The Impending Demise of San Francisco Newspapers

by Randy Shaw on January 14, 2013

Last week’s purchase of the SF Weekly by the owners of the SF Examiner and Bay Guardian was a shocking and telling development. It was shocking because few seemed to care, and telling because it showed the increasingly irrelevance of daily print English language media in San Francisco. I described in 2009 why the San Francisco Chronicle’s huge financial losses and circulation decline put its future as a daily print newspaper in doubt, and these losses have continued while the paper has fallen out of the top 25 in circulation for the first time (its print version had only 165,000 readers in March 2012, a nearly 50% drop since 2009). The Chronicle’s owner is looking to profit from real estate development, not journalism. Layoffs at the SF Weekly have begun and the staffs of the once combative weeklies will eventually merge. The end of the line for English language print newspapers in San Francisco is near.

The media world has dramatically changed since the Bay Guardian’s antitrust lawsuit against the SF Weekly went to trial in January 2008. At the time, a Beyond Chron article proclaimed that nothing less than the “future of independent media” was at stake.

But even the Guardian’s $15 million damage award could not save it. When Bruce Brugmann made over $2 million in profits from the paper’s sale in April 2012, he acknowledged, “Publishing is hard now, advertising is not easy. Not everyone is interested in buying newspapers in this country.”

Brugmann’s profits came from selling the paper’s real estate, not its reporting. And last week Village Voice media sold the SF Weekly for a likely smaller sum than its litigation costs in the Guardian lawsuit (it also sold the Seattle Weekly, and is rumored to have the Village Voice on the block).

Today’s young people do not need to pick up a newspaper to learn what’s happening in the city, as they have smartphones, computers and/or apps. Both papers once made gobs of money from escort and dating ads. But these ads have shifted to online sites, and Village Voice media’s current financial crisis stems from its being charged with operating “the biggest forum for sex trafficking of under-age girls in the United States.”

In the pre-Internet days, cafes were filled with people reading newspapers while drinking coffee. Today, laptops dominate the café scene, and even novels are read on phones.

The print editions of the Bay Guardian and SF Weekly are not sustainable, and will either merge or keep separate online identities.

The Old Media World

The SF Chronicle continues its print edition despite losing millions annually because of the Hearst Corporation’s real estate venture with Forest City to develop its large 5th and Mission holdings. It’s a lot easier to sell this massive development project if a) the Chronicle can promote it in its print edition and b) the project’s office towers can be justified as subsidizing the survival of a print newspaper.

But I have come across nobody in the journalism field who believes that the Chronicle’s print edition has much of a future. Young people coming to the Bay Area are not becoming subscribers, and what’s left of the paper’s declining circulation base is akin to the national Republican Party—it is disproportionately white, over 60 years of age, and not a leading target of advertisers.

The Chronicle’s print edition will either lose its independent status and become part of the newspaper groups led by the San Jose Mercury News and the SF Examiner, or be entirely replaced by

The New Media World

Many argue that the online world is dependent on traditional newspaper content. They look at the many newspaper articles linked or reprinted on the Huffington Post and see “old media” reporting as driving traffic on online sites.

Yet the Huffington Post could survive quite well in the absence of most traditional newspapers. So could Salon, Politico, Daily Kos and other popular news sites. While the New York Times and other newspapers do provide information and stories vital to public policy debates, this is not a trait usually ascribed to the San Francisco Chronicle or most of the nation’s daily print publications (which itself is a factor in their declining circulation and revenue).

And while print newspapers disappear, online news sources face their own serious competition from smartphones and social media like Facebook and Twitter. Websites that took readers from traditional newspapers by “shortening” the news now are challenged by rapidly updated tweets and Facebook postings. This will likely mean even shorter online stories, as people sending texts and working on their own social media accounts are too busy to read longer stories.

I love print newspapers and wish their owners had been more visionary in addressing the challenges of online and social media competition. But the cost conscious owners of the Chronicle, Bay Guardian and SF Weekly are unlikely to invest in the type of real journalism that compels the attention of Bay Area readers—-leaving their print futures even more precarious.

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron

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