Brown must fight the media monopoly

Pub date February 6, 2007
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL The evidence is now clear and compelling: the two biggest newspaper chains in the Bay Area have been plotting for years to eliminate local competition. The details that have come out of the Clint Reilly lawsuit point to almost textbook antitrust violations, the exact sort of behavior that state and federal laws prohibit. (See "What We Know Now," page 13.)

The public had no knowledge of how MediaNews Group and the Hearst Corp. were conspiring to join ad sales and distribution deals. But the federal and state regulators knew all about it; the records show that Hearst executives laid out the entire plan back in early 2006.

And yet the deal that allowed MediaNews to buy up every major daily in the region except the San Francisco Chronicle won approval from both the California and the US attorneys general — in part on the grounds that Hearst’s Chronicle would remain as a serious competitor in the market.

Which leads to some pretty obvious questions: What were the investigators and lawyers in Sacramento and Washington, DC, doing? And now that this is all out in public, will California’s new attorney general, Jerry Brown, put a stop to it?

When the McClatchy company sold the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News to Dean Singleton, who already owned the Oakland Tribune and the Marin Independent Journal, critics immediately began to cry foul. Singleton’s strategy has always been to buy up adjoining media properties, combine as many of their assets as possible, share reporters and stories, and improve the bottom line through deep cuts. Suddenly, instead of four reporters covering events in the Bay Area, there would be just one, with one perspective and one story running in all four papers.

The same would go for advertising — instead of having several options in the region, businesses could wind up having to deal with one centralized agency that sets prices and sells ads for all four big dailies (and a bunch of smaller ones that Singleton also owns).

Still, the federal and state regulators declined to challenge or block the deal. If Reilly hadn’t sued to stop it, the machinery would already be in motion for what could be a single company, or a partnership that operates like a single company, controlling all of the daily newspapers from San Jose to Marin County, from San Francisco to Contra Costa County.

But now this is all open and visible. We don’t have much faith in the Bush Justice Department, but the new California attorney general has a history (at some moments) of showing the willingness to stand up to powerful interests and take strong political stands. This is his first and perhaps most important test. Brown needs to go into court immediately and file to block the entire deal. *