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

The two papers even see eye to eye -- nearly word to word, actually -- on the British-Irish peace initiative for Northern Ireland, the Examiner hailing it as "a deal [to find] a peaceful settlement," the Chronicle as "a blueprint to lessen the strife."

While the Examiner has said it "generally supports" Jordan's anti-homeless Matrix program because "it sends a message that San Francisco will not tolerate even petty crime," the Chronicle under Roberts' recent aegis has not yet taken a stand. Privately, however, Roberts says he's against Matrix.

Veteran readers probably had to rub their eyes and double-check which newspaper they were reading when they encountered these opening words in a February 18 Chronicle editorial:

"The laughingly misnamed National Security Revitalization Act passed by the House of Representatives represents the depth of Republican cynicism, isolationism and political irresponsibility."

This rationalist, left-centrist convergence adds weight to the argument that San Francisco would be better off with one great newspaper rather than two gimpy ones. But until McEvoy and Roberts took control of the Chronicle's point of view, the paper seemed perpetually stuck fighting a Red Menace only it could see.

Under McEvoy's predecessor, Editor and Publisher Richard Tobin Thieriot, the Chronicle championed the hardly threatened forces of right-wing capital with a know-nothing passion that would have offended even Marie Antoinette:

Rent control in a city of renters? Go-slow development in a town rapidly being overrun by Manhattan-size high-rises? Of course not! Anyone equating human rights with property rights was, quite obviously, a communist.

Unlike Ms. Antoinette, Dick Thieriot saw no reason to allow them access to cake unless they owned the means of production.

Thieriot's policies were often born in the mirror. A very busy man representing the community of very busy men who read the Chronicle, he ordered his editors to print the first, vital paragraphs of each Chronicle news story in boldface type so he could tell, from the end of boldface, when it was okay to stop reading. (The practice ended with Thieriot's 1993 departure.)

Readers were shocked when, in the early '80s, the Chronicle momentarily departed from its worship of business interests to run a long, well-researched, pro-environment series attacking the proposed Peripheral Canal, which would have benefited both developers and corporate farms by carrying Northern California's Sacramento Delta water to the Central Valley and Southern California.

It seemed a full 180 from the usual, but Thieriot's friends understood: A duck hunter so dedicated that he mounted a silver mallard's head on the hood of his Jeep 4x4, Thieriot had been told the Peripheral Canal would drain his favorite duck-hunting marsh. Thus was born Dick Thieriot, the one-shot conservationist.

In the news pages, there was a time not long ago when readers could count on the Chronicle for a clueless, white-shoe, yes-Mr. President, country-club perspective, and on the Examiner for the working man's crusty, irreverent, cynical, rough-hewn account. The Chronicle wanted to believe nearly everything institutions and corporate mouthpieces told it, the Examiner nearly nothing. These markedly different flavors instantly distinguished one paper from the other, and subtly justified the JOA's preservation of two newspaper voices.

It wasn't 3-D, Technicolor competition, exactly, but neither was it the massive news overlap we see today, in which both papers seem to be in a mad race to look, feel and read exactly like one another.

If any part of this news convergence can be applauded, it's the papers' simultaneous awakening to "diversity," the realization that Northern California has become one of the most multi-everything regions in the United States while its two major newspapers remained stuck in a straight-white-male worldview.

But even here, on a new issue that each paper could use to underline its difference from the other, convergence is the rule. When the Examiner detailed farm-owners' mistreatment of undocumented Latino immigrants, the Chronicle reported restaurant owners' mistreatment of undocumented Chinese immigrants.

Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, noted that the papers' JOA-halved resources "don't allow reporters to be assigned to community beats long enough to develop perspective and depth." The hunkier editorial budget of one great San Francisco newspaper, Der agreed, would provide "a glimmer of hope that reporters would be allowed to stay on a beat, developing depth of knowledge."

"The two papers are about the same when it comes to covering our community," said Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church. "The media invariably distort [African American] history and image --the newspapers are part of the problem, not the solution -- the people who should be sought out for opinion and commentary on [African American] issues are those who can raise up a crowd and have a following in the black community, but neither paper ever calls upon them."

As one Chronicle editor told me, "We're hot on P.C. and PCs." At both papers, editors' fixation on high-tech's Olympian locus, the Internet, borders on cargo-cult devotion. Having been stung when they dismissed television as a meaningless stunt, newspaper editors are now overreacting to the Internet, which has yet to come into useful focus for 95 percent of the public.

Not that the papers' breathless reportage makes anything clearer: It has leaped over the challenge of explaining the Internet to presenting columns by veteran World Wide Webbers whose comments are undecipherable to the average reader.

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