SF Chronicle cutbacks force target refocus

As the San Francisco Chronicle prepares to lose 25% of its newsroom, some hope the cutbacks - as grim as they are - will force the newspaper to return to its roots as a city paper, instead of the regional one it has become.

As the San Francisco Chronicle prepares to lose 25% of its newsroom, some hope the cutbacks - as grim as they are - will force the newspaper to return to its roots as a city paper, instead of the regional one it has become.

But even if narrowing its coverage is the way to win back readers, personnel cuts on this scale will affect news inevitably on the local level.

The Chronicle announced the layoffs last month, but it's not clear if certain departments will be targeted or if cuts will be made across the board. The Chronicle did not return calls seeking comment.

Even so, many are blaming the Chronicle's shrinking readership on its decision to compete head-on with local papers in its region. Its struggle is a microcosm of many large papers' problems, as they seek to navigate competition from local counterparts and the Internet while retaining their traditional prestige.

Covering the entire Bay Area worked when the Chronicle directly rivaled The San Francisco Examiner, notes John Burks, retired chair of the journalism department at San Francisco State University. Since the papers merged in 1999, he says, the Chronicle has continued its regional strategy with a smaller staff and hasn't been able to compete with the local publications.

"Reaching out to the suburban readers who have more money made sense from an advertising perspective," but when the Hearst Corp.-owned Chronicle did things like discontinue its zoned editions, the outreach stopped working, Burks notes.

But this regional approach wasn't just to court advertisers, says Robert Gunnison, a journalism lecturer at the University of California-Berkeley and the Chronicle's former Sacramento bureau chief. The paper targeted the region because many of its readers live outside of San Francisco, he says.

"Generally, the news industry addiction is local, local, local, and that's a tough game for
the Chronicle considering its demographics," Gunnison says. "Which 'local, local' do you do?"

Yet reverting to city coverage would not put the Chronicle back in competition with the tabloid-sized Examiner (now owned by Clarity Media Group), says Tim Redmond, executive editor of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the city's alternative weekly.

Redmond says The Examiner is doing a "decent job" of writing snippets of city news, but the Chronicle should be the city's watchdog, keeping an eye on the local government.

"The regional papers are all owned by [MediaNews Group CEO] Dean Singleton - and he's cutting back staff, too - so none of the regional papers are going to pick up the slack," Redmond points out.

It's doubtful the Chronicle will be able to fill its daily pages and set reporters aside to work on enterprising stories with such a reduced staff. For instance, Chronicle reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada wrote an award-winning series that alleged San Francisco Giants star Barry Bonds used steroids in 2004. Redmond says breaking a story like that means letting reporters work on an investigative piece for as long as a year. "That's a luxury big city papers should have," he adds.

Pulling back enterprising news will affect other area media - especially television, radio, and bloggers - that rely on the Chronicle to set the news agenda. And if there are only enough Chronicle reporters to cover inverted pyramid stories, the entire market suffers, warns Burk.

But this could be the dark hour before the light. John McManus, director of GradetheNews.org and a journalism instructor at San Jose State University, says this crisis will sort itself out because people will realize they need news and will pay for it - even on the Internet.

And San Francisco is one of the wealthiest and most educated markets in the country - traditionally a demographic that reads news and one that advertisers covet. But if there is no clear news leader setting the standard, will we even know what we're missing?

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