Two years ago, San Francisco real estate magnate Clint Reilly successfully blocked an attempt by the two companies that own almost every daily newspaper in the Bay Area, Hearst Corporation and MediaNews, to combine some of their local business and sales operations. At a press conference announcing his legal victory, Reilly vowed any future attempts by Hearst and MediaNews to join forces and create a Bay Area newspaper monopoly would trigger "an almost certain lawsuit from me."
That was then and this is now. The economy has since gone into a deep recession and much of the newspaper industry is in a tailspin. That grim reality was on lurid display last week when Hearst declared that unless it made major cutbacks at the San Francisco Chronicle, which is losing $1 million a week, it would sell or close the 144-year-old paper. The announcement immediately set off speculation that Denver-based MediaNews, which boasts a portfolio in the Bay Area that includes the Oakland Tribune and the San Jose Mercury News, may buy the Chron, or that perhaps the two companies would once again try to forge a local business partnership.
For the sake of argument, let's say one of those things comes to pass. What would Clint do?
In an interview last week, Reilly didn't seem so certain anymore that he would resume his litigious ways. "I would have to see how events unfolded before I would decide what I would do," he said carefully.
In the current economy, you could argue that an anticompetitive deal may be the only way to ensure the Chron's survival. Reilly has heard the survival argument before; the question is whether that argument has more weight now than in the past. At this point, he doesn't sound as if he knows the answer, although he acknowledges that the newspaper business is suffering mightily these days, facing "epical forces" in the form of declining ad revenue and readership.
"I'm not going to do anything thoughtless or ill-considered," he said. "This is serious stuff."
Guess we'll have to wait and see what happens. Maybe we'll even read about it in the papers, if they're still around.