Monday, November 18, 2013

Is San Francisco Chronicle Food going away? Some perspective

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Last week the New York Times announced that the San Francisco Chronicle will eliminate its Food section. My personal Internet freaked out: it's another sign of the slide to Armageddon for journalism, etc.

Chronicle managing editor Audrey Cooper quickly issued a denial, saying that while Chronicle Food is moving into a new lifestyle section, possibly called Artisan, AND the staff must give up their own building AND the test kitchen is closing and folks can test recipes if they choose in the employee breakroom, the Chronicle still takes food coverage seriously.

I worked at the Chronicle until 2007, so I have some perspective on this. I don't think anybody in the media is getting the story quite right, and they likely won't from this point, because after leaking the story to the Times, the food staff is afraid of reprisals.

So I'm writing this because I think I can explain what is and isn't happening and why, in a way nobody else is going to until there actually are some layoffs and somebody speaks from inside.

Ms. Cooper (who I don't know), I am writing this from Santa Barbara County. I have deliberately avoided contact with any former colleagues at the Chronicle -- no email, no phone calls, no Facebook even -- and I am not planning to cover this as a news story, today or in the future. So don't fire anybody on my account.

First, I believe both the Times story, and Cooper's denial. They're not in conflict on the facts.

The Times story was clearly leaked from inside the Food section*, with outgoing Chronicle president Joanne Bradford telling the staff the section was not "sustainable."

* It's more annoying than ironic that newspapers are in the business of extracting information that people don't want reported, but when somebody from the newspaper provides confidential information on its own workings, upper management freaks out and threatens reprisals.

That is the result of dropping print ad sales. Given the Food section's readership numbers, you'd think there would be a parade of food product advertisers wanting to buy ads. I have no inside knowledge of the quality of the Chronicle ad sales team, but when I worked there we always wondered why the Wine section got no ads from big spirits producers, who have lots of money. We  ran at least one spirits story every week to try to make it attractive. But the spirits producers never came on board, the kind of luxury goods ads that support Wine Spectator went to other sections of the paper if they got them at all, and the Wine section folded.

Newspaper food sections have traditionally depended on big local grocery store ads: turkeys on sale at Andronicos this week! Like every other business, grocery stores are putting their ad budget in many places now, not just in the newspaper. And they do more stand-alone fliers inside the paper instead of ads in the food section. Restaurant ads have never amounted to much. The only restaurants with ad budgets are big national chains like Red Lobster, and they're not really a fit in Chronicle Food. So if the grocery stores cut back, and there aren't new advertisers to support the section, Bradford is right: it's not sustainable.

But, you say, people only read the Chronicle for the food coverage. The rest of the paper sucks. Which is mostly true, with apologies to Susan Slusser, who does great work covering the Oakland A's. Readership will dwindle without food coverage. Also probably true.

Cooper knows that. In her interview with Sara Deseran of San Francisco magazine, she says that Michael Bauer's reviews are the most clicked-on story online.

Since being bought by Hearst, Chronicle management has made some bad decisions, but they're not institutionally stupid, and they're not as ruthlessly cost-cutting as most newspaper owners. Look across the bay at the Oakland Tribune and its satellites, which pays its reporters so little that some of them have lived in their cars. Or at the LA Times, where a foolish overextended owner slashed the staff of a paper that was actually making a profit.

Hearst is privately owned by the heirs of William Randoph Hearst (you supply the headlines and I'll supply the war), and they have carried the Chronicle despite relentless losses, a million dollars a week at one point. I heard they had a profitable quarter a couple years ago and thought, they've turned a corner, hurray! But apparently that was an aberration. Hearst is not the enemy here.

Spreading food coverage throughout what's left of the Chronicle is not new. For many years, Bauer's review -- the most popular story from the Food section -- ran in the Sunday magazine, in an attempt to get people to read the magazine. They have food coverage in 96 Hours, their lame weekend nightlife section, in an attempt to get people to read that.

Cooper's idea is just another version of that. In fact, she told the Poynter Institute, "We are working to bring our food reporting onto the front page even more in the coming months."

I'd take her at her word. The Chronicle had previous publishers who the Food section feared didn't care about food. They're all quickly made aware that Bay Area readers care very deeply about food, more so than probably any other topic.

SO if that's true, how is the Food print section not "sustainable?"

Chronicle Food is expensive.

Here are the top expenses:

* Staff. That's always the top expense, and when I first heard the Times report, it was like a gut punch because I feared for my friends' jobs. And still do. Cooper says they're not cutting jobs, but we'll see.

But Food has its own unique expenses that other areas of the paper don't.

* Food has its own building -- I called it "The Island" -- with a test kitchen, a wine cellar, and a very overrated roof garden that's basically just a few pots of plants of which they're inordinately proud. The garden doesn't cost money. The cellar, which became less necessary a few years ago when a former Chronicle publisher sold Napa Cabernets that had been sent as samples to his buddies for $5 each, also doesn't cost money because it's not humidity- and temperature-controlled; it's just a basement.

Cooper says the staff is moving into the main building. That could be a prelude to Hearst selling The Island. It's not an attractive building, but it is three stories in a great location in a town with the hottest real estate in the country. The Island isn't really a cost per se, but it is a lost revenue opportunity.

* Michael Bauer's review budget. Michael is the best food blogger I read, always provocative and interesting, and the hardest-working, most diligent American I've worked with ( 松本-さん, よろしく).  For a restaurant critic who only does high-end places, that hard work is expensive. Michael goes to more restaurants than you can possibly imagine. For every main review, he visits three times, with a friend. They order multiple apps, entrees and dessert. But he also does single-visit updates of places he's already reviewed. And for the Top 100 restaurants, a popular feature, he doesn't do it from memory or reputation; he revisits every one. Most of these restaurants are quite expensive. It's a lot of money. But, as Cooper pointed out, his reviews are the most clicked-on feature at the paper.

* Recipe testing.

The Chronicle tests every recipe in the Food section, sometimes multiple times. This requires a staff member to coordinate recipe testing; it's usually a foot in the door of the section for a trained chef. The Chronicle gets free interns from culinary school, most of whom have decided they don't really want to be chefs after all. So the staff cost isn't that expensive.

But there's ingredient cost. I was there when the editors decided to retest their Best Way Thanksgiving recipes. They made more than 40 turkeys that year, all of them purchased from local grocery stores at retail. I spent the first week thinking, "This is great!" eating turkey every day for lunch and many days for dinner. About 30 turkeys in, I never wanted to see it again, and I still haven't enjoyed traditional Thanksgiving dinner since. Thanks a lot, Chronicle.

Anyway, that's the way Chronicle Food thinks about recipes: There's a Best Way.

But that's not the way people think about recipes, not anymore.

Go to any recipe site:, or, or whatever. Not only can you find 20 ways to make mushroom lasagne or pad thai or chilaquiles; you can see people commenting on them. And here's what they say: "I loved this! I substituted tofu for the chicken, didn't use the cream and added cilantro. Great recipe!" Chronicle writers got those letters when I was there; we laughed about them.

Readers no longer think there's a Best Way. They take the Best Way, and they add chili powder.

Chronicle recipes -- along with recipes from Sunset and a lot of other traditional sources -- have come to have a staid, old media feel in today's world. They're not interactive. Most recipes online are the beginning of a conversation. Chronicle recipes are the end of one.

So, if you're going to try to stay relevant while cutting costs, as the overlords above Chronicle Food, what are you going to cut?

Food news doesn't cost more than any other kind of news; it's just reporting. So cutting staff directly cuts your story output.

You can sell the building, that's a step.

You could cut Michael Bauer's review budget, and maybe they will, but that's the most popular item in the entire Chronicle, so that's really tempting fate.

And you can cut recipe testing.

You don't have to cut recipes. I can see my former colleagues looking apopletic when they get to this point at the idea that recipes, especially from freelancers, don't have to be tested. That's to their credit: the Chronicle Food section takes its responsibilities extremely seriously. (You should see Bauer agonizing between awarding 2 and 2 1/2 stars.) Internally, they will never admit recipes don't have to be tested. Writers will probably test other writers' recipes at home, or maybe they really will make chicken apricot stir fry in the company break room (the sports department will love it).

Point is, the sky is not falling on San Francisco Chronicle Food, even though it feels like that to them.

And it shouldn't feel like that to you, unless you actually live in the Bay Area and subscribe. I saw lamentations and rending of clothing from the East Coast about this. Unless the Chronicle website changes drastically, what matters to readers from afar is not where food stories run, but whether or not they are written.

Prediction: Michael Bauer is an able administrator and smooth corporate player whose authority has waxed and waned over the years, but he never loses on his own turf. Food stories will dominate the new Artisan section, as they should.

I'm not sure how long the San Francisco Chronicle as a daily print publication is going to last. The brand has value, but one day, sooner than we all want, the Hearsts may decide that value is not worth the expense of printing it. But I strongly believe that Food will be there at the end, and if that makes the wake more bittersweet, at least it will be balanced and not too high in sodium.

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Charlie Olken said...

I am surprised nobody has commented as this is the most complete and objective discussion of the W/F issue yet. Thanks for that.

One topic you did not mention, and maybe you should not given your wine focus, is whether the wine writing in the Chron is too hip for the room. I am not questioning whether the section is generally well-written. It is.

But, I wonder if it serves a wide Bay Area audience or just some portions of it. I am pretty sure that it is too narrow. But, I have no evidence that the lack of advertising in the W/F section has been hurt by that narrowness. And I think your comments are instructive.

So, maybe nothing can save wine short of someone saying "this in northern CA and we MUST cover wine". I hope that is the case.

Oh, and my bill for the Chron is $600 per year. That is a lot, and has my wife questioning why we still subscribe. Fortunately, in getting ready to comment over on Steve Heimoff's blog, I checked the Chron website and found that it offers the same home-delivery, 7d/wk sub for $5 instead of $12, and, for now, my sub is safe and 60% cheaper.

Print is expensive and and there are only two ways to pay for it--subscriber revenues and advertising. You have pretty much explained how advertising did not come even after the Chron tried to change that equation.

W. Blake Gray said...

Thanks Charlie. Wow, that's an expensive subscription!

Rex said...

A nice insightful, yet objective piece. Thanks Blake for giving what appears to be the straight scoop, accompanied with some chuckles.

Unknown said...

Interesting to see ... thank you it's well done :)