What's Really Happening to the Chronicle's Food Section?

Sara Deseran | November 15, 2013 | Story News and Features

Audrey Cooper, the managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, came to the defense of the paper yesterday when the New York Times reported that the Chronicle’s lauded and beloved food section is going to be folded into another lifestyle section. Cooper, a newspaper vet who’s been at the Chronicle for the past six years, chatted with us over the phone to set the record even straighter.

So is the food section really being folded into one lifestyle section?
I wouldn’t say we’re going to have a mega-lifestyle section. We’re looking at ways to make the food section more modern and it might include making a section that has more things in it. The question is, how do we make it more relevant in regards to food?

Do you know the answer to that?
I think we have a lot of things to discuss internally. In San Francisco, chefs are like our local celebrities, but does our section get to that narrative? Michael Bauer’s [reviews] are by far our most clicked-on things. Should we be making more of that? Is four pages of recipes the best use of space? Should we be so literal at how we look at food? Like everything in the newspaper, we have a set amount of resources. Are we using them the best way possible?

Newspapers are in a tough position right now—is this just the latest chapter in the print-is-dying story?
The fight to save daily journalism is like a bar fight. We need to get more aggressive about change. And print readers don’t traditionally like changes a lot. But the status quo is not enough. We don’t want to watch ad dollars shrinking until we go out of business.

The Times reported that you might be considering a section called "Artisan."
I will tell you that we’ve had more than one prototype and they’ve had different names. "Artisan" is one of them. I’m not really sold on that name. I don’t think it gets to the zeitgeist of the food culture. The first one was called "Crave" which is a little esoteric. So you know, we’re trying lots of things. If I put out a new section that I cannot journalistically defend, then that makes me a crappy editor. But if it’s better for readers and for advertisers, then we shouldn’t be afraid to do it.

Is the food department moving out of its special building (aka the Tower of Bauer) complete with a test kitchen, wine cellar, and bee hives?
The department is moving out of there and into the newsroom. And there are a lot of reasons for that. Having our food staff separated from the rest of the newsroom isn’t good. You want everyone to collaborate. And I should mention that it doesn’t necessarily translate to the test kitchen being dead. We have a kitchen here, though it looks more like our home kitchen.

Is letting go of recipe testing a budget saving tactic?
It’s expensive, but the expense of it isn’t the driver in any of this. What made me really mad about the New York Times piece was that we’re talking about using the same stock and heat-set treatment as our style section, which costs a lot. So we’re not cutting back. It’s actually going to cost us money to do it.

Are there any publications out there that you aspire to be like?
Well—gosh, how do I say this without sounding arrogant—our staff does a good job covering Northern California food and wine. All of our magazines, including yours, do a good job of getting to the personalities and the major trends. You could see Eater was doing a much better job [with restaurant news] than us once upon a time, so we stole Paolo [Lucchesi], and now Inside Scoop is competing pretty well on those platforms. There are a lot of blogs and specialty publications starting to gnaw at the edges of what we do. That’s true of tech coverage, real estate, food. If we just sit back, then they’re just going to eat us alive.

If you could have all the money and staff in the world, what would the Chronicle food section look like?
That’s a good question. I think we have a few advantages—that we have Michael Bauer and his staff, and we have access to the thought leaders in the food category. I think we need to come up with a sophisticated section that isn’t afraid to innovate. Get back to me in three months [when we’re hoping to relaunch] and hopefully we can talk about what the food section will look like in five years. We have to do a lot of testing to do, reader feedback, advertiser feedback, reader panels. It just takes a long time. If we didn’t have to put a newspaper to put out every day, we’d get a lot more done.

Is the staff okay with all this?
Well, the food staff is working through the holiday to respond to tweets about Thanksgiving. We’re not giving up on anything right now. If they were totally morose, they wouldn’t want to work on Thanksgiving.

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