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 is a much-maligned paper that has improved, but with absolute limits," Berkeley's Schell says. "Everyone knew the damn thing was going to be sold someday, so why bother? Meanwhile, the Bay Area skyrocketed to world significance, and the paper has not."

But the Chronicle is certainly a better paper than it was when Jason Robards said, "Send it to the Chronicle." Wavy-lined boxes no longer advertise stories about sex or bizarre events. Thirty years have passed since the front-page English muffin scandal (in 1969, they were being sliced, not torn). And Kennedy was president when perhaps the most famous non-news event made it into screaming type: "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill." (This series on bad coffee in San Francisco also offered other classic headlines, such as "4 O'clock Varnish" and "Heady Brew.")

Ironically, as the Chronicle's tone became more staid and newsy, it was the Examiner, which relied mostly on street corner newsrack sales, that began running the screaming headlines. After last month's fatal accident at the Great America theme park, the Examiner exclaimed, "Death Plunge At Thrill Ride," while the Chronicle stated -- with much smaller type -- "Fall From Ride Kills Boy." But the same Chronicle front page, with an original special report from Mexico City on a new mayor's efforts to tame corruption, featured a color photo of Minnesota Gov. Jesse "The Body" Ventura's return to the wrestling ring. The wavy lines may be gone, but the bizarro story still manages to appear prominently in the paper despite an overall more serious front page.

And that is not necessarily a bad thing, says Boston Globe columnist and San Francisco resident Marty Nolan.

"The Chronicle's reputation has been circus-y. They did go looking for the best cup of coffee during the Cuban Missile Crisis, yet there's more to the paper now; they've steadily improved," Nolan says. "But it is still very important in journalism to be true to one's roots. For the Chronicle, those are the Gold Rush roots. It was originally called the Daily Dramatic Chronicle, wasn't it? And what was important then? Dance halls, saloons, and theaters. Entertainment was and is serious news in San Francisco. This is a city that doesn't take itself seriously -- or its news, either. I mean what else can you do with Willie Brown and his opponents? The true disease of journalism is not cynicism, but self-importance. And the Chronicle has certainly avoided that."

But Cynthia Gorney, who grew up in the Bay Area, wrote for the Washington Post, and now teaches journalism at Berkeley, can't help but notice her once famously silly hometown is becoming a different place. San Francisco is no longer so easily connected to its own lore -- the Gold Rush, or even the Summer of Love -- and is scarcely more avant-garde, in many regards, than the next city. At one time, it could be debated whether San Franciscans would even want a paper like the Washington Post. Today, it seems likely that a majority of Bay Area readers would prefer a more sophisticated read than they have been getting.

"When the Chronicle was absolutely Looney Tunes -- and it was -- people got into big arguments over whether the paper was loony because the Bay Area is that way, or if there actually was a good paper, people would read it," Gorney says. "It's true we never did take ourselves as seriously as New York or Washington, but that was before we became home to a multizillion-dollar computer industry. Things change."

In the short term, at least, the new Chronicle will be the product of two staffs that have been led by two men with very different leadership styles. It is widely understood that the Chronicle's managing editor, Jerry Roberts, has played a big hand in the paper's recent improvements. But Phil Bronstein, the popular news-hound editor of the Examiner, is a longtime Hearst man.

Unless the Justice Department intervenes, the Chronicle is Hearst's paper now, which makes it improbable that Roberts or anyone else from the old Chroniclewill lead the new paper. This leaves two likely scenarios for the Chronicle-to-be: Either the Examiner's editors -- the ones most familiar to Hearst -- will run it, or someone from outside both of the San Francisco papers will be brought in as the new top gun. If the new editorial leaders come from the Examiner, Bronstein is the best bet to run the show.

"Bronstein evokes very much the image of a swashbuckling editor, the one that never really existed but was invented by Hollywood," says David Cole, a former assistant managing editor of the Examiner. "His view of the news is a little bit more flamboyant, and he's not afraid to get involved and be part of the story. He has been called a cowboy, which is probably an unfair characteristic. Yes, he wears cowboy boots, and is very hard-charging, but he is very meticulous and very professional."

When, for instance, no one could figure out if the reported sightings of an alligator in a city lake in 1996 were actually true, Bronstein -- an accomplished scuba diver -- showed up in his wet suit to investigate the report himself. Then there was the 1993 altercation with former political consultant and current mayoral candidate Clint Reilly. When Reilly met with Bronstein to complain about the paper's reporting, he left the Examiner's offices on a stretcher with a broken ankle. Reilly accused Bronstein of attacking him, sued, and Hearst settled out of court for an undisclosed sum.

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