Final Deadline

David Burgin is legendary as a rough-and-tumble newspaper editor. But the legend is full of astonishing contradictions, and its last chapter may include the outcome of a sexual harassment lawsuit filed by one of his proteges at the Oakland Tribune.

By the time he took the reins in Oakland, Maynard could not pull enough advertising revenue from the suburban chains to compensate for the expense of running bureau operations outside Oakland. Within a few years, the Tribune retreated and focused on the Richmond-to-Fremont corridor.

The retreat from the suburbs left the paper with very little retail nucleus, which was bad news indeed. At least 75 percent of a newspaper's revenue comes from advertising, and about half of that from retail -- that is, the larger, display ads that run in the paper's front sections.

In 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake destroyed most of the downtown stores in Oakland, including Emporium Capwell, the Oakland Tribune's largest advertiser, and most of the stores that rented space in the Tribune's own building.

It was a devastating financial blow -- one that the Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize in photography covering.

While Maynard was dying of cancer and his Tribune was hemorrhaging cash, he gave Oakland the newspaper it could not afford.

"Maynard turned that into a very good newspaper," says media critic Ben Bagdikian. "It was the first careful reporting of bureaucracies and the community. Maynard overspent. Unless you had deep pockets in which to finance that, you get behind. [But] journalistically, he did very well by the paper."

Throughout success and failure, Maynard was also committed to something that most media players have failed at miserably -- covering the total community with a diverse staff, while placing journalism before profit.

By the early 1990s, he had long since stopped paying back the loans from Gannett he had used to buy the paper. The Tribune laid off about a quarter of its staff. And in one of the most expensive cities in the country, the remaining union staffers took an 11 percent pay cut.

Finally, in 1991, Maynard announced publicly that if a benefactor did not step forward, the paper would close. Reporters worked on a final edition.

But just when the Tribune should have died for perhaps the fourth time, former Gannett Co. Chairman Allen H. Neuharth stepped in with a few million dollars to save the day.

It would be only a year before the Tribune's financial ills and Maynard's failing health overwhelmed the paper. Oakland didn't recover economically from the recession, the earthquake, or the fires that followed two years later. Newsprint costs were rising. It was no longer possible to go on.

In October 1992, Maynard sold what was left of the Tribune to Singleton's Alameda Newspaper Group for a reported $17.5 million, which did not include the presses or the Tribune clock tower that had been damaged in the earthquake. Maynard died a year later.

David Burgin, Dean Singleton, and the Alameda Newspaper Group started their reign at the Oakland Tribune with a cross to bear: They bought Robert Maynard's legacy, and they were not Maynard.

At the same time, they had the money and, with four surrounding papers, the advertising base that Maynard never had. They had the chance to produce a good daily newspaper in one of the most culturally diverse cities in the nation. Instead, the new Tribune started off with a series of horrific managerial moves that made its new tag line, "Friend of the People It Serves," seem like a bad joke.

Singleton first laid off all 600 Tribune employees, 400 of whom were union employees. Only about 120 were rehired. In a traditionally blue-collar city, this didn't go over well.

The Northern California Newspaper Guild, whose members were among the recently unemployed, responded in a way that seems odd for journalists -- it buddied up to City Hall.

The Oakland City Council, in deference to the guild, boycotted the Oakland Tribune, pulling its legal advertising from the paper. The Tribune sued, and a court eventually found that Oakland had to publish its legal notices in the daily.

In addition to its labor problems, the ANG ran head on into symbology. The new owners moved the Tribune offices out of the clock tower, which had been damaged in the 1989 earthquake. And it was a real move -- all the way out of downtown and into Jack London Square.

Any notion that downtown Oakland, or the city of 2.2 million itself, had its own newspaper became a stretch. The ANG transferred direction of the production end of the newspaper, as well as the sports, entertainment, business, and, to a great extent, editorial departments, to offices in Pleasanton.

All five ANG papers -- the Tri-Valley Herald, Alameda Times Star, Fremont Argus, Hayward Daily Review, and Oakland Tribune -- share stories. This type of shared coverage is an attempt to take advantage of economies of scale. Whether stories about Hayward have relevance to the flatlanders of Oakland is, however, a journalistic, rather than financial, question.

In his first strategic staff move in Oakland, Burgin, executive editor over all five ANG papers, hired Pearl Stewart as the Tribune's editor.

In one day, Stewart made the leap from reporter to symbol: She became the first African-American woman in the country to reach the editor's chair. That leap, however, was not as huge as it first seemed. Stewart had been features editor of the Oakland Tribune before a 12-year stint at the San Francisco Chronicle.

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