December 14, 1990
By Yolanda Reynolds
Recently the local daily, the San Jose Mercury News, (MN) has come under increasing scrutiny and criticism as a consequence of the manner in which it covers local news and, perhaps more importantly how it treats its staff.
Members of the Hispanic community have emerged as the most vocal critics of this powerful and/only daily source of printed news in the South Bay.
Causing great dissatisfaction was the MN management’s recent decision to replace the only Hispanic writer in their Features and Entertainment section, Nora Villagran. Villagran is a six year veteran reporter at the Mercury news, she earned her Masters Degree at the University of Oregon with a 4.0 G.P.A. (straight A’s). She also completed a summer internship program for aspiring journalists at the University of California at Berkeley following which time she accepted a job with the MN in San Jose. That was in 1984.
In August of this year. Villagran was informed by Features Editor, Ann Hurst that Villagran would be reassigned and that her duties would no longer involve reporting. Tom Sabulis a reporter with two years-experience was assigned to Villagran’s former position with the paper. Sabulis. submitted his resignation, November 29, from that position at the San Jose Mercury News, to take a position as a Features and Entertainment writer with the Atlantic Constitution in Atlanta, Georgia.
Sabulis, who had only two years experience as a M.N. writer compared to Villagran’s six years upon his reassignment to her former position also received a “merit pay” increase at the discretion of Editor Hurst. This action increased Sabulis’ salary well beyond that of another writer, a ten year veteran in his own department.
Villagran was then reassigned to another position to perform tasks that at times are assigned to a clerk or more often to “cub” reporters at an entry level salary of approximately $400.00 per week. Perhaps fearing the possibility of a grievance action against them, the MN continued to pay Villagran the $801.00 weekly salary that she is entitled to as a journeyman writer. Her reassignment to this entry level job allows for little, if any, creativity and requires that the writer simply type a list of newspaper announcements in the arts and entertainment section.
Numerous meetings and other discussions by Villagran and inﬂuential members of the community have not been successful. A hearing on this matter was held before the Santa Clara County Human Affairs Commission late in October. Also as a consequence of Villagran’s displacement at the MN, several hearings are pending. There will be a Writers Guild hearing on behalf of Villagran’s grievance action. Also scheduled is at hearing by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, (EEOC).
With the resignation of Sabulis, the management at the Mercury News has a window of opportunity to redress this personnel Issue that has caused consternation to many devoted Villagran readers and adds to the deteriorating standing of that local daily in the community. Dr. Anthony Soto. a very highly respected leader in the Hispanic community says of Villagran, “without knowing anything about Villagran other than her writing, I found her to be a very insightful and very analytical writer. I consider her to be among the very best writers at the Mercury News. The fact that Villagran happens to be female and Hispanic adds to her value as a writer to the newspaper and the community.”
Indeed, Villagran’s influence and impact as a role model to youth but, most importantly to Hispanic youth resulted in the most appealing and heartfelt advocacy by many of the Villagran supporters who appeared at the Commission hearings in October.
it is difficult to understand this particular personnel action by a daily which prides itself in operating an efficient and lean newspaper. It has attempted to run such a lean operation that, last month, its entire news staff withheld their by lines and threatened a strike because of stalling salary negotiations. The newspaper claimed financial constraints in rejecting the guild writer’s request for a 5% raise. If such financial straits face that newspaper, it would seem that its management would make personnel decisions reflecting fiscal prudence – by employing an entry level-person at $400 per week to do the work that Villagran is currently assigned to do at $801 per week while permitting her to perform the work for which she is qualified.
When this reporter inquired about Villagran’s future as a features writer, assurances were made that “it was (hoped) that Nora (would) from time to time write feature stories.” To this, critics say, “being told a person is one third writer at a newspaper is not unlike slaves on the plantation who were declared to be 3/5 of a human being.” By denying Villagran the opportunity to pursue the work for which she is trained and has been doing for the last six years is do deny her identity as a journalist.
To many, the Villagran issue is felt to be only the “tip of the iceberg” and one example of a management style that has resulted in a rapid decline in staff morale at that local daily. In the last several weeks four writers tendered their resignation notices. One of those who resigned from the paper was a veteran writer John Epperheimer, who was reassigned to be the Affirmative Action Officer, a personnel job, for the paper. Reportedly the accounting staff is receiving grief counseling because of the suicide of one of their former co-workers. The recent labor negotiations brought to the attention of the community that this daily is one of the most monetarily successful publications of the very large and powerful Knight Ridder organization. In 1988 (the latest figures available), this newspaper netted over $63 million. Early this fall the management at the local daily informed its staff that business cards would not be supplied to the staff due to insufficient funds. Just recently, most of the management staff were provided with $2,000.00 Capitol Club memberships, a very exclusive “power club” located in the Fairmont Hotel in downtown San Jose.
By reassigning Villagran to her previous position the newspaper could save at the very least $500.00 per month – more than enough to purchase calling cards, which even small neighborhood groups find very important in carrying out their business.
Las week Villagran submitted a request to the local dailies management staff requesting that she be reinstated to her previous position where she could again be responsible “for producing cover stories, profiles, advances, columns and entertainment stories of all kinds for Arts and Books, Weekend and the Living section on a full time basis” as well as “review films, performances, comedy and music concerts and other entertainment events as requested.”
Villagran not only has a devoted following in the community, but 44 of her colleagues signed a petition on her behalf protesting the personnel action that so dramatically set back Villagran’s career.
Last Friday the MN hosted a workshop for college minority students interested in careers in journalism. All of the MN minority writers were invited to attend as a demonstration of the MN management’s concern and interest in hiring more people of color. Reports are that the MN has rarely, if ever recruited students as a result of this outreach program. At the MN the percentage of minority staff has remained constant since the early 80’s.
Upon Epperheimer’s departure the Afﬁrmative Action officer position will not be filled, those duties will beaded to the responsibilities of another person.
Persons interested in more information on this matter should call the publisher, Bob Ingle, of the Mercury News, 920-5000 or a group organized on behalf of Villagran, the Concerned Readers Committee, at 270-4376.