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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 8 of 8

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


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