A letter to SF Weekly on 5/10/05
On "Darth Vega to the Rescue"
Barbara & Bob firstname.lastname@example.org
"I have to love my boy Frankie, because he's my son, but you have to keep
your eye on him. I don't trust him." Nora Vega, mother of Frank Vega
I have read some poor journalism in my time (I live in Detroit), but nothing
that could come close to your piece on Frank Vega. How does it feel to have
that much smoke blown up your ass, I'd really like to know. Reporter Craggs
wrote as if he had a schoolgirl crush on the bad man from Detroit. Embedded
inside the valentine were moments of jaw-dropping stupidity. A little bit
of research, a little less breathlessness on the part of your reporter
would have revealed a few insights.
If you think the San Francisco Chronicle lost money before this year, just
wait. Circulation and ad revenues at the Detroit Newspapers have plunged to
an industry low. Even as overall circulation in the United States has
dropped, we have astonishingly low numbers, and this from a newspaper town.
In 1994, the year before the lockout (more about that later) the papers made
$55 million dollars. They will never see those numbers again. Ad revenues
are flat. Interest is zero. Ask people why they don't buy the Detroit News
and the Detroit Free Press and the answer is usually the same: they
resubscribed when the labor struggle was over, but the newspapers suck.
It's telling that on the week of the Pulitzer announcements, the big story
in Detroit was how the Free Press star writer, Mitch Albom, had lied in a
column he wrote. There will be no more champagne corks popping in Detroit on
Pulitzer day, and this is something that writers at the Chronicle should
The cost cutting measures applied due to the poor fortunes of the paper has
meant no money for investigative reporting. Less money for real reporters
(and not the mooks they brought in to scab). The papers are filled with wire
stories. At the same time, Vega raked in huge bonuses for each year of the
lockout. Despite his relatively poor performance. He was supposed to get the
If you want to know why Frank Vega left Detroit, the answer is simple. They
offered him bags full of money. Everyone from Detroit who left to join his
team spent the last days at the paper bragging about how much money they
were making. If they're making job cuts and benefit cuts, it's going to be
to justify the huge salaries being made by these carpetbaggers.
There is another reason. It was rumored for years that he was supposed to
get the job running the Gannett paper in Hawaii. He didn't get it. Things
just never got back to normal in Detroit. He tried everything, from blatant
lying to the citizens of Detroit about the status of the lockout, to giving
away the paper to entire communities for weeks at a time (then surprising
the innocent people with bills for the month, bills they were not obligated
to, and did not pay). Nobody wants that paper. Except on extraordinary days,
like jet liners crashing into the World Trade Center or hockey teams winning
cups, the returns remain higher than the revenue.
What the writer found as charming, Runyon-esque, his habit of drinking and
driving, also had a great deal to do with his arrival in San Francisco. Vega
is an embarrassing character in corporate Detroit. His last DUI, in Cocoa
Beach Florida, must have been the last straw. Add in all the years of
appearances at the "Paper Clip", the bar across the street from the Sterling
Heights Printing Plant, (where reportedly the waitresses knew to keep away
from his hands), to his behavior at the yearly employee Christmas parties.
During the lockout, when workers would picket his house, he could be counted
on to shake off the pleas of his bodyguards and stagger outside with a glass
of scotch in his hand, trying to charm the workers like he charmed reporter
Craggs. Detroiters were a little smarter and managed to rebuff his drunken
advances. I wonder how amusing and colorful it will be, his first drunk
driving citation in the Bay Area?
In a time when CEO's are facing real time for their dishonest ways with
stock information, Vega's admitted insider trading should be taken much much
Vega's corporate behavior between 1995 and 2001 is well documented and
chronicled in places like court documents, something you might have checked.
You might have looked at the facts of the labor struggle itself. The
"strike" might have ended on Valentine's Day in 1997, but the struggle went
on until 2001 when the Newspaper Guild signed the last contract. When the
offer to return to work was made, the company refused to take their
legitimate workers back, turning the event into a lockout. These are lawyers
words, weasel words, words that Vega used to his advantage and that a good
reporter would have explained to their readers. The only thing that ended in
1997 was the use of the word strike. The struggle continued.
The unions, in court, won decision after decision until the final judgment
by Laurence Silberman and two other judges (Silberman. Reagan appointee.
Iran/Contra apologist. Iraq Intelligence Commission member who found there
was nothing wrong with George Bush's role in the tragedy) overturned the
case. In every decision, the corporate douchebaggery practiced by Detroit
Newspapers was cited.
The writer also ignored (it would hurt a story about a misunderstood good
guy I guess) the incredible physical violence used on the strikers. You can
find plenty of broken windshields and knife attacks on newspapers and
upholstery, but where is the story of Vito Sciuto, beaten so badly in the
head by Vance Security guards in 1995 at the Clayton Street Distribution
Center that medics could see his brains while he lay in the street? Or of
Ben Solomon, who was pepper sprayed in the eyeballs from about three inches
from his face, while Sterling Heights police officers stood on his
shoulders, pinning him to the ground? Or how about the incident at Gate 3 in
Sterling Heights, where a semi truck plowed through a locked gate into a
group of picketers? One person was hurt in that incident, wasn't that
newsworthy enough for Craggs? How about the story of Fran DeChene, co-worker
of Andy LeBeau (btw Andy, succhia minchia) and grandmother who was dragged
on the hood of a Vance Guard-driven Ford Explorer for six blocks and when
she finally fell off, was beaten in the face and chest by the guards. The
people of San Francisco should know that these same guards are either in SF
or on their way - Vega's personal bodyguard in those days has been bragging
all over the Detroit Newspaper building about how he's putting a job
together in "Frisco". It's headed straight for you, citizens of San
Many newspaper workers believe that Vega was taken away from day to day
decisions on the strike very early in, replaced by the bloodless Gannett
Senior Vice President for Labor Relations, John Jaske. Vega was considered
by many to be too drunk, too unstable, too susceptible to women and fun to
be kept in charge. But he made a great lightening rod. Either way. This is
not a nice guy, this is not the savior of the San Francisco Chronicle, this
is no colorful ethnic-type character. This person helped to destroy two
newspapers and more lives than he could ever count. The good news for
Detroit is his departure. The bad news is for San Francisco, a beautiful
city and a strong labor town.
Royal Oak, Michigan
Originally published by SF Weekly May 04, 2005
©2005 New Times, Inc. All rights reserved.
Darth Vega to the Rescue
New Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega has been cast as a villain, but he
may be just what the Hearst empire needs to defeat the dark forces of
the new economy
BY TOMMY CRAGGS
At the Chronicle, the arrival of a new publisher is a near-annual rite.
The party was about to end, but for now everyone was in the foyer,
standing three or four deep, some perched on tiptoes and some hanging
over the staircase banister, all of them watching every grimace, twist,
and torque of the San Francisco Chronicle's new publisher. It was the
first Friday in January, and for the people crammed into the entryway of
columnist Leah Garchik's two-story Victorian in the Haight, tonight
offered a first encounter with Frank Vega, a man who'd been thoroughly
Nexised and Googled throughout the Chronicle's newsroom but perhaps had
not yet been glimpsed. This being his first week on the job, Vega had
not been expected here, at a party for the features department, but well
into the evening he showed up nonetheless, accompanied by Executive
Editor Phil Bronstein.
There was a drink or two, a smoke or two, a long joke told out on the
deck that no one understood but everyone laughed at anyway, and then at
some point a challenge was issued, and a crowd gathered in the foyer.
Here in the middle were two men: one of them, an editor named Oscar
Villalon, standing entirely placid, eyes closed and head turned to the
side; the other, Vega -- flinty new publisher, villain of Detroit's
famously nasty newspaper strike, a man known to his enemies as "Darth
Vega" -- grimacing, twisting, and torquing, his shoulders going like a
Darth Vega, thumb-wrestling.
"And you could tell Frank was dying to thumb-wrestle," says Marianne
Costantinou, a features writer. "He gave it all he had. His entire body
went into it."
In December, Frank Vega, a 56-year-old executive who's never been known
to shrink from a fight -- be it over a labor contract, the design of a
newsrack, or the nimbleness of his thumb -- announced he was leaving his
post as the head of Detroit Newspapers Inc., the agency that oversees
Michigan's two largest papers, and moving to San Francisco to become
president and publisher of the Chronicle. The arrival of a new publisher
has become a near-annual rite at the paper -- Vega is the Chronicle's
third in four years -- but the Hearst Corp.'s latest choice was met with
considerable unease, from the newsroom to the presses to the loading
docks. This was Darth Vega, after all, a man who packed a gun in his
briefcase during the Detroit strike, a man who's still hated there now,
some 10 years after the first workers streamed from the newspapers'
offices. To virtually any Detroiter with a union card, he is -- these
are their words -- "a crook," "a cocksucker," "a hatchet man," "a
motherfucker in his own right," a man "without any conscience" or any
qualms about waging "war against working families." And with the
Chronicle's labor contracts set to expire in July, Vega's hire was seen
in some quarters as a move against the newspaper's unions, a call to the
bullpen to bring in the closer. One posting to a labor message board
screamed the darker implications of his arrival: "SAN FRANCISCO
CHRONICLE TO BUST PRINTERS UNIONS...PUBLISHER IMPORTS EXPERT UNIONBUSTER
FRANK -DARTH- VEGA FROM DETROIT....WHERE HE BROKE THE DETROIT NEWS
STRIKE A FEW YEARS AGO...."
This is nothing new in the story of Frank Vega, who is talked about only
in the most extreme terms by friends and enemies alike. Depending on
your perspective, says one friend of Vega, "He's either the greatest son
of a bitch there is, or he's the worst son of a bitch." But it's a long
way from Detroit to San Francisco, and even longer, if you're measuring
the media's evolution, from 1995 to 2005. Vega wasn't brought in just to
pound a fist on the negotiating table (though he adds that "it would be
less than sincere" to say his history with tricky union negotiations had
nothing to do with the hiring). He has said time and again that the last
thing he wants is another strike, an outcome few regard as likely. His
task is far more complex and daunting. At the Chronicle, which
reportedly lost more than $60 million last year, it's not Vega's past
everyone is worried about; it's the paper's future.
"This is one of, if not the, biggest challenges in the ink-on-dead-tree
business today -- no doubt about it," says Steven Falk, who after less
than two years as president and publisher left the paper "to pursue
other interests," according to a Hearst press release. The subtext is
obvious: that the paper needs a radical change, something bold -- that
it might very well need a conscience-free motherfucker to accomplish the
change. And if it means that, despite all his work to dispel the nastier
notions about his image, Darth Vega has to once again dust off the
helmet, well, Vega's not one to worry too long.
What Vega plans to do has only been hinted at thus far, but a clue to
how he'll do it might have been found back in January, in the middle of
a foyer, where Vega was grimacing, twisting, and torquing, and now being
teased by the Chronicle's features editor, Carolyn White. "Oh, fuck you,
Carolyn," Vega replied -- "A serious but pleasant 'fuck you,'"
Costantinou clarifies -- and then, in a matter of minutes, it was over.
Villalon pinned Vega's thumb, and at that moment the Chronicle employees
in the foyer had as good an introduction as any to their new boss. "You
could tell he was disappointed," Costantinou says. "Most people couldn't
have cared less, but he really wanted to win. ... He really, really
wanted to win."
Given his outsize reputation, he is smaller than you might expect, a
stocky 5-foot-6 or so in his tasseled loafers, which might well be found
on the arm of a nearby chair and in whose expensive leather he tucks the
feet his enemies suspect are cloven. With his tan and his polo shirts,
Vega generally favors the look of a guy who just stepped off the 18th
hole. That's not to say he looks like anyone's idea of a publisher; in
fact, he is quick, even proud, to point out that he most certainly does
not. A few weeks ago, after a doctor's physical, Vega hopped a cab back
to the Chronicle's Mission Street building. "You work there?" the driver
"So whaddya do?" the driver continued.
"I run the place," Vega replied.
"Oh, what're you, an office manager?"
Vega is recounting this story on a recent Tuesday morning in his office
on the third floor of the Chronicle. The room is sunlit and bare, done
up in what we'll call "executive minimalist." There's an ugly statue of
a golfer, a mounted pair of golf clubs, a photo of a waving Arnold
Palmer, a shelf of family portraits, but in all, precious little to
suggest a man of considerable power and controversy, with perhaps two
exceptions: a Darth Vader figurine -- lightsaber aloft, cape aswirl --
next to the conference table; and a model of a helicopter, bearing the
logo of the Gannett media company and a sticker reading "Darth Vega" on
its fin. Both are symbols of his ball-breaker reputation -- a helicopter
provided what many saw as the defining moment of the Detroit strike --
and both look like mere playthings, a complex iconography reduced to
Vega continues: "I said, 'No, I'm the publisher.' And this guy's head
looked like The Exorcist. He spun around, and he looked at me, and I
said, 'Yeah, I know I don't look like a publisher.' I don't have a
pinstripe suit. I don't have a real fancy shirt and tie. I don't look
very distinguished. I'm not 6 1/2 feet tall. I'm not your normal
publisher." (He is often described as "blue collar," which is another
way of saying he looks more like a Teamster than a manager. Of course,
that doesn't mean he's actually anything like a Teamster, as anyone
who's ever seen a publisher's pay stub can testify. Says one former
Detroit News photographer: "He is blue collar -- when he's not wearing
incredibly expensive sweaters.")
The unlikely publisher arrives at a strange moment for the newspaper. In
the past year, the Chronicle has won some of journalism's most
prestigious awards, including a Pulitzer for feature photography; its
coverage of the BALCO case, a George Polk Award winner, has helped
turned steroid use into an issue of national concern. But these are not
carefree days at the paper. The Chronicle finds itself in serious
financial straits, with its circulation spiraling in a market that gets
unfriendlier by the year (in the six-month period ending in March, the
Chronicle's average daily circulation was 468,739, down 6.1 percent from
last year). One recent study found that Craigslist has cost Bay Area
newspapers anywhere from $50 million to $65 million in help-wanted ad
revenue. What's more, the Chronicle's financial situation has pushed its
unions into a defensive bargaining position, given that the paper's
labor contracts are considered among the most worker-friendly in the
Further adding to their concerns, the unions won't be able to draw on
the Teamsters' leverage during their contract negotiations. In 2003,
Teamsters Local 853, which has more than 300 members working at the
Chronicle, ratified a contract supplement guaranteeing the Teamsters'
job security through the end of 2010 and leaving them with little at
stake in the current talks. Considering that the Teamsters historically
have assumed the alpha position in any newspaper labor dispute -- as
they did here in 1994 and in Detroit in 1995 -- their contract
supplement may be the strongest argument against the possibility of a
"Anytime you have a company that's losing money, and the employees know
it," Vega says, "there's always going to be anxiety. Are their jobs
going to be cut? Is their pay going to be cut? Are their benefits going
to be cut? And then on top of that you have contract negotiations this
year, and you have a new boss -- that does create some anxiety."
Naturally, then, the question everyone asks Vega is why he took the job.
"And I tell them, I was in Detroit for 14 years. That was a long time,"
says Vega, who'll soon be moving into a home on California Street with
his wife of 35 years, Linda. (They have four children, ranging in age
from 18 to 33.) "The Detroit market is struggling very badly. A lot of
retailers are going out of business there. The automobile industry is in
turmoil and losing a lot of its market share. And so it became a
maintenance job. It became a job in which there wasn't a lot of
opportunity for new growth.
"And I'm a Florida boy. I got tired of shoveling snow. I did that for 14
years, and then the Hearst company called me and said, 'Hey, we got an
issue. We need to get something fixed.'" Vega points to his windows,
which give on a central view of the city. "This area is growing. They're
building a million-square-foot Bloomingdale's across the street. Across
the street from my office in Detroit was a hotel that was for sale the
whole 14 years I was there -- an abandoned building. Come on, it wasn't
a tough decision."
Since taking over in January, Vega has methodically gone about charming
the better part of a jittery Chronicle. He estimates he has met face to
face with at least 500 employees, mostly in small groups in his
conference room, but also on smoke breaks and walks through the
building. One of his first moves was to throw open the doors inside the
Chronicle, where in the past you'd need a swipe key to get from office
to office. "We're a newspaper," Vega says. "We're supposed to be open to
the public, and we weren't even open to ourselves. I think people
appreciate the fact that there's a little more of an open society here
than there was."
Vega has made an effort to be visible. Several times a day, he takes
what he calls his one- and two-cigarette walks around the building,
circling the Chronicle's property in his choppy stride with a Benson &
Hedges hanging from his mouth and occasionally the paper's CFO scuffling
at his side. Or he'll just smoke on the steps outside the building,
nodding "good morning" to his employees and imploring the ad people to,
please, sell him something today.
The man certainly has presence. Costantinou knew who he was before she
even knew what he looked like. It was the walk. "It's an ethnic walk,"
says Costantinou, who describes herself as "very ethnic." "He walks like
he owns the place. He walks like a much bigger man." One day, she found
herself sharing an elevator with Vega, and she decided to greet him,
though for the life of her she couldn't remember his name.
"Are you the guy?" she said.
"Yeah," he said. "I'm him."
Then she asked about his ethnicity. Sicilian and Cuban, Vega replied.
"Oh, fuok," Costantinou said. "We're in trouble." He laughed.
In January, Vega formally introduced himself to the newsroom in an
impromptu question-and-answer session. He talked about the paper's
finances and dropped the $60 million loss figure; he talked about
Detroit; he talked about the gun in the briefcase, the drunk driving,
the SEC's insider-trading lawsuit against him. "Brusque and direct" is
how Michael Cabanatuan, the Chronicle's transportation writer and local
president of the Media Workers Guild, describes the meeting. Lance
Williams, an investigative reporter, says Vega was "enthusiastic" and
"not very apologetic," "a peppy, tough guy."
I genuinely like him," Costantinou says, sounding more than a little
surprised at herself. "I'll be bummed if he turns out to be a prick.
I'll be personally disillusioned."
Succhia minchia, the man would yell every morning as the white SUV
wheeled into the parking garage, always just a few minutes before 9.
Succhia minchia. Italian for "cocksucker." He had learned the phrase
from a few Sicilian friends of his -- perfect, thought Andy LaBeau, a
veteran of the Detroit News composing room, for screaming at his
part-Sicilian boss from the other side of a picket line. Succhia minchia.
This sort of abuse followed Vega everywhere during the strike -- his
home in suburban Grosse Pointe Farms, his kids' school, their soccer
games -- and it has followed him, to a lesser degree, often in the form
of an occasional anonymous letter, since the strike. Today, he is still
cast as the chief heavy of the Detroit affair. "Frank Vega was a
designated hatchet man," says Mike Zielinski, an organizer with the
Teamsters during the strike. "It's a role he performed willingly, and
they picked the right guy for the job."
But it's an odd thing about Vega: For everyone who wants to strangle
him, there's another who wants to salute him. "I know the reputation he
got in Detroit," says Stephen Johnson, who worked under Vega at the
Oakland Tribune and later at USA Today (he's now publisher of the Lima
News in Ohio). "I'll tell you: There may have been some people who were
happy he was leaving, but an awful lot more were crying."
In his phrase, Vega "grew up in newspapers," but it might be just as
accurate to say newspapers grew up a little with Vega. He has figured
prominently, as villain and hero, in two of contemporary journalism's
defining moments -- the strike in Detroit and the creation of USA Today,
both of which shepherded the media into this modern era. That's not an
accident, either: Vega's ascension in the business of newspapers has had
as much to do with the force of his personality as it has with any
quirks of timing.
Vega grew up in Tampa, his mother Sicilian, his father Cuban-Sicilian,
both steelworkers and both union. His parents divorced when he was 8,
leaving Vega, the oldest of four kids, to be raised by his mother. In
his early teens, partly to help out at home, Vega took a paper route --
that incubator of future newspaper executives -- for the Tampa Times. It
should be noted that there are a great many things one who starts so
young can learn about the newspaper business. For one thing, you learn
circulation as it's practiced on the front lines. For another, you learn
that a vandal can disable a newsrack by squirting pancake syrup into the
coin slot. In any case, Vega had found a calling. "I had a knack for
sales and stuff and won a lot of contests," he says. "And I enjoyed it."
After two failed attempts at college, at Florida State and then the
University of South Florida, Vega went into circulation full time.
His rise in the industry was swift -- from a Tampa newspaper route to
USA Today in a little more than 15 years -- and when he arrived at the
Oakland Tribune in 1978, the paper's director of circulation and barely
30 years old, at least one colleague at the paper arched an eyebrow. "I
was really impressed," says Johnson, then a manager in the circulation
department. "I figured he was either a genius or he owned the place." At
the Tribune, which had been purchased by Gannett under President Al
Neuharth, Vega was charged with launching a new morning edition, called
Eastbay Today. Although his stay in Oakland was brief -- only two years
-- it marked a crucial point in his career, in part because he
acquainted himself with ZIP codes he'd need to know intimately three
decades later. But more important, in Eastbay Today Vega created a
prototype for Neuharth's USA Today, which is a little like saying you
did a few rough sketches for Gutenberg.
"What I think was remarkable about it," Johnson says, "was that we were
given 59 days to do this, from the day we got notified to the day the
paper had to go on the street. We were inventing a new product, from the
newsprint to the placement of the coin racks, to the design, the color
-- everything. It was a remarkable project, and very successful." No one
but a handful of people knew that this was a test run for a new national
newspaper; Vega certainly didn't, but he immersed himself in the project
nonetheless, learning every detail of every step of a newspaper's
production and distribution, which is a lengthy and complicated sort of
peristalsis. The planning was "extremely detailed," Johnson says. "How
fast the press runs, how long it takes copies to run through the
production system, to go through the mailroom, to be loaded in the
truck." Vega rode the routes himself with a stopwatch, then drew up
charts that showed each route and drop point and precisely how long a
truck would need to get from point to point. (Eastbay Today folded in
1982 when the Tribune switched to morning publication.)
In a presentation, Vega showed these charts to Neuharth, guaranteeing
that the papers would be delivered on time. Neuharth quickly waved him
off. "That's bullshit, Vega," he said, a moment that's recounted in
Peter Prichard's book The Making of McPaper: The Inside Story of USA
Today. "You circulation guys never deliver what you say you will."
Vega had read all about his boss, how he liked to gamble a bit, and here
the young executive decided to rise to Neuharth's challenge.
"I understand you like to bet with your employees," Vega remembers
saying. "Why don't we make a bet? I'll bet you a month's pay of mine
against a month's pay of yours. I know what you make; I've read the
proxy statements. And you know what I make. If I lose, it's gonna hurt
me more than it's gonna hurt you."
Neuharth's eyes closed to slits, as they tended to at moments of high
irritation. "I don't want all your money," he told Vega, so he bet $5
instead. The night of the launch, in November 1979, Neuharth ducked out
of a party early and took his limo past several drop locations. "The
papers were there exactly when I said they would be," Vega says, still
proud today. Three months after the paper's debut, with Eastbay Today's
circulation cresting, he was asked to join a small, secretive research
team -- "the young geniuses," as Neuharth took to calling its four
members -- that was exploring the idea of a new national newspaper.
Today, Vega keeps a home in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Neuharth is his neighbor.
His youngest son is named Joseph Allen, after Neuharth. "Al gave me the
opportunity to do what I do," Vega says. "He's the guy who said I could
get into general management and become a publisher." Vega's three years
at Neuharth's USA Today were a formative experience. As the young genius
in charge of circulation, Vega faced perhaps the biggest logistical
problem of starting a national newspaper (simultaneously, no less, in
several different markets) -- finding and counting customers who didn't
yet exist for a paper that didn't yet exist and for which no model
really ever existed. The questions piled on top of one another. How do
you distribute a new national paper in established, and often hostile,
markets? What kind of box do you put the newspaper in? Should it be
round and different? Should the coin slot rest on top of the newsrack,
as required by the laws of gravity, or underneath, as demanded by
Neuharth? Should the newsrack be plastic? Should it have a robot voice
that thanks you for buying the paper? "One night I woke up in a cold
sweat," Vega recalls. "I'm 30 years old. How am I gonna start a national
paper? There's no book on how to do this. No one's done it.
"Then I thought about it and said, 'You know, I'm just gonna do Oakland
17 times. I'm just gonna go into a city and have people set up routes,
and we're gonna time them, and we're gonna figure out where we ought to
be. I'm just going to use that model 17 times in 17 cities.' And you
know what? It worked." (According to Johnson, Vega's predictions for how
much each market would sell were "right on the button.")
In McPaper, Prichard describes Vega's circulation crew as "USA Today's
shock troops." In some cases, during the paper's launch, they'd be
bolting down newsracks -- a distinctive blue-and-white box, with a
tilted display window and a coin slot in the middle -- just hours before
delivery. There were problems, of course. In Pittsburgh, vandals were
popping the handles off newsracks; Vega suspected the Pittsburgh
Post-Gazette's union drivers, who were hostile to USA Today's nonunion
operation. He scheduled a meeting with the man in charge of the paper's
circulation. At the time, USA Today had put in an order for some 100,000
newspaper racks, and the country's newsrack manufacturers were
scrambling to fill that request. "There weren't any for anybody else to
buy for two years," he says. He told the circulation guy as much, and
then explained what a squirt of pancake syrup could do to his newsracks.
Once the paper found its feet, Vega was deemed expendable, at least as
far as USA Today was concerned. He was a start-up guy, not a maintenance
guy, something he disputed in only the most colorful language in the
office of his successor. Today, Vega confesses that he's "not a great
maintenance guy." He realized it years later in Detroit. "I got bored in
Detroit," he says. "I was there 14 years, and the place was running
well, as well as can be expected in that market. I think I'm better at
fixing stuff and starting stuff up than I am at running something 10
years into it."
Vega became the company's utility man. From USA Today, he was sent to
New York to save Gannett's floundering Spanish-language daily, El
Diario-La Prensa. ("The problems are usually the same wherever you go,"
he says. "Waste, low productivity, an unmotivated staff, a lack of new
ways to generate revenue and stuff. We got it fixed real fast. ... I got
it profitable in about a year.") In short order, he was named publisher
of Florida Today, the paper that Neuharth started in 1966 and that
provided much of the DNA for USA Today, and then regional president,
overseeing several of the company's papers in the Southeast. By 1990,
Gannett had grown concerned with its recent acquisition in Detroit, the
News, which was limping along despite a joint operating agreement with
the Knight-Ridder-owned Detroit Free Press. Vega again was dispatched,
this time to diagnose the problem. "I did a pretty thorough report,"
Vega says, "and basically recommended a lot of people -- my name was not
on the list. Two months later, they asked me to go in and fix Detroit."
The strike began in July 1995 and ended 583 days later, on Valentine's
Day, as it happens, both companies having lost more than $100 million.
Those facts are clear. Nearly everything else is up for debate: Why,
exactly, 2,500 workers walked out; what management had offered; who
"won" the strike. In 1998, the National Labor Relations Board found that
the Detroit Newspaper Agency (now Detroit Newspapers Inc.) had engaged
in unfair labor practices by adopting a merit-pay system -- the strike's
catalyst, though Vega contends the strike was about union membership and
dues more than anything else. A federal appeals panel later overturned
The question of whether Vega succeeded -- whether he fixed Detroit -- is
still being asked today, and how you answer depends in large part on
which side of a picket line you instinctively sympathize with. It also
depends on how you define "fix," whether it pertains to the numbers in a
shareholder's report or the weight of a newspaper in a reader's hands or
something more difficult to quantify, like a paper's quality and civic
"The JOA achieved overnight in employee reductions what would've taken
10 to 12 years to get through negotiations," says John Morton, a veteran
analyst and president of Morton Research Inc. in Silver Spring, Md. "The
two newspapers suffered some short-term consequences in circulation and
advertising because of the boycott, but after they got that first year
behind them, everything from then on was gravy. The way they handled the
strike was very smart, wherever your sympathies might lie." Analysts put
the newspaper agency's profits in 1999 somewhere between $60 million and
$70 million, climbing above 1994 levels.
On the other hand, Lou Mleczko, president of the Newspaper Guild of
Detroit, says: "By any standard of measure, as CEO of this newspaper
agency, Mr. Vega was a failure. The business atrophied and diminished,
and he had personal problems." Mleczko ticks off a series of numbers:
Prior to the strike, the combined Sunday paper had a paid circulation of
almost 1.2 million; at last count, the paper's Sunday circulation was
about 700,000, the effect of a prolonged union-led boycott in a
union-friendly town. "If Mr. Vega is crowing about how successful he was
in Detroit, that's a strange way to mark success."
The strike unfolded nasty and ugly and pretty much entirely on Vega's
terms. As president and CEO of the Detroit Newspaper Agency, which
oversaw the papers' joint operating agreement, he had prepared the
papers for a violent and expensive situation. There was an actual
manual, a three-ring binder that detailed how every operation of the
paper should proceed in a strike, and by the time workers walked out the
door, local police had long since been alerted, replacements were
waiting in motel rooms, Vance security was on the ground, and the
building was stocked with enough toilet paper to last three months,
according to one account. Some saw this as a sign of bad faith, that
Vega had been itching for a strike.
"A lot was made of the fact that we planned for the strike," says Vega,
who reportedly moved to a windowless office at the onset of the dispute.
"And the analogy I used at the time -- and it's a good analogy because
of what happened last year -- was that if you live in Florida, and a
hurricane's coming, do you just sit there and do nothing? No, you board
up your windows, you go buy water, you get batteries, you get a
generator. If a storm is coming, you get prepared for it. We wanted to
publish a newspaper. We felt we had an obligation to provide news and
information every day to our customers. If we had not published and just
said, 'OK, we're just gonna sit here until the unions decide they wanna
come back to work,' we wouldn't have had a business when it was over."
One replacement worker, who was paid about $1,000 a week, says he went
through four rental cars in 10 days. "The second or third day I was
there, I lost a windshield," says Eric Caron, who worked under Vega in
Florida and helped deliver newspapers in Detroit. "A day or two later I
got myself blocked in on a cul-de-sac and got my front end
baseball-batted. Another time, I had a woman jump into the back seat of
my car after she saw the newspapers and pull out a knife. She was
cutting the interior of the car out, and I was just inches from her and
The violence wasn't restricted to replacement workers, however. Rebecca
Cook, then a photographer for the Detroit News, says the turning point
for many strikers was an incident outside the paper's Sterling Heights
printing plant, what she calls the "most horrific night of the strike."
Until then, there had been a routine at the plant. "It was always
somewhat theatrical," Cook says. "Every time the trucks would come out
with the papers, police in riot gear would walk out into the street, and
the picketers would be pushed back, and trucks would come and go." Late
one night, Cook recalls, the gates opened unexpectedly.
"Everyone turned around, and trucks came barreling out, picking up speed
down the driveway. They never slowed down," she says. "People were
screaming, jumping out of the way, dragging people out of the way.
People were falling down." The trucks rolled into the street and hung a
hard right, according to Cook, and it speaks to either the strikers'
paranoia or management's ruthless bravado that a Teamster, noting how
the trucks shook and bounced, could have sworn they were empty. No one
was hurt, Cook says, but after that "people felt their lives meant
nothing to the newspapers."
The strike's iconic moment, however, was "the helicopter incident," as
it's generally referred to, which Vega explains by saying, simply, "We
brought in helicopters so we could get papers distributed." But it was
more than that -- it was a taunt, a giant middle finger to the unions.
Caron was at the printing plant that night and watched as a pair of
rented Sikorsky helicopters -- "big, military-airlift-type helicopters
... like the kind you see dropping food supplies in Baghdad" --
fluttered to the ground. His first thought: "Holy shit." Says Caron:
"Here was a true symbol of commitment to getting these papers out,
regardless of the cost." (Vega says the stunt cost $40,000 to $50,000,
"not as much as you think.") The copters flew the papers to distribution
facilities, and trucks took them from there. It was an outsize gesture,
so much so that, Caron says with a laugh, "Some of [the strikers]
probably thought they were going to deliver papers door to door by
Vega's hard-line stance couldn't have been a surprise, given Gannett's
historically uneasy relationship with unions. (Of the company's 102
papers, only a handful are unionized.) It was his flourishes, more than
anything, that seemed to set people against him -- the helicopters, the
acid quotes, maybe even the gun in his briefcase (given to him by his
bodyguard "because of the threats to my kids and my wife and stuff").
His every move was read as self-aggrandizement, perhaps to an unfair
degree. When he invited four or five picketers into his house in
exclusive, affluent Grosse Pointe Farms -- where people would stand on
the median and chant, "Your neighbor is a crook" -- for a discussion, it
was seen as yet more swagger from Darth Vega.
"You have to understand," Vega says, "that anytime you make tough
decisions, anytime you make people accountable that have not been
accountable in the past, you're gonna anger some people. The fact that
we -- and I wanna make this real clear: Nobody wins in a strike -- the
fact that we prevailed in the strike, the fact that we got a newspaper
delivered and continued to publish in America's premier union town, that
angers a lot of people. The whole paradigm changed there. Companies
aren't supposed to win a strike in Detroit." He catches himself.
"They're not supposed to prevail."
"Why don't we get something straight about dealing with unions," Vega
goes on. "I don't have a problem with unions. This thing about me and
unions -- I come from a union family. I appreciate my mom and dad, how
they worked, and what working people do. I myself was a steelworker for
a summer -- I actually had a steelworker's card my summer after high
school. I worked in a steel mill. So it's unfortunate that one
situation, which was obviously a major situation, kind of brands me
More than just anti-union, though, he was, to the strikers, an asshole,
a cocksucker. Succhia minchia. It was Vega, his personality, that
offended them, not just his business philosophy. Everything he did,
personal and professional, was fodder for a slogan or a sign. And there
was plenty of fodder.
In 1992, Vega pleaded guilty in Michigan to operating a motor vehicle
while under the influence of liquor and was slapped with a fine and a
year of probation; the conviction apparently was later reduced to
careless or reckless driving. "I was out with a bunch of Teamsters that
night," Vega says. "You take it from there." (In 2003, Cocoa Beach
police stopped Vega early one morning for speeding in a rented Chevrolet
Impala. He was charged with driving under the influence. The case is
And in 1994, just months before the strike, Vega was implicated in an
elaborate insider-trading scheme. In its suit, the SEC alleged that he
and five other men earned more than $400,000 by illegally trading stock
in Rochester Community Savings Bank, where a Gannett executive named
Thomas J. Farrell was on the board of directors. Vega signed a consent
decree, neither admitting nor denying the charges, and agreed to pay
$98,338, constituting his profit and his fine. The details of the case
were perhaps just as damaging to Vega's reputation. According to the
SEC, Farrell passed along the stock tip to Vega while on a weekend golf
trip, which is about as close as you can get to a caricature of
white-collar crime. A story in Crain's Detroit Business ran under the
headline "SEC SCANDAL COULD HAUNT VEGA IN TALKS," and sure enough,
strikers later printed up a "Wanted" poster for "Criminal Frank Vega."
Among his crimes: "Drinking & Driving" and "Insider Trading."
"You have to realize," Vega says, "people lost their jobs in Detroit
during the strike. People lost their families. People got divorced. I
mean, a strike is not good. A lot of bad things happen. Well, those
people have to blame somebody. They can't blame themselves, because they
went on strike. They can't blame the readership, because they believed
in the unions. And so who are they gonna focus on? They focus on the guy
that's the head of the company. Do they hate me personally? Did I step
on somebody's toes or did I personally take somebody's house away? No.
"But they've got to focus that anger at somebody, and they focus it on
me. That comes with the job. ... I'm kind of a lightning rod, one way or
Or maybe the animosity's not so simple. Take Andy LaBeau -- "Andy from
composing," the guy screaming a nasty bit of Italian at the windows of
Vega's hulking SUV. One day, Vega arrived late, and the picketers had
begun to disperse. Trailing a few strikers with their picket signs,
LaBeau spotted Vega's car at an intersection, and for some reason -- he
still doesn't know why -- he made eye contact with Vega, Darth Vega,
head succhia minchia, and nodded. Vega nodded back. After that, LaBeau
stopped swearing at Vega's SUV, and once in a while he'd nod, just
slightly, so his fellow picketers wouldn't see. "If they did," he says
now, "I'd have been on my ass." He eventually moved to another part of
the building to yell at the scabs.
The strike ended, and LaBeau got his job back, but "shit-disturber that
I was," he called Vega's office and asked for a meeting. It was granted,
and when they met, LaBeau recalls, it wasn't 10 minutes before they
started yelling at each other. "Him justifying his position," LaBeau
says, "me trying to justify mine. It got to the point where I said,
'Frank, why don't we just talk about other things.'" And they did: golf,
bowling, that kind of stuff. The meetings turned into a regular thing,
and the animosity turned into a weird sort of friendship.
One year, Vega invited LaBeau and his wife to the corporate New Year's
Eve party. "There's corporate people there -- all the high muck-a-mucks
-- and in walks a striker," LaBeau recalls, laughing. "People were
looking -- 'What the hell is he doing here?'" Vega pulled LaBeau aside
and told him that Tim Kelleher, the papers' vice president for labor
relations, was there. "He says, 'Kelleher doesn't know you're gonna be
here. Hide when we see him. Let's have a ball with him.'" LaBeau hid,
and when Kelleher came by, he materialized and said, "Hey, Tim, glad you
could make it."
LaBeau laughs. "The look on his face was unbelievable. He almost shit
In 1999, Vega was named Gannett's Manager of the Year; he thinks he won
largely on the strength of LaBeau's nomination.
In early April, Vega mailed a letter to the Chronicle staff that offered
his employees a glimpse of the paper's future. "The fact is," he wrote,
"I've not found anything here that can't be fixed. ...
"Internally, we've made decisions in the past that, in hindsight, appear
to have been not in our best long-term interests. We're taking steps to
modify those decisions. At the end of last year, management's ranks were
thinned, and I've trimmed additional positions since my arrival. We've
eliminated low-revenue circulation initiatives. We know readers and
advertisers value our product, and we're working to increase that value
by broadening our reach.
"I've also met with many people throughout the newspaper, and we've made
real progress in removing obstacles and stopping obsolete policies and
practices. And there will be more of that. We're also undertaking two
major research initiatives -- conducting an in-depth readership study,
and a proprietary advertiser market study. ...
"The challenge I accepted when coming to The Chronicle was to help
rebuild this company's financial foundation so that it could invest in
itself. You may have already heard me say, 'You don't want to be working
for a company that isn't making money. It's no fun.' I mean that. A
newspaper that isn't making money can't invest in its people, its
readers, its equipment, and its market."
The language is passive and corporate, but certainly not so opaque that
one can't see his point: Something has to change.
In an interview, Vega throws out a number of ideas, many of which center
on efficiency, on "getting a little leaner and meaner." The "low-revenue
circulation initiatives" he writes of refer to things like "sponsored
copies" and "bonus days" and other various circulation-inflating fudges
that are allowed by the Audit Bureau of Circulations, the industry
watchdog over newspaper circulation, but are ultimately a drain on a
paper's wallet. Another cost-cutting idea under consideration would be
to combine the weekly TV guide -- "All it is is grids," says Vega --
with Sunday's pink Datebook section, thus saving the cost of printing a
stand-alone TV section. Perhaps more dramatically, Vega has talked about
scaling back the Chronicle's push into the suburbs, especially Contra
Costa County, where some think the window shut on the Chronicle while
the paper was still hamstrung by its JOA.
But what these ideas sidestep, and what his letter only hints at, is the
staff itself, an issue ever since the sale of the Chronicle and what was
essentially the merging of two whole newspapers and their employees.
"That was a bad precedent," Vega says. "I wasn't here, so I don't know
what, politically, motivated that, or what the reasons were. But when
the JOA went into effect in Detroit, they had buyouts, and they
eliminated jobs -- they didn't get it totally right, but they at least
moved in the right direction. Here, when you leave everybody working,
and you keep the staff of two papers in one -- what are you saying about
work ethic? Nobody really had a full-time job, because there were so
many people. People did parts of jobs, then over time, people get used
to that, and it's not productive. So then, when you say, 'OK, we've
gotta run this like a real newspaper, and we have to staff it properly,'
people say, 'You mean I gotta do more work?' Well, yeah. You had the
luxury of being overstaffed for the last four years, and the contracts
are coming up, and we're obviously negotiating to get the staffing in
line with other newspapers across the country."
In the newsroom, for instance, staffing "is still not at the level we
think it can run at," Vega says. "I don't have a number -- do we need 30
fewer people or 40 fewer people? -- but we have more people in the
newsroom than we need right now." Asked about the unwieldy aspect of the
newsroom, Executive Editor Phil Bronstein points to the Chronicle's busy
year on the award dais: "Yes, there are still many things we need to do
in the newsroom. We're still far from our goal of being a truly great
newspaper on a day-to-day basis. But if [the newsroom] were really
unwieldy and really still suffering from the effects of something that
happened five years ago, you wouldn't see the kind of quality you saw
It's a boast, but it happened to sound more like a plea.
The letter arrived not long ago in a pink envelope, with a stamp for
Maxine's Massage Parlour in Royal Oak, Mich. Vega unfolds the letter,
handwritten on blue paper in a big, agitated scrawl, and reads aloud:
"'Frank, All the best in the new position. Eat shit and die, asshole.
Your pals ... in Detroit.'" Vega is standing over a shelf against the
near wall of his office, where he keeps assorted Detroit-related
mementos and correspondence: a postcard depicting an enormous woman in a
bathing suit; a framed photo of picketers; a note from an old friend in
Florida signed "The Miami Strike Force." There are others, too, and
glancing around the shelf, it's tough to tell which ones were intended
as a joke between pals, and which ones were sent as taunts.
"Now why do people still do this?" Vega asks innocently, and then he
answers his own question: "I guess I made people real happy or real mad
That would make a fine epitaph, and it's a measure of Vega's business
sense that he knew precisely which people to make happy and which to
make mad. In Detroit, he behaved no worse than would any other
businessman worth his wingtips. That doesn't mean he behaved well; it
means he acted within the wide, and ever-widening, boundaries of
American commerce, wherein a company under strike is free to spend a ton
of money just to say, "Fuck you." (His handling of the strike is fondly
presented as a case study in the crisis-management book Dealers,
Healers, Brutes & Saviors: Eight Winning Styles for Solving Giant
Business Crises, from which we also learn Vega is an eight handicap who
one year spent 100 days on the golf course.)
What this augurs here is another matter, and it would be much too simple
to merely project Detroit's past on San Francisco's future. At the
Chronicle, there is at least an acknowledgment that the paper is sick
and in need of some remedy, which no one doubts will be drastic, but
which few people -- Vega among them -- think will require the systematic
neutering of the paper's unions. His goal is not to shove the unions
back into the dark ages of labor, pace just about any Detroiter paying
union dues; his goal is to drag a newspaper with a number of
anachronisms into the 21st century. "If there are 1,700 newspapers in
the country," Vega says, "I guarantee you that probably 1,695 are
profitable. Newspapers are profitable entities. ... We should be able to
make a profit here, with this newspaper." That's not a simple
proposition -- not today, not in this market, not in this economy; it's
only natural, then, that the Chronicle turn to a guy like Vega, the kind
of meticulous ball-breaker who'd bet a month's pay on his circulation
routes, for help.
And so, enter Darth Vega, lightsaber aloft, cape aswirl.
"I had these shirts made up," he says, now holding a pair of
postcard-size prints, both of which reference Star Wars. One reads,
"Darth Vega, may the DNA" -- the Detroit Newspaper Agency -- "be with
you." Another ensures that "good will prevail." The t-shirts were given
to replacement workers during the strike. "We went through 2,000 shirts
in, like, an hour -- people were grabbing them," Vega says. Earlier, he
insisted he wasn't proud to be known as Darth Vega, but at the moment he
certainly seems to relish the identity, with all that it implies. And
why wouldn't he? Vega smiles. His eyes brighten, and he looks like a guy
who just made birdie on 18. In the end, he points out with something
close to glee, it was Darth Vader who saved the galaxy.
Why it's unlikely there'll be a strike at the Chronicle this summer
BY TOMMY CRAGGS
Michael Cabanatuan is the Chronicle's transportation writer and local
president of the Media Workers Guild, and today, a bright day in
February, in a cafe just down the street from the paper, he is also more
than a little nervous. "Mind if I sit there?" he asks me. He nods to my
seat, which is facing the front door. "So I can see who comes in," he
These are indeed edgy days for the Chronicle's unions. With the paper's
labor contracts up in July, they now face a near-impossible task:
maintaining what they describe as some of the best contracts in the
industry in the teeth of what they acknowledge to be one of the worst
newspaper slumps anywhere. The Chronicle reportedly lost more than $60
million last year, a figure that the guild's financial examiner more or
less confirmed. To add to the unions' problems, the paper's drivers
sewed up a contract supplement two years ago, leaving the Teamsters --
and their leverage -- on the sidelines during these labor talks and all
but declawing any threat of a strike.
And at the other end of the bargaining table, at least in spirit, is a
publisher who's famous for his hard lines. "Definitely ... I am
nervous," says Cabanatuan, whose guild is the paper's largest,
representing nearly 1,000 employees in editorial, advertising,
marketing, circulation, and customer service. "But I guess the easiest
way to say it is, I was nervous before. My guess is that their strategy
isn't going to be a whole lot different under [Frank] Vega. The
picture's the same. And that's really what's driving this."
In March, the Chronicle outlined its demands to the guild, which noted
in an online bulletin that "the company's proposal touches almost every
section of the contract, and would affect every Guild-represented
employee." Among the paper's demands: reduced vacation (considered one
of the best aspects of the current contract, from a worker perspective,
with employees of five years or more getting 25 days of vacation); no
anniversary and birthday holidays; new provisions that would allow drug
testing, competency testing, attendance standards, and use of
performance appraisals for disciplinary purposes; and a no-strike
clause, which would prohibit guild members from striking to support
another Chronicle union. "It is important to remember that this is
merely a proposal," the bulletin noted.
Today, a few months into their contract talks, both sides offer a
picture of contentious, though not yet unpleasant, negotiations. "We're
negotiating in very good faith right now, on both sides," Vega says. "I
feel very optimistic that we will get contracts." Cabanatuan, seeming
slightly more put-upon, describes the talks as a series of ups and
downs. "Sometimes it seems really bad," he says. "Sometimes it seems
like there's hope here. ... I'm still hopeful we can reach some kind of
settlement." He adds in an e-mail: "So far I don't see Vega living down
to his reputation as a ruthless, heartless union-buster. Is the company
taking a hard line? Absolutely. Has it proposed things we don't like?
Definitely. But much of what the company is asking for under Vega is
what the previous publisher also whined about needing."
Still, there's no doubt the unions find themselves in a precarious
bargaining position. Some point to the Teamsters' contract supplement,
which was negotiated individually, and not by the Conference of
Newspaper Unions, a group of seven unions representing Chronicle
employees. George Powell, of the Media Workers Guild, says simply that
the deal "was not done in a normal way." (The mailers union also
negotiated a supplemental agreement.)
In 2003, after the paper announced it hoped to reduce its workforce by
500 employees, the Teamsters at the Chronicle ratified a contract
supplement that guarantees their job security through 2010; the deal
also allows the paper to use independent contractors for distribution
outside San Francisco. "We had something they wanted, and they had
something we wanted," says Rome Aloise, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters
Local 853. "And if somebody tells you, 'OK, I have $55 million to give
you for some of these concessions or to kick your ass with,' it's not
hard for me to make the choice."
Says Steven Falk, the Chronicle's president and publisher at the time
the deal was finalized: "Rome said, 'Steve, I'm not in the business of
running a newspaper. If you say times have changed, and you now need to
do things this way in order to be successful, you're the professional in
that business. I accept that. Now let's get to the table and figure out
how I can protect my members' interests while accomplishing what you
tell me you need to do.'
"That's a different brand of union leadership. That's to be respected."
The deal suggests the labor environment has shifted considerably in the
decade since the 1994 San Francisco newspaper strike, which was settled
after 12 days and which the unions termed "an overwhelming success."
(Unlike today, they presented a common front, negotiating their separate
contracts as a collective.) In 1994, it was Secretary-Treasurer Andy
Cirkelis of the Teamsters who led newspaper employees onto the streets.
Today, the Teamsters' contract supplement means Aloise has no direct
role in current negotiations, though he has offered his help with the
talks and hopes the other unions will follow his lead in dealing with
Chronicle management. As Aloise points out, the Detroit strike
demonstrated that a paper, even with a reduced staff and a protest
outside the door, can continue to publish. A strike is no longer the
trump card it once was, especially not when the Teamsters, the people
who distribute the paper, say they can't guarantee "blind allegiance" to
the other unions -- "thoughtful, investigated, and researched
allegiance," Aloise says, but not blind.
"There is no guarantee [to the Chronicle] that we won't participate and
respect the picket lines," he continues, "but it's at a major cost for
my membership to do that, and ultimately, they'll decide what they're
going to do. But it's going to be after I make the determination that
those people talking about going on strike are doing it reasonably and
logically. ... If we allow one of these small unions to go off
half-cocked, we're our own worst enemies.
"I'm not sure that it's any longer in the members' best interest to be
inflexible. A lot of people wish to characterize protection [for
workers], which equals restriction, as good, and in some cases it is.
But inflexibility in my mind, and in this day and time, is not good."