A Chance for Respect?

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

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.

Unless the Justice Department changes its recent, hands-off approach to corporate mergers and JOA dissolutions -- and it is extremely unlikely such a change will be made -- there will soon be just one major daily newspaper printed in San Francisco. But with all due deference to merger opponents, it has to be noted that the new Chronicle will have plenty of competition from local, regional, and even national publications, as well as the Internet. This will hardly feel like a one-paper town. So the pertinent question is not necessarily whether the new Chronicle will be a monopoly, but whether it will be any good.

Will the new paper read like a bigger, better-funded, scrappy, city-obsessed Examiner?Or a bigger, better-funded, staid, suburbs-and-demographics-fixated Chronicle? Or some strange cross between the two?

Or could the Chronicle -- just possibly -- become a consistently good or even great newspaper, a publication that values and invests in definitive research, precise thought, fine writing, and strong opinion?

"This is the moment of truth," says Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's graduate school of journalism. "San Francisco has an extraordinary opportunity to acquire a paper on par with other great cosmopolitan cities like Los Angeles, New York, Boston, or Washington. Hopefully Hearst will see that opportunity, to not only make money, but to have a distinguished paper that could shed some credibility on its other ventures. Hearst is a world-class company, and it might want to aspire to excellence in journalism. It would be wrong to just look at the bottom line in a city that is so demanding culturally and politically.

"The possibility here is that, in this city, a good paper could actually do better than a bad one."

The Chronicle is not an awful paper, really. At least not in the way it was once awful, and it really hasn't been awful in that way since the Chronicle Publishing Co. board did some housecleaning in the early 1990s. Publisher Richard Thieriot, part of the original Chronicle family, was ousted in 1992. For the first time, a person from outside the primary ownership group was brought in to lead the company, former Capitol Cities/ABC executive John Sias. In the newsroom, Matt Wilson and Jerry Roberts were promoted to run the paper and take control from longtime Executive Editor Bill German, who was nearing 80 and increasingly thought to be out of touch. German, who refused to retire, was actually named editor of the paper, but was relegated to a mostly ceremonial role.

Meanwhile, new Executive Editor Wilson, the idea man, and Managing Editor Roberts, the executor, used $1.5 million to take on Knight-Ridder and the Bay Area suburbs. Bureaus were established in the East Bay, and 40 new reporters were hired to cover them. There was more high-tech reporting out of Silicon Valley, and more emphasis on hard news. Staff-written enterprise stories, some with foreign datelines from Mexico City to Manila, were splashed on the front page. This year, the Chronicle was one of three finalists for a Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series on the dangers of the medical reuse of hypodermic needles.

"Kicking the Chronicle has become a national sport by reporters outside the Bay Area, but it is way overdone. The paper is a whole lot better than people give it credit for," says Cynthia Gorney, a UC Berkeley journalism professor and former Washington Post reporter. "No, it's not the New York Times, and no one could imagine it so with a straight face. But the Chronicle is nowhere near as bad as people say it is. The Chronicle is trying very hard; it's not a great paper every day of the week, but it manages to put out a good paper most days."

But effort alone cannot build a great paper; Wilson and Roberts were never given the resources needed to make the Chronicle a viable competitor outside the city limits of San Francisco. The Chronicle's family owners were not willing to invest in all-out competition for the suburbs while having to share profits with Hearst. Wilson and Roberts managed to improve the Chronicle; the improvement just wasn't enough to make the Chronicle great.

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