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San Francisco Chronicle Launches Paywall; Reporters Launch Twitter Strike

| March 25, 2013
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You can blame Craigslist or Google or blogs like this one. However you look at it, the Internet has disrupted the newspaper business. And the latest changes at the San Francisco Chronicle show that the upheaval isn’t over.

Over the weekend, the newspaper announced it will charge readers who want to read some of its content online.

In a related development on Monday, some Chronicle reporters and editors took the opportunity to protest changes in their health care plan. They posted red squares in place of their profile pictures on Twitter, as well as Facebook, and tweeted about their beef.

For example:

(The profile picture in this example was a red square on Monday and Tuesday, but will change if Azimov changes her profile picture.)

The new paywall is a bit complicated. The newspaper is now running two websites, sfgate.com and sfchronicle.com.

Here’s how Chronicle President Mark Adkins describes the change:

It gives our subscribers another option for getting the news and information they value from The Chronicle in an easy-to-use digital format organized like a newspaper.

Subscribers also will have full access to The Chronicle’s most enduring legacy – its columnists. The list of premium content goes on, including The Chronicle’s award-winning coverage of sports and the outdoors, arts and cultural events, pop music and entertainment, architecture and urban design, the environment and climate change, business and technology, food and wine, health and fitness, politics and government, and editorials and opinion pieces.

Nowhere does Adkins mention that the newspaper is asking readers to pay for these features. That information is included in a press release that Marketing Director Michael Keith sent out on Monday.

SFChronicle.com is available as part of a digital package for only $12.00 a month. Most Chronicle print subscribers will have access to SFChronicle.com as part of their subscriptions. More information and subscription options are available at www.SFChronicle.com/UltimateAccess.

On Monday, the two sites had slightly different but overlapping content. Both carried the story about a baby being rescued in San Jose, but without a subscription you got only the first paragraph on SFChronicle.com. On SFgate, you got the whole story… for free.

SFChronicle.com had a feature on the Hope Center, a medical clinic in Alameda County. Once again, you could read only a couple of sentences (and see a photo) without a subscription. That story wasn’t available at all on SFgate.com.

Neither Adkins’ letter nor Keith’s press release explains how the new plan relates to the previous approach the Chronicle announced in 2010. In that initiative, the Chronicle said it was making some content from its Sunday paper available only on paper and ink, then publishing it on SFgate.com the following Tuesday. Apparently the idea was to give subscribers some reason to pay for a print newspaper.

Reached by phone, Keith declined to elaborate. And some bloggers reacted with derision to the move.

Keith wouldn’t comment on the Twitter protest either. But Kat Anderson of the Pacific Media Workers Guild told KQED’s Aarti Shahani that reporters and editors at the newspaper are upset because Hearst, which owns the newspaper, is paying a smaller and smaller share of their health care premiums.

She said Hearst is paying only $148 per week per employee and has refused to increase that amount over the past five years while employees have to pay more and more.

The 1.5* percent raise the writers and editors are getting over the next four years won’t cover that cost, so in effect these workers are getting less compensation for their work, said Anderson.

“They came to the employees in 2005 and 2009 and they said we’re going to shut down the newspaper if you don’t agree to all these financial concessions,” Anderson said. “So the  contracts were opened. Pay was cut, benefits were cut, the pensions was frozen, vacation was given up. They increased their workweek; people basically work through their lunch now unpaid. And the paper is still afloat, and they’re working at profitability. One of their head honchos said the paper looks better since 2007.”

When the newspaper launched SFChronicle.com (which appears to be a way of trying to increase revenue), management asked reporters and editors to tweet about the new offering, Anderson said.

Several have responded by tweeting about their health care complaints instead. And they’ll take a vote in the next couple of weeks about whether to authorize their bargaining team to call a strike, said Anderson.

We’ll keep you posted here online. And on the air. But not in print.

*A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Hearst offered Chronicle writers and editors a 1.4% raise over the next four years.

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Category: Blog Beat, Labor, Media

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  • Kat Anderson

    Small correction: Hearst has offered a 1.5% pay increase (rather than 1.4%). Thank you! Kat Anderson

  • http://www.facebook.com/kimberlymetzger Kim Metzger

    The free to subscriber detail isn’t exactly accurate and I think is a bit misleading in the way that the Chronicle is posing this. As a Sunday-Only subscriber, my subscription isn’t good enough to warrant access to the premium content. They’re asking me to upgrade my account.

  • C. Robins, former columnist

    Well, looks like I’ll not get to read Leah every day if they start charging me. Toodles. as someone who worked for the Comical for a year after my paper, the Hearst Examiner, merged with the the Comical and then split when offered a lovely buyout, I really feel for those who are left. . . indentured servitude at bargain prices takes all the fun out of being a reporter.