In Oakland, a newspaper fights for its life

In the ``other'' city on the bay, as Oakland is sometimes called in deference to its glamorous neighbor, San Francisco, the first black owner of a major metropolitan daily newspaper in the United States is trying very hard not to become the first black ex-owner of such a publication. Robert Maynard recently marked the third anniversary of his purchase from the Gannett chain of the venerable Oakland Tribune. The paper was in trouble when he bought it, and Mr. Maynard has a way to go to restore it to its former prosperity.

The Tribune, which for most of its 112-year history was the Oakland Tribune, serves a much more extensive and populous area than the newpaper did when it was owned (1915-77) by the Knowland family. The last Knowland to run the publication was the late William F. Knowland, who was a Republican US senator from California from 1945 to 1959.

When publisher Bob Maynard became majority owner in 1983, the Tribune's circulation had dipped far below the 200,000 it once boasted and advertising was also slumping. At the same time, the paper was bucking the inroads of the San Francisco Chronicle and Examiner across the bay as well as aggressive competition from the Contra Costa Times in nearby Walnut Creek, and the San Jose Mercury News to the south.

The Tribune's daily circulation now is some 151,000, short of the goal of 170,000 by 1986 that Maynard set for his paper.

Oakland's population is 46.9 percent black, and it has a black mayor. In a 1983 report on US cities it was dubbed ``the most integrated city in America.'' But Maynard isn't concerned about his unique situation. He says The Tribune is neither a racial nor a racist newspaper. ``The only thing that matters at this newspaper is the quality of its content, not the color of its owner,'' he declares.

Behind his deep voice and optimistic words, Maynard sees himself as more than a man seeking to revitalize a newspaper.

He sees himself as part of a new Oakland, a business and family man who can be not only a role model for other blacks, but a good citizen of a multiracial city.

His professional aim is to make The Tribune the ``voice of East Bay,'' the term used to describe the sprawling metropolitan area which fronts on the eastern shore of San Francisco and San Pablo bays.

The entire area, including Oakland, is only 15 percent black, and much of it is comprised of affluent, white suburbs.

Maynard expresses complete confidence in Oakland. ``We have a sprinkling of eyesore communities,'' he said. ``But this is a gorgeous city. Oakland is coming back. Downtown is rising. Our opportunity is right here!''

The Tribune is regaining public confidence, Maynard says. ``Our advertising is up by 43 percent since I took over,'' he said. ``Our cash flow has increased. Our home delivery cirulation is up by 26 percent.''

He has transformed the staid afternoon Oakland Tribune into a brash morning paper, The Tribune (deleting Oakland from the title), including sparkling new sections such as Business Monday and Weekend, and national and international reports from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times wires. In early August he won a lawsuit that brought new comics and syndicated features to The Tribune.

Maynard's ties with the paper began Aug. 30, 1977 when the Gannett Company, the nation's largest newspaper chain, hired him as editor. Two years later he was promoted to publisher.

He modernized the paper. This was not enough. The Tribune lost $3 million in 1982. Then Gannett bought a San Francisco television station and, prohibited by law from having two major media outlets in the same market, put the newspaper on the market.

``I wanted to own the newspaper,'' says Maynard, but ``I didn't have the kind of money to buy a daily.''

Gannett agreed not only to sell the Tribune to him, but to ``leverage'' the purchase to the tune of $22 million -- providing $17 million with the paper's assets as colateral. The other $5 million was obtained from a local bank.

Maynard owns 79 percent of the paper and Paul R. Greenberg, the negotiating lawyer, owns the other 21 percent.

That was a great day for him, says Maynard, whose self-reliance was instilled in him by his immigrant parents, Samuel and Robertine Maynard of Barbados.

Brought up in the rough-and-tumble Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, Maynard ``dropped out of high school against the wishes of my parents because I wanted to write a novel.''

This eventually led to a newpaper career that took him to a Neiman fellowship at Harvard University, the Washington Post, Columbia University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the Oakland Tribune as editor, then publisher, and finally owner.

Relaxing at his desk in the somewhat antiquated office and plant of The Tribune, Maynard tugs at his gold polka dot tie, exposing bright yellow suspenders. He tells why he is devoted to excellence, committed to achievement, and prepared to work hard.

``Blame my mommy and my daddy for what I am,'' he says, pointing to a photograph of his parents. ``They required each of us [six children] to do our best at all times. They taught us kids that our future success depends on how much we do for others. My dad enforced a daily dinner table regimen. Each of us had to report what we learned that day that we didn't know that morning. I began to write my statement because being the youngest, I was always last. I didn't want to forget what I had to say.''

Maynard maintains close ties with his own household, although he is often on the road on business and making speeches. He frolics with his two sons, 15 and 6 years old, at home. He keeps close touch with daughter, Dori, 27, a journalist with an Eastern newspaper.

His wife, Nancy Hicks, quit her job as a New York Times correspondent in Washington when he moved west in 1977 with an idea -- the Institute for Journalism, a short college course to train blacks to work for the daily press, at UC-Berkeley.

Maynard is founder and president of the Institute, credited with being the catalyst for the increase in the number of minorities in the newsrooms of the nation's dailies from almost none to nearly 6 percent.

He left the Institute to edit The Tribune.

The public sees The Tribune in a new way through a series of ``Meet the Editors'' conferences in various sections of the market and through an advisory board that includes such people as author Alex Haley and former child star Shirley Temple Black.

The Tribune will face its day of reckoning in 1988 when it negotiates with nine unions that conceded any pay raises, vacation extras, and other benefits in order to help the paper survive. The paper also will have to modernize the newsroom.

Maynard says The Tribune has become the top selling paper in the East Bay. It has established two full service offices in suburbia. Editors meet with various community advisory committees, he says.

Black people are both Maynard's severest critics and most ardent supporters.

They are 37.5 percent of the paper's subscribers, but provide little of the advertising. Yet they question whether the paper truly covers black issues.

The Tribune hires more minority editors and reporters than its competitors, Maynard says. The Trib's Brenda Payton is the only staff black columnist on an East Bay daily, he notes.

``Through The Tribune a black publisher can be a vital influence in the mainstream rather than a voice among blacks only,'' Maynard asserts.

For himself, Maynard lists one regret, ``I quit school to become a writer. Yet I haven't written one book.''

He does pen a sydicated column that appears in more than 90 newspapers.

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