Some forty journalists will lose their jobs in November, when the Bay Area News Group squeezes eleven community newspapers down to two. BANG announced Tuesday that it would fold The Contra Costa Times, San Ramon Valley Times, East County Times, Tri-Valley Herald, and San Joaquin Herald into a new paper called The Times, and merge The Oakland Tribune, Alameda Times-Star, Hayward Daily Review, Fremont Argus, and West County Times into something called East Bay Tribune.
The layoffs notwithstanding (around eighty production personnel will lose their jobs, too), BANG’s press release announcing the “rebranding plan,” as the company calls it, reads somewhat cheery: “The rebranding includes numerous enhancements plus an emphasis on multimedia content delivery that will continue to enlighten and entertain readers while providing new opportunities for advertisers to engage readers.”
According to Mac Tully, BANG’s president, the company had little choice given declining revenues: “When you try to run a business on less money than you had the year prior, year after year, that is a sure road to failure,” he said in an interview.
The question for readers, of course, is what will happen to local reporting in the communities that are losing their hometown newspaper? Tully, not surprisingly, says local coverage will actually be strengthened with fewer papers and fewer reporters. He says the newspapers were already sharing a lot of content, even if readers didn’t realize it. Under the new structure, each community served by The Times or East Bay Tribune will get a local-news section that combines the top stories from each locality, as well as a stand-alone business section that will attempt to cover business news across the region, seven days a week.
Martin Reynolds, editor of the one hundred and thirty seven-year-old Oakland Tribune, says that “while anyone who has a nostalgic connection to Oakland is going to be disturbed by the dropping of the city designation from the masthead,” he considers the consolidation necessary. Still, the loss of reporters bothers him. “We’ve already gotten pretty lean,” he says. “It’s impossible to expect us to be doing all that we did before.”
Reynolds cited a hyperlocal initiative that his paper launched, the Oakland Voice, which trains citizens to produce local stories. He said it’s a way to hear from people in communities where traditional media have scaled back coverage, but acknowledged that a blog full of citizen-produced content can’t replace a professional newsroom. “The people that we have on staff here, and the people who are likely to be laid off, are trained, they’re professional, and they know how to gather information.”
Filling that gap, in Oakland at least, will fall to Susan Mernit and her colleagues at Oakland Local, a hyperlocal news site produced by professional journalists. She says this move by BANG just makes the job that organizations like hers are doing around the country that much more important. “It underscores our need to continue to raise money and to advertise in a way that’s going to allow that coverage to happen,” she says. “Because the need for the coverage doesn’t go away.”