Thursday, December 4, 2008

Why the San Francisco Chronicle is in trouble

The San Francisco Chronicle is in worse shape than I thought. Their editor, Ward Bushie, went on local public radio show "Forum" today to discuss the future of journalism in general and the Chron in particular, and his entire mindset left my jaw gaping open in incredulity. Showing an amazing lack of strategic sense, Bushie seemed to be saying he could only see two possible ways out of the hole: raise advertising rates or raise the cost of the paper.

Hmmm…. Talk about thinking "inside the box."

Bushie didn’t talk at all about possibly rethinking the paper—either the Chron itself or the idea of a newspaper in general. He apparently assumes that the Chron—or newspapers in general—should continue to provide the exact same product that they offer today (ie: the combined international/national/local/sports/business/home/life/entertainment package that they offer today). There was no: “Let’s go back to the drawing board and see where our competitive advantages lie and figure out what value we can deliver to our customers and then come up with a bunch of potential alternative incarnations that we’d be able to knock out of the ballpark and support financially.”

Instead, Bushie spoke about potentially jacking up the price of the paper, which is 75 cents today. And what was his rationale for thinking this was a reasonable idea? Most cups of coffee are about $2, he said. And the New York Times already costs $1.50. (At least it does if you’re in California. Maybe not on the streets of NYC.)

Such faulty thinking is flabbergasting. A thing isn’t worth more, just because other things are worth more. A thing is worth what your customer thinks it’s worth--what they’re willing to pay for it. Given the plummeting readership in newspapers in general, I sincerely doubt that the average San Franciscan would be willing to pay more for something they are increasingly less interested in.

The other revelation that further called into doubt Bushie's ability to lead the Chron into the future was that he repeatedly spoke about how much the paper been talking to “their readers” to find out what “their readers” want. But these, in fact, are the wrong people to be talking to. In order to survive, newspapers need to enlarge their customer base. Newspapers like the Chron should be talking to people who don’t already read (and buy) the newspaper. They should be trying to figure out how to convert those people from non-customers into customers. Normally, I fully support talking to and designing for your customers. But not when your existing customers don’t form a sufficient base.

In short, Bushie’s mindset seems to be this:
“The Chron is a great paper. We should figure out how to continue to support it, in its current incarnation, though maybe with a few tweaks.”

But to survive—or rather, to grow into a thriving news entity—a newspaper’s mindset today needs to be:
“What sorts of news are the citizens of our community interested in? What portions of those can we be really good at delivering? And how can we deliver them in a way that the members of our community will consume them?”

The full interview (available for download) is here.

Image courtesy of AlbySpace. Creative Commons license.

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