I live in the Bay Area, a place that has been, in the past 20 or so years, woefully underserved by what those in the quality news business call, well, quality news. I also am a graduate of a fine Bay area quality new journalism program, and I taught there as well. And before I started my career in technology journalism and entrepreneurial pursuits, my first ever idea was to create a “quality” newspaper for the Bay area. (That’s the late great New West magazine at left, started by legendary editor Clay Felker. If he couldn’t make it happen, not sure anyone can.)
Oh joy! Finally, a place for quality local news! Right? Not so fast.
The lede of the piece:
Both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times are planning to introduce San Francisco Bay Area editions, hoping to win new readers and advertisers there by offering more local news, in what could be the first glimpse at a new strategy by national newspapers to capitalize on the contraction of regional papers.
Now, I’m pleased as punch that the two majors want to give me and my neighbors a quality alternative to the failed local papers, but unless the pay attention to some pretty specific realities about this place, I don’t imagine it’s going to pan out for them in terms of ROI for effort expended. So here are a few thoughts, should either or both decide to focus on our odd little patch of Northern California paradise.
First off, no one in Concord cares a whit about news in San Francisco, unless the Bay Bridge is broken. This is a principle of hyperlocalism, and it’s very, very distinct here in the Bay area. For decades editors have been trying to crack the code of what makes the Bay area hang together as a region, and they’ve all failed. Marin folks simply don’t care about what’s up in Palo Alto, and those who live in Noe Valley barely care about those who live five miles across town in the burgeoning SOMA neighborhood. If you want to have a local edition of a national newspaper here, you’re going to have to figure out a way to cover stories all these folks care about. I’m not sure it’s possible….unless….
…unless you focus on the local Bay area stories that we all care about: the ones that have national scope, and cover them with the same rigor and depth that you would any major national story. Now you’d be cooking with gas.
Those stories are, in no particular order:
— Technology and the Internet. No national paper comes close to owning this story (the way The Industry Standard did in the late 90s, or a handful of blog sites do now). There is a serious opening here for determined, high quality journalism. The WSJ already has All Things D, and the Times has a strong passel of reporters already here on the ground.
— Biotech/Health. I break it out because it’s a massive story, and totally undercovered. The impact of genetic research and massive drug companies’ agendas on policy, for example. The Bay area is one of several key centers of R&D and business in this area.
— The sustainability story. Again, the Bay area leads here, it’s not just for hippies or rich liberals anymore.
— Real estate. Everyone cares about the value of their home, and this area is a major story in that regard – some of the highest foreclosure rates as well as the highest home prices within miles of each other. And commercial real estate is huge here as well.
— Asia. Making this very large story approachable to a local audience is key. The Bay area is deeply connected to Asian culture and business but I’ve not seen great reporting that makes that connection meaningful on a regular basis.
— Food and wine. Sorry, New York, but all the good stuff gets made here. (OK, that was hyperbole but no one can argue with Napa, Sonoma, and other amazing terriors, and the restaurant culture alone is a major story).
— Sports. We all love our teams – The Giants, the 49ers, the colleges (Cal, Stanford in the main), and the Sharks. This is one thing our local paper does reasonably well.
If the WSJ and/or the NYT can create a “local” edition that *owns* these stories and tells them in a way that makes them meaningful to Bay area residents in a way that transcends traditional local blandishments, I can see a pretty strong audience developing for the product.
But then I look at the other side of the equation: The business proposition. Let’s say the two papers create a strong local edition along the lines of what I’ve outlined above. Folks like me would be thrilled (I’d probably reconsider my decision some years ago to stop subscribing to both papers, though I’d want them online). Would that be enough? Probably not. You need regional advertising to truly make money in the news biz. So will strong local editions mean national papers sell more local advertising? To me, that’s a very open question.
The advertisers that once filled the pages of the local papers here – car dealerships, department stores, Frye’s electronics, Shaneco jewlers and the like, seem to have found new channels of communication for their customers. Most of those channels are online. I wonder, what will these national/regional plays do online? How will they go to market online? It’s an interesting question, and one that will have to be resolved before these editions truly find their footing.