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Canadian firm said to be key factor in SF Chronicle's fate

Rumours of the impending death of the Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle may just be a prelude to forging highly concentrated corporate ownership of media in Northern California.

Unionized press workers and drivers are in the crosshairs. And a Canadian company, TransContinental Printing, may be at centre of the big shuffle, ready to provide non-union printing to the Chronicle and just about every other newspaper left operating in the region.

This according to a report in the Columbia Journalism Review published yesterday. David Cay Johnson says Chronicle management aims to “break the Pressman’s and Teamsters’ unions, or at least force them into accepting a nearly 50 percent pay cut and what the unions regard as onerous work rules.”

“At issue is a $200 million printing plant nearing completion in Fremont, fifty miles from San Francisco. It reportedly could print all of the newspapers in the Bay Area, and perhaps some from nearby Central Valley cities like Fresno and Stockton. In January the Chronicle ran a series of pieces, including a front section wraparound, on the new printing plant, even though it is not in operation yet. So it seems intent on continuing the printed version. The Canadian firm that is building the plant, TransContintental Printing, plans to use non-union pressmen.”

Johnson notes that Hearst has invested $300 million in a number of rival nearby papers owned by MediaNews, including the San Jose Mercury, and wonders if the new Transcontinental-built “printing plant may signal that the Bay Area is heading towards nineteen area newspapers with a single entity owning them, be it Hearst, [MediaNews] or some combined ownership.”

On March 14, Chronicle reporters, editors and others represented by the Newspaper Guild voted to accept deep cuts in pay and longer hours. Management said big takebacks were needed to keep the paper alive. But the Teamsters who now operate Chronicle presses are not likely to “buckle under” the same way, says Johnson, explaining that “unlike the Guild, the Teamsters can stop distribution of the dead tree edition. “

Rome Aloise, the secretary/treasurer of Teamsters Local 853, has said that if the TransContinental printing plant is nonunion, her union will start “an advertisers’ boycott—and that will stop the swirl of the Chronicle down the bowl and it will go all the way down.”

In case anyone missed her point, Aloise said “It would be a death-wish to open that plant non-union.”

Johnson cites one analyst postulating that Hearst is out to strip its drivers of Teamster union representation as well.

“Is the Chronicle in jeopardy? Of course it is, but who is the real threat here: Hearst or the Teamsters?” wrote David M. Cole in NewsInc., his weekly newsletter about the American newspaper industry.

“The two sides are playing a game of chicken,” Cole thinks, “with Hearst betting that they can maneuver the Teamsters into taking the fall for any closure of the paper and thereby counting on labor-related politicians (and this is the Bay Area—all politicians are labor-related) to stop the Teamsters from driving the paper off that particular cliff.”

TransContinental’s web site says the company publishes “12 daily and more than 125 weekly, biweekly and monthly newspapers [with] a distribution of nearly 250 million copies per year [reaching] hundreds of communities spread continent-wide across Canada.” The firm also publishes 37 magazines in Canada including Canadian Living and, in B.C., Western Living and Vancouver Magazine.

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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