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Welcome to Publishing Waterloo, NYT and WSJ

By - September 08, 2009

new-west-magazine.gifI 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.)

So imagine my merriment when I read this piece in the NYT entitled The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times Plan San Francisco Editions.

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 terroirs, 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.


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8 thoughts on “Welcome to Publishing Waterloo, NYT and WSJ

  1. Good piece, John. But, you know, the original report on these new “editions” suggests that the WSJ is planning one page of local Bay Area content *a week.* Even if the Times outdoes that with, say, one page of local content *a day*, you’re not talking about nearly enough material to make any sort of difference in terms of owning most of those stories you list. Sounds like they’re thinking along the modest lines of zoned suburban weekly sections, which I don’t think have ever really moved the needle for newspapers.

  2. Simon Firth says:

    John — Another Bay Area-wide subject of substance is what you could call our ‘maker’ culture. It’s vibrant, broad ranging (from Burning Man to surfing to Steam Punk to extreme sports to robot wars to Mission cool etc. etc.) and of international interest, I’d say.

    And count me as someone excited by the idea of Bay Area news. I live in Palo Alto, where we have pretty decent hyperlocal news coverage. But if there’s something interesting going on in Marin (or Napa, Modesto, Pacific Grove or anywhere else I can get to on a day trip), I’ll want to go check it out for sure as well.

    Being able to get to the mountains or the coast, to see opera or stock car racing, to taste wine or fish tacos, hit the Exploratorium or the ball park is what keeps so many of us here in despite of our insane real estate market. And that makes for a pretty hefty mass of people who are with a perspective beyond the hyperlocal.

  3. you describe the stereotype of the average American citizen

  4. Pat says:

    Hey John. WikiCity offers several hundred hyperlocal California sites to help fill in the gaps: http://www.wikicity.com/wiki/Category:California

    Like many others, we’re still trying to find our footing.

  5. Martin says:

    Very interesting, John. But I take some exception to what you have to say.
    You poo poo the local papers as though we cover nothing, which couldn’t be further from the truth.
    Even with our limited staff, the Tribune and Contra Costa Times still provide more local news than any competitor around.
    So while the demise of the newspaper business has been widely publicized, let’s not forget the facts. These pubs come out every day and cover a wide range of issues and concerns, from both regional and hyperlocal perspectives. Sports is not the only thing “covered reasonably well.” There is much more.
    When folks say this, nine times out of ten they don’t even get the paper or visit the Web site. Because if you did, you would see the amount of coverage we still do. I agree, more needs to be done, but to act as though the coverage is nonexistent is frankly disingenuous and inaccurate.
    As far as your points about people from one area not caring about another, there is some truth to that, for sure. My approach as editor has always been to find the stories that bind us as a community and more often than not, that story will play from Fremont to Marin. It’s an oversimplification to say they won’t. Sure, Marin folks don’t care about a City Council meeting in Oakland. But an issues that crosses the Fault Lines of society works no matter where you live.

  6. friscokid says:

    Sharp analysis John. One nitpick: It’s “terroir” not “terrior.”

    How about adding transportation to the mix. That is very much a regional issue, in spite of (or because of) the balkanization of transit jurisdictions. Would include train, bus, car, boat and bicycle.

  7. Brian says:

    Martin raises some important points. Many consider the hyperlocal news data model to be some gussied-up RSS feed, as if the dream could be realized if only the right people were connected to the right tarpipe. I suspect a more thoughtful analysis of the more important news stories would reveal the fingerprints of the editors and writers who understand resonance and add perspective; not just in the headline stories of the day but in the smaller stories that are rarely read but just as significant to some local citizens.

    People generally underestimate the manpower required to cover all of the local beats, until some situation arises that demands the constant, steady presence that only comes from having maintained a steady local newsroom over a period of time.

    Sports is the most obvious beat since it is arguably the most popular section along with well-defined statistics and history. I’d argue that up-and-coming beats like gossip and food become partisan and snarky in the wrong hands; blogs have (d)evolved since their launch because the most antagonistic storylines inevitably lead to a more loyal following…and this following does not necessarily demand better journalism as much as it demands an immediate response to the events of the day.

    When considering hyperlocalism, I’m reminded of the dream of Brian Lamb, who crusaded to bring democracy to television sets everywhere by providing transparency to the inner workings of Capitol Hill. An unexpected consequence of his accomplishment was the transition away from negotiated settlements and towards grandstanding. We ended up with politicians who wait for their turn in front of the camera so they can deliver the perfect sound bite, ready to be packaged up and sent back home in the form of a :30 ad, and consequently leading to the lobbyist industry of today.

  8. Marcia Parker says:

    Hey John.

    Marcia Parker here. This really struck home for me, especially since I just took a new job with Patch.com, AOL’s new local newssites acquisition and we have a very aggressive roll out strategy. Would love to come over and talk with you.

    Cheers, Marcia