All the elements were aligned for a chummy good time -- a free lunch of fried chicken and cornbread, yes-host bar, Albert King cakewalking from the sound system and friendly autumn rays stroking Johnny Love's worn wood floor.
It was a press feed to limn the lineup at last September's San Francisco Blues Festival, and the air would have been sweet indeed but for the nasties flying between representatives of San Francisco's two daily newspapers.
In one corner, wearing a black leather jacket, French-commie round steel specs and a navy-blue beret: Michael Snyder, the Chronicle modern-rock critic. In the opposing corner, wearing a Wilshire Boulevard nightmare tie, essentially the same specs and a natty baggy suit: Paul Wilner, editor of the Examiner Sunday Magazine.
"Paul Wilner is so hip," sneered Snyder, referring to some supposedly young-and-with-it articles that had lately appeared in the magazine. "The Examiner thinks the hippest women in San Francisco are Shann Nix and Julian Guthrie."
"Fuck you," Wilner explained, rising explosively from his watermelon slices. He reached across the table and flicked Snyder's beret off his head onto the floor. "This is hip? This beret? Poser! Who the fuck is the Chronicle to tell me about hip?"
As Snyder flinched in dazed wonder, Wilner chested toward him, knocking over a few of Johnny Love's spindly black chairs.
"Want to do something about it, Mr. Chronicle asshole? Want to do something about your fucking beret?"
Much as your average free luncher relishes a fight, the prospect of a Wilner/Snyder eight-eyes bout during the watermelon course was not appealing. Fortunately, Examiner movie critic Barbara Shulgasser separated the pair and soothed Wilner -- "Paul, I think you're overreacting."
Wilner shrugged his jacket back into place, rolled his neck a few times and stalked toward the door. Before plunging into the midday light, he turned toward Snyder.
"Asshole!" he yelled at the astonished boho. "Chronicle asshole!"
As the story spread through Examiner offices, the shy Wilner had to slow his usual crab-scuttle transits of the newsroom to accept colleagues' high-fives.
Wilner collected his coworkers' kudos that day not because fighting is the Examiner's official policy -- though one might think it so from the leadership-by-example of the newspaper's two-fisted top editor. (See "Will and Phil" sidebar.)
Wilner had flipped Snyder's beret, and Snyder Wilner's ego, because the Chronicle and the Examiner -- institutions most readers believe are owned by the same company -- hate each other.
The Chronicle, circulation 550,000, hates the Examiner for taking half its money.
The Examiner, circulation 100,000, hates the Chronicle for taking nearly all its readers.
What is now a bitter rivalry sometimes bordering on fisticuffs will shortly be little more than a historical footnote. Soon or sooner, San Francisco is going to be a one-newspaper town, and the one newspaper is going to be called the Chronicle. What will be in it and who will staff it remain open questions.
The Joint Operating Agreement, the lawyers' Sloth Potion No. 9 that 30 years ago drugged San Francisco's once-exuberant newspaper world into groggy suspended animation, expires in 2005, the year before Herb Caen turns 90.
At that point a decade hence, when the JOA no longer requires the two papers to split their combined gross revenues 50-50, the muscular morning Chronicle will be free to step clear of the shriveled afternoon Examiner it has been propping up since the 1970s, and the Examiner will expire.
That's the longest prognosis for the 108-year-old Examiner: 10 years to live. The shortest prognosis is issued fresh daily as waves of dark portent and rumor sweep the Examiner's newsroom, especially after last Sunday's desperate announcement of a cut in the street price to 25 cents. As one veteran reporter said last week, "The chill hand of death is upon the place."
Other than the private pain of lost livelihoods, the demise of the Examiner will not be a public tragedy. Although on many days the Examiner's staff -- 210 newsroom workers versus the Chronicle's 340 -- puts out the best newspaper in San Francisco, few see it. With a daily circulation that sometimes drops below 100,000 in a market of 2.3 million households and 4.9 million people, the Examiner is already little more than a rumor.
At most, the Examiner -- good writing, great photos, feisty attitude and all -- has a decade to live. Meanwhile, the strictures of the JOA make it impossible for either party to produce the great newspaper Northern California readers deserve.
The Examiner can't do it because the JOA shackles the Examiner to afternoon publication, the newspaper burial ground.
The Chronicle can't do it because the JOA diverts half its income to the Examiner.
It's an American axiom that competition is good, but San Francisco hasn't seen real newspaper competition since 1965. What goes on between the Examiner and the Chronicle isn't competition, it's sibling rivalry over the same dessert, with one of each sibling's hands tied behind his back. After all the rocking and reeling, combined circulation of the two newspapers hasn't changed significantly in 30 years.
If there were real daily newspaper competition in San Francisco as there is in, say, New York or Chicago, the two papers would constantly be at war with one another, gleefully pointing out each other's gaffes, pitting star columnists against each other, poking holes in one another's "exclusives," deliberately drawing distinctions between themselves.
In a town with real newspaper competition, last Friday's Examiner would have derisively shredded last Thursday's Chronicle, which published a full-page house ad announcing "best of the Chronicle" awards the Chronicle bestowed on itself since it has won so few major awards from outside sources.