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.
The definition of depressing: When you send a press release to local media contacts and receive auto replies from half the #BANG reporters on your list that they've taken a buyout in the latest round of corporate deconstruction of the #4thEstate. #HappyTrails cc: @mercnews
— Peter Allen (@pjallen2) January 31, 2018
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.