If you’re concerned about the future of newspapers, Editor in Chief of the San Francisco Chronicle Audrey Cooper says to calm down and look to the past. Speaking to a class of Master of Arts in professional communication students last Thursday at USF’s downtown campus, Cooper went back to the beginnings of the sprawl of San Francisco – just before gold was discovered in 1849.
“In the years before the Gold Rush, there were, at one point, 398 people living in the city of San Francisco. Only 86 of them were literate and we had two newspapers,” Cooper said. “So everytime people complain that nobody reads newspapers anymore, I say, if we could have two newspapers with only 86 people who could read them, we’ll be fine. Calm down.”
But, of course, things have changed in San Francisco since 1849. Most notably, the rise of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and a particularly divisive president. Both issues – social media and Trump – are on Cooper’s mind.
“We have become absolutely lazy about seeking out the information,” Cooper said. “Facebook has trained us just to go and read headlines. That’s why most Americans say Facebook is their number one source of the news. If that doesn’t scare the shit out of you, it should, because Facebook does not care if you are an informed person.”
According to Cooper, Facebook referrals for Chronicle stories have dropped between 60 and 80 percent over the last year. This can likely be credited to Facebook’s shift in its algorithm to show less news articles and more posts from friends on users’ timelines. “We’ve trained people to get news one way, and now they’re not getting it in the way they were traditionally,” Cooper said.
Cooper also questioned how beneficial the “Trump bump” is to the integrity of journalism. The Trump bump, or the phenomenon of spikes in online subscriptions after Trump was elected, was felt prominently at The New York Times and The Washington Post. Most people chalk this up to a renewed support for journalism. Cooper, on the other hand, is skeptical. According to Cooper, opinion articles – not reported news – are what bring in the most amounts of subscribers.
Cooper said, “[People] click on stories and read something that confirms their opinion. Those are the most likely people to convert to paying subscribers. I don’t have to explain why this is so dangerous, right?”
“This is why, if you look at the New York Times’ website, you’ll see how high their opinion articles are,” she added. The New York Times lists opinion articles in the top left-hand corner of the page, a prime spot for wandering eyes. “If we are just encouraging people to click on things that they agree with, they won’t click on things they disagree with.”
Cooper added, “I really think that news should make you angry. It should make you happy. It should make you horrified and should disturb your day. But it is not my job to make you happy.”
Featured Photo: Audrey Cooper is the first female editor in chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, and the youngest female editor in chief of any major American newspaper. She spoke to Master of Arts students last week, and she told them not to worry about news; times have been worse for the information business.