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The latest on the S.F. Chronicle’s Food & Wine Section

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If you’ve been wondering just exactly what changes are afoot at the San Francisco Chronicle’s Food & Wine section, you won’t be any the wiser for reading this scoop Q&A with the paper’s managing editor, Audrey Cooper, which appeared late last week in San Francisco magazine’s online edition.

The news that the paper’s “Stand-Alone Food Section Faces Demise” hit the Bay Area like a lightning bolt last week when it was reported in the New York Times. The local Eater website picked up on it and headlined their article, “San Francisco Chronicle to Shut Down Its Food Section.”

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Kudos to Audrey for giving the interview to San Francisco Magazine, even if her responses raised more questions than they answered. After all, we can’t really hold it against her if she, herself, doesn’t know what’s going to happen. I suspect that the Hearst Corporation, which owns the Chron, will have the final say in the eventual outcome.

What this story speaks to are two things: One, the ongoing evolution of print publications, with all their travails as they lose younger readers and advertisers; and the Bay Area’s absolute, unflinching need for a print publication of record that will deal intelligently and analytically with our food and wine culture.

Dealing with the latter point first: If you’ve ever been to San Francisco, its suburbs and nearby wine country, you know that the pleasures of eating and drinking are near and dear to our hearts. We tend to over-glamorize the expensive restaurants, like Meadowood, La Folie and Commis, but if they were all that the Bay Area had to lean on, our food culture would collapse. No, the truth is that it rests on a solid foundation of affordable, ethnic-based cuisine, ranging from Korean and Ethiopian to Vietnamese and Afghan, and probably a hundred others. Where do you think the city’s top chefs eat when all is said and done? They head over to some noodle joint.

So whatever happens at the Chron, Audrey (and her employers) understand full well that the paper’s readers expect continued coverage of the restaurant scene. That means the chief restaurant reviewer, Michael Bauer, isn’t going anywhere, and neither is Paolo Lucchesi, who writes the gossipy The Scoop (and whom I’ve invited to be on this blog numerous times, but he always turns me down. Come on, Paolo!).

And what of Jon Bonné and his wine reporting? Northern Californians recognize Jon as one of the most important and compelling voices in wine journalism and reviewing. I don’t always agree with his conclusions, but I read him avidly. In the Q&A with Audrey, the reporter didn’t ask anything about the wine section (I wish she had), but I can’t see anything bad happening to it or to Jon. There would be an uproar in San Francisco if the Chron diminished its wine coverage.

So this gets us back to the former point I made: that the story speaks to the ongoing evolution of print journalism. While Audrey’s answers were notable for non-specificity, she did mention advertisers twice, but in ways that are potentially troubling. For instance, she said that whatever changes are made, they will hopefully be “better for readers and for advertisers.” Of course, the meaning of the word “better” is different for those two groups, whose interests don’t necessarily coincide, and may sometimes collide (although the most important goal both advertisers and readers share is the Chron’s continued existence.) Along these lines, Audrey also said that before management makes any final decisions, there will be “a lot of…reader feedback [and] advertiser feedback.”

Here’s my advice to Audrey and senior management at the Chronicle. Let Jon be Jon, let Paolo be Paolo, let Michael be Michael. Shield them with all the power you can from feeling the pressures of advertising. This isn’t always easy for an editor, who, after all, reports to a publisher responsible for a bottom line; but it’s necessary in order for a paper to maintain its editorial integrity, and thus the trust of its readership. As for the Chronicle generating more revenue, I don’t know how to make that happen, but messing with the Food & Wine Section can’t possibly help. What corporations in America always should keep in mind is that cutbacks are double-edged swords: Yes, by eliminating staff and certain expenses you can save a little money. But you have to ask yourself what else you’re losing in the process. You don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater, so to speak.

  1. Not sure I understand the “unflinching need for a print publication….” Assumedly you mean long-form content, but why print?

    Do you think people want to read long reviews of restaurant visits any more? Give me some stars, a blurb (and detail content if I really want it)… and make that available to me when I’m planning to go out to dinner, not simply something I skim over on a Sunday morning and soon forget. We can argue all we want about the quality of professional food writing vs. a mob, but if you can’t get your content to people at the right time, then it doesn’t really matter.

    I’d say the same applies to wine writing – print and online. People want to know what to buy, where to buy it and how to get the best deal. If they get some education along the way, then great. But I feel that the primary goal of wine writers who review (and score) individual wines should be to facilitate commerce. I think it will actually increase demand for the long-form content if readers are going to put some skin in the game. Otherwise you really have to ask the question “is this worth 10+ minutes of my time to read about orange wine producers in Scotland?”

    The big problem for Jon et al is that he doesn’t have the scale of reviews to be a meaningful force and, like every other reviewer, has no channel to reach buyers where/when it matters. Not his fault, but perhaps more damning of the entire write content producing industry that maybe needs to spend more time looking at how people want to consume information vs. the easiest way to produce it.

  2. Michael: Why print? Because print is the medium that most people still refer to as the gold standard in journalism. Digital is so fractured that no one outlet is big enough to speak to everyone, the way a local paper does. The Sunday Chron is read by hundreds of thousands if not millions of people. No website can make that claim.

  3. Wha? The Sunday Chronicle has circulation < 300K. That's a rounding error on scores of websites' traffic. Actually, I just checked and the Chronicle doesn't even seem to report print publication, preferring instead to report on combined print+online. And I disagree with the notion that the Chronicle is a local paper wrt wine writing just because there's a lot of coverage of California – that's the bulk of what is drunk across the country. It's like saying you're a local wine writer because you write mostly about California.

    Look, I'm not a journalist and am not really too caught up in the plight of writers. But long-form content is a tough game these days and esoteric (to most) wine writing especially so. Maybe the question is what is the purpose of, say, Jon Bonne's or Eric Asimov's writing? Why do they do it, who do they expect will read it, and what will people do with that information?

  4. Michael, the Chron’s pass-through numbers are far higher than its official subscription number. As for the purpose of long form writing: It’s been a mainstay of human knowledge and entertainment for all of our time on earth. Before the written word there was the spoken word, in the form of stories. If long form writing disappears, then our species will have undergone a profoundly uncertain change. But long form writing will not disappear.

  5. Steve, while I agree with you about print, especially as it applies to newspapers and their potential reach in a local market, the question that you ask but do not answer is “what content?”.

    “Orange wines in Scotland” is an intentional exaggeration, but column after column of unobtainable wine seems to me to be a disservice to the audience of a newspaper.

    For several years, Rod Smith and I shared the wine column in the LA Times, alternating between his “stories” and my tasting note columns.

    The food editor there gave me only two rules: do not speak above the heads of your readers and do not be a cheerleader. At first, I worried that these were contradictory directives, but it became clear to me that my columns had to be intelligent and written in plain language, not winespeak, and that I had to lead the readers to wines that they could buy and would like.

    That clearly is a different remit from my wine geek newsletter that has mostly collectors and upscale commercial establishments as subscribers. Someone once said to me, “What you are really saying is that you have to ‘dumb down” your content”.

    I never looked at it that way. My job was to communicate in a useful way with the readership such that readers could read my columns and act on them.

    That, I believe, is what Michael is calling for above. And I have to agree with him.

    Now, whether or not a more reader-friendly wine column would have saved the Chron’s Wine and Food Section, is way beyond my ken. Clearly, a newspaper in print can only exist if it either makes money on subscriptions or makes money on advertising. What the Chronicle equation looks like is not something we know, but we do know that most print has been losing readers for years.

    And we also know, as my dear wife points out, that home delivery of the Chron is not inexpensive. There is a rate quoted on the website of $260 per year for home delivery. But, Mrs. Olken just pulled out the latest bill and it reads $60 for five weeks, and that adds up to $600+ per year. And now that she has cottoned to that fact, she wants to cancel the paper.

    Print is very expensive, and very few publications now make big money on subscription revenue. That is why advertising must be somehow in the equation when it comes to figuring out what to do with the Wine and Food section. It does not have to drive content, and if you look at the wine writing in the Chron, it clearly has not been geared to the big wineries who might want to advertise there. But content ought to fit the readership, which is not to say that it should be dumbed down so much as be accessible.

    And if content does fit the readership, then that is the best chance any publication has for survival based on content. If advertising is part of the equation, then it may be that wineries find newpaper advertising just too expensive.

  6. Charlie, I can’t see how Jon’s “content” could possibly be more accessible to his readership. So for you to suggest he has to make it “fit” better is non-starter. It makes no sense. I don’t get the feeling that Jon’s readers are uncomfortable with his writing style. Quite the opposite (although he does occasionally piss people off!). The problem is solely one of advertising, which is an area you, as the owner of a private newsletter, may not fully appreciate. Advertisers have been abandoning print publications for years, a problem exacerbated by the recession. Every publisher is trying to figure out how to deal with that. Websites are a part of the solution. Since neither you nor I are particularly wise about attracting advertising, I think neither of us is in the position to advise the Chronicle. But their problem has nothing to do with Jon.

  7. BTW, I’m not really saying Jon’s columns are too esoteric… I’m just using him as a proxy for long-form wine content. What I’m asserting is that readers have less and less time to read content that does not have obvious practical utility and/or doesn’t come in bite-sized chunks. I experience this myself when I look at a 2 page story and think “ugh, am I really going to read about a family where the son left to go to medical school and then at 35 came back to connect with his heritage with horse ploughs and minimal sulfur additions?” And I’m arguably *way* more interested in that than most. No shit that advertisers are abandoning this model… for better or worse, people have far more demands on their time today than they did 20 years ago and far more sources of content that know how to grab their attention.

    As far as “every publisher is trying to figure out how to deal with that” … all I can say is to stop being so product-centric and start thinking more about what needs your customers have and then figure out how you can meaningfully meet those needs.

    My $0.02… people read about wine because they like to drink wine. To drink wine, people have to buy wine. To buy wine, people need information and advice at the point where they are buying wine (online or offline). If you can find a way to provide bite-sized advice at that point such that you are driving the “reader’s” behavior, then now they have skin in the game in the form of purchases… then they’re going to be WAY more interested in reading more about what they just bought. Maybe this sounds a bit back-assward and excessively commercial, but I really don’t see any alternative.

    [Disclaimer: I am building a platform that does what I've described above, so I am *extremely* biased.]

  8. Steve, I would respectfully disagree–up to a point. The lack of advertising is certainly the larger issue, and not just for the W/F Section. But, I am constantly surprised by the vitriolic reaction that so many wineries and areas have to Jon.

    It is not because he is a bad writer, but rather because he is opinionated to the point that he pisses lots of people off including folks who would advertise. And, I guess I also feel that his usual content is way above the level of the average newspaper reader who looks to W/F for guidance.

  9. Donn Rutkoff says:

    The SF Chronicle circulation is awful. The 9 county bay area, including far away top restaurants like Meadowood and Mansera, hold about what, 9 million or more? The Chron circulation outside of SF city proper, is miniscule, it is ignored by the vast vast vast vast vast majority of drinkers and diners.

    And the “explanation” or “clarification” a few days later was lame. So lame. Digital inovators expanding communication channels all the time. The brain trust in charge at the Chron is more like brain rust, not trust.

    And I just went to SFGate.com to find the articles, and not sure if they even are on their own website. So much for news. And why was the news first known via the New York Times????

  10. I do think it is fair to say the Jon Bonné is writing for the 1%…of wine drinkers, for the geeky side of the bell curve. For example, the Thanksgiving wines he picks in his latest column simply cannot be found by Everyman or woman, except perhaps at K&L. And his new book is exploring unkown microwineries.

    Another factor that has been kicked around constantly in this forum, though not on this thread, is the role of advice from friends made much easier by social media. Tastemakers making pronouncements from on high are losing their impact, in part because they are recommending wines way above the budgets of the financially squeezed populace.

  11. A few thoughts:

    Circulation and influence are not always in lock-step. The subscriber base of The Wine Advocate is quite a bit lower than that of the SF Chronicle, yet nobody can debate the impact Parker has had. I would argue that Jon Bonné is a significant influencer as well, though not to the same degree of course. His readership isn’t huge but it does include a great many somms, wine buyers and taste-makers. Of course, that doesn’t sell ads…

    Speaking of Parker and Bonné, it’s interesting to read comments about how Jon Bonné angers some producers, and this isn’t the first time heard this. For years, it’s been Parker geting bashed by wineries that don’t like his taste or who were victim to low RP scores. Bonné is on the opposite side of the style coin and I suspect many of his detractors do very well with Bob. It’s dangerous to voice strong opinions, but critics without a clear point of view aren’t terribly interesting.

    Product idea: For wine-loving couples with opposing palates, the wine-decider coin. Parker’s head on one side, Jon’s on the other.

  12. Stephen Mitchell says:

    According to CisionPoint, an online media database that is used by many in the PR business, the current print circulation for the SF Chronicle is 218,987.

  13. Michael Donohue says:

    All this is prompting me to take up Twitter. #vosneromanee
    Multi-orgasmic ’95 Jayer Cros Parantoux a la Kurniawan only $400 BTG @ Rosewood

  14. Donn Rutkoff says:

    Rosewood? Don’t you mean Rosebud?

  15. File this under the headline “We Agree to Disagree”:

    Point # 1. Michael writes . . .

    “… I feel that the primary goal of wine writers who review (and score) individual wines should be to facilitate commerce.”

    Steve, as a member of the Fourth Estate adhering to long-established journalistic standards, writes behind a proverbial “Chinese Wall” separating editorial from “advertorial”/advertising (read: “commerce”).

    Let me weigh in.

    As a freelance ad agency executive tasked with identifying who is the “target audience” for my client’s marketing communications message, and what media best delivers that message to the public, I have a “vested interest” in preserving the integrity of the media.

    Why?

    If the public perceives a specific writer or a newspaper or a magazine or a radio show or a TV show as simply being paid shills through paid endorsements, then the public dismisses whatever they have to say as being devoid of credibility.

    That’s why the “gold standard” in American journalism is Consumer Reports.

    You can debate whether Consumer Reports’ testing methodology is valid or flawed, but no one questions their probity.

    Honest folks trying to make honest assessments — with no axe to grind or hidden agenda.

    A modern-day rarity: “content” – not available for free on the Web — that millions of Americans willingly pay for. The best “vote of one’s wallet” that any media company can find.

    And when they give a product their top rating, it “moves the needle.”

    Arguably second in importance and pubic suasion to Consumer Reports are the automotive quality surveys by J.D. Power and Associates.

    Point # 2. Michael writes:

    “… Maybe the question is what is the purpose of, say, Jon Bonne’s or Eric Asimov’s writing? Why do they do it, who do they expect will read it, and what will people do with that information?”

    General interest consumer publications need a variety of editorial content to appeal to their disparate readers. Some of that editorial falls into the category of Walter Mitty-like “living vicariously through someone else’s experience.”

    Dan Neil reviews cars for The Wall Street Journal. Won a Pulitzer Prize for criticism covering that beat for the Los Angeles Times.

    How many WSJ readers are candidates to own a $1.5 million Bugatti Veyron?

    Consider movie reviews. How many newspaper readers grab the car keys and drive to their local “art house theater” to take in foreign language films? The paper writes up those flicks because that is part of their beat. (Maybe months down the road you might be tempted to rent the DVD or download it from Netflix.)

    And wine editorial drives “commerce” in the form of adjacent display ads – for individual wines, subscription wine clubs, Riedel wine glasses, Wine Spectator or Wine Enthusiast subscriptions, and wine tourism among other categories. Those analogue print ads are more remunerative than digital online ads.

    An aside. Michael writes:

    “… if you can’t get your content to people at the right time, then it doesn’t really matter.”

    Readership studies of monthly periodicals show they can take upwards of six months to “cume” (read: fully aggregate) their audience. Ties in with the notion of selective periodicals being “coffee table” media – there for the reading anytime in the household (or at your doctor’s office . . . with you comprising the “pass-along” reader counted in the circulation audits.)

  16. Charlie,

    Regarding your comment . . .

    “… I am constantly surprised by the vitriolic reaction that so many wineries and areas have to Jon.

    “It is not because he is a bad writer, but rather because he is opinionated to the point that he pisses lots of people off including folks who would advertise.”

    … the vast majority of wineries have no advertising budget.

    Their limited marketing dollars are spent targeting the trade: working through their distributors to secure shelf placements in grocery stores, convenience stores,independent wine stores, and on restaurant wine lists.

    Jon’s writings might irk or even alienate some wineries. But it is highly unlikely those wineries would ever advertise in The Chronicle . . . regardless of who is the wine columnist. (Did they ever advertise before Jon assumed his position . . . in an era ostensibly characterized by a more “favorable” editorial environment?)

    ~~ Bob

  17. Donn,

    Regarding your comment . . .

    “… The Chron circulation outside of SF city proper, is miniscule …”

    … this is a well-understood and accepted phenomenon in media circles.

    Ad agency media planners and buyers know that subscribers and readers fall off the farther you go away from a newspaper’s “core” geographic market.

    In the case of The Chronicle, subscribers and readers in the “wine country” adopt their local newspaper — be it the Napa Valley Register, St. Helena Star, Santa Rosa Press Democrat. Oakland Tribune, Contra Costa Times and so on.

    One of my ad agency clients was the Los Angeles Times. They sought our help driving subscriber growth in Orange County to the south, and Riverside County to the east of Los Angeles County.

    Our new subscriber acquisition campaigns were a failure. To the south, the Orange County Register was entrenched. To the east, the Riverside Press-Enterprise equally so.

    They say “All politics is local.” So too one’s allegiance to a local newspaper.

    (And “why” was the news first known via the New York Times? Because Chronicle employees wanted their glum news disseminated without fear of being censored or “spin-doctored” by their employer-newspaper.)

    ~~ Bob

  18. Steve – great take on this. The chron response has been enigmatic but reading between the lines it basically says two things: 1. The nyt story is basically correct, & 2. The chron is moving from the role of culture/taste makers to followers.

  19. I would like to see how many people b/w the ages of 25 and 45 subscribe to the Chronicle, and then actually read it. I am 42 and have 2 kids (2 and 4), and I never read a print edition of a newspaper. They should also completely re-design their Food page on sfgate.com. All they need are a few buttons which they already have, but they are too small. The Home Page for the Food Section on sfgate.com is way too busy. All they should show besides the buttons are perhaps 5 to 7 current stories.

    Restaurant Reviews | Top 100 Restaurants | Wine Reviews | Top 100 Wines | Recipes.

    If they hit Restaurant Reviews they can then pick location (San Francisco, East Bay, North Bay, Peninsula, South Bay – right now they have too many locations), and the same goes for Wine Reviews (Napa, Sonoma, Anderson Valley, Paso Robles etc. etc.)

    That is the desktop version of the site, when you look at the mobile version, it is a complete disaster. You don’t see any buttons (Restaurants, Wine Reviews etc. etc.). All you see are stories. At the end of the day, they have good content, but it is organized in a poor manner.

    Bonne should also stop talking about wines that can’t be purchased in stores, or if he does, at least state that the wine is unavailable, or encourage the reader to try to get on the winery’s list.

  20. jon campbell says:

    as long as the “sporting green” stays intact I’m cool with whatever hahaha

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