By: Joe Strupp
After two weeks that have seen plans for a 25% newsroom staff cut and the surprise resignation of his managing editor, San Francisco Chronicle Editor Phil Bronstein is bracing for what may be the paper’s biggest reorganization yet, and admits it will be difficult.
“This sucks, there is no question about it,” said Bronstein, just a day after announcing Managing Editor Robert Rosenthal plans to leave the paper this week after more than five years in the wake of such severe cuts. “But when you are forced to do things differently, you find ways to do them differently.”
He said Rosenthal’s job would not be filled immediately, but would not rule out a managing editor resuming the role in the future: “We are reorganizing the way the place is structured. There will probably be a number of positions that never existed before.”
Asked why he made his departure so soon, rather than waiting the usual two weeks after informing his employer, Rosenthal said it would be best given the coming changes at the paper. “The next two weeks are going to be so tumultuous there, for me to linger around when I could not be part of the future did not make sense,” Rosenthal explained. “The next two weeks are not about stability. It didn’t feel right to me.” Bronstein declined to comment when asked if he had tried to keep Rosenthal on the job, citing it as a personnel matter.
Bronstein, who has been an editor of San Francisco daily papers since he first took over the San Francisco Examiner in 1991, says he has seen the local dailies through strikes, a merger, power outages and other staff cuts, so these changes will not be impossible. “San Francisco newspapering has been an extensive rollercoaster ride through my experiences,” he said. “But this is very painful and very difficult.”
Rosenthal, meanwhile, said too many newspaper companies are targeting journalists in their effort to cut costs in these trying times. “It is short-sighted because what we do as journalists will be much more valuable in the future and there is less content being created,” said Rosenthal, 58, who will leave Friday after more than five years at the paper. “Newspapers are incredibly important in this country, but the content creators are the most expendable, the journalists.”
Rosenthal’s comments came a day after he announced to staff that he would quit, and two weeks after the Chronicle announced plans to cut at least 100 of the paper’s 400 newsroom staffers.
While he credited parent company Hearst with waiting longer than most newspaper chains to drop such a severe hammer, Rosenthal said the general approach of cutting editorial staff to increase revenue is a long-term negative. “Hearst has been incredibly patient, if this had been a publicly traded company, they would not have been this patient,” he said.
But Rosenthal stressed that newspaper companies need to approach coverage and profits though “a new business model,” but did not offer specifics on what it would be. “It’s time to take some risks and newspaper companies are not able to do that,” he said. “It is a very difficult transition to make.”
Citing his 12 years in upper newspaper management, which included a previous stint at the Philadelphia Inquirer where he spent four years as executive editor, Rosenthal said he had seen a troubling shift in corporate attitudes about journalists. “The reality is that in the last 10 or 12 years, the biggest creators – the journalists – have not been part of the conversation, the decisions,” he said. “Most newsrooms are getting smaller. The industry for 12 years has been in retreat.”
Rosenthal also said he was not sure what impact the coming cuts would have on the paper, or why it has had to resort to such measures given the quality of work his staff produces. “I don’t really understand it,” he said of the Chronicle’s poor financial situation. “I don’t know why it has been such a difficult situation for the Chronicle on the business side.”
He said that a smaller staff will require the Chronicle to be even more locally focused if it is to keep and grow audience. “The Chronicle is going to have to focus on things that are most relevant to the Bay Area,” he said. “It has an opportunity to take advantage of the Web site that is already an international base.”
Bronstein also hinted that the paper will focus even more on local news and “what makes San Francisco and the Bay Area significant to the people who live here,” with less of a “buffet-style” of news. “We came to this decision very painfully, but this is where we are going to be,” he said.
Rosenthal said he was not pushed out by Bronstein or anyone else, but said the planned cuts, which are expected to include some 20 management positions, will mean Bronstein will likely take over much of the hands-on editing that he had overseen.
“Everyone knows we are going to get smaller and as a smaller organization we agreed we might get into each other’s way,” Rosenthal said. “He will have to be more directly involved. There comes a point where you want one hand on the throttle and in a much smaller operation he will be in charge.”
Bronstein confirmed that he would be more involved in the day-to-day operations, adding that “the way we will approach things will be different,” but offering few specifics. He said a planned Web site redesign is in the works, with plans for even more staff use of the Web. “There are better opportunities for us given technology to engage readers in more ways.”
When Rosenthal took the managing editor job after so many years as top editor at a larger paper, some speculated that he might not be able to work as a second-in-command. But he said he has had only a good professional arrangement with Bronstein. “If we disagreed, we worked it out,” he said. “I did not feel undervalued and there is no dark thing going on here with me and Phil.”
Bronstein agreed, adding that Rosenthal “made the paper better.”
Rosenthal said he is open to any number of journalism-related areas for his next challenge, offering no specifics but stressing that he wants “to be part of building something.”