I heard it again and again Thursday evening: “I’m glad to see the Tribune back in downtown Oakland.”
Yes, the Tribune is back. I went out to Oakland for a reception to celebrate the return to downtown and to welcome the people of Oakland to a community newsroom with computers and meeting space for public use.
As companies like Digital First Media seek to develop a business model for the future, the brand names of newspapers are valuable assets to build upon. But the Oakland Tribune stands out for its rich heritage and emotional connection with its community, giving it almost iconic status.
When I worked for the Des Moines Register in the 1970s and ‘80s, it was a similar icon, delivered in every county in Iowa and covering statewide news like no other newspaper in the country. The Register won Pulitzer Prizes for agricultural reporting and gained national prominence for our coverage every four years of the Iowa caucuses that launched presidential campaigns. The Register had a brand identity throughout Iowa that was hard to measure and impossible to match. As a reporter, when I showed up in a small Iowa town, the Register name commanded respect (even from Iowans who considered our editorials too liberal) and persuaded people to talk unlike any other brand I ever worked for.
The Tribune became a similar brand in Oakland under the leadership of Robert Maynard, who became editor in 1979 and bought the paper in 1983, the first management-leveraged buyout of a U.S. newspaper, becoming the first African American owner of a major metropolitan newspaper. Maynard established a heritage of journalism and community connection that is rare in our business. The Tribune won its second Pulitzer Prize under his watch for its photographic coverage of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake.
Maynard’s syndicated column and leadership within the news business propelled him to national prominence. He founded the Institute for Journalism Education, later renamed for him, still based in Oakland and headed by his daughter, Dori Maynard.
He sold the newspaper to MediaNews Group in 1992, shortly before his death. In 2007 the newspaper moved from its longtime downtown home, Tribune Tower, to an office park near the airport. The Tribune maintained its special place in community life through day-to-day reporting, in big stories such as the Chauncey Bailey Project, continuing the work of a murdered Oakland journalist, and in community-focused projects such as Oakland Voices and the Oakland Effect.
In a reorganization of the Bay Area News Group announced last August, the Oakland Tribune was going to be consolidated into the East Bay Tribune, losing its distinct name along with some other community newspapers. Though I had never visited the Tribune, that news hurt even from a distance. I’m very focused on the future and usually critical of journalists who wallow in nostalgia, but I hated to see journalism lose such a special brand.
Just a couple weeks later, MediaNews became part of Digital First Media. While we picked up 57 daily newspaper brands in that deal, I noted the Oakland Tribune as a special part of that acquisition. The week after that move was announced, I spoke at an Associated Press Media Editors conference in Denver and met Martin Reynolds, editor of the Tribune. We talked about the pending demise of the Tribune brand and he expressed the hope that Digital First Media would save the iconic name.
Dori Maynard has been a friend for more than a decade through many journalism conferences and projects where we have met and worked together. She made a similar pitch by telephone.
I made my own pitch to John Paton, CEO of Digital First, and was pleased to learn that he and the BANG leadership were already reassessing the consolidation. In October BANG President Mac Tully announced the new plan: The Tribune and some other brands would continue and the Tribune would open a Community Media Lab in downtown Oakland.
I was delighted with the news and also delighted to learn that Martin and I would work regularly together in his new role as Western Regional Engagement Editor for DFM (he’s also BANG’s Senior Editor for Engagement).
The Tribune has since added another distinguished chapter to its long history with its coverage of the Occupy Oakland story. Work on the community newsroom was finished in June and the Tribune’s news staff moved back downtown to the corner of 20th and Broadway. It took a while for us to plan the opening reception, but the newsroom has already hosted some classes for the community on blogging and on Twitter for sports fans.
Community engagement is not just about promotion or marketing. It’s about keeping news organizations connected to our communities. The Tribune already has deep connections to the Oakland community. We’re pleased to continue those connections by returning to downtown with a newsroom that’s open to the community.
Here are my comments from Thursday’s reception:
Our company’s name, Digital First Media, reflects our commitment to developing a successful news business for the digital age. But it does not at all mean that we only want to connect with you by your smartphone, tablet or computer. We also could have named the company Community First Media, because community is another key priority for our company. This downtown Oakland newsroom is a reflection of our commitment to the community and to developing and maintaining strong personal, as well as digital, connections to the community.
Our CEO, John Paton, has said many times that our core operations are local content and local sales, both essential community roles. While we are proud of the excellent staff of the Oakland Tribune and our other Bay Area newsrooms, we also know that with digital tools people in the community can and want to tell their own stories. Our Oakland Voices project is an effort to amplify other voices in the community, and this community newsroom is another effort to help people in the community tell their stories and to gather in person to share stories.
These computers are for you and your neighbors to use. We want to amplify your voices and highlight the best stories coming from the community. So we hope you will come here to work on blogs (or learn how to blog), to share photos, post videos and to tell the stories of your neighborhoods and community groups and activities.
Digital First Media is committed to helping communities such as Oakland have clear and powerful voices in this exciting digital age.