The Case For One Daily

The Joint Operating Agreement deprives the Chronicle of the resources it needs to produce a great newspaper; it also prevents the afternoon Examiner from connecting with the readers it needs to survive. Since the JOA makes it inevitable that only one wil

I'm cleanly qualified to comment on both newspapers: All my bridges are burned.

The Chronicle is owned locally by the de Young-Thieriot family. The Examiner, the first paper in the empire created by William Randolph Hearst, is owned by the New York-based Hearst Corporation.

Under the Joint Operating Agreement that turns 30 this year, the papers split their combined income down the middle. The 550,000-circulation Chronicle and the 100,000-circulation Examiner make the same money.

This is the part the Chronicle hates.
Before the JOA began in 1965, both newspapers enjoyed daily circulations of about 300,000 and were published head to head in the morning. At the time, many successful metropolitan papers were published in the afternoon. Today, almost none are.

The upstart Chronicle had lagged behind Hearst's mighty Examiner for decades, but under Editor Scott Newhall the Chronicle rode a fast-rising crest of popularity fueled by fun, foamy, Frisco-flavored stories. Though today's cafŽ rats think San Francisco just recently discovered coffee-mania, one of Newhall's great successes at the '50s Chronicle was a civic campaign kicked off under the headline, "Great City Forced to Drink Swill."

Newhall's approach earned the Chronicle readers, but cost it respect. In the 1975 film All the President's Men, when a subordinate suggests a bizarre story to Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, Bradlee waves it off -- "Sell that one to the San Francisco Chronicle."

The Examiner had its Hearstory, the Chronicle its newfound popularity. As the '60s got underway, the rivals were locked in an old-fashioned newspaper war. The combat was exciting, but good old American business competition, of the sort applauded by editorial writers when someone else does the competing, made both owners nervous: Someone could lose.

In 1965, wily business heads at the papers got around the loser problem by exploiting a business angle developed by two competing newspapers in Tucson: the Joint Operating Agreement. The Arizona newspapers combined their business operations -- advertising, circulation, printing and distribution --and split their massed revenue. This move, of course, raised antitrust hackles and spawned bitter litigation that was ultimately rendered moot a few years later when Congress enshrined the JOA concept into the Newspaper Preservation Act.

It was, perhaps, just a coincidence that in "saving" both San Francisco papers the JOA also created an impregnable, no-sweat newspaper monopoly that kept both parties fat, and often lazy, for nearly three decades.

In a move comparable to sinking your entire life savings into Beta VCRs, the Examiner, pleased to be getting 50 percent of the Chronicle's perpetual take, moved to the afternoon. Afternoon papers were invented for factory workers who left the house too early to read a morning paper, were home by 3 and needed something to fill the time before dinner at 5:30. Today, most people start work at 9 and want a newspaper in the morning. Should there be a leisure gap in the afternoon: television.

The Examiner is one of the last metropolitan afternoon papers in the United States. (The Milwaukee Journal, another gasping afternoon dinosaur, gave up the ghost in mid-January.) If it weren't for the JOA, in fact, an afternoon paper couldn't exist in the Bay Area; in addition to altered readership patterns, the density of commuter traffic makes it almost impossible to deliver an afternoon daily. The primary reason advertisers agree to buy space in the Examiner is that it costs little more to advertise in both papers than in the Chronicle alone.

The Examiner has a reader base of older people who want something other than TV in the afternoon; workers in the entertainment and restaurant industries with afternoon slack time; lesbian and gay readers who feel more comfortable with the Examiner's longtime pro-gay rights editorial stance; fans of the paper's many colorful writers; and people who just can't stomach the Chronicle.

In addition, the newspaper is read by politicians, lawyers, developers, political consultants and community activists who need to know what's really going on in San Francisco and don't trust the Chronicle. This may account for the Examiner's relatively robust San Francisco circulation -- 59,000 versus the Chronicle's 122,000.

Examiner writers take perverse, compensatory pride in their small but select audience of readers who matter. The motivating fable is that the Examiner is not a failing metropolitan daily but a controlled-circulation insiders' newsletter that often manages to filter its work into the mass media, meaning radio, television -- and the Chronicle.

The paper has earned a loyal core readership, but due to the hamstringing effect of afternoon publication the Examiner's total Bay Area circulation sometimes falls embarrassingly below 100,000 on weekdays.

On Sundays, of course, sections edited by the Chronicle and the Examiner are combined and delivered to 708,682 subscribers.

The paper's minuscule non-Sunday shadow is a humiliation Examiner writers struggle to live with. If your work is printed on Sunday, according to San Francisco Newspaper Agency figures, 35 percent of Bay Area adults see it. Printed in a weekday Examiner, the same material is exposed to 3 percent of the audience.

When I was writing six Examiner columns a week, including Sundays, nearly everyone I met who commented on my work said something like, "I read your column every Sunday. What else do you do to make a living?"

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