Get SF Weekly Newsletters
Pin It

Darth Vega to the Rescue 

New Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega has been cast as a villain, but he may be just what the Hearst empire needs to defeat the dark forces of the new economy

Wednesday, May 4 2005
The party was about to end, but for now everyone was in the foyer, standing three or four deep, some perched on tiptoes and some hanging over the staircase banister, all of them watching every grimace, twist, and torque of the San Francisco Chronicle's new publisher. It was the first Friday in January, and for the people crammed into the entryway of columnist Leah Garchik's two-story Victorian in the Haight, tonight offered a first encounter with Frank Vega, a man who'd been thoroughly Nexised and Googled throughout the Chronicle's newsroom but perhaps had not yet been glimpsed. This being his first week on the job, Vega had not been expected here, at a party for the features department, but well into the evening he showed up nonetheless, accompanied by Executive Editor Phil Bronstein.

There was a drink or two, a smoke or two, a long joke told out on the deck that no one understood but everyone laughed at anyway, and then at some point a challenge was issued, and a crowd gathered in the foyer. Here in the middle were two men: one of them, an editor named Oscar Villalon, standing entirely placid, eyes closed and head turned to the side; the other, Vega -- flinty new publisher, villain of Detroit's famously nasty newspaper strike, a man known to his enemies as "Darth Vega" -- grimacing, twisting, and torquing, his shoulders going like a seesaw.

Darth Vega, thumb-wrestling.

"And you could tell Frank was dying to thumb-wrestle," says Marianne Costantinou, a features writer. "He gave it all he had. His entire body went into it."

In December, Frank Vega, a 56-year-old executive who's never been known to shrink from a fight -- be it over a labor contract, the design of a newsrack, or the nimbleness of his thumb -- announced he was leaving his post as the head of Detroit Newspapers Inc., the agency that oversees Michigan's two largest papers, and moving to San Francisco to become president and publisher of the Chronicle. The arrival of a new publisher has become a near-annual rite at the paper -- Vega is the Chronicle's third in four years -- but the Hearst Corp.'s latest choice was met with considerable unease, from the newsroom to the presses to the loading docks. This was Darth Vega, after all, a man who packed a gun in his briefcase during the Detroit strike, a man who's still hated there now, some 10 years after the first workers streamed from the newspapers' offices. To virtually any Detroiter with a union card, he is -- these are their words -- "a crook," "a cocksucker," "a hatchet man," "a motherfucker in his own right," a man "without any conscience" or any qualms about waging "war against working families." And with the Chronicle's labor contracts set to expire in July, Vega's hire was seen in some quarters as a move against the newspaper's unions, a call to the bullpen to bring in the closer. One posting to a labor message board screamed the darker implications of his arrival: "SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE TO BUST PRINTERS UNIONS...PUBLISHER IMPORTS EXPERT UNIONBUSTER FRANK -DARTH- VEGA FROM DETROIT....WHERE HE BROKE THE DETROIT NEWS STRIKE A FEW YEARS AGO...."

This is nothing new in the story of Frank Vega, who is talked about only in the most extreme terms by friends and enemies alike. Depending on your perspective, says one friend of Vega, "He's either the greatest son of a bitch there is, or he's the worst son of a bitch." But it's a long way from Detroit to San Francisco, and even longer, if you're measuring the media's evolution, from 1995 to 2005. Vega wasn't brought in just to pound a fist on the negotiating table (though he adds that "it would be less than sincere" to say his history with tricky union negotiations had nothing to do with the hiring). He has said time and again that the last thing he wants is another strike, an outcome few regard as likely. His task is far more complex and daunting. At the Chronicle, which reportedly lost more than $60 million last year, it's not Vega's past everyone is worried about; it's the paper's future.

"This is one of, if not the, biggest challenges in the ink-on-dead-tree business today -- no doubt about it," says Steven Falk, who after less than two years as president and publisher left the paper "to pursue other interests," according to a Hearst press release. The subtext is obvious: that the paper needs a radical change, something bold -- that it might very well need a conscience-free motherfucker to accomplish the change. And if it means that, despite all his work to dispel the nastier notions about his image, Darth Vega has to once again dust off the helmet, well, Vega's not one to worry too long.

What Vega plans to do has only been hinted at thus far, but a clue to how he'll do it might have been found back in January, in the middle of a foyer, where Vega was grimacing, twisting, and torquing, and now being teased by the Chronicle's features editor, Carolyn White. "Oh, fuck you, Carolyn," Vega replied -- "A serious but pleasant 'fuck you,'" Costantinou clarifies -- and then, in a matter of minutes, it was over. Villalon pinned Vega's thumb, and at that moment the Chronicle employees in the foyer had as good an introduction as any to their new boss. "You could tell he was disappointed," Costantinou says. "Most people couldn't have cared less, but he really wanted to win. ... He really, really wanted to win."

Given his outsize reputation, he is smaller than you might expect, a stocky 5-foot-6 or so in his tasseled loafers, which might well be found on the arm of a nearby chair and in whose expensive leather he tucks the feet his enemies suspect are cloven. With his tan and his polo shirts, Vega generally favors the look of a guy who just stepped off the 18th hole. That's not to say he looks like anyone's idea of a publisher; in fact, he is quick, even proud, to point out that he most certainly does not. A few weeks ago, after a doctor's physical, Vega hopped a cab back to the Chronicle's Mission Street building. "You work there?" the driver asked him.


"So whaddya do?" the driver continued.

"I run the place," Vega replied.

"Oh, what're you, an office manager?"

Vega is recounting this story on a recent Tuesday morning in his office on the third floor of the Chronicle. The room is sunlit and bare, done up in what we'll call "executive minimalist." There's an ugly statue of a golfer, a mounted pair of golf clubs, a photo of a waving Arnold Palmer, a shelf of family portraits, but in all, precious little to suggest a man of considerable power and controversy, with perhaps two exceptions: a Darth Vader figurine -- lightsaber aloft, cape aswirl -- next to the conference table; and a model of a helicopter, bearing the logo of the Gannett media company and a sticker reading "Darth Vega" on its fin. Both are symbols of his ball-breaker reputation -- a helicopter provided what many saw as the defining moment of the Detroit strike -- and both look like mere playthings, a complex iconography reduced to harmless toys.

Vega continues: "I said, 'No, I'm the publisher.' And this guy's head looked like The Exorcist. He spun around, and he looked at me, and I said, 'Yeah, I know I don't look like a publisher.' I don't have a pinstripe suit. I don't have a real fancy shirt and tie. I don't look very distinguished. I'm not 6 1/2 feet tall. I'm not your normal publisher." (He is often described as "blue collar," which is another way of saying he looks more like a Teamster than a manager. Of course, that doesn't mean he's actually anything like a Teamster, as anyone who's ever seen a publisher's pay stub can testify. Says one former Detroit News photographer: "He is blue collar -- when he's not wearing incredibly expensive sweaters.")

The unlikely publisher arrives at a strange moment for the newspaper. In the past year, the Chronicle has won some of journalism's most prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer for feature photography; its coverage of the BALCO case, a George Polk Award winner, has helped turned steroid use into an issue of national concern. But these are not carefree days at the paper. The Chronicle finds itself in serious financial straits, with its circulation spiraling in a market that gets unfriendlier by the year (in the six-month period ending in March, the Chronicle's average daily circulation was 468,739, down 6.1 percent from last year). One recent study found that Craigslist has cost Bay Area newspapers anywhere from $50 million to $65 million in help-wanted ad revenue. What's more, the Chronicle's financial situation has pushed its unions into a defensive bargaining position, given that the paper's labor contracts are considered among the most worker-friendly in the country.

Further adding to their concerns, the unions won't be able to draw on the Teamsters' leverage during their contract negotiations. In 2003, Teamsters Local 853, which has more than 300 members working at the Chronicle, ratified a contract supplement guaranteeing the Teamsters' job security through the end of 2010 and leaving them with little at stake in the current talks. Considering that the Teamsters historically have assumed the alpha position in any newspaper labor dispute -- as they did here in 1994 and in Detroit in 1995 -- their contract supplement may be the strongest argument against the possibility of a strike (see sidebar on Page 18).

"Anytime you have a company that's losing money, and the employees know it," Vega says, "there's always going to be anxiety. Are their jobs going to be cut? Is their pay going to be cut? Are their benefits going to be cut? And then on top of that you have contract negotiations this year, and you have a new boss -- that does create some anxiety."

Naturally, then, the question everyone asks Vega is why he took the job. "And I tell them, I was in Detroit for 14 years. That was a long time," says Vega, who'll soon be moving into a home on California Street with his wife of 35 years, Linda. (They have four children, ranging in age from 18 to 33.) "The Detroit market is struggling very badly. A lot of retailers are going out of business there. The automobile industry is in turmoil and losing a lot of its market share. And so it became a maintenance job. It became a job in which there wasn't a lot of opportunity for new growth.

"And I'm a Florida boy. I got tired of shoveling snow. I did that for 14 years, and then the Hearst company called me and said, 'Hey, we got an issue. We need to get something fixed.'" Vega points to his windows, which give on a central view of the city. "This area is growing. They're building a million-square-foot Bloomingdale's across the street. Across the street from my office in Detroit was a hotel that was for sale the whole 14 years I was there -- an abandoned building. Come on, it wasn't a tough decision."

Since taking over in January, Vega has methodically gone about charming the better part of a jittery Chronicle. He estimates he has met face to face with at least 500 employees, mostly in small groups in his conference room, but also on smoke breaks and walks through the building. One of his first moves was to throw open the doors inside the Chronicle, where in the past you'd need a swipe key to get from office to office. "We're a newspaper," Vega says. "We're supposed to be open to the public, and we weren't even open to ourselves. I think people appreciate the fact that there's a little more of an open society here than there was."

Vega has made an effort to be visible. Several times a day, he takes what he calls his one- and two-cigarette walks around the building, circling the Chronicle's property in his choppy stride with a Benson & Hedges hanging from his mouth and occasionally the paper's CFO scuffling at his side. Or he'll just smoke on the steps outside the building, nodding "good morning" to his employees and imploring the ad people to, please, sell him something today.

The man certainly has presence. Costantinou knew who he was before she even knew what he looked like. It was the walk. "It's an ethnic walk," says Costantinou, who describes herself as "very ethnic." "He walks like he owns the place. He walks like a much bigger man." One day, she found herself sharing an elevator with Vega, and she decided to greet him, though for the life of her she couldn't remember his name.

"Are you the guy?" she said.

"Yeah," he said. "I'm him."

Then she asked about his ethnicity. Sicilian and Cuban, Vega replied.

"Oh, fuck," Costantinou said. "We're in trouble." He laughed.

In January, Vega formally introduced himself to the newsroom in an impromptu question-and-answer session. He talked about the paper's finances and dropped the $60 million loss figure; he talked about Detroit; he talked about the gun in the briefcase, the drunk driving, the SEC's insider-trading lawsuit against him. "Brusque and direct" is how Michael Cabanatuan, the Chronicle's transportation writer and local president of the Media Workers Guild, describes the meeting. Lance Williams, an investigative reporter, says Vega was "enthusiastic" and "not very apologetic," "a peppy, tough guy."

"I genuinely like him," Costantinou says, sounding more than a little surprised at herself. "I'll be bummed if he turns out to be a prick. I'll be personally disillusioned."

Succhia minchia, the man would yell every morning as the white SUV wheeled into the parking garage, always just a few minutes before 9. Succhia minchia. Italian for "cocksucker." He had learned the phrase from a few Sicilian friends of his -- perfect, thought Andy LaBeau, a veteran of the Detroit News composing room, for screaming at his part-Sicilian boss from the other side of a picket line. Succhia minchia.

This sort of abuse followed Vega everywhere during the strike -- his home in suburban Grosse Pointe Farms, his kids' school, their soccer games -- and it has followed him, to a lesser degree, often in the form of an occasional anonymous letter, since the strike. Today, he is still cast as the chief heavy of the Detroit affair. "Frank Vega was a designated hatchet man," says Mike Zielinski, an organizer with the Teamsters during the strike. "It's a role he performed willingly, and they picked the right guy for the job."

But it's an odd thing about Vega: For everyone who wants to strangle him, there's another who wants to salute him. "I know the reputation he got in Detroit," says Stephen Johnson, who worked under Vega at the Oakland Tribune and later at USA Today (he's now publisher of the Lima News in Ohio). "I'll tell you: There may have been some people who were happy he was leaving, but an awful lot more were crying."

In his phrase, Vega "grew up in newspapers," but it might be just as accurate to say newspapers grew up a little with Vega. He has figured prominently, as villain and hero, in two of contemporary journalism's defining moments -- the strike in Detroit and the creation of USA Today, both of which shepherded the media into this modern era. That's not an accident, either: Vega's ascension in the business of newspapers has had as much to do with the force of his personality as it has with any quirks of timing.

Vega grew up in Tampa, his mother Sicilian, his father Cuban-Sicilian, both steelworkers and both union. His parents divorced when he was 8, leaving Vega, the oldest of four kids, to be raised by his mother. In his early teens, partly to help out at home, Vega took a paper route -- that incubator of future newspaper executives -- for the Tampa Times. It should be noted that there are a great many things one who starts so young can learn about the newspaper business. For one thing, you learn circulation as it's practiced on the front lines. For another, you learn that a vandal can disable a newsrack by squirting pancake syrup into the coin slot. In any case, Vega had found a calling. "I had a knack for sales and stuff and won a lot of contests," he says. "And I enjoyed it." After two failed attempts at college, at Florida State and then the University of South Florida, Vega went into circulation full time.

His rise in the industry was swift -- from a Tampa newspaper route to USA Today in a little more than 15 years -- and when he arrived at the Oakland Tribune in 1978, the paper's director of circulation and barely 30 years old, at least one colleague at the paper arched an eyebrow. "I was really impressed," says Johnson, then a manager in the circulation department. "I figured he was either a genius or he owned the place." At the Tribune, which had been purchased by Gannett under President Al Neuharth, Vega was charged with launching a new morning edition, called Eastbay Today. Although his stay in Oakland was brief -- only two years -- it marked a crucial point in his career, in part because he acquainted himself with ZIP codes he'd need to know intimately three decades later. But more important, in Eastbay Today Vega created a prototype for Neuharth's USA Today, which is a little like saying you did a few rough sketches for Gutenberg.

"What I think was remarkable about it," Johnson says, "was that we were given 59 days to do this, from the day we got notified to the day the paper had to go on the street. We were inventing a new product, from the newsprint to the placement of the coin racks, to the design, the color -- everything. It was a remarkable project, and very successful." No one but a handful of people knew that this was a test run for a new national newspaper; Vega certainly didn't, but he immersed himself in the project nonetheless, learning every detail of every step of a newspaper's production and distribution, which is a lengthy and complicated sort of peristalsis. The planning was "extremely detailed," Johnson says. "How fast the press runs, how long it takes copies to run through the production system, to go through the mailroom, to be loaded in the truck." Vega rode the routes himself with a stopwatch, then drew up charts that showed each route and drop point and precisely how long a truck would need to get from point to point. (Eastbay Today folded in 1982 when the Tribune switched to morning publication.)

In a presentation, Vega showed these charts to Neuharth, guaranteeing that the papers would be delivered on time. Neuharth quickly waved him off. "That's bullshit, Vega," he said, a moment that's recounted in Peter Prichard's book The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA Today. "You circulation guys never deliver what you say you will."

Vega had read all about his boss, how he liked to gamble a bit, and here the young executive decided to rise to Neuharth's challenge.

"I understand you like to bet with your employees," Vega remembers saying. "Why don't we make a bet? I'll bet you a month's pay of mine against a month's pay of yours. I know what you make; I've read the proxy statements. And you know what I make. If I lose, it's gonna hurt me more than it's gonna hurt you."

Neuharth's eyes closed to slits, as they tended to at moments of high irritation. "I don't want all your money," he told Vega, so he bet $5 instead. The night of the launch, in November 1979, Neuharth ducked out of a party early and took his limo past several drop locations. "The papers were there exactly when I said they would be," Vega says, still proud today. Three months after the paper's debut, with Eastbay Today's circulation cresting, he was asked to join a small, secretive research team -- "the young geniuses," as Neuharth took to calling its four members -- that was exploring the idea of a new national newspaper.

Today, Vega keeps a home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Neuharth is his neighbor. His youngest son is named Joseph Allen, after Neuharth. "Al gave me the opportunity to do what I do," Vega says. "He's the guy who said I could get into general management and become a publisher." Vega's three years at Neuharth's USA Today were a formative experience. As the young genius in charge of circulation, Vega faced perhaps the biggest logistical problem of starting a national newspaper (simultaneously, no less, in several different markets) -- finding and counting customers who didn't yet exist for a paper that didn't yet exist and for which no model really ever existed. The questions piled on top of one another. How do you distribute a new national paper in established, and often hostile, markets? What kind of box do you put the newspaper in? Should it be round and different? Should the coin slot rest on top of the newsrack, as required by the laws of gravity, or underneath, as demanded by Neuharth? Should the newsrack be plastic? Should it have a robot voice that thanks you for buying the paper? "One night I woke up in a cold sweat," Vega recalls. "I'm 30 years old. How am I gonna start a national paper? There's no book on how to do this. No one's done it.

"Then I thought about it and said, 'You know, I'm just gonna do Oakland 17 times. I'm just gonna go into a city and have people set up routes, and we're gonna time them, and we're gonna figure out where we ought to be. I'm just going to use that model 17 times in 17 cities.' And you know what? It worked." (According to Johnson, Vega's predictions for how much each market would sell were "right on the button.")

In McPaper, Prichard describes Vega's circulation crew as "USA Today's shock troops." In some cases, during the paper's launch, they'd be bolting down newsracks -- a distinctive blue-and-white box, with a tilted display window and a coin slot in the middle -- just hours before delivery. There were problems, of course. In Pittsburgh, vandals were popping the handles off newsracks; Vega suspected the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's union drivers, who were hostile to USA Today's nonunion operation. He scheduled a meeting with the man in charge of the paper's circulation. At the time, USA Today had put in an order for some 100,000 newspaper racks, and the country's newsrack manufacturers were scrambling to fill that request. "There weren't any for anybody else to buy for two years," he says. He told the circulation guy as much, and then explained what a squirt of pancake syrup could do to his newsracks.

Once the paper found its feet, Vega was deemed expendable, at least as far as USA Today was concerned. He was a start-up guy, not a maintenance guy, something he disputed in only the most colorful language in the office of his successor. Today, Vega confesses that he's "not a great maintenance guy." He realized it years later in Detroit. "I got bored in Detroit," he says. "I was there 14 years, and the place was running well, as well as can be expected in that market. I think I'm better at fixing stuff and starting stuff up than I am at running something 10 years into it."

Vega became the company's utility man. From USA Today, he was sent to New York to save Gannett's floundering Spanish-language daily, El Diario-La Prensa. ("The problems are usually the same wherever you go," he says. "Waste, low productivity, an unmotivated staff, a lack of new ways to generate revenue and stuff. We got it fixed real fast. ... I got it profitable in about a year.") In short order, he was named publisher of Florida Today, the paper that Neuharth started in 1966 and that provided much of the DNA for USA Today, and then regional president, overseeing several of the company's papers in the Southeast. By 1990, Gannett had grown concerned with its recent acquisition in Detroit, the News, which was limping along despite a joint operating agreement with the Knight-Ridder-owned Detroit Free Press. Vega again was dispatched, this time to diagnose the problem. "I did a pretty thorough report," Vega says, "and basically recommended a lot of people -- my name was not on the list. Two months later, they asked me to go in and fix Detroit."

The strike began in July 1995 and ended 583 days later, on Valentine's Day, as it happens, both companies having lost more than $100 million. Those facts are clear. Nearly everything else is up for debate: Why, exactly, 2,500 workers walked out; what management had offered; who "won" the strike. In 1998, the National Labor Relations Board found that the Detroit Newspaper Agency (now Detroit Newspapers Inc.) had engaged in unfair labor practices by adopting a merit-pay system -- the strike's catalyst, though Vega contends the strike was about union membership and dues more than anything else. A federal appeals panel later overturned the ruling.

The question of whether Vega succeeded -- whether he fixed Detroit -- is still being asked today, and how you answer depends in large part on which side of a picket line you instinctively sympathize with. It also depends on how you define "fix," whether it pertains to the numbers in a shareholder's report or the weight of a newspaper in a reader's hands or something more difficult to quantify, like a paper's quality and civic standing.

"The JOA achieved overnight in employee reductions what would've taken 10 to 12 years to get through negotiations," says John Morton, a veteran analyst and president of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Spring, Md. "The two newspapers suffered some short-term consequences in circulation and advertising because of the boycott, but after they got that first year behind them, everything from then on was gravy. The way they handled the strike was very smart, wherever your sympathies might lie." Analysts put the newspaper agency's profits in 1999 somewhere between $60 million and $70 million, climbing above 1994 levels.

On the other hand, Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of Detroit, says: "By any standard of measure, as CEO of this newspaper agency, Mr. Vega was a failure. The business atrophied and diminished, and he had personal problems." Mleczko ticks off a series of numbers: Prior to the strike, the combined Sunday paper had a paid circulation of almost 1.2 million; at last count, the paper's Sunday circulation was about 700,000, the effect of a prolonged union-led boycott in a union-friendly town. "If Mr. Vega is crowing about how successful he was in Detroit, that's a strange way to mark success."

The strike unfolded nasty and ugly and pretty much entirely on Vega's terms. As president and CEO of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, which oversaw the papers' joint operating agreement, he had prepared the papers for a violent and expensive situation. There was an actual manual, a three-ring binder that detailed how every operation of the paper should proceed in a strike, and by the time workers walked out the door, local police had long since been alerted, replacements were waiting in motel rooms, Vance security was on the ground, and the building was stocked with enough toilet paper to last three months, according to one account. Some saw this as a sign of bad faith, that Vega had been itching for a strike.

"A lot was made of the fact that we planned for the strike," says Vega, who reportedly moved to a windowless office at the onset of the dispute. "And the analogy I used at the time -- and it's a good analogy because of what happened last year -- was that if you live in Florida, and a hurricane's coming, do you just sit there and do nothing? No, you board up your windows, you go buy water, you get batteries, you get a generator. If a storm is coming, you get prepared for it. We wanted to publish a newspaper. We felt we had an obligation to provide news and information every day to our customers. If we had not published and just said, 'OK, we're just gonna sit here until the unions decide they wanna come back to work,' we wouldn't have had a business when it was over."

One replacement worker, who was paid about $1,000 a week, says he went through four rental cars in 10 days. "The second or third day I was there, I lost a windshield," says Eric Caron, who worked under Vega in Florida and helped deliver newspapers in Detroit. "A day or two later I got myself blocked in on a cul-de-sac and got my front end baseball-batted. Another time, I had a woman jump into the back seat of my car after she saw the newspapers and pull out a knife. She was cutting the interior of the car out, and I was just inches from her and her knife."

The violence wasn't restricted to replacement workers, however. Rebecca Cook, then a photographer for the Detroit News, says the turning point for many strikers was an incident outside the paper's Sterling Heights printing plant, what she calls the "most horrific night of the strike." Until then, there had been a routine at the plant. "It was always somewhat theatrical," Cook says. "Every time the trucks would come out with the papers, police in riot gear would walk out into the street, and the picketers would be pushed back, and trucks would come and go." Late one night, Cook recalls, the gates opened unexpectedly.

"Everyone turned around, and trucks came barreling out, picking up speed down the driveway. They never slowed down," she says. "People were screaming, jumping out of the way, dragging people out of the way. People were falling down." The trucks rolled into the street and hung a hard right, according to Cook, and it speaks to either the strikers' paranoia or management's ruthless bravado that a Teamster, noting how the trucks shook and bounced, could have sworn they were empty. No one was hurt, Cook says, but after that "people felt their lives meant nothing to the newspapers."

The strike's iconic moment, however, was "the helicopter incident," as it's generally referred to, which Vega explains by saying, simply, "We brought in helicopters so we could get papers distributed." But it was more than that -- it was a taunt, a giant middle finger to the unions. Caron was at the printing plant that night and watched as a pair of rented Sikorsky helicopters -- "big, military-airlift-type helicopters ... like the kind you see dropping food supplies in Baghdad" -- fluttered to the ground. His first thought: "Holy shit." Says Caron: "Here was a true symbol of commitment to getting these papers out, regardless of the cost." (Vega says the stunt cost $40,000 to $50,000, "not as much as you think.") The copters flew the papers to distribution facilities, and trucks took them from there. It was an outsize gesture, so much so that, Caron says with a laugh, "Some of [the strikers] probably thought they were going to deliver papers door to door by helicopter."

Vega's hard-line stance couldn't have been a surprise, given Gannett's historically uneasy relationship with unions. (Of the company's 102 papers, only a handful are unionized.) It was his flourishes, more than anything, that seemed to set people against him -- the helicopters, the acid quotes, maybe even the gun in his briefcase (given to him by his bodyguard "because of the threats to my kids and my wife and stuff"). His every move was read as self-aggrandizement, perhaps to an unfair degree. When he invited four or five picketers into his house in exclusive, affluent Grosse Pointe Farms -- where people would stand on the median and chant, "Your neighbor is a crook" -- for a discussion, it was seen as yet more swagger from Darth Vega.

"You have to understand," Vega says, "that anytime you make tough decisions, anytime you make people accountable that have not been accountable in the past, you're gonna anger some people. The fact that we -- and I wanna make this real clear: Nobody wins in a strike -- the fact that we prevailed in the strike, the fact that we got a newspaper delivered and continued to publish in America's premier union town, that angers a lot of people. The whole paradigm changed there. Companies aren't supposed to win a strike in Detroit." He catches himself. "They're not supposed to prevail."

"Why don't we get something straight about dealing with unions," Vega goes on. "I don't have a problem with unions. This thing about me and unions -- I come from a union family. I appreciate my mom and dad, how they worked, and what working people do. I myself was a steelworker for a summer -- I actually had a steelworker's card my summer after high school. I worked in a steel mill. So it's unfortunate that one situation, which was obviously a major situation, kind of brands me anti-union."

More than just anti-union, though, he was, to the strikers, an asshole, a cocksucker. Succhia minchia. It was Vega, his personality, that offended them, not just his business philosophy. Everything he did, personal and professional, was fodder for a slogan or a sign. And there was plenty of fodder.

In 1992, Vega pleaded guilty in Michigan to operating a motor vehicle while under the influence of liquor and was slapped with a fine and a year of probation; the conviction apparently was later reduced to careless or reckless driving. "I was out with a bunch of Teamsters that night," Vega says. "You take it from there." (In 2003, Cocoa Beach police stopped Vega early one morning for speeding in a rented Chevrolet Impala. He was charged with driving under the influence. The case is pending.)

And in 1994, just months before the strike, Vega was implicated in an elaborate insider-trading scheme. In its suit, the SEC alleged that he and five other men earned more than $400,000 by illegally trading stock in Rochester Community Savings Bank, where a Gannett executive named Thomas J. Farrell was on the board of directors. Vega signed a consent decree, neither admitting nor denying the charges, and agreed to pay $98,338, constituting his profit and his fine. The details of the case were perhaps just as damaging to Vega's reputation. According to the SEC, Farrell passed along the stock tip to Vega while on a weekend golf trip, which is about as close as you can get to a caricature of white-collar crime. A story in Crain's Detroit Business ran under the headline "SEC SCANDAL COULD HAUNT VEGA IN TALKS," and sure enough, strikers later printed up a "Wanted" poster for "Criminal Frank Vega." Among his crimes: "Drinking & Driving" and "Insider Trading."

"You have to realize," Vega says, "people lost their jobs in Detroit during the strike. People lost their families. People got divorced. I mean, a strike is not good. A lot of bad things happen. Well, those people have to blame somebody. They can't blame themselves, because they went on strike. They can't blame the readership, because they believed in the unions. And so who are they gonna focus on? They focus on the guy that's the head of the company. Do they hate me personally? Did I step on somebody's toes or did I personally take somebody's house away? No.

"But they've got to focus that anger at somebody, and they focus it on me. That comes with the job. ... I'm kind of a lightning rod, one way or the other."

Or maybe the animosity's not so simple. Take Andy LaBeau -- "Andy from composing," the guy screaming a nasty bit of Italian at the windows of Vega's hulking SUV. One day, Vega arrived late, and the picketers had begun to disperse. Trailing a few strikers with their picket signs, LaBeau spotted Vega's car at an intersection, and for some reason -- he still doesn't know why -- he made eye contact with Vega, Darth Vega, head succhia minchia, and nodded. Vega nodded back. After that, LaBeau stopped swearing at Vega's SUV, and once in a while he'd nod, just slightly, so his fellow picketers wouldn't see. "If they did," he says now, "I'd have been on my ass." He eventually moved to another part of the building to yell at the scabs.

The strike ended, and LaBeau got his job back, but "shit-disturber that I was," he called Vega's office and asked for a meeting. It was granted, and when they met, LaBeau recalls, it wasn't 10 minutes before they started yelling at each other. "Him justifying his position," LaBeau says, "me trying to justify mine. It got to the point where I said, 'Frank, why don't we just talk about other things.'" And they did: golf, bowling, that kind of stuff. The meetings turned into a regular thing, and the animosity turned into a weird sort of friendship.

One year, Vega invited LaBeau and his wife to the corporate New Year's Eve party. "There's corporate people there -- all the high muck-a-mucks -- and in walks a striker," LaBeau recalls, laughing. "People were looking -- 'What the hell is he doing here?'" Vega pulled LaBeau aside and told him that Tim Kelleher, the papers' vice president for labor relations, was there. "He says, 'Kelleher doesn't know you're gonna be here. Hide when we see him. Let's have a ball with him.'" LaBeau hid, and when Kelleher came by, he materialized and said, "Hey, Tim, glad you could make it."

LaBeau laughs. "The look on his face was unbelievable. He almost shit his pants."

In 1999, Vega was named Gannett's Manager of the Year; he thinks he won largely on the strength of LaBeau's nomination.

In early April, Vega mailed a letter to the Chronicle staff that offered his employees a glimpse of the paper's future. "The fact is," he wrote, "I've not found anything here that can't be fixed. ...

"Internally, we've made decisions in the past that, in hindsight, appear to have been not in our best long-term interests. We're taking steps to modify those decisions. At the end of last year, management's ranks were thinned, and I've trimmed additional positions since my arrival. We've eliminated low-revenue circulation initiatives. We know readers and advertisers value our product, and we're working to increase that value by broadening our reach.

"I've also met with many people throughout the newspaper, and we've made real progress in removing obstacles and stopping obsolete policies and practices. And there will be more of that. We're also undertaking two major research initiatives -- conducting an in-depth readership study, and a proprietary advertiser market study. ...

"The challenge I accepted when coming to The Chronicle was to help rebuild this company's financial foundation so that it could invest in itself. You may have already heard me say, 'You don't want to be working for a company that isn't making money. It's no fun.' I mean that. A newspaper that isn't making money can't invest in its people, its readers, its equipment, and its market."

The language is passive and corporate, but certainly not so opaque that one can't see his point: Something has to change.

In an interview, Vega throws out a number of ideas, many of which center on efficiency, on "getting a little leaner and meaner." The "low-revenue circulation initiatives" he writes of refer to things like "sponsored copies" and "bonus days" and other various circulation-inflating fudges that are allowed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry watchdog over newspaper circulation, but are ultimately a drain on a paper's wallet. Another cost-cutting idea under consideration would be to combine the weekly TV guide -- "All it is is grids," says Vega -- with Sunday's pink Datebook section, thus saving the cost of printing a stand-alone TV section. Perhaps more dramatically, Vega has talked about scaling back the Chronicle's push into the suburbs, especially Contra Costa County, where some think the window shut on the Chronicle while the paper was still hamstrung by its JOA.

But what these ideas sidestep, and what his letter only hints at, is the staff itself, an issue ever since the sale of the Chronicle and what was essentially the merging of two whole newspapers and their employees. "That was a bad precedent," Vega says. "I wasn't here, so I don't know what, politically, motivated that, or what the reasons were. But when the JOA went into effect in Detroit, they had buyouts, and they eliminated jobs -- they didn't get it totally right, but they at least moved in the right direction. Here, when you leave everybody working, and you keep the staff of two papers in one -- what are you saying about work ethic? Nobody really had a full-time job, because there were so many people. People did parts of jobs, then over time, people get used to that, and it's not productive. So then, when you say, 'OK, we've gotta run this like a real newspaper, and we have to staff it properly,' people say, 'You mean I gotta do more work?' Well, yeah. You had the luxury of being overstaffed for the last four years, and the contracts are coming up, and we're obviously negotiating to get the staffing in line with other newspapers across the country."

In the newsroom, for instance, staffing "is still not at the level we think it can run at," Vega says. "I don't have a number -- do we need 30 fewer people or 40 fewer people? -- but we have more people in the newsroom than we need right now." Asked about the unwieldy aspect of the newsroom, Executive Editor Phil Bronstein points to the Chronicle's busy year on the award dais: "Yes, there are still many things we need to do in the newsroom. We're still far from our goal of being a truly great newspaper on a day-to-day basis. But if [the newsroom] were really unwieldy and really still suffering from the effects of something that happened five years ago, you wouldn't see the kind of quality you saw last year."

It's a boast, but it happened to sound more like a plea.

The letter arrived not long ago in a pink envelope, with a stamp for Maxine's Massage Parlour in Royal Oak, Mich. Vega unfolds the letter, handwritten on blue paper in a big, agitated scrawl, and reads aloud: "'Frank, All the best in the new position. Eat shit and die, asshole. Your pals ... in Detroit.'" Vega is standing over a shelf against the near wall of his office, where he keeps assorted Detroit-related mementos and correspondence: a postcard depicting an enormous woman in a bathing suit; a framed photo of picketers; a note from an old friend in Florida signed "The Miami Strike Force." There are others, too, and glancing around the shelf, it's tough to tell which ones were intended as a joke between pals, and which ones were sent as taunts.

"Now why do people still do this?" Vega asks innocently, and then he answers his own question: "I guess I made people real happy or real mad in Detroit."

That would make a fine epitaph, and it's a measure of Vega's business sense that he knew precisely which people to make happy and which to make mad. In Detroit, he behaved no worse than would any other businessman worth his wingtips. That doesn't mean he behaved well; it means he acted within the wide, and ever-widening, boundaries of American commerce, wherein a company under strike is free to spend a ton of money just to say, "Fuck you." (His handling of the strike is fondly presented as a case study in the crisis-management book Dealers, Healers, Brutes & Saviors: Eight Winning Styles for Solving Giant Business Crises, from which we also learn Vega is an eight handicap who one year spent 100 days on the golf course.)

What this augurs here is another matter, and it would be much too simple to merely project Detroit's past on San Francisco's future. At the Chronicle, there is at least an acknowledgment that the paper is sick and in need of some remedy, which no one doubts will be drastic, but which few people -- Vega among them -- think will require the systematic neutering of the paper's unions. His goal is not to shove the unions back into the dark ages of labor, pace just about any Detroiter paying union dues; his goal is to drag a newspaper with a number of anachronisms into the 21st century. "If there are 1,700 newspapers in the country," Vega says, "I guarantee you that probably 1,695 are profitable. Newspapers are profitable entities. ... We should be able to make a profit here, with this newspaper." That's not a simple proposition -- not today, not in this market, not in this economy; it's only natural, then, that the Chronicle turn to a guy like Vega, the kind of meticulous ball-breaker who'd bet a month's pay on his circulation routes, for help.

And so, enter Darth Vega, lightsaber aloft, cape aswirl.

"I had these shirts made up," he says, now holding a pair of postcard-size prints, both of which reference Star Wars. One reads, "Darth Vega, may the DNA" -- the Detroit Newspaper Agency -- "be with you." Another ensures that "good will prevail." The t-shirts were given to replacement workers during the strike. "We went through 2,000 shirts in, like, an hour -- people were grabbing them," Vega says. Earlier, he insisted he wasn't proud to be known as Darth Vega, but at the moment he certainly seems to relish the identity, with all that it implies. And why wouldn't he? Vega smiles. His eyes brighten, and he looks like a guy who just made birdie on 18. In the end, he points out with something close to glee, it was Darth Vader who saved the galaxy.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Popular Stories

  1. Most Popular Stories
  2. Stories You Missed


  • clipping at Brava Theater Sept. 11
    Sub Pop recording artists 'clipping.' brought their brand of noise-driven experimental hip hop to the closing night of 2016's San Francisco Electronic Music Fest this past Sunday. The packed Brava Theater hosted an initially seated crowd that ended the night jumping and dancing against the front of the stage. The trio performed a set focused on their recently released Sci-Fi Horror concept album, 'Splendor & Misery', then delved into their dancier and more aggressive back catalogue, and recent single 'Wriggle'. Opening performances included local experimental electronic duo 'Tujurikkuja' and computer music artist 'Madalyn Merkey.'"