It's a breathtaking double-cross, even by San Francisco standards: A newspaper left for dead by a philanthropist billionaire, who, in partnership with a university, public radio and even perhaps the New York Times, has transferred his affections to the Web.
Oh, sad newspaper industry. Does anyone believe in you anymore?
Private equity billionaire Warren Hellman was to be the savior of the San Francisco Chronicle, Hearst's cash-bleeding newspaper, which has laid off scores of journalists as recently as last week. But talks with the newspaper and the union weren't as interesting to Hellman, ultimately, as a sexy new idea: Become a sort of Arianna Huffington of the San Francisco-area news market.
So Hellman is now setting up an online (primarily) news operation for the region, according to reports in the San Francisco Business Times and New York Times. Like Huffington's Huffington Post, the venture's staff will include a hefty dose of amateur reporters, including students rom the University of California, Berkeley's graduate journalism school and possibly, according to some of the initial discussions we heard about, local volunteers. Unlike HuffPo, however, it would be a nonprofit, and will work with the local public radio station KQED.
It's a smart move: Even as they greedily snap up iPhones and Macbooks, the Bay Area's tech savvy readers have been abandoning the print edition of the Chronicle, whose circulation fell more than 20 percent over five years to 370,000. The paper lost around $4 million per month last year. Hellman's gambit is also commendable. By pumping $5 million of his foundation's cash into the venture, Hellman seeds a money stream that should help at least some laid off local journalists
But, in an interview with the New York Times, Hellman was cruelly blunt about the loser in all of this: papers like the Chronicle. Asked about whether he was ushering them to an early grave, Hellman said:
I think that demise might be inevitable, anyway. This might put journalism, broadly defined, on a much more stable foundation.
Wow. Perhaps the Times should ask its own executives that same question: The paper confirmed in its own news columns it has been in lengthy talks with Hellman's group "about the possibility of supplying [the group's] reporting to a San Francisco edition that the [Times] plans to start."
(Pic: Hellman, by AP.)