OAKLAND, Calif. — The cities and suburbs on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay are home to 2.7 million people, a world-class University of California campus and bedroom communities for Silicon Valley that produce median incomes 50 percent higher than the national average.
What they no longer have is a thriving landscape of local daily newspapers.
Gone is the Oakland Tribune, the Contra Costa Times, The Daily Review of Hayward, The Argus of Fremont and the Tri-Valley Herald, among others.
Ownership changes and consolidations have left the region known as the East Bay with just a single daily. The East Bay Times, based in Walnut Creek, attempts to cover a region nearly the size of Delaware with a fraction of the staff of the former dailies.
The growing number of places across the country with dwindling or no local news options has been associated with mostly rural and lower-income areas, places that have little resilience to counter the trend among readers and advertisers to go online. But the East Bay — among the wealthiest and highest educated regions in the country — shows that no place is immune to the struggles of the traditional news industry.
“It is really shocking that the place with the demographics and the business and the universities and the progressiveness, that this is a news desert …” said U.S. Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, a Democrat who represents a part of the East Bay.
DeSaulnier is so concerned about the state of local news that he has backed legislative action in Congress to support it. One of those bills targets what he and others believe is a main culprit of the industry’s woes — the big tech and social media companies that profit from the content news outlets produce without adequately sharing the profits.
Former journalists, civic leaders and others in the East Bay lament the loss of the community coverage that was once the staple of local dailies.
In Richmond, a working-class city of 110,000 dominated by Chevron and its oil refinery, Mayor Tom Butt recalls a time when two reporters were posted full-time in the press room of City Hall.
Today, coverage of Richmond falls to two online publications. The graduate journalism school at the University of California, Berkeley staffs Richmond Confidential, which goes on hiatus during summer and winter breaks. The city’s largest employer, Chevron Corp., runs the other through a public relations firm.
A few miles down Interstate 80, Martin Reynolds gazes up at the 22-story Tribune Tower that defines the Oakland skyline and was home to the Oakland Tribune for decades before the paper was sold and its headquarters moved.
The 142-year-old Tribune was the first African American-owned major metropolitan daily, and its staff took pride in its deep connection to the racially mixed city of over 400,000.
“We were just out there covering stuff all the time,” Reynolds, 51, said. “We even had a Berkeley bureau.”
But ownership consolidated and newsrooms shrank. The Digital First-owned Bay Area News Group eventually announced it would collapse the East Bay’s daily papers into one.
“There was a time when newspapers were so powerful and so meaningful and so influential to the community,” Reynolds said. “To have lost that is a shame.”
Digital First has a record of consolidating newspapers and trimming staff, but it also has said that its business model keeps local journalism alive.
The company staffs reporters throughout the region and has separate regional sections on the East Bay Times’ website.