Death of the Reporter

Humboldt County's newspaper war ends suddenly, leaving a lot of unanswered questions



Last Friday was nothing like a normal Friday at the typically ship-shape Eureka Reporter. Shoes were off, T-shirts and jeans on, the dress code kaput. Cardboard boxes filled with personal items and work files sat on mostly emptied desks. On the sales side of the office in the early afternoon, employees tossed a ball about in between finishing final projects and saying tearful goodbyes.

On the news side, when they weren't sitting at their desks writing farewell columns, last stories and wrapping up bits and pieces -- and sometimes just staring at web pages or into space -- reporters, editors and photographers wandered about crying, hugging and laughing. There was quite a bit of laughing. Even the design team took time off from laying out pages to amble into the fray. And sports reporter Jackie Christensen's gigantic fluffy white dog, Bella, flopped on the carpet, now and then bounding to her feet to lope around the cubicled modern newsroom tossing a stuffed toy with her teeth and then attacking it.

In the lunchroom, boxes of pizza -- courtesy of a dismayed Big Louie's -- consumed the counter space, and stacks of newspapers loaded the tables. On the wall above the pizza, next to a poster admonishing employees to wash their own dishes, copies of some of the dozens of appreciative e-mails sent by readers over the past couple of days were tacked to a billboard. On the shelves, the remains of the newspaper's morgue -- hard copies of old papers cataloged and bound neatly -- leaned drunkenly into each other; the morgue had been ravaged in the past 48 hours as staffers scrambled to assemble clips for their resumes.

This was the last day of action at the Eureka Reporter. Two days before, on Wednesday at 3 p.m, Publisher Judi Pollace had announced to the staff that Eureka businessman Rob Arkley, who founded the paper in 2003 and had subsidized it ever since, was now shutting it down. Everybody would be laid off, and the last issue would be Saturday, Nov. 8. Simultaneously, out at Security National's printing plant, Western Web in Fairhaven, Steve Jackson, Director of Production Operations, was telling his staff the same thing, except that the press, which prints dozens of Northern California publications, would stay open and its business would be reorganized. He did have to lay off four of his employees.

The only thing to survive is its future editorial "voice": The ER's arch enemy these last five years, the Times-Standard, will print one page of ER editorial content twice a week. Pollace said last Friday that the page would feature the former ER editorial pages editor, Peter Hannaford. "That was part of the agreement," she said.


But what does it all mean? What is this agreement?

This is what we know: The shutdown of the Eureka Reporter abruptly ends a local daily newspaper war that seemed a throwback to more vital times in the newspaper industry, when such battles were waged across the country. The war began in 2003, when the ER started as an online publication, then accelerated when the paper began printing thrice-weekly and, later, daily. Then the ER cut back to printing just five days a week. The fight ramped up this summer, with both newspapers selling full-page ads at cut-rate prices. And in August, things got bloodier: The California Newspaper Partnership, which owns the Times-Standard and the Tri-City Weekly advertiser under its parent company, MediaNews Group, sued The Eureka Reporter, alleging it had engaged in unfair business practices -- that it was trying to eliminate the competition by luring in customers with low-cost and free ads.

Observers of the battle have declared it was only a matter of time before one or the other paper folded. But why the ER, and why just now?

In a statement last week, Security National said that times were tough for newspapers, and that the community wasn't big enough to sustain two competing dailies. Security National didn't say if the paper's closure was the result of any sort of resolution of the lawsuit, and court files don't indicate any such resolution. Last week, a T-S story quoted Dean Singleton, head of MediaNews Group, saying that Arkley had called him a few weeks back and told him it was "time to do something." Singleton also said that Arkley had tried, to no avail, to find a buyer for the ER. And, Singleton said he had dropped the lawsuit because it was "not an issue anymore." He did allow that perhaps the lawsuit had pushed Arkley into the decision to fold.

Indeed, such a suit, which asked for millions in damages, may have lasted a couple of years and surely cost millions to litigate.

Arkley declined to speak to the Journal for this story.

Whatever arrangement was reached between Arkley and Singleton -- who came to town last week to seal the deal, apparently -- money supposedly did not change hands. T-S Publisher Dave Kuta told the Journal last week that the T-S did not buy the ER. "It was strictly Mr. Arkley's decision to cease reporting," Kuta said. Kuta cited Singleton's love for newspapering and said that, as for the pages alloted twice-weekly to the ER's editorial voice, "What content they put in and how they use it is up to them."

Kuta also dispelled speculation that perhaps now the T-S would quit its old printing press and begin publishing its pages out on Western Web's gleaming machinery. "Our press fits our needs," he said. "The press that we have allows us to print and get off with a very good deadline. I wouldn't want to jeopardize our deadline just for another press."

If the lawsuit didn't directly kill the ER, what did?

The current international economic crisis can't have helped; Arkley's primary businesses are in real estate and finance, including in the subprime mortgage industry. His businesses are closely held, so it is difficult to tell precisely how they are doing. However, records show that his companies recently took out new mortgages totaling $2.78 million on two pieces of Eureka real estate -- the Security National headquarters on Fifth Street and the Starbucks-anchored retail building across the street. The move could perhaps be taken as a way to scrape up scarce cash, but on Tuesday, Randy Gans, a Security National vice president, said that it was all part of a not-uncommon internal reorganization.

And what did Singleton get out of the deal -- an opportunity to drop the costly lawsuit, or something more? And, many ask, what will the penny-pinching media magnate, whose business is not exactly thriving in this economy either, do with the T-S now that the main competition is gone?

Last week, Kuta told the Journal that the T-S will remain strong. "I think our obligation as a newspaper now is greater than it's ever been," he said.


Back at the ER newsroom last Friday, several of the newsies wondered about that. Carol Harrison, health and fitness reporter, sat at her desk which was still piled high with paperwork. At 52, she was the oldest employee in the newsroom, which otherwise was populated by 20- and 30-somethings, many of whom had come to the paper straight from Humboldt State University. Nobody in the newspaper industry with a brain, she said, could say they were surprised at the closure of another newspaper, especially in the news-saturated Humboldt County market.

"I mean, newspapers are going belly up all over the place," she said. "I do think when this newspaper became a printed version and grew, the Times-Standard became a better paper. And my hope would be that they would prove that they can continue to be a good paper. I question whether they'll have the resources. ... The ball's in their court. Is he [Singleton] going to let the community down and suck money out of it, or is he going to treat the community with respect and give 'em a newspaper they deserve?"

The news team seemed simultaneously defiantly proud of their work at the ER, and eager to sail into the future. All of the staff received a two-month severance; some were planning to kick back a while.

Cops and courts reporter Karen Wilkinson said that while she loves journalism, she doesn't know where it'll take her next. "This is my fourth daily paper," she said. (She worked at the T-S prior to taking the ER job). "I love it, I frickin' love it, but I really can't see myself going to a daily newspaper again. With the way things are in the newspaper industry, I'm going to be overworked and underpaid. Newspapers are failing. And I'm not going to put myself through that."

Managing Editor Diane Batley also was disappointed that so many plans for the ER, so recently forged, wouldn't be coming to pass. She and her fellow managers had recently been on a retreat, funded by Arkley, where they'd mapped out a new, project-packed, kick-the-competition's-ass Eureka Reporter. Last Wednesday's newspaper, with the staff's election coverage (they'd been there till 3 a.m. the night before working on it), featured the paper's redesign.

"We rocked it," said Batley. "Then, at 3 p.m., we find out it's over."

She doesn't know what she'll do: maybe go back to her earlier dream, to be a diplomat. "The sky's the limit," she said.

Sports reporter Jackie Christensen was planning to launch a local monthly sports magazine. "For me, this isn't really a bump in the road," he said. "It's kind of a kick start." Sports Reporter Nick Wilson said he'd maybe eventually get into teaching English. Joe Shreve, a copy editor running around in bare feet on this last day, said he'd probably move back to Santa Cruz. Reporter John Osborn said he'd keep his hand in the journalism game -- already, last Thursday, he and other reporters had started a weblog for local news and opinion called the Eureka Ruin. Designer Luis Molina said he'd probably have to move. "I'm trying to find another journalism job," he said. "I enjoy this nuttiness."

By late Friday night, the lights at the ER were out and the building vacated. Pollace went in Saturday morning to clean up the place. On Monday, Security National folks inventoried the equipment. And by Tuesday morning, the paper's website was down, with no links to the ER's five years worth of news coverage and editorials.

On Wednesday, Security National's Shirley Fuller affirmed that the ER's website, and all of its contents, were gone forever. "That was all part of the agreement," she said.


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