The Future of Bay Area Newspapers in a Digital Age
The Seattle Post-Intellegence is a Web-only newspaper, the Christian Science Monitor is doing the same, the San Francisco Chronicle is cutting staff by as many as 150 and may be looking to its Hearst Corp. breathren in Seattle for guidance in becoming another Web-only paper, and the Rocky Mountain News in Denver has closed completely.
With newspapers closing or going online exclusively, almost weekly lately, we wanted to look into what Bay Area newspapers are plotting in reaction to this news. As they strive to keep their heads above water in a recession, how do they try to rise above the tide and make their presence felt in a worldwhere attention is being drawn in more directions than ever.
With limited budgets and resources, some Bay Area newspapers are improving their Web sites in bits and pieces while keeping them updated with news stories that readers will find in their newspapers the next morning on their doorsteps. None in the Bay are making bold moves like the Las Vegas Sun, which drastically rethought its website and has some of the best video around.
While many newspapers’ Web sites look like they were built in 1967, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, a New York Times Co. paper, is getting more Web traffic by creating a few offshoots of its news site that focus on topics such as American Idol, books and food.
These outside the box blogs or Web sites target niche markets, such as Instant 49ers, with a style that is a drastic depature from traditional print media tone.
Biteclubeats.com looks more like a standalone Web site or blog than something connected to a newspaper. You might not ever know it has any connection to the paper that provides their content. The newspaper’s food section is reverse published, and the site is meant to build conversations around the topic, said Greg Retsinas, the Press-Democrat’s interactive editor. Biteclubeats is updated every few days with staff-written stories and forums keep it updated daily.
The newspaper is working on similar niche sites, Retsinas said. While there are plenty of places to get news online, “Our site is where you go to have the conversation,” he said.
Longtime Bay Area sports columnist Lowell Cohn left the Chronicle after 15 years to join the Press-Democrat 14 years ago, and entered the new world of blogging about a year ago. Cohn said he's definitely seen conversations with readers increase, with e-mails coming to him from around the world.
"It's almost like talking to readers, rather than writing for readers," said Cohn, 63. "Anything goes" in online reader feedback, he said, ranging from serious to the most rude, inoffensive comments.
Writing three to four blog posts a day, along with four print columns a week, requires a different style of writing that is shorter, less serious and less formal than a newspaper column, he said.
"A blog is a first draft. I don't worry about form so much," he said.
The Contra Costa Times, owned by MediaNews, has begun training some of its reporters to be "Mojos," or mobile journalists who can file quick reports online from the field.
Getting news from print is declining, while going online for news is increasing, but that doesn’t mean journalism is going away – only that the process is changing, said Kevin Keane, executive editor of Bay Area News Group – East Bay, a group of 11 dailies and 12 weeklies in the Bay Area, including the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Fremont Argus and West County Times.
“I’m optimistic that journalism is essential and I’m optimistic that people will need the information we provide,” Keane said in an interview in his Walnut Creek office.
[Editors note: see sidebare for more on this interview and disclosures]
So how did newspapers get in the tough spot they're in and how are they looking to change?
The Root of The Problem
Too much of what newspapers are doing is “shovel-ware,” where newspaper content from the next day’s paper is put online with some added video, but there isn’t anything really unique about it, said Alan Mutter, who was once the assistant managing editor at the Chronicle and now blogs about newspapers, among other things. [More from our interview]
“Most newspapers publish yesterday’s news online today,” said Mutter.
From the advent of the Internet, newspapers just didn’t know how to adapt, he said.
“It would be like going to see a shepherd in biblical times and handing him an iPod and he says, ‘What in the hell am I supposed to do with this?’”
There really isn’t a culture of change at newspapers, said Martin Reynolds, editor of the Oakland Tribune and a BANG assistant managing editor, at a Society of Professional Journalists discussion in March on the future of the Chronicle.
“They’re not steeped in the culture of change, and that makes it very difficult,” Reynolds said at the San Francisco panel discussion.
What newspapers need to do is create interactive content and to charge for unique content, said Mutter, who calls giving away content for free the “original sin” of newspapers. Think of industries that give away sample products, such as companies that give away cereal and cigarettes, he said. No one does that anymore. No one gives away content.
But paying for news produced by Media News Group is unlikely since that door is already open, Keane said. “Because everybody assumes information is free, it’s hard to make money on the Web,” he said.
While the industry debates micropayments and charging readers for some content, it’s unlikely according to those I spoke with. “Personally, I can’t imagine people paying for news,” said Ari Soglin, assistant managing editor of online content at the Times.
While so far every Bay Area newspaper is giving away content online, although paid online sections may not be too far away, some are taking at least small steps in trying to be more interactive with readers.
Professional news is one fragment of what a newspaper should have on the Web, Mutter said in a recent interview. The success of Yelp is interactivity, and newspapers could have created Google, Yelp or other interactive sites, he said “They missed every boat,” he said
The BANG papers are looking into adding more maps, databases and other social networking functions because that’s how young people are experiencing the news, Soglin said.
“Its been successful because it’s a great way for people to share news and interact with news or information,” he said of social networking in general.
[More thoughts on interviews with Slogin and Retsinas]
The Contra Costa Times is exploring social networking on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and others, and is having more of its beat reporters blog, although “We’ve just kind of dipped our toes in the water on that one,” Soglin said.
The Times has eliminated its less popular blogs so it can focus on blogs with high traffic, such as ones about the Oakland Raiders and the theater, Soglin said. Some, such as entertainment, were merged with the Times’ sister newspaper, the San Jose Mercury News.
Local bloggers, such as Claycord.com, which covers central Contra Costa County and has been used as an informal tip service at the Times, are part of the mix that the Times needs to aggregate, Soglin said.
But readers should be wary of getting their news from untrained journalists, Keane said. “The immediacy doesn’t necessarily mean reliable.”
The Rock and Hard Place
With a significantly smaller staff the past 18 months or so, and with advertising down, the Times doesn’t have the resources it would like to do all that it wants online, said Keane and Soglin. Getting resources in a big organization can be difficult, said Soglin, who admits the paper is always behind on its online adaptations.
A lot of people think print first, he said, and with so many print editions, the company can’t provide all of the resources it would like to online. The corporate approach is to wait, and “the bigger problem is resources,” Soglin said. Print isn’t as flexible as the Web, which “slows us down in terms of changing ways we do stories.”
But that’s starting to change, although slowly.
Twenty Times reporters are becoming “Mojos,” or mobile journalists, Soglin said, and will have laptops with Internet connections, and cameras, to report immediately from the field and get news online fast. But getting the equipment and training is going slow, although he expects it to be in place by the end of 2008. For now, reporters are slowly getting trained.
Soglin has seen his own department shrink with the economy. There are six people, including himself, and online video producers were recently moved to the Photo Department. Photographers regularly take videos and still photos on the same assignment.
MediaNews, the Times’ owner since buying it from Knight Ridder, is dealing with its debt and has cut staff during the past year or more. As Soglin noted above, big companies often don’t move as swiftly as they’d like to, and the business of putting out daily newspapers can get in the way of focusing on the Internet.
If Bay Area newspapers don’t attract more readers online, some online sites are already starting to pick up the slack. Eve Batey started SF Appeal on March 6th after leaving the Chronicle as an editor in November 2008. The site targets a San Francisco audience with original reporting on news, entertainment, business and technology. She has 14 staff members and doesn’t consider her site as competing with newspapers.
SF Appeal doesn’t try to dazzle with add-ons such as podcasting (which Batey says has been dead since 2003) or video, which she says “is not a terribly easy accessible form of content.”
“We’re sticking with words and pictures,” she said.
One problem she sees newspapers not solving yet is that while they get a lot of online traffic, they’re not doing a good enough job of selling their advertising. Newspapers need national campaigns online, much like they already have in print, Batey said.
Other sites, such as the Public Press are nonprofits, supported through donations, similar to public television. Its ultimate goal is to turn the online site into a daily newspaper paid for through donations and focusing on Bay Area news.
As the Chronicle moves forward with at least 150 fewer journalists, the question is how it will adapt to the online world and how it will it will try to recapture readers. After numerous attempts, Chronicle editors couldn’t be reached for comment on this story.
For MediaNews’ Keane said his newspapers plan to focus on what he says they do best – deliver local news -- and hope that attracts readers. “Local will continue to be our savior,” he said. “Because local content is our bread and butter.”
As newspapers try to adapt to an online news cycle, and as a recession and the Internet send advertisers away from newspapers, the future of newspapers looks bleak. But as they try to weather the poor economy and stop losing money, newspapers in the San Francisco Bay Area are fighting to either stay alive or at least improve what they offer online in an effort to bring readers back.
The Breaking News
"Hearst seeks changes at Chronicle"
"The Hearst Corp. announced an effort to reverse the deepening operating losses of its San Francisco Chronicle."
The official Hearst memo:
The background: SF Chron loss closer to $70M per year and must cut 47% of staff. The plan was rumored: "Higher subscription prices for the print product, pay-per-view sections on the website, scores of job cuts and sweeping union givebacks."
Death of a Chronicle Foretold
"It's a perfectly adequate newspaper Web site–and that's the problem. Newspapers have been fumbling their Web sites for years..."
Setbacks in Bay Area Add to Pain for The Chronicle: Blame went to "The Examiner, whose effects are still felt years after it was dissolved." Editor-at-large of the Chronicle Phil Bronstein said tongue-and-cheek" It's all my fault."
"Saving" SF Chronicle--Zombie Paper Angling for Monopoly Cure
"I'd heard Publisher Frank Vega was trying to save money by shaving off circulation in outlying areas where it is too costly to deliver. But I live 15 minutes north of the Golden Gate Bridge in a zip code with some of the most appealing advertising metrics in the country. What gives?"
Oh my, the SF Chronicle may fold
The opinion and view of a regular Chronicle reader.
Chron Writer Takes Out Ad in Examiner
"Chron staff writer Delfin Vigil took out an ad criticizing Hearst in its threat to close down the SF Chronicle." From the advert:
Discussions Around the Town
Two event/dicussions drew attention here in the Bay Area recently.
- First - a talk at U.C. Berkeley attended and reported on by Dave Winer and Scott Rosenberg.
If you don't like the news... - Dave Winer
"Not enough reporters covering the courtroom? The judge will report, as will the jurors, the attorneys, the plaintiff, the defendent. It will be messier...but more truth will come out."
The horse-and-buggy set’s lament The panelists seemed to understand intellectually that newspaper publishing is a sunset industry, but they hadn’t yet accepted this fact emotionally. They eagerly talked about schemes for placing some sort of a “news tax” on electronic devices, or government subsidies and antitrust-law exemptions, or taxing Google.
The gentleman from Ideo makes the best case for innovation in newspapers and journalism.
The aftermath of this second event the publisher of the Guardian felt compelled to write the following: Save the Chronicle!
"Hearst should not be allowed to turn San Francisco into the first major American city with no major daily newspaper." An interesting view from the SF Bay Guardian - usually the Chronicle's biggest critic.
The Big Fear
To keep San Francisco Chronicle publishing, should it team up with Mercury News' owner?
In the wake of massive cutbacks at the San Francisco Chronicle, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current and former newspaper executives are discussing a possibility that once seemed unthinkable: consolidation of the Bay Area's daily newspapers.
A Tale of Two Papers
"The starkly different ways in which two Hearst properties—the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and the San Francisco Chronicle—have been informing readers of their financial woes tells a behind-the-scenes story of the Hearst family’s differing financial interests. "
The Chronicle’s financial fiasco begs the question: If Dean Singleton makes money on his Bay Area papers, why is the Hearst Chronicle chalking up obscene losses?
Made-to-order magazine lets readers choose
"This summer, MediaNews Group, publisher of The Denver Post, the San Jose (Calif.) Mercury News and other newspapers, plans to experiment with its own reader-created publication, likely at its Daily News in Los Angeles." "Individuated" news tested." Could customized papers bring readers back? In Los Angeles they are trying just that.
Helium and Hearst team up.
The user-generated content site Helium and Hearst are sharing content. Rumor among Chronicle editors is that the aren't tearing down the walls to use the content.
Will San Francisco Chronicle go nonprofit?
The proposal would be for a nonprofit corporation “to take over the Chronicle,” with Hearst Corp. continuing to provide some philanthropic support, Coblentz said. Details remain sketchy. It’s unclear if the proposal is being seriously considered. More from the WSJ (subscription required)
In the Ether
The Future of Journalism in San Francisco
A look at SF Appeal.
The San Francisco Post-Chronicle
"The Post-Chronicle is a wiki that's building a model for the daily news organization of the future. Includes distribution, coverage and business plans all laid out!
Another Rough Month for The Mainstream Media
The Media Workers Guild also announced March 24 that it had agreed to drop plans for a merger of the union’s East Bay chapter with the San Jose unit, a move which would have given the union greater bargaining power and restored a separation the chain had won after it bought the Mercury News and Contra Costa Times and unseated the union’s East Bay membership.
The Berkeley Daily Planet takes donations
Publishers Note: Lessons Learned On Types and Forms of Journalism for Spot.Us
Tags: Bay Area , Newspapers , Digital
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