How an online newspaper can succeed

Pub date September 29, 2009
SectionEditorialSectionNews & Opinion

EDITORIAL Dave Iverson, host of KQED’s Friday Forum show, introduced the Sept. 25 program with a pretty obvious comment: "Conversations about the future of journalism, and newspapers in particular, are rarely optimistic affairs." He went on to describe the new effort by Warren Hellman, KQED, and the UC Berkeley journalism school to create a new media outlet in San Francisco (a story that broke first in the Guardian‘s politics blog).

The guests, including Neil Henry, dean of the j-school; Carl Hall, the former San Francisco Chronicle reporter; and Jeff Clarke, president of KQED; talked in vague platitudes about the big new plans — and then spent much of the time defending and lauding the Chronicle, which one guest called "a great paper."

But that’s not how the callers saw it — and not how much of the Bay Area perceives San Francisco’s major daily newspaper. And therein is a critical lesson for the new journalistic effort.

For the record: we would hate to see the San Francisco Chronicle fail. A daily newspaper plays a crucial role in urban life, politics, and society. No number of part-time bloggers and citizen journalists will ever be able to perform the watchdog role of a fully-staffed newspaper.

And we welcome the new effort by Hellman and his crew. With the dramatic decline in the Chron‘s fortunes, there’s less and less coverage of crucial news in the city, and an aggressive new outlet could be very good news for San Francisco.

But the people who manage the new venture need to understand that the problems the Chronicle faces are not entirely due to the economy and changes in the newspaper business. Frankly, the Chron has consistently spurned, ignored, trivialized, and sought to discredit the entire progressive movement and a wide range of progressive issues. It’s been a conservative newspaper in one of the nation’s most liberal cities. It’s been a cautious publication, wary of serious challenges to the city’s power structure. There’s not a single liberal or progressive columnist at the paper. Opinion writers like C.W. Nevius seem to disdain everything about San Francisco and urban life in general. The political coverage tends to treat the left as something to be mocked. There’s no real labor reporting any more, no aggressive consumer reporting, little pursuit of big structural corruption issues.

It’s little wonder then that a significant percentage of San Franciscans (in particular, younger people) see no reason whatsoever to pick up the San Francisco Chronicle. And KQED (which gets big donations from some of the city’s biggest corporations and the social and political elite) is hardly the voice of young, progressive San Francisco. (Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for example, is one of the greatest corporate criminals in San Francisco history — and also a major KQED donor.)

As one local media observer told us, this new Web-based publication "can’t just be about getting the old band back together for another tour."

If a new online city newspaper is going to succeed, it’s going to have to take San Francisco — with all its diverse communities — seriously. It’s going to have to be willing to offend the big-business power structure. It’s going to need a strong, independent, editorial voice that includes, rather than marginalizes, the progressive point of view. And it’s going to have to attract writers who are interested in communicating to a generation that has abandoned the Chron.

That means Hellman and the gang have to hire a respected editor — and vow not to interfere if the stories and editorials don’t support the agendas of the members of the nonprofit board.

The nonprofit model is tricky for newspapers: foundations and big donors have their own interests, and they often want the organizations they bestow their largesse upon to behave in ways that are antithetical to good journalism. If this new group can make it work (and produce a locally- operated product — unlike the Chron, which is owned by Hearst Corporation in New York) we’re all for it. But a new model of journalism in San Francisco will require more than a new publishing technology. That’s going to be the hardest part.