New Editor, New Media, New Emphasis: Is the Chronicle So Over San Francisco?

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By Benjamin Wachs

Here’s the thing about the San Francisco Chronicle: It’s losing value. The paper lost $330 million between 2000 and 2005, according to its parent company, which is way more than even Phil Bronstein can find in his sofa.

Here’s the thing about Gannett News Corporation: It makes money. A December 2007 Credit Suisse report on newspapers ranked its value at about twice that of the New York Times Corp.

So, when Hearst brings in one of Gannett’s poster-boy editors to run the Chronicle, it’s pretty obvious to Bay Area journalism watchers that it’s not journalistic excellence that the Chron will be judged by.

“My take would be that we’re looking at a guy who will very much work with the business side to do what he can to improve performance pretty quickly,” said Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst for the Poynter Institute, which is almost to journalism what the Southern Poverty Law Center is to Southern poverty.

Both Edmonds and Bob Steele, a journalism ethicist for Poynter, had met new Chron editor Ward Bushee, and while both described him as being pretty good with news, neither could remember anything in particular about his coverage that stood out. Instead, it was his business acumen –- especially with “new media” –- that topped their recollections.

“Gannett has a strong corporate emphasis on turning their newspapers into ‘information centers,’ especially with the ‘digital products’ within their newspapers,” said Steele, “and Ward’s been ahead of the curve on that.”

Journalism professors reached at the U.C. Berkeley School of Journalism likewise couldn’t think of any way in which coverage at the papers Bushee has headed – most recently the Arizona Republic in Phoenix – has stood out. No one said ‘Oh, yeah, he led that groundbreaking work on nuclear power,’ or ‘race relations’ or ‘exposing the location of the black box containing Dick Cheney’s still-beating heart.’ But they knew Bushee by reputation for his focus on getting a news Web site hits.

Which is to say, he should fit in fine in San Francisco – a city that lives and dies by Internet bubbles. But Edmonds suggests it’s not San Francisco that Bushee, or his new masters at Hearst, really have their eyes on: It’s the surrounding Bay Area.

“The most interesting similarity between the Phoenix market and the San Francisco market is that they have this very broad sprawl out from the center, and the one of the Chronicle’s biggest problems is that their core city, where they can expect to have high penetration, is pretty small – and then they have strong local competition everywhere they go,” said Edmonds. “That’s not something that works well for advertisers. He’s got a record for getting attention to a central city paper and website from these outer cities.”

So as much as San Francisco is talking about Ward Bushee, he may not be talking about San Francisco very much at all.


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