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A Blow to the Stomach - SF Chronicle to End Standalone Food Section?

food and wine

Update: According to a KQED report, SF Chronicle Managing Editor Audrey Cooper is vehemently, semi-denying the NY Times' story. In essence, she says changes are coming but that details in the NY Times article aren't correct and that the Chronicle is committed to food coverage. That said, my own understanding is that the Times story was accurate as and when written.

The New York Times has reported that the San Francisco Chronicle will soon cease publication of its dedicated food and wine section. The news is based on leaks from concerned—and anonymous—Chronicle staffers. The paper itself has not made a public announcement.

According to the report, Chronicle editors and writers will be retained but their work will be folded into a new section—the name Artisan has been floated—that will include other content as well. (Artisan? Will the section include local glassblowers and leather workers too?) Neither will there be a separate building housing both food/wine staff, test kitchen, wine cellar, etc. Recipe testing will cease.

It’s easy to rationalize this move. Real estate in San Francisco is crazy expensive. I suppose we can use “untested recipes,” (if recipes continue to be printed at all). Nobody is losing their job (yet). On the other hand, this is a gut-punch to the Northern California—and, frankly, national—food scene. It’s also a move that is likely to be a catalyst for others.

Why Would the Chronicle Close their Food & Wine Section?

Historically, newspapers have derived their revenue from four sources: subscriptions, news-stand sales, classified ads and traditional in-content ads. The first two, sales of newspapers, help defray printing costs but don’t keep the lights on. As has been well-chronicled, sales of classified ads have been pillaged by online services such as Craig’s List and eBay. This has had a huge impact on newspapers, resulting in fewer pages, staff layoffs and some papers ceasing publication entirely. (For more on this progression, check out the blog Newspaper Death Watch)

As newspapers (and magazines) have lost some of their relevance, due to increased availability of free content online and the newspapers self-inflicted down-sizing wounds, print has become a less compelling ad buy and revenues continue to decline there. There’s no sign of this turning around, nor is there a clearly successful new business model for papers to pursue. (Joel Brinkley had an interesting proposal at SFGate in 2008, but it didn’t go anywhere.)

The lack of willing advertisers may be especially acute in the food and wine segment. Wineries, aside from the big brands, have never been big advertisers. Beer and hard liquor companies do pony up, but they often prefer ad placement within other lifestyle sections such as sports and entertainment. Non-chain restaurants aren’t big advertisers either and they too have been hard hit by the economy, because the increasing divide between have’s and have not’s substantially reduces the number of people with disposable income to spend on restaurant dining.

So, without a study looking closely at newspaper readership by section and related subscription decision-making, cutting costs on Food and Wine may seem a logical and harmless step. There’s not much ad revenue. It’s a big cost-center. The Chronicle can sell the real estate or at least decrease related expenses. However, I suspect the impact will be greater than management hopes.

Why Closure of the Chronicle Food & Wine Section Is Bad for Everyone Concerned

First, the Chronicle’s Food and Wine section is one of the parts—perhaps the only part— of the newspaper that makes it truly unique. We can, and probably do, get local news elsewhere. These days, news that’s in the paper isn’t news anymore, it’s just a recap. Online sources are immediate, if of dubious accuracy. With apologies to the paper’s excellent sports writers, we have ESPN, Fox Sports and numerous online sources for sports coverage which are also more timely. Sections such as Auto and Real Estate do drive classified and other ads, but are of interest to readers only when we’re in the market to buy or sell. They don’t generate on-going readership.

In contrast, the food section with it’s multiple James Beard Award-winning coverage and heavy focus on the internationally-important Bay Area food/wine scene is a reader magnet. No other publication covers Northern California restaurants, food producers and wineries with the combination of frequency, reach, variety, depth of analysis and love. The food section is the only reason why I, and many of my friends, maintain a subscription to the paper. It’s also the only thing that draws me to SFGate. Even if there’s not a huge call by advertisers for space in the Food section, to my mind it is that section which keeps readers in the family and feeds eyeballs to other sections.

Even if most of the writers remain, lack of a dedicated section signals minimized commitment and independence. Column inches for food and wine are sure to decline. Local subscriptions and news-stand sales will take a big hit. National attention will be lost. Relevance to advertisers will decrease. More cuts will be necessary. And, eventually, there is nothing.

Well, not entirely nothing. There will still be food and wine blogs. Ironically though, those sources—many inspired by the passion and excellent writing of the Chronicle’s staff—have helped decrease the relevance of newspapers but don’t have a sustainable business model either. Given that, how many will be long-lived, let alone full-time, allowing their authors to develop the analytical, research and writing chops to approach the quality we already have in San Francisco’s local paper. More likely, there will be a churn of enthusiastic but short-term efforts, gradually over-taken in quantity by sites focused on paid advertorial. That may be worse than nothing.

Follow NorCalWine on Twitter for wine news, information on events and more, or friend me on Facebook. This article is original to Copyright 2013. Photo by Fred Swan. Content and trademarks of the SF Chronicle are the property of the SF Chronicle. All rights reserved.