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Reflections On The S.F. Chronicle

I started working at the San Francisco Chronicle in 1977, as a temporary, vacation relief general assignment reporter, and left a quarter-century later, after serving five years as the paper's Managing Editor.

For most of my Chronicle career, the paper was owned and operated by the descendants of Charles and Michael de Young, who founded it as the Daily Dramatic Chronicle in 1865. In 2000, the family sold out to the Hearst Corp., which struggled with the paper's finances from the day they bought it; two weeks ago, Hearst executives announced they would shut down The Chronicle unless employee unions made massive concessions, starting with the disappearance of at least 150 jobs.

The financial woes afflicting the Chronicle mirror those of once-flush metro dailies across the country; the rapid economic and cultural changes shaped by the internet shattered their business model of aggregating a general interest, geographically discrete, mass audience to sell to local and national advertisers at premium rates.

For a newspaper junkie who spent more than half my life in daily newsrooms before moving to academia in 2007, the decline of the Chronicle and of the industry is heart-breaking to watch. Here are my own two (three, actually) cents on what's happened and where things may be headed:

1-The future for newspaper journalists lies in fully understanding - and truly accepting, once and for all - that the value of the product is the news, not the paper, then moving full speed ahead on some version of web-to-print publication that merges daily breaking news coverage with a one-to-three day-a-week print product focused on analysis, opinion and explanatory journalism.

2-News organizations, regardless of platform, should concentrate intensely on three fundamental value propositions:

a) Local news, which comprehensively covers, uncovers and demystifies the information that is most directly and immediately relevant to folks in their communities - public safety, schools, government actors and actions, arts and entertainment, for starters - as consumers, taxpayers and citizens (as sites like Noozhawk and independent.com do in Santa Barbara)

b) Collaborative investigative reporting that bulds on and fulfills the traditional watchdog responsibilities of public service journalism, by aligning and strengthening the organization's own reporting resources with the expertise, passion and reporting power of online communities (as the Sun-Sentinel did in its Pulitizer short list investigative series on FEMA mismanagement of hurricane disaster relief).

c) Intelligent aggregation and synthesis that brings clarity to the vast mass of daily information that pounds each of us all day, every day, by discovering and highlighting the most important and revealing online reporting and commentary (with models that RealClearPolitics, Huffpost and Daily Beast, among others, are in the process of developing hourly).

3-The current, webwise conventional wisdom that newspaper executives and editors were stubbornly blind to the huge implications of the digital revolution for their businesses is just wrong. Every news organization and editor I know, going back 10 years and more - does anyone at the Chron remember the 39 Steps of the Change Project? - were working hard to reinvent and reposition their products for an era of radical transformation.

It is true that most of these efforts inadequately foresaw the full scope and speed of the coming change; however, they fell short in larger part because the executives and editors charged with finding and navigating the New Media pathways to change were under simultaneous, unstinting demands to ensure that the Old Media legacy products continued to serve, maintain and expand existing, aging audiences in the fullest possible way.

Under the insistent demand for short-term results and profits, the Production Imperative of putting out the best damn daily paper possible inevitably trumped the Mandate for Change, so that rethinking and reinvention mostly remained timid tweaking around the margins.

However, the problem was less a failure of imagination of what the future would look like, as the lofty thinkers of the web world smugly argue, than a failure to bite the bullet, by cutting loose and redirecting critical mass amounts of resources, in the form of time and labor of substantial numbers of reporters, editors and business side employees.

This both/and proposition meant that the short-term, daily deadline driven Sisyphean slog up the hill always took precedence over the long-range necessity to provide the luxury of time needed to experiment, discover and, yes, even fail, in properly exploring ideas, platforms, operations and organizational structures required to forge the right strategies and goals to adapt Old Media forms to New Media realities.

These four links offer an up-to-date, if disheartening, overview of the rapidly moving transformation of the news media landscape.

The East Bay Express details how Hearst in San Francisco has made a take it or leave it offer to the Newspaper Guild to accept the loss of 150 of 460 jobs at the Chronicle - and fast - or suffer the loss of 225 instead.

In Seattle, Hearst is moving to turn the print editions of its Post-Intelligencer into an online only product,

Over at his newsosaur blog, my old city editor Alan Mutter provides the best, smartest and most fact-based real time coverage of newspapers in transition, including a recent two-parter about paid online content (featuring a discussion of the situation in Santa Barbara).

Finally, the Times today has a takeout on the feasibility of the non-profit model for print products, using Mother Jones magazine as a case study, another financial alternative now being widely discussed.

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