Monday, December 19, 2005

Newspaper Battles

Ken Garcia, longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist, is now writing 3 columns a week for the scrappy, free, faded-version-of-its-former-sort-of-glorious-self, the Examiner.

Garcia, who took the Chronicle’s recent buyout offer after 13 years at the paper, uses his first column to slam the current management of the Chronicle – which just saw a 16.6 % drop in circulation – the largest in the country. What Garcia says could be true for most any other paper in the country:

“How did I get here? The beginning of the end could probably be traced to a point not long after the New York-based Hearst Corp. took over the San Francisco Chronicle about five years back, ending the paper’s run as one of the country’s oldest family-owned newspapers. A dysfunctional family, yes — whose isn’t? — but one that showed great loyalty to its employees and seemed to have an understanding of the paper’s role in The City and surrounding community.

At first the signs were subtle — less local news, veteran editors quietly disappearing overnight — and then the readers started complaining. What happened to all the San Francisco coverage? One of my regular readers complained to a high-level Chronicle editor and the response she got was like a slap to anyone who understood the paper’s colorful history and long-held traditions. Why was there less San Francisco news? “The Chronicle is not a San Francisco newspaper,’’ she was told. “It’s a regional newspaper based in San Francisco.’’

For someone who grew up reading the Chronicle, let alone working there, this was like the Anaheim Angels suddenly announcing that they actually played in Los Angeles. But when you’re the San Francisco columnist for a San Francisco paper, such euphemistic shifts echo more like a dreaded proclamation. By the time the paper’s editors decided that they didn’t really like opinions in their news page columns, it was like wiping clean a long legacy of celebrated columnists by which the paper made its name. A paper known for offering unbridled opinions now only had a high one for itself.”

Garcia has finally learned what many journalists have long suspected and feared: he is just a cog in a huge machine, no matter how well he writes or how many fans he has.

It’s ironic, though. Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chronicle, is still privately held and doesn’t have to kowtow to the stockholders on Wall Street. You would think a corporation like that would hold journalism in high esteem. But that’s not the trend anymore. Knight-Ridder, long considered one of the best newspaper chains in the country, recently put itself up for sale because its stockholders said the company wasn’t maximizing its assets. KR let go hundreds of reporters at the same time, ensuring a drop in the quality of their papers.

The news business is in trouble, and not just because of the Internet. It’s adopting the wrong approach to saving itself by imitating the short staccato stories that dominate the Web. But long, thoughtful stories that delve into government malfeasance, showcase struggling people or amazing artists, are what distinguish newspapers. These stories are generally written by experienced reporters. But these are the ones who are being pushed out.

No comments: