A recent Atlantic Monthly article by James Fallows titled, “How to Save the News” offers a fascinating glimpse into the future of an industry currently beset by technological upheaval and rapidly evolving information consumption patterns.
At one point in the article, Google CEO Eric Schmidt states, “Nothing I see suggests the ‘death of newspapers.’”
The case of the San Francisco Chronicle would appear to be an exception.
The paper’s paid circulation numbers within the city itself have shrunk to 64,000 on Sunday and 58,000 during the week. If estimated Daly City subscribers – who are not really San Francisco residents – are subtracted, Sunday paid circulation falls further to 57,000 and weekday circ dips to 52,000.
San Francisco is a highly educated city of 808,000 residents. That means that only 6.4 percent pay to read the flagship daily newspaper each morning, about one in 16.
Those numbers aren’t encouraging. Read More »
A few months ago, I devoted a column to the impending opening of my restaurant, Credo, at 360 Pine Street in the heart of downtown San Francisco. I recounted the doom-and-gloomers and naysayers who scoffed at me. They predicted falling sky.
Today, Credo is open and serving more than 1,000 diners per week.
For our March launch party, we squeezed more than 400 friends into Credo’s 75-seat ground floor dining room. The original skeptic, my wife Janet, opened the night on a humorous note by recounting her initial horrified reaction to my idea.
The famous social justice priest Monsignor Eugene Boyle, now a venerable 88 years old, then blessed the premises.
Our guests enjoyed a short parade of Credo personalities: Mario Maggi, our Milanese executive chef; Tim Felkner, our suave young general manager; Frank Holland, our editor and creative director; and finally my close friend, Lorenzo Petroni.
Lorenzo owns North Beach Restaurant, a renowned destination which is thronged nightly. Who better to help me cut the ribbon?
That was the easy part.
Credo’s grand opening was a lot like some of my experiences as a political consultant.
The campaign launch always turned out to be irrelevant to the final outcome of the election. I usually forgot the details of the announcement by the time the election rolled around; the rough and tumble of the actual campaign quickly replaced the ceremonial perfection of opening day. Read More »
John Ruskin, the great English philosopher, art critic and poet, once said that “Nothing is ever done beautifully which is done in rivalship: or nobly, which is done in pride.”
After nearly three years of writing this column, I have decided that I disagree with Mr. Ruskin.
I began my relationship with the owners of this paper under antagonistic circumstances. In 2006, I filed an anti-trust lawsuit to block a partnership between Hearst Corporation (owners of the San Francisco Chronicle) and MediaNews Group (owners of every other Bay Area daily), which I believed would have diminished the richness of news-gathering and opinion in the Bay Area.
Apologies to Mr. Ruskin, but I believe that rivalry between competing news organizations is not only beautiful, it is essential in a democratic society. My lawsuit succeeded in stopping the partnership, and I ended up with a quarter page space in the Tuesday paper to try my hand as an independent columnist for three years.
The calendar has nearly run out, and my June 8th column will be my last. Read More »
My friend Joe Scott writes a popular blog on politics called “The Body Politic.” In some ways, it is a natural outgrowth of his renowned newsletter from an earlier era, “The Political Animal.”
A former political writer for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, Scott cites a famous quote from Aristotle as his inspiration:
“Man is a political animal in a greater measure than any bee or any gregarious animal. For nature does nothing without purpose, and man alone of the animals possesses speech.”
Rereading the quote on Joe’s blog, I was reminded that political animals are a breed apart. They eat, drink and breathe politics 24/7. Some are junkyard dogs but others are lions who make the human race proud.
Long-time political writers Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine recently launched their own political website. These two cats are political animals par excellence. The Harvard-educated Roberts rose from his perch as political editor of the San Francisco Chronicle to become the paper’s managing editor.
Trounstine was the cagey political editor of the San Jose Mercury News who hated to get the story wrong almost as much as he salivated to get the story in the first place.
Writing out of a love of the game – only part time between other gigs – these combined 60-year veterans of state and national politics have already become the go-to source on Arnold, the underworld of the Capitol, the 2010 gubernatorial aspirants, initiative wars, the ups and downs of insiders and the rise and fall of political consulting careers.
You can get a ringside seat by punching in CalBuzz.com on your Blackberry or iPhone. Read More »
One utility company dominates Northern California. But what if one corporation controlled every daily newspaper?
Newspaper firms argue that monopolies – which streamline production and editorial costs – are the only way for financially beleaguered metropolitan dailies to survive.
The California Public Utilities Commission regulates PG&E for consumers. But who regulates a monopoly newspaper?
If large media conglomerates – unfettered by anti-trust laws – are given a blank check to re-engineer news-gathering in the absence of competition, the results could be grave.
Critical coverage of the local school board or city council becomes overhead to be cut. Big stories that two or three reporters once competed to tell are left to a single overstretched soul. And independent editorial boards, once the primary opinion-making bodies in our society, get boiled down into an overworked (but cost-efficient) regional unit.
What is needed in an era of consolidated media is a new institutional paradigm. The old rules no longer apply. Newspapers have long touted their special status as “watchdogs for the public interest.” But in a monopoly situation, the watchdog for the public interest requires a public watchdog. Read More »
The San Francisco Chronicle is the greatest wealth destruction machine in American journalism today. While its headlines announce the immolation of hallowed names such as Lehman and Merrill Lynch, the paper itself is aflame with astonishing losses of more than a billion dollars.
Think the “Hindenburg” of newspapers.
Since Hearst bought the Chronicle in 2000 for nearly $700 million and gave $66 million to subsidize the Examiner’s new owners, operating losses have reportedly reached up to $90 million in a year.
A fair estimate is that losses have averaged $50 million annually for the last eight years. This means that Hearst has invested more than $1.2 billion in a newspaper that has no viable vision for success.
While the paper’s editorials excoriate politicians for mismanaging California’s budget, the Bay Area’s largest daily newspaper has crashed and burned under Hearst’s management. Now Hearst has asked House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to suspend the nation’s laws protecting the competition of news gathering in order to save the Chronicle. Hearst says it needs a monopoly in order to survive.
But does it? Read More »
Sanctioning a Bay Area newspaper monopoly in order to rescue the San Francisco Chronicle from bankruptcy is a horrible idea.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about?
Last week, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder urging him not to enforce antitrust laws, which would pave the way for the Chronicle and MediaNews – the owner of every other paid-subscription daily newspaper in the Bay Area – to merge operations and have a monopoly over news and opinion in the Bay Area.
The logic is that the Hearst-owned Chronicle, which is rumored to be losing $60 million per year, will be forced to close if it is not allowed to combine many functions – or merge altogether – with Denver-based MediaNews, which runs the Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune, Marin Independent Journal, San Jose Mercury News and many other local dailies.
I respectfully disagree, Madam Speaker. Read More »
Two weeks ago, Maitland “Sandy” Zane – a longtime writer at the San Francisco Chronicle – died of cancer at 80 years of age. Sandy never won a Pulitzer.
But, like many of the great characters who passed through the old Chronicle before it was purchased by the Hearst Corporation, Sandy had more fun than the entire newsroom of the rival Hearst Examiner combined.
He loved to brag about the time that journalistic ethics forced him to personally confirm for an exposé he was writing that a certain escort service’s girls actually did have paid sex with patrons. The punch line was that the Chronicle had to reimburse his expenses.
I have been reading the Chronicle ever since I was a young boy. Initially, I started looking for the paper to see if Carol Doda – the North Beach high priestess of topless dancing – was on the front page again, or to follow the exploits of Willie Mays.
In those days, the “Chron” was edited by Scott Newhall, who loved to titillate and entertain rather than overwhelm readers with profound analysis. Read More »
Forget the exhausted claims of “liberal bias”; the Times has a serious smugness problem on its hands. Even I – a life-long Democrat, Obama supporter, Times subscriber and daily reader – find the paper’s pomposity and orthodoxy difficult to stomach. An October 1 column on the Times op-ed page illustrates my point.
Noted Times columnist and best-selling author Thomas Friedman (The World Is Flat) was irate. The U.S. House of Representatives had just voted down the $700 billion bailout. Friedman fumed, smoke billowing from his column in great clouds:
“I’ve always believed America’s government was a unique political system – one designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots. I was wrong. We have House members, many of whom I suspect can’t balance their checkbooks, rejecting a complex rescue package because some voters, whom I fear also don’t understand, swamped them with phone calls…”
No words more clearly illustrate the attitude of moral superiority and intellectual certainty that perfumes the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Read More »
A false belief in the supremacy of financial engineering over substantive accomplishment and socially meaningful labor has sapped our country’s commitment to true innovation and seduced a generation of potential entrepreneurs.
To some extent, the press is complicit. By focusing its scrutiny on easy targets in the public sector – while the financial world runs amok – the Fourth Estate has promulgated unyielding faith in the power of high finance.
But this faith has proven poisonous, allowing corporate greed, dishonest business practices and unchecked avarice to corrode not only the gilded foundations of Wall Street, but also the lives and dreams of average Americans across the country.
What about the destruction – before our very eyes – of old-fashioned values like hard work and integrity? What value system rewards the CEO of Merrill Lynch with a $150 million golden parachute following more than $30 billion in losses under his watch?
When it comes to making informed decisions about the latest ballot initiative, candidates for public office or how to manage the current water shortage, newspaper editorial boards occupy a place of singular distinction among opinion shapers.
But historically, the editorial positions that newspapers take have been the exclusive province of their publishers and staff. Regular community members rarely, if ever, participated in their deliberations.
With this in mind, the owners of this newspaper joined me in an endeavor to engage the public by recruiting exemplary local citizens to serve on the editorial boards of 11 Bay Area newspapers. The citizen board members are independent and broadly networked in their communities, making them ideal conduits for local concerns.
Read More »
Thieriot was smiling like the cat that ate the canary when I spoke with him at former State Senator Quentin Kopp’s recent 80th birthday party. Thieriot’s family sold the Chronicle and KRON television for more than $1 billion at the market’s zenith in 2000. Hearst Corporation paid $660 million for the Chronicle alone.
Today, rumors abound about the Chronicle’s financial picture. Including annual losses, Hearst has likely invested more than $1 billion in the Chronicle, yet the paper is only worth a fraction of that amount. Facing a dismal economic picture, Hearst recently offered buyouts to more than 100 Chronicle staffers, the second time it has done so in the last 18 months.
But the Chronicle is not alone. The entire newspaper business is in free fall. The Internet has stolen both readers and advertisers, and a grinding recession has further curtailed ad spending. And as younger readers flock online, circulation continues to plummet. Read More »
It is a sobering fact that a penny ante political scandal often provokes more outrage, elicits more ink and attracts more attention from law enforcement than a multi-billion-dollar financial scandal that wipes out the savings of millions of people.
Without trivializing any potential public corruption or graft, a few examples of misplaced outrage come to mind:
Here in California, Secretary of State Kevin Shelley was driven from office by the twin accusations of abrasive language toward staffers and illegal campaign finance activity. Even as it became clear that he had nothing to do with the illicit campaign funds, a drumbeat of hysterical exposés about his behavior hounded him until he resigned. Read More »
Are you curious as to why I write this column each week? Many people are. They want to know how much money I am spending to disseminate my views; it strikes them as an expensive ego trip. They are usually surprised when I tell them that I pay nothing. In fact, the owner of this newspaper provides the space gratis as part of the settlement to an antitrust lawsuit I brought in 2006. Many readers already know the details of my battles with media companies to preserve vigorous competition among paid subscription daily newspapers in our Bay Area. In a time when consumers are bombarded by paid messages, I am happy to say that my column is not another piece of paid propaganda.
In addition to this column, the settlement granted me the right to work with this newspaper’s staff to appoint a citizen to the paper’s editorial board. This is an exciting opportunity for the community, but it is not unprecedented. The Marin Independent Journal has long enjoyed the successful contributions of citizen board members during editorial meetings. In opening up the editorial process to citizen representatives, a new voice and an outside perspective will join the important deliberations that determine this newspaper’s position on critical issues impacting your city, county, state and nation. In addition, the new appointee will be a full participant in editorial choices, ranging from local and regional planning to the endorsement of political candidates and propositions. Read More »
When does a newspaper cease to be a legitimate watchdog of the public interest? Do a newspaper company’s own ethical lapses impeach its credibility as an independent watchdog of the public interest?
In 1973, I was a very young political organizer. I participated in a campaign for Governor of Arizona. The United Farm Workers Union, led by Cesar Chavez, was strongly backing a candidate against the Republican Governor, “one eyed” Jack Williams, who opposed the right of farm workers to organize. Chavez recruited me to manage the campaign of the Farm Workers’ candidate, Jerry Pollack, against Williams. The Arizona Republic was the most important newspaper in the state. Eugene Pulliam, the uncle of former Vice President Dan Quayle, owned the Republic and ran it with an iron fist. Pulliam had no compunction about destroying Democrats with front-page lies and smears. Chavez had launched a campaign to register new Democratic voters, particularly Latinos. The effort was a great success and nearly 75,000 new voters were registered. Read More »
Rather than charging Barry Bonds with using steroids, the prosecutor indicted Bonds for lying to a Federal Grand Jury. Once again, an expensive, painfully drawn out investigation by a US Attorney has led to a celebrity indictment on tangential charges, not the substantive issue. And questionable journalistic tactics by the San Francisco Chronicle has fed speculation that the troubled newspaper is more interested in a journalistic prize than steroids – or justice.
Earlier this year, a protracted investigation of the leak of Valerie Plame’s identity as a CIA operative by Bush Administration officials resulted in a similar indictment. Lewis “Scooter” Libby was charged and ultimately convicted – not of leaking Plame’s name to reporters – but of lying to a grand jury. Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald produced a conviction on perjury – not a definitive resolution of the central issue – who leaked Valerie Plame’s identity to the press? Read More »
The Free Press is an institution which democracy cannot do without — much to the chagrin of just about anyone who comes into consistent contact with reporters and television cameras. The theology that reporters capture photo-realistic snapshots is a quaint notion taught in Journalism 101. Existentialism preaches that the same object viewed by many people will spark myriad descriptions — often contradictory. Applying the Ten Commandments is easier said than done. Ethicists acknowledge that the line between morality, amorality, and immorality is often hard to find. Democracy is an adversarial process where opposing sides present their version of the facts to a jury of their peers — and the jury decides. Truth necessitates a competition of ideas and points of view. Hence, the indispensability of those underpaid, overworked, biased, disheveled folks known as journalists and the necessary role played by the greedy, corrupt media conglomerates which transmit information. The Great American Free Speech Machine is plugged in. Read More »
Just about any consumer, traveler, artist, museum curator, entrepreneur, executive, pro athlete, sports fan, politician or religious leader understands globalization. Globalization is the mass marketing of business, sports, culture, fashion and values through the “universalization” of media. In fifty short years since 1960, the spread of mass media has shrunk the planet. All of this was predicted by Marshall McLuhan in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” published in 1964.
McLuhan observed that electronic media’s ability to transport events, leaders, political and religious ideas, celebrities, and entertainment or consumer products – even wars – into our living rooms via television would transform the world. Read More »
Red Square in the Kremlin and Tiananmen Square in China are mammoth public places which attract visitors from all over the world. To Westerners, these monumental squares symbolize the cold war power of the Red Army and the Chinese regime’s bloody suppression of the 1989 student demonstration. But to the Russian and Chinese people, these are sacred grounds where the history of their countries — the victories and the defeats — was made. Ancient Athens had the Agora, a central square where Athenians came together to debate, celebrate, eat and shop. The great public squares of Europe, like St. Mark’s Square in Venice or St. Peter’s Square in Rome, are world famous landmarks that date back to feudal days when kings and popes ruled supreme.
Last week I visited Portland, Oregon’s Pioneer Courthouse Square, called “Portland’s living room” which hosts over 300 events and attracts 9.5 million visitors a year. In May, my wife and I experienced the elegant squares of Savannah, Georgia which are famous throughout the South for injecting natural beauty into urban living. Practically every city in America has such a place today. In reality, the boundaries of the public square in our country extend far beyond the perimeters of a physical space where local citizens come to congregate. First, the public square is all the streets and sidewalks and parks in every city, town and neighborhood, not just an essential gathering place in the middle of a city like Cesar Chavez Park in downtown San Jose. Second, the public square is also a shared commitment to solve problems through rational debate rather than violence. Read More »
In 1887, The Hearst Corporation was born with William Randolph Hearst’s purchase of the San Francisco Examiner. That small investment is now a sprawling international empire. Today, the Hearst Corporation owns 14 daily newspapers including the San Francisco Chronicle, a chain of Hearst Argyle television stations, a thriving magazine company, internet investments, 20% of ESPN, and stakes in A&E and Lifetime cable television. The company generates huge profits.
In 2006, the Hearst Corporation officially cut the ribbon on its new headquarters – Hearst Tower in New York City. The New York Times architectural critic Nicolai Ouroussoff wrote that “this 46-story tower may be the most muscular symbol of corporate self-confidence to rise in New York since the 1960′s, when modernism was in full bloom and most Americans embraced technological daring as a sure route to social progress.” Hearst Tower was designed by British Architect Sir Norman Foster who is responsible for such global icons as the Hong Kong Shanghai Bank Building in Hong Kong, the Reichstag renovation in Berlin, and the British Museum in London. Read More »
Al Gore is deeply concerned that a precipitous decline in reading is an ominous sign for our democracy. His new book, Assault on Reason, is an indictment of democratic government’s growing incapacity to solve big problems. The glacial, twenty-year process of making an obvious crisis like global warming a top national issue is only confirmation to Gore that rational discourse is failing to identify and resolve key social problems and conflicts. At the center of Gore’s critique is a surprising assessment: “Our facility with rational analysis is not what it used to be. The truth is reading and writing don’t play as important a role in how we interact with the world as they used to. Our ability to operate the intricate machinery of self government has always depended, to an under appreciated degree, on a widespread competence and familiarity with printed words.”
One symptom of the former Vice President’s grave concern for the decline of reading and writing in America is the bleeding circulation of daily newspapers across the nation. Here in the Bay Area, newspapers have faced significant drops in subscribers. Younger, educated readers are said to be turning to the Internet for their news. Another rationale is that today’s 24/7 pace is forcing the news consumer to cable television’s ready-when-you-are programming. But these glib rationales ignore key facts. First, statistics are clear that few Americans are reading local news on the Internet. Television news is not the same as the printed word. Local television news is only able to cherry-pick high profile, regional stories. And national television news is a headline service for breaking national and international stories. The hard truth is that a growing cadre of college- educated Americans are less informed on local civic affairs than their high school-educated parents for whom the newspaper was a daily must-read. A slow decline in newspaper readership among younger Americans undermines our democracy. Read More »
Newspaper readership is declining. The fact is reported by newspapers. Isn’t this like the dead man reading his own obituary? The death march of layoffs, budget cuts, disappearing revenues, downsizings is dutifully told each quarter when publicly-owned newspaper companies report earnings. These reports are proxies for an industry under siege. The internet, cable television, satellite radio, free news on the web are cited as the familiar culprits.
Exhibit number one is right here in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Chronicle has lost 350 million dollars since being purchased by the Hearst Corporation in 2000. Including a purchase cost in excess of 700 million, Hearst has now invested more than one billion in the Chronicle without so much as a dime returned. In fact, the Hearst Corporation has effectively subsidized the Chronicle for the last seven years. During these seven years of fiscal pestilence, Hearst has changed publishers at the Chronicle three times. Hearst has conducted two rounds of buyouts and layoffs effecting more than 35% of the reporters and editors. Hearst has announced a plan to outsource the printing of the newspaper to a Canadian company that will produce the paper for lower cost. What Hearst has not done is to announce a plan for how it will return the Chronicle to profitability and financially stabilize one of the Bay Areas most important civic institutions. At best, recent changes will save only 20 million of the more than fifty million per year the Chronicle is bleeding in red ink. And what about Adam Smith’s outmoded concept of a return on Hearst’s one billion dollar investment? Read More »
Several weeks ago the Bay Area newspaper world was rocked by word that the San Francisco Chronicle was laying off 100 editors and reporters. Other papers here and across the nation have announced similar cuts to cope with declining circulation and ad revenues. There are five primary causes cited for the newspaper crisis. First, the ill fated decision by newspapers to allow their news to be cannibalized by free websites such as Yahoo, which provide encyclopedic snapshots of national and international events. Second, the no-win formula adopted by local newspapers to post the entire paper on the Internet without charging for access. Third, the growing trend of sub-forty-year olds not to read newspapers and instead to acquire their news on the web. Fourth, the proliferation of 24-hour cable news channels and other media that provides instantaneous news, which often makes newspaper coverage stale and redundant. Fifth, the structural inability or outright failure of newspapers to effectively compete with other forms of advertising to sell products.
Read More »