When the news broke last week that Hearst Corporation was threatening to shut down the San Francisco Chronicle, the pundits across the country raised the obvious question: will San Francisco become the first American city without a major daily newspaper?
I think it's a little early to say that Chron is actually going to vanish; part of what's going on is clearly a shot across the bow of the paper's unions, a warning on the part of tough-guy publisher Frank Vega that he's deadly serious about cutting costs. That will mean widespread layoffs, outsourcing of union jobs, etc. Hearst is a big corporation run by bean counters, one that has major financial problems at many of its media properties. It's not going to keep sustaining $50 million a year losses in San Francisco.
But Hearst is also a major political player in the United States, California, and San Francisco, and a big-city newspaper carries with it a lot of influence. Shutting down the Chron would be a huge step, one that the Hearst board members, who include William Randolph Hearst 3rd, a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, are going to do only as an absolute last resort.
What happens if we lose the Chron? Well, in the short term, we're stuck with the Examiner, which recently lauded Pacific Gas and Electric Co.'s CEO as an icon of alternative energy. I need say no more. In the longer term, something will arise to replace the Chron, probably several Web-only daily newspapers, but they'll never achieve the clout an old-fashioned morning paper had on the political, cultural, and civic dialogue. Those days are numbered anyway; the urban news media of the future will be smaller, less concentrated, and less individually influential.
I'm not a huge fan of Hearst's San Francisco flagship, but it's always a shame to see a newspaper die. And I'm convinced that the creaky old Chron could still survive. But it will need major surgery not just on the finances, but on the content. Because these days, nobody I know under 30 bothers to read it.
So for Mr. Vega and his editor, Ward Bushee, allow me to offer some hints at reviving the moribund publication:
1. Become a San Francisco paper. Nobody reads the Chron for national news any more. You can get The New York Times delivered or read it on the Web and get far better coverage than anything the Chron offers. So give it up. Go local. And by local I don't mean Walnut Creek and Orinda; forget the suburban readers and try to convince people in your central circulation area that you have something worth reading every day.
2. Trade C.W. Nevius to the Examiner for a draft choice and a writer to be named later and hire seven young, progressive columnists who can talk about issues that people in one of America's most liberal cities actually relate to. Run a front-page opinion column every day, by a different one of them make every powerful interest in the city nervous.
3. Redirect the energy and money from the national news to local investigative reporting. A team of five reporters can break a dozen major stories a year. We do it here on much less.
4. Since David Lazarus left for the L.A. Times, there's not much muckraking on the business desk. Forget the wire stories and the puff kick some corporate asses.
5. Hire a liberal editorial page editor.
6. Ray Ratto. Go team.