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Sept. 23, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
Audience & Social

The San Francisco Chronicle looks to crowdfunding, incubators, and offline events to attract new readers

“My job is to take the money this company gives me to operate the newsroom, and do the best possible job I can of telling stories of the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California.”

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.

Shan Wang: You’ve held various positions throughout the Chronicle. What changes have you seen since you started there?

Audrey Cooper: Every editor has their own point of view and personality that affects the direction of the paper. I worked under two editors, Phil Bronstein and Ward Bushee. Phil’s bumper sticker slogan, if you will, was journalism of action, to propel people to be outraged by things uncovered in our reporting and to take action. Ward was interested in one of the things the Chronicle’s always been known for: really unique columnist voices.

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.

Wang: Hearst newspapers president Mark Aldam said in the announcement when you became editor-in-chief that you would help promote “innovative storytelling to connect readers with the news and information that matters most.” What does that mean for the Chronicle?

Cooper: I want to preface this by saying that experimentation isn’t necessarily something that comes easily to us as journalists, because we often think we need to get everything right the first time. It’s in our blood to think that way, [so it can be hard to] try new things and abandon them when they don’t work.

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.

It’s not reinventing the wheel. But sometimes innovation is a lot of little things to get you to where you want, which in this case was complete literacy on how to shoot quick videos in less than ten minutes.

Wang: The Chronicle also sends staff to an in-house incubator/bootcamp. What do people learn there?

Cooper: We’re on our third incubator now. We have a physical space in a separate building from the newsroom; it used to house our food and home department, but we moved those reporters back into the main newsroom. We got all new furniture in that space, painted the walls. We started by sending the business staff there and basically said, ‘Remake what you do: make it a digital-first enterprise, experiment with different ways of telling stories.’

We have a wide range of digital skill sets here at the Chronicle. Some people are super-advanced and some wanted more training. With the business group, we brought in people from LinkedIn to talk about how they can use LinkedIn as a reporting tool and also as a distribution platform for journalism. We’re lucky to have all these companies nearby — I could throw a rock from my office window and hit Twitter.

SFChronicle-mobile-feature-screenshot

After the business department, we went on to the opinion pages. That was a lot more about engagement: How can we, for instance, livestream editorial board meetings? We’re going to be livestreaming our editorial board meeting with the mayor who’s running for re-election. For most newspapers, those are very closed-door things.

Opinion was in there for six weeks. Now we’re doing super sprints with the Metro department, where we bring them in for two or three weeks and we say beforehand, ‘Here’s what you’re going to learn, what one digital project do you want to do?’

It’s equal parts training and trying to look outside of the newsroom and how we’ve always done things to see if there are new ways of telling stories and reaching new audiences.

Wang: Does that mean expanding the Chronicle’s areas of coverage to be more national? Finding the new digital audiences who live outside the Bay Area?

Cooper: My job is to take the money this company gives me to operate the newsroom, and do the best possible job I can of telling stories of the San Francisco Bay Area and northern California.

To tell the story of San Francisco, you sometimes have to look outside of San Francisco, which is why I’m interested in pursuing this collaboration with Beacon. It allows us to do that in an area we don’t have a lot of specialty in right now, but is still important to us.

Our combined global audience is 30 million unique people a month. There obviously aren’t that many people living in the Bay Area. We do have a national and international audience, but they’re coming to us because of our unique perspective on San Francisco. We don’t need to have reporters in every bureau around the world. We just need to own what we cover.

Wang: How did you come to the partnership with Beacon? Had you been looking into crowdfunding as a way to get new readers, or did you already have an idea for a story?

Cooper We were introduced to the Beacon founders through an executive at the Hearst Corporation. Both sides were excited about what we could do together, especially on more international topics.

In less than 24 hours, we raised a third of our total goal. They told me that is, by orders of magnitude, more successful than any other campaign they’ve run so far [When this story was published, the campaign was at just under halfway funded]. What’s most heartening to me is that the majority of the donations that have come in are for $5.

Beacon-funding-screenshot

I had wanted to do something around H-1B visas before I’d met the Beacon guys. When we first started talking about this, it was such a serious issue in the Bay Area, but I felt like it wasn’t getting people’s attention. You say ‘H-1B visa’ and people’s eyes glaze over. We needed some human stories to attract people’s interest. But it’s difficult because, to do it right, you need to go to a couple of countries. I was wrestling in my own head with whether we could do that in an organized way when Beacon came forward.

There will be print, video, photos, and online components to this. What shape those will take, it’s too early to tell.

Wang: Are you planning other reader-supported initiatives?

Cooper: I have more ideas than there is time in the day to discuss! I’m on the phone with our lawyers a lot to see if I can do some of these ideas.

After we completed our eight-month-long investigation into the changes in the Mission District, which is really ground zero for many of the housing problems in San Francisco, we did a community meeting where we debated some of the issues and brought people from the city and activists in to discuss possible solutions.

We’re iterating on that in our partnership with Brigade. We’re talking about having discussions led by Chronicle journalists in coffee shops around the city.

Wang: I was browsing your Twitter feed the other day. And I don’t mean to call you out here; I’m sure you’re not the only one who feels this way, but in response to our Ken Doctor piece on how news companies now aren’t really built to last, you tweeted that this is kind of a tired narrative…

Cooper: Ha! Uh-oh.

Here is my point. There’s no mass-market, new media publication that I know of that is profitable and not seeking any venture funding. That doesn’t mean we won’t figure it out. I’d rather work for a profitable company with a 150-year tradition of journalism than one without a history of excellent journalism and without a stable, sustainable financial model. That said, more people doing journalism is really, really great.

The truth is, we can’t afford to fail. If we go out of business, The Huffington Post, say, isn’t going to send six people to cover City Hall. They aren’t going to send people into the Giants dugout to report about performance-enhancing drugs. BuzzFeed, which I love, isn’t likely to spend five years investigating how [Pacific Gas and Electric’s] safety culture caused a community in our area to ignite in a gas ball, killing a number of people. It’s hard right now, but I don’t want to hear constantly that newspapers are dying. That’s not an answer. Our own readership is going up digitally. We’re not making as much money as we did 50 years ago, it’s true. But I still have the largest news-gathering operation north of Los Angeles on the West Coast.

Wang: So what makes you hopeful about the future of local news?

Cooper: We have to look at every single possible revenue source out there. That means events, crowdfunding for special projects. It means asking people to support our journalism online through various paywalls. It means, for us, having a free site model as well. It’s going to take a lot of different revenue streams.

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.

POSTED     Sept. 23, 2015, 9:30 a.m.
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