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

Both papers manufacture high-tech stories the way Hollywood used to produce Esther Williams movies: find any excuse to get Esther into the pool. On the Sunday before Valentine's Day, the Examiner ran a Business section feature on '90s office romances facilitated by computer network e-mail. On Valentine's Day itself, 48 hours later, the Chronicle ran a front-page story on professional couples who keep in touch via over-the-air e-mail.

In attempting to show their differences, neither paper was obliged to split hairs -- ethernet romantic e-mail versus wireless romantic e-mail -- when providence, and the New York Times, handed them the story about cybercriminal Kevin Mitnick.

Here, at last, was the perfect high-tech story that, for once, included familiar elements of old-fashioned newspaper genres: suspense, crime and police-procedural mystery. It was a chance for the Chronicle or the Examiner to leave its competition in the dust. Alas, both papers labored mightily, stole liberally from John Markoff's stay-ahead reporting in the Times and produced essentially the same story.

Which paper ran phone-in reader polls on whether you'd pay to watch replacement baseball players? Both.

Which paper, in the days before the Super Bowl, ran front-page photos of the 49ers' red-and-gold end zone at one end of Joe Robbie Stadium? Both.

Which paper splashed huge coverage all over the recent AIDS benefit gala in the Civic Center? Both.

Wait, you say. How can anyone be against AIDS fundraisers starring Van Cliburn, Carole Burnett and the newly blond Dianne Feinstein on train whistle? Of course both papers provided lap-dog coverage. Don't you see? That's exactly the problem: San Francisco has been living in the dull, gray JOA world so long that real newspaper competition would seem almost flatulent.

In a town with real newspaper competition, one of the papers would have gone beyond "look at all the pretty people" coverage to wonder, perhaps a bit rudely but differently, why AIDS is so often reduced to red-lapel ribbons and Dianne Feinstein tooting her horn.

San Francisco doesn't need two newspapers without the will, or resources, to compete in any meaningful way. That's why it's savory to imagine one great newspaper in San Francisco. It would enjoy all the income now split by the Examiner and the Chronicle and could spend twice as much money doing its job. Smells like caviar.

There are several scenarios that reduce San Francisco's newspaper roster to one. The Stephen King script is that the Hearst Corp. buys the Chronicle, and Examiner management, as currently constituted, moves over to run the city's surviving daily.

(Even if the Hearsts emerge as owners of San Francisco's sole newspaper, it will still be called the Chronicle because of its high name recognition in the market.)

Trust me: You wouldn't want the people who now run the Examiner providing San Francisco's only daily mirror. Because of the Examiner's JOA-induced nonprofit-agency atmosphere, the editors who have leached to the top are more adept at internal politics than leadership and innovation.

The other scenario, in which the Chronicle cherry-picks a few good people from the Examiner staff and folds them into a Greater Chronicle, is also alarming, as if your favorite gelato store eliminated its extensive menu in favor of a sign reading: "VANILLA ONLY FOREVER."

I don't want my news mediated by a bunch of smug, country-club Bing Crosbys. Chronicle managers are far too comfortable with CEOs, elected officials, chambers of commerce and other organs of the status quo.

I want garlic, rotgut red wine, sausage, sweat, snot, suspicion and anchovies falling out when I open my morning newspaper. Readers do not live by buttered white toast alone.

(Speaking of excellence in buttered white toast, here's something Chronicle Editor Bill German told me in explaining the paper's continued publication of the late Stanton Delaplane into, and beyond, the columnist's dotage: "People read the Chronicle while they're eating breakfast," said German. "We're competing with the back of the cereal box. If Delaplane is even this much more interesting than the back of the cereal box, we're doing fine.")

Now here's the good news: San Francisco already has a great newspaper, but it is neither the Chronicle nor the Examiner. The Joint Operating Agreement traps its lovely outline inside the ungainly bodies of both.

The DNA of this brilliant, evanescent journalistic sprite is drawn from both institutions, but can come alive at neither.

We, as readers, can wait another 10 years for the JOA to die from old age. We can watch as our two local newspapers struggle through a frustrating twilight decade in which, because of the JOA, the Examiner will never be big enough nor the Chronicle rich enough to explode into a new level of quality.

Or we can hope that serious, powerful people with their minds set on the common good will recognize the futility of publishing two weak, shadowy newspapers in America's most exciting city when one great newspaper is there right now, straining to break free.

The resulting publication, bristling with talent, money and the heel-kicking exuberance of newfound freedom, itching to take on the Los Angeles Times or even the New York Times if need be, may look like the All-Mandel Team, or it may look completely different. As a reader, I'm open to alternate versions of excellence, as long as there is excellence.

As an old Examiner guy, though, I'm demanding just one thing:
Somewhere deep in the soul of this one great San Francisco newspaper must burn the Examiner spirit that itches to say "Fuck you!" to a Chronicle poser in a beret.

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