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.
For Daily News staffers like Mariel Garza, who covered Los Angeles City Hall for two years and has been a Daily News editorial writer for the past four years, the slow bleed in Woodland Hills has been akin to watching a friend succumb to a terminal illness.
Garza said the recent layoffs, coupled with a long period of attrition, have left the San Fernando Valley newsroom demoralized and fearing the paper’s demise.
“It’s like watching a loved one that’s wasting away from Alzheimer’s,” Garza said. “It’s tragic to watch.”
With each acquisition, Singleton and his lieutenants had talked of streamlining and consolidating operations as a way to make the newspapers more efficient and to free up resources that they insisted would improve coverage and boost readership. They promised reporters and readers alike a renewed sense of purpose and vitality in the papers’ pages.
At first, many of the papers sparkled with juicy local stories. But lately, there’s been a slow-motion implosion of hiring freezes, budget cuts, positions eliminated through attrition, firings and layoffs. All the way through, editors like Steve Lambert, who oversees both the Bulletin and The Sun, have dashed off surreal e-mail memos to staffers, like one on August 20 of last year, citing the need to find “more efficiencies” in “potential synergies.”
The Pomona Valley's Bulletin is “a ghost town now,” photojournalist Weis says. “They’ve arrived at the ultimate ‘consolidation’: They put a local story on the front page with a photo, fill the rest of the shrinking news pages with wire and copy from sister papers, and sell it to readers as their ‘hometown newspaper.’ ” *
Segura at the Press-Telegram agrees and says his local guild wants to see reporters from other newspapers identified as such, instead of datelines from Woodland Hills or San Bernardino in the Long Beach newspaper placed on stories written by distant reporters identified as “staff writers.”
“They want to give the readers the impression that these are our reporters,” Segura says, “and they’re not.”
Garza at the Daily News seems more resigned than angry. “I think the model of corporate journalism is failing, and a lot of people see malicious intent on the part of Dean Singleton,” she says. “But I don’t. I don’t see it as some dastardly scheme.”
But if Singleton’s not pursuing a “buy and bleed” strategy with his papers, Garza concedes, there doesn’t seem to be much of a long-term vision. “I don’t know if the ‘money people’ realize that readers do notice what’s happening,” she says. “They see the changes in the newspaper and they are angry.”
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As the journalists still working for Singleton send out their résumés, Weis is hitting the gym more often, pondering what his future holds now that he’s in his mid-50s and looking for work.
“Look, 20 years ago, I could have gone across the street to the Tribune, or down the road to the Breeze, or maybe a little farther down the road to another paper and been hired on the spot,” he says. “There was competition then. Journalists were screwed the minute Singleton was allowed to buy nearly every paper within a hundred miles and start squeezing the life out of them.”
Mark Cromer can be reached at Mrcromer@aol.com.
* Correction: Due to an editing error, the article originally stated that the Daily Bulletin is in Pomona. It is in the Pomona Valley in the city of Ontario. Also, the story erred in reporting that the Long Beach Press-Telegram’s editor duties are being taken over by the Daily Breeze. The Press-Telegram’s manager editor duties are being taken over, while the job of editor, held by Rich Archbold, is being preserved at the Press-Telegram.