By Erin Sherbert
By Howard Cole
By Erin Sherbert
By Erin Sherbert
By Leif Haven
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
By Kate Conger
After a few peppermint schnapps, C. David Burgin walks over to the jukebox at the Warehouse, a favorite hangout of police officers near the Oakland Tribune offices in Jack London Square. As the top editor of the Alameda Newspaper Group (ANG), a chain of newspapers to which the Tribune belongs, Burgin is here tonight to see off one of the paper's environmental writers, Tracie Reynolds, who's returning to college to get her M.B.A.
Pumping several quarters into the machine, Burgin turns around and yells across the bar, "Hey, Tracie, this one's for you!" Seconds later, the opening chords of Jimmy Buffett's ditty "Let's Get Drunk and Screw" fill the room.
"It wasn't sexual harassment," Reynolds says today. "But at the time I was mad. He did it because he could do it, because it was my last day. I just remember being irritated and a little bit angry."
The next day, after he learned that the newsroom was buzzing about his behavior the night before, Burgin called Reynolds into his office to explain. He apologized and asked for forgiveness. But Reynolds wasn't ready to grant absolution.
"You went over the line," Reynolds remembers telling Burgin. "It's a good thing I'm not working here anymore. Otherwise I'd make an issue out of it."
"It's true," Burgin says of the incident and the conversation he had with Reynolds the next day. But he adds an amendment: First, he didn't mean to play that particular Buffett song; he merely picked an entire Buffett album on the jukebox and "Let's Get Drunk and Screw" was the first song.
"I'm a big Jimmy Buffett fan," says Burgin, who plays guitar and owns a vintage Martin acoustic. "It was innocent. I didn't mean anything by it. Who knows it was going to come back and haunt me like this?"
Beginning this month, Burgin will have to explain himself in another incident -- this one rehashed in depositions connected to a sexual harassment and wrongful termination lawsuit filed against him and the Alameda Newspaper Group in January by Christine Lavin, the former editor of the Oakland Tribune.
Lavin had a falling out with Burgin that culminated in her dismissal or resignation -- depending on which side of the suit you talk to -- after she started dating a city councilman in Oakland.
Lavin's suit alleges that Burgin sexually harassed her beginning in 1990 and fired her because he was jealous of her relationship with the city councilman. Burgin calls the lawsuit "frivolous, malicious, and wrong."
But as that suit progresses, Burgin is also explaining to reporters and colleagues why he's leaving the editor's seat after 33 years in the newspaper business. On June 30, Burgin will vacate his post as editor in chief of the Alameda Newspaper Group and begin consulting work for the ANG's parent company, MediaNews Co. Burgin says the lawsuit has nothing to do with his departure.
"Never say never, but I don't think I'll be running any more newspapers," Burgin said during a lengthy interview earlier this month.
Self-explication is hardly a new pursuit for Burgin. He has been defining himself -- setting the record straight or spinning it -- almost since he began his career as a reporter at the New York Herald Tribune in 1963.
Given to fits of brilliance and outrageous behavior, Burgin is a minor legend in American journalism. But he is a legend full of contradictory motives and accomplishments, largely because his career has tracked the rapidly changing world of daily journalism over the last three decades. Once a newsman in the classic sense, full of vigor and ache for "The Story," Burgin ends his editing career next month, at the age of 57, working for William "Billy" Dean Singleton II, a publisher whose budget-cutting, pay-freezing, profits-first mind-set has earned heartfelt enmity from journalists across America.
In 1992, Singleton took over the perpetually moribund Oakland Tribune, buying a financial disaster that had once been considered a monument to multicultural employment and quality journalism. Burgin was quickly installed as editorial-side point man.
Since then, the paper has twisted in almost tornadic turmoil. Inside and outside the newsroom, the Oakland Tribune has become a soap opera of corporate misstepping and cellar-level staff morale and pay. The Lavin suit is but one act in this long drama.
From day one, the ANG seemed to place a higher premium on chasing advertising dollars in suburbs like Piedmont and Montclair than covering the urban flatlands of Oakland. While the city struggled with crime, disease, crumbling schools, and political corruption, its newspaper was busy watching its own bottom line. Civic journalism has a price that Dean Singleton apparently decided Oakland, with its dwindling retail economy, can't pay.
Until last week, when he announced his departure, Burgin was at the center of this collision of race, class, money, and the media. His tenure was marked by unhinged screaming fits in the newsroom, debilitating fights with community leaders, self-serving coverage aimed at boosting circulation, journal-istic acquiescence in the face of political pressure, and the firing of the paper's nationally prominent -- and one of its few minority -- columnists.
Burgin had bright spots. While he clung to a manual typewriter, he had the foresight to start a technology section at the Tribune, the first in any ANG paper. He also made the gutsy move of printing the Unabomber manifesto at a time when other editors balked.
When the ANG bought the paper from Robert Maynard, however, the company moved the editorial offices from the landmark Tribune Tower to a squat building in Jack London Square. That building quickly became the House of Bad Judgment.
David Burgin can't breathe; if someone doesn't help quick, he'll choke to death. He was standing in the Tribune newsroom, gobbling down an apple, when suddenly, a sizable chunk of the fruit lodged in his throat. Tribune copy editor Jack Kneese tries to help Burgin. But he's too short to get a firm grip. Someone calls an ambulance.
Burgin has another idea.
"Someone big ... someone big," he gasps. "Get me the big guy." He's referring to Dan Reed, a Tribune reporter and a bear of a man. Reed is summoned from a meeting. Grabbing Burgin just so, he pumps and pumps until the fruit chunk is freed. As the crisis abates, some are surely relieved. Others are not -- or at least that's what Burgin's thinking. Flush-faced, he looks around at the assembled reporters and says, "Now don't any of you hold this against Dan."
Burgin knows his reputation: mercurial screamer who berates and bullies at least as much as he builds up his reporters. Someone upon whom some reporters might wish asphyxiation.
Along his 33-year journalistic march, Burgin has left as much scorched earth as he has flower beds. He is reviled and ridiculed, renowned and respected.
How Burgin feels about his legacy, now firmly etched, is another matter. "Most of that is bullshit. I never yelled at anyone that didn't have it coming to them," he says, but follows with this acknowledgement:
"Is there a better way of doing things? Probably."
Later, he grows reflective -- and a bit sad -- when his reputation is raised as a topic. "I wish I had gone another route. I wish someone had handed me the New York Times, where I could sit in an office and steer the tiller. But every job I've had is a turnaround job. I've had to turn around this or that [paper]. When you make change, you make enemies."
If he is uncomfortable about what he leaves behind, Burgin can take solace in this reality: If the worst fate is to be forgotten, C. David Burgin has effectively dodged perdition. If he is not quite famous, he is memorable. His self-destructive, manic elan keeps people talking and writing about him. In short, he's a great story.
And just about everyone's got a Burgin story. Former staffers, flung from coast to coast, remain on a Burgin-watch infobahn. "When you've worked for Dave Burgin, anytime he does something, it gets faxed or e-mailed," says Mike Boslet, a metro desk layout editor at the Washington Post who worked for Burgin at the Orlando Sentinel.
But the person most attentive to Burgin lore is Burgin himself. He has garnished himself with eccentricities. He still uses a loud typewriter that can be heard across the Oakland newsroom. Clackety, clack. Dave is writing another memo. Maybe this one will announce that he will "set his hair on fire if things don't change," like the one he dashed off at the Orlando Sentinel in the mid-'80s.
But most of all, the editor wants it known that he is or was someone, that he has done great things.
When a cover story on New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd ran in the Washington Journalism Review in October 1992, the author credited editorial legend -- and Burgin mentor -- Jim Bellows with discovering the writer. Burgin was enraged. He dashed off a letter to WJR in which he claimed credit for the Dowd discovery.
His frustration with being passed over is evident.
"They should be building monuments to me and Dean [Singleton]," he says. "But I guess they won't"
This is not throwaway sarcasm. That no one is quoting him, or erecting monuments to him, seems to drive Burgin crazy. When he talks about the old days -- of chasing stories and breaking news and turning papers around -- one gets the sense that he is desperately seeking redemption, trying to scribble a coda on his career that is acceptable, dignified. But his lasting mark may end up being the hospice care he's provided Singleton papers for the last 10 years.
Asked why he is leaving the Tribune, he spits out a stream of bile. "I don't want to do it anymore," he says. "I'm tired of it. You pay for it in ways that are debilitating and demoralizing. The story here is about dysfunctional newsrooms."
Burgin took his first job in journalism in 1963 at the New York Herald Tribune as "New Journalism" was being created daily by Tom Wolfe and others. His deskmate was Charlie Portis, who later wrote True Grit.
From there, he went to the Scripps Howard News Service in Washington, D.C., in 1966, where he covered Capitol Hill. "My fondest memory was learning the patience it took to be on the Hill a long time and get what those guys [older reporters] got," he says. "I was covering it for a news service, and I was up against guys like Jack Germond (now of McLaughlin Group fame) and David Broder (of the Washington Post). They always seemed to be there 20 minutes before I was."
Two years later, Burgin found himself riding in an elevator with the publisher of the Washington Daily News. "I was brash," he says. "I told him his paper had a lousy sports section. He asked me what I would do, and I started ticking things off. Soon I found myself on a career path I'd never expected." Sports editor of the Daily News, 1968-70.
There, he says, he hit the heights. He wrote a series of columns on the system that kept blacks from becoming pro football quarterbacks, or from attaining too much presence in other professional sports.
"I got a letter from [a black activist] informing me that there was going to be a boycott [by African-American athletes] at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City," Burgin says. Burgin wrote a column breaking the news that black athletes would protest at the Olympics -- long before medal-winning African-Americans raised their fists in black power salutes during the games' award ceremonies.
In 1970, he took a job at the San Francisco Examiner as sports editor. Almost immediately, a rift developed between him and the staff. Burgin blames himself. "I had my butt handed to me," he says. "I was too young. I was too brash and cocky. I'm not like that. I'm more to the shy side. I know that's hard for people to understand."
His reputation for rash, unexamined decisions grew. One day around Christmastime, Burgin noticed that packages were piling up for something called "Nell's Kids." Burgin knew that golf writer Nelson Cullenward had several kids, and thought he was taking gifts from sports teams. Burgin had the packages hauled away to the Salvation Army.
Years later, Burgin and Cullenward ended up at the same banquet. From the dais, he could hear the master of ceremonies continually refer to "Nell's Kids." For the first time, Burgin learned that Cullenward had adopted eight kids from a South Bay orphanage, for which he collected Christmas gifts every year.
"I took all those meals and toys heading for the orphanage and threw them out," Burgin says. "I regret it to this day. You get a reputation. A lot of people haven't forgiven me for that, and I don't blame them."
Burgin was saved from further local infamy when the Washington Star called and offered him a job as sports editor in 1972. His proudest achievement there was editing a series about homosexuality and sports. "It blew the lid off everything. There wasn't a column in the country that didn't have something to say about it. It was landmark, absolutely landmark," he says.
The next year Burgin was made metro editor, and suddenly he couldn't blow the lid off of a can of soda pop. Watergate had broken into the open, and the Star was choking on the dust of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the New York Times.
Oddly, this status gives Burgin pleasure; he sees it as part of his legend. "I had a two-year lesson in local reporting handed out by the Washington Post. We got our asses kicked. It was painful. It was a drubbing. Long story short, I had a ringside seat to Watergate."
It was in Washington that Burgin first met his future patron, Dean Singleton. The owners of the Star had just sold out to a rich Texas businessman named Joe Albritton. Burgin was walking down the hall at the Star building, and he caught the eye of another Texan, this one baby-faced. "So I took him around for a tour," Burgin recalls. "I guess I was in a good mood."
Singleton, all of 24, was at the Star looking for a job. He got one as a gopher. "But Dean Singleton ain't no gopher," Burgin says. Or, as Burgin told the East Bay Express in April 1994, "He's as slick as deer guts on a doorknob."
Singleton later talked Albritton into buying a paper up in New Jersey, the Paterson News, and making him publisher. Burgin was sent to edit the paper. "I was livid," he says. "I wanted to keep playing in Washington. Not only was I shipped out, but my boss was the guy I'd showed around the place. What a blow."
After one year at the News, Burgin caught wind that the Chicago Tribune Co. was looking for an editor for its South Bay papers, the Redwood City Tribune and the Palo Alto Times. He jumped at the chance to get back to the Bay Area. Burgin merged the two papers, upping the total complement of staffers from 65 to more than 100; the combined paper was dubbed the Peninsula Times Tribune.
Burgin would face his share of painful downsizing in the years to come. But as long as he was at the Tribune Co., he had all the money he wanted to spend. By all accounts, his eight years with Tribune subsidiaries were the best of his career.
At the Times Tribune, Burgin eagerly focused his resources on the big stories of the day. When Supervisor Harvey Milk and Mayor George Moscone were murdered by Dan White, Burgin sent everyone. "I had the food and fashion editor up there," he says. When Jonestown rocked San Francisco anew, he sent a reporter to Guyana to cover the catastrophe.
Things only got better for Burgin when the Tribune Co. sent him to Orlando, Fla.
Burgin's first move was to change the name of the paper. The Sentinel Star was, at the time, nicknamed "The Slantener Slur." So he changed it to the Orlando Sentinel. And he added a readout under the name: "The Best Newspaper in Florida." It was Burgin at his best, audacious, stirring things up, giving his staff something to fight for.
"He opened all sorts of bureaus," says Jim Heaney, a former Sentinel reporter who now works as an investigative reporter at the Buffalo News. "He spent money like crazy. There was this guy, a budget manager in the newsroom, who quit because he couldn't handle the fact that Dave spent so much money whenever he thought there was a good story at stake."
"He was a newsman's newsman," Heaney says. "He wasn't one of them, the bean counters."
In 1985, with everything on the rise at Orlando, Burgin says he had an offer to run the New York Daily News for the Chicago Tribune Co. He turned it down, a move he regrets to this day. "I could have punched my card into the journalism hall of fame," he says. "But I didn't buy the New York thing. I couldn't play golf there."
Just then, William Randolph Hearst III stepped in with an offer to make the Examiner hip, young, and exciting. The company played off Burgin's reputation as a shit-kicking editor, announcing his arrival with black-and-white TV commercials that had Burgin terrorizing the staff.
"Boom, boom, boom," the footsteps fell as the ad showed the Examiner newsroom. "The Examiner has a new editor." Staffers cringe under a desk. A young Rob Morse runs and hides. "His name is Dave Burgin."
The ad won a Clio award.
But Burgin wasn't around long enough to win anything. His tenure would last a mere seven months. The ad was still running when Hearst fired him.
After numerous disagreements over money and hiring, the clincher -- the admitted bonehead move of Burgin's career -- came when Hearst invited him to New York to meet the board of directors of the Hearst Corp. Burgin's attorney advised him not to attend because he had not received an employment contract. "It was stupid advice. He [Hearst] should have fired me. I had it coming. I admit it."
With a healthy settlement from Hearst, Burgin jumped back into journalism as a consultant for the Atlanta Constitution. A short time later, he received calls the same week from the Chicago Sun Times and Dean Singleton. Singleton said, "Take my job now or lose it." And the Sun Times just wanted to talk. So in 1986, Burgin was back with Singleton.
Burgin was named editor of the Dallas Times Herald, which Singleton bought at the same time he promised to make the city the seat of his newspaper empire. But two years later, Singleton sold his interest and bought the Houston Post. Burgin followed and was made editor. Both papers would eventually close, but not before Burgin and Singleton beat it out of Texas -- Singleton to Denver, Burgin to the ANG in 1990.
The good feelings Singleton and Burgin left behind might fit on the head of a pin.
And Burgin seems to know that while his role in Texas was strictly editorial, he is saddled all the same with the stench of death and disappointment. "I swear Dean Singleton has broken my heart so many times I can't count them anymore," he says.
Nonetheless, he remains a willing participant in Singleton's newspaper adventures -- and a willing defender of his employer. " 'When Times-Mirror [cuts costs and downsizes] it's just good business.' It's bullshit," Burgin says. "It's one of the most unfair raps I've heard. None of that is Singleton. He isn't that kind of guy."
The City of Oakland would come to disagree.
The Oakland Tribune for years wrestled with a problem that nearly every major urban newspaper faces. It's the bad marriage between predominantly white, upper-middle-class suburbs and the minority-populated inner city.
The money is in the suburbs.
The two communities have little in common. To cover both with one newspaper is a bit like trying to drive an airborne submarine.
In 1983, Gannett announced its intention to sell the Oakland Tribune. Robert Maynard, then publisher, wanted to make it work. He bought the Tribune for $22.5 million, with a $17 million note from Gannett and the rest financed through a Canadian bank. It was the first such management-inspired leveraged buyout -- a sale from corporation to individual ownership -- in history.
A former White House correspondent for the Washington Post and head of affirmative action for Gannett, Maynard had already made a name in the East Bay. He was the first African-American to edit a major daily newspaper when he came to the Tribune in 1979.
Early on, Maynard attempted to compete for the suburbs, opening bureaus around the East Bay. But it was too much too late. The war for suburbia had been lost long ago.
Urban flight took hold during the 1960s and '70s. As a great portion of the middle class moved to the suburbs, retailers followed. At a time when the Los Angeles Times and other major papers were expanding into the suburbs, former Tribune owner William Knowland had decided to concentrate on the urban center of Oakland. That left the burgeoning suburbs to Dean Lesher, owner of the Contra Costa Times, and Floyd Sparks, who owned a string of papers in Alameda County. They got rich, and the Tribune lost the suburbs forever.
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.
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.
"He [Burgin] was clearly interested in a person of color; he wanted to have that link to the community. He felt that would be good for the paper both as a symbol and as someone who had a good understanding of Oakland," says Stewart.
But Burgin also moved into the office, and it became eminently clear who was calling the shots in Oakland.
"The guy who sets editorial policy sits here in Oakland, and that's me," says Burgin.
Stewart quit a year later. "I wasn't listened to," she says. "My views were not sought."
Combining the Tribune with the rest of the ANG chain allowed the company to sell advertising to a larger market, but editorial content is a different story. The suburbs and the city are nothing alike.
"I have just looked at it as a kind of deteriorating relationship," says Marge Gibson Haskell, a longtime Oakland activist and former City Council member. "A city of Oakland's size needs to have a daily newspaper that accurately reflects what's going on. Without it, an awful lot of things that people need to know they don't hear about."
In fact, any hope that the ANG could tame a skeptical public and prove that it had a grip on urban Oakland was dashed from the start.
The Oakland Tribune had had a long-standing policy against accepting advertisements for handguns, prompted by the number of people killed with them on its own city's streets.
The first edition of the ANG Oakland Tribune -- Dec. 1, 1992 -- contained a page-long advertisement for Traders Sporting Goods Store. The ad featured not only handguns, but automatic, semiautomatic, and assault weapons, all of which appear to have been on sale.
Sources inside the Tribune at the time say the newspaper was flooded with calls and letters; there were also some subscription cancellations.
Six days later, the paper published a chart depicting the workings of the criminal justice system in Alameda County. In it, all of the icons illustrating judges and jury members were white. All of the icons illustrating criminal defendants were black.
"There was no intention of making it look like all the defendants were black with these little icons, but the community saw it as intentional," says former editorial-page editor Mary Ellen Butler. "Once again, it was one of those situations where they didn't realize it was the impression that was going to be so important. Had there been some sensitivity to looking at the product from someone else's eye, maybe it could have turned out differently."
As time went on, it became more and more apparent that the editorial direction of the Oakland Tribune was coming from outside, and so was the push to attract readers beyond the inner city.
In a city where 70 percent of the population is racial minorities, editorial voice was directed by a board that consisted of the editors of the five ANG papers, plus Burgin and then-Publisher Allan Meath. All, except for Stewart, are Anglo. Then Stewart was replaced by Tim Schreiner, another Anglo.
For Butler, it was the beginning of the realization that her position as editorial-page editor of the Tribune had no power, that she had become a figurehead reporting to the head of editorials for the chain.
"It was like having two cooks in the kitchen," she says.
Butler, a nationally known writer who had been on Oakland's editorial pages for more than a decade, resigned in March 1994.
Stewart soon learned that her voice was little more than a whisper. That was perhaps most evident when editorial and marketing concerns came crashing together in a meeting.
"The issue of race was introduced by [Publisher] Allan Meath, who said there appeared to be too many photos of black people in the paper, and he felt whites were disinclined to read the paper because they saw so many black faces. Of course, I was the only African-American in the room.
"I said, 'I can't comfortably sit here and listen to even a suggestion that we limit or reduce the number of black people in the paper.' "
Stewart and Burgin have different memories on what happened next. In her version, Burgin backed Meath. In his, Burgin disagreed with Meath and tried to end the meeting.
Meanwhile, bottom line considerations would seem to play a more prominent role in the content of the newspaper.
The paper took a pro-development stance on the controversial Dunsmuir Ridge development proposal in the Oakland Hills, which a significant portion of Oakland opposed.
Similarly, when Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis was negotiating the return of his football team from Los Angeles, the paper hit the brakes on asking tough questions until the deal was done. After all, a local professional football team would almost certainly increase Sunday and Monday Tribune circulation, when fans would pick up the paper to rehash the games.
"I was under strict orders from Dave Burgin not to print anything negative about the Raiders. He said he didn't want to blow the deal," says Lavin. Other Tribune writers also were aware of the edict.
Yet at the same time that the paper appeared to be concerned with public relations, Burgin jumped to the other extreme on a different story.
The Tribune ran a front-page story in December 1992 alleging that Alameda County Superior Court Judge Stanley Golde had been particularly lenient in sentencing sex offenders. An editorial that followed called for Golde to retire from the bench. After its own investigation into the matter, the Alameda County Bar Association cried foul. The bar contended that the newspaper had distorted the judge's record by failing to count the time defendants had been incarcerated before they were sentenced as part of a statistical look at his sentencing patterns. The association also said the Tribune had not reported a simple fact about apparently lenient sentences handed down by Golde: The judge had sentenced child molesters only in cases where attorneys -- including prosecutors -- had already agreed to plea bargains.
Burgin not only stood by the Tribune's story, he went ballistic in print. In a front-page story the following March, Burgin said:
"This really is nothing more than a pack of lawyers trying to curry favor with Judge Golde and a heavy-handed attempt to head off any recall movement."
In an April 1993 letter to Oakland attorney Edwin Clancy that responded to Clancy's criticism of the Tribune's stories, Burgin was even more poignant.
"[T]he last thing I'm going to do -- after more than 30 years of newspapering and dealing with legal eagles the likes of you -- is put up with a bunch of cheap shots and bullshit from someone in the law business, a 'profession' sick with greed and dishonesty."
The letter was read to about 175 members of the Oakland Rotary Club. Burgin resigned within a week "to pursue a new challenge." He denies that the flap with the Bar Association had anything to do with the departure.
"That was just a bunch of lawyers getting pissed off; their meal ticket to get clients off was busted. I wish we had gone farther. I have no apologies. You've got to back up your people," he says.
Burgin returned to the newsroom seven months after he left; his reappearance prompted Stewart's resignation.
In 1993, the ANG laid off another 14 people from the Tribune. Many others left on their own. Although journalists of all races were walking out the door, the exodus eroded the diversity that once marked the Oakland Tribune's staff. Along with at least a handful of minority reporters, the newspaper lost three African-American editors: Stewart, Butler, and Deputy Managing Editor Charles Jackson.
More recently, the ANG fired Bill Wong, a 17-year Tribune columnist and one of only a few high-profile Asian-American journalists in the nation, having appeared regularly on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour and other national forums.
"He was one of four opinion/editorial columnists," says Burgin. "We couldn't afford all of them."
Wong was dismissed without notice or the benefit of a farewell; instead, he was told to make an appointment to return for his personal effects.
The move prompted a huge outcry and more canceled subscriptions. At one point, more than 100 people, including former Gov. Jerry Brown, gathered in front of the Tribune to demand Wong's return. ANG management turned a deaf ear.
"Wong has been in the community for a long time. He knows the community. A lot of the issues that Asian-Americans and African-Americans face intersect," says Oakland author and activist Ishmael Reed.
"We need more people from other points of view so that people can get a complete picture of what's going on in their community, especially Oakland, which is one of the most diverse communities in the country."
But Burgin insists that it is not the community picture, but the Alameda Newspaper Group that is misunderstood in Oakland.
"I think a lot of people are still standing on the grave of what was. The Tribune I inherited was a piece of garbage," he says. "All the things they did way back when, more power to them. We do the best we can. And guess what? Some of the award winners are still here."
If Peter Greenaway were directing a film on the present goings-on inside the Oakland Tribune, it might be called The Editor, the Editor, Some Lawyers, and the City Councilman.
In January, Christine Lavin went from editing the news to making the news when the former Tribune editor filed a lawsuit against Burgin and the Alameda Newspaper Group, alleging wrongful termination, employment discrimination, and sexual harassment.
The complaint details events that stretch from 1990, when both Burgin and Lavin worked together at the Houston Post, to her exit from the Tribune in August 1995, while she was dating one of Oakland's top city officials.
In her suit, Lavin details an event in Houston in 1990, when she was copy editor and Burgin was editor of the Post. The two, she says, had gone out for drinks after work, and Burgin invited Lavin back to his home to continue their conversation.
Her complaint describes the scene this way:
"Lavin agreed -- specifically stating that she would not have sex with [Burgin]. After an hour of conversation about the state of journalism and newspapers [Burgin] persuaded [Lavin] to listen to some music on his car stereo. At this time [Burgin] talked about his getting married next week and his concern if he was doing the right thing.
"After reassuring [Burgin], [Lavin] got out of the car to go. Burgin [then] shoved her against the side of the car and repeatedly tried to kiss her. Lavin tried to dissuade [Burgin] from his amorous advances without getting him mad and was finally able to disengage herself from [Burgin's] embrace and leave his home."
In court documents, both Burgin and the ANG issued a blanket denial of all of Lavin's allegations. Burgin's personal attorney, Nancy Pritikin, would only say, "Mr. Burgin will be vindicated."
In any event, Burgin left Houston in 1990 and moved to the top editor spot at the ANG.
Lavin followed after the ANG bought the Tribune in 1992, accepting a position as assistant editor. She says that a company official assured her that she would not have contact with Burgin, professionally or personally.
"I was told that he rarely came to the Oakland office," Lavin says.
During the following two years, Lavin moved up the ranks at the Tribune from assistant editor to city editor to assistant managing editor.
Burgin, she alleges, would comment on her physical appearance, her body, and her personal lifestyle, who Lavin was dating and what her personal sexual relationships were like.
"Burgin remarked to Lavin that she was beautiful and blonde and Burgin advised Lavin to buy new clothes and keep the hems short, saying that Lavin had 'great legs that will knock a room dead,' and Lavin would be 'breaking hearts all over town,' " according to the complaint.
In December 1994, Burgin offered her the position of editor of the Tribune.
In her complaint, Lavin claims that she declined the job at first, citing her lack of experience, but that Burgin repeatedly tried to persuade her to accept.
In March 1995, Lavin accepted the job that would place her under the direct supervision of Burgin.
Two months later, she began a romantic relationship with Oakland City Councilman John Russo, raising an obvious concern about conflict of interest. After all, she edited a newspaper that regularly covers the City Council.
In her complaint, Lavin states that she told Burgin about the relationship after her first date with Russo and that she distanced herself from any stories concerning the Oakland City Council.
She alleges that Burgin approved the relationship, saying that he saw no conflict and that "sex sells." But in August 1995, she alleges, Burgin called her into his office and told her that he had heard that she and Russo were moving in together, which she confirmed.
Her complaint describes the event this way:
"Burgin, in a fit of jealous rage, threw the food he was eating on his desk and screamed 'That is totally unacceptable! You cannot be the editor of this newspaper if you move in with [Russo]. You have 30 seconds to decide. Are you going to live with him or are you going to work for me?' "
Lavin also claims that Burgin told her that she could marry Russo or date him, but that she could not move in with him and continue to work at the Tribune. Later, her complaint alleges, Burgin said she would have to end the relationship to keep her job. Burgin also offered Lavin a position as managing editor of the Tri-Valley Herald, another ANG newspaper, Lavin's suit charges. Lavin says she refused the offer because she considered it a demotion.
"It's not my fault I fell in love," says Lavin.
The ANG, in court documents, denies all of Lavin's allegations and claims that Lavin did not follow company policy -- that is, she did not notify company officials of the alleged sexual harassment. Moreover, the ANG claims that Lavin was not fired, but resigned.
Burgin refused to comment on the specifics of Lavin's allegations, except to say, "It's a huge, shocking disappointment. I saw someone I thought was special. The relationship with Russo made it difficult with all the reporters and made it hard to do decent, honest journalism. The lawsuit is malicious, frivolous, and wrong. I wish she would just get on with her life, and let us get on with ours."
It's not likely. If the case continues, much of the Oakland Tribune newsroom could wind up in the courtroom.
There was a time when a daily newspaper in a major city like Oakland was something other than a financial proposition, one-fifth of an advertising package. When Burgin was learning the news business, newspapers -- many owned by the families who had founded them -- answered primarily to readers, not to Wall Street or the banking industry. American journalism has always been profit-driven, but in C. David Burgin's early years, it was less about making money and more about getting the story and telling it to the readers. Burgin's fixation with Watergate proves that he knows, as well as anyone, that the journalism game has changed dramatically. He seems to have received the fame he's spent a lifetime chasing. It just hasn't been the type of fame he was looking for.
And as he leaves journalism for consulting and who knows what else, he knows newspapering, 1990s-style, is not the type of game he grew up learning to play.
A few months ago, Ben Bradlee, the famous former editor of the Washington Post, came to town for a brunch gathering at Moose's. David Burgin sat at his table. At one point during the meal, Burgin turned to Bradlee, saying something to the effect that the Post should have hired Burgin because he had had the audacity to try and hire away Carl Bernstein at the height of the Watergate scandal.
"Not with your baggage," Bradlee replied.
Overhearing the conversation was legendary eavesdropper Herb Caen, who wrote up the exchange in his column as an embarrassing aside.
"He got it wrong," says Burgin. "Bradlee said it in a funny way. He's not mad. He still needles me about things like that. He's always been nice and respectful to me. He actually wrote a very nice thing in his memoir for me. It was very personal and dear and complimentary."
Asked what Bradlee wrote, Burgin declines to share the inscription, saying, "That's not class.