SF Chronicle Moves Left

by on December 1, 2016

From Nevius to Talbot, SF Chronicle Moves Left
From Nevius to Talbot, SF Chronicle Moves Left

David Talbot to Replace Nevius

C.W. Nevius retires from 36 years at the San Francisco Chronicle today. Once a sportswriter, Nevius became San Francisco’s version of Boston’s Mike Barnicle or New York City’s Pete Hamill—-he was the voice of San Francisco’s often silent electoral majority. Nevius’ stance won him a loyal following among non-hipster San Franciscans living outside the Mission, Bernal Heights and Haight, and from Chronicle subscribers throughout the Bay Area.

Many progressives despised Nevius. They called him C.W. “Devious” and accused him of fomenting hate. Nevius angered political opponents more than the paper’s more conservative Deborah Saunders because his columns had political impact; they also often framed the day’s news.

Now the Chronicle has made a sharp turn left by replacing Nevius with author David Talbot It may be the smartest move the paper has made in years.

Columnists Drive Readership

On February 2, 2009, I wrote a story ( “SF Chronicle Rearranges Deck Chairs”) that was accompanied by a photo of the Titanic sinking. I argued that the paper’s highly touted redesign did not address its core problem: “The Chronicle still lacks a single columnist who promotes the political outlook of most San Francisco voters, and still spotlights a Republican columnist who recently confessed she supported the anti-gay marriage Prop 8 – now there’s a great strategy to attract Bay Area readers!”

Talbot fills the Chronicle’s longstanding need for a progressive political columnist. Unless you count Herb Caen or Art Hoppe—neither of whom primarily addressed local politics— Talbot becomes the first progressive Chronicle political columnist ever.

Chronicle columnists have historically driven readership. The Tenderloin Museum has two exhibitions citing quotes from newspaper columnists about the Tenderloin: one is from the Chronicle’s Herb Caen, the other from the paper’s legendary jazz critic, Ralph Gleason.

Kudos to Chronicle Editor Audrey Cooper for hiring Talbot. I don’t know whether progressives will pay to read him, but it’s worth a shot.

There are obvious political implications. Talbot’s replacing Nevius and the paper’s plan to increase Heather Knight’s City Insider columns means that the Chronicle will be even more anti-Mayor Lee than it has long been. Knight was the chief Lee-basher during the 2011 mayoral campaign, and has continued in that role. She has also been the go-to reporter for David Campos’ constant attacks on Lee. Talbot blames Lee for rising housing prices, evictions and seemingly every economic trend that has made San Francisco more expensive since 2011.

In Talbot’s view,  San Francisco was an affordable, non-gentrified city until Mayor Ed Lee allowed tech marauders to storm the city’s gates. The Chronicle could not have found a harsher critic of the mayor.

Talbot will have to decide whether he wants to continue to write to his core base or try to influence those who do not share his fervent opposition to the mayor. Nevius had clout because his writings shaped public opinion; that required a willingness to take positions outside your readership’s comfort zone. If Talbot never writes columns’ challenging the city’s left orthodoxy, his readership may not expand beyond his current following.

Nevius was constantly out on the street and at political events so he could offer readers firsthand observations. I doubt Talbot has the time or interest in being that type of reporter. He will likely rely on his observations of ongoing events, bringing a left perspective the SF Chronicle has long missed.

Also long overdue at the SF Chronicle is the hiring of a top rate Chinese-American columnist to cover the largest segment of San Francisco that her paper has long ignored or poorly reported on. The paper feels compelled to have an African-American columnist cover Oakland, but has never had a Chinese-American columnist report on the San Francisco Bay Area. Given the region’s large Chinese-American population, that’s a case of the Chronicle ignoring its market.

Return to Relevance

Chronicle Editor Cooper is trying to make the SF Chronicle relevant again. The morning Chronicle once determined the day’s Bay Area news coverage. But the Internet sharply reduced the Chronicle’s influence on local news and its readership. Now Cooper, with hires like Talbot and the paper’s SF Homeless Project, is trying to restore the Chronicle as a must read for Bay Area residents.

Will Cooper succeed? It depends on the meaning of success.  It seems that the New York Times is the only newspaper attracting Bay Area millennials. For all his strengths David Talbot is a 65 year old white man; he may not attract the ethnically diverse, younger demographic the paper desperately needs.

But faced with the enormous challenge of replacing Chuck Nevius, the paper’s most popular and influential columnist (and I base that on people talking to me about Nevius columns and the huge number of comments he gets online), it is fair to say that Cooper hit a homerun.

Now if we could only get newspapers including the New York Times to pay delivery services enough for the paper to arrive before 6:30am—i.e. after many of us have left for work. Maybe Talbot can address this….

Randy Shaw is Editor of Beyond Chron.

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Randy Shaw

Randy Shaw is the Editor of Beyond Chron and the Director of San Francisco’s Tenderloin Housing Clinic, which publishes Beyond Chron. Shaw is the author of four books on activism, including The Activist's Handbook: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century, and Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century. His new book is The Tenderloin: Sex, Crime and Resistance in the Heart of San Francisco

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