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Hearst to Light: Drop Dead BY JAMES CULLEN AFTER REACHING AN AGREEMENT TO BUY the rival Express-News from Rupert Murdoch for $185 million, Hearst Corp. repaid the loyalty of its employees at the San Antonio Light with the Oct. 6 announcement of plans to close the 111-year-old newspaper, with the loss of approximately 620 jobs. The Light is the only newspaper in Texas with a union-represented newsroom and some Light employees felt that played a role in the decision to mark the paper for execution if a buyer is not found within 60 days. Certainly officials at the Newspaper Guild think it played a role, although management at the Light and the Express-News deny that claim. Officials at Hearst, a closely-held, familyowned corporation, claimed the Light had lost $60 million over the past five years. The purchase of the Express-News from Murdoch’s News Corp. is subject to U.S. Justice Department review of Hearst’s claim that the Light is a failing newspaper. Light employees were given a 60-day plant closing notice required by law, meaning they could be on the streets between Dec. 6 and Dec. 22. Hearst, which is based in New York, hired the newspaper broker Dirks, Van Essen & Associates of Birmingham, Mich., to find a buyer. If the Light closes, Hearst will offer severance benefits and job placement services, but that promise was little comfort to employees who engaged in the sensational and sometimes bitter newspaper war. “They really screwed the veterans,” said Ed Sills, the Light’s Austin bureau chief, who noted that only employees of the rival newspaper were guaranteed continued employment. “The people who worked for Hearst all these years are not guaranteed jobs.” He concluded, “Loyalty is no longer a consideration.” Della de la Fuente, a Harlingen native who turned down a job offer from the ExpressNews four months ago when she moved from Cleveland to join the Light, said she recently had concluded that she had made the right choice. “This paper [the Light] seems more attuned to covering Hispanic issues, which is very important to me, and women and children and health care and I really believed I had made the best decision for myself,” she said. Then the deal went down, leaving her with half her boxes still packed and a six-month apartment lease to fulfill. “Old Hearst has sold us clown the river,” said David King, a copy editor with six-and-a-half years at the Light. “When it first happened, people were stunned, but as the day wore on the people got madder and madder after the corporate types made the announcements and then disappeared.” Like many Light employees, King had a fatalistic assessment of his prospects: “It’s an ugly situation but a fact of life in the newspaper business that nobody’s creating any new jobs.” He added, “I’ve been fired from jobs before but this is the first time the whole building’s been fired.” Charles Dale, international president of the Newspaper Guild, based in Maryland, said the union was pursuing a number of avenues “to prevent this outrage.” “This is, as far as I’m concerned, a very sordid chapter not only in San Antonio journalism but in management treatment of people,” Dale said. “The Light employees have gone out of their way to help that newspaper survive and this is a rather despicable reward for it.” William Randolph Hearst bought the Light in 1924 as he expanded his publishing empire from coast to coast. In the years following World War II the Light gained the lead in San Antonio circulation. Murdoch, then an Australian newspaper magnate, bought the morning Express and afernoon News in 1973 as his -entry into the United States; he ignited a fierce circulation war, marked by lottery-style promotions, sensational headlines and addition of a daily tabloid section modeled after supermarket tabloids. The Express and News were merged into an all-day newspaper in 1984 and surpassed the Light in circulation the same year. According to the latest figures, the Light has a circulation of 148,591 daily and 221,186 on Sunday, while the ExpressNews posted 188,797 daily and 284,728 Sunday. Murdoch, who reportedly had pledged to Express-News employees that he would see the Light closed down, said the agreement to keep the 920 Express-News employees was essential to the deal. “They waged a long and victorious contest in the San Antonio marketplace and no agreement would have been possible without a guarantee that they would all be offered continued employment,” he said in a statement. The deal includes $47 million worth of new offset presses the Express-News bought in an expansion of its downtown building. Hearst said it will spend another $20 million to install the presses. Analysts said News Corp., a worldwide media conglomerate based in Sydney, Australia, was seeking to reduce its debt of more than $7 billion, much of which was accumulated during the 1980s as Murdoch moved into broadcast properties with the purchase of 20th Century Fox Film and the Fox Broadcasting Co. For the year ended June 30, News Corp. showed after tax profits of $384 million compared with a $307 million loss the previous year. The Hearst Corp. owns 12 daily newspapers, including six in Texas the Light, the Houston Chronicle, Beaumont Enterprise, Laredo Times, Midland Reporter-Telegram and Plainview Daily Herald and three weekly newspapers. It is the largest publisher of monthly magazines in the United States, has six TV stations, six radio stations and an entertainment and syndication group that includes interests in Arts & Entertainment, ESPN and Lifetime cable channels and the King Features Syndicate. Tom Honeycutt, president of Guild local 25, which represents editorial, clerical, circulation and pressroom maintenance employees at the Light, said it is unlikely Hearst will find a buyer. “Very few people are willing to buy a failing or flailing newspaper and be willing to be the second-tier [newspaper],” he said. Some employees initially talked about the possibility of buying the paper, but that talk has died down, he said. “We’d end up competing with Hearst and its deep pockets,” he said, and Light management is inclined to stay with Hearst rather than try to set up a buyout. Honeycutt questions the claimed $60 million loss. “That’s a lot of money $12 million a year. You’ve got to wonder where the money went. They have a building that was built in the 1920s and they haven’t bought new presses or computer systems.” He said the Guild would seek proof the newspaper was failing. Light Publisher George Irish said the losses were real. “It’s difficult when you find that a third of your advertising revenue is lost during the depression that hit Texas in the mid-80s and, given the nature of the competitive market … I see no way that George Irish could develop a profitable newspaper. Now we’re giving those who feel otherwise an opportunity to bid and to buy the paper and to give it their best effort,” he said. Irish said Hearst had two options: To sell or close the Light or to work out the best arrangement the company could with the competitor. “The only terms under which News America Corp. would sell the newspaper was if the News America employees were retained at the newspaper and, quite frankly, it puts the Hearst in a better position to employ more of the employees of the Light since it now owns or will own the Express-News than it would if Hearst left town,” Irish said. “So it’s a difficult situation, but I think given the options that existed it was the best decision in the interest of the employees that were affected.” He added, “Very few companies would allow losses to accumulate to the point that the Hearst Corp. did. In my view, if the Light is not sold, the Express-News is going to be a larger newspaper requiring more human resources. I can’t even begin to speculate what THE TEXAS OBSERVER 11