Here's an Idea: Let's Make Our Products Worse

How’s this for a strategy: when faced with declining customer base and disruptive competition, make your product worse.

That seems to have been the thinking at the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper for the last few years. Faced with disruptive threats that have hammered its subscription rates (people reading online, getting news from other sources) and classified ads revenue (Craigs list), they have gradually made the paper worse and worse. It is now at its slimmest and lightest (in every sense of the word) that I’ve ever seen it, and I used to deliver it in high school 20+ years ago. (For some reason I still remember the headline announcing when the Dow broke 2,000…)

In the last week they rolled out a new design of the paper which brightens it up and makes it more organized in some ways. But it unfortunately looks more like a small-town paper now, too. Why can’t San Francisco, one of the most influential cities in the country (especially now with the Democratic leadership) have a paper that matches its clout and innovative spirit in other areas? Considering that the Chronicle is smack in the middle of Silicon Valley and Web 2.0, their website comes across like a portal from 1999 that’s trying to be everything to everyone.

In terms of the physical paper, they have been consolidating and trimming sections. These are transparently more about penny pinching than improving the quality of the reader experience. The most ridiculous example is putting the Business section on the back of another section, so that it reads backwards. Since most stories split onto a page inside the section, this makes you go through a counter-intuitive process to find it.

The aesthetic and organizational changes are one thing, but they don’t get to the heart of the problem: the reporting and writing. With a few exceptions they are just not that great. I’ve never seen the Chronicle make a serious effort to, across the board, improve the quality of these core elements of the newspaper. There is almost zero investigative reporting, and the writing is generally not very engaging. A lot of use is made of AP feeds and articles from other papers. I mostly read the NY Times online because it is just much more interesting and enjoyable to read.

Look, these are tough times for newspapers, no doubt about it. Big operations like the Times have much more resources to invent new things. But since when in the Bay Area is being small and under-resourced seen as bad? It’s practically a badge of honor and means that you do interesting things in smart, nimble ways. The Huffington Post is the most innovative online news site, and they are tiny.

When faced with competitive disruption, do you keep digging the path you’ve been going on, or take a step back and re-assess what business you’re really in? The music companies finally seem to be coming around to this; instead of using concerts to promote albums (seeing albums as the main revenue source) they are now using singles to promote concerts (don’t rely on revenue from mp3s, but make revenue up through multiple other sources).

Newspapers need to do the same kind of rethinking.