Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Stop the Presses!

The presses stopped at the Santa Cruz Sentinel Sunday night and the news didn't even make the front page.

The Sentinel has been my local newspaper for over thirty years, and even though I occasionally referred to it as the Senile along with critical friends, I read it frequently to keep up with local news and events. My landlords subscribe and they pass copies of the paper to me a day late. Nevertheless, I keep in touch. And the mere fact that Santa Cruz had a daily newspaper I found reassuring.

While the Sentinel still has a little life in her, the signs are ominous. She was purchased in February by California Newspapers Partnership which in turn is controlled by MediaNews Group, the fourth largest newspaper company in the U.S. and owner of numerous papers in the Bay Area, including the San Jose Mercury News. When CNP bought the paper, its president, who is also publisher of the Mercury News, said it would continue to be printed locally. But a month later it was announced that a need for cost savings necessitated shutting down the press. Printing now moves to San Jose, and forty employes are out of work except for a few who move over the hill along with an $8 per hour cut in pay.

The big old Sentinel press, which I used to see through the window running late at night, churning out the daily edition of 26,000 copies, is now silent after a 150-year run. The first copies were printed in 1855 in Monterey by John McElroy, a Mexican War veteran with a small hand press. A year later he moved his operation to Santa Cruz. McElroy sold out in 1863, and after the paper passed through several owners, it was purchased in 1864 by Duncan McPherson, an ex-teamster who traded his ranch for a half-interest in the paper, valued at $900. Columnists included one of California's early literary lights, Josephine McCrackin. When he died in 1921, the newspaper was taken over by his son, Fred D. McPherson, who was publisher until 1941 when his son, Fred Jr., took the reins. In 1967 the Sentinel moved into its present building, now up for sale, and installed a new press that now sits silently in the window.

The McPherson family, represented by Bruce McPherson, now California's secretary of state, sold its interest in the paper in 1982 to Ottaway Newspapers, Inc., which is controlled by Dow Jones & Co., publishers of the Wall Street Journal. Last October, the Santa Cruz paper was sold once again, to Community Newspaper Holidings, Inc., but its ownership was short lived. MediaNews, parent of CNP, the Sentinel's newest owner, has been actively acquiring newspaper properties since 2005, including the Mercury News, Contra Costa Times and Monterey Herald. A suit was recently filed in San Francisco to block these sales because the Chronicle's owner, the Hearst Corp., helped finance the deal. Because MediaNews owns a large number of daily newspapers in the Bay Area, some have feared it could easily become a monopoly.

MediaNews is owned by Denver newspaper baron Dean Singleton. Last year the company laid off about 45 call-center and finance workers in the Bay Area and cut 38 newsroom positions through layoffs and attrition. Union Spokesman Luther Jackson said the company's style was "cluster, consolidate and cut." It has been rumored that the Hearst Corp, former owner of the San Francisco Examiner and an investor with MediaNews in other papers, might sell the money-losing Chronicle to Singleton. The Chronicle is scheduled to move its printing operation out of the downtown San Francisco plant in several years.

I take all of this personally, having been a newspaper reporter in my youth. After I dropped out of UC Berkeley in 1959, I got a job as a copy boy on the Pasadena Star-News. Six months later I became city desk reporter, and during the next few years also worked as a copy editor as well as record, book and movie reviewer. I loved it. The Star-News was the evening paper and it also published the Independent in the morning. We worked in a large three-storey building on Colorado Boulevard in downtown Pasadena. The huge press was in the basement, advertising on the first floor, and the editorial room was on the second. This was before computers and the noise of manual typewriters and teletype machines could sometimes be deafening. Sometimes I laid out the stocker market pages cutting ticker tape to fit. Big news events were announced by bells and I remember the night I saw on the teletype that Bobby Kennedy had just been shot. On the floor above us were the heavy linotype machines which used molten lead to set type. Workers laid out columns of type backwards and ran off proofs for the copy editors downstairs. The photographers had a studio on the roof where they processed film and made zinc engravings from photos chosen for the pages, a highly technical process involving lots of dangerous chemicals. Today I look on it all as fondly as a blacksmith might remember his past. Time marches on. I should add that I also worked as a reporter on the San Francisco Chronicle during the summer of 1963, so I follow all news about the paper with interest.

The Star-News was owned by the Ridder family and their papers included the Press-Telegram in Long Beach and the Mercury News in San Jose. I think they also had a paper in New York City before all of the dailies there were reduced to the three still being published. After I left the paper for the last time in 1968, the Ridder group was purchased by the Knight chain, becoming Knight Ridder, which in turn was taken over by the McClatchy Company. And McClatchy sold off a number of their properties, including the Pasadena Star-News, to the Los Angeles Newspaper Group which itself is controlled by -- you guessed it -- NewsMedia. So the owner of the paper on which I cut my journalistic teeth is now the owner of the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

It is no secret that newspapers are in trouble. When I was teaching at UC Santa Cruz, I tried to get my 18-year-old students interested in reading newspapers to keep track of environmental issues. But it was a losing cause. They might look at the free entertainment weeklies (the Good Times and Metro here in Santa Cruz), but they got their news, if they followed it at all, from TV or the web. Journalists, who have lost considerable respect and prestige in recent years, are now purveyors of content for web pages run by the newspapers. Even the major U.S. dailies have cut way back on coverage and most no longer have offices in other countries. Many foreign correspondents are freelancers, selling their scoops to the highest bidder. Others are in bed with the military, their objectivity lost.

Strangely enough, the trouble with newspapers is problem here, but not so much abroad. I have been in a number of major cities overseas during the last three years, from Buenos Aires to Bangkok, and newsprint is flourishing there, with some cities boasting dozens of competing dailies. Every major streetcorner has a newsstand, covered with publications. For some reason, Americans are not as enamored with periodical journalism as other global citizens.

Finally, I suppose, I'm sad because an era is passing and I was a part of it. One of these days I'll be an old foggy sitting in a rocking chair mumbling about hot type, teletype bells and clattering typewriters, and no one will know what I'm talking about.

No comments: