Young Editor-In-Chief Leads Venerable San Francisco Chronicle’s Tranformation

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Seven years ago the San Francisco Chronicle was in real trouble. They were hemorrhaging money, close to $50 million a year. Its parent company, Hearst Corporation, almost shut it down.

Today – after major changes to staff, production and labor contracts – the Chronicle has made a complete transformation. It is making money, and for the first time in the paper’s 150-year history, a woman is the editor-in-chief.

Audrey Cooper is the youngest of only a handful of female editors-in-chief of major newspapers in this country.“I am probably the only newspaper editor in America that the news I read in the mornings not our newspaper,” said Cooper. “It’s on my phone at 4 or 5 am before my four-year-old jumps on my head.”

Cooper first applied to be an intern for the Chronicle right out of college, but never got a call-back. “I really wanted to work here from the second. This was the place that I wanted to live,” she said. “When my husband and I drove cross-country and he asked where do you want to go and I said I want to go to 5th and Mission and see the Chronicle building.”

Cooper started off as a reporter for local newspapers around Northern California. Before she came to the Chronicle she was a beat reporter for the Stockton Record. Reporter Kevin Fagan knew Cooper from her days at record and now she’s his boss at the Chronicle.

“It was interesting for me, as a veteran, to watch,” said Fagan. “She learned, she paid attention she did her homework. She worked really hard and every year that went by, you can see she was just accumulating more knowledge, more ability. “It was fun to watch.

Publisher Jeff Johnson promoted Cooper from managing editor to editor-in-chief two-and-a-half years ago because he said she embraces the future. “And so when you look at how people get their news and information, whether it’s their phone or laptop or through social media, she sees that and she is right as an opportunity for the Chronicle to be read by more people than we have in our history,” said Johnson.

One of her first orders of business was bringing the newsroom into the 21st century.

“In her first six months on the job, she created an incubator project where she took every team of reporters, every beat and put them through a six-to-eight week process where they learned new digital skillsets, talked about how the workflow had to change to be digital first,” said Johnson.

Fagan remembers a few “shock treatments” to get them going. “Ahh, there were some grumbles, like, ‘ahh, really? The internet, really?’ But everyone who is here now got into it,” said Fagan. “You either stuck around and went for the ride or you didn’t.”

Life as a Chronicle reporter has changed dramatically since 2009 when practically every media company took a hit. More than 200 people were laid off and most of those who stayed had to take a pay cut. Today, instead of just one deadline for print, reporters are constantly churning out stories for their online platforms SFGate.com and SanFranciscoChronicle.com – not to mention social media. They are always on.

But for the first time in a long time, the paper is making a profit. “Oh yeah, it’s crazy. For anybody who says newspapers are dying, we are actually doing better than we have in a decade. Our readership is up depending on the month,” said Cooper. “Three million to 36 million unique people reading us online or on their iPads or their newspaper.”

Cooper also wants to beef up the paper’s reputation for in-depth journalism. The recent San Francisco Homeless Project, which brought together the paper, along with other news outlets – including KPIX – to look at the problem and potential solutions, was her idea.

What would William Randolph Hearst say if he walked into the Chronicle newsroom today? “I think the chief would love the Chronicle now even more than before,” said Cooper. “I think he would say to all of us to stop wringing our hands about the future of news and this navel-gazing is not productive. Go out there and grow your audience because they are the ones that matter.”

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