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‘Extra, extra’: Bay Area newspapers are suffering and need residents’ help

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JANUARY 30, 2018

When faceless hedge funds take over local newspapers and impose drastic staffing cuts, employed reporters aren’t the only ones who suffer — the community does too. Without more active financial support for local publications, residents will be forced to see the quality of their news coverage decrease significantly.

For the second time in less than two years, journalists at the Bay Area News Group, or BANG, are facing “significant” staff layoffs. These cuts come after BANG folded multiple Bay Area newspapers into the East Bay Times in 2016 — including the nearly 150-year-old daily mainstay, the Oakland Tribune. Budgets were slashed, staffers were laid off; the East Bay Times eliminated countless jobs.

BANG is owned by a company called Digital First Media, which is in turn owned by a mysterious hedge fund called Alden Global Capital. Last year, Digital First Media announced that it would consolidate more of its newsrooms, which would cause an additional 20 layoffs.

This shadowy system exemplifies a growing trend: Big hedge funds buy local papers and shutter them in an effort to make a quick buck. And while the market for print media is struggling, it’s not so drastic that whole newsrooms should be slashed and gone at this rate.

Hedge funds don’t care about a newspaper’s responsibility to hold power to account and provide its community with strong news reporting — they only answer to their investors. These Scrooge-like investment strategies feed off the destruction of local institutions.

There’s already a vacuum of local news coverage in the Bay Area. Only a handful of reporters from Bay Area newspapers, including the East Bay Express and the San Francisco Chronicle, cover Oakland City Council in any detail. Just recently, the East Bay Times laid off its only East Bay K-12 education reporter, leaving a gap in coverage on important topics such as the Oakland Unified School District’s current financial crisis.

Papers are already struggling to cover these pertinent topics, and cuts will only make the situation more dire. Although some community members have tried to replace reporters by using Facebook and Twitter to distribute news, journalism can’t be crowdsourced — journalists are paid professionals with experience, resources and prestige. They can’t be replaced.

Local reporters cover issues that lay the foundation for larger newsrooms while also localizing national topics and events within their communities. They cover the issues that out-of-town outlets often ignore — they feature emerging local artists, comment on cherished school sports teams and report on nearby crimes. When it comes to the daily lives of readers, local newspapers are often far more relevant than their national counterparts.

And it’s not like these are second-rate agencies — the East Bay Times won a Pulitzer Prize last year for its relentless reporting on the Ghost Ship fire. When communities are at risk of losing their high-caliber papers, no one is safe.

Even national newsrooms are being threatened by cost-cutting measures. The LA Times is reorganizing its structure to create a separate newsroom in which freelance journalists (who can often be paid significantly less with next to no benefits) would produce the bulk of the paper’s online content, effectively undermining its staff writers.

So at a time when hedge funds are threatening the very existence of journalism and advertising dollars simply can’t keep these newsrooms afloat, the community is forced to step in.

Berkeleyside, for one, thrives on community support. And there are many other local outlets such as the San Francisco-based newsrooms Mission Local and the Bay City Beacon that deserve similar levels of community engagement. Local residents have to find the news sources that serve them and provide support — nobody else will.

Newspapers are more essential than ever. But they’re also something many people don’t value until they’re gone. Let’s change that.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the Editorial Board as written by the opinion editor.

APRIL 11, 2019