By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
THEIR FACES SHADOWED IN THE GLOW of a bar’s low-watt lanterns, several figures huddle at a corner table, radiating an air that is two pours depression with a splash of 120-proof defiance. Smoking cigarettes and using the hushed tones of clandestine conversation, some glance over their shoulders, evoking a scene from the Paris underground, circa 1942.
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There is talk of subterfuge, backstabbing and betrayal, flashes of righteous anger followed by a weary sense of fatalism.
Yet it’s not a wartime City of Light but Los Angeles, 2008, and the resistance guerrillas at the table are journalists from media mogul Dean Singleton’s chain of regional daily newspapers that stretch from San Bernardino to the shorelines of Manhattan Beach and Long Beach to the San Fernando Valley.
Life for reporters, photographers and editors in Singleton-occupied newsrooms throughout Southern California has grown increasingly dark over the past several weeks, with successive layoffs and firings that have hollowed out several hometown newspapers.
The Press-Telegram in Long Beach has been stripped of its managing editor, publisher and copy desk, leaving little more than a large bureau to cover a dynamic port city of half a million people. The move came as the paper’s corporate owner continued his pattern of merging news operations, this time dissolving the Press-Telegram into the Daily Breeze in Torrance. *
“They’re way past stripping the paper to the bone,” says Joe Segura, a 34-year veteran of the Long Beach newsroom. “They’re digging for marrow now.”
Segura, who is also the shop steward for the Southern California Media Guild, calls the recent cuts at the Press-Telegram a continuation of Singleton’s effort to emasculate the union at his newspapers.
“Most unions go for bucks and benefits when they are at the bargaining table,” Segura says. “Last year, when we sat down to try and negotiate a contract, we were just trying to stabilize the newsroom. Over the past 10 years that Singleton has owned us, there has been constant erosion in newsroom jobs.”
That erosion has taken a newsroom that once had more than 70 journalists, Segura says, down to 12 news reporters today.
The grisly job-letting makes real the warnings of critics of El Dino — as the Texas publisher is sometimes derisively known — which have circulated ever since he started buying newspapers in Southern California almost a decade ago, from the Daily News and the San Gabriel Valley Tribune to the Daily Bulletin in the Pomona Valley, all the way east to The Sun in San Bernardino.
With job security plummeting faster than paid circulation, newsroom fratricide has made an ominous appearance. Staff photographer Walt Weis, a 26-year veteran of the Daily Bulletin, was summarily fired on February 29 by editor Frank Pine for allegedly freelancing video footage to a television-network affiliate — ostensibly a competitor. Pine, in an e-mail to the Weekly, declined to comment, citing it as a personnel matter.
After three decades as an award-winning photographer for the Ontario-based newspaper, Weis was making an annual salary of just $46,000. That pittance from Singleton — whose Denver-based company MediaNews saw its net income rise 34 percent in the fourth quarter of 2007 — actually made Weis one of the highest-paid employees in that newsroom. *
To put Weis’ salary arc in perspective: A first-year administrative assistant for the tiny city of Sierra Madre can make $42,000 annually with a sterling benefits package.
But in Singleton’s anemic newsrooms, Weis says, a photographer’s salary was seen as largess, and it made him a target. He said another employee, in a gambit to save his own job from getting slashed in the looming layoffs, told management that Weis was freelancing.
“It gave Pine an excuse to fire me, save more money and look good to corporate. And it got [the employee] a pat on the head,” Weis says. “How does he sleep with himself? He’s probably rationalized it as ‘every man for himself.’ ”
Other Daily Bulletin employees, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified by name out of fear of retaliation by the paper’s management, say the waves of layoffs have left remaining staffers in bitter despair.
“It’s really, really bad right now,” one said. “They pay us the equivalent of In-n-Out cooks, literally. They gut the newsroom, firing some of the best people we’ve got, and then turn around and expect us to be passionately motivated about our jobs.”
Singleton did not return calls for comment from the Weekly, but in 2003 the unrepentant media baron told the Columbia Journalism Review, “I was at the same place they were. I started at small papers and went up the ladder as I got experience.”
WHEN SINGLETON BOUGHT a controlling interest in the Bulletin in 1997, it was part of a blitzkrieg that before long led him to own every daily in the region, outside of the Times, the Register in Orange County and the Press Enterprise in Riverside. The Times became part of that story when it was revealed that its then–parent company, Times-Mirror, had helped to finance Singleton’s purchase of the Daily News, arguably in order to prevent a serious journalistic competitor from moving into town to challenge it.
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