Time travel: Google to Chronicle

When I visited the Bay Area last week, I first went to Google and the next day, for old time’s sake, I met a long-ago colleague in the historic John’s Grill in San Francisco and then revisited the Chronicle and former Examiner newsrooms for the first time in decades. I had left the Examiner in 1981. The contrast could not have been greater and the ghosts more evident. Google was bright and shining and optimistic with ideas and invention. The Chronicle was dark and dusty and depressing (and the Examiner was already as good as dead).

Well, now the Chronicle may die as Hearst announces – like the Star-Ledger and plenty of other papers before it – that if concessions and cuts are not found, the paper will fold. San Francisco would be the first major American city left without a daily newspaper.

I see this as an opportunity squandered. Here was the paper atop Silicon Valley that should have seen the changes in our world clearer than any other, that should have anticipated the importance of October, 1994, when the commercial browser was introduced, that could have reinvented itself over a luxurious decade and a half. But now, instead, it’s hurry-up-or-die for the Chron.

Before I moved out of San Francisco, the friend I had lunch with the other day and I went to the basement of the old Hearst building as it was moving and we were invited to pick up junk before it was hauled away. Junk, hell, it was history. I have on the wall in my office at home a framed statement from WRH – William Randolph Hearst – admonishing his staffs:

To Publishers and Managing Editors of All Hearst Newspapers

Please keep our newspaper NEWSpapers.

Please do not allow them to degenerate into propagandistic organs….

Hearst

That Examiner was, you see, very bloggy. It was opinionated, no matter how much WRH protested that it was fair and balanced. It was entrepreneurial. It was the start of an era, not the end of one.

I say in my entrepreneurial journalism class that for the first time since William Randolph Hearst himself, journalists can think and act like entrepreneurs. They can start new news enterprises with the vigor of a WRH or a Nick Denton or a Mike Arrington or a Krishna Bharat (the creator of GoogleNews) or a Upendra Shardnand (my partner, founder of Daylife).

If – Hearst forbid – the Chronicle dies, I have no doubt that something will rise from its dust and ashes to serve the news needs of the Bay Area. But the transition will not be orderly, as I once thought it could have been. There will be destruction as people in that newsroom – a few of them, a very few of them, old colleagues and friends – lose their jobs. But then a new WRH will come into town and create a new Examiner for a new age. Bet on it.

  • Mike P

    Jeff,
    Good post. I am already kind of wondering what will fill the void should the Chron go under. Not good times for my adopted home.

  • Menlo Bob

    It died years ago. Funeral services have been dragging on far too long. That stinky sucker needs to have dirt shoveled on it NOW.

  • http://www.rejurno.com jane stevens

    Here’s an idea — http://rejurno.com/2009/02/24/a-modest-proposal-for-the-seattle-times/ — that I put together (complete with goofy graphics) for the Seattle Times. Another Hearst paper, the Seattle P-I is due to stop publishing in a couple of weeks, and the Times has the freedom to take a radical approach. The same could happen in S.F.
    We could round up the old gang and make it happen!

  • http://www.digidave.org Digidave

    I’m doing some link-journalism right now about the Chronicle situation. I’m not sure if the Bay is ready for it – but there is a movement afoot to figure out what comes next.

  • Skip Uldriks

    Mr. Jarvis,
    The local information void is being filled by many thousands of digital pioneers, as we sit here pecking away at our keyboards. Your book, WWGD, is a how-to-manual for doing just. Oh, and I need to mention that a computer, curiosity and passion are key elements as well. The writing comes with practice.

    Look at yourself, Mr. Jarvis. From a TV gossip castaway, to joining visionaries like Seth Godin, Tom Friedman, Chris Anderson and Kevin Kelly (and a NY professor to boot). Not bad for an average-looking skinny guy.

    Built on the backs of (George) Gilder’s Law, (Bob) Metcalfe’s Law and the vast network (tool’s) from Google, you and your famous friends have given hope to many hundreds of not-so-good-looking fat guy’s in the mid-west.

    Metcalfe’s law of network’s, value = n x n. The new Midwestern version is Annual Income = Computer, Broadband, curiosity and passion x Google.

    Thank you for the road map into the near future.

  • Just stop it

    To portray what’s happening to newspapers at the moment as an editorial or audience problem is deeply disingenuous.

    • http://www.indiconews.com E.Hodgson

      Hi JSI – just wondering where you see the problem lies?

      • Mike G

        That the whole grandiose self-important business was built on classified ads for used cars and garage sales, and when that went away, it collapsed.

  • http://thenewsfactor.com Dennis

    One of the aspects of this dying industry is that the consumers of ink and paper are dying off. They are being replaced by people more interested in sound bites and bullet points … not one of the features of paper news. That’s not to say that newspapers aren’t valuable commodities, they are. It’s simply that they MUST reinvent themselves … or should we say, re-invigorate themselves with “stuff” that today’s society really want. I can say that from an “insider’s” point of view because in just a few minutes I’ll be getting ready to go work for my local paper here in Gwinnett County, Georgia. I think about this every day … and believe me, the “what to do” is as important a question we face as any I can remember.

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  • http://www.savenewspapers.com Scott

    It may be impossible for newspapers to re-invent themselves while burdened with so much debt during a recession. a re-invention will take a major investment, and that’s obviously not forthcoming.

    at this point would anybody be willing to make a serious attempt to create a replacement for the san fran chronicle? and by that, i mean hiring a significant number of professional reporters, instead of one of the various attempts to build a site focused primarily around citizen journalism?

  • Andy Freeman

    > It may be impossible for newspapers to re-invent themselves while burdened with so much debt during a recession. a re-invention will take a major investment, and that’s obviously not forthcoming.

    That’s backwards. Investment happens AFTER successful re-invention. (Actually, investment happens after someone proves a successful biz model and the investee makes a plausible case of being able to pull it off.)

    > at this point would anybody be willing to make a serious attempt to create a replacement for the san fran chronicle? and by that, i mean hiring a significant number of professional reporters,

    “hire a significant number of professional reporters” is an odd goal. More important, it’s not a goal that is likely to get funded. Okay. I lied. It’s a goal will probably discourage funders. (There’s a relevant saying in engineering; “customers don’t care how hard it is”.)

    Let me suggest an alternative that is a lot more likely to get funded – “a profitable journalism biz”.

    I find it odd that “professionals” have so little understanding of biz. “Professional” isn’t just “extremely skilled” or “trained” – there’s a “in ways that others will pay for” component.

  • invitedmedia

    barring a temp. inj. (chances are i’d take that bet) the rocky mountain news is done as of friday’s issue.

    no mention of web-only that i saw.

  • http://www.rosenblumtv.com Rosenblum

    And now the Rocky Mountain News.
    What kind of society are we going to be without newspapers.
    I don’t want to sound like a troglodyte but we still dont have a working online model to replace papers, and there are going to be a heck of a lot of major cities with no news at all.
    Do people care… or are we already beyond that?

    • invitedmedia

      was watching a live stream of the denver post/rmn news conference. dean singleton seemed more concerned with his tv and radio bro’s. declining revenue (said so at least twice, the first time to some laughter from the tv and radio folks in the audience)than that which caused the rmn to fold.

      leaves one to wonder.

    • Andy Freeman

      > there are going to be a heck of a lot of major cities with no news at all.

      Surely you’re not asserting that newspapers have doing news?

      > Do people care… or are we already beyond that?

      Yes we care – that’s why we abandoned newspapers.

  • Geoffrey

    Well the problem is city-based newspapers to begin with. The UK market is dominated by nationals. Surely hearst can rationalise a lot of jobs and gain greater advertiser power if there was say a unified West Coast Chronicle – from Seattle to San Diego.

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  • http://blog.threestarleadership.com Wally Bock

    It seems to me that this isn’t a recent thing. The Journal-American, where I got my first publishing credit by winning a contest is gone, and it was the result of a merger of two papers. Tom Lehrer’s Christmas song lyrics are “Hark the Herald Tribune sings” but the only Herald Tribune left is the International one, owned by the Times.

    There’s a lot going on here for a lot longer than the web. Part of the issue is that for the better part of the last century you could be dumber than a box of rocks and still make money if you owned the local paper. Papers got complacent. They never seemed to come up with a good way to mate entrepreneurial energy and journalistic standards.

  • http://blogs.adobe.com/jd John Dowdell

    .

    Thanks for the photo of Hearst’s 1938 statement, Jeff.

    I stopped buying the Chron in the 80s precisely for the reasons he cited.

    .

  • Bruce

    So, uh, Jeff, you endorse the sentiments in the Heart statement, but you write for the friggin’ Guardian?

    Wow.

    • http://www.buzzmachine.com Jeff Jarvis

      I don’t understand your point.

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