San Francisco

Yesterday, news broke that Hearst will close the San Francisco Chronicle if it a) can’t dramatically reduce costs (read as: cut payroll in half) or b) find a buyer (it won’t).

Analysis:

Although it is likely that you will hear and see a copious amount of handwringing in the coming days and weeks about San Francisco being the first major American city to lose its last major metro daily newspaper, I’d calmly and politely encourage you to take a look at this in context:

  • There are daily and weekly local newspapers surrounding the city of San Francisco, blanketing the Bay Area on every side of every hill.  (Yes, I am fully aware of the quality and resources issues within the MediaNews empire.)
  • There are weekly arts and entertainment publications in San Francisco, covering all the calendar and advertising needs of the print-consuming populace.
  • There are ethnic media print publications covering many (most?) of the geographic/ethnic niches in the city of San Francisco.
  • There are left-leaning national news organizations covering the sort of political issues the Chronicle did.
  • There are neighborhood and niche blogs blanketing the city of San Francisco.
  • There is craigslist.

Those last two items are probably the most important, long-term.

What happened in San Francisco was this:  In a city of early adopters, in a region of early adopters, in a state of early adopters, potential readers and advertisers are seeing their needs met in other mediums, in narrower niches, in distributed form, and they have not been slow to change.

No surprises there.

I’ve never worked for Hearst or the Chronicle, and I know little of the internal wrangling over SFGate.com or how much of it has held back innovation over the years, but the time for the Chronicle to innovate was a *long* time ago.  That boat done sailed.

The big question left for those trying to figure out what to do post-Chronicle should not be “How do we replace this newspaper?” but rather, “What in this newspaper needs replacing?”

Once that is answered, get serious about aggregation and integration.  Which existing local online news sources are already filling this need?  Which existing vendors/open source projects could best help tell the story of San Francisco?  Which national news sources matter to San Francisco readers?

So what’s left after that?  Well, a business model would be nice, but let’s come to that through the back door.

Before we try to figure out revenue, let’s look at our budget:  We’ve pared the newsroom down to an extremely small team of multi-platform journalists, and we’re going to get as much content (think: breaking news photos and video from readers’ phones) as possible, so we’re not talking about gobs of photographers and reporters flowing in and out of some big downtown building.

In fact, the staff could be extremely small.  I’m not talking about half its current size, I’m talking about fractions here.   A news staff of 10? 20?  How agile can we get?  Do the math.

And then, yes, take the advertising pieces of the current organization that are working, profitable, and useful to readers in San Francisco, and revise them to run with as little overhead as possible.  Reduced expenses means reduced need for revenue, and you can make do with far, far less of it.

Obvious organizations to partner with:

Want to expand upon any of these ideas or talk about your own?

Check out the wiki Alexis Madrigal has set up.

It’s all about the San Francisco Post-Chronicle.

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