News & Views from 465 California Street

The Death of Newspapers?

Clint Reilly
Jun
1
2010

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.

The Chron has been part of my daily ritual for all of my adult life and most of my youth.

There was a time during my early years as a political operative that I bought the morning Chronicle’s bulldog edition at 9PM the night before. I recall waiting in the cold with other hard core news buffs at the paper’s Fifth and Mission Street offices where the Chron was literally hot off the presses.

Journalism was an honored profession and civics courses reminded every young American that newspapers kept government honest.

I.F. Stone – better known as Izzy – sent shivers down the spines of Washington power brokers with well-researched exposés in his eponymous newsletter. Woodward and Bernstein’s dogged Watergate reporting toppled a president and inspired a hit movie starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.

While the New York Times and Los Angeles Times led the nation and state respectively with tough, informed political coverage, the Chronicle was better known for its lively and cantankerous columnists. Herb Caen, Stanton Delaplane, Art Hoppe, Charles McCabe and Count Marco were funny gossips who could also be insightful and poignant.

To be fair, local political coverage suffered from the fractured readership of a newspaper that spanned every Bay Area county and covered hundreds of political jurisdictions, public agencies and elections.

Unlike New York City, where Mayor Ed Koch was elected by all five boroughs, San Francisco’s mayor, Dianne Feinstein, governed only a tiny fraction of the Chronicle’s total market.

Nevertheless, Harvard-educated Jerry Roberts and his protégée Susan Yoachum managed to carve out a distinguished niche in state and national political reporting in spite of the Chron’s lukewarm commitment to their work.

For a long time, newspapers represented the only comprehensive record of our life together. The information they reported became the fuel for our democratic society. But times change.

Today, many young people eschew newspapers in favor of niche news sites and opinionated blogs. It’s now possible to read only news that fits your ideology or interests.

Worse yet, some young people choose ignorance. They take for granted the role of an aggressive press in a democratic society.

Two weeks ago, I attended a speech by former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in which she lamented the disappearance of civics courses from America’s public schools. She noted that most students cannot identify the three branches of the federal government.

One of the functions of public education is to pass down the precepts and values of democracy from generation to generation.

The critical function of a free press is one of those core civic values that I learned as a student at Dayton Elementary School and St. Leander’s Catholic School in the 1950s.

And while I may be tempted to believe that today’s youth aren’t getting that message, there are other statistics which suggest that Eric Schmidt may be right.

While the Chronicle’s print circulation plummets, its online home, SFGate.com, is exploding. More than 12 million unique users visit the site in any given month, many of them via mobile devices like iPhones and Blackberries.

Perhaps reports of newspapers’ death have been exaggerated.

I certainly hope so.

Comments (9)

  • I don’t read a single newspaper in print…all online. WSJ, SF Gate and NY Times, all online. I avoid like the plague Fox News and Olbermann and haven’t seen a local newscast in years. I avoid CNN and MSNBC as well.

    I give as much as I can to KQED and NPR. NPR gives me all the stories I missed on Radio through Facebook. It’s a changing world indeed. The 24/7 news cycle has proven deadly.

    Posted by: melinda maginn | June 1st, 2010 at 3:56 pm

  • Your Tuesday 6/1/2010 column contained a huge omission not at all uncommon among journalists. You claim a loss in Chron subscribers but don’t tell us the absolute numbers or the percentage drop in reader numbers. The current subscriber numbers you show mean nothing. What is the trend in readership and what could be the cause?

    What journalists need is more education in statistics, economics, business, etc.. What the media needs is tougher editing so the public can believe what they read. Thank you.

    Sincerely,

    Dick H

    Posted by: Dick H. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:44 am

  • I enjoy your column.
    Keep writing.
    I usually agree with your point of view, but not always.
    Still, your facts & reasoning help me with forming my own opinion and with understanding the issues.
    Thanks for your help.

    Sincerely,
    Nancy H

    Posted by: Nancy H. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:45 am

  • Dear Clint,I just read your latest report regarding the “exaggerated”
    death of print news. Like you, I have depended on traditional
    newspapers for news information and entertainment for most of my life.
    The I used to check the want- ad section regularly as well. When the
    ad section started becoming smaller, from many pages to a few then
    none,it became apparent that the paper that I had enjoyed for so long
    and taken for granted was going away. I still subscribe to 2 papers ;
    consequently
    I am able to read your column, which I look fore ward to and share
    with my wife and friends who will listen to me as I try to spread your
    knowledge and experience with them.Even though I prefer reading a
    paper and worry about the conveyance of reliable information without
    them , I have found that as the N Y Times, Chronicle, etc. are
    available on line; the news is still there. However, your message is
    only in my local paper the San Rafael I.J.! Keep up the good work!
    Roger B

    Posted by: Roger B. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:45 am

  • Good morning, Clint.

    Although we are at different poles of the political spectrum, I always enjoy your columns.

    I started to read the Chronicle in the mid fifties, when I was a student at Berkeley. Later, I moved to S.F. Later more, to Marin. The columnists you note were dear to me, especially McCabe. Herb printed three of my submissions, and of course gave me credit, as he always did. The Chronicle kindly published a lot of my letters to the editor over the years. It was a lot of fun for me.

    In later years these column giants were gone. I eventually I became weary of the Chronicle’s heavy focus on gay/lesbian issues. It seemed to crowd out news that would be more interesting to me. I am OK with the gay lesbians, but have no more interest in a gay lesbian newspaper than I would, for example, a vegetarian or nudist newspaper. So, a couple of years ago I cancelled, terminating a fifty year tradition, with sadness. I followed Matier & Ross in the website for a while, but this required remembering to do it, and so fell by the wayside.

    Thanks for the trip down memory lane.

    Best, Bob K

    Posted by: Bob K. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:45 am

  • Enjoyed your article. Regarding the SF Chronicle, however, you missed and/or avoided the real issue: a poor product always loses market share & eventually fails. The digital age isn’t what’s killing the Chronicle. The Chronicle’s product and management are what’s killing the paper.

    Sure, there’s the larger question of how newspapers fit into a world where everyone will increasingly rely in digital solutions for their news. But that’s a challenge all newspapers face, some much more successfully than others. For example, as a subscriber to the Wall St. Journal online since the mid-90s when I was one of their first 50 pilot customers, I’ve learned first-hand that I don’t need the feel of newsprint in my hands to stay informed (and I’m an old baby boomer). The demand for news hasn’t subsided, just the way we consume it. Smart news organizations get that and they evolve.

    I’ve been a consummate consumer of news media all my life, since my journalism days in Iowa and later as an international ad exec. I’ve lived in markets where newspapers have always been political mouthpieces (especially in their front page ‘news’ articles, not just op-ed pages). Also, we Americans have been grossly mislead to believe that our news journalism was ever very unbiased. Any serious student of history will know that’s never been the case.

    As a social moderate, fiscal conservative, I was never a great fan of the SF Chronicle (or the NY Times), but I read them as part of my mantra to try to stay objective and ‘informed’. If I want objectivity, I go to The Economist or any number of international papers who get their news coverage from somewhat less biased sources — although I’ve found none that are without bias.

    When I moved to the Bay Area in the late 90s, I naturally subscribed to the Chronicle. I’ve since canceled my subscription and don’t even bother to refer to their online service any more. Why? The product, while not great to start with, has eroded to a point where I could no longer tolerate reading the paper. The often radical political bent of so many so-called hard news stories is offensive and certainly violates my trust in trying to stay informed. The content and format of the paper has increasingly tuned out a broad swath of the public and reduced the Chronicle to the radical rag they’ve molded themselves into. They simply misread their market, alienated too many customers with a poor product that exudes a political bias that appeals to a much slimmer base that they think. Couple bad marketing with a poor product and the Chronicle’s woes should surprise no one.

    So, two key reasons for the Chronicle’s demise in the face of other papers which remain relatively unscathed: 1) poor product, poorly written, poorly presented, very little pretense of any objective news coverage; and 2) it has ignored fundamental marketing and no longer appeals to a vast portion of potential customers within it’s catchment area. I for one, wish the Chronicle a speedy demise along with its holier-than-thou pretensions. Perhaps out of the ashes will rise a product that better serves the real market demand in a more responsible and less biased way. That’s what our free-market system is all about.

    Your article did a disservice by not including some reference or speculation to why the Chronicle is faring so much worse than almost every other major daily in the nation. To suggest that their woes are simply the result of the digital age is, I believe, incorrect and irresponsible. You may or may not agree with my assessment, but please at least don’t avoid addressing the elephant in the room.

    I enjoy reading your articles, whether or not I agree with you — which I usually do not. Nevertheless, they’re well-written and usually do a credible job of advancing an idea in a thoughtful, reflective manner.

    Best regards,
    Tom H

    Posted by: Tom H. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:46 am

  • Dear Clint:

    Who instigated the removal of civics courses from the public schools curriculum?

    When?

    Why?

    Sincerely,
    Antonia L

    Posted by: Antonia L. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:46 am

  • Hi Clint,
    Good article today. You got to the crux of problem with the news media I think but
    did not expand or explore it.

    “Today, many young people eschew newspapers in favor of niche news sites and opinionated blogs.
    It’s now possible to read only news that fits your ideology or interests.”

    That last sentence warrants a lot discussion and I would like to see an op/ed from you in the
    future on it. I have friends who only listen to certain radio and T-V stations because of the
    station bias, left and right, and it only seems to make them more opinionated and passionate in
    their beliefs. I myself have almost quit watching T-V, especially the news, and only listen to the radio
    stations who read the news like KCBS. I am so turned off with newspapers in the East Bay that
    I skim the articles quickly, read the op/ed page and move on the comics and crossword. I get more
    out of the comics page than I do the so called news items. The journalism quality is not what
    it used to be and there are numerous errors. Except for the advertisements….they rarely make a
    mistake in the ads.
    Regards, Byron C

    Posted by: Byron C. | June 2nd, 2010 at 7:47 am

  • I’ve never written before but I agree with Dick H. regarding your huge omission.

    There may be 52,000 weekday San Francisco subscribers to the Chronicle, but that does not mean only 52,000 “pay” to read the paper. If a household family of four reads the Chron, isn’t the whole family “paying,” or only the check-writer? More to the point, does it really matter who in the family is paying if there are four people reading?

    If there are two San Francisco readers for each S.F. subscriber (a conservative estimate, I think), then suddenly your “one in 16” payers falls to one in eight, a huge difference.

    Perhaps you never considered the above because, as a news junkie, you never shared your newspaper.

    I also agree with Tom H., that the Chronicle’s poor product has a great deal to do with its demise.

    Posted by: Karen M. | June 3rd, 2010 at 6:12 pm

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