Workers still carry the torch at one shrinking community paper

By DENNIS TAYLOR

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Members of the Guild’s first organizing committee, each holding a piece of the plaque presented to them after the first contract was ratified. The late Russ Cain gave his piece to the Pacific Media Workers Guild several years ago. From left: Fritz Willardt, circulation; Bud Stubbs, advertising; Lewis Leader, editorial; Russ Cain, photo; Alice Burton, advertising; Everett Messick, editorial; and Al Elsen, circulation manager.

Editor’s note: We have all watched the American newspaper shrink to a sliver of its former self. And while earnest minds are today at work to find ways to revive journalism, it’s worth stepping back to study exactly what happened over the past several decades to a once-robust local paper.

One of the lessons learned from the downsizing of the Monterey Herald is that community members still crave a vibrant, relevant news product, and believe that owners should invest in the people who produce it.

Despite the Herald’s decline in ad revenue, the paper remains profitable — precisely because it has reduced staff so dramatically. The Herald is one of 13 Digital First Media newspapers across the U.S. whose guild units have united to demand fair wages and working conditions for the loyal employees who continue to work hard for good journalism.

There was a time, not so long ago, when the newsroom of the Monterey Herald was a beehive of activity, populated by beat writers (including a five-person Salinas bureau), feature writers, columnists, an investigative reporter, an editorial writer, a small army of editors, assistant editors, night editors, special-section editors, copy editors, a graphic-arts specialist, and a fully staffed photo department.

In August 1997, when Knight-Ridder Corporation bought the Herald from Scripps in an asset sale, the paper had 160 full-time, rank-and-file employees covered by the Pacific Media Workers Guild. By November of 2015, that number had fallen to 31 people, plus managers, according to data provided by the guild.

As of February 2016, layoffs had reduced the Herald’s staff of full-time reporters to six people — five news-side reporters and one in sports — who scramble seven days a week to cover a 3,800-square-mile county (1.5 times larger than the state of Delaware) that is home to more than 400,000 people.

“The morale is very low at the paper, but all of us are trying really hard to making the very best out of a bad situation,” said one of those surviving journalists, Claudia Melendez, who like The Herald’s other employees, hasn’t had a raise in years.

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From left, Monterey Herald editorial staffers Christy Hoffknecht, Clark Coleman, James Herrera, Claudia Melendez, Tommy Wright and John Devine, gearing up for negotiations on a new contract. James Herrera

Melendez specializes in the newspaper’s education coverage, but like her colleagues has been converted into a jack-of-all-trades who, on any given day, might be dispatched to cover a meeting, a festival, a fire, a shooting, a marine-life story, or anything else prioritized by the editors.

Those editors have daunting pressures of their own. Jeannie Evers oversees features and the Herald’s “Go!” section (entertainment and lifestyles) — formerly two separate jobs — and does much of the writing herself. She also fills in as a night city editor. City editor David Kellogg calls the shots on all daily operations in the newsroom, dutifully doubling as a copy editor and news editor. He also serves (without title) as the newspaper’s sports editor. Christy Hoffknecht acts as a news editor, copy editor, and night city editor, and regularly writes deadline briefs from the cops, courts, fire, community, and even sports beats. Lisa Mitchell, the Herald’s website editor, often does double-duty as an IT specialist, fixing colleagues’ computer-related problems. Don Miller, editor of the Herald, also is editor of the Santa Cruz Sentinel, splitting his time between the two papers.

“Since taking ownership, Digital First Media sold the Herald’s printing press (which was melted down for scrap metal), laid off all the pressmen, and outsourced printing operations to the Bay Area. The company then sold the Herald’s building for $5.7 million, moving its employees to a smaller, rental property, and hired a Los Angeles-based company to run its circulation operations.”

The personnel shortage has forced massive cutbacks and shortcuts in news coverage. And plunging advertising revenue has reduced a once-chubby daily product to a membrane-thin shell of its former self. The changes haven’t gone unnoticed by longtime readers, many of whom are now former subscribers.

“I don’t like the changes and reductions in staff because a lot of good writing, talent and ideas are lost — gone for good — and they helped make our community better,” said Monterey resident Walter Wagenhals. “It’s a dilemma for which I have no answer and I would like to hear from management more about the problems they face and their solutions — they are at best tight-lipped. Knowing more of the overall situation would be helpful to all.”

“It’s time for the Monterey Herald to become a twice-a-week publication. There’s not an item in their publication that cannot be found elsewhere,” said longtime reader Elaine Giampietro. “They seemed to have terminated longtime staff — perhaps in an effort to save money — but, at what cost? There is no ‘investigative reporting’ which I believe is the reason most people want to read. There are no exposes. I personally don’t see the Herald as providing a service to the Monterey Peninsula or Monterey County.”

The Herald’s print circulation, which numbered between 35,000-58,000 in its heyday, had shrunk to 24,000 by 2011. By September of 2015, the number of subscribers had dropped to 14,448. (The Herald’s current staffers confide that the real number of subscribers might be 10,000 or fewer.)

Those numbers, as well as diminishing news content, are distressing to former staffers who were part the paper’s better days.

“What I can say on the record is that I share the grief of readers and my neighbors who are daily witness to the steady deterioration of what was once an important, relevant voice for the community,” said Joe Livernois, who served as a reporter, columnist, city editor and editor of the Herald from 1985-2011. “With an older and more sophisticated demographic on the Monterey Peninsula, the market for hard-core newspaper readers remains strong; sadly, they are not currently being served by the daily paper.”

How did it come to this?

All but dismantled

The Herald, originally a family-owned newspaper, was sold to Block Communications in 1967, which, in 1992, traded the paper to the E.W. Scripps Company for the Pittsburgh Press. Over the next two decades, the paper changed ownership five times, and each new ownership group reduced the workforce. (In 1997, new owner Knight Ridder Corp. fired all 160 Herald employees and made them reapply for their jobs). The paper ultimately landed in the hands of its current owner, Digital First Media, controlled by a private hedge fund specializing in distressed assets.

Since taking ownership, Digital First Media sold the Herald’s printing press (which was melted down for scrap metal), laid off all the pressmen, and outsourced printing operations to the Bay Area. The company then sold the Herald’s building for $5.7 million, moving its employees to a smaller, rental property, and hired a Los Angeles-based company to run its circulation operations.

In December, the Herald’s delivery drivers quit en masse out of frustration with paychecks that weren’t arriving on time, and schedules that weren’t being kept. Digital First Media also laid off the Herald’s staff of copy editors, outsourcing those duties to an overworked, poorly compensated “universal desk” in Chico, California, that also reads copy for about 20 other newspapers owned by the corporation.

“As long as your media company is controlled by investors who want quarterly returns on their investment, whether you’re publicly traded or owned by a private hedge fund, it’s pretty much the end,” said Larry Parsons, a 32-year veteran reporter who did two separate tours of duty with the Herald before resigning in frustration in 2014.

“They want to squeeze the profits as much as they can,” said the Herald’s former vice president of advertising, Robert Powell, in a 2015 interview with the Monterey County Weekly. “It’s not just the newspaper industry. It’s all sorts of businesses today. In a community, it doesn’t matter if it’s a weekly, a three-day, a six-day, or a magazine. They are all viable business models.”

Employees who worked at the Herald during its heyday remain nostalgic about what the newspaper once was.

“The Herald had offices in Salinas, as well as downtown Monterey, and really good reporters and editors, with lots of experience,” remembered alumnus Mark Whittington (1992-99), who served as assistant features editor, news editor, and city editor. “People wanted to work there, not just because the (Monterey) Peninsula is a great place to live, but because, thanks to the union, the paper paid well. It wasn’t big, but it was a destination paper — a ‘velvet coffin’ — where reporters could work till they died.”

Whittington remembers a management staff at the time that included an editor, a managing editor, an editorial page editor, a city editor, and two or three assistant city editors. There were 15 news-side reporters. Sports had six reporters, overseen by an editor and an assistant. The features editor had two assistants, a calendar clerk, and four writers. The newsroom also had a business editor, a news editor, a magazine editor, six copy editors, a librarian and three administrative assistants. Four full-time photographers were on staff.

“The Herald of today barely resembles the Herald of 20 years ago, but obviously it isn’t alone: The same could be said of almost every newspaper in the country,” Whittington said.

Hope for new owners

The Herald also once had a travel budget for both news and sports. Parsons remembers the paper sending a reporter to Mexico one year to write a series of stories about migrant workers. The sports staff flew a reporter to San Diego to cover the Major League debut of a former high school star from Salinas, and sent a writer to Las Vegas to cover a fight involving a world-ranked local boxer. The paper was able to send a reporter and a photographer to cover the Gulf War, and to Central America to cover the overthrow of Panamanian strongman Manuel Noriega. (The Pentagon picked up the tab, but the Herald staff, at the time, was large enough to spare the manpower.)

Former Herald editor Thomas Walton, who was with the paper for 14 years, beginning in 1975, also remembers initiatives launched by the paper during his time there.

“We created a foundation that launched charitable endeavors such as Operation Christmas Cheer, an annual fundraising campaign (in partnership with the Salvation Army) to help the Peninsula’s neediest families, and it was a gratifying success,” Walton said. “We also established an annual Monterey County Science Fair for students, and sent our winners to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

“It’s important to remember that these projects were possible because it was a far better time for the newspaper industry than the present day,” he said.

Current-day Herald employees are buoyed by solid rumors that at least one local group is negotiating to purchase the Herald, the Santa Cruz Sentinel, and other properties from Digital First Media. Members of this group, headed by Santa Cruz entrepreneur and activist Geoff Dunn, were unable to comment on those talks for this article due to nondisclosure agreements.

Dennis Taylor, author of this article, was a reporter for the Herald for 18 years. He was laid off by the newspaper on Feb. 5, 2016.