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

Even so, spirits at the Examiner were not raised when Lee J. Guittar was named Hearst's replacement: Guittar has presided over the liquidation of three Hearst newspapers, earning the newsroom nickname "Hearst's Dr. Kevorkian." Essentially a businessman, Guittar insists he's just a transitional leader, but his reassurances don't help Examiner workers get much sleep.

It's lonely being right early. My view that now is the best time to convert San Francisco to a one-newspaper town is shared by few dispensers of Conventional Wisdom.

"The existence of two newspapers in a town keeps everyone on their toes," says Ben Bagdikian, former dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. "With two newspapers, managers never delay stories, they keep on top of developments and they're more open -- someone can always sell a good story across the street."

Not surprisingly, Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein concurs with Bagdikian: "A one-newspaper town would be horrible. Competition makes for better journalists, editors and photographers. There'd be a strong inclination to be complacent. Look how complacent the Chronicle is now and imagine if we weren't here to goad them."

Replies Chronicle Executive Editor Matt Wilson: "'Goad' us? The Examiner doesn't goad us. The Chronicle stands alone. Certainly from the Examiner's point of view, we are the Great Satan used to motivate their staff. I'd use the Chronicle to motivate my staff if I worked at another local paper. But we don't look at the Examiner as our main competition.

"We're a regional paper competing with local papers that include the Hayward Daily Review, the [Livermore] Tri-Valley Herald and the Oakland Tribune in addition to the Examiner. As for the merits or demerits of a one-newspaper town, more newspapers in general are a good thing, because they provide more information. But I certainly don't buy into the complacency theory. There are a lot of streets for people to cross with their stories if we don't use them."

Wilson's analysis notwithstanding, it was the Chronicle's complacency, perhaps induced by the lulling security of the JOA, that originally allowed competitors to ring San Francisco with the newspapers that now gnaw Wilson's flanks. Sensing weakness and inattention at the Chronicle, other companies successfully colonized the suburban frontiers of the Chronicle's natural territory.

Lesher Newspapers' Contra Costa Times, Gannett's Oakland Tribune and the Alameda Newspaper Group's Hayward Daily Review and Tri-Valley Herald nibbled from the east; Gannett's Marin Independent-Journal and the New York Times Co.'s Santa Rosa Press Democrat from the north; and Knight-Ridder's San Jose Mercury-News from the south. The New York Times itself moved into the Bay Area, launching a successful West Coast edition predicated on the Chronicle's journalistic potholes.

Now that they are established, these competitors will provide the prod our one great San Francisco newspaper needs to stay alert, aggressive and responsive. Certainly more responsive than, say, the Oregonian of Portland, which has been known to sit on stories for several days because it has no regional rivals.

I asked Wilson if there was anything in the Examiner that he admired, or thought the Examiner did better than the Chronicle. He was silent for a long, pregnant moment.

"Nothing pops to mind," he said. "If one did, we could always hire him or her away."

In recent years the Chronicle has hired the Examiner "Insiders," political columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross, and sports columnist Joan Ryan for about the same money they were making at the Examiner. One reason writers switch papers for the same salary is the Chronicle's larger circulation. To reach as many people as the Chronicle reaches every day, Examiner writers have to get their work printed in the joint Sunday edition.

When they do, there's the forehead-slapping certainty that readers, who believe "Chronicle" is the generic Bay Area word for "newspaper," will remember reading something good in the "Sunday Chronicle." (More than half my mail was misaddressed to me at the Chronicle.) How many readers, for example, realize they saw Seth Rosenfeld's February 5 national scoop on the fire danger of Saab 9000 fuse boxes in the Examiner?

One of the few upsides to the Joint Operating Agreement over the first 28 years of its life was its success in maintaining, in the agreement's language, "two independent editorial voices" in San Francisco.

Like acrobats creating a sinuous helix in the sky, the Chronicle and the Examiner spent much of the last three decades twining their editorial viewpoints around one another. And for most of that time, the JOA and the Examiner it supported were needed to balance the reactionary stance of the Chronicle.

Now even that JOA-supporting rationale has collapsed because, finally, the Chronicle has come to. Under new Board Chairman Nan McEvoy and Editorial Page Editor Jerry Roberts, the Chronicle continues to surprise longtime readers by hewing to the humane left, where on most issues it finds the Examiner has already pitched a tent.

Both papers endorsed Frank Jordan for mayor in 1991, Pete Wilson for governor and Dianne Feinstein for senator in 1994, opposed state Prop. 187 and San Francisco measures M and N, which, respectively, would have made it a crime to sit on the sidewalk and would have diverted welfare recipients' stipends into a city-managed housing program.

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