Kevin Keane, vice president and executive editor of ANG, was less than pleased with our May 31 cover package, "Mediocre News," which explored the pending purchase of 37 Bay Area newspapers by his boss, Dean Singleton (see editor's note on page 4). So an Express reporter sat down with Keane last Friday to get his side of the story.
As expected, Keane wouldn't comment on any operational changes until the Department of Justice has finished reviewing the deal's terms. "None of those decisions are made," he said. "None are close to being made." Still, Keane stood by the promise Singleton made during recent visits to newsrooms at the Contra Costa Times and the San Jose Mercury News that there would be no layoffs or salary changes.
Yet just two hours after this reporter left the Tribune Tower, ANG put out a press release: Fred Mott, its president, publisher, and CEO, had been fired. Replacing him would be none other than Singleton himself.
Keane, meanwhile, insisted his boss' latest acquisition will benefit Bay Area journalism. "I think that anything that brings stability to the marketplace as far as newspapers are concerned is a good thing," he said. "No one is investing more money than Dean Singleton on the future of newspapers." Once the deal is approved, the Trib will score a new front-end copy-flow system, "a multimillion-dollar investment in the future of this newspaper, all these newspapers." Singleton, Keane noted, has okayed a $50,000 shopping spree for new "interactive" gear including the latest computers and digital video cameras, which many reporters already have been trained to use.
But is a good thing for "journalism" also a good thing for the journalists? As the Express pointed out, there certainly won't be a need for, say, three TV columnists once ANG adds the CoCo Times and the Merc to its roster. "You might not be doing the exact same thing you're doing today as a journalist, but that's, frankly, the future of the business," Keane said. "The business model is changing; our readers' expectations are changing. We cannot sit back and do the same things we've been doing all along."
What won't change, Keane says, is ANG's commitment to local news: "We're very intensely local. We have more reporters on the streets than anybody." He blasted what he called the Express' "wild speculation" regarding potential paper closures due to geographical overlap: "It's unfair to the newspapers and to the communities that they serve to say we're going to close this paper or that one. Bull! None of those decisions have been made."
Keane also challenged the notion that falling circulation at ANG means a smaller audience. "If you combine online readers with people who pick up the newspaper, more people are reading what we produce every day than ever in our history," he said. "Our big challenge is to make sure we capture the revenue online." ANG currently pulls in 5 to 10 percent of its revenue online the industry standard, he adds. "It's the fastest-growing segment of what we do."
He repeatedly emphasized that ANG's focus on training staff for online storytelling will make its papers stronger. "Reporters will be able to tell stories in greater depth, across various media, which will better serve the reader," he said. Yet he declined to explain where actual new roles may emerge: If a print reporter takes on podcasting, and a photographer also makes video clips, where's the new job?
Keane took issue with the Express' suggestion that turnover at the Oakland Tribune has been high: "Turnover is healthy at newspapers our size. It's to be expected. We provide people an opportunity to develop a craft. I expect people to have ambition, and to move on. I'm comfortable with that. Our job is to then go out and find someone that's better than the person who left. For every job we have available, we have dozens of applicants."
He also defended his reporters' talent. "Yes, some of them are inexperienced, but that's okay, because our papers tend to be on the small side. These are papers that you would expect to have younger reporters who are looking to gather some type of daily experience." He maintains that this doesn't result in mediocre newspapers. "The fact of the matter is, all local news isn't going to knock your socks off as a reader. There is a lot of mundane stuff going on out there. But we have a responsibility to cover that; we can't just ignore that. Is it important? Absolutely."
ANG, Keane pointed out, boasts a team of investigative reporters who've recently won national awards for their coverage. "To just lump it all in and say it's all mediocre is crap. It's absolute crap," he said. "What we're producing for our audience is outstanding local journalism. And I'll stand by it."
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