By Will Harper
Listening to Chronicle editor Ward Bushee on KQED's Forum made me nostalgic for Phil Bronstein. The former Mr. Sharon Stone had his faults, but what I liked about him was that he was more than a newspaper editor--he was a showman. Remember when Bronstein donned scuba gear to save a young alligator in a lake near the Presidio from an evil trapper? And who could forget when that Komodo dragon bit him at the zoo? Despite his flair for theatrics, Bronstein was nonetheless a solid newsman, one who occasionally would perform a valuable public service like beating the crap out of Clint Reilly.
Bushee, the former Arizona Republic editor who came to San Francisco earlier this year, is, by comparison, kinda dull. That's probably why no one seems to have paid much attention to his appearance on Forum two weeks ago--it wasn't exactly what you would call titillating radio. But for those of us who care about the future of newspapers --i.e. those of us who work for newspapers-- Bushee made some remarkably candid statements about the direction his paper is headed.
For those of you too impatient to read past the jump, here's the Twitter version of what Bushee said: Chron can't figure out how to make $ from Net, so it's gonna charge more money to old people loyal to print who are scared of the Interwebs.
For those of you still reading (presumably people working in the media), Bushee basically said the Chron is going to deal with economic pressures in the industry by aggressively skewing old.
"We cannot necessarily be a publication directed towards young people at the expense of our older readers--we have to understand that," Bushee told Forum host Michael Krasny.
If the Chron was a political party, its current business strategy would be described as playing to its base. In the case of the modern American daily newspaper, the base is made up of people who qualify for senior discounts at Denny's. (Krasny noted the average age of the newspaper reader nationally is 55, which Bushee described as "a very nice audience.") The Chron, however, won't be offering senior discounts to its nice audience: Bushee said the paper planned to raise its subscription rates, confirming what SF Weekly had reported last month.
Evidence of this older-is-better strategy can be seen by the gray-haired columnists Bushee has anointed since he became editor like Carl Nolte and Andrew Ross. Then there's Bushee's controversial decision to give former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown a column in the Sunday paper. Bushee has justified the move by saying Brown was a "man about town." That's true, but only part of the equation. In keeping with the Chron's senior strategy, Brown is, more importantly, an old man about town.
Yes, this is the near-term future of the Chronicle: Comfort journalism.
"When we redesign the newspaper," Bushee said, "we can't do it for teenagers because that's going away from our core audience, and we learn that when we listen to them."
Ah, yes--the redesign. With print media struggling, the Chron's corporate parent, Hearst, has invested zillions of dollars in a new printing press, scheduled to go live next year. But from what sources at the paper tell me, focus groups hated an earlier proposed redesign shown to them. That's the thing about trying to please older readers--they don't like change. They like familiarity. It's so ... comforting.
It reminds me of Stranger mastermind Dan Savage's rap about dailies being imprisoned by their role as "family newspapers." "I mean, daily newspapers all need to put 'fuck' in a headline above the fold one day -- it'll solve all their problems," Savage told Media Bistro in an interview last month. "That's my prescription. And then in one fell swoop they'll get rid of all those 80-year-old subscribers who won't let them drop 'Blondie.' Catering to the 80-year-olds? Where's that getting newspapers? Making sure there's nothing in your paper that's inappropriate for an eighty-year-old to read?"
Still, there is wisdom in what the Chron is doing. In some ways, it's actually refreshing to hear a newspaper defy generations of conventional marketing wisdom that says younger is better. The trouble I see with the Chron's strategy is that it's a stop-gap solution. Those older readers loyal to print will eventually die off and will be replaced by a generation used to getting news online for free. The Chronicle and other newspapers still need to figure out a way to make money from their Web sites (there's widespread skepticism that online advertising will be enough).
During the interview, Krasny pressed Bushee about the issue of free online content. Bushee did hint that something needed to be done, but didn't say what that something would be. In fairness, that's beyond the scope of Bushee's job. As editor, it's his job to spend the money, not make it. You could also argue that it's too late to solve the problem anyway--newspapers screwed up in the '90s by giving away all their content for free on their Web sites. Hard to put that genie back in bottle. But I think it can be done--it's just going to require drastic measures. I'll talk about those measures in a future post.