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An Interview with Herald Publisher Gene Mahoney

Is the San Francisco Herald back after a 2 year hiatus?

Yes. Sort of. It’s a new, greener, more environmentally conscious version of the Herald. The copy you’re reading belongs to the café/bar/restaurant you’re reading it in. Please don’t walk out with it. You can read it at home (or on the bus, etc.) at SanFranciscoHerald.Net. Please leave this copy where you found it so someone else can read it when you’re finished.

How come there’s only one “store copy” here and not a stack of copies like there used to be?

Because of my commitment to the sustainability of the ecosystem. It has nothing to do with the fact that the entire newspaper/magazine industry is collapsing. That you can’t sell an ad for a tenth of the price you could sell it for ten years ago. That a tenth of the businesses that advertised ten years ago still advertise. That ink and paper costs have increased over ten years, not decreased by 90%. It’s all about my Avatar-like philosophy of the environment.

Why don’t you publish the Herald exclusively online if you care so much about the planet?

That was the whole idea two years ago when I started Cal-List, the online-only version of the Herald.

Cal-List? Oh, like Call-list, but since the Herald had editions throughout California, you called it Cal-List. Clever.

No. In 2008 it was not clever. If I did it in 1998 some big corporation would have bought me out for 900 billion dollars and it would have bombed for them, but I’d still have the 900 billion dollars. Now that would have been clever.

Tell us about the debut of Cal-List on July 1, 2008. (Ironically, the ten year anniversary of the debut of the San Francisco Herald.)

Wow, where to begin? It really sucked! I sent emails to everyone, I hung fliers all over the Bay Area promoting it, the SF Weekly’s website had a story about it, and practically no one visited it. I kept hoping it would pick up but it never did. After a few months I gave up.

What about online advertising?

It’s a total bust. Buyers seek out sellers now, not the other way around anymore. People go to search engines (or rather, Google) to find out what they want. They don’t pay attention to banner ads. A publication might save 50% of their budget by going online-only and eschewing ink, paper, and delivery – but the online ads will sell for only 10% of what print ads do.

That’s yours truly on the right, Hate Man in the middle, and some guy I don’t know on the left. We’re at the memorial service for Berkeley street artist B.N. Duncan. See pictures from it at SanFranciscoHerald.Net.

So print isn’t dead?

Print isn’t dead. Unfortunately, newspapers and magazines are dead. Businesses don’t need them for promotion anymore. Anyone can make their own ad on a computer, email it to a digital printer (not the old analog printers that most newspapers and magazines still use) and produce full-color, high-quality fliers, brochures, and posters at a lower cost than a newspaper or magazine ad to promote their product, service, or event. (By the way, San Francisco Herald Media can help you with this, so if you have any interest or questions drop me a line at sfherald@gmail.com.) This is called direct marketing. Newspapers and magazines are not needed as vehicles to get the word out nowadays.

So what’s the answer?

There is none. The media no longer has a business plan. Businesses don’t want to spend money on advertising the way they used to, readers don’t want to spend money on a publication because there’s so much free content on the web – radio and TV are losing advertisers now, too. I don’t see an answer at this point. Not for a long time, if ever.

What about websites doing away with free content and erecting paywalls, where readers would have to subscribe to a website?

I really thought that was the last hope, but recently changed my mind. I used to note that the New York Times’ print edition has about a million readers while their web site gets about 12 million unique visitors a month. If only a million of their web readers agreed to pay $5 a month, that would be $5 million a month without all those legacy costs. Then I came across Quantcast, a website tracking service much more accurate than their competition. They found that only 1% of the Times’ web readers are what they call “addicts” (people who log on to that site 30 times or more a month). That’s only 120,000 people. If 10% of them paid $5 a month (and I doubt that would happen) that would be $60,000 a month. Actually, you’d probably only get 1% of addicts for $6,000 a month. Hardly enough to be profitable. Or if all the addicts paid $1 a month that’s only $120,000 a month. It doesn’t look good.

About 30% of the Times’ online readers are what Quantcast calls “regulars” (people who log on to that site anywhere from 2 to 29 times a month), so they’re probably not going to pay to subscribe. About 69% of the Times’ Internet readers are called “passers-by” (people who log on to that site once a month.) So they’re probably going there once a month – or less – to read a story that Google News or some other site linked them to.

And if you look up just about any other publication’s website traffic frequency on Quantcast you’ll find nearly identical results. People simply don’t read online publications the way they read print ones. That’s why the iPad is doomed.

Did the Internet destroy your life?

Yes. I started the Herald in 1998 and it was profitable right off the bat. It got more profitable the next year and even more the next. Then the tech bubble burst and 9-11 hit, so I, like every other business owner, knew we’d have to wait it out for at least a year. In early 2003 advertisers gingerly started to return, but they demanded lower rates. Then they left again. By 2007 it had all begun to fall apart. That’s why the recession is ultimately irrelevant. It’s merely accelerating the inevitable. Recently some newspapers have reported profitable quarters after years of losing money, but that’s a mirage. They’re only barely profitable because of their heavy cost cutting and layoffs. Advertising keeps dwindling away and will continue to do so. It’s a weird time. It used to be a big deal if you published or worked for a print publication. Now they’re seen as anachronisms. And a website really doesn’t impress anyone because anyone can have one.

The worst thing that happened to me was that the Herald was successful. If it bombed commercially I could have put it out as a hobby and gotten on with a growing business. When you publish your own paper the vast majority of your time is spent trying to sell advertising, and newspaper advertising is dead, so all that time was spent for naught. I’m not alone, though. Pretty much anyone born between 1961 to 1975 who went to college and pursued a career in the print media field really got screwed. I don’t want to keep going on about it here as I plan on running a series in the Herald about the decline of traditional media.

That doesn’t sound appealing.

It’s either that or I go back to my neocon phase.

“The Decline of Traditional Media.” I like it, yes; I can’t wait to see more.###

All contents © 2008 by Gene Mahoney