San Francisco Chronicle's Audrey Cooper on the importance of local journalism

Audrey Cooper, managing editor, San Francisco Chronicle, speaks to Laura Nichols about juggling two websites and a print product and the importance of local journalism.

Name: Audrey Cooper
Title: Managing editor
Outlet: San Francisco Chronicle
Preferred contact: acooper@sfchronicle.com
Website: SFChronicle.com

Why have two websites?
SFChronicle.com is a premium subscription destination with award-winning reporters, in-depth analysis, investigative reporting, features, and more.  

SFGate.com is the place to find out what’s going on in San Francisco and the Bay Area, including breaking news and coverage of local sports teams and events. SFGate.com delivers content in quick-hit blog posts. It launched in 1994, while SFChronicle went live in March 2013. 

SFGate.com is a little snarkier and irreverent. The San Francisco Chronicle is what I would call "journalism with a capital J."

SFGate.com started as a separate brand. Now we are exploring ways to leverage that brand and also have a different business model with our more serious, investigative journalism on SFChronicle.com. 

How big is your audience?
The two sites have a global audience of about 28 million. The vast majority comes from SFGate.com. We have some digital-only subscribers, but almost everyone who has a newspaper subscription has access to SFChronicle.com. The printed newspaper has about 300,000 subscribers – depending on what day.

Is content shared?
SFGate.com has breaking news and stories from the Chronicle newsroom. Content differentiation is something that’s always evolving. We get the best engagement on the Chronicle’s site with smart, in-depth stories. That’s not necessarily what people are looking for when they log on to SFGate.com.

It’s a nuanced and subjective series of decisions that we are working to get right. You will see us play with this a lot more in 2015 as we add more immersive storytelling pieces to our subscription site.

Since SFChronicle.com’s launch, what have you learned about the willingness of today’s readers to pay for online content?
We realized there were opportunities to better articulate what we were doing and what content was on each site. The decision was to put content from SFChronicle.com on our sister website, but we didn’t take down the paywall – it is still there.

The benefits of the Chronicle’s website are the following: Enhanced coverage – with interactive graphics, video, and additional stories; exclusive stories, we post many of our investigations and enterprise work there; and we post content early, before it goes in print.

Which website is growing faster?
Unique visitors to the Chronicle’s site in September 2014 totaled 2.9 million, up from 394,768 in September 2013. SFGate.com had 27.3 million visitors in September 2014, up from 18.5 million visitors in September 2013.

Why did you redesign SFGate.com?
The last significant redesign of SFGate.com was more than six years ago, so there was a basic aim of giving readers a more modern, current site to show the depth and variety of the content.

There were technical objectives, too, such as the desire to improve search functionality and optimize for a range of browsers and devices, but we wanted to give our readers a richer storytelling experience. For example, most digital news outlets don’t have an award-winning photo department. We do and wanted to better showcase that.

Sometimes the medium informs the message, and that’s certainly something we are finding helps with the re-designed site. SFGate.com is the right-now thermometer of the region, and the highly visual, river-focused design allows us to display content that way. 

SFChronicle.com is a more immersive, in-depth experience that is programmed a bit more traditionally with enterprise-focused news at the top.

How does the newspaper fit into the local landscape and stay relevant?
When the San Francisco Giants clinched the World Series in October, it seemed everybody wanted to get a copy of that front page. The paper also has the ability to draw newsmakers, readers, and the community together in a way nothing else can do as effectively.

We just launched our new membership program, which gives subscribers behind-the-scenes access to the newspaper and events. They sell out almost as soon as we put them up. We give reporters metrics for how their stories do every day digitally. It’s reassuring to them to see the stories that do best online are the more thoughtful ones they put the most work into and the ones that are great journalism.

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