The fact is inescapable; the news media landscape has changed in the 21st century. On television, cable news channels have expanded exponentially and broadcast news channels have expanded the hours devoted to news. On radio, many all-news stations have disappeared and news segments on other stations have shrunk. On the internet, news (some accurate and fair, some neither) is everywhere. But perhaps the biggest change has been the serious decline in daily newspapers, both in numbers and — in some cases — in quality.
Regarding the former, the numbers don’t lie. Between 2000 and 2018 (the last year for which data was available) approximately 200 daily newspapers in the United States ceased publication. The number represents approximately 14% of all the daily papers in the United States in 2000. More importantly, it represents cities and towns across the country that no longer have a daily source of local news. Estimated weekday newspaper circulation has fallen by half; from 55.8 million in 2000 to 24.2 million in 2020.
If the numbers are to be believed, The San Francisco Chronicle, which once proclaimed itself “The Voice of the West,” has taken a worse beating than most daily papers. From circulation greater than 500,000 in 2000 the Chronicle has fallen to an average circulation of approximately 60,000 today. By comparison, the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, which serves a far smaller population, currently has a daily circulation of 22,000.
Though never challenging the New York Times or Washington Post for excellence, the San Francisco Chronicle’s news reporting back in the day was decent, earning it several Pulitzer Prizes. Where it shined brightest was in features, with nationally known columnists like Herb Caen, Art Hoppe, Stan Delaplane and Charles McCabe. In addition, it had some superb staff writers, including Ralph J. Gleason (music), Marilyn Tucker (art), Gwen Knapp (sports), GraceAnn Walden (food), Alan Temko (architecture) and Robert Commanday (classical music). It also serialized two books that captured the zeitgeist of the 1970s and 1980s in the Bay Area and became national best sellers: The Serial: A Year in the Life of Marin County by Cyra McFadden, and Tales of the City (the original and three sequels) by Armistead Maupin.
Even during the 2000s, as the internet rose and circulation declined, the San Francisco Chronicle retained some good writers, including Jon Carroll, Leah Garchik, John King, Vanessa Hua, Carl Nolte, Peter Hartlaub, Ben Fong-Torres, Barbara Lane, Kathleen Pender, Mick LaSalle, Ann Killion, Bruce Jenkins and Matier & Ross. Alas, most of those named (with the exception of Killian, Nolte, King, LaSalle and Hartlaub, and the possible exception of Fong-Torres) are gone now; either retired, left for greener pastures or — in the case of the few who provided recent weekly columns — discontinued. As one of the latter noted, “The reason I was given is I’m not getting enough ‘clicks’.” More on that tidbit later.
Today the San Francisco Chronicle is a ghost of its former self. The daily paper consists of two sections, the first — typically 10-12 pages — devoted to news, the second — also typically 10-12 pages — split between sports and entertainment/culture. There is no business section; normally less than a page in the news section is dedicated to business news, despite the Bay Area’s standing as one of the major business centers of the United States. In that second section, most of the pages feature sports news. Except on Fridays, only four pages are allocated to entertainment/culture; two of those are given over to the comics and a portion of the third goes to the television listings.
The Wednesday food & wine section? Gone. The Sunday travel section? Also gone, except for an occasional section focused on one location.
Editorials? The San Francisco Chronicle doesn’t do editorials anymore. Instead it publishes “Open Forum” opinion pieces written by outsiders. The newspaper’s editors apparently no longer take stands on local issues and then write cogent editorials to support their views.
One more thing. The San Francisco Chronicle never reports late breaking news. If news happens after approximately 6:30 p.m., it won’t appear in the newspaper until the day after the following day.
While the overall quality of the San Francisco Chronicle has gone way down, the cost to subscribe has not. The last time I looked, the rate for home delivery was $80 a month.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should say that I wrote a few articles for the San Francisco Chronicle back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were articles about wine, were written as a freelancer and were published in the food section. Since they appeared back in the pre-internet days, good luck finding them.
Amid the dismantling of the San Francisco Chronicle as a newspaper, its parent company, the Hearst Corporation, recently announced record results for the fiscal year. SF Gate, its free website, which purportedly has a separate staff, receives approximately 28 million visitors a month. By comparison, sfchonicle.com, its paywall website, averages slightly more than 10 million visitors a month. Making the bias even more obvious, there are articles on the San Francisco Chronicle paywall website that never appear in the print version. The print subscribers help pay for those articles, but don’t get to see them unless they log on to the website.
Which brings me back to that previously mentioned tidbit about that dropped columnist “…not getting enough ‘clicks’.” Maybe if the San Francisco Chronicle polled its faithful print subscribers — a mail-in questionnaire in the paper for a couple of days should suffice — regarding which writers and what kinds of stories they would like to read, it could adjust content to appeal to them. But those faithful subscribers don’t matter much anymore. It is all about the clicks. As a source inside the San Francisco Chronicle commented, “The growth in our industry is online, and that is where the focus is now.”
What can faithful San Francisco Chronicle newspaper readers do to change this trajectory to print oblivion? Beyond making their concerns known to the editors, probably not much. The irony is the San Francisco Chronicle as a newspaper is the sole reason the affiliated websites exist; without its name recognition, those websites would not be successful.
Fortunately, there remain daily and weekly newspapers in Northern California with a strong mix of news, sports, entertainment, features and editorial. They deserve the public’s support. So subscribe. Buy copies at the newsstand. If a business, advertise. And though it may sound counterintuitive, get an online subscription. Every bit of financial help those papers that truly serve their communities receive, the better they will be able to serve their communities.
I delivered the SF Chronicle in Davis, California in the mid-60’s. The papers were dropped-off in a wired bundle at about 4 am and you had to wake-up and tightly tri-fold each paper, place a rubber band around each one and then load up a two-sided sack that slung over your shoulders via a strap on either side and San Francisco Chronicle emblazoned across the front. Then you jumped on your bike and had to finish your delivery by 6:30 am. I can tell you right now there weren’t any 12 page newspapers back then. And the Sunday edition? By God it must’ve weighed at least 3 pounds. This was 365 days a year through the cold, the rain, the barking dogs and no adults around to help you if you struggled out there. And during school year you did all this before your first class. It was truly a great first job that taught you time management, responsibility and resourcefulness. So along with the journalists and newspapers themselves , the entry level job known as the paper-boy has also vanished.
1st job I got here, on this coast, was the 2 A.M. Chron, delivered, strangely, from the front seat of my Chrysler to the various woodsy subscribers. That was 1985. By the time I refilled the gas tank each day, there was little left for bacon & beans.