House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's request last week to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to relax anti-trust regulations so that another Bay Area media organization might buy or financially prop up the ailing San Francisco Chronicle constitutes a well meaning, if not deeply flawed gesture.
Set aside the generally bad precedent that granting such a request would mean for the news industry. No, this request is a bad idea for a far more specific reason: If Holder grants the Pelosi's request, the action would likely pave the way for the Chronicle to be grabbed by the MediaNews Group (MNG), giving the Denver-based chain a lock-tight monopoly of dailies publishing in the Bay Area.
While some might argue that any rescue ship is welcome when the boat you're on is down by the bow and headed under the waves, the idea of MNG owning and operating the Chronicle amounts to the venerable daily facing an editorial fate that's actually worse than death itself, or, in this case, closure.
That's because anyone who has followed MNG's ownership and operational patterns know that they begin and end with the idea of wringing the maximum profits and revenues from a given publication. The quality of the news product is, at best, a second thought.
For evidence, look no further than what's happened to the MNG papers in both San Francisco's East Bay and in Southern California. Dozens of dedicated reporters, photographers and editors have been eliminated through lay-offs, buy-outs or other workforce reduction programs. Corners get cut. Beats and types of coverage get eliminated. Those who remain fear for their jobs every day.
To their critics MNG will counter that if the company had not purchased some of the smaller properties, those publications would be dead by now and that some local news is better than no local news. In certain cases, they'd be right. And while Hearst has acted with marked patience to the Chronicle in recent years while it suffered millions in losses, it too has had to aggressively wield the budget cutting knife -- laying off dozens of reporters, editors and others.
Just this week Hearst demanded and got from the paper's unions major contract concessions and give-backs as well as the departure of 150 more people out of editorial. Even with those cuts, Hearst made no promises about how long it could hold on.
And certainly, when one contemplates the newspaper industry's ham-handed embrace of the Internet coupled with the an economic recession, lay-offs and closures in the business were a given.
But when one looks at how MNG has decimated the once great San Jose Mercury News, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Contra Costa Times and others, one gets a sense that it might be better for the Chronicle to enter Hospice care and die with what's left of its editorial dignity.
The issue here is only partly about the idea of breaching good anti-trust regulations that have served us well in preventing undue media ownership concentrations. In this case it's also -- if you will -- an editorial "quality of life" question when it comes to the idea of MNG running the Chronicle.
San Francisco deserves an aggressive, vibrant, fully-staffed watchdog of a newspaper that mirrors its standing as one of America's great cosmopolitan cities.
MNG is just not up to the task.