These are desperate times for newspapers. Experimentation abounds. For the San Francisco Chronicle this means trying to charge for their fancy (but relatively cheap to duplicate) columnists and giving away less-glamorous (but expensive) reporting.
When the Chronicle's website this morning yanked a column lambasting the mayor, charges of political cowardice quickly followed. The paper was scared, but not of the mayor: Frightened for its business, the paper is now charging for some Web content.
Vlae Kershner, News Director for the site, writes that the column in question, by former Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein (pictured), was never supposed to be online in the first place. "It's subscriber-only content that was posted by mistake," he told us.
Following months of discussions about doing this sort of thing, the paper has decided to inaugurate its first premium section, containing Bronstein's column (see the email Chronicle editor Ward Bushee sent us, below). It's a small experiment, but an extraordinary step: SFGate has historically been perhaps the most open newspaper website in the country; unlike other big-city papers, it never even tried to charge for access to its extensive archives.
It's odd that the Chronicle would choose opinion content for its first premium content experiment, given the experience of the The New York Times. The Times abandoned its effort to charge for opinion content, TimesSelect, after discovering that a paywall diminished the paper's voice and reduced its advertising revenue. Plus the market for political and cultural opinion is oversaturated; Bronstein's opinion pieces will likewise be a tough sell. The market pays no attention to newsroom hierarchies that put columnists and former editors up on pedestals.
More salable would be the Chronicle's least glamorous work, local news reporting, and any other beat it truly owns, like restaurant reviews. In politics and food alike, though, the paper faces competition from a growing corps of bloggers who could permanently steal way readers. For its own stake, the Chronicle should make sure it will be able to abandon any future experiments more readily than it launched the current one.
Chronicle editor Bushee's email:
Here's the deal. Phil's column was created from the start to be a print-only column in the Monday Chronicle. When we first started talking about the column, Phil and I agreed to try this as a low-stakes experiment. The experiment is not indicative of any larger plan by the Chronicle, SFGate or Hearst. It is not the start of a premium content imitative or a pay wall. But it was designed to test how different content models can serve different audiences. Each week Phil reaches a significant online audience with his blog, which is not available in print. By introducing a column by Phil that is different in its content and mission from his blog, we can see if it adds value to the printed paper by giving readers unique content that they could not get free online. As with any experiment, it will be evaluated at some point to see if we stick with it or change it.
Unfortunately, the brief appearance of the column on SFGate this week made some people think we were pulling it off because of the content. As you surmised in your note, that was not the case. The column was posted for a short time on SFGate through a misunderstanding and then pulled down when it was discovered.