Bring back Herb Caen (online)

By Steve Outing

In yesterday’s tip I mentioned Herb Caen, the popular columnist who was such a huge part, for so many years, in making the San Francisco Chronicle the top newspaper in town. After Caen died in 1997, the Chronicle was less interesting a paper to many readers in the Bay Area. The paper has had some good columnists since, but none that matched Caen’s celebrity.

Thought Caen won a Pulitzer Prize for his column, it wasn’t exactly “serious journalism.” You read Caen’s daily column for entertaining tidbits about life in “Baghdad By the Bay.” What he wrote about came from letters (yes, the paper kind) and phone calls to him, and from his encounters with San Franciscans and friends on the streets and at parties. No one has quite matched him yet, but I think with the Internet there’s hope that more Herb Caens are on the way.

So for today’s tip, I’d like to encourage local newspapers to create modern-day Herb Caens. Today’s local-happenings and -rumors columnists will be better equipped than Caen was, I think, for getting the pulse of the town. A popular Caen-like columnist will be inundated with tips and rumors via e-mail. He/she will, just as Adam Gaffin at Universal Hub does, track the many local bloggers and establish relationships with them. He/she will monitor local online discussion boards looking for tips. There are so many potential online sources nowadays for a Caen-inspired columnist to dig up new local tidbits.

Today’s Herb Caens will be promoted grandly in print and online, and perhaps do video or podcasts. With a significant marketing campaign, Caen-like celebrity is possible. And so will come online user traffic and ad revenues.

Pardon me for getting nostalgic for a moment, but I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle from 1986 to 1993, and part of that time was spent as a copy editor on the features desk. So I was one of the crew who edited Caen’s daily column, which was typed on an old-fashioned typewriter; his assistant keyed it into the paper’s computers before sending it to us for editing. I’m fairly sure that Herb wouldn’t know what to make of all the technology that’s invaded newspapers in the last decade. I doubt he’d be using it.

But Caen is relevant today. Someone just needs to do a more modern version of him.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!