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A Chance for Respect? 

How to tell whether the San Francisco Chronicle is becoming a great newspaper, or another nondescript Hearst money-machine

Wednesday, Sep 8 1999
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HOLLYWOOD DIDN'T HAVE TO VEER MUCH from the truth to make a cinematic hit out of the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President's Men. The real-life version of the Watergate scandal, with its clandestine meetings, death threats, and mystery source (the still-unidentified "Deep Throat"), had plenty of intrigue. Even the added comic relief came easy.

Cut to Ben Bradlee, the storied editor of the Washington Post, equally gruff and urbane, played by silver-haired Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance. An irritating salesman of syndicated features is hunched over the editor's desk, and Bradlee wants to get rid of him because Woodward and Bernstein -- his soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters -- are on their way in to discuss more weighty matters.

"Ben, it's the hottest item," the pitchman says, worked up to a frenzy.

"What is it?" Bradlee asks with an incredulous smirk.

"Yesterday's weather report for people who were drunk and slept all day ...."

"Jesus!" the editor bellows, laughing heartily as he shoos the salesman out of his office. "Send it out to the San Francisco Chronicle -- they need it."

They don't anymore.

The San Francisco Chronicle has been mocked for decades by journalists, especially top-tier reporters and editors on the East Coast, who say the paper didn't take the news (or itself, for that matter) seriously. Like the city it served, they say, the morning Chronicle was soft, a little eccentric, even lazy, more interested in exposing bad coffee than corrupt politicians. The paper's editors exercised news judgment that was less than reliable, opting to run wire copy on important stories Chronicle staffers could have reported, while filling the front page with silly, staff-written features. Until he died two years ago, celebrated columnist Herb Caen was generally considered to be carrying the Chronicle on his epigrammatic back.

Then there was the San Francisco Examiner, a smaller, but tougher and scrappier, afternoon paper that relished its role in covering "The City," which it always referred to in capital letters. The Examiner focused on the nuts and bolts of local news, and was genuinely interested in the dogged pursuit of a City Hall investigation. But no one -- or almost no one -- read the Examiner. In a region home to more than 6 million, not many over 100,000 people read it. The afternoon paper had been dying for a long time in America, having lost its relevance, and the Examiner was no exception to the rule.

Now, the Examiner's owner, the Hearst Corp., has struck an agreement to purchase the still-successful Chronicle for a reported $660 million. To satisfy the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division, Hearst put its Examiner up for sale. But given the unlikelihood anyone would buy a failing afternoon paper, Hearst hopes to essentially merge the Examiner with the nearly 500,000-circulation Chronicle, creating one giant morning daily.

The notion of a one-daily-newspaper town has some San Franciscans and left-leaning news outlets and politicos up in arms, bemoaning the loss of an editorial voice and crying, "Monopoly!" Even Mayor Willie Brown jumped into the anti-merger act, writing a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that urged the Justice Department not to rush approval of the deal and to "explore every option to save our major newspapers ... [and] preserve the healthy competitive newspaper environment of our city."

Actually, though, the Chronicle and Examiner have been almost the same paper for nearly 35 years, running under a Joint Operating Agreement and sharing the same building, printing presses, advertising staff -- and profits or losses -- since 1965. The papers do have separate editorial staffs, but how much difference in editorial voice the general reader noticed is certainly open to question. Many readers thought of the two papers as one and the same, largely relying on outdated reputations to define them.

In reality, the Chronicle today is nowhere near as bad a paper as it was when Jason Robards suggested it might want to publish yesterday's weather reports. And the Examiner of late has certainly not lived up to its motto -- "Monarch of the Dailies" -- turning to an almost tabloidish front-page approach that uses screaming and often sensational headlines to boost the chance a passer-by might be compelled to buy a paper from a street corner news box in the middle of the day.

For a long time now, the journalism marketplace of San Francisco hasn't been a simple, two-way, Chronicle vs. Examiner competition. In modern times, the real business threat to the San Francisco JOA -- the real fight for ad revenue and readership -- has come from national newspaper chains such as Knight-Ridder, which has ringed San Francisco from Silicon Valley to the East Bay with newspapers that serve the highest-growth segments of the region. The news audience in the Bay Area has been increasingly gobbled up by Knight-Ridder's San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, along with other suburban papers, including the New York Times-owned Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and Gannett Co.'s Marin Independent Journal, not to mention a variety of neighborhood and regional weeklies. For the affluent, highly literate -- and coveted -- computer-money demographic that lives in and around "The City," home delivery of the New York Times is now available to anyone who wants a comprehensive national newspaper. And, of course, there's the World Wide Web, almost indigenous to this area, where anyone in Baghdad by the Bay can instantly read the latest exposé from Woodward himself at washingtonpost.com.

The Chronicle realized it was in a regional (rather than a single-city) market, and in recent years began trying to expand its reach to the lucrative suburbs already penetrated by other papers. It also started a popular online version, sfgate.com. But the Chronicle had no incentive to win; it was obliged to share half the profits with the Examiner until their consolidation deal expired in 2005. And the independently run Chronicle Publishing Co. was wealthy, but nowhere near as rich as any media conglomerate that it would need to beat. Besides, leadership of the family-run business had been diluted by generations who didn't share the same passion for newspapering that their 19th-century ancestors once did. All the cousins and hangers-on of Chronicle co-founder Michael de Young were just waiting for the Joint Operating Agreement to expire, so they could sell, and invest their fortunes in something more relevant to their interests or cash-flow needs. In the end, with the economy in an unprecedented boom and prices high, the Chronicle family opted to sell a few years shy of the JOA expiration deadline to their longtime partners at Hearst.

About The Author

Joel P. Engardio

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