Print die-hards claimed that all that was needed to reverse the audience migration to the internet was to make newspapers more “lively” in appearance. Early verdict: looks pretty, but the advertising still isn’t there, and that sound you heard was Mort Zuckerman puking and weeping over in the corner.

I’ve been in the Bay Area for a convention of “[fill in blank] for Dummies” authors and various business meetings, and I’ve taken the opportunity to scope out what the San Francisco Chronicle has been doing with its much-ballyhooed investment in glossy magazine-style paper for the front pages of its sections, and the use of high-quality color images.

SF Chronicle - Front Page Wraparound Ad

This is a strategy that is also being pursued in New York by NY Daily News publisher Mort Zuckerman, who has invested more than he would like to admit to (millions? hundreds of millions?) into high-tech printing presses, capable of churning out massive print runs with razor-sharp color. The 15-tower, triple-width ultra-compact Commander CT press looks a lot like the last-generation Nikon F6 film camera. It was the apex of film technology, what many analysts recognized at the time as “the perfect camera” — but that alas, was rolled out just as every working professional made the move to use digital.

SF Chronicle - Front Page

I think we’re going to look back at the newspapers and magazines that come out on paper in the next couple of years the way that photographers look back at film cameras.With affections, a certain amount of nostalgia, and the still-existing impulse to pull the old film-based warhorse out of the closet and go snap a few frames with it.

SF Chronicle-Sports Section

And then we’ll all go back to using the thing that has become indispensable in our daily lives; the tool that “just works better,” and that has grown up an entire ecosystem of other industries around it that were not possible, or even conceivable, ten years ago.

SF Chronicle - Inside Sports Splash Pages

The color pages, as you can see here, are absolutely gorgeous in their color registration, and some even have pretty good graphic design.When I opened the Monday sports section to see this layout of photos from the Niners game, I stopped in my tracks and took a minute or so just to drink it all in.  The only paper I can remember that tried something like this was Frank Deford’s late, lamented The National. And it did the same thing in its final days, right before it slipped beneath the surface of the waters forever…

SF Chronicle - Local News

The problem is the same one that the newspaper industry has been failing to come to grips with for the last twenty years: advertising.

SF Chroinicle - Lifestyle Pages

On the first day of the “New Look Chronicle,” there were some retailers that had obviously chosen to take the plunge with the newspaper. You can see some of the advertisers gamely checking in on the inside pages with splashy, colorful ads. But look closely.

SF Chronicle - Inside Color Ads

Note in the lower left corner.

That’s right. An old-school black-and-white ad. One that takes absolutely no advantage of the new capabilities. Ask yourself how this happened. Imagine the frenzied ad sales campaign that led up to the premiere of this issue of the Chron; don’t you think the ad sales staff was working the phones, day and night, lining up advertisers to pay through the nose for the privilege of being among the select few to have the opportunity to make their mark with this new blah blah blahdy blah…

SF Chronicle - Inside Color

And not only was the Monday paper thin enough to shave with – which we’ll get back to in a second – but to flesh out the pages, they had to mix in old-school gray ads with the bright & colorful new ones.

How depressing.  Well, if you’re still clinging to the belief that somehow print editions can turn it around with just a few tweaks here and there, maybe a little more flash&dazzle will win back advertisers, who will surely see the value of paying more money to reach a smaller audience. Right? Right? …hey, where ya going?

The difference between the retrograde thinking that these pages embody, and the optimism and confidence that I saw at the recent OMMA-Mobile conference in LA (and I owe a long post about that, and will do it once I get back to LA), is massive. The chasm between people who shriek and cling to these kinds of gimmicks and the ones that are grabbing the future by the throat and learning things every day … is like the Grand Digital Canyon.

But if you get a chance, check out the SF Chron, and drink in all the pretty, large-format pictures.

SF Chronicle - Datebook

I’m guessing this is going to truly be a limited-time opportunity.