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I'm Still Not Buying A Subscription

by: Robert Cruickshank

Sun Jan 17, 2010 at 13:21:22 PM PST

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.

Robert Cruickshank :: I'm Still Not Buying A Subscription
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Agreed (0.00 / 0)
On the other hand, not much there (and less and less as time goes by) anyway. Every byline by Carla Marinucci about California makes me cringe. Nothing but CW.

Guess I still have San Francisco hippie values, although I'm an engineer

New York Times (0.00 / 0)
The NYT is apparently thinking of re-establishing some sort of pay wall.  


Rumors are that it might be associated with Apple's rumored tablet. Nonetheless, I still don't think this is a viable long-term solution.  Information wants to be free, and this won't work from both a functional or revenue perspective.

I think?

"They haven't learned anything ..." (0.00 / 0)
Um, they've learned that paying all those reporters and giving away their work is a path to financial obivion?

What they haven't learned (0.00 / 0)
Is how to create value.

Laying off all these reporters makes the print edition a joke, so why subscribe? News outlets need to find ways to make a living online. That's as true of the SF Chronicle as it is for, say, Calbuzz.

Every effort to hide online content behind a pay wall has failed. Apparently the NYT is going to try it again, and the SF Chronicle is clearly experimenting with it here. I see nothing whatsoever to suggest they've worked out the kinks. What's more, trying to do this in the middle of a recession strikes me as a pretty bad idea - I'm not going to spend money out of my own pocket to access content behind a pay wall. Not unless I see that the Chronicle has taken steps to improve the quality of its product, and that requires hiring more reporters and producing more articles.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Reporters don't earn money (0.00 / 0)
Back when the Examiner and Chronicle merged, the Chron was an amazingly rich and deep newspaoer for a couple of years.  It also lost about a billion dollars in the first decade of the 21st century -- long before all the layoffs you bemoan.

[ Parent ]
Wow (0.00 / 0)
The folks running the Chronicle must really be nuts if they think people will pay money so they can read Scott Ostler's column.

It's all About Content (0.00 / 0)
I have been a reader of the Chronicle for over forty years. For many of those years, it was the content that drew my attention. I have been a reader of the Gate since it began. It's the home page on my browser. I still like the feel of the front page, but I rarely read any of their columnists because they are for the most part tired or right-wing hacks. It feels like they are coasting on their past reputation. Markos from Dkos made a great observation some time ago when he pointed out that in a city as multicultural as is San Francisco, it's daily newspaper has no people of color as columnists. That illustrates one of the major reasons that their print edition is dying. Those downsized newsrooms are another illustration. Can you really find detailed or even interesting coverage of local or national politics there? Cutting and pasting AP or other news services articles is not reporting its aggregating. Someone should explain the difference to the publisher.  

When the Chron fails in its experiment to hide its content behind a paywall, maybe then they can try something new and different, something from the distant past, creating interesting content!

The Information wants to be free meme (0.00 / 0)
While the citizens of the internet planet live according to  the information wants to be free philosophy, most are not willing to support the idea that making all information free also makes all information of equal value.  There will inevitably be a loss of good investigative reporting by news organizations (it takes time and costs money) substituted by the he said - she said appearance of being fair and balanced.  

There will also be a loss of institutional memory, the idea that beat reporter would know which bar the mayor's aides hung out at after work, could pick up a phone and have it answered because they knew each other.

As someone who has watched some very good investigative reporting on the internet... dengre's DailyKos posts on Abramoff come to mind... you have to separate those few quality grains from the tons of chaff and the Glenn Becks shilling for Gold.

I can agree with every one of Robert's criticisms of the Chronicle but somewhere we have to find a way to allow news organizations to be economically viable or we will be the news organizations and I don't have the time to even cover my home town.  They have only 2 options. Sell content and sell advertising, neither of which seem acceptable to many.

According to David Simon (The Wire) the alternatives are bleak. John Nichols (The Nation) backs up Simon, but again without any good future scenario.  And even those family owned home town newspapers like the Tracy Press, led now by Bob and Cheri Matthews who love their town,  have had to cut back from daily publication.  

Changing CA, one open mind at a time.  

Amen (0.00 / 0)
Yes, it's a death spiral. You can't add staff when you don't have the revenue to support it. And I'm not sure that adding staff and improving content brings revenue back for paper based news.  

[ Parent ]
Investment needs to happen (0.00 / 0)
They need to add staff in order to generate revenue. It's a common problem businesses face; they have to start new product lines and create value in order to turn around sagging profits, even though that means increased costs.

It's not about "paper-based news" which is why the Chronicle's move is particularly stupid. They need to see themselves as "news outlets" and not "newspapers." At least the NY Times seems to grasp this. I'm unconvinced their looming move to try again to charge for online content will work, but at least it's based on the notion that people might want to pay for what is definitely a high-quality news product.

The Chronicle, on the other hand, thinks people will want to buy subscriptions to a newspaper to get the same old stuff they've always been getting. It doesn't make any sense.

You can check out any time you like but you can never leave

[ Parent ]
Content is the product (0.00 / 0)
If their is no interesting content, then newspapers become very generic. William Randolph Hearst understood that. The DeYoung's published the Chronicle for many years and did well. One of the ways they did it was to deliver a product that provided value. That is why there was a bidding war between the Examiner and The Chronicle for columnists. They fought over new ways to attract subscribers. More recently however, publishers have not responded well to the competition from online sources. There was a period of time in the early days of the internet when the dead tree publishers could have crushed online competition by creating a true mixed-media for delivering news and information. Instead they gave lip service to the growing online audience while strip mining their dead-tree publications for high profit margins.

It really is too bad that the Chron is choosing to fight this rear-guard action against changing times. They still have a great brand, they are based in a city that is one of the most dynamic and creative places in the world. Surely there is someone who has the talent and vision to lead them forward into the future, rather than backward into a rapidly dying past.

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