| Desperate for subscribers, the San Francisco Chronicle today announced that it was going to party like it's 1999 by withholding some articles from SFGate.com and making them available either in print or in their "e-edition":
This week's print-only articles are: A comparison of California's budget problems with other states, the use of Twitter to obtain better customer service and the profile of interior designer Orlando Diaz-Azcuy, plus the Sunday columns of Willie Brown, Matier & Ross, Scott Ostler and Ray Ratto. Print stories that are embargoed will include a subhead and icon "Exclusive to the print edition."
These stories will be searchable on SFGate on Tuesday, and may also be displayed on the homepage. It is important that we provide Gate readers with the chance to see these stories and to give the great work our journalists do the widest possible audience. We believe that by posting the stories later in the week, we provide value to both our print and online readers.
This is one of the dumbest ideas I have ever heard. Instead of embracing the numerous online methods that are now available to get the news, including Facebook, Twitter, web browsing, and so on, Hearst thinks the solution to its financial woes is to keep important content, stuff that generates a lot of traffic to their site, offline and hidden from the Internet universe.
It's a variation of the "walled garden" strategy of paying for content that has been tried and abandoned by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times op-ed section, and the Sacramento Bee's Capitol Alert. And while the Chronicle might think that they're still offering online readers something valuable with this "e-edition" (what a ridiculous name), the early reviews in the comments aren't favorable.
This decision is even more of a head-scratcher when you consider that the New York Times has launched a Bay Area edition that includes former Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Weintraub, whose insights aren't being kept offline. It always struck me as odd that the New York Times has so many subscribers in the Bay Area (I used to be one, from 1999 to 2001) at the expense of the Chronicle. Instead of staffing up to try and show NYT subscribers that the hometown paper was worth paying for, the Chronicle is instead responding to the NYT's newest assault on their turf by making it harder and therefore less desirable to read Chronicle news.
It's particularly unfortunate for the California political blogosphere that articles about how the state's fiscal crisis compares to other states, and the usually newsworthy columns of Matier and Ross and Willie Brown are being held back until Tuesday. Those who still have access to the print edition will still blog about it, but won't be able to provide a link back to SFGate.com, denying the site traffic and ad impressions. Once the article is posted a few days later, it'll already be stale.
Ironically enough, SFGate.com was one of the true pioneers of online news reporting in the 1990s, combining articles from the Chronicle and the old SF Examiner with original online content. It was and in many ways still is a model for others.
But that is being eroded as the failed newspaper industry applies its model of destroying value to the online world. After having hollowed out their newsroom staff and making the print edition a joke (have you picked one up lately? it's thinner than the PTA newsletters we used to get back in the '80s), the Chronicle seems determined to do the same to its flagship website.
What is clear is that the Chronicle hasn't learned a damn thing from a decade of crisis for newspapers. They continue to cut reporters - and therefore destroy value, giving readers less reason to keep reading - and at the same time insist on espousing a centrism that says nothing, ignores real news and actual truths, in a region that is dominated by well-off progressives with a hunger for genuine reporting.
I still cannot imagine a reason to buy a print edition of the SF Chronicle. And their decision to hold back some of their more valuable content is only going to make their news reporting less important and less relevant.