THE BLOG

The Chronicle of Darth Vega: May the Force Be with Him

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Most troubled newspapers have tried to stay afloat by squeezing out every cent they can from newsrooms with staff layoffs and buyouts and by reducing newshole so that local papers are stuffed with wire stories.

But The San Francisco Chronicle is taking the opposite approach beginning Monday to attract more readers to a daily newspaper that resembles a magazine, although not every page will be glossy.

Why not try it?

When all else has not worked, there appears to be nothing left to lose. By putting more resources into the look of the paper, at least the management is improving the product, rather than further stripping it down.

The publication has already implemented the same cost-cutting measures as peers nationally, which have suffered circulation declines averaging more than 10 percent.

Despite efforts thus far, the largest newspaper in northern California still has experienced a nearly 26 percent weekday circulation decline between April and September from the same period one year ago -- the largest downward spiral in the nation. Last year, The Chronicle lost $50 million, causing owner Hearst Corp. to threaten its closure.

The Chronicle's novel approach today by turning glossy is gutsy and goes against expectations, but risks making all involved look like anachronistic fools. After all, this location is on the very peninsula where Craigslist.com and Google.com continue to siphon the oxygen out of advertising revenue that had it still existed, could have fueled The Chronicle's plan. The Internet is a far superior delivery system that can reach people on their cell phones and portable laptops without threatening a single tree. And the Internet is not going away. The Chronicle's online readership is actually growing. Combined, the print and online paper reaches 1.9 million people in the Bay Area during a typical week and is starting to turn a profit - some weeks. Putting more energy and money into a print product is probably doomed to failure.

Magazine-quality publications are very costly to produce, print and transport to allegedly more sophisticated and wealthy clientele. No matter how bright and literary they are, readers of print publications - newspapers and magazines both -are dying off. Their replacement millenials are less dedicated to any media form that isn't on a wireless network. Just ask Gourmet magazine, which recently closed its doors after publishing since 1941.

Publisher Frank Vega, who was nicknamed Darth Vega during tough battles with union workers in Detroit, has been tapped as fixer for The Chronicle.

As if ignoring other societal media trends, Vega told SFGate.com and San Francisco Business Times that the decline was an expected result of a shifting strategy that will rely less on advertising revenue and more on income generated from readers. "We feel the readers have to make a conscious decision about the paper," Vega said. "And we're pleased that we still have the healthiest audience for any media outlet in the Bay Area." Say again? If there were enough readers to generate income there would not be a problem.

The newspaper has hiked its weekly subscription rate from $4.75 18 months ago to $7.75 today. That's quite a lot of money to pay in an era where the public is used to getting its news for nothing. In a recession, high prices usually do not translate to more customers.

With that kind of charge -- almost $400 a year -- readers will expect something for the money, a less disposable product, one that can't double as fish wrap or cat liner, sure, if they are inclined to buy such a product at all.

Vega was groomed as a local publisher by USA Today founder Al Neuharth who was king of short news stories and colorful sections in the early days of McPaper. As vice president for circulation, Vega presided over the bolting down of more than 100,000 newsracks in 1982 in cities across America on the launch of USA Today. The ubiquitous boxes mimic TV screens. Instead of USA Today's blue mast, Florida Today's flag is orange. At the time I worked there in the late '80s, Florida Today in Melbourne, Fla., where Vega served as publisher, restricted its story length with the idea that no one read anything more than headlines and captions. Stories often were not allowed to jump inside the paper.

In The Chronicle case, the emphasis must be on the quality of reporting and writing to produce a worthwhile product for the community. For Democracy's sake, I hope that happens in the tradition of longer magazine material, the muckraking style that was popular in San Francisco in 1936, when John Steinbeck wrote about the Dust Bowl experience of poor migrant farmers, but as the goal is fiscal survival this probably is a pipe dream. Darth Vega or not, it pretty much doesn't matter what Vega tries. Up against the Internet, how can he win?

The Chronicle's leaders must focus on the quality of what's printed on its pages as readers will expect to get more specialized information for their expenditure if anyone will even fork up that kind of cash - (maybe if the paper paid for lunch also or got Starbucks to throw in free lattes?)

As the best stories still come from print journalism, the magazine idea is laudable. Yet Vega, so lucky to ride the upward path of USA Today all those years ago has found himself on the wrong side of history this time. The time for print is passing rapidly. Steinbeck got his start in San Francisco in newspapers with the muckraking series in a publication few have heard of now. The vehicle of print made him a literary giant, a voice for the suffering of poor migrant farmers in the then San Francisco News. After first merging with The Call-Bulletin, The News was eventually swallowed by The San Francisco Examiner in 1965. The complication now is that society is fragmented and The Chronicle must establish its niche among the tech-savvy, youthful generation that really does not have much time, money or affection for old media. The Examiner is now a free paper, not exactly its former glorious self.

The real place that Vega and others must concentrate on is the Internet. If he wrote his series today, Steinbeck would have been called upon too add multimedia elements to his package on the migrants so as to allow it to run in both print and online editions.

Times have changed. The readers/viewers would probably rather peruse The Chronicle on an iPhone application than purchase it or subscribe in print, no matter how pretty the pages look or feel. In Silicon Valley, a gadget will always trump a newspaper as a status symbol. The chance of The Chronicle's success is so small that the first papers indeed may be snapped up as keepsakes of a bygone era but not as part of a regular habit.