When MediaNews Group Inc. bought the Long Beach Press-Telegram in 1997, the local chapter of the Communications Workers of America represented a newsroom staff of approximately 180 employees.

These days, the chapter represents just 23 journalists – and that number will be cut by about half in June when the company axes the paper’s one-person features department, and moves its sports and photo operations to sister paper the nonunion Daily Breeze in Torrance.

The dramatic downscaling of the Long Beach paper comes amid dwindling newspaper readership in general.

Linda Lindus, publisher of both the Press-Telegram and the Breeze, declined to talk about the changes and referred questions to MediaNews founder Dean Singleton, who did not return calls.

Martin Langeveld, who spent 13 years as a publisher at MediaNews and is now a media consultant, said the Press-Telegram’s plan appears to be consistent with the company’s overall consolidation strategy.

“When circulation and advertising is down, what do you have left except to say: What else can we cut? What else can we consolidate? Whether that is a smart strategy is another question,” he said. “It just becomes a downward spiral.”

The Breeze and the Press-Telegram are two of nine daily newspapers that make up Los Angeles Newspaper Group, a division of Denver-based MediaNews that emerged from bankruptcy last year under the ownership of lenders led by New York-based Alden Global Capital.

MediaNews owns 57 daily newspapers nationwide and is the second largest newspaper company in the United States. The largest is Tysons Corner, Va.-based Gannett Co. Inc.

MediaNews is hardly alone on the bankruptcy front.

The Orange County Register’s parent, Irvine-based Freedom Communications Inc., was in bankruptcy protection until last year, and Chicago-based Tribune Corp., which owns the Los Angeles Times, is preparing to emerge from a prolonged bankruptcy.

The moves in Long Beach come at a time when MediaNews is reportedly trying to purchase the Register to create a more powerful base for advertisers.

“We believe they were doing these things to make the books look more attractive for the OC Register bid,” said Vicki DiPaolo, vice president of Communications Workers of America Local 9400.

“It can be argued that this is perhaps union busting,” she said. “Unfortunately because the Breeze is a nonunion property, they don’t have to abide by the contract.”

An April 29 human resources memo to DiPaolo stated that the changes were being made to consolidate news room functions for cost savings and efficiency.

Like most other newspapers in the country, the Press-Telegram once thrived on covering the community.

It remains a union shop and was the only LANG paper where editorial employees managed to avoid a 5 percent across-the-board pay cut late last year as well as a 10-day unpaid work furlough earlier this year. The union contract was negotiated separately from other LANG papers and will expire in July.

The Press-Telegram, which gave up its longtime home on Pine Avenue in 2007, now occupies part of the 14th floor in a tower at Arco Center in downtown Long Beach. Employees learned of the latest staff reductions late last month.

Two editors received pink slips, and sports and photo staff were told they would have to reapply for positions that would be based at the Breeze. Not all can be rehired since there will be two fewer positions.

With the photo and sports staffs gone, just 10 reporters will remain in the Press-Telegram news room. DiPaolo has been told that two more reporters will be hired as well as two new editors with different titles than the ones being laid off.

Newspapers struggling

“The newspapers are taking another round of cost reductions and tightening their belts more and crossing their fingers that business gets less worse,” said Edward Atorino, a media analyst with New York-based Benchmark Co. “The bigger thing that is going on here is really the issue that newspaper advertising has simply not recovered for five years now. Newspapers on average across the country have continued to lose money.”

The LANG website states that the Press-Telegram has a paid circulation of 78,057 weekdays and 80,093 on Sundays. When it was bought by MediaNews 14 years ago, daily circulation was at 104,078 and 120,223 for Sundays at, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulations. It was also a far heftier publication – especially on Sundays.

“Certainly I’ve noticed the paper has gotten considerably thinner,” said Jerry Westlund, who has been buying advertising in the sports section of the paper for 10 years.

Westlund, owner of a Signal Hill adult club called Fantasy Castle, said the ads help boost his business and he is concerned about any further reduction in coverage – especially in sports.

“The reason I’m in the sports section is because there is a local spin to it,” he said. “I’m hoping that will continue.”

The paper devotes considerable coverage to the local university’s sports programs as well as high school prep sports.

Shaun Lumachi, publisher of the Long Beach Post, a daily online news site and monthly print publication, has found that readers have a tremendous appetite for local sports coverage.

“Sports is massive,” Lumachi said. “It’s a huge priority for us and very important to Long Beach. An opportunity for us exists if the Press-Telegram reduces their coverage. But from what I know, they have maintained the commitment to covering Long Beach regardless of where their writers are housed.”

Geneva Overholser, director of USC’s journalism school, said sports coverage can still be effective even if reporters are based in a news room 15 miles away since they have to travel to sporting events anyway.

But photographers are another story.

“I can’t imagine my photographers not being right there in my news room,” said Overholser, former editor of the Des Moines Register in Iowa. “It strikes me as problematic and a real loss to the news consumers of Long Beach. News photographers tend to be the only people in the news room to get to a breaking news story these days – a major car accident or a fire. If they are several towns away, that’s just not going to happen. ”

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