San Francisco Chronicle maximises location and talent as revenue streams

By L. Carol Christopher


Pleasant Hill, California, United States


The San Francisco Chronicle, owned by Hearst, recognises the unique combination of culture and geography in California’s San Francisco Bay Area — which is “very transplant driven,” according to Grant Marek, editorial director of SFGATE — as an asset that has turned into multiple revenue streams. 

Doing that has also led to ways of bonding a national and local audience, fascinated by the area’s charms, to brand. The goal is to balance the cultural mandate with the mandate for “lots of content and the largest funnel,” Bill Nagel, CEO and publisher, told attendees on a recent INMA study tour.

Media executives from around the world attended the recent five-day INMA Silicon Valley Study Tour, which included a stop at the San Francisco Chronicle.
Media executives from around the world attended the recent five-day INMA Silicon Valley Study Tour, which included a stop at the San Francisco Chronicle.

In a downtown building finished in 1922 but remodeled recently to suit a modern newsroom, Chronicle executives shared their insights on maximising local with international news media leaders attending INMA’s 2023 Silicon Valley Study Tour.

The Chronicle and SFGATE: Separate audiences, different funding

Hearst, which owns many media outlets, supports both print and digital products. At the Chronicle, print remains lucrative, but there are also two digital products — the Chronicle’s online site as well as SFGATE. The two entities have separate audiences and different funding. 

While The Chronicle is subscription-funded, which largely pays for the newsroom, SFGATE is ad-funded. Hearst expects it to stay that way, although other ways to monetise are always on the table: “It’s very lucrative. We want both to grow,” Bill Nagel, CEO and publisher, told INMA tour attendees. There’s some duplication of content, he said, but the two are competitive. SFGATE — “written by locals for locals,”  as Marek said — still funnels subscriptions to the Chronicle.

SFGATE has been strategic in its decisions about coverage, asking itself, for example, what people in the Bay Area care most about geographically: Yosemite National Park, Hawaii, Disneyland, and the Lake Tahoe recreational area. “We focus on places not usually covered, and it’s been a success,” Marek said.

It also has a non-traditional sports department, focusing on shedding light on the people who run sports organisations. “It’s a huge traffic driver,” Marek said.

Successful audience initiatives

Local weather: Becoming an expert source. There are other revenue streams that capitalise on the geography, as well. 

For example, the organisation serves an area so large that the weather report covers microclimates. The newsroom sees that as an opportunity to become an expert source rather than just regurgitating what’s published elsewhere. It has hired a team of in-house meteorologists to help engage subscribers.

Location, location, location: GPS tours for locals and tourists. Another opportunity for revenue is in the city itself. 

The Chronicle uses a GPS-based app to allow visitors to tour the city based on data points on the map. The tours are hosted by members of the newsroom who can talk about the city from multiple perspectives — including urban design, the arts, and local culture.

GPS integration is “immersive and seamless,” according to Sarah Feldberg, editor of emerging product and audio. The app can tell tourists when they’ve missed their turn or strayed off their route. It provides international reach as well as an opportunity for locals, who can get a subscriber discount, to learn about the city personally. “The feedback is great,” another speaker told participants.

Chronicle Live: Bringing talent out of the shadows to encourage brand loyalty. As Nagel described it, The Chronicle has an organisational culture that touts its “old heroes,” and capitalises on the popularity and celebrity of its staff. It has introduced Chronicle Live — live monthly events with journalists that include trivia nights, live podcast tapings, even cemetery ghost stories. The events draw long-term subscribers as well as young audiences. The average age in the room was 30 for the first trivia night. There are even people who have become regulars.  

The events also offer opportunities for subscription sales, as well as retention for “people who want to be connected to the brand,” said Feldberg. The possibilities for the future of the event seem limitless. 

“It’s a great reminder that journalists are human beings who care deeply about what they’re doing, and a reminder for journalists that people care what they do,” she said.

About L. Carol Christopher

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