Mercury News Hit by Another Round of Layoffs, Buyouts

It was another hard week for local journalists, as a host of Bay Area News Group employees accepted buyouts and still more braced for a series of layoffs at the regional newspaper chain, which is owned by Digital First Media and includes the Mercury News.

How many employees accepted the buyouts remains unclear. The East Bay Express reported that 28 writers, editors, photographers and other senior staffers took the golden handshake. But the Pacific Media Workers Guild, the union that represents a portion of the workers affected, noted on Thursday that the total buyouts this week came to 15—nine of whom were unionized—and the number of layoffs totaled at least 12.

BANG Executive Editor Neil Chase declined to disclose the exact headcount, but admitted in a phone call Thursday that it was a “significant reduction” to the current staff. He blamed the job cuts on declining revenue.

In an email to BANG newspapers, however, Chase said the company will be left with 150 people covering the Bay Area. Below is a copy of that message, which disputes the number of buyouts reported in other media outlets this week.

“As expected, the buyout offer did not fully offset the need for layoffs. There will, unfortunately, be a few more staff cuts in the next couple weeks. We'll complete them as quickly as possible, to keep the period of uncertainly as short as possible, with dignity and respect for the people affected.

“Bad numbers: The L.A. Times said we have 39 South Bay journalists (not true, but it's what the Guild told them) and others picked up that number. An East Bay Express reporter tried to count names online and decided we have 25 East Bay journalists (also wrong). Those things hurt the public perception of our coverage, so I always reach out and try to correct them. (Yeah, I know, every journalist complains about coverage when they're the subject and not the reporter.)

“Real numbers: After the reductions, we'll have more than 150 people covering the Bay Area. It's a large number of talented journalists, and we remain committed to doing important work. We'll reorganize in the coming days so that more of everyone's time is spent on quality, impactful journalism.”

Some of the journalists who called it quits include education reporter Sharon Noguchi, photographers Patrick Tehan and George Sakkestad, healthcare reporter Tracy Seipel and editorial page editor Barbara Marshman.

Since the newspaper chain made no public announcement about the staffing reduction, San Jose Unified School District spokesman Peter Allen only found out about the news when an emailed media release bounced back with auto-replies.

NewsGuild chief officer Carl Hall, explained to The Californian on Jan. 17, that employees who had at least 25 years of experience with BANG were eligible for a buyout package, which included 26 weeks’ worth of salary and five months of health care benefits. Those who were eligible had until the end of last month to accept offer, or else they would be subject to “involuntary termination.”

In addition to the loss of institutional knowledge, the buyouts leave parts of the South Bay without reliable news coverage. The cuts this week are only the latest in a string off layoffs to hit the newspaper chain since a consolidation in 2016. The most recent cutback—a gutting of 20 staffers—took place just weeks after the East Bay Times won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Ghost Ship fire.

BANG newsroom staffers took to Facebook and Twitter to lament the loss of institutional knowledge and the departure of close friends and colleagues. Some also slammed Alden Global Capital—the vulture fund that owns Digital First—for extracting profits at the expense of people and product.

According to the NewsGuild, Digital First has been hit by layoffs at twice the rate of other national newspaper chains, as the company sells off its real estate assets and fails to reinvest in the news organization under its ownership.

The American Prospect ran a lengthy article about the phenomenon, which is affecting regional newspapers throughout the nation:

“Companies with names like Alden Capital, Digital First Media, Citadel, Fortress, GateHouse, and many others that you’ve never heard of have purchased more than 1,500 small-city dailies and weeklies. The malign genius of the private equity business model, of which more in a moment, is that it allows the absentee owner to drive a paper into the ground, but extract exorbitant profits along the way from management fees, dividends, and tax breaks. By the time the paper is a hollow shell, the private equity company can exit and move on, having more than made back its investment. Whether private equity is contained and driven from ownership of newspapers could well determine whether local newspapers as priceless civic resources survive to make it across the digital divide.”

BANG photojournalist Jose Carlos Fajardo echoed that point.

“It’s not that newspapers are dying,” he wrote in a Facebook post on Wednesday. “Our company Alden Global Capital doesn’t value our profession and the people. We are just [money] to them.”

Chase, for his part, said that he is “disappointed” with the company’s diminishing workforce, but maintains a positive outlook. He insisted that readers will see no “noticeable change,” and the remaining staff members can still “focus on the important and impactful stories.”

Fajardo was less optimistic.

“The people that will hurt the most are the citizens of the Bay Area,” Fajardo wrote in his Facebook post. “No one will be around to report the news, expose government corruption and bring you some pretty awesome photography.”

Patricia Hannon, a former BANG senior editor, wrote on Facebook that she had seen “so many rounds of layoffs ... that [she] became numb to them.”

But, she addd, her 18 years working at the company proved to her that her colleagues are “immensely talented journalists … optimists who still believe in the power and purpose of the free press.”

Jennifer Wadsworth also contributed to this report. 

18 Comments

  1. “optimists who still believe in the power and purpose of the free press.”

    They’ve proved they believe in the power and their right to abuse it. As for their purpose, it has degenerated to become indistinguishable from that of a political party.

  2. Is this the same Stephen Perez formerly of SJSU speech and debate? If so, congrats on the job! Hope you have a long local career ahead of you picking up the reigns where these other journalists left off.

    • @JustAnonForNow you don’t even have the backbone to use your real name. Before slamming the departure of a highly respected journalist, feel free to both publicly identify yourself AND provide examples where the Mercury “does more than report the news,” as well as the opinion pieces YOU submitted to the paper countering their position on a variety of topics, and the paper’s refusal to print your rebuttal. Until you’re able to do so please keep your opinions in your closet, where they belong. Thank you.

  3. > Some of the journalists who called it quits include . . . editorial page editor Barbara Marshman.

    Hooray! Good riddance.

    A mindless progressive gasbag.

    Just punishment for her her years of flacking for the California one-party system.

    • @SJOUTSIDETHEBUBBLE you don’t even have the backbone to use your real name. Before slamming the departure of a highly respected journalist, feel free to both publicly identify yourself AND provide examples where the Mercury “does more than report the news,” as well as the opinion pieces YOU submitted to the paper countering their position on a variety of topics, and the paper’s refusal to print your rebuttal. Until you’re able to do so please keep your opinions in your closet, where they belong. Thank you.

  4. Someone should tell these laid-off journalists that San Jose PD is hiring. It’s time these reporters have a chance to do some real “investigative journalism”, right at the source.

    One would think any out of work journalist would jump at the chance to be an overpaid cop and seize the opportunity to deal with the very flowers of humanity; junkies perverts, rapists, violent mentally ill people, the drunk with tuberculosis who coughs in their face, the dope addict with hepatitis and bleeding, ulcerated sores on his arms and whose blood is now all over their hands, face and uniform because he chose to fight rather than be arrested.

    Give these out of work journalists the chance to walk down a dark alley or into underground parking garage at night, by themselves, due to staffing, because someone just reported hearing a scream and a gunshot somewhere near the fresh blood stain on the sidewalk..

    Any out of work journalist should want to go out on Christmas Eve to a cheap motel where some poor little mom and her 3 and 5 year old kids died trying to keep warm by curling up around an improperly vented gas heater, or deal with starved, bruised, and bleeding kids and their alcoholic parents who haven’t washed the kid’s clothes or cleaned the mold out of the refrigerator in months.

    Of course they might object to being paid nothing extra for working nights, weekends, holidays, in the rain, in the cold and on their kid’s first birthday or when they come in with 102 degree fever because with short staffing no one dares call in sick on New Year’s Eve.

    Come on you former “Dan Rathers”, experience the joy of taking people to jail who were too drunk to remember what planet they were on at the time they were arrested but who have total recall months later when they complain that you were rude or used excessive force.

    Finally, watch your former colleagues publicly excoriate you as a racist while you listen to politicians who tell you how much they appreciate the job you do then turn around and maneuver to cut your pay.

    Come on all you out of work journalists, Join up!

      • @J.S.Robillard Your diatribe is worthy of Pulitizer prize consideration under FICTION. Where do you find your information about what specific journalists do — and don’t do — on a daily basis? And where were you when the 2010 US Census was conducted? Were YOU walking the streets, the parks, the creek sides during the nights and weekends to count the houseless people in Silicon Valley? I was there. Where were you?

  5. J.S.Robillard, that is an outstanding summary of 30 years of police work at SJPD. Of course, none of the laid off newspaper people will apply for a job at SJPD. They either think it is below their lofty status as they see it, or they simply cannot qualify with the requirements just to get an interview.
    Good Job!

  6. I truly enjoy seeing another mouthpiece of the left bite the dust. So long MN you are absolutely irrelevant. It couldnt have happened any sooner. Funny I was driving past the entrance on 2nd Street the other morning when I observed a transient who had been sleeping in the doorway dropping a #2 nearby. I guess thats the exit prize for the laid off hacks, I mean “journalists”…… Bye

  7. The average reporter would be getting a 300% increase in pay and benefits by joining the police force. Plus they’d be working for an organization that cares about its employees.

    Alas, police officers and the rest of us will be the poorer without pesky reporters keeping politicians and bureaucrats honest.

  8. The Merc and many other dailies are classic examples of myopic management in a death spiral. They failed to embrace digital, diversify, and wring out inefficiencies. The latest boneheaded move is pay-for-view when there’s scant reason to subscribe.

    Meanwhile Google is experimenting with the new Bulletin offering that promises to further erode print media’s local news coverage and advertising revenue. Doing the same thing, but expecting a different outcome is one definition of insanity. A reorganization is simply rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Time for leadership – not caretaker supervision, Mr. Chase.

  9. Too bad,but the Merc has been in a death spiral for years as their corporate overlords have decimated their veteran newspeople. A lack of in depth local news & a reliance on wire service reports have changed it from a must read to keep abreast of what’s happening in your neighborhood,to a why waste our time fishwrapper. Advertisers are abandoning it in droves due to it’s plummeting circulation & every new round of cuts just exacerbates it’s impending demise. The managers & editorial staff have absolutely no integrity & care so little about the truth,that it’s hard to tell the difference between them & the fervent conservative commenters who insult our intelligence here at SJI everyday. We deserve better as a free & viable press is paramount in providing diverse viewpoints on the issues which effect our not only our daily lives,but the future of our country as well. For example if one were to get all of their news from a single source with a biased editorial content (say FOX News) it could result in a bunch of ignorant misinformed knuckle-dragging bigots who concoct angry ill-conceived diatribes masquerading as facts (liked the usual morons whose predictably inane comments appear above).
    How these idiots can praise those in local law enforcement while their hero Donald Trump attacks & trashes the very integrity of our nation’s own law enforcement establishment (the FBI & Justice Departments) is but one example of their duplicity & total lack of character. They should all be ashamed of themselves,but they have no shame & will sink to any depth in pursuit of their goals. They will lie,deny the truth,twist the facts,attack,bully,belittle & humiliate anyone with the temerity to oppose them,as the ends always justify the means as far as they’re concerned. Well the shoe is on the other foot now & as soon as it’s extricated from the Donald’s pasty white backside,these bastards will soon find our foot so far up their derrieres that they’ll have to have it surgically removed.
    These Republicans have no political power in San Jose & very little in trend-setting California where it’s been eroding for years now. Come the 2018 Midterm Elections this phenomenon should continue to expand nationwide & GOP office holders & their deplorable supporters will just become collateral damage in the ensuing onslaught. With the courts demanding the redistricting of GOP gerrymandered Congressional Districts,millions of younger & more progressive voters energized next year,dozens of Republicans not seeking re-election & Trump’s record unpopularity,it could become a real bloodbath. And “believe me” it couldn’t happen to a nicer bunch of treacherous & treasonous a**holes !!! The nations demographics are changing rapidly,so do your part & convince two like-minded friends or acquaintances to register & vote our Democratic Party back into power permanently. It’s time to drive these nasty intolerant,intolerable Neanderthals from our political landscape once & for all. To waste such a golden opportunity when doing so is within our grasp would be a missed opportunity of colossal proportion. Every single further day of a Republican majority leads to the further erosion of our rights & the ruination of the American we all love & cherish. It’s time that we the real patriots reclaim our country & stand up proudly once again for truth,justice & the American way of life ! We can do it & we will do it in 2018,so help me God. It’s just too bad that the Merc more than likely won’t still be around to publish the story … SAD

    • My goodness, but while reading Bud Daily’s comment I actually began to smell the distinctive stink of marijuana smoke. Imagine what the inside of a brain must look like to produce the following diabolically opposed sentiments:

      “a free & viable press is paramount in providing diverse viewpoints on the issues which effect our not only our daily lives,but the future of our country as well.”

      “vote our Democratic Party back into power permanently. It’s time to drive these nasty intolerant,intolerable Neanderthals from our political landscape once & for all.”

      The combination of a crummy education and superior weed has caused Bud Daily to mangle the definition of the word “diversity” so it allows for discrimination against a particular group, and make his view of a progressive victory indistinguishable from a final solution.

    • @Bud Daily
      “How these idiots can praise those in local law enforcement while their hero Donald Trump attacks & trashes the very integrity of our nation’s own law enforcement establishment (the FBI & Justice Departments) is but one example of their duplicity & total lack of character. They should all be ashamed of themselves,but they have no shame & will sink to any depth in pursuit of their goals. They will lie,deny the truth,twist the facts,attack,bully,belittle & humiliate anyone with the temerity to oppose them,as the ends always justify the means as far as they’re concerned. Well the shoe is on the other foot now & as soon as it’s extricated from the Donald’s pasty white backside,these bastards will soon find our foot so far up their derrieres that they’ll have to have it surgically removed.”

      Overall, EXCELLENT points, but if the skin tone on Trump’s face and his toupee are, in fact, truly orange, his backside would not be “pasty.” It, too, would be fluorescent orange. Just what we need in a POTUS from any party.

  10. > , , , to register & vote our Democratic Party back into power permanently.

    > We can do it & we will do it in 2018,so help me God. It’s just too bad that the Merc more than likely won’t still be around to publish the story … SAD

    I’m puzzled. If things are going so well for progressives and the Democrat one-party state, why is their mouthpiece going out of business?

  11. I had absolutely nothing against the Mercury News until it puts all of that toxic left wing red ink on its pristine white paper, and then I canceled my subscription 40 years ago !

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