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Thursday, April 16, 2009

Turning the Chronicle into the Bay Guardian Won't Save It

Posted By on Thu, Apr 16, 2009 at 11:59 AM

click to enlarge san_francisco_chronicle_august_7_1945.jpg

In the months since Hearst announced it might sell or close the Chronicle, I've read one hundred different reasons explaining why the paper is on the brink of collapse. The dumbest "analysis," though, has to be that the Chron is suffering because it's not "progressive" enough.

That line has been peddled by Randy Shaw on BeyondChron ("The Chronicle's top management has ignored their progressive customer base even at the cost of declining circulation and advertising revenue") and the Bay Guardian, which recently observed in an editorial that the Chronicle has "become so politically conservative that progressives, particularly young progressives who make up the future of its demographic base, see little reason to subscribe."

The Chronicle isn't failing because its news and editorial pages aren't lefty enough. It's on the verge of collapse because of economic factors hurting the entire newspaper industry: Declining ad revenues, the inability to monetize online content, and the migration of readers -- especially young ones -- from print to the Internet. If being overtly progressive is the tonic that would cure what ails the Chronicle, then the Guardian -- the city's leftiest rag -- should, by implication, be thriving. Of course, it's not because the Guardian isn't immune to the problems afflicting newspapers (more so dailies than weeklies, but we're hurting, too) in urban centers across America.

The Guardian is a shadow of its former self. An easy way to illustrate this is to look at its page count (fewer pages mean fewer ads and thus less revenue). Ten years ago, it wasn't unusual for an issue of the Guardian to be 150 pages; over the last few months, it has averaged about 60 pages. (SF Weekly has suffered a similar decline in size during the same period.) The Guardian's circulation has notably dropped over the past decade and its readership has continued to get older -- just like the Chronicle. And while online readership for the Guardian, and the Weekly for that matter, continues to rise, the Web is still not a major source of revenue for it -- just like the Chronicle.

The Guardian would no doubt blame SF Weekly for its current financial woes rather than the economy or an industry-wide downturn in the newspaper business. They got a San Francisco jury to buy into that shaky premise, but the Guardian can't honestly blame us for single-handedly driving down its revenues.

Consider this: Romance or personal ads were once a significant source of money for Bay Area alt-weeklies. Not anymore. With the rise of Craigslist and dating Web sites like Match.com, printed personal ads have all but disappeared. In the '90s, SF Weekly used to employ a "romance director" and a "romance coordinator"; those jobs are but a romantic memory. The Guardian, meanwhile, has seen the demise of its 900-number, which was once a real cash cow. Back in the day, readers would pay about $2 a minute to respond to personal ads in the paper. According to financial statements disclosed during its lawsuit against the Weekly, the Guardian averaged about $1 million a year in revenue from its 900 number in the mid-'90s; in 2007, the 900 number accounted for less than $3,000 in total revenue.

Finally, the Guardian's contention that the Chronicle has become "so politically conservative" is bogus. Under Hearst, the Chron's editorial page and endorsements have become considerably more liberal than under the de Young family -- when the paper skewed laughably Republican. As Cynthia Gorney put it in a 1999 American Journalism Review article, "every November you'd look for the CHRONICLE ENDORSES column and see this top-to-bottom lineup of right-wing Republicans."

Funny thing, though, is that even though the paper's politics were out of step with its more liberal readership back then, the Chronicle was highly profitable. See, it's not the politics. It's the economics, stupid.

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Will Harper

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