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A deadline looms at the Boston Globe. Its parent company, The New York Times, has threatened to shut down the paper if union officials and management don't settle on a key demand by Friday. Representatives from both sides — who are meeting Wednesday — must identify $20 million in cost cuts to save the 137-year-old newspaper.
The Globe is not alone. Major newspapers in other cities are also in jeopardy. Take the San Francisco Chronicle. Last month its unions agreed to concessions to keep the paper afloat. The Minneapolis Star Tribune — nicknamed "The Strib" — faces an uncertain future too. Its owners are asking a bankruptcy judge to allow it to abandon a union contract.
To compare the newspapers' struggles, WBUR turned to media analysts in their home cities. David Brauer is a journalist in Minneapolis who writes about media for the web site minnpost.com. Louis Freedberg is founder and director of the California Media Collaborative, a group working to develop new ways to cover the news.
Louis Freedberg, what's been happening at the San Francisco Chronicle?
LOUIS FREEDBERG: The Chronicle has been losing approximately $1 million a week for most of this decade. So the Hearst Corp., which bought the Chronicle in around 2000, basically came to the union and said, 'Listen, we're going to have to make major reductions.' So the union, you know, basically caved. I mean they had no choice. But in order to save some jobs, they did agree to over 150 layoffs — effectively buyouts.
Is that enough for the Hearst Corp., or is there a continuing effort to reduce costs even more?
FREEDBERG: Continuing. Continuing. Because there's no way this would put the Chronicle back into the black, even with those cuts. And talking with people at the paper, some people think, well, they'll be lucky if they still have a job by the end of the year.
David Brauer, let me ask you about Minneapolis. As we mentioned, the bankruptcy judge may decide whether owners of the Star Tribune, which you call the Strib, will be able to abandon their union contract. Can you briefly explain the financial picture for the Strib, and the strategy of asking a bankruptcy judge to allow a company not to honor an union contract?
DAVID BRAUER: The irony here is that we're the only paper in bankruptcy and yet we're probably the healthiest of the three, listening to the other two of you. The Star Tribune, through last year, did not lose money on an operating basis. It was making money. The factor in our case is that, two years ago, venture capitalists bought the paper — they paid approximately half-a-billion dollars for it. As we now know, that was way too much.
So even though they've made money as a business, they haven't been able to service any of their debt, and that's led to the bankruptcy filing. What you're talking about is bankruptcy section 11-13, which basically allows the debtor — in this case, the owners of the Star Tribune — to go to court and seek to have an existing labor contract abbrigated — thrown out. There's a nine-point test for doing that, it's not something that's easy to do. In fact, in the past — bankruptcy people have told me — it's actually been quite hard.
So what's the betting there now? Likely or not that the union contract will be thrown out?
BRAUER: Well, no union contracts have been thrown out. Instead they've sort of been renegotiated at gunpoint.
Should going to bankruptcy court by a newspaper owner be a wake-up call for other unions?
BRAUER: I think it has to be. You have to remember, in Minneapolis especially, the unions have been quite powerful, quite successful. They've had a 40-year winning streak, essentially, in terms of negotiating contracts. So, the idea that a judge could come in and undo a lot of very carefully laid things that had been built over the years, you know, is a real head-snapper.
Has journalism been affected at the Star Tribune because of the financial difficulties?
BRAUER: Well, you know, if you didn't know that our paper was in bankruptcy, I think you would say no. It's actually a harder newspaper, at least what's left of it today, than it was a few years ago.
Louis Freedberg, what's the situation in San Francisco? Have the financial problems affected the journalism at the Chronicle?
FREEDBERG: Well, clearly. You know, there is still good journalism being done, but less and less of it.
And I have to say, one of the big differences between the Chronicle and the Globe is that the Chronicle — I think there's a widespread recognition — has always been a weak newspaper and has never done the kind of great journalism that a place like the Bay Area — you know, kind of the Boston of the West — deserves.
Are there private buyers interested in the Chronicle?
FREEDBERG: There's been some talk in the last few weeks about some philanthropists.
If the paper is making money — which is somewhat the case in Minneapolis — that's one thing, but to get private investors to take over a paper that's losing large sums of money, I think that's a tall order.
David Brauer, in Minneapolis — from the consumer point of view, from the reader point of view-- has the private ownership there worked?
BRAUER: No. I would say people are distressed, alarmed. It's an open question as to whether this would have been different if somebody else would have bought the paper. But, I understand from readers all the time — you know I'm a journalist and I know that the Star Tribune still has a lot of great journalists that do great work.
But from a reader's standpoint, they pick this thing up, it's thinner every day. One thing the new ownership has done is changed its editorial stances in a more conservative direction. Compared to the San Francisco Chronicle, which has always been seen as a weak paper, the knock on the Star Tribune was basically, 'Why isn't it the Boston Globe?' But it was probably somewhere in the middle, in terms of journalism. I would say it still is, maybe it's even crept closer, to the Globe.
Louis Freedberg, the San Francisco Chronicle's owners, the Hearst Corp., also own the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, which recently went to an online-only edition. People are wondering if this may happen to the Globe. What happens when a newspaper shuts down? Does it just stop printing one day?
FREEDBERG: We don't know what's going to happen. So what's happening in Seattle is kind of a case study. And what happened there is that the P-I, as it's called, is being run with about 25 'newsgatherers,' and that's compared to 165 people who were in the newsroom before.
In the last couple of weeks since this happened, the readership of this online version is declining quite precipitously. So there's no guarantee that if you become an online-only operation with a radically downscaled staff, that your previous visitors will stay.
David Brauer, at minnpost.com, you ask readers to donate. Is that the future?
BRAUER: I sometimes joke that our economic model is maybe the one that makes the most sense, which is the generosity of rich people. We are less dependent on advertising than a traditional media outlet, but we do have it. We basically have memberships, and we also have, for now, foundation support, because they are interested in investing in the next thing.
But my boss, Joel Cramer, who's a former editor and publisher of the Star Tribune, wants to be off of the foundation support by 2011 or 2012. Which means we are going to have to go to a, really, to a more membership-oriented model, like public radio. I think there's a chance of that.
Will life without a newspaper — if that's what happens in San Francisco, in Minneapolis — change much in those cities? Are readers of these two newspaper clamoring for their survival? Or, is there an attitude in this economy of, 'Well, if they go, they go'?
FREEDBERG: This is a demographic thing, an age thing — that as young people who've grown up on the Internet, they're just not going to read papers. So I think the long-term view is that life will go on. We're just hopeful that we'll be able to invent a new form of underwriting the news.
BRAUER: There's a substantial minority of people that would be heartbroken, completely heartbroken. But, these papers — while still the mass news medium in town — are becoming less and less mass all the time.
This program aired on April 29, 2009.
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