Note to Hearst: NY Papers Ready to Pick up Your Bay Area Slack

Having long railed against Bay Area news publishers for essentially ignoring an abundance of important stories and demanding readers in favor of Wine Country ad supplements and lurid screaming headlines, I read with some interest the following item, about the NY Times and Wall Street Journal’s plans for Bay Area editions:

Both The Journal and The Times seem to be betting that the Bay Area is the place to try first. Its biggest newspapers, The San Francisco Chronicle and The San Jose Mercury News, have suffered through some of the sharpest downsizing in the industry, and a very high percentage of the region’s residents moved from elsewhere, which usually means less attachment to the local paper.

I mean, how can a publisher, in a market it essentially owned, let it all slip away?

Maybe by … ignoring the stories that matter, and firing the reporters that do their best work?

The Chronicle fired (er, laid off? bought out?) environment reporter Jane Kay — Jane Kay! — the steroids-in-baseball-busting Lance Williams and superstar foreign correspondent Anna Badkhen

Somehow — how, though, seriously, how? — these five-star newsroom professionals were viewed as liabilities in the Chronicle’s struggle for survival.

And now the news heavyweights are moving in. will do fine as a source for local lifestyle information (movies, restaurants, etc.) plus crime reporting and occasional City Hall columns, but can Hearst compete as a serious local news outlets given the devastation of the SF Chron’s reporting capacity? Let me note the Gate has already begun direct-linking to other outlets’ coverage of important stories they lack the firepower to cover.

And how does the Examiner fit in? Sure, they have a knack for punchy and succinct coverage of local news, but can they even give away wood pulp sporting 50-point morning headlines about major news items people learned about online the night before?

As ye sow, so shall ye reap, or something like that.

6 thoughts on “Note to Hearst: NY Papers Ready to Pick up Your Bay Area Slack

  1. Josh: This is following up a brief exchange on this subject we had via email.

    I briefly, with snark, wrote, “The good news is that the WSJ and NY Times cater to the working class and never dwell on the problems faced by the rich. I’m sure they aren’t just doing this to target wealthy people in palo alto or the
    berkeley hills.”

    The bigger issue here is that one of the unfortunate lessons we are all learning is that the business of newspapers is not journalism. Whether or not the Chronicle had kept the folks you mentioned, it wouldn’t have changed the underlying business problem. Conversely, if both the Chronicle and the Bay Area News Group papers poured millions into hiring crack investigative reporters, it’s not like their businesses would magically rebound.

    Even in print, people are not really paying for the journalism. Great, prize winning journalism wouldn’t suddenly induce people in the Bay Area to suddenly subscribe when they haven’t for years.

    The problem is that classifieds, the major source of revenue and profits, have evaporated. That has nothing to do with our journalism, good or bad.

    I welcome the Journal and the NY Times, though I’m extremely doubtful that they’ll have much impact. First, because they actually have relatively large subscriber bases in the Bay Area. I’m not really sure there’s much more upside for them here.

    Second, as my snarky note pointed out, these are news organizations that cater to folks in the upper income brackets. Just look at their travel, style and feature sections. They run stories on the problems rich people have in the downturn. The challenge of owning a second house in a downturn, etc.

    To the degree they’re coming into this market, it’s because they think they can do something to attract more premium advertising. I can’t imagine they think there’s a big business in doing more regional investigative reporting.

    Finally, I can recall the Journal starting a series of regional Journals in the 1990s. They hired second tier folks at reduced salaries and published modest, weekly inserts that hardly set the world on fire. And they were scrapped after a few years.

    Obviously, details are scarce, but I’ll be surprised if either of these new regional sections has much impact.

  2. Chris — I want to thank you for taking me back to earth here.

    The only thing I want to ask, in the larger context, is — what about the “discarded” readers? The ones whom are alienated by the direction the major metro papers have taken, with their specific focus on high-priced “lifestyle” coverage?

    The big unanswered question for me is — would a newspaper such as the Chronicle have lost so much market share if they published material relevant to the bulk of the Bay Area’s population, rather than a particular, and moneyed, demographic?

    What I want to see is a detailed breakdown over time of who’s not subscribing to newspapers, and why.

    My sense is: That’s the place where the “important but overlooked news” happens, and it seems to me that there’s a significant readership there waiting for a news outlet to serve their needs.

    Or is this just wishful thinking?

  3. Josh: I’m going to take the liberty of adding some of the comments you wrote in your email to the JTM list. There are really three issues you identify.

    First, above, you write: “The only thing I want to ask, in the larger context, is — what about the “discarded” readers? The ones whom are alienated by the direction the major metro papers have taken, with their specific focus on high-priced “lifestyle” coverage? The big unanswered question for me is — would a newspaper such as the Chronicle have lost so much market share if they published material relevant to the bulk of the Bay Area’s population, rather than a particular, and moneyed, demographic?”

    This gets to the reason print readership had declined over the past 25 years (starting in 1989, before the Web). It’s less about the journalism, and more about the product form. Delivering one product at one time in one form is less useful to many people. Beyond that, you have to look beyond the numbers. Taking the Chronicle for example, remember they’ve been eliminating broad areas of circulation around Northern California which cut deeply into circulation. This circulation was highly unprofitable. But in any case, these people did not leave the paper. The paper left them. That’s true even in may parts of the Bay Area.

    Also, our experience inside newspapers is that the decision to subscribe or not rarely seems to track with opinion of the content. That’s a hard truth for journalists to swallow. But it’s true.

    That said, the smart thing for newspapers to do would have been to invest in their print products, improve their quality, play to the brand of high quality, and charge more for the print edition. I have long believed that core readers would pay more for higher quality. But I think we’re past the ability to do that with all the cuts that have happened.

    Second, you wrote in the email: “The burning question for me is: how is the historic neglect of these lower-income communities AS A READERSHIP, albeit one that lacks the demographic oomph to attract “premium advertising” rates, related to the overall decline in newspaper circulation? In other words, do these neglected, lower-income communities represent a fallow market/readership for newspapers that their premium-driven ad model simply forbids them to consider?”

    Sadly, the answer is yes. Subscription pitches are micro-targeted to fairly niche neighbors, and you can guess the demographics. These communities are likely never going to be attractive to ad-based businesses. That was true starting almost 2 decades ago when the Oakland Tribune collapsed. And it’s why Oakland (my hometown) remains probably the most under-covered big city in America. Executives will look at the broad demographics and conclude there’s not much opportunity there.

    Third: “Can a savvy news entrepreneur riding the margins more closely, or innovating in the public-media sector, activate that readership with meaningful coverage of their lives, issues and communities?”

    My bet here is “yes.” The good news is that we’re seeing unprecedented news entrepreneurship at the grass roots level. No one has solved the puzzle. But I think these communities do represent a strong business potential. They have problems to solve. They have money to spend. And they seek community. These might not lend themselves to premium advertising, but there’s room for innovation on the business side to serve this under-served community.

  4. The heavyweight NYT’s coverage of Bay Bridge closure shows why we need our metros. Today’s headline: Crack Found in Bay Bridge Postpones Its Reopening.
    And on Saturday they reported:
    “Despite the Friday afternoon snag, officials said crews expected to finish their work by early Tuesday or ahead of schedule, as they did with a similar closing in 2007.”
    So, first they missed the press conferences about the crack that could delay reopening, then they missed that the bridge did reopen. And this is not a story about/for rich people.

  5. Can I throw in another aspect? Chris commented “we’re seeing unprecedented news entrepreneurship at the grass roots level” and that is very true. However, those publishers have no hope of including any news from outside their area because the major publishers have the news agencies tied up. Seek wire service coverage and you’ll be quoted a fortune, so they are not saying you can’t have it, just pricing out anyone who is not in the club.

    I saw this as a former editor of a regional daily in Australia — by a tortuous route we got two columns of national and international news in one batch each morning, many hours before afternoon publication from the capital city paper.

    I wonder too if many proprietors are wrongly convinced that the future is the Internet because that’s seen as a cheaper option. I suggest they spend some time in working class cafes. It’s coffee, steak ‘n chips and grab the newspaper.

    But those readers skip the ad features. It’s the news (inc sports news) they want. When I owned a country town weekly I made the same mistake of chasing features for revenue. After I sold out I redid some calculations and I doubt if those features really paid for more than the bigger print bills and the ad rep to sell them. The core ads sold themselves and would do better for the advertisers if there was less bumph.

    Small papers (even as Mario Garcia foresees, a return to small, letter/A4 pages), with solid news, mostly brief but lengthy reads when needed, much but not all local content and using the hours since last night’s TV news to get extra facts. And local ownership. That’s how I see the successful newspaper of the future. Maybe almost like The Week but original content and daily.

  6. Haven’t seen their business plan, of course, but I’m assuming NYT’s strategy is to capture higher-demographic readers by offering broad & general Bay Area coverage a couple times a week with their $15-a-week subscription rate. These readers may not care a lot about city supes infighting, crime in the Tenderloin, gay marriage in the Castro, Vietnamese gang turf wars or other micro-issues that are so unique to San Francisco.
    And as Sheila notes (re: bridge opening), the coverage won’t be useful or reliable in real-time.
    Maybe they plan to just let the free dailies/weeklies do the micro-coverage.
    Meanwhile, they’ll try to capture the ad budgets for the big national advertisers like Macy’s, Tiffany’s etc.
    For what it’s worth – and I’m not sure – the NYT is printed using BANG presses and they have a long-term contract with a locked-in late time shift. Too late to get sports scores.
    Also can’t figure out how they’re going to provide content that’s any more substantial than their current (“Oh, Those Crazy Californians”) approach, if they’re not expanding staff.

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