Between the sheets

Pub date January 30, 2007
WriterG.W. Schulz


The changes are already well on their way. Dozens of layoffs have occurred. Offices are being consolidated. Fewer reporters are writing stories, which appear in several local newspapers under the single corporate byline "MediaNews Staff."

A few more details have since leaked out: the Hearst Corp., which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, has talked about joint advertising sales with its supposed competitor, Dean Singleton’s MediaNews Group, which owns almost all the other big dailies in the Bay Area.

Some sources predict Hearst may share printing facilities with Singleton. The two might ultimately divide the entire Bay Area into isolated markets and avoid one another’s turf. The Singleton papers could even scrap their Sunday editions, leaving that market entirely to Hearst.

Nobody outside the corporate suites of the nation’s top newspaper barons knows exactly what’s true and what’s speculation right now. But it’s clear there’s a move afoot to end all daily newspaper competition in the region — and the public hasn’t been privy to any of it.

That may be about to change.

An order by Federal Judge Susan Illston handed down Jan. 24 has opened up key company records that will likely further confirm how Hearst, Singleton, and some of the nation’s biggest media players are conspiring to turn the Bay Area into a homogenized news market.

The records — which will likely be released shortly after the Guardian‘s press deadline — are part of a lawsuit filed by local real estate investor Clint Reilly, who wants to block the deal that allowed Singleton to control the Contra Costa Times, the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, the Marin Independent Journal, and the San Mateo County Times, along with a bunch of other smaller papers.

There have been hints that some of the documents filed as part of that suit portray a plan by Hearst and Singleton to form some sort of alliance. But since almost everything in the case has been filed under court seal, it’s hard to tell exactly what the truth is.

The Guardian, along with the East Bay nonprofit Media Alliance, intervened in the case in December, asking Illston to open documents in the suit. The publishers, who had initially insisted nearly every scrap of paper was some sort of protected trade secret, quickly backed down, agreeing to release much of the information. And last week Illston ordered them to release some of the rest.

In the end, Jim Wheaton of the First Amendment Project, who represents the Guardian and Media Alliance, says 90 percent of the key material in the suit will be made public.

The documents that are set for public release still need to be refiled, a process that’s under way. They’ll be posted at the moment they’re available.

Already, the news coverage of this case has demonstrated how bad journalism would be if the Bay Area had no daily competition.

When Illston released her decision, two headlines appeared on the Chronicle‘s Web site, One, from the Associated Press, announced, "MediaNews, Hearst Lawsuit Documents Remain Sealed." The Chronicle‘s own staff reported, "Some MediaNews Data Released — Judge Says Other Documents in Reilly Suit to Stay Sealed."

The conclusion of both stories was the same: the Guardian and Media Alliance had essentially lost. Very little material would be unsealed.

And despite the different perspectives in the headlines, neither story got it right.

"MediaNews Group and Hearst were asked by Media Alliance and the Guardian before they intervened to unseal everything. They declined to unseal anything," Wheaton said. "But as soon as Media Alliance and the Guardian moved to intervene and unseal, MediaNews and Hearst surrendered on almost all the sealed documents. They fought only to keep some parts of five exhibits and one brief sealed, which comprised 19 separate excerpts [of which six were duplicates, leaving only 13 distinct items]."

And all but a few pages of those documents will now be released to the public. They will almost certainly offer a broader picture of the relationship between the Bay Area’s top media bedfellows.

Wheaton has asked both the Chron and the AP for a correction. Mark Rochester, assistant bureau chief for the AP in San Francisco, told Wheaton by e-mail that a clarification would not be "useful to member news organizations." We’re waiting to hear from the Chron. Perhaps not entirely coincidentally, Dean Singleton is slated to take over as chair of the AP this spring.

Illston also agreed to allow the Guardian and Media Alliance to remain as interveners, or parties to the suit, giving the two organizations the right to challenge any future secrecy.

For example, the interveners might seek to unseal the depositions Reilly attorney Joe Alioto took of top executives at the companies last week.

Hearst and MediaNews have claimed they need to protect some records to avoid giving competitors access to proprietary financial information. But the chains are hardly normal competitors.

Singleton reached a secret agreement with Hearst in 1995 to shutter the Houston Post and sell its assets to Hearst for $120 million, for instance. The deal gave Hearst’s Houston Chronicle significant control over the southern Texas metropolis and its sizable suburbs before the two companies continued their westward expansion hand in hand.

In a downright hilarious side note, attorneys for the Chronicle managed to convince a Santa Clara County superior court judge in January to open confidential court documents in a shareholder suit filed against Silicon Valley–based Mercury Interactive, one of the first companies rocked by allegations that it had improperly backdated stock options for some of its top executives.

Chronicle attorney Karl Olson at the time righteously denounced attempts by attorneys for Mercury and its former executives, three of whom were fired during the height of the backdating firestorm, to seal court records detailing one of the more lurid executive-enrichment scandals to hit Wall Street in recent years (see "Off the Record," 1/10/2007).

Calls to seven people up and down MediaNews and Hearst, from attorneys to executives, weren’t returned. We’ve even tried to reach CoCo Times executive editor Kevin Keane on his cell phone, but he wouldn’t comment for us despite complaints he’d made about the East Bay Express not giving him a chance to respond to similar stories. *