Chronicle Execs Say Their Paper Now Profitable -- At Least What's Left of It

Categories: Business, Media
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Last year, Hearst Corp. had no problem bandying about the Chronicle's purported $1 million a week losses when it suited their aims of playing super-duper union hardball, successfully liquidating much of the staff, and switching to non-union printers.  

Now, however, more than half a dozen longtime Chron scribes tell us that management has happily boasted to them the paper is profitable once again -- they've been having good weeks, good months, and top execs even supposedly crowed about having a whole profitable quarter to close out 2009. That was ostensibly the paper's first quarter in the black since the Hearsts took over in 2000. Yet now that things are supposedly a bit less financially apocalyptic, management has clammed up. Chron president Mark Adkins gave us the official "no comment" on releasing any financial numbers. For Chron management, apparently, good news is no news.

That being said, Chron writers we spoke with were ecstatic to hear management's vague claims. If nothing else, several told us, this seems to have stayed the paper's staff purge, which was beginning to resemble one of Robespierre's finest. "This has given everyone a real shot of energy," said one longtime reporter. Added another, "It made us very happy. Survival is a hell of a lot better than economic decline."

And yet, Chron writers understand that the paper's claims of profitability come with more strings attached than Gulliver.

For one thing, several pointed out, if you can't max out ad revenue during Christmas season, then it's just not going to happen. And the other glaring point is that the draconian staff cuts -- which have undeniably affected the Chron's ability to effectively cover the region -- seem to be a major reason why the paper is purportedly out of the red and into the black. 

"It's astonishing how many empty desks there are in the newsroom. Every year on the first, they send out the new staff phone book. Well -- where's the rest of it? " noted one veteran writer. "We don't have a whole lot of people working here anymore," said another. "We were cutting editorial assistants -- they don't make a whole lot of money. There's been a lot of penny-pinching. I heard that someone wanted to buy a desk calendar and was told he wouldn't be reimbursed."

Michael Cabanatuan, a longtime Chron reporter and the president of the California Media Workers Guild, said that the paper's staff is only 40 percent of what it was at this time last year. "We're still here and we're still putting out a good product. But it's less of a product and a different product than it had been," he said. "I think we're still doing good work, but the bad news is, there's fewer of us, less reporting gets done, and papers get smaller."

Meanwhile, the paper's long-term deal with Montreal-based Transcontinental to print the Chron at its massive new Fremont plant -- non-union -- is reportedly saving the paper $25 million a year. That's the kind of money the paper used to lose in, oh, 25 weeks.

Finally, Chron scribes expected happy management talk about profitability to peter out later this year when staff is due for a union contract renewal. "When it comes to bargaining time, it's always 'times are tough,'" Cabanatuan predicted.

Well, Christmas really does come but once a year. In a few short months, times may be plenty tough indeed.
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