You Think the Register Sucks Now?

Prospective buyers are already salivating over the sale of Freedom Communications—parent company of The Orange County Register—after the Hoiles clan decided March 6 to divest themselves of the family business. But few suitors have made overtures as zealous as those of the Gannett Co., publishers of USA Today and the country's largest media group.

“We think you're a great group of properties,” Gannett spokeswoman Tara Connell gushed to Registerreporters March 7. “We think you have great newspapers, and we think you have great television stations. We'd love to get in on it.”

Freedom owns 28 daily newspapers, while the Register—after years of buying out local dailies—currently publishes 23 community weeklies.

But Sam Quiñones says Gannett's interest should frighten Register readers down to their ink-stained fingertips. Author of the award-winning True Tales From Another Mexico, Quiñones began his journalism career with the Register in 1987, moving on to cover crime for the then-Gannett-owned Stockton Record from 1988 through 1992. Now living in Mexico City, Quiñones drew upon his personal experience with both papers to give a preview of what a Gannett buyout would mean for the county's only daily.

OC Weekly:What are Gannett's gravest sins?Sam Quiñones:Gannett is like a clear-cut logging firm, denuding any community where it buys a newspaper. Every Gannett paper is the same, based on unreasonable profit targets that each paper is forced to meet. The only way to meet those targets is by cutting staff, not replacing people who leave, and slowly reducing the amount of space dedicated to news. This is so destructive—both to a community, which now doesn't have enough reporters on hand to be covered sufficiently, and to the newspaper, which suffers from horrible morale problems. Gannett's modus operandi is harmful to everyone but Gannett. Couldn't you make the same charges against other chains?

It'd be hard to say because I've been away from newspaper journalism for a long time. But I've seen that communities with a Gannett paper end up losing. The chain has no feel of the social responsibility of a newspaper—that is to say, a newspaper is more than a business; it performs a social function in democracy that is undeniable.

What was an immediate difference you noticed when you left theRegister to work for theRecord?

Space and staff. The Register, at the time, had a sufficient complement of both in relation to the area it covered. This was not at all true of the Gannett-owned Record. As proof, I was the lone crime reporter [in a city] where we were racking up crime rates that ranked us higher than Oakland at times. The Modesto Bee—owned by the McClatchy family—had two crime reporters and nowhere near the [crime] problems Stockton had.

There were really important stories we simply had to ignore or covered only superficially because we didn't have the space or staff. We were always telling people from the community, “Sorry, we don't have space. I don't have time.” They sometimes took it to mean that we didn't care or were told not to cover something. That just bred more discontent from both the community and reporters.

What canRegister readers expect with a Gannett ownership?

Besides everything I already stated, Gannett does not believe in letting local papers run themselves. It determines coverage across America not only by restricting the staff and space, but also by telling its editors how to cover communities the higher-ups at Gannett have visited only once or twice.

For example, in 1991, the company came out with NEWS 2000. It was the great savior of journalism that each paper in the chain had no choice but to adopt. NEWS 2000 was essentially telling us to get in touch with the community. This, I told several executives who came to visit while I was at the Record, would have been accomplished more fully by hiring more people. Rather, we were to do all kinds of snippet-type stories on people in the community. Thus came the Roving Record, which was a truck carrying an editor, photographer and reporter that would visit a neighborhood each Saturday and write a story about it. This was preposterous. What you can learn about a neighborhood in an afternoon usually isn't worth printing. Doing it right requires spending time, getting to know the people there more fully.

TheRegister used to do the same thing. So why shouldRegister readers care about who owns the paper?

The Register isn't perfect. They have too many communities and cities to cover, each with their own distinct needs. So each reader wakes each day knowing probably half the local news won't apply to him. However, I can't see how any of this will be ameliorated by Gannett purchasing the Register. On the contrary, readers can look forward to the paper becoming gradually slimmer and less relevant.

What do you suggest is the best way to draw attention to this?

I think it's now when people in Orange County need to get active around the issue of who buys the Register. They have to inform themselves, put together maybe lobbying groups, urging very respectfully the owners of the Register to take the community into consideration when selling the paper. If not, they'll be paying the price for their inaction for years and years to come—especially if Gannett buys it.

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