OAKLAND — The ailing Oakland Tribune was saved from extinction less than an hour before sunrise Wednesday when the nonprofit Freedom Forum came to the rescue with a pledge to pump at least $5 million into the debt-ridden newspaper.
Employees who just one day earlier had carried in cardboard boxes, expecting to pack up their belongings when the paper folded, were jubilant. They hugged one another, cried, sprayed one another with mineral water and danced in the newsroom after Publisher Robert C. Maynard announced that "the Oakland Tribune is here to stay."
Saving Oakland's only daily newspaper--and the only major black-owned paper in the nation--was made possible by the willingness of Gannett Co. Inc., which once owned the Tribune, to forgive most of a $31.5-million debt.
"We have seen an incredible thing happen," said business writer Rebecca Smith, who went to the office from maternity leave to hear Maynard's announcement. "It's really miraculous."
The joy was not confined to the staff.
Oakland Mayor Elihu Harris, once a Tribune paperboy, hailed the agreement to save the paper as another piece of the brick and mortar that maintains the distinct identity of this city of 377,000 in the crowded San Francisco Bay Area. Even the newspaper's distinctive stone clock tower has been a fixture on the Oakland skyline, telling time for decades of commuters. "We love our Tribune," said the mayor, who stood alongside Maynard in the newsroom. "The Tribune is an essential part of why we are a community."
In an era when newspapers in other cities have folded one after another, the Oakland community had within the last week rallied behind the Tribune to save it. With the city already struggling economically and often overshadowed by the more upscale San Francisco across the bay, city leaders said Oakland could ill-afford to lose the 117-year-old newspaper. Hundreds of residents wrote letters of support to the paper and to Gannett. Children sent in their allowances. Oakland churches formed a prayer chain. Business leaders and public officials, from a hospital to a laundry products manufacturer, urged Gannett, the giant media company, to step in and save the paper. And after years of sagging circulation from a 1960s peak of 200,000, the paper received a boost when 1,000 new subscribers signed up in the last week, bringing it to more than 121,000.
"This is a day of signal joy in the Tribune Tower and in the Maynard family," Maynard said, standing under an Oakland Tribune banner in the newsroom, which was crowded with dozens of reporters covering the story and with Tribune staff members. "The voice of the people was heard; the prayers have been answered.
"The Tribune is and will remain Oakland's hometown paper," Maynard said. "Now we can return to the business we are about: covering the news instead of making it."
Oakland has been in sore need of an economic boost in recent months. It came very close to losing its military hospital and naval supply center in Pentagon cutbacks, and on Wednesday, in what many feared would be the Tribune's last issue, the paper ran a story announcing that RJR Nabisco was closing its Triscuit cracker and shredded wheat plant in Oakland, which means an end to 109 jobs.
Other Bay Area papers had geared up to step into the void that the Tribune's demise would leave, planning to expand their circulation there. Nevertheless, one of those papers, the San Francisco Examiner, stretched the news of the Tribune's rescue across a five-column front page headline Wednesday afternoon: "Oakland Tribune Bailed Out."
Maynard said the final agreement was reached at 5:20 a.m. Wednesday after a long night of negotiations.
In a move that had intensified the pressure on Gannett, Maynard had originally announced that the paper would halt publishing on Wednesday, but later extended the deadline by 24 hours.
Under the final agreement, Gannett will accept $2.5 million in cash and $5.5 million in preferred stock as the total payoff of a debt of $31.5 million incurred when Maynard and his wife, Nancy, bought the paper in 1983.
The Freedom Forum, until recently the largest stockholder in Gannett, has agreed to guarantee the $2.5-million payment to Gannett as part of its pledge to invest $5 million in the paper.
The forum, formerly called the Gannett Foundation, has assets of $670 million. The Virgnia-based foundation is dedicated to "free press, free speech and free spirit" around the world, officials of the organization said.
A key participant in the negotiations to save the Tribune was Allen H. Neuharth, former chairman of Gannett, who now heads the Freedom Forum.
Joining in the newsroom press conference, Neuharth said: "We believe in the Maynards. We believe in the staff of the Oakland Tribune. We believe in Oakland."