The above apocryphal headline was more or less my initial reaction to this morning's paper, which was being handed out free downtown to tout the Chron's first issue printed on new, state-of-the-art, very expensive Canadian presses. Above the fold, a big photo of the Golden Gate Bridge poking through the fog at sunset is tailored to demonstrate just how nicely these presses work. "Today's editions usher in a brighter and more visually exciting era" for the paper, says a note announcing the changes, which include the paper's second major redesign this year. (In February, it touted the prior makeover—with its notes of USA Today—as "brighter and more modern.") But back to today's paper. It includes a special four-page section showing how the exciting new presses work. "A new era gets rolling," it promises.
Where, then, are the ads for those cool rotary telephones? Those newfangled horse-and-buggy courier services? Hot new 8-track releases, and the moving pictures?
The Chronicle's woes, and those of our industry, won't be solved by gimmicks. People want crisp photos, but they're not going to drop their iPhones and Kindles and rush to subscribe to a paper just because it now looks up to snuff. Evidence of a deeper problem lies in section F, where the paper has yet another Golden Gate Bridge photo to accompany a five-part series on… fog, penned by a onetime Chronicle health reporter. "Our Fabled Fog," beckons the headline. And the subhead: "It's part of the magic and beauty of San Francisco, permeating all avenues of life—and we should expect even more of it in the future"
I thought the Onion had ceased publishing in San Francisco.
Look, with all respect to the good people at the Chron, many of whom are friends and old colleagues (and also to the Oakland Tribune, and daily newspapers across the land), we all know where this is headed. We read Romenesko, after all.
It's not just the newspapers, of course. Local TV news, still where a good chunk of the populace gets its info, has been a bad joke forever. I recently learned just how bad.
A few weeks ago, my friend Amy Shelf got a call from San Francisco’s KRON 4, a former NBC affiliate, now independent, that bills itself “the Bay Area’s News Station.” The caller, a polite young woman, wanted to set up a meeting with Amy to talk about opportunities for her to appear on the air and speak about legal issues—Amy is a lawyer.
Was the caller a news producer? Not exactly. She wanted Amy to pay $1,000, presumably per month, to star in a five-minute monthly segment. Amy consulted her moral compass. “I was like, ‘I think that’s totally unethical,’" she tells me later, recalling the conversation. "And she said, ‘Well, it looks like the news.’ And I said, ‘That’s exactly what makes it unethical!’”
KRON's sales rep quickly added that the paid segments were identified as such, but Amy still wasn’t buying. Proper disclosure, of course, would make the whole thing just a bit less slimy. So I went online and viewed some of the segments in question. There was plenty to be concerned about.
Take Medical Mondays, KRON’s call-in health-advice show. The 24-minute segment is preceded by a seven-second disclaimer noting that the following program was paid for by Seton Medical Center. If you happened to tune it in after eight seconds, you’d be none the wiser.
As promised by the saleswoman, this and similar programs have the look and feel of a real news-talk show, complete with a news ticker scrolling past underneath and chirons (the graphic tags that identify the person speaking) that are pretty much indistinguishable from those you'd see on regular news segments. Each paid segment is introduced by an anchor situated in what appears to be KRON's newsroom. Medical Mondays is hosted by Vicki Liviakis, one of the station's longtime anchors, who, according to KRON 4's website “has traveled the globe covering stories from terrorism in the Middle East to devastating floods in the American Midwest.”
Now she's hawking condos. I watched a segment of another show, Bay Area Living. It appears under "Local Shows" on the station's website, where it contains no paid-programming disclaimer. The lifestyle segment begins with video of a Vacaville, California, development called Belvedere Homes and a Liviakis voiceover: “Have you ever dreamt of living in an opulent old-world estate behind beautiful entry monuments and wrought-iron gates, amidst pristine buildings and landscaping lavished in old-world luxury? Now what if all this was located right here in the Bay Area?” (Camera cuts to the anchor pulling up to the gate in a cute convertible.) “Hi everybody, I’m Vicki Liviakis. Not only did we discover this gem, but you won’t believe the price!”
Cheesy lifestyle coverage is one thing, but when "the Bay Area’s News Station" has a show called Morning News, it’s not unreasonable that viewers might expect, uh, news. But the experts featured on the show—KRON calls them Morning News Staff—are paying for the privilege. Every Thursday, the program's "Eye on Health" segment features laser eye surgeon Gary Kawesch extolling his techniques. Each Tuesday morning, Morning News anchor James Fletcher hosts "Everything 4 Pets" with various "sponsors." Anchor Darya Folsom ("for Folsom, even at a young age there was no other career but journalism," says the website) hosts "Weight Solutions" with Dr. Greg Jossart, a laproscopic surgeon. Where the financial relationships are disclosed—sometimes they aren't—they are mostly couched in the vague language of sponsorship and partnership.
I'm a curmudgeon. I listen to LPs. I have a 78 record player. I don't like to throw stuff away. But I also have Facebook and Skype and Twitter accounts. And when the old media turns to obvious desperation measures, I just can't help pondering the future of my profession and concluding, well, that we should be expecting even more fog in the future.
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