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So What Do You Do, Steve Proctor, S.F. Chronicle Deputy Managing Editor?

'Like every newspaper in America, we're a Web-first operation'

- November 19, 2008
In 2003, Steve Proctor traveled across the country, moving from his position at The Baltimore Sun to take a deputy managing editor spot at the San Francisco Chronicle under managing editor Robert J. Rosenthal (another East Coast transplant). In the years since, he's seen Rosenthal's departure and significant cuts in the newsroom while the remaining staff has increasingly focused on transitioning to Web, a job Proctor has helped oversee. It's a difficult time for newspapers nationwide, and the Hearst-owned Chronicle is no exception, but the deputy believes the paper has cut costs while continuing to produce great journalism. (The BALCO steroid investigation springs to mind.) During an August visit to San Francisco for the Magazine Publishers of America conference, we took some time to talk with Proctor about changes at the Chronicle, how the Web influences the print product, and how the obsession San Franciscans have with "extremely tall buildings" has changed the paper.

Name: Steve Proctor
Position: Deputy managing editor for news, San Francisco Chronicle
Resume: United Press International, reporter (1979-80); The Baltimore Sun, reporter and various editing positions leading to deputy managing editor for sports and features (1980-2003); the San Francisco Chronicle (2003-present)
Birthday: June 25, 1957
Hometown: Riverdale, Maryland
Education: BA in journalism/history from American University in Washington, D.C. (1979), and John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University (1998-99)
Marital status: Married, two children
First section of the Sunday Times: A-section
Favorite TV show: Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives on the Food Network
Guilty pleasure: "Golf Channel, as I am addicted to the Scottish torture."
Last book read: Nathanael Greene: A Biography of the American Revolution, by Gerald M. Carbone

You oversee the Metro, National, Foreign, Business, and Sports sections. What are your daily tasks?
Typically I'll get into the newspaper sometime between 8:30 and 9:00 in the morning, and I'll spend the first hour and a half touching base with my key editors -- the editor of metro, national, foreign, business, and sports -- and lining up what we're doing in response to anything that's breaking that day. Obviously we have enterprise stories that we've been working on for a period of time that are always in progress, and we will talk about those at times, but primarily we focus on what's happening that day and how we want to deal with it. We have a meeting at 10:30 every morning with the editors of the various sections of the paper and the editor-in-chief, Ward Bushee. We will spend a little bit of that time talking about what is really hot on the Web site right now -- like every newspaper in America we're a Web-first operation, so part of my morning discussion will be when we can get these things up on the Web.

Hot in terms of what people are looking at?
What people are reading. So, that guides my choices somewhat in the paper. Sometimes you'll see a story that maybe wasn't on your radar screen just getting massive traffic on the Web, and you realize there's a huge amount of interest in this story, and then you take a second look at it because of that. We reflect a little bit on what was in today's paper, things we might have done differently, things we loved. And then we just go around the table and talk about what stories people are offering for A1 pretty much exclusively. There'll often be a very lively discussion about how to cover certain stories, and we'll get great ideas sometimes from editors who are not in the business department about how to cover the unfolding business story or whatever. That [meeting] usually goes from about 10:30 to 11:00. Between 11:00 and 2:00 or so I have a chance to kind of catch up on other things, like enterprise stories that are in the works. I'll start working on Sunday packages. Any kind of corporate things I have to do, like evaluations, I try to squeeze them in between 11:00 and 2:00.

At 3:00 we look at all the photographs we've taken for that day, graphics we've developed and so forth, and then sort of semi-pick out the design for the next day's front page. From there on, I'll continue doing advance work or reading the day's stories as they're coming in and helping to shape them with editors who are developing them. I usually stay here till 6:30 or 7:00 at night, later if necessary. On the night of a [presidential] debate, when the debate ends I'll spend another half an hour talking to the people about how we want to frame the stories and then let them carry it forward.

"[On] a day like today, with the stock market crashing, we need to have that business [Web] page updated every six, seven minutes, because people will keep coming back."

You've been at the paper since 2003. How has it changed?
When I came here in 2003, in addition to the editor-in-chief, there was a managing editor and a deputy editor, and there were a lot more people in upper management. As we've downsized, they've really flattened out the management structure, so there's an editor and three deputy managing editors, [of] which I'm one. That had meant a great deal more responsibility for me in terms of the managing of the newsroom day to day, and dealing with A1 on any given day, which I've enjoyed. It's given me more freedom to operate in the newsroom in the way that I think is best, so that's been good.

There's been an increasing emphasis all through the years -- and it was really something that started before I came here in 2003 -- on integrating the Web and newsroom operations. Like in a lot of papers, our Web operation grew up somewhat separately from the newsroom operation, and that creates barriers that make it difficult to excel in the way you need to both on the Web and in print. We've been going through the process of trying to integrate those systems much more so than we have in the past. We started the continuous news desk, for instance, that keeps constant breaking news updates on the day. We've expanded the number of blogs, photo galleries, videos, all the sorts of things that attract more readers to the Web, and have taken over responsibility for updating a lot of the sub-navigation pages on the Web [although] not the homepage itself. I developed a desk -- in coordination with other people here -- that constantly updates the Bay Area news page, the national news page, so that if a reader is coming back throughout the day they're finding a new look and different stories. And a day like today with the stock market crashing, for instance, we need to have that business page updated every six, seven, eight minutes, because people will keep coming back.

Who's doing that? Is there a separate Web staff?
The Web staff manages the homepage itself, because there's a sense -- and I think wisely -- that the sensibility of the newsroom editor and the sensibility of a Web reader are different things. But they don't have a large enough editorial staff to really keep all their pages updated in a certain way. So some of our more minor pages -- like the environment one -- will be updated automatically. They'll just scrape whatever we have in the editorial system and update it. On the active pages -- like local news, national, foreign -- what I essentially do is take the wire editing desk and make that a combined wire editing/page updating desk, because the nature of wire editing is such that you don't have reporters that you're dealing with. You're just looking at wires and copying and merging things together. Every hour we try to take 10 minutes to update pages, so that on a minimum they're updated hourly -- more if news is breaking. It gives me resources to keep those sub-navigated pages fresh. One of our goals is to get people beyond the homepage and get them to spend more time within the Web site itself. And that's a way of getting that accomplished.

"I knew there was a passionate interest, but I had no idea the depth of it until we enabled comments on our stories."

You mentioned that the Web traffic sometimes influences content in the print publication. How so?
It's more a case of play for the story. Most of the stories that are driving traffic on the Web we're already writing at one dimension, in one way or another. I'll give you an example: every single time we've posted a story on the Internet about an extremely tall building in San Francisco, thousands of comments come on the story right away and the Web traffic goes crazy. I knew that there was a passionate interest in tall buildings in San Francisco, but I had no idea the depth of it until we enabled comments on our stories. And so as a consequence of that I've tended to give every story about another tall building issue front page display, whereas I might have kept some of those in the local section in the past. And I mean I shouldn't say anything is all the time, but I'm much more inclined to put a story about a tall building on A1, because I know from seeing how the debate becomes so passionate on the comments area how strongly people are interested in those stories.

One of the big advantages of newspaper Web sites is that you can very accurately track what people are reading in a way that you never could before.
That is an enormous help as an editor, because you have your own instinct about what's good, but you can never know what everybody thinks, and this really gives you an opportunity to know -- in a very specific sort of way, in real time -- what people think about the unfolding news of the day, what's really attracting them. And you have to be a little bit cautious about it on one level in the sense of certain kinds of things that you might not put a lot of attention on in the newspaper are real huge Web traffic drawers. What I would call cheap crime tends to be huge Web traffic drawers. I still don't play a lot of cheap crime on A1 in the Chronicle.

Before you came out to the West Coast you were out on the East Coast at The Sun -- so was former managing editor Robert J. Rosenthal. Is there any difference between East Coast and West Coast papers?
When I first came out here I was just surprised. I don't think I've been at a meeting in the San Francisco Bay Area, either at the Chronicle or anywhere else, that actually started on time. And I think of that as kind of a cultural indicator of a more laid-back approach. People on the East Coast are just a little bit more intense -- and in some ways that's good in the newspaper, because people can be more driven. But I haven't really noticed anything substantive in terms of the coverage itself. One of the first things I realized when I got here was what a terrific staff we had. I think in some cases in the past maybe they didn't feel the leadership was what they wanted, and my sense from them has been that they just want a more clear, focused idea of what it is that we want to accomplish as a paper, and as we zeroed in on that, the work has been terrific from them. So I'm really happy and proud about all of that.

You get to work this morning and the stock market's already down 550 points. How does the time change affect things?
Even still the world is mostly run from the East Coast. So if you're covering the presidential debate, most of the presidential debates will be conducted someplace on East Coast time. That gives you more time to deal with the debate and offer an analytical take on it. Wall Street closes out here at around 1:00 or so, so you have much more time to reflect, contact people about where they think the story's going and so forth and so on. We'll often know before our final deadline what the Asian markets have done because of the time difference, and we'll be able to include in a story about Wall Street how the Asian markets reacted this morning to the news. There are a number of advantages to being out here from a time perspective. And in every way, covering sporting events, covering the World Series or whatever, we'll have a lot more time to write the story after the game ends than someone else will most of the time. It's a big advantage from the standpoint of deadlines.

How does that work on the Web? Did you have someone here this morning at 5:00 in the morning when the markets opened in New York?
Yes, I have the Web staff working pretty much from 7:00 a.m. till about 11:00 p.m. I could have someone here at 5:00 obviously and there would be news to put up there, but you don't have a lot of people looking at the Web then, so you have to just sort of make some value judgments. Our main traffic will be sometime between 8:00 and 10:00, sometime between noon and 2:00 and right around 3:00. There are three spikes a day, so we're conscious of making sure that we have fresh things for those spikes -- by 8:00 a.m. if you've signed onto the Chronicle you would have a complete update of what's going on in the markets and so forth and so on, particularly on a day like today.

Are you happy with where the Chronicle is and where it's going right now in terms of coverage?
In terms of the news coverage I'm very happy. I think we're putting out a very strong paper every day. I think our paper -- if you compared it to regional papers of our size -- would really stand out in that class for the type of journalism that it produces consistently day in and day out, and especially for the high spikes. I think some of the work we've done in the past four or five years, the BALCO steroid investigation being one of them, and a number of other narrative stories that have gotten some recognition. We did win a Pulitzer Prize for photography for a pretty powerful narrative story about an Iraqi boy who was blown up there and flown back here to Oakland to be cared for and pieced back together. A number of our stories have gotten a lot of national recognition, but I think our paper day to day is a very, very solid paper, and I'm very happy with the work that we're doing.

Noah Davis is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, New York.

[This interview has been edited for length and clarity.]

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