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The NY Times Will Be an Outsider in San Francisco

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The paper plans local versions in Chicago and Bay Area, but will it work?

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Any old-time newspaper editor will tell you that local news is important to local readers.Therefore, a dog fight on Main Street is more important to Mr. and Mrs. Jones than a drought in Timbuktu that kills thousands.

The New York Times (NYT) plans to act on this maxim by adding local news twice a week to its Chicago and San Francisco Bay Area editions.

This is a great idea, but one might ask: Why bother with the newsprint?

The Times, which has slashed its staff in New York, plans to launch the pages this fall with its own writers and editors, but then turn production over to a local partner. It announced the plans Wednesday.

In San Francisco, the leading candidate is a non-profit group backed by investor Warren Hellman, public radio station KQED, and the graduate school of journalism at the University of California at Berkeley.

That's an intriguing line-up -- and no cracks, please, about a non-profit news organization being the perfect fit for a cash-strapped newspaper company.

Berkeley students would get real-world reporting experience and the Times would get cheap labor. The obvious question: Will grad students, bursting with energy, want to write what seems to them ho-hum stories that serve local readers?

They'd better because the New York Times faces stiff competition from the local press, including the San Francisco Chronicle, Oakland Tribune, San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, and a slew of local papers such as the Vallejo Times-Herald and San Mateo Times. So, where does the New York Times fit?

It will pitch itself as an elite paper and stress its Washington and international coverage as well as its editorial pages. That might work in attracting upscale readers and key advertisers. But the Bay Area is an odd newspaper market and the New York Times will always be the outsider.

For years, the San Francisco Chronicle pitched itself as an adult comic book rather than a meaty newspaper and delivered with a string of top-notch columnists, zippy sports stories, and off-beat coverage of the region's arts and entertainment scene. Although it now faces troubling finances like the rest of the newspaper industry, the Chronicle continues to have the largest circulation in Northern California.

The New York Times also faces competition from the Wall Street Journal (NWS), which also plans to add local coverage to its Bay Area edition. This will be red meat in Silicon Valley and all those venture capital firms in San Francisco and Menlo Park.

Both papers may be able to tap what amounts to a serious case of East Coast envy among California's elite. The Bay Area has given the world major companies such as Intel (INTC), Apple (AAPL), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and eBay (EBAY), but for some, there's still a feeling of being "out there." Reading the local paper doesn't provide a connection with "Bosnywash" -- the Boston-New York-Washington corridor that any denizen of the Eastern seaboard will tell you is the center of the universe.

Newspaper circulation is shrinking nationwide so it makes sense for the Times to look beyond the New York metropolitan area for new readers. But even with student labor, the cost of printing and distributing newspapers to select readers in the Bay Area will be high. Clearly, this isn't a vanity project, but it's hard to see how it will be a solid money-maker.

Newspapers are inherently local and generally don't travel well. Why would anyone read the Denver Post in Charlotte, North Carolina? The Wall Street Journal is a national paper for a key, but narrow readership. The New York Times also has a strong national edition, but no matter how strong it is, especially with the addition of local news in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area, it's hard to imagine that it will be a first read like the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times' ambitious plans are a welcome respite from the endless cycle of staff cuts, falling circulation, and declining ad revenue that has become the staple of the newspaper industry. Just don't expect this initiative to revive the New York Times' stock price. Keep in mind that the company is still trying to unload the Boston Globe. The New York Times Co. bought the paper in 1993 for about $1.1 billion and it will be sold for a lot less -- perhaps as little as $20 million, even after cleaning up its union squabbles.

This is irredeemably sad for ink-stained wretches everywhere. The proper response to Chicago's and the San Francisco Bay Area's new local pages may be: Hail, Mary...

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