in and out of bankruptcy, combining them with other companies, streamlining their management, laying people off, improving their short-term profit picture, and selling them off.

A piece in Forbes magazine last August had this to say:

“Apollo has been the hottest private equity player in recent years. Its biggest fund has delivered a net internal rate of return of 30%, it has raised the biggest new private equity fund the industry has seen in years, and its billionaire co-founders are buying professional basketball and hockey teams and famous pieces of art.”

Newspapers weren’t mentioned in the piece.

Apollo is headed by Leon Black, the former Drexel Burnham Lambert manager whose personal worth is estimated at $5.4 billion, according to Inside Philanthropy.

Three years ago, Black purchased one of four known versions of Munch’s “The Scream.” The $119 million price was said to be the highest price ever paid for a single artwork at auction.

Word is that Apollo is the only remaining bidder for the entirety of the Digital First network but that the deal has been delayed by complications involving DFM’s holdings in Texas. It is significant to note, however, that Digital First has numerous suitors for pieces of the pie, individual papers or regional clusters such as the Bay Area News Group, which operates the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and other dailies ringing the bay.

The Herald and Digital First’s Santa Cruz Sentinel have been pursued by local investment groups headed by Geoff Dunn, a Santa Cruz entrepreneur and activist who had attempted to buy the Sentinel the last time it was in play. Others have attempted to make offers for the Mercury News alone, the Denver paper and other combinations.

Unfortunately for almost everyone except perhaps DFM and Apollo, DFM’s owners so far have opted not to entertain offers for any of the various parts. I say unfortunate because in many cases, the potential buyers consist of investors interested in saving or even restoring their local papers to what they once were.

The rumored price for all the papers works out to about $400 million, which could be less than what just the Mercury News and DFM’s Denver Post would have gone for 15 years ago. But while that price is low compared to what it once would have been, it is high enough to suggest that the new operator, if it is Apollo, will be devoted to grinding profits out of the papers rather than letting them hold onto enough cash to rebuild.

Leon-Black

Leon Black, patron of the arts, would-be media mogul

In the past 15 years, the Herald has gone from a daily circulation of well over 30,000 to a figure hovering around 14,000. The newsroom staff has dwindled from 50 to about 15. The Santa Cruz Sentinel has experienced a similar decline. (Do a Wikipedia search for the Herald and you’ll see a daily circulation figure of 23,862 and a Sunday figure of 58,001. Take this as additional proof that Wikipedia is not to be trusted. The Sunday figure has no relation to reality, past or present.)

The conventional wisdom is that the papers have downsized so dramatically because they are losing money. The fact is that most papers continue to make handsome profits – largely because they have cut content, staffing and other expenses so dramatically. In other words, the ownership has chosen to deliver a thinner and thinner product in order to maintain double-digit profit margins. In still other words, much of the decline of newspapers is self imposed. Investor groups interested in the individual properties believe or at least suspect that ownership with much more modest profit expectations could revitalize the operations, with much of the benefit accruing to the communities they serve.

The current owner, Alden, acquired the Herald and the rest of the Digital First papers in a series of steps that also involved bankruptcies and other elements of modern deal-making.

The Herald was founded by well-respected Col. Allen Griffin and started its route through a series of ownership changes in 1967. It was purchased first by Block Communications, which traded it to the E.W. Scripps chain in 1992. In 1997, it was traded again to Knight-Ridder, one of the most highly regarded newspaper groups in the country.

Knight-Ridder included the likes of the Mercury News, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Miami Herald and other quality operations. For the most part, the Herald flourished.

The end of the empire came in 2006 after one of Knight Ridder’s largest shareholders complained publicly about inadequate returns, prompting company President Tony Ridder to put it all up for sale. In fairly quick order, the Herald went from being part of the Macy’s or Nordstrom of newspaper chain to the Kmart of chains, Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group.

Singleton made his mark on the industry through cost-cutting and “clustering,” consolidating operations of newspapers on a regional basis. One staff plus a few small bureaus produces several newspapers, quite similar but each with its own name. As just one example, all the copy editing and layout of the Monterey and Santa Cruz papers plus eight or nine others takes place in Chico.

Singleton’s papers became Digital First Media papers in stages that included a management contract, a couple of bankruptcies and eventually a merger. Ownership fell into the hands of Alden Global Capital, a very low-profile operation based in New York. Alden also became a major investor in other groups, including the New York Times and McClatchy but its role and influence in the industry have attracted scant attention.

Under the leadership of John Paton, a Canadian newsman, DFM began this decade with a serious attempt to build the brand by pushing each of the newspapers in the string to seriously ramp up its online operation. Paton and those around him recognized that print newspapers are a dying breed and that the future of news distribution is online. The challenge was that digital advertising is far less lucrative than print advertising.

Paton and company made a strong run at it but committed at least one fatal error. They persuaded Alden Global Capital to make some investment in the product and to show some patience, but almost all of that investment went into creating something called Thunderdome. It was headquartered in New York and was tasked with creating and bundling national and international news and features to be used on the websites of each of newspapers.

At the local level, editors, me included, were desperate to increase the quantity and quality of local reportage but the resources for that were being routed to Thunderdome instead. Individual papers were even billed for the cost of keeping Thunderdome afloat.

The national content created by Thunderdome was good but not good enough to drive readers to the Chico Enterprise-Record website or to cause El Paso Times readers to cancel their New York Times subscriptions. Alden’s patience wore out just over a year ago and the current sale process was launched.

It is not certain that Apollo will be the buyer, nor is it certain that it would only be interested in the quick buck.

The fear, given its history and that of other companies specializing in “distressed properties” is that it will try to make money simply by cutting expenses and putting the papers on the market. The question is whether there is anything left to cut.

Royal Calkins was editor of the Monterey Herald until February 2014 when Digital First assigned Santa Cruz Sentinel Editor Don Miller to lead both papers. Calkins previously was city editor and opinion page editor at the Herald and has consulted with Dunn on the potential purchase. By the way, many of you are familiar with the Julia Reynolds’ byline. She has been one of the top Herald reporters for nearly a decade now, skillfully covering courts and gang violence along with investigative topics. She is taking a voluntary layoff and her last day is Friday.

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A Town Without a Newspaper Wouldn’t Be Much of a Town

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The NewsThis weekend the Monterey Herald moves into new, smaller quarters along Garden Road near the airport, which means quite a few things depending on one’s perspective. For me, it means that none of the newsrooms in which I toiled over the past four decades will continue to exist except in my faulty memory.

First to go was the old Chico Enterprise-Record, aka the Enterprise-Wretched, an institution in a lovely downtown until the business, for that’s what it was, was moved closer to the freeway to make distribution easier. The old building is now a Salvation Army store. My old desk sat in what is now the women’s clothing section.

Next was the Journal-Gazette in, of all places, Fort Wayne, Indiana. It was a wonderful newspaper, locally owned, a champion of progressive values in a state that had other things on its mind. The newsroom was later moved to a space next door to a paper with opposite leanings. The circulation of both has plummeted.

Then it was back to the West and the venerable Fresno Bee. Unfortunately I missed the years in the grand old downtown building that is now an art museum. My 19 years were spent in a large box in a redevelopment zone. By the freeway, of course. The building is still there but the newsroom later moved into a much larger space for reasons that now must seem mysterious.

Like everyone in Fresno, I had always dreamt of an escape to the coast. For me, that meant the Santa Cruz Sentinel. The newspaper was downtown, where newspapers should be. The newsroom was upstairs. Because of earthquakes, the floor was a suspended affair meaning it bounced up and down whenever the largest photographer walked in the room. The Sentinel now resides in rented space in, of all places, Scotts Valley, and the newsroom has been downsized even more since the move.

And finally, the Herald. Again I missed the relatively grand old downtown building. My 13 years were spent on the fringe of Monterey, in Ryan Ranch, in a modernish building that, by the time I left, had a very leaky roof, no air conditioning and some inoperable plumbing. Surely CSU-Monterey Bay will improve things before it moves students in. The new Herald newsroom will be in the old Community TV building. I have not seen it but I’m told it is about a quarter the size of the one that produces its final scoop today.

A historic Herald photo marking Larry Parsons' final day at the paper. He's the handsome one in the back row, goatee and cap.

A historic Herald photo marking reporter Larry Parsons’ final day at the paper on Friday. He’s the handsome one in the back row, goatee and cap. People, especially those over 50, tell me all the time that they don’t like to get their news from the Internet, that they like holding a newspaper in their hands. Usually they show me what they mean by pretending to hold a newspaper. I get it. That’s the way I like it, too. But the format, the method of delivery, means less to me than the news itself, which I miss even more than I miss the old newsrooms.

The shrinkage of the industry should alarm all of us. If you worry about what the government is up to, if you want to understand your region’s issues, if you want to feel any sense of community, you must have a source of local news and information. It scares me to think about what could happen in Salinas, where the Californian could go the way of my old newsrooms.

Fortunately for the Peninsula we have the Monterey County Weekly, once the alternative paper and increasingly now a main if not the main source of information on government and politics in the area. I give it credit but not too much because I know it could do more. When I came to Monterey, the Herald news staff was at least three times as large as the Weekly’s. Today, I believe they are roughly equal. I’ve seen the ad volume in the Weekly. I suspect the budget would accommodate some real growth in staffing and enterprise.

Fortunately KSBW is a relatively strong provider of local information even though it hasn’t produced any semblance of investigative reporting since Dan Green had a full head of hair. (Check out this website for more information on the former KSBW anchor who describes herself as the station’s former investigative reporter). It does a fine job of covering community events. Those are easy to cover. Wading into some tougher issues would do the station and the community some real good.

As for the Herald, I suppose the only hope for a revival is new ownership, which certainly is a possibility if the hedge fund that holds the purse strings ever gets around to letting go. All we can do is hope. In the meantime, though, I encourage the community to support the Herald. I’m irritated, too, by the size of the Monday paper, but I continue to read it and to subscribe because I can’t imagine a city the size of Monterey, a region the size of the Peninsula, without a daily newspaper, even if it is produced in someone’s living room.

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PURELY OPINION: The Monterey Herald gets one right

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For many readers, a good editorial is one they agree with. As long as the conclusion or recommendation is on target, the supporting information is secondary. For good editorial writers, however, the supporting information is the most important element. After that come the usefulness of the analysis, the crafting of the piece and, finally and in a distant fourth place, the actual position taken.

An editorial is an opportunity for a writer schooled in a topic to use any number of creative tools to analyze and explain an issue of public importance. Unlike the beat reporter, largely constrained by the rules of he said/she said journalism, the newspaper editorial writer is free to use various writing devices to demystify anything from water politics to Dave Potter’s political longevity. That’s why astute readers are likely to disregard the most subjective passages while keying in on the rest of the package.

The importance of the underlying information is why I was pleased to see the announcement in Sunday’s Monterey Herald that Phyllis Meurer has been added to the Herald’s editorial board.

This means Meurer will have a place at the table when the four-person board considers its positions on various issues. Presumably, her vote will carry  as much weight as that of the other members, Publisher Gary Omernick, Editor Don Miller and editorial writer Tom Honig. (Sometimes publishers insist on veto power, which seldom works out well.)

The upside here is that Meurer brings a deep understanding of government, politics and public policy in Monterey County. She is a former Salinas city councilwoman, a onetime leader of the League of Women Voters and the wife of former Monterey City Manager Fred Meurer. What she doesn’t know about public affairs in Monterey County, her husband does.

Some readers of the Monterey Bay Partisan will remember that I was editor of the Herald until February and I wrote the editorials for the past several years. I am not a fan of what has happened to the editorial page since my departure – a sharp right turn in the choice of columns and editorial cartoons and a decline in the number of local editorials and columns. Some of that is a function of the relatively short tenures and divided focus of the editorial board members.

Omernick has been publisher about six years but the realities of modern newspapering require him to concentrate on the business side of the operation, both here and at the Santa Cruz Sentinel. Miller has spent his entire newspaper career at the Sentinel, where he continues to serve as editor even while holding the same position in Monterey. He is counting the days to retirement. Libertarian-leaning Honig also spent his entire newspaper career in Santa Cruz before being replaced by Miller. Honig’s relatively short Peninsula experience prior to his recent Herald assignment consisted of working for the Armanasco public relations firm and the Panetta Institute. I write about their backgrounds not as criticism but to explain their challenge. It’s tough to thoughtfully editorialize on local issues when your idea of local involves a different locality. Meurer’s appointment to the editorial board can help change all that. She has a remarkable depth of local knowledge and an endless list of local contacts to help the Herald unravel the issues.

Still, there already has been grousing in some quarters—progressive quarters—about Meurer’s new role. I believe much of it is misplaced and, even if it isn’t, it really doesn’t matter all that much.

One issue on the left side of the political dial is her leadership role in the successful campaign against last year’s Measure M, which was intended to stop the proposed Monterey Downs racetrack development at Fort Ord. She told me she was motivated largely by her belief that the proper government decision-making process is preferable to decision-making by referendum. I strongly disagree with her, largely because the government process in the land-use arena is easily and often corrupted. But because she probably doesn’t see the government process the same way, her position is sincere if not valid.

During that campaign, I called Meurer to ask how she defended the highly deceptive advertising her camp was using in its campaign against Measure M. I wasn’t satisfied with her answer, which essentially was that the other side was being deceptive as well. But I did come away feeling that she truly believed what she was saying. Some of my environmentalist friends who were on the opposite side of the issue have suggested that she was somehow bought off. She was not.

Also from the progressives comes concern about Meurer’s husband, Fred, who ran Monterey’s City Hall for decades before retiring and taking a position with the Panetta Institute. Fred was an exceptionally capable and accomplished city manager who could balance a budget in the morning and fix the Planning Department copy machine before lunch.

In recent years, unfortunately, Fred Meurer has been vilified by some as a tool of business interests, the hotel industry, the good ol’ boys of local commerce. I understand the perception. The local economy and city government revenues are so dependent on the hotel industry and other elements of the local power structure. (Did I mention Cal Am yet?) I don’t embrace the accusation, however, because when a City Council has five members, city managers quickly learn how to count to three. Those who didn’t like Meurer’s administration should have spent less time complaining and more time getting their candidates elected or lobbying the successful candidates. Fred Meurer would have been an equally forceful and successful manager on behalf of an entirely different sort of city council.

Phyllis Meurer is an independent and highly capable woman who has nothing to apologize for as she assumes this new role. While I was at the Herald, the publisher talked often about bringing a woman from the community onto the all-male editorial board. I made a series of suggestions but never mentioned Phyllis because of Fred’s City Hall role at the time. If not for that, I certainly would have recommended her.

It doesn’t particularly concern me that she favors Monterey Downs. For reasons I never understood even though I was there, the paper editorialized early on in favor of that project. Never mind that it is seriously misplaced and doesn’t have an adequate water supply and that horse racing is the sport of scoundrels. It doesn’t concern me that her husband has been a huge figure in local politics and public policy for decades. I am won over by knowing she brings with her a wealth of knowledge about how things work around here, about who pulls the strings and even about where the bodies are buried.

One thing that does concern me is that her new role could help cement the Herald’s fear of offending Cal Am. Fred Meurer has been a consistent supporter of Cal Am, which has developed a loyal following in the business community by engineering a pricing structure that favors large commercial customers over residential water users. Phyllis Meurer will provide a valuable service if she demonstrates her independence and research skills in this area.

During the recent campaign over Measure O, the unsuccessful ballot measure in favor of public ownership of the Cal Am water system, Monterey County Weekly published an absolutely excellent editorial in favor of the proposition. Beyond the appropriate conclusion, what made it so strong was the information and analysis it presented. It was unusually long, long enough to discuss each significant issue and explain it to a population that was clearly confused. It was so well researched that it would have been instructive even to the staunchest opponent of Measure O. The Herald’s editorial opposing the initiative was little more than a rehash of Cal Am talking points.

It is my hope that with Phyllis Meurer aboard, the Herald will be reminded of the importance of research no matter which direction the paper leans on specific issus. As I said at the start here, editorials succeed not by how much they persuade but by how much they inform. I expect Meurer to provide some of the necessary information and, when she doesn’t have it, to ask that it be provided in some fashion before an editorial decision is made. If she draws from her strong League of Women Voters experience, the Herald and its readers will be well served—even when its opinions are all wet.

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Back in the pulpit

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For months now, I have been promising (threatening) to create a full-service news and opinion website, with lots of bells and whistles and community input. This is not it. Too complicated for a word guy. This will have to do for now.

Until February, I was editor of the Monterey Herald. I departed when the ownership, Digital First Media, decided that one editor could oversee news and opinion for both  the Herald and the Santa Cruz Sentinel. A tall order. Some days the drawbacks are not instantly apparent. Downsizing eventually may make it possible for the papers to have no editors at all. But despite the valiant effort of hardworking and exceptionally conscientious journalists at the Herald, the current formula there takes little account of  the community’s need for news, information, commentary  and scrutiny. All by myself, I can do painfully little to address that, but I’m hopeful that contributions from many others in the community can help fill some of the  gap.

On this blog, I plan to weigh in on local topics, primarily in the areas of politics and public policy. I’ll also throw some news on here now and again when I stumble onto something in the unemployment line. News items I have picked up recently, for instance, include Clyde Roberson’s candidacy for mayor of Monterey (corrects previous misstatement that he was running for a seat on the council) and the current filming of the final episode of Mad Men at a home in Big Sur.  (I had that item before the Weekly but had no place to put it.) For now, this blog is simply that. Just a blog. No sponsors, no advertisers, no hint of commerce. I have added a link to Gary Patton’s fine Land Use Report, what I hope to be the first of several links to locally relevant sites.

If the Monterey Bay Partisan becomes wildly successful, things likely will change, possibly to the point of including a hint of commerce. .Success usually leads to change, but so does failure. For now, just look here now and then for my efforts to fill in some of the blanks in local journalism. Don’t be surprised if some media criticism comes along, sooner rather than later, or if I weigh in on the upcoming campaigns. I suspect I’ll weigh in often on the sheriff’s race, pitting incumbent Scott Miller against Steve Bernal, who appears to be in the contest only because he’s a Republican and the local GOP bigwigs are hellbent in getting Republicans elected to local office no matter how unqualified they may be.

Oh, by the way, about the name. I picked it partly to ward off those who will read something here and accuse me of exhibiting bias. Maybe the name will alert them to the facts that, A., they  are correct and, B., that it is not a secret. I had thought about something even more descriptive, like Monterey Bay Online Pinko Rag, but it seemed too long. Or the Monterey Bay Impaler, but that seemed too aggressive. Briefly I thought about Mr. SmartyPants.com. Too flip. Out of the entire realm of possibilities, only the Monterey Bay Partisan remained.

And so we start. For my Facebook friends, look for updates there whenever something new is posted. I’ll also be tweeting and touting and whatevering Wish me luck. Wish us all luck.

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