SAN FRANCISCO, California - So New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd and former San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein drive past a bar....And the column that results in that adventure is nothing but a joke. A sad one. On them.
As part of her "Death of Journalism As We Know It Tour" Dowd recounts her San Francisco visit with Bronstein, a recent guest on Stephen Colbert's show. The two drive by a "reporters' bar", they see the linotype machine at the Chron, they view the conference room where Phil had it out with local politico and real estate baron (and blogger) Clint Reilly. At the end of the column, Phil's credited with the print journalism insight of our age: Old people who buy papers are living longer so we still have jobs.
Well, it will probably trouble Phil and Mo to know that my upstairs neighbor, octogenarian Elliot Joseph has a regular blog. Oh, and he's on Facebook, too. Or that the best coverage of the California Democratic Convention was done by respected former Chron editor Jerry Roberts and former Mercury News Political Editor Phil Trountstine blogging under the Calbuzz moniker.
Instead of nurturing Dowd's Hollywood fade-out view of the news business, Bronstein might have done everyone a real favor by giving her a tour of the online journalism laboratory that's at work every day here in San Francisco. This city's paper has gotten much smaller but it's fate isn't entirely the result of technology. The Chron no longer has monopoly hold on readers. Or writers. Bronstein may be able to justify its past but he's got a harder time with its future.
Take a look at Eve Batey. Since leaving SFGate, the Chron's site, she's done a fine job at the SFAppeal, an online-only pub that's on it's way to leading coverage of San Francisco city politics. How? She recruited some of the smarter voices that once worked at SFGate, among them Beth Spotswood and Violet Blue. Oh, and she prints news. While SFGate spent a day's worth of front page real estate on Bronstein and Colbert, the Appeal was writing about the the local transit agency's budget woes.
Okay, so encouraging competitors isn't a great idea. Especially when they're cleaning your clock. But Phil could have taken Mo to visit Mark Glaser whose recent MediaShift column on "local watchdog media sites" offers a hint at where we're all headed. From PBS, the duo could have wandered over to see the boys at Digg who created a tool for rating stories and made the "most emailed" and "most comments" boxes de rigeur for online pubs. (Digg also helps its downstairs neighbor, the San Francisco Bay Guardian pay its rent, an arrangement both the Chron and the New York Times might find instructive).
They buzzed by the Giant's stadium, maybe Phil and Mo could have stopped off at SixApart, home of the technology that runs this site along with several others, including MyBarackObama.com, the HuffingtonPost, much of CondeNast and Peobody Award winner Josh Marshall's TalkingPointsMemo. It's not a linotype machine but SixA does help churn out the news.
From there it's only a short walk to CNET, the first totally on-line media outlet to challenge the Chron's hold on readers. A visit to Salon.com, another online outfit, might have been worthwhile, too. Along the way, Mo and Phil could have stopped in on Technorati, the once-hot ranking service that's opening up an advertising to serve small publishers. Technorati might have been happy to arrange a meeting with local reporters - folks sometimes called bloggers - from outfits like TheNJudahChronicles or TheHealthCareBlog (both affiliated - in different ways - with this site) GigaOm, BeyondChron, CurbedSF or the unfortunately named SFist.
Or, just to be daring - it is out on the avenues (our Queens) - Phil could have taken Mo to lunch with Craig Newmark. Trite, I know, but sushi with Craig is always entertaining.
Dowd did, in fact, meet with the hipsters of the business, the big names that come up on the Lexis-Nexis search as "the" folks to talk to. But the headline grabbers aren't doing all the work. Here in San Francisco the news business is thriving. It's just not thriving on the printed page.
Old folks like Dowd and Bronstein - in their early 50's - may comfort themselves by looking back with Norma Desmond's longing for the good times. It's easy and after years of hard work climbing to the top of a business that's imploding, you can't really blame the live or fictional characters. But the silly hope that news must be carried on paper to look and be respectable and respected is as doomed as Joe Gillis.
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