News & Views from 465 California Street

Madam Speaker, I Object!

Clint Reilly

Sanctioning a Bay Area newspaper monopoly in order to rescue the San Francisco Chronicle from bankruptcy is a horrible idea.

Does anyone know what I’m talking about?

Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him not to enforce antitrust laws, which would pave the way for the Chronicle and MediaNews – the owner of every other paid-subscription daily newspaper in the Bay Area – to merge operations and have a monopoly over news and opinion in the Bay Area.

The logic is that the Hearst-owned Chronicle, which is rumored to be losing $60 million per year, will be forced to close if it is not allowed to combine many functions – or merge altogether – with Denver-based MediaNews, which runs the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Marin Independent Journal, San Jose Mercury News and many other local dailies.

I respectfully disagree, Madam Speaker.

That’s why I brought two extensive law suits against Hearst for violating anti-trust laws.

In 2000, Hearst used political juice to influence U.S. Justice Department investigations into their monopolistic business practices at the Chronicle. Federal Judge Vaughn Walker called their lobbying “malodorous.” And his colleague, Judge Susan Illston, placed a restraining order on their clumsy attempt to merge business operations with MediaNews in 2006.

But could even a monopoly save the Chron?

Hearst maimed the Chronicle long ago. Instead of radically slashing circulation and focusing on hyper-local coverage of San Francisco and Oakland, the Chronicle insisted upon being a regional newspaper. The bloated staff and production costs left it swimming in a sea of red ink.

Even partnered with MediaNews, the Chronicle will likely not survive without dramatically downsizing its daily circulation.

It is a fact that the only profitable dailies in the Bay Area are papers that closely cover their local communities.

Why do the Marin Independent Journal and the Vallejo Times-Herald – far smaller papers than the Chron – make money while the Chronicle loses more than $50 million per year?

But what Democrat wants to publicly differ with the Speaker of the House?

When I managed Pelosi’s successful race for Congress in 1987, I observed the mix of charm and guile that would propel her to the House leadership nearly 20 years later. A master politician, the Speaker knows how to gain the upper hand over her local newspapers.

There is ample precedent in Pelosi’s own district. In 1970, liberal San Francisco Congressman Phillip Burton reportedly voted for the Newspaper Preservation Act exempting newspapers from certain anti-trust provisions only after the Chronicle publisher Charles de Young-Thieriot promised him support from the hostile, conservative paper.

By drawing the bully Hearst close to her in its hour of maximum financial distress, the canny Speaker guarantees editorial support for her causes and congressional colleagues well into her dotage.

Someone dispatched deposed executive editor-cum-blogger Phil Bronstein to Washington to lobby the Speaker. Buried in Ambassador Bronstein’s blog was the message of love and peace he later carried to Pelosi’s office:

“It’s about cooperation and what we call in California ‘harmonic convergence,’” he waxed.

Phil Bronstein advocating “harmonic convergence” is like John Wayne at a Grateful Dead concert. Only a politician would shake his hand.

Bronstein’s kumbaya hymn included a lament that the “iconoclastic, individualist and pugnaciously competitive” newspaper industry was “not so well prepped” for a new era of cooperation.

“Neither is the Justice Department Anti-Trust division, which itself has still been operating on a 1930s model,” he continued. “There are no threatening monopolies in a graveyard, except a conspiracy of silence, something appreciated by people who abuse power.”

Can we agree that if every department of our federal government was still operating on the 1930s model today, America would not be at the brink of economic Armageddon?

Democracy is a boiling stew of views, news, ideas, information and opinions. I say make Crybaby Hearst play by the rules! No changes in the middle of the game.

Comments (11)

  • Only thing worst than loss of the press is loss of a “free press.”

    Posted by: Fede | March 24th, 2009 at 10:11 am

  • Well… Murdoch was never slapped down and he owns way too much of our media.

    You really can’t take a piecemeal approach to this.

    Posted by: Connie Zins | March 24th, 2009 at 10:13 am

  • So, who’s gonna be the regional newspaper if not for the Chron?

    Posted by: Sean L. | March 24th, 2009 at 10:14 am

  • You might be right but I really think that if the mercury and chronicle don’t do something they will both be gone. As a 30 year subscriber of the mercury I can tell you that every morning when I open the paper and scan the stories, I have heard of virtually everyone of them the day and night before on TV. I am really seriously considering canceling the Merc. I’ll bet I’m not alone. I think they better circle the wagons and get together before they are history.

    Enjoy your column even though I don’t agree with most of them.

    Posted by: Carli | March 24th, 2009 at 10:15 am

  • Clint,

    In your second-to-last paragraph you say, “Can we agree that if every department of our federal government was still operating on the 1930s model today, America would not be at the brink of economic Armageddon?”

    Personally, I don’t agree. The global economy and geopolitics are
    vastly different than the 1930s. I will agree that we’re on the brink
    of economic something-or-other, but why would policies put into place
    in the 1930s to deal with the financial crisis of that time be the
    answer for our time?

    Similarly, the communications and news coverage models of today are
    not the same as when Herb Caen was running around “Ess Eff”, telling
    everyone not to call it Frisco, and poking fun of Brand Ex. Dot, dot,
    dot. In those days it made sense to have competing papers with
    competing editorial voices. Merging papers probably would have
    stifled voices that needed to be heard and would have been comforting
    to pols who could have spun a merger to their advantage.

    Let’s face it — Nobody except dinosaurs like you and me even read
    newspaper editorials, never mind let them affect our thoughts on a
    subject. I reject allusions to machinations in the 1970s and quoting
    Phil “Who?” Bronstein. That’s ancient history. You sound a little
    like Daniel Schorr on NPR when instead of providing perceptive insight
    and analysis of current events, he relies on memories of the past and
    constantly repeating how he felt when he saw he was on the Nixon
    enemies list.

    What is undeniable is that Internet advertising, especially free “want
    ads” on Craigslist are killing the revenue stream newspapers and
    magazines rely on. I catch your blog in the Merc, which is getting
    thinner and thinner by the day. I also subscribe to Newsweek which is
    similarly anorexic. Can a merge of Time and Newsweek be far behind?

    More and more people get their media fix from cable news, portals like
    Yahoo and AOL, custom mixes of RSS feeds in aggregation software like
    Netvibes and iGoogle, and blogs. I’ll bet you dinner and two martinis
    at Trader Vic’s that the Chron and the Examiner could merge tomorrow
    and no one would tell the the difference except some tut-tutting
    oldsters who still open the Chron each day and look at the second
    section hoping to see what Herb Caen had to say today.

    Time to come to the 21st century my friend. Time to end proscriptions
    against newspaper mergers. Let MediaNews buy the Chron and let them
    have a kick at the can. It’s not your money. If it works, great. If
    it doesn’t work, that’s great too. But either way, the newspaper biz
    is on the rocks. It’s time for bright minds to be thinking how to
    provide a place for editorial writers and reporters to make a living
    doing what needs to be done — on the web, on iPhones, on Kindles, etc.
    and figure out another way to wrap fish on Friday.

    Mike G

    Posted by: Mike G | March 24th, 2009 at 10:17 am

  • We take the Hayward Daily Review and the SF Chronicle.

    I have lived in Alameda County all of my 69 years. The Oakland Tribune under Maynard was the Best paper in the East Bay, if not the entire Bay Area.

    What have we been reduced to?

    After the big merger and the Tribune taking over everything, and now the whole thing is controlled by the Contra Costa Times, we have very limited coverage of Hayward. It is very disappointing. Even infuriating.

    Worse yet, I grew up right where the Oakland policemen were killed. Shopped at the dime store right there, drugstore right there, branch library right there, Hagstroms grocery store right there, gas station right there.

    After the first merger, we dropped the Trib and took the Murky News. Then that paper went crazy and tried to move into to SF when the Examiner was gone, and then retreated to practically exclusive SV stuff. Now look at it.

    If it all goes to Internet, where will be the cute animal stories and photos, etc.? Did you see that photo of the coyote on a seat on a shuttle bus around the Denver Airport? What is going to happen to that kind of entertainment? I think the public is going to be getting more hostile without any kind of relief from broadcast media/press coverage. Plus they won’t realize what they are missing.

    Just a few of my thoughts.


    Posted by: Jan in Hayward | March 24th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  • You are correct, of course, that adding the Chronicle to the list of Bay Area News Group owned-papers in the Bay Area would be a bad idea. We’re edging toward a monopoly already with the cost-cutting sharing of editorial content in BANG’s newspapers.

    I wrote Nancy Pelosi to make the same point. (No answer, though. If you’re not in her congressional district, mail goes to the speaker’s office.)

    The Chron will survive. San Francisco is too big and too rich not to support a good daily newspaper. The future Chronicle (or a successor) will likely be smaller, more expensive, non-union, linked more closely to the Internet, and local, rather than regional.


    Posted by: Art | March 24th, 2009 at 12:50 pm

  • As we all know newspapers are in big trouble and what then becomes of democracy? Who knows what will become of the Chron or for that matter any of our daily newspapersl. The future of journalism is going through a remarkable sea change. And I believe it is very exciting. The Media Cloud Project is a new tool to track media coverage. It was launched early this year and is backed up by the Neiman Foundation at Havard University. The Neiman Foundation includes a Journalism lab which is attempting to help journalism figure out its future in an Internet age.

    t’s a long read…but very interesting. See link below…

    Posted by: melinda maginn | March 24th, 2009 at 4:43 pm

  • Agree with you completely. Saving the SF Chron is entirely too much self-interest action. Pelosi governs only for her own self interests. Naturally that is my opinion.

    I don’t remember anyone objecting to the big banks and their mergers and acquisitions which has given them tremendous power. So newspapers shouldn’t be any different.

    linda d

    Posted by: linda d | March 25th, 2009 at 9:43 am

  • I appreciate and value your points of view. Keep writing.
    Your column is the only one I look forward to reading. I now feel
    there is a voice out there that represents my morals and values. God
    bless you, Mr. Reilly.

    Posted by: Elaine | March 25th, 2009 at 9:43 am

  • I enjoy and love your column, they are very interesting. Thank you. CK.

    Posted by: clara | March 25th, 2009 at 11:25 am

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