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November 16, 2006

 In the News

The north wind doth blow


There's a cold, cold breeze now blowing through Los Angeles, through Oakland, through San Jose, through almost any California newspaper owned by Dean Singleton and his MediaNews conglomerate. New cost-cutting measures are being imposed throughout the chain; several papers are laying off a good percentage of their workforce; contract negotiations with unionized newspapers are rocky at best.

Singleton, a legendarily bottom-line kind of guy, seemed to be turning a new leaf a couple of years ago, promising to invest in quality journalism. Apparently old habits die hard. This new round of belt-tightening isn't limited to California -- the St. Paul Pioneer Press, a paper that MediaNews recently acquired along with the San Jose Mercury News and the Contra Costa Times in a complicated three-way deal, announced Monday that it would be laying off about 5 percent of its workforce. But it would seem that the brunt of the company's cutbacks are being shouldered by the Golden State, with layoffs and labor struggles at the Mercury News, the CC Times and the Los Angeles Daily News all making national headlines.

So how is all this playing at the Times-Standard, which is out struggling to fend off a challenge from an upstart competitor with seemingly unlimited resources? Funny you should ask. On Monday, the Grim Reaper himself -- George Riggs, president of the California Newspaper Partnership, MediaNews' regional subsidiary -- paid his first visit to Eureka. Dave Lippman, Times-Standard publisher, said Tuesday that the news from his meetings with Riggs wasn't entirely terrible. He did seem to indicate, though, that the parent corp wouldn't be raining money down on the T-S anytime soon.

The upshot: The Times-Standard is feeling budget pressure from its parent corporation, but such pressure hasn't yet resulted in any layoffs. The T-S, Lippman said, has been fortunate in that it has been able to reduce expenditures through employee attrition, rather than directly showing employees the door. At the same time, though, he was loath to rule out layoffs in the future.

"There is a constant pressure to make our budget numbers," he said. "And if that means cutting back, that means cutting back."

What's the problem? The company-wide effort to reduce costs would seem to point to the fact that MediaNews, already a billion dollars in debt before last summer's purchases, is now seeking ways to afford them. That may be shortsighted -- recent reports have suggested that the firm is in talks to buy yet another L.A. paper, the Torrance Daily Breeze. Lippman attributed tight budgets to the industry-wide malaise that the newspaper business currently finds itself in.

It's strange, though. A couple of months ago, when the Times-Standard announced that Rich Somerville would be taking over the helm of the paper, there were smiles and high-fives coming out of its Sixth Street headquarters. Singleton himself had come to town to assure staffers that everything was going super-smoothly -- circulation was up, ad revenue was up, they were winning the fight against Arkley's Eureka Reporter and MediaNews was behind them 100 percent. Where'd that money go?

Because even though Lippman said that they haven't had to lay anyone off yet, he did confirm that there have been cutbacks. Turns out that the tiny fund that once boosted newsroom morale by funding the purchase of little edible treats is now history. "We've made some minor cuts like that," he said. "If you can trim a coffee-and-donuts budget rather than trimming human beings, that seems like a preferable approach, don't you think?"

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It's a week and a half after the elections, now, and you are no doubt sick of all the prognostications and projections of what could happen in those three down-to-the-wire races in Eureka. We don't blame you. We'll know when we know, and there's not a lot we can do in the meantime except twiddle our thumbs.

Still, those were some frenzied days in the newsroom last Wednesday and Thursday and Friday, as reporters unearthed their protractors and compasses in an attempt to discern whether or not Mayor Peter La Vallee, Third Ward City Council candidate Ron Kuhnel or Fourth District Board of Supervisors candidate Nancy Flemming could conceivably make a comeback as the late absentee ballots are counted. The Times-Standard's John Driscoll captured the mood well in his column Monday -- the quintessentially tragicomic sight of grown men attempting mathematics.

The Journal was not immune from this frenzy, alas. So now, at this late stage in the game, we'll just pass on our one original observation, and then we'll shut up about it. Here it is: If any of the candidates in question have a chance at overcoming their election night losses with the late ballots, those candidates are Ron Kuhnel and Peter La Vallee, candidates favored by the left or left-of-center.

Why is that? We're talking about absentee ballots, after all, and it is an old, old chestnut of politics that absentee ballots favor conservatives. That's why, in the immediate aftermath of election night, it was widely assumed that Flemming was still in the running. But there are absentees, it turns out, and there are late absentees -- the ones received on election day, or right before it. And history tells us that in Eureka, anyway, late absentee ballots skew liberal.

Look at the 2002 election. Compare the election night returns with the final, certified vote, which came a few weeks later. In that space of time, during which all the late absentee ballots were counted, progressives Chris Kerrigan, running for reelection to the Eureka City Council, and Kaitlin Sopoci-Belknap, a candidate for the Humboldt Bay Municipal Water District, actually saw their leads over their conservative challengers increase. Meanwhile, Virginia Bass-Jackson (now Virginia Bass) was running unopposed for her council seat. Bass-Jackson still got a large majority of the late absentee vote, of course, but the late absentee voters were slightly more likely to cast a write-in vote.

It's a ray of hope for Kuhnel and La Vallee; a dark, foreboding cloud for Flemming. But we'll find out in a few weeks, won't we?

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Meanwhile, Southern Humboldters may have a lot on their minds these days (see this week's cover story) but they can rest easy knowing that their little community hospital is in good hands. No one stood for election to the hospital's board of directors this time around, but in the next few weeks the Humboldt County Board of Supervisors will be appointing two new volunteers to help manage the affairs of the Southern Humboldt Community Health Care District. Among them, in all likelihood: rebel troubadour and erstwhile Earth First!er Darryl Cherney.

"I've been thinking about it for years," said the man himself in a phone interview from Rancho Cherney, a l'il spread just outside Redway, on Tuesday. "It seemed like it would be a stimulating challenge and something to expand my horizons."

As everyone knows, the American medical system is cocked up almost beyond belief; small, rural hospitals have it even worse than most. The populations they serve are small and scattered, making their efforts to recruit and retain personnel difficult and their financial pictures, generally, woeful. Southern Humboldt approved a parcel tax a few years back that assured their little hospital of a steady revenue stream, but it's never enough.

This is where Cherney thinks he can make a difference. People may be divided on his politics, but no one can deny that he is a public relations whiz of the very highest caliber. Cherney, whose partner works as a hospital nurse, said he'd be looking to raise awareness of the hospital and its needs within the community.

"There's a fair amount of people associated more with the old-timer crowd, and so having somebody on the board who is more associated with environmentalists and the counter-culture expands the board's outreach to other sectors of the community," he said.

Cherney said he'd like to help the hospital recover its roots as a SoHum community institution. That means recruiting people to give their time and money to the place. And it also means keeping the hospital in the front of the SoHum mind. Cherney said he'd like to see the hospital have a greater presence at traditional Southern Humboldt events -- sponsoring a fund-raising refreshment booth, perhaps, or just being there to remind residents that they own their health care.

But to answer the question on everyone's mind: Does this mean that we can expect to see some new health-care-related tunes in the Cherney repertoire?

"It all depends how thick it gets," Cherney said. "The muse strikes when it wants to strike."



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