Update: The future of books at “The San Francisco Chronicle”


Earlier meeting at Heyday: clockwise, from lower left: Frances Dinkelspiel, Andy Ross, Cherilyn Parsons, Calvin Crosby, Leslie Jobson, Praveen Madan, T.J. Stiles, Steve Wasserman, Ethan Nosowsky, Paul Yamazaki,

A few days ago we reported on John McMurtrie’s recent layoff at the San Francisco Chronicle. He was the paper’s veteran book critic and book editor. Many Bay Area book-lovers have feared a diminution and dumbing-down of coverage in one of America’s literary capitals. A meeting on March 13 at Berkeley’s Heyday Books discussed the outlook for book coverage in the Bay Area. On Monday, March 18, a group met with San Francisco Chronicle editors to discuss the paper’s intentions and direction. Here are the notes of that meeting (with suggestions from others attending) taken by Frances Dinkelspiel, an award-winning author and journalist and founder of Berkleyside.com. The other writers at the Chronicle meeting included Elizabeth Rosner, Wendy Tokunaga, Lucy Gray, Lucy Jane Bledsoe, Regina Marler, Marissa Moss, Donna Levin, and Marian Palaia.

I’m a long-ago reviewer for the San Francisco Chronicle myself, when the section was headed by David Kipen and Oscar Villalon, so the changes leave me with much to say, which I’ll keep to myself. But I’d love to hear from you, Book Haven readers. I welcome comments in the combox below.

Frances Dinkelspiel

A group of nine authors met on Monday, March 18 with Audrey Cooper, the editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and Kitty Morgan, who oversees all the arts and culture coverage. We had an amiable, broad discussion about the Chronicle’s books coverage in the light of the layoff of the books editor. The sound bite: Don’t expect many book reviews in the future but look for expanded coverage of the literary scene through more frequent author features, trend articles, and maybe even podcasts. Freelancers would do these things, most likely. The paper is not planning on hiring new staff writers or a new dedicated books editor.

Kitty and Audrey opened the discussion by talking about what the “Home and Garden” and “Food” sections looked like five years ago. They were not well read and the “Home and Garden” section was losing $1 million a year. They could not continue in that form.

Kitty, the former editor of Sunset magazine, was brought in to overhaul the “old-fashioned” sections. In the course of five years, the section was “re-imagined” and revitalized and was made more relevant. The new restaurant critic Soleil Ho is getting thousands of clicks on her reviews. The paper is excited about how she is writing about new places and is drawing in new audiences.

Like all newspapers in the country, the Chronicle is facing economic pressure. The paper edition still accounts for 50% of the readership and subscriptions and advertising produce the bulk of the revenue. The Chronicle is paid $1.74 for every 1,000 clicks on an ad. They also discussed how expensive it is to get the printed paper to each household. It costs $20 a week and the figure does not include staff costs, just the cost of newsprint, production and delivery expenses, which are increasing. [Note: Audrey Cooper has corrected some of these figures, in a note below.] Audrey said some in the organization think the printed Chronicle will eventually go away. She hopes that happens after she retires.

Given that, the Chronicle is looking hard at what gets audience “engagement” and what does not.

Audrey Cooper

Audrey compared the book review section of the Chronicle to the old food and home and garden sections. While they could not determine how many people read the book reviews in the Sunday paper, which has about 145,000 readers, one recent book review only got 25 clicks online. A recent review by Janet Napolitano only got 50 clicks, said Kitty. (She later said some reviews got 200 clicks). That level of non-engagement cannot continue, they said.

Northwestern University just completed a study where researchers looked at 13 terabytes of data about what people read online at the Chronicle. Audrey said there is commodity content, broadly available, and non-commodity content, which is unique. The Chronicle needs to produce unique stories that bring people to the site, keeps them for a while, and then converts them to subscribers. She emphasized several times that gaining subscribers is essential; a wider readership isn’t nearly as important as getting people to sustain the existence of the paper over time. Audrey said her goal as editor is to “get new readers and save the world through journalism.” (Note: A number of those at the meeting subscribed to the Chronicle in a show of support.)

Given those numbers Audrey said: “We need to differentiate reviews in a different way to get people to read them.” They felt that the Chronicle should not be reviewing big national books that are also being reviewed by the New York Times or the Washington Post. The Chronicle should be writing about interesting local books and what makes the Bay Area unique. Kitty pointed out that the Chronicle had not been writing enough about a number of emerging areas such as books about the environment, about LGBTQ writers, and stuff like the popularity of health and spiritualism to Silicon Valley bros. They have been missing trends.

How to do this?

There are no current plans to hire anyone dedicated to covering books, Audrey said. That could change in the future, though, if readership of literary topics picks up. The Chronicle needs to “fix its focus of coverage” and its “distribution of coverage” before additional hiring occurs. The Chronicle plans to continue to use a combination of reviews by local writers and reviews purchased from the wire. The number of reviews will definitely not go up; if anything they are likely to decrease.

Kitty Morgan

There are two editors in charge of book coverage: Robert Morast, a senior arts editor and Laura Compton, the former Style editor. She may actually have the most responsibility for the book coverage.

Since there no longer is one person in charge of knowing what is happening in the literary scene, Kitty has hired two “book whisperers” to work as consultants as she moves forward reshaping the book coverage. She would not name them but said they are getting paid. One, a male, is a former book publisher who is very good with data. The other is a woman. She called them “contributing books editors.”

The paper is considering hiring a freelance book columnist to write about the literary scene.

The rest of the stories will come from staff writers and freelancers. Kitty sees the paper doing “one good feature story a week.”

“I’m excited about how we can do this differently,” said Kitty.

Kitty said the Chronicle needed to better capitalize on opportunities. She was very excited about an idea of collaborating with T.C. Boyle who is coming to town. His new novel is about drugs and Kitty wanted to pair up Boyle and Michael Pollan, and then tape their conversation for a broadcast. The Chronicle could do a feature of the event. Pollan might not be available though. Someone suggested she ask Ayelet Waldman instead. Kitty liked that idea.

At this point a number of Womba (Word-of-Mouth Bay Area, a group of about 200 published female writers) writers talked about different ideas the Chronicle might do, like running features on “what is on my nightstand,” or other quick hits that will keep books in the public eye as well as make use of local/regional talent. Suggestions included using more multimedia, interviews, author profiles, and increased focus on the exceptionally rich saturation of writers in the Bay Area.

The authors also expressed a commitment to helping promote the “new look/approach” once the editors are clear on what they intend to do moving forward.

One writer said she follows the Chronicle’s art and theater critics because of their “voices” and the paper could build up a similar readership if there was a book critic with a distinctive writing style. There did not seem to be an appetite for this approach.

Audrey said the Chronicle wants to expand the literary listings and make “Datebook” the place online to come to look for events. This is being done for the benefit of subscribers, not booksellers. There will be a lag before this happens though. While it is easy to scrape music and art events from the web, it is not that easy to do so with book events. So the Chronicle has to build a better tool to scrape events.

Both Audrey and Kitty said no one should look at the coverage that has happened since the departure of the book editor in early March as an indicator of what the paper wants to do. It will take until at least mid-April before they are up to speed and even longer, perhaps, to work out a future plan.

We forgot to ask how many pages of book coverage there would be in the Pink “Datebook” section. Last week there were four, down from six when John was there. But Audrey wants to run more articles during the week. They do not see putting more content online than what runs in the paper.

Postscript on 3/21: San Francisco Chronicle editor-in-chief Audrey Cooper has written to correct the statement that the print edition is 50 percent of The Chronicle‘s readership: “Our total audience is (depending on how you count it) at most 35 million unique visitors a month and at the least about 7 million a month. The print circulation is a sliver of that. And while print is the bulk of revenue, it is also the bulk of the expense.”

“Secondly, to be clear, it’s not that The Chronicle gets $1.74 CPM for online ads. That’s an average value of a programmatic ad. Actual rates go up and down depending on how you manage ad yield. So it would be true to say the average online ad has a $1.74 CPM, but not correct to say that is the average Chronicle ad. It’s an internet-wide thing.”

Postscript on 3/25: We’re in Publisher’s Lunch today! (See below.) And our comment section made Books Inq.

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12 Responses to “Update: The future of books at “The San Francisco Chronicle””

  1. George Says:

    Ms. Cooper seems to imagine The Washington Post’s book reviews as more numerous and more authoritative than they are. It is some years since the Sunday book review section was folded into the Outlook section, where it gets four or five pages.

    Calvin Trillin once wrote that he had no desire to consume menudo, but took menudo on the menu of a Mexican restaurant as a token of authenticity. That is not far from my attitude toward newspaper book review sections: I might or might not read them, but they strike me as something a serious newspaper should have. I acknowledge that this view won’t recommend itself to those trying to keep a newspaper going in 2019.

  2. Elena Danielson Says:

    Just browse goodreads.com, or look at the book club section at Keplers: the book market has potential. I guess tapping into that audience, and that market, needs re-thinking, so maybe some good will come out of this, but too often reorganization just leaves loose ends. Certainly style and a distinctive “voice” attract readers…I’m old enough to remember when I simply could not pass lunch unless I had read Herb Caen’s column that morning in the Chron. On reading fiction, I’m not so sure how much people actually comprehend. I’ve encountered a lot of readers who totally miss metaphorical language (“you mean, the underground railroad wasn’t really underground?”) That’s where stylishly attractive reviews can play an essential role…

  3. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I had to look up “menudo,” George. But even this vegetarian gets the point.

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    And Pauline Kael’s columns in the New Yorker! A good column can sell a whole magazine or newspaper – or generate enough clicks-per-minute to lift the whole boat.

  5. Nhu Miller Says:

    An interview with Terry Gross or any trusted on air personality can yield many book sales.

  6. Cathy Robbins Says:

    Many years ago when I was a staff writer for a medium sized metropolitan daily, my editor told me not to use words that send readers to the dictionary. Now newspapers don’t want readers going to books, to readers.

  7. Renee Aubuchon Says:

    The reason I recently paid for a year subscription to The Chronicle was so that I would experience the happiness of reading your book reviews that are included with the Sunday paper. The book reviews are the best part of the paper. I do not read the book reviews online since I enjoy reading them in print more on Sundays. If the book review section falls apart, as it sounds like it is going to, I will not subscribe again.

    Had I known you were counting how many people were clicking on online reviews to determine the fate of the book review section I would have clicked like crazy just to keep the book reviews going.

  8. George Says:

    My first comment was a bit flippant. I do read the reviews in the Sunday New York Times and Washington Post, and sometimes the weekday reviews in the former. Yet I rarely read the reviews of fiction, and rarely purchase a book because of a review.

    My choices in books depend less on reviews than on what I might have read in some other book, or what just happens to be on store’s shelf, or what a friend might have given me. Now, that other book might happen to have essays that originally appeared as reviews of a sort: George Garrett on Wright Morris, Hugh Kenner, Randall Jarrell, Guy Davenport, or Clive James on almost anybody. So I guess that at second hand I do in part rely on book reviews. But those are not the only cases in which a book leads one to another, are they?

    Then there is the matter of time. My shelves are not that extensive, yet I imagine that if I were to read only the books on them that I have not read through, and of those only the books in English, I would have enough reading to occupy my home hours for a couple of years at least. I once did a rough estimate of the time to read the books reviewed any Sunday in the New York Times, and figured it as six months. ( https://dc20011.blogspot.com/2011/05/book-review.html).

  9. Ron Charles Says:

    A previous comment about The Washington Post Book World may give a misimpression of our books coverage.
    When the print tabloid edition of Book World was closed, the staff was not affected, and the number of reviews was not reduced. People who read Book World online (that is, *most* people, since the print version of The Post is not available outside the DC area) saw no change at all. Yes, some book reviews moved to the Outlook section, but just as many moved to the Style section, including those by the Pulitzer Prize-winning critic Michael Dirda; and a new Books page was added to Sunday Style & Arts. Also, a few years ago we hired a new full-time book critic (Carlos Lozada, who was recently a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize). Last year, we increased our Books staff again.
    The Washington Post’s book reviews are as “numerous and authoritative” as ever.

  10. Giulia Melucci Says:

    Christian Lorentzen’s essay in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine says it all.

  11. Elaine Yates Says:

    I have watched with dismay the Chronicle’s (and other print media) collapse. I have subscribed to the SF Chronicle for many, many years and now purchase it at the local grocery, since I cannot get delivery where I now live. Two of my favorite sections in the Chron were the Travel and Book Review sections. Sadly, the Travel section is a shell of itself, with shallow articles focusing only on local areas and the Book Review has been buried in the Pink Section with only 2-3 reviews per week. And yet, book fairs (such as the one coming up in May in Berkeley) are still going strong and writers are still writing extraordinary works of fiction and non-fiction. We need book reviews so that we can get a glimpse into what we might want to read, will definitely read, and would not have even dreamed of reading were it not for a well-written review.

    Since I read the book review section the old fashioned way, I did not know that I needed to “click” to show my appreciation for a review. I did not know this concept existed.

    So, perhaps the chron could education those such as myself on the proper way to show appreciation for our favorite sections of the newspaper. I could also suggest that the “Style” section be cut way back. I mean, really, how many of us read the newspaper to hear about uber rich people attending self-aggrandizing social scenes or to read about the latest in fashion trends, most of which are too expensive for the majority of Chron readers. I could also suggest that Willie Brown’s column be replaced since it is about as relevant as mashed peas.

  12. George Says:

    My apologies for creating a misleading impression of The Washington Post Book World coverage. I have been accustomed to read the Post in print for forty years now, but in print.