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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

Page 3 of 8

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.

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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