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9 Counties? 8 Bridges? 7 Million People?

PUBLISHED: November 23, 2009

New York TimesA bit more than a month ago, The New York Times launched an experiment that could transform the newspaper industry, and might be the final nail in a coffin shared between the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News. Seeking to expand its already quite large San Francisco Bay Area circulation numbers (about 49,000 on weekdays and 65,000 on Sundays) the once-gray lady rolled out a twice weekly Bay Area section on October 16th, as well as a Bay Area-centric blog. A few weeks later, the Wall Street Journal (which boasts Bay Area circulation of around 98,000) launched its own section for Bay Area readers. Media critics have lamented these New York-based papers’ aggressive forays into Northern California, arguing that any new competition might topple the region’s two largest papers, the Chronicle and the Mercury News, which have been particularly hard hit in the past few years. It would indeed be a shame to lose the Chron or the Merc. But to the mind of this Bay Area resident (and Sunday New York Times subscriber) the biggest problem with the new Bay Area section is that it acts like a foreign desk, treating the region like a surprisingly cosmopolitan colonial outpost, covering perennial stories that Bay Area residents have long known about.

The food, travel, and style editors at the Times have long held a borderline obsessive fascination with the San Francisco Bay Area. While we appreciate the attention, these pieces tend to paint the region as a utopian wonderland of foodies, hipsters, and hot springs. Which is fine. To the newspaper’s many east coast readers, the Bay Area is little more than a far-flung province at the other end of the country, a great place to vacation, drink some wine, have a mud bath. But this is not, of course, how Bay Area residents see their home. One could excuse this somewhat patronizing perspective were it confined to the style, travel, and food pages, but the stance permeates the newspaper’s new Bay Area section as well. The tagline of The Bay Area blog—“9 counties, 8 bridges, 7 million people”—seems to marvel at the size and diversity of the region. Who knew?

Wall Street JournalIn its debut weeks, the Bay Area section of the newspaper has been comprised of dry political reporting and evergreen news features, similar in many ways to the coverage one would find coming out of a foreign desk in Cairo or New Dehli. An article published on November 20th, for example, looks at The Big Game between Cal and Stanford, arguably the most important annual Bay Area sports event. “But there are other fields and other dreams,” the online teaser tells us.  “And the universities vie with each other in many other ways.” That Cal and Stanford are competing for football bragging right as well as talent, students, and government money is hardly news to Bay Area residents, though the Times’ Bay Area editors seem to think we need reminding of this dynamic. Or, in another example, a recent run down of Bay Area housing statistics begins with the caveat that “[i]f you live in the Bay Area, you hardly need reminding that you pay more for your home than most people.” No, you don’t. And yet, the article still reminds us that “[t]he region has the dubious honor of ranking No. 1 nationally in median home value, median monthly mortgage costs and median gross rent.” The food and arts coverage in the Bay Area section has focused on established restaurants and shows that opened long ago. One piece profiles actor and playwright Dan Hoyle, whose solo show Tings Dey Happen premiered three years ago. These articles might be interesting to readers on the east coast, but to Bay Area residents, they’re old news.

Granted, The New York Times’ Bay Area section is still finding its footing. And, perhaps recognizing its shortfalls, the newspaper has begun talks to buy content from the Bay Area Project, an area journalism collective. If the Times is going to beat out the Journal in the race to dismember the Chron and the Merc, it’s going to have to start reporting on the Bay Area from the inside.


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Rich Lieberman's picture
I write a Bay Area media blog and have read the Times for many, many years. Though I give them credit for reaching out to the 415/510/ corridor, I too, am disappointed thus far with the Times’ rather puffy puff pieces’ on SF culture. For one, they could try a bit more original story ideas and oh yeah, there’s one helluva media blogger they could use from time to time.
Felicity Barringer's picture
Michael Lukas, in one way, has fulfilled my fondest wish – that the NY Times’ Bay Area report, which I edit, could be judged over a series of issues, rather than just the first couple. But the resulting critique is the one I most wished to avoid when we started – that we are somehow looking at this place as a foreign country, and condescendingly following its folkways, rather than providing a report that feels homegrown. I am defensive by nature, and probably will seem so in this response, since it does sting to be told, by a thoughtful observer, that you’ve fallen into the trap you most feared. But let me make an alternate case, and see how Mr. Lukas, Mr. Lieberman and your other readers react. I’ll begin with the easy one: the Stanford-Cal feature by Jason Turbow. The writer is a local resident, and the editor (me) has been following Big Game and the overall Stanford-Cal rivalry since the fall of 1968, when I was a freshman at Stanford. My options were ignoring Big Game – which didn’t seem the right way to go – or figuring out a way to cover it that gave deference to the way it dominates conversation here, without giving it undue weight. Mr. Lukas thinks it was The Times naively “discovering” the Stanford-Cal rivalry and telling readers things they know well. But my guess is he missed the reception that John Hennessy, Stanford’s president, gave for his own staff and their Cal counterparts before the game. Both he and Cal’s chancellor referred to Mr. Turbow’s piece in their public remarks – they felt it was am enjoyable new take on a perennial subject. (I would also guess that Mr. Lukas missed the historical reference hinted at in the last two lines.) So I’m left to wonder – would it have been better to totally ignore the game? I don’t think so. Also, Tracey Taylor’s real estate column should not be judged by the brief lede-in, but by the new statistics she offered beneath. But there is a broader case to be made for our coverage. For one thing, our “Vistas” feature, designed to locate, in words and a photograph, the intersection of the internal and external geographies that matter to local residents, seems to have sparked local interest, judging from the e-mail traffic I get from articulate, interesting people suggesting we write about their preferred vistas. On a more serious note, Scott James, our Barbary Coast columnist, has been breaking news since his first work was published Oct. 16, revealing for the first time in any local publication that a citywide revolt against increased real estate assessments was under way. He also had the first interviews with the victims of the shootings at the last Hallowe’en parade in the Castro. And his Nov. 13 column on the clash of church and state in Vallejo has led to a storm of protest there, and continuing coverage on all the local television outlets. His piece and related web post on local jurisdictions like San Mateo County cracking down on bicycle scofflaws got a huge reaction. Likewise, Frances Dinkelspiel’s piece on the dilemma facing self-employed truckers working at the port of Oakland, who have to get new trucks with cleaner engines to continue working there, was followed four days later by a very similar front-page piece in the Oakland Tribune. And her piece on the arson case involving the loss of $250 million in Napa wines was widely read. Finally, Gerry Shih and Rick Paddock went back to Richmond High School after the gang rape and found an angle that even the fine piece the week before by the Chronicle’s Kevin Fagan touched only briefly – the existence of a subculture at the school that condones the rape and blames the victim for getting her attackers in trouble. Gerry had another piece today, too late for Mr. Lukas’s consideration, that profiled the club owner and political power broker Terrance Alan, a piece that built on the fine work the SF Weekly did on San Francisco’s Entertainment Commission and its growing political power. All of the writers I cite above are not Times staffers. They are either natives of the Bay area or longtime residents (Mr. Shih spent part of his childhood here and graduated from Stanford last June.) I have not spent most of my adult life here, but am a Stanford graduate and have lived on the peninsula for the last 2 1/2 years. So I am the only one of us who could be considered a colonial administrator – and I’d bet there are tens of thousands of other area residents who have lived here two years or less, but don’t consider themselves outsiders. All that said, I am keenly aware that the fact our copy is running in a paper based in New York is going to make smart readers sensitive to the appearance of colonialism. And our two-day-a-week publication schedule give us a higher barrier on keeping up with and ahead of the news. (The Bay Bridge eye-bar failure, for instance, happened on a Friday night and our deadlines mean it would have been nearly impossible to rip up our Sunday section and provide proper coverage of the event and its aftermath. But perhaps we should have tried.) So thanks for paying close attention, Mr. Lukas, and if you continue to offer critiques, I will continue to pay attention. Still, I hope you take a broader look at our offerings in the future. We are still getting our footing, but I think we’ve shown some nimble footwork nonetheless. I will look forward both to your novel on the Ottomans and any future assessments of our work. Mr. Lieberman, trust, me, I read every e-mail you send us. Regards, Felicity Barringer Editor, Bay Area Report The New York Times PS: I kind of like the “9 Counties, 8 Bridges, 7 Million People” subhed, but am more than willing to take suggestions for a better one. Who knew?
Michael's picture
Michael · 12 years ago
Although I don’t consider myself a media critic, not by any means, I can imagine it’s every media critic’s dream to have their criticisms answered in such a thoughtful and respectful manner, by no less than Felicity Barringer. While my critiques still stand, I should add that I do very much appreciate the professionalism and creativity that The New York Times has brought to its reporting on the Bay Area, in spite of serious time and space constraints. I had known, for example, about the blue-green alliance at the Port of Oakland, but Frances Dinkelspiel’s piece brought a new depth to the topic. I am astounded at how much ground Michelle Quinn covers every day. And there is no food writer more knowledgeable about the region than Kim Severson. At the end of the day, I am little more than a Bay Area native and Times subscriber who has always taken issue with the paper’s reporting on my home town, and fears that New York-centrism might seep into this exciting new experiment. What bothers me most of all is that the reporting feels as if it is affected by a certain “double vision” (to steal from DuBois). While produced by Bay Area residents for Bay Area residents, the pieces in the new section read as if they want to explain their relevance to East Coast readers, or editors, as the case may be. But perhaps that’s just my own over-sensitivity.

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