The Hearst-owned San Francisco Chronicle sits in a hub of tech and innovation. But the paper has had to survive losses and layoffs. In 2013 it set up a two-site paywall system, but backtracked a few months later. SFGate.com, which first launched in 1994, is free, has a “buzzier” voice, and shares with SFChronicle.com breaking news coverage. SFChronicle.com, created two years ago, has a hard paywall at the moment and is the primary destination for investigations, data visualizations, enterprise coverage, and Chronicle columnists. Last year, the Chronicle launched a revamped membership program in an effort to retain subscribers.
The Chronicle’s newest editor-in-chief, Audrey Cooper — the first female editor in the paper’s history — says her mission is two-fold: to bring in new audiences, likely online, and to push for more reporting-intensive investigations. One of the paper’s new projects is a crowdfunding campaign for a multimedia project exploring H-1B visas, the stories of immigrants seeking them, and the companies that would benefit from looser regulations.
I spoke with Cooper about these digital initiatives and asked for her thoughts on the Chronicle’s place in the broader world. Below is an edited and condensed version of our conversation.
I tell the staff I stand for two things. One is getting more readers, who have to be digital. We have to turn the digital corner so that we can get more people reading what we write than ever before. The second is saving the world! Meaning, watchdog journalism that makes our community a healthier place.
Our Beacon partnership has the potential to fulfill both my goals. It brings in people who find us through crowdsourced journalism, so we get our digital audience. It also allows us to step outside our current resources to do something very ambitious that should inform our community, extending our expertise in an area.
We’re also partnering with a company that was cofounded by Sean Parker called Brigade, which is trying to increase participation and democratic literacy around the upcoming election. We’re planning to announce, soon, some level of partnership with Medium.
And then there’s our own journalism. We have a reporter who’s been reporting one story more or less exclusively for about eight months now, and we plan to do a full-length documentary to accompany the piece. No city in the United States has been as devastated by AIDS as San Francisco, a city of fewer than 850,000 people where 20,000 have died of AIDS. Thousands of people, particularly young gay men, contracted the virus in the mid-80s to early 90s. They abandoned their careers, relationships, their families — and waited to die. Most of them did. But some of them didn’t. The story answers the question of what happens when you’ve spent your whole life waiting to die. It also delves into looming policy problems we have in dealing with this group of aging AIDS victims.
Another exciting thing we have going on is our second annual film festival. We had a competition where everyone had to shoot and edit a video on their favorite spot in the Bay Area. We popped popcorn, screened the videos, and had a committee to select the winners. Some of them are really funny and some of them are really moving.
People come to work here because what we do is so important to the success of our communities. As long as we have leaders trying new things all the time, then that’s what we need to celebrate.
I’m 38. I started in this business in 1999, after I graduated, and the ‘good old days’ were already sort of ending. I don’t know what it’s like to be in a newsroom of 700 people. It’s never been a part of my professional reality. And now I’ve probably said things that will get me into all kinds of trouble! I can’t help it!
There are a lot of people out there who have a lot of opinions on what we do. And they should. It’s a wonderful thing when I’m at a cocktail party and someone says, ‘Oh, you know what I don’t like about blah blah and so forth?’ Who else gets to say that they like to hear people criticize their work? It means people care.