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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
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"Yeah."

"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."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs

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