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‘One Helluva Hard Job’

Can Audrey Cooper—the youngest female editor in the history of big-city newspapers—bring glory to the San Francisco Chronicle


Audrey Cooper does not cut cakes. Not anymore. In her mid-managerial days, before she became editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle, she’d often find herself standing supportively beside one editor or another as he (always a he) speechified to the newsroom about a staff award or company milestone. When he’d finished holding forth, Cooper would reflexively reach for the cake knife. “It wasn’t that they were like, ‘And now Audrey will cut the cake for you all and serve you,’” she says. “It was something that I would force myself to do. And then I’d realize that I was elbow-deep in icing and that not one of the other editors, none of my colleagues, was doing anything.” This compulsion to act the hostess—part nurturing, part degrading—tells you everything you need to know about a young female editor’s climb to the top of a male-dominated masthead. Ambition, in its way, can be humbling—and messy.

We’re sitting in Cooper’s glass-walled office, overlooking the cluttered, nicotine-tinted newsroom that occupies the Chronicle Building’s third floor. The knots of cubicles are littered with the usual detritus of newspapering: piles of documents, coffee cups by the hundreds, hardware dating back to the Clinton administration, and—a more recent addition—a Donald Trump piñata. Each day, a pride of reporters gathers here to shape the story of the city. It can be a thankless job, subject to withering criticism from an array of antagonists, anonymous abuse from the paper’s online commenters, and the (frequently confirmed) suspicion that the paper’s corporate parents at Hearst don’t always have their journalists’ best interests at heart. 

It’s a job and a culture that Cooper—who was named editor-in-chief of the Chronicle in January, eight and a half years after her original hire as assistant metro editor—knows intimately. A self-professed history dork, she proudly points out that she is the first woman to hold the top position in the Chronicle’s 150-year history and, at 38 years of age, the youngest female editor of a major newspaper in the history of the United States. Her factual precision—and her tendency to self-deprecate—compels her to add that she’s not the youngest-ever editor of the Chronicle: It was started as the Daily Dramatic Chronicle in 1865 by 15-year-old Michael de Young and his big brother, 19-year-old Charles. On the other hand, she gleefully points out, Charles was murdered, and another brother in the family business, Gustavus, went insane.

“One thing that we veterans here understand is that Audrey has one helluva hard job,” says staff writer Kevin Fagan, a Chronicle reporter for 23 years. “You’re not going to please everyone.” For Cooper, however, pleasing everyone is not a major concern. “I don’t think I’ve ever been accused of trying to make people like me,” she says. “I’m not really very interested in that.” Cooper elicits a range of responses from her staff, from all-in enthusiasm to cool respect to downright unease. Of the two dozen current and former Chronicle employees I contact while reporting this story, more than half refuse to speak on the record for fear of upsetting the boss. Anonymously, some describe Cooper as intimidating, mercurial, a player of favorites; others call her amicable, sincere, generous. No one, however, characterizes her as weak-willed or indecisive. “I’ve never heard anyone say, ‘I don’t know what Audrey thinks about this,’” Fagan says. “She has an opinion…. It’s a job where you attract fire, and some of it is friendly fire.”

“She’s pretty honest about where we are and what we have to do to keep moving,” adds assistant managing editor Kitty Morgan, a former editor-in-chief of Sunset hired by Cooper to oversee food, wine, style, and travel coverage. “She’s so supportive of good work, but a tough critic. She’ll call you out. You can’t kiss up and get ahead.” 

“Audrey is a bulldog,” says columnist C.W. Nevius. “She’s extremely forceful and opinionated.” But as many Chronicle staffers point out, her bullheadedness has a positive side as well, one that endears her to most who enter her orbit. Says Nevius, with admiration: “She has the loudest laugh in the newsroom.”

In person, Cooper
—who rides a black and orange scooter, leads historical walking tours on her days off, and posts adorable pictures of her three-year-old son on Facebook—comes off as unintimidating in the extreme. (Full disclosure: I’ve written for the Chronicle’s Style section, but I hadn’t met or corresponded with Cooper before reporting this story.) She doesn’t stand on ceremony and, in the grand tradition of newsroom hacks everywhere, swears like a stevedore. “It’s a pretty serious business we have here,” says Fagan. “It’s nice to have someone who cuts loose and gets a joke now and then.”

The daughter of an accountant and a nursing instructor, Cooper fled the suburbs of Kansas City, Kansas, at the age of 18 for the metropolitan setting of Boston University. She was drawn in part by its proximity to MIT, where her high school sweetheart, Kirk Seward, was enrolled. “I used to tell people that I went to BU because it had a really good theater program and a good journalism program,” she says, “but really I was following a boy.” (She and that boy got married and now live in Noe Valley, having outgrown their “cool loft” on Second and Bryant Streets.)

So speedy has been Cooper’s ascent to her profession’s upper echelons that she still smarts over her grade in an undergrad journalism class back in 1997—an apparently humiliating B+. The martinet of a professor, she recalls, disabled the spell-check function on classroom computers and compelled his students to write obituaries “until their fingers bled.” It must have been effective, because to this day, Cooper asks her interns to do the same. (Reached by email, the professor, Jonathan M. Klarfeld, admits to being a tough grader, pointing out that the future editor-in-chief’s B+ was the second-highest grade in the class. “In looking back in my grading records, I now think she should have been graded an A–,” he writes. Cooper: “Still kind of ticks me off.”) 

As a student at BU, where she double-majored in political science and journalism, Cooper waited tables, served as a resident adviser, and ran twice for student body president—losing both times. Youthful failure is something of a touchstone for her, as well as a bit of an oratorical crutch: She’s fond of telling interviewers that she applied for an internship at the Chronicle on three occasions and was rejected every time. By the time she was hired, in 2006, she had worked at the East Bay’s Tri-Valley Herald (now shuttered), the Associated Press, and the Record in Stockton.

While acknowledging her steady rise at the Chronicle, some former colleagues deride Cooper’s résumé as thin, conspicuously missing the East Coast journalism pedigree and postgraduate degrees typical of a top editor of a major newspaper (or, as Cooper likes to call the Chronicle, “the largest news-gathering operation on the West Coast north of the Tehachapi mountain range”). Regardless, Cooper is said to have beaten out both internal and external candidates for the job. Her boss, Chronicle publisher Jeffrey Johnson, says he was ultimately encouraged by the way she ran the newsroom during the 16 months between the retirement of her predecessor, Ward Bushee, and her official anointment as editor-in-chief.

Cooper admits that she has worked to refine her management skills on the job. To gain insight into coworkers of various temperaments, she went so far as to take the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator test—which categorized her, unsurprisingly, as strongly extroverted. Still, there have been some missteps: Calbuzz, a website of “political news, analysis, commentary and more” edited by former Chronicle managing editor Jerry Roberts and Phil Trounstine, a past political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, was less than impressed by a photo Cooper tweeted of herself and former Chronicle president Kristine Shine. In it, the two women smile widely beneath the question, “Who has a prettier boss?” Knocking the tweet as “a self-indulgent, silly selfie of the Chronicle’s highest-ranking business and editorial executives,” Roberts and Trounstine fulminated that it “insults the labors and perseverance of generations of women journalists who had to fight to be judged on their work, not their looks.”

Journalists who end up
heading a newspaper usually fall into one of two types, says Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and a veteran of the Chronicle, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and the Philadelphia Inquirer. “There are editors who are great managers—they deal well with managing in a difficult environment—but they aren’t visionary. Then there are editors who are inspirational, who stun their staff with ideas, who are in there at night backstopping and reading”—but who are disastrous managers. The jury on Cooper is still out, says Rosenthal, who worked briefly with her at the Chronicle: “Audrey is ambitious. She’s smart. Whether she can deliver, I don’t know. One of the challenges she honestly faces is that you really need to have your own vision and ambition, and strong people all throughout the organization to deliver. It’s one thing to say, I want to do this. It’s another to have the people to do it.”

So what is Cooper’s long-term vision for the paper? While it’s not something that she has reduced to a catchphrase, it’s reflected in the enterprise pieces that have been commissioned under her watch. One story sent Fagan to Australia to look at how that country is dealing with catastrophic drought; another flew him to Salt Lake City to examine its response to homelessness. “A Changing Mission”—a long, granular look at ground zero of the city’s gentrification civil war—featured infographics, a 22-minute documentary, and more than 6,000 words by reporters Joe Garofoli and Carolyn Said. “The Airbnb Impact,” by Said, looked into the hundreds of short-term rentals that are raking in sharing-economy spoils amid the city’s housing crisis.

These stories and others like them add up to a commendable body of work; however, their impact has been somewhat short-lived. While the day-to-day operations of a midsize paper make groundbreaking enterprise stories difficult to pull off, even the Chronicle’s most ambitious efforts have struggled to move the needle in terms of policy changes or public discourse. For one thing, there is not the sense that the paper “owns” coverage of its local industry—tech—in the way that many of the newer outlets, like Re/code, the Verge, BuzzFeed, or Business Insider, do (though it should be noted that many of these operations have gained a leg up by poaching Chronicle staffers). But even beyond tech, the paper can sometimes be caught flatfooted. When Forbes published an explosive exposé this August about the shady real estate dealings and abysmal graduation rate at the Academy of Art University, Cooper’s response encapsulated the paper’s missed opportunity: “One of those stories you wish you had done first,” she tweeted.

Perhaps the Chronicle’s crowdfunded H1B visa series will provide the breakout moment that Cooper so clearly desires. Or maybe the paper’s continued coverage of the faulty Bay Bridge construction or the aftermath of the 2010 PG&E explosion in San Bruno will eventually leave a permanent mark on the region (and win one of those desperately desired Pulitzers). But so far, there’s been little to show for these efforts. 

Of course, it’s worth remembering that the Chronicle has always been something of a disappointment to the populace it covers. That fact has been brought home to staff writer Peter Hartlaub, who’s spent the past year working on the Big Event, a weekly section honoring the paper’s 150th birthday. As he unearths stories buried deep in the Chronicle morgue, he says, “one thing I’ve learned is that you can go back to any era, and people will be swearing that the old days were better. Every era, the paper is the worst it’s ever been. This project has allowed me to look at the Chronicle’s ups and downs over the years, and it’s so clear to me that we’re on an up right now. Not only because of the technological advances we’re getting, but because the direction now is toward good projects and strong journalism.” 

The paper is privately held by Hearst and is not required to report earnings, but according to publisher Johnson, the Chronicle “has improved its profitability in the last three years.” Whether that means it’s operating in the black, he won’t say, but unlike many other papers, the Chronicle hasn’t undergone large-scale job cuts since the dark days of 2009, when approximately 15 percent of the newsroom accepted buyout offers.

With the business apparently stable, Cooper has been doggedly pushing for innovations in the paper’s design. First came the dismantling and rebuilding of the beloved Food & Wine section, which sent ripples of resentment through the foodie community (even the New York Times weighed in). Without apology, Cooper held her ground. “There was blowback, but we didn’t see a loss of readership,” says assistant managing editor Morgan. Pointing to the redesigned section’s much deeper digital component, including a mobile-friendly, searchable web version of Michael Bauer’s Top 100 Restaurants list, she says, “Audrey really drove us toward that.” 

The push into new platforms is something of an idée fixe for Cooper. But it is also the crux of many of the problems facing her paper these days. It’s no secret that fewer and fewer people read newspapers in print, and that those who still do are in an aging demographic less coveted by advertisers. The weekly readership of the Chronicle’s print version—about 1.15 million—is dwarfed by the paper’s online traffic: In August, the company reports, SFGate reached 29.6 million unique visitors. But whether they were drawn by the site’s edifying scoops and breaking news is questionable—they may have simply been sucked in by its endless slideshows and TMZ-style clickbait (recent home page headlines: “Sarah Silverman’s revealing dress gets serious attention”; “Back to the Future writer confirms Biff was Trump”).

Unbeknownst to many, SFGate is not the Chronicle’s only website. Two years ago it launched a second website: the premium, (mostly) clickbait-free SFChronicle, access to which is limited to print and digital subscribers. In August, SFChronicle attracted 2.8 million unique visitors, less than a 10th of the traffic garnered by SFGate. Not surprisingly, the existence of two portals has created a thicket of brand confusion. Cooper differentiates the paper’s dueling sites by describing SFChronicle as the home for journalism “with a capital J” and SFGate (a dot-com-era holdover from an early joint-operating agreement with the San Francisco Examiner) as the place for lowercase-j journalism. But Chronicle insiders agree that many readers don’t understand the distinction between the sites and become annoyed (or simply give up) when they’re seeking real news about their region and find it locked behind a paywall. 

The constant demands of SFGate might explain one less-than-stellar journalistic moment of the Cooper era: In October, Rusty Simmons, a Chronicle reporter on the Golden State Warriors beat, was suspended without pay for repurposing a press release beneath his byline. (The sports blog Deadspin found five more examples of cutting and pasting by Simmons, going back to 2009.) Looking at some of the content on SFGate and considering how its traffic has utterly lapped that of SFChronicle, it’s hard to avoid thinking that, in classic horror-movie style, the danger is coming from inside the building. “It took us 21 years to get into this huge problem with our brand,” Cooper told an audience at the Mechanics’ Institute Library Chess Room in June. “It’s gonna take a lot of time and money to get out of it.” Her assessment to me is frank: “We have huge—well, not huge—we have a problem communicating what SFGate is now. It’s really confusing.”

In the era immediately preceding
Cooper’s, Hartlaub recalls, “we’d be brought into a meeting, and there’d be a large group of people who didn’t want change, and a smaller group of us were like, ‘Get out the lifeboats!’ There was no clear direction. We’d talk about it, both sides would be kind of placated, but no one got what they wanted…. And frankly, after a lot of people always placating us and not telling us where we’re going, we needed a wartime consigliere. That’s what Audrey is. She’s giving us direction.” 

That direction, as in newsrooms across the world, is digital first: no more filing a story, pouring a stiff drink, and enjoying the lull before it’s printed the next day. Everyone is on continuous news duty, and every beat is subject to breaking news at any time. “I like to say,” Cooper remarks, “that we need to put out the newspaper with our lizard brain: We’ve been doing it for 150 years; we should be able to do it in our sleep. What we haven’t figured out very well yet, what we are beginning to figure out and have started to do in the last two years, is to make this a media newsroom that also produces a paper, instead of a paper that also produces websites.”

In service of that goal, Cooper created an incubator for reporters and editors—a sort of boot camp in social media and data journalism that plucks them out of their cubicles and teaches them to think and act like 21st-century content creators. “Some people didn’t like it,” Hartlaub says of the innovation. “But some of us were thrilled, because we had been waiting for it.” 

Reaching beyond the paper’s parent company, Cooper shepherded a partnership with the editorial platform Medium and kicked off a crowdfunding campaign on Beacon, an Oakland-based journalism startup, to raise $15,000 for a series of reports on H1B visas. Leaving aside the discomfiting fact that a newspaper backed by a $9 billion private company has taken to begging crowdfunders for a piddly 15 grand, the effort at least indicates that entrepreneurial thinking is going on there. The most important goal, as Cooper sees it, is getting more people to read the Chronicle—especially people who are willing to pay for it. “If William Randolph Hearst were sitting right there,” she says, “he would say to you and me, ‘Stop worrying about whom you should blame. Start worrying about growing your audience.’”

As to the awkward SFGate-SFChronicle mambo, Cooper is more circumspect: “If I had a magic wand, I might be able to solve that, but those decisions were made way above my pay grade.” The confounding web structure, she says, is “just a corporate philosophy, and now we have to make it work. I think we can—we just need to do it right, separate these two brands gradually, so that the process of separation doesn’t kill one of them. It’s like separating Siamese twins—we have to do it very surgically.” 

That operation, should it ever happen, will take some extraordinarily skilled knife work on Cooper’s part. The image calls to mind her oft-cited diktat about newsroom cakes—which, like so many other declarations by wartime consiglieres, is subject to pivoting. Last January, as the paper celebrated its 150th anniversary, two cakes sat in the newsroom: one decorated with the first front page of the Daily Dramatic Chronicle, the other featuring an illustration of the Chronicle’s headquarters on Mission and Fifth Streets. The fact that the iconic clock tower building, occupied by the paper since 1924, has been carved up in the last few years by Yahoo, AOL, and other tech tenants was left unstated—this was, after all, a day for celebrating. 

Cooper, newly tapped as editor-in-chief after a long trial period as editor-in-all-but-title, invited science editor David Perlman to say a few words. Perlman, at 96 the oldest newspaperman at the Chronicle, if not anywhere in the world, toasted the “past and, more importantly, the future of this goddamn paper.” The satisfyingly salty quote was duly relayed on Twitter and Instagram by more than a few freshly incubated digital-first reporters and editors. It was a moment for the ages, not one for holding fast to old slights. And so, as her newsroom looked on, the newly appointed editor-in-chief of the San Francisco Chronicle took up the knife and served them all cake—icing be damned.


Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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