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Lessons Learned

How The San Francisco Chronicle's Editor Is Trying To Innovate Old Media

Audrey Cooper is the paper's first female editor in chief in its 151-year history, and she's not afraid to shake things up.

How The San Francisco Chronicle's Editor Is Trying To Innovate Old Media
[Photo: Flickr user irina slutsky]

Audrey Cooper, editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, wants to give San Francisco a media outlet that reflects its role in the disruptive economy. Like the entrepreneurs the Chronicle reports on, Cooper isn’t afraid to innovate.

"I love it when we try things that don’t work, because it means we’re doing something new," says Cooper, the Chronicle’s first female editor-in-chief in the company’s 151-year history, and the youngest woman ever named as a top editor of a major U.S. newspaper-based company.

Under her direction as managing editor from 2013 to 2015, and now as editor-in-chief, the Chronicle has experimented with drone photography, tried crowdfunding, and started an offsite incubator to reinvent daily journalism. It will premiere its first feature-length documentary, Last Men Standing, a film about AIDS's forgotten survivors, on April 8 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The Chronicle is the first newsroom to produce a feature-length film, Cooper says. "That means our journalism will touch new audiences we could have never reached before."

Here Cooper discusses reinventing the newspaper, the effect of technology on journalism, making tough decisions, and how to deal with criticism. Cooper was among the 100 West Coast women entrepreneurs and CEOs to participate in Marie Claire’s PowerTrip, a bicoastal 36-hour women’s leadership conference held March 21-22. Marie Claire and the Chronicle are both owned by Hearst.

Reinventing Newspapers

Newspapers are often criticized for their declining circulation, ad revenue, and readership. Yet, Cooper points out, "most new media companies aren’t profitable, so it’s not like they have a secret sauce for success." While the Chronicle has been experimenting and innovating, not every newspaper editor and publisher is as quick to fully embrace technology. "I’ve often said the problem with many newspapers is that they are run by people who are in love with newspapers," Cooper says. "Many of them don’t understand why someone wouldn’t want to read the physical paper every day."

Using Technology In The Newsroom

Technology allows the Chronicle to reach more readers than ever before—31 million unique readers a month on all its platforms, Cooper says. Yet technology has changed everything and nothing about what it means to practice journalism. While every reporter is expected to be on social media, take video, audio, and get the story online first, it takes more than technology to be a great journalist. "At the end of the day, an iPhone and video-editing apps won’t help you much if you can’t figure out how to ask the right questions and draw the right conclusions," she says. "Tech doesn’t give you compassion or fairness."

Making Tough Decisions

All leaders need to be transparent and open about why decisions are made, Cooper says, but that’s harder to do than it sounds. "Most leaders assume people know what is going on behind the scenes," she says. "But they aren’t in your head." To help them understand your reasoning, you need to articulate your vision for a workplace again and again. "If you have a history of being open and fair and reasonable," she says, "unpopular decisions will be easier for the group to swallow, especially if they know your decisions are informed by your overall vision."

Dealing With Criticism

Scrutiny comes along with high-profile jobs, Cooper says. "My best advice is to turn off the Google alert on your name," she says. You might want to read the negative press after a few weeks, but probably not while you’re in the thick of it. "As long you’re headed toward your True North, it will be worth it, eventually," she says.

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