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news sentinelThe Sentinel in flux with cuts, staff departures and its parent company up for sale

Steve Kettmann, a former staff writer for the San Francisco Chronicle, thinks he knows a good newspaper when he sees it. So, when he wrote a story last month for The Huffington Post calling the Santa Cruz Sentinel a “smallish paper doing one hell of a job of working to be a vital part of its community,” he meant it.

Kettman knows that people are often pessimistic—he says unfairly so—about the paper’s dwindling size and coverage. Underscoring the Sentinel’s rapidly shifting fortunes, however, is the departure of two writers who Kettmann highlighted in his story.

J.M. Brown, the paper’s city reporter with more than seven years of experience reporting in Santa Cruz, left this month. Jason Hoppin has stayed within the company, but moved to the Monterey Herald last fall, though his stories still appear in the Sentinel occasionally. The paper, which is now owned by New York-based hedge fund Alden Global Capital and operates out of a Scotts Valley office, is down to six news staff writers, from a high of 11 when former editor Tom Honig was in charge of the news desk a decade ago.

Former Sentinel reporter Shanna McCord, who was at the paper for 10 years before leaving for a communications job at GraniteRock in 2014, says there was a sense of gloom and a feeling of “insecurity” that hung over the news room. Founded in 1856, the Sentinel has been through a succession of owners in the last decade, with Dow Jones’ Ottoway Community Newspapers (which bought the paper from the McPherson family in 1982) selling it to Community Newspaper Holdings in 2006. The Alabama firm flipped it to William Dean Singleton’s MediaNews in 2007. MediaNews’ parent company declared bankruptcy in 2010, paving the way for the formation of Digital First Media, an Alden-controlled management company that operates the Sentinel, Monterey Herald, the Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune and more than 70 other daily newspapers across the country. MediaNews and Digital First cut hours, slashed freelance budgets and furloughed staff.

Sentinel editor Don Miller recently began serving as editor for the Herald, as well, amid increasing subscription rates and declining revenues.

This past month, the Sentinel, which won 21 awards from the California Newspaper Publishers Association last year, also cut back on its Thursday arts coverage by eliminating its weekly entertainment tabloid. Columns by artist Kirby Scudder and longtime journalist Christa Martin were cut.

Ken Doctor, an Aptos-based media analyst who covers newsrooms across the country for his blog Newsonomics, says that the Sentinel is still an “above-average local daily newspaper,” but that staff changes will pose challenges.

Doctor expects the paper to miss Brown’s reporting on water issues, which was often “dot-connecting,” providing the proper context within stories.

Many Sentinel news stories, he says, miss out on explaining how and why things happen. Others are just plain hard to follow—something he attributes to so many editors being let go. Doctor says he often finishes a local news story and finds himself telling his wife “I read that—I don’t know what happened.”

Retired Sentinel assistant editor John McNicholas has noticed the same issues, and also attributes it to less editing. Another change is increasing reliance on content from other newspapers and the Associated Press.

“Any Sentinel reader has noticed the change in the last year from all over the state. Monterey isn’t local news,” says McNicholas. “ San Jose isn’t local news. Santa Cruz, Watsonville, Scotts Valley, the San Lorenzo Valley—that’s local news.”

Over the past couple years, Digital First Media has effectively cut all of the Sentinel and Herald’s local copy editors and moved layout to Chico. Both dailies’ ad production is now done in India.

Impending Sale

Also looming large is the question of what will happen now that Digital First Media is for sale. “There’s reason to be worried about the future of the paper,” says Kettman, also co-director of Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, which develops young writers. “When I wrote that post, I wasn’t aware of how grim it looks, the potential for the paper to be sold and further cuts to their staff. I would love to see some people who made some money in Silicon Valley come together and make an offer.”

Neither Miller nor Gary Omernick, publisher for the Sentinel and Herald, would comment for this story. Miller says a longstanding Sentinel policy prevents him from doing so, though according to Honig that wasn’t that case when he worked there.

Doctor has reported that one or two private equity firms are looking to buy Digital First from its current owner, which has held it for four years. A new private equity owner, Doctor says, would typically sell after three to five more years. Private equity owners often seek out troubled businesses, buy them on the cheap and extract value by selling assets such as real estate. Often, these investments result in turnaround successes. Others become quagmires or go bankrupt.   

“The thing that’s interesting when you look at the economics of this is it isn’t a company that just needs to be turned around. This is an industry that needs to be turned around,” Doctor says. “And they’ve had a private equity controller for four years now, which has slashed costs. That’s what private equity does. They’ve already done that. So to believe you could come in and in five or six more years, cut enough more costs in a time of declining print revenue, sell at a profit and get out in three-to-five years is a bit mystifying. But that’s normally how they do.”

Another option would be for the current owner, Alden Global Capital, to sell Digital First in clusters to buyers across the country—Los Angeles, Colorado, the Northeast.

That could spell opportunity for a local owner if one were interested in purchasing the Sentinel and a few other Bay Area papers. Doctor reported that Geoffrey Dunn, contributing editor to GT, has formed an acquisition group to make an offer. Dunn, who wouldn’t comment on the report, is a fourth-generation Santa Cruzan who unsuccessfully bid to buy the Sentinel when Dow Jones’ newspaper group sold it in 2006.

If a company wanted to revamp a newspaper and make it last, Doctor thinks there’s a path to do that. It ideally would invest in the newspaper product and a digital platform over the next three to five years.

Local or not, the paper finds a way to get the news out everyday, at least for now. Reporter Jessica York, who’s been with the Sentinel since April, is taking over Brown’s city news coverage. McNicholas says Calvin Men, who covers Scotts Valley and cops and courts, shows promise, and he calls arts columnist Wallace Baine “a genius.”

Still, when it comes to newspapers there’s a question about coverage that remains: As news reporting slowly dwindles, do we know what we’re missing out on?

“It’s interesting, because it’s a vacuum, but nobody can put their finger on it,” Doctor says. “When you see diminished coverage, you can’t quite say what you missed if it’s not written.”


PHOTO: While Sentinel defenders say it has stayed strong in a tough climate, the dwindling local coverage is hard to miss. KEANA PARKER

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