News & Views from 465 California Street

Why Readers Reject Newspapers

Clint Reilly

Newspapers used to print money for their owners. Some – like Richard Thieriot, the former owner of the San Francisco Chronicle – did better than others.

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.

With declining revenues come repeated staff cuts. The papers are even shrinking physically, and vital coverage of local government has suffered in many communities.

Sam Zell, the real estate mogul who led the $13.6 billion buyout of the Tribune Company – which includes the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times – said, “Because newspapers have historically been monopolies, they have been insulated from reality. Newspapers have to respond to their customers.”

When papers failed to respond to their customers, Craigslist did. The website devoured newspapers’ classified advertising business by offering a more efficient model. I spoke with Craig Newmark, Craigslist’s founder, at a Barack Obama fundraiser we both attended recently. Newmark told me that poor journalism and lousy newspapers are digging their own grave – not Craigslist. While Craig may be too humble, others share his disdain for an industry seemingly incapable of responding to its first real competitive threat in 100 years.

Monopoly journalism allowed many owners, editors and journalists to fall out of touch long before the present crisis.

As a political consultant, I repeatedly witnessed bizarre behavior at newspapers that no other business would ever allow. Some reporters and columnists were frequently drunk or on drugs on the job. Such conduct was not simply tolerated, it was condoned. These third-rate Hunter Thompsons screwed up appointments and scrambled facts but were never called to account for their mistakes, incivility or disruptive behavior. Violent behavior by a top editor was even defended by the company and the editor promoted. He would have been summarily fired anywhere else.

Consider the following events in 2000 involving the purchase of the Chronicle by Hearst Corp, then owner of the SF Examiner:

The publisher of the Examiner offers to “horse trade” favorable editorial coverage for the mayor during his reelection campaign in exchange for the mayor’s support of the sale.

When the publisher admits this publicly, he is fired by Hearst, even though emails and hand-written notes indicate that he informed the president and chairman of the company of exactly what he was doing. Hearst later pays the ousted publisher a settlement reported to be near $10 million.

A federal judge accuses both the president and chairman of lying about what happened. The editor-in-chief and the editorial page editor issue public denials that anything improper ever occurred. To “prove” it, the newspaper hires the former general counsel of Chevron to write a report exonerating the newspaper of any wrongdoing.

The final report – predictably stating that no breach of ethics occurred – is printed prominently in the newspaper, even though the lead adviser to the investigation, a well-respected journalist, refuses to sign it in dissent.

Years later, the now Hearst-owned Chronicle hires the now former mayor as a Sunday columnist.

Despite these clearly documented events involving the paper’s owners, publisher and editors, the San Francisco Chronicle would have us all believe that this type of behavior has nothing to do with Bay Area residents abandoning the paper in droves.

I wonder.

Comments (16)

  • If you’re quoting Sam Zell as an expert on print journalism, it’s obvious you don’t have a clue what you’re writing about. He has almost single-handedly destroyed the image of the Los Angeles Times and run off two respected editors in the process.
    Speaking of which…
    Historically, newspapers have NOT been monopolies. It’s only within the last 25 years that cities such as Dallas, Houston, St. Louis, Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Francisco ceased to be two-newspaper towns, which not-so-surprisingly coincides with the increased number of news alternatives on cable television (CNN, MSNBC, CNBC, ESPN) and the budding emergence of the Internet.
    Besides which, there still are no newspaper monoplies in New York (Daily News, Post, Times, Newsday), Boston (Globe, Herald), Philadelphia (Daily News, Inquirer), Denver (Post, Rocky Mountain News), Detroit (News, Free Press) and Seattle (Times, Post-Intelligencer), among others.
    And to paint a portrait of all reporters as drunks because of some incident you stumbled across at the Chronicle is like painting all politicians as raging sex hounds because Bill Clinton and John Edwards can’t keep their pants zipped.

    Posted by: Tom B | August 26th, 2008 at 11:07 am

  • To Tom B:

    First off, I’m not in the business of defending Sam Zell, but please note that I never cited him as an “expert on print media.” I quoted him with respect to his business background, as he has worked within a variety of businesses including print media.

    I also wish to point out that of the six cities you mentioned that ostensibly continue to enjoy competing newspapers, half are in fact JOAs. They include Seattle (Times, Post-Intelligencer), Detroit (News, Free Press), and Denver (Post, Rocky Mountain News). History has shown that JOAs almost inevitably result in the absorption or dissolution of one of the partners. Examples of this phenomenon include the following:

    Albuquerque, New Mexico (Journal & Tribune) – Tribune folded in 2008.
    Anchorage, Alaska (Daily News & Times) – Times folded 1978.
    Birmingham, Alabama (News & Post-Herald) – Post-Herald folded 2005.
    Chattanooga, Tennessee (Free-Press & Times) – Papers merged 1999.
    Cincinnati, Ohio (Enquirer & Post) – Expired in 2007 with cessation of paper printing of The Post.
    Columbus, Ohio (Dispatch & Citizen-Journal) – Citizen-Journal folded 1985.
    El Paso, Texas (Times & Herald-Post) – Herald-Post folded 1997.
    Evansville, Indiana (Courier & Press) Press folded 1998.
    Franklinand Oil City, Pennsylvania (Franklin News-Herald & Oil City Derrick) – Papers merged in 1985.
    Knoxville, Tennessee (News Sentinel & Journal) Journal went weekly in 1991.
    Miami, Florida (Herald & News) – News folded in 1988.
    Nashville, Tennessee (Tennessean & Banner) – Banner folded in 1998.
    Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (Post-Gazette & Press) Press folded in 1992.
    Richmond, Virginia (Times-Dispatch & News-Leader) – News-Leader folded in 1992.
    Shreveport, Louisiana (Times & Journal) – Journal folded in 1991.
    St. Louis, Missouri (Post-Dispatch & Globe-Democrat) – Globe-Democrat folded in 1986.
    Tulsa, Oklahoma (World & Tribune) – The Tribune folded in 1992.

    Even though the contours of the newsgathering business may be evolving, newspapers are still the first (and most comprehensive) source for the crucial coverage of local issues. Readers need their focused, objective reporting to make informed decisions in a democracy. This suffers under monopolistic conditions. The greater point I made in my column is that newspapers’ corporate culture has often allowed behavior (not limited to journalists, but within the entire organization) that would not fly in other types of businesses.

    Most important, I hope that you will read the column again and notice that I made no attempt to paint all reporters as “drunks,” as you have suggested. There was nothing categorical in my language; I said “some” reporters and columnists,” not “all,” “most,” or even “many.” You’ll also notice on second reading that I said: “I repeatedly witnessed bizarre behavior at newspapers.” This was not a one-off encounter at the Chronicle, as you have implied, and I never even referred to the Chronicle in that passage. Regardless, the point was not to disparage journalists, which I don’t think the column does. The point was to illustrate a corporate culture that has grown out of touch – to its own detriment.

    I strongly encourage you to check out some of my previous columns in which I extol the virtues of the free press and the democratic necessity for strong, incisive reporters. Here are a few:

    Editorial Boards and the Public Interest – February 12, 2008
    Newspapers as Watchdogs – December 4, 2007
    The Free Press – November 20, 2007
    Hearst and History – August 14, 2007
    Why We Need Newspapers – August 7, 2007
    Decline of the Printed Word – June 26, 2007
    Newspapers & Democracy – June 19, 2007

    Posted by: Clint Reilly | August 26th, 2008 at 12:41 pm

  • More than ten years ago, there was a newsletter named the San Francisco Investigator. The articles focused on the day to day working of SF government and used public documents as its primary source. The City was never so thoroughly investigated. The Chronicle failed to report any of the stories covered by this newsletter. This utter failure to report on local political and governance issues is one of the reasons for The Chronicle’s demise.

    Posted by: Vincent O'Gara | August 26th, 2008 at 1:49 pm

  • Your article titled “Why Readers Reject Newspapers” is almost on the mark; However, you failed to mention one thing. Newspapers are failing because they are no longer objective but rather one-sided. They continue to be extremely left-wing and extremely liberal. If the local newspapers were truly objective they could report news truthfully, instead they flock to the liberal side of the bed. When I stop reading the local newspapers it will be because they are incapable of objectivity. Would it not be refreshing to see a local newspaper be a little bit objective!

    Posted by: Don | August 26th, 2008 at 2:18 pm

  • Not touched on by Clint is how the Chronicle allowed itself to become a platform for the left, not only on its editorial page but in its “news” columns. This may have won it plaudits in S.F., but a price was paid in the suburbs…

    Posted by: Jerry Carroll | August 26th, 2008 at 2:59 pm

  • of course, it’s so much EASIER to just blame the internet for the problems newspapers are having. why look in the mirror when you might not like what you see, right?

    Posted by: Grayson Romero | August 26th, 2008 at 3:31 pm

  • It’s been a long time since Father Gene Boyle’s campaign and our different careers haven’t seen us crossing paths again. So, it was a pleasure to come across your blog discussing the demise of newspapers. I now live in the Southern California Inland Empire where our local birdcage liner is part of the Gannett Publishing Empire. They too, like the Hearst papers, are spilling red ink and experiencing massive circulation losses. I often wonder if newspaper media types will wakeup before it’s too late and learn how to produce a product worthy of their continued existence. I have my doubts.

    Posted by: Bond Shands | August 26th, 2008 at 7:41 pm

  • Clint, I just wanted to thank your for your Journalism. You are more informative and explain your thoughts better than all the rest of the writers in the paper. That is not saying all that much. As your August 26th article states. Newspapers are not doing their job. We would be even more in the dark without you.

    Posted by: Drush | August 26th, 2008 at 7:43 pm

  • I am writing to acknowledge what you wrote as opposed to adding anything new. I do have a few comments though:

    I enjoy the morning newspaper. I spend a great deal of my time on the computer and only occasionally check for news on-line. A newspaper offers the advantage of offering information that is of a specific interest but – because of the proximity to other articles – also stimulates interest in other subjects/articles. Put differently, I can quickly search late-breaking news on the Internet, but in so doing, I limit my reading to my narrowly defined search. A newspaper helps broaden my interests.

    Now a bit of criticism: The Contra Costa Times (CCT) used to be a really good local paper; it can no longer be defined as such. There are a plethora of issues that include:

    * The same article appears multiple times during a week
    * The level of professionalism (e.g. spelling, page layout, etc.) is less than what I would expect from a local high school newsletter
    * The level of professional journalism is…is…is just not present
    * The CCT is become a dumping ground for filler and wire service articles
    * Most sensitive or multifaceted local and state issues are reported on in a post mortem basis as opposed to keeping local issues in front of the reader at all levels of story development
    * It is common (of the various media in general) that sensitive and often complex issues quickly disappear. There is no follow-up, there is no insistence that tough questions get answered.

    I understand that the Internet has affected many industries and the newspaper biz is certainly among them. The national and local newspaper is important – or at least should be important to people; providing entertainment and also news – hard hitting, real news. People lament about the amount of advertising that has come the define the newspaper. I understand that advertising provides the means to keep the presses rolling. Yet, it seems that the business model needs to be tweaked. Newspapers needs to figure out a way to provide content that has value; with value, circulation may rebound and newspapers may again become profitable. The time to make changes to the business model has past. The newspaper business seems to have put themselves in the same position that U.S. auto industry finds themselves – taking too much time to react to competitive pressures and social changes.

    No, I don’t have any answers on how the newspaper industry needs to change but providing a professional product would be a good place to start (see bullet points above).

    Posted by: Madsen | August 26th, 2008 at 9:13 pm

  • If you’re the only mechanic in town, you can go ahead and treat customers like crap and do shoddy work on their cars. If you’re the only doctor for 2,000 miles, you can just treat people’s symptoms and keep them coming back for more pills instead of curing them. When you don’t have to compete, you can do whatever you want. Here’s your wake up call, newspapers! Time’s running out- you better figure it out fast!

    Posted by: Erik Griffiths | August 26th, 2008 at 10:57 pm

  • Well Clint you site a few instances of newspaper’s breach of ethics and shortcomings with regard to conduct_I could mention many, many
    more over the last 25 years (many having to do with helping sleazy
    politicians cover up or whitewashing their crimes) but, as I suspected you
    didn’t and wouldn’t list what caused me to cancel my personal subscription
    and my company’s subscriptions to the Mercury News and the Chronicle. I am a registered Independent (was a registered Democrat at one time until the Democratic Party left me_voted for Stevenson, Kennedy, and Clinton).
    Recently the far left swing of the Democratic Party and it’s leaders was
    more than I could tolerate and I changed my registration. The conduct of
    the party leaders is intolerable in itself but the unbelievable bias
    exhibited by the press over the last several years has completely turned me against print media and most of the TV and radio news coverage as well. I’m certainly not a Bush/Republican fan but this is America and our media is expected, by the public, to present at least a semblance of fairness on policies and candidates and issues. I’m 76 years old and believe me I have seen and witnessed first hand this country’s swing to the left in most matters of politics, media coverage, entertainment and education. Yes, there are more efficient methods of advertising available today and recessions hurt circulation, but I don’t think that explains the obvious demise of the printed format in this country. People enjoy sitting down with a newspaper and a cup of coffee and reading details they can’t get from the tube or the radio. The problem is those details have turned so far to the left and so anti-American that a great number of us don’t care to read them any longer. I don’t care to have my country continuously dragged through the media mud. Sad, but I can get the funnies on my computer so all is not lost.

    Posted by: Flesher | August 27th, 2008 at 12:16 pm

  • Clint –

    Always enjoy your thoughts on politics and the media. But before you assign all newspapers to the recycling bin, consider this:

    In San Mateo, six daily newspapers are available in the racks on the streets.

    – Paid: Chron and Merc News
    – Freebies: Examiner, Daily News, Daily Journal, and now the Daily Post.

    Maybe the Chron and Merc News are suffering but it looks to me like the freebies, because of their emphasis on local news and ads (and of course their being free) are doing OK.

    I think newspapers, however, are too rooted in the past, and there could be a lot of innovation and new directions. For example, I’d like to see a newspaper or two be 100% opinion with no “entirely balanced” reporting. More creative use of photography. More involvement from readers other than just letters to the editor.

    A little like underground newspapers of the 1960s.

    Posted by: BPaul | August 27th, 2008 at 12:29 pm

  • I reject newspapers because they are usually inane and they clutter my home.

    Posted by: zachattack | August 27th, 2008 at 7:33 pm

  • I happen to pickup the Tuesday, August 26, 2008 San Jose Mercury News and wanted to respond.

    What you said is true as I remember those events, particularly when Willie Brown peddled the Examiner to the Fang family with the Hearst group paying them. The Fang’s ran the newspaper to the ground, collected their millions, and went off doing something else. The new Examiner is a much better paper and it appears to be less bias than the Chronicle.

    I believe that readership is down for a combination of things, much of it has to do with the internet. However, my main concern with the Chronicle is its bias reporting. It doesn’t report the news, but develops a slant or select articles that reflect their editorial opinions. It is obvious they are catering to their audience (anti-police, anti-war, anti-business) and in the face of reduce readership, they have become a little less slanted with articles by C.W. Nevius, Chip Johnson, and the series about the juvenile deportation and the DA’s office accepting federal monies w/o prosecution. However, this little change may be too little too late for them.

    As a former police officer, I am very concern about crime and have written many letters to the editor in both the Chronicle and Examiner. Most of them are published in the Examiner. When I write letters that criticize the DA’s office, inevitably they are not published. Why?

    Posted by: RA | August 28th, 2008 at 3:21 pm

  • Hello Clint,

    I’m a fan of your frequent “public service” messages published in the San Mateo County Times and other ANG papers.

    I particularly enjoyed a recent one entitled “Why Readers Reject Newspapers”, that appeared on 08-26-08.

    You quoted Sam Zell, who I’m not particularly fond of, but the statement, “Newspapers have to respond to their customers,” is on the mark.

    It’s very sad to see the demise of the dailies, although I believe their greed did breed contempt for readers. At least historically there was more competition, and that, sadly enough, has disappeared in three decades of rampant media consolidation.

    For those that say printed news will depart entirely to the internet, I don’t agree. Some small papers are actually picking up readers and will take on the role previously relegated only to the dailies.

    Interestingly enough, this would be a return to the single proprietor or family ownership of papers, much as it was for the century before papers got listed with shares trading on Wall Street.

    I find it sad that some Americans are using blogs as credible news sources. Though journalism has a somewhat tarnished image, at least a paper provides a forum to disseminate information, and debate issues, and thereby insuring better success for a free and democratic society.

    By the way, you write so well, I’ve often wondered if you started as a journalist. I’m also surprised you haven’t started your own San Francisco paper. You certainly know the territory well.

    Keep writing, Clint.

    Posted by: Mackin | August 29th, 2008 at 2:54 pm

  • In your MercuryNews piece you forgot to mention smug and arrogant editors who steadfastly refuse to recognize the key to their own survival is to offer the only thing that a blog CAN do, pander anonymously to the fringe on any and all issues.

    If I was an editor determined to survive, I’d go out of my way to solicit the voice and protect the identity of anybody or anyone willing to defend in newsprint even the most outrageous and indefensible issue or premise.

    Newspaper will die publishing to the choir. That’s why I stopped subscribing years ago. I want to hear from thieves, murderers and sex offenders not librarians.

    Posted by: Peter | September 3rd, 2008 at 8:14 am

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