A few months ago we did something that still depresses me to think about. Today I was reminded of it: the San Francisco Chronicle called to get me to start up the paper again. They were offering six months of the paper for ten bucks. That’s about a nickel a day, and that’s how hard up they are for paying customers. Meantime, back at the plant, they’ve been firing people left and right. A nickel a day would have done nothing to save any of those jobs; it’s a desperate ploy to prop up circulation numbers and what’s left of the paper’s advertising base.
That’s depressing right there. But there’s more.
Subscribing to some paper — some local paper (we still get The New York Times on Kate’s teacher discount) — has been an article of faith, something that has been part of my life since before I can remember. Much of the time growing up, we got at least two of the Chicago dailies: the Republican Tribune and later the Democratic though tabloid Sun-Times in the morning and the Daily News and later Chicago Today in the afternoon. We got whatever local papers were around, too. The Park Forest Star, which came out a couple times a week. The Park Forest Reporter, weekly. And when we moved out of Park Forest, we started taking one of the little weeklies put out in the little farm towns in our part of eastern Will County: the Crete Record or the Monee Monitor.
Eventually, my mom worked for the Star, covering village boards in the dysfunctional town of Park Forest South (now University Park). I worked for Chicago Today for a little while, for the Tribune one summer, and for the Reporter (covering the dysfunctional town of Richton Park). I stayed in that line of work for a while, eventually landing out here in the Bay Area; many of my former colleagues from the San Francisco Examiner (“The Monarch of the Dailies,” or, alternately, “An American Paper for the American People”) wound up working at the Chronicle.
I left the paper back before Bill Clinton started parsing the word “is.” But of course that didn’t change my appreciation for what a paper does, or is supposed to do; and it didn’t change my habit — our family habit — of wanting a paper delivered. But there’s always been something about the Chronicle. The Ben Brantley character in the movie “All the President’s Men” is given a disparaging line to say about the paper. There was a time when it was loopy, goofy, breathless and wheel-spinningly energetic in a way that reflected its home; the class came from Herb Caen, one of the last columnists to be synonymous with his city, and some of the fine critics the paper attracted. Over the three decades I’ve lived here, the Chronicle became more sedate, then bland. Herb Caen died. Though no one knew it at the time, it reached its peak circulation in the late ’80s as it made a bid to become the dominant regional paper. An economic downturn in the early ’90s, the appearance of effective competition in the East Bay and Silicon Valley, and the Internet all combined to put those circulation numbers into chronic decline. The San Francisco family that owned the paper sold out to the Hearst Corporation, which apparently believed it had such a gold mine on its hands that it offered $60 million or so to a local publisher to “buy” the Examiner, thus allowing it to shift its staff to the Chron — without, at first, laying off anyone.
But Hearst, which was founded on a gold- and silver-mining fortune, discovered that its new property was really just a very, very deep hole that had a way of making money vanish. The paper continued to unravel. Workforce reductions began through buyouts. Craigslist wiped out its classified-ad business. Although the paper deserves credit for its online efforts the last couple of years, it was late in trying to innovate there. Meantime, the paper itself, has gone from bland to lamentable, generally mediocre in its news columns and shrill and ugly in its graphic presentation. The Chron has long since given up on the pretense it is a regional paper; all those bureaus are expensive to run.
Somebody still reads it. Daily circulation earlier this year stood at 384,000 or so, and that number was still No. 13 in the United States (I believe the 1988-89 high water mark was about 580,000, so at a time when the regional population has continued to grow, it has shed more than a third of its daily circulation).
Here on the fringe, watching the collapse, what do i do? Cancel the paper. One excuse was the way the paper’s management marched some of my fomer colleagues out the door over the summer. But we had talked about doing it for years, every time we saw a lame headline or typo or elementary editing mistake. For years, the paper has done a lackluster job of covering our side of the Bay. Berkeley has got a twice-a-week free paper that calls itself the Daily Planet; it’s crummy and self-important in a way only we in Berkeley can truly be, but at least it touches on some of the stuff going on around us (there are two other papers in town, too: the Daily Cal, the student paper at UC-Berkeley, and the East Bay Daily News, which covers Oakland, too; both are free and daily and iffy in quality; again, though, at least they’re there).
So now, we get the Times, which I persist in thinking is a great paper, especially if you’re wondering what’s happening over the horizon. And, because I couldn’t say no to the poor guy who showed up one evening peddling the Oakland Tribune, we’re getting that, too. Oh man, it’s bad. But it is local.