10 years on, a daily Chronicle 60% lighter; Mercury News shed 66%

SF Public Press
 — May 13 2011 - 8:19am

In early May, when the official industry rankings came out, the San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News touted slight gains in Sunday circulation after years of declines, suggesting that the local newspaper industry just might be coming back.

Mac Tully, president and publisher of the Mercury News, said in a recent article in the paper that he hoped the 0.7 percent growth on Sunday “sends a positive message that newspapers continue to be relevant in communities we serve.”

But the number of papers thrown on Bay Area doorsteps tells only part of the story. Even the most optimistic interpretation of readership statistics can’t hide the publications’ anemic page counts.

Both papers have shrunk dramatically in the past 10 years. We took a small sample of papers — those printed over a seven-day stretch in late September — in both 2000 and 2010. On the same day in each week, a Tuesday, the Chronicle was 60 percent smaller in 2010, and the Mercury News was 66 percent smaller. That is in part due to reduced page counts, though the calculation also takes into account narrower page designs that both broadsheets adopted in the intervening decade.

On average, a weekday edition of the Chronicle had 7.4 sections in 2000. By 2010, the average dropped to 4.5 sections.

The Mercury News slimmed down from a weekday average of 8.2 sections in 2000 to 4.6 sections in 2010.

Lost sections coincided with disappearing pages — an average of 35 fewer pages per weekday at the Chronicle and 73 fewer pages at the Mercury News. The Sunday papers fell even more precipitously, from 394 to 220 pages at the Chronicle, and from 300 to a svelte 88 pages at the Mercury News.

A decade ago, half or more of those pages were devoted to advertisement, but not anymore. In 2000, ads made up an average of 47 percent of a weekday Chronicle. In 2010, they were just 31 percent. At the Mercury News, ads declined from an average of 61 percent of a weekday paper to 42 percent.

The Chronicle’s mix of ads and news was relatively stable on Sunday, even as it lost total pages. In our sample, the paper (not including the dozens of inserts wrapped inside news sections) went from 41 percent advertising to 39 percent. The Mercury News fell from 66 percent ads to 43 percent. (Take this stat with a grain of salt — sampling one paper each year is hardly representative of a decade’s ups and downs.)

Perhaps more significantly for readers, the number of bylined articles in both papers also waned. The Chronicle ran 823 over the seven-day period in 2000, and only 599 a decade later. The Mercury News published 938 bylines that September week in 2000, dropping to 630 bylines in 2010.

Of those stories, about three-quarters were produced by Chronicle staff in both years, and about three-fifths by staff in the Mercury News.

As page counts fell, both papers followed a national trend and narrowed their dimensions to what could barely be called “broadsheet.” The Chronicle cut 2.5 inches off the side and one inch off the top. The Mercury News trimmed 2.25 inches off the side.

Forty-six individuals donated a total of more than $1,000 to help make possible a special report on changes in media in the Bay Area via the journalism micro-funding website Spot.Us

This story appeared as part of the Public Press' Spring print edition media package of stories.