Vote Due on 'San Francisco Chronicle' Labor Deal

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Union news employees at the San Francisco Chronicle will vote Wednesday on a tentative contract negotiated over the weekend. The paper lost more than $60 million last year and says it needs to cut staff and reorganize responsibilities if it is to recover.


Journalists in California are about to vote on a contract offer from the management of the San Francisco Chronicle. That major West Coast paper is demanding big concessions from its unions because the paper is in the midst of a financial crisis. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, that could hurt the Chronicle's efforts to improve its reputation.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

Among the nation's big city newspapers, the San Francisco Chronicle might be considered the family clown. Although it's the largest paper in Northern California, around hometown dinner tables it's often called The Comical, and as Jim Bettinger, director of the prestigious Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford, notes, it never took itself that seriously.

Mr. JIM BETTINGER (Director, Knight Journalism Fellowship Program): There was a tradition at the Chronicle that it was going to be a fun newspaper, it was going to be an interesting read.

SYDELL: The paper was notorious for its eccentric headlines, among them: Great City Forced To Drink Swill, a front-page story from the 1960s about San Francisco's terrible coffee. Well, the coffee is now fabulous and the San Francisco Chronicle is hoping that it can be, too. In the last couple of years, it's brought in new editors and put more resources into serious investigative reporting, says editor Phil Bronstein. Last year, it won a Pulitzer, the first time in eight years, and a prestigious Polk Award for investigative journalism.

Mr. PHIL BRONSTEIN (Editor, San Francisco Chronicle): We've had, I think, a large degree of success in establishing the credibility of the Chronicle. We had a very good year last year, in terms of national recognition by our peers. That's often a little different than what the public thinks of you.

SYDELL: Changing public perception is only part of the problem. Bronstein says in 2004 the paper lost more than $60 million, and it's been in tough negotiations with four of its unions. Union leaders say they are willing to make concessions because of the Chronicle's economic situation but not happily. Michael Cabanatuan, the local president of the Media Workers Guild, which represents reporters, is about to bring a tough take-it-or-leave-it offer to its membership for a vote.

Mr. MICHAEL CABANATUAN (Local President, Media Workers Guild): We were willing to do this because we believe that the San Francisco Chronicle is losing money and needs our help. You know, they also played hardball with us and really left us with very little choice.

SYDELL: The deal includes a loss of 120 jobs through buyouts and expanded job responsibilities for reporters that includes taking photos and doing podcasts, duties that Chronicle management say are essential to compete in a multimedia environment, but the Chronicle has unique problems. Four years ago, Hearst Corporation, which owned the San Francisco Examiner, purchased the Chronicle and merged the newsrooms. Jim Bettinger of the Knight Journalism Fellowship program at Stanford.

Mr. BETTINGER: So they had a newsroom that is, by modern standards, overstaffed. A second element is that it has been losing readers.

SYDELL: And that's true for all newspapers, but the Chronicle is the only daily newspaper that Prudential Equity Research, which follows the industry, knows to be losing money, and then there's Frank Vega, the new publisher brought in this year. Vega formally ran Detroit papers where he presided over a drawn-out strike and got the nickname Darth Vega. Tony Price heads the local pressmen's union.

Mr. TONY PRICE (Pressmen's Union): For them to bring in somebody like Frank Vega sends a very strong message, like a slap in our face, because Vega is infamous for his union-busting tactics.

SYDELL: Media Guild members will vote on the Chronicle's offer on Wednesday, the night Fellowship's Bettinger fears that tough labor negotiations may make it harder to improve the journalism at the Chronicle, and, given the competition from the Web, he wonders if the effort to make it a great newspaper comes too late.

Laura Sydell, NPR News, San Francisco.

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