How many cuts can one newspaper take until there is no longer a newspaper?
Like all dailies around the country, the San Francisco Chronicle seems to be running just that experiment -- with the latest development being the news that the paper's owner, Hearst Corp., is threatening to shut the whole bugger down if they don't implement "significant" staff cuts soon or find a buyer.
Say what you will about the Chronicle, but there's no questioning that, as the city's only remaining broadsheet daily newspaper after the Examiner was castrated into a news tabloid years back, public knowledge of what the hell is going on around here would take a devastating hit if Hearst makes good on its promise.
"I cannot imagine San Francisco without the Chronicle," says Chron reporter Carl T. Hall, a union rep on leave from his reporting job at the paper. "I think it's obviously in everybody's interests to prevent that from happening. I don't feel like that's the preferred option."
The days when William Randolph Hearst could build a castle on the California coast with the earnings from his newspaper dynasty are over. While Hearst Corp. is a privately-held company, it confirmed Tuesday what everybody knew -- that the Chron has suffered "major losses" since 2001, and $50 million in 2008 alone.
Hall says the union has been realistic in the past about the job cuts, but doesn't know how the paper will stem the gargantuan losses by cutting reporters this time. The Chron reported that the company will be discussing the measures with the Northern California Media Workers Guild, Local 39521, and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Local 853.
"I don't know how you get to 50 million from job cuts alone ... We know that sooner or later no company can continue operating in the red, and [the union] has been trying to help the company get on sound footing," continued Hall. "That's why we agreed to a contract in 2005 that included some painful sacrifices and why we have agreed to cost-cutting measures and buy-outs in the interim."
Hall says he's wary of what being bought by another owner would do to the union contract. "The ideal option would be to find some source of revenue. I hope we can put the company on footing that will convince the Hearst Corporation to stick it out."
The paper quoted Chron publisher Frank J. Vega quixotically asserting that the imminent staff cuts wouldn't harm the paper's quality. But a paper is defined by the quality of its content, and fewer people contributing almost necessarily means a cutback in what it can cover. Hall says that a paper will only be further harmed by any cutback in quality.
"We need to build up the product. Journalism is what it's all about, and you need to give people more reasons to buy the paper and the only way to succeed in the information business is putting out information, and that means quality."