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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 7 of 8

"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."

About The Author

Tommy Craggs


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