SANTA CRUZ, CA (Dec. 4, 2008) - The past two years have been cruel to the Santa Cruz Sentinel, but cutbacks at the battered daily newspaper are not over yet.
The Sentinel has changed hands twice since 2006, and is now owned by MediaNews, a newspaper chain notorious for its extreme cost-cutting strategies. The Sentinel’s presses have since been sold for scrap,its landmark building sold, half its workforce laid off and the survivors banished to an office park in Scotts Valley, a 15-minute drive from downtown Santa Cruz.
Readership has dwindled from 30,000 to 23,000 or 24,500, depending on who you ask, and the paper itself is dramatically smaller.
Morale is low at the Sentinel these days, its readers are wandering away, and the remaining employees are as jumpy as house guests in an Agatha Christie murder mystery.
Unfortunately for workers and readers alike, the newspaper hasn’t hit bottom yet. This week, Publisher Mario van Dongen confirmed widespread rumors that the Sentinel will suffer new reductions in staff and product, though he did not say exactly when, or where, the axe will fall.
“As we anticipate the current climate of business, we are once again looking at ways to become more efficient, to do more with less, both in terms of product and of people,” van Dongen said. “Those are our two main expenses … our revenues are not growing, and we are trying to maintain a reasonable profit for the company.
“Lots of other companies are trying to do the same thing, do more with less,” van Dongen said. “It is painful.”
The old Sentinel building, downtown Santa Cruz
According to Tom Honig, the Sentinel’s former editor who resigned in 2007, the newspaper’s editorial staff has already been pared from a peak of 43 to the 23 writers, editors and photographers now listed on the paper’s website. But other MediaNews papers operate with a much leaner workforce, which may provide a clue as to where the Sentinel is headed.
The San Mateo County Times, for instance, with a circulation roughly the same as the Sentinel’s, operates with ten newsroom employees. When it was purchased by MediaNews in 1996, there were 48 newsroom workers. The County Times now fills much of its news hole with articles written by wire services, or by writers at other MediaNews publications.
The new Sentinel office, inside an office park in Scotts Valley
MediaNews currently owns every daily paper in the Bay Area except the San Francisco Chronicle, though it shares investments with Chronicle’s owner. This means that there are plenty of regional stories that can be run in the County Times. But local news reporting is minimal, and competition and alternative perspectives on the news have nearly vanished from the region.
The Sentinel now runs stories written by the San Jose Mercury News and the Monterey County Herald, both MediaNews papers and former competitors. Freelance stories are also common. But the gaps in local coverage are widening.
This year, the paper gave up endorsing candidates for school, fire and water boards, saying it didn’t have the time to do interviews.Government actions that used to generate debate are now routinely decided in front of a handful of insiders. Even disruptive public events, like power failures that shut down the city center for hours, often don’t rate a mention in the paper.
Not that the reporters are slacking off. It is not uncommon for a Sentinel reporter to have two or three byline stories in a single issue. All of the reporters cover multiple beats, and City Editor Julie Copeland is also listed on the website as a reporter covering news, agriculture, crime and courts, and the communities of Capitola, Aptos, Live Oak and Soquel.
While such ambition is admirable, it is also slightly ridiculous.
“My concern is, that this is very bad for democracy,” said Phil Trounstine, a Sentinel subscriber and the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for Governor Gray Davis, and former director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University.
“We don’t know what is going on in school districts, and we know precious little about planning and zoning and government spending and social programs and all the fundamental structures of civic life, because they’re not being covered,” Trounstine said.
The Sentinel has never been a large paper, or influential outside of Santa Cruz County. But no other publication has been as influential, locally. Founded in 1856, the Sentinel has documented Santa Cruz civic life since the California Gold Rush, providing an uninterrupted narrative of local history.
Before the two recent sales, the Sentinel had changed hands only once, in 1982.
Since the MediaNews purchase, there have been persistent rumors that the Sentinel will be folded in to the San Jose Mercury News, with perhaps a section of the larger paper devoted to Santa Cruz area news.
Publisher van Dongen said that such a move would make little business sense, and is not being considered. “People here care most about local news,” van Dongen said. “We’re not going to walk away from our business model.”
Honig said that MediaNews owner Dean Singleton assured him that the Sentinel, however small, will continue to be published under its own masthead.
“Keeping the masthead is kind of nice, on the one hand, and really cynical on the other hand. Because the truth is that (MediaNews) doesn’t know or care at all about Santa Cruz. We’re just one line on their budget sheet,” Honig said.
In another cost-cutting strategy, Singleton wants to send more MediaNews jobs offshore. Singleton has already outsourced much of his chain’s ad layout and page design to India, reportedly cutting costs by 65 percent.
But at an October meeting of the Southern Newspaper Publishers Association, Singleton discussed creating a centralized news desk for all 54 of his daily newspapers, possibly located offshore. A news desk makes story assignments, and defines what is newsworthy in a community. It sounds absurd, but could decisions about covering Santa Cruz eventually be made in Bangalore?
“There are people (at MediaNews) engaged in those discussions, saying that will be the future of the business, but I don’t agree,” van Dongen said. “You can do it, but the product is going to suffer in the end. I don’t think it will fly.”