A Chance for Respect?

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

Bronstein, who started out years ago as a television reporter and still appears on Channel 2's morning show, knows how to cultivate an image, while selling himself and his paper. He's also married to Hollywood star Sharon Stone.

If Hearst wants to create a greatly improved morning newspaper, Bronstein could provide the needed public relations buzz. (When he was hospitalized with chest pains during the week of the Chronicle sale, his angioplasty was reported on Entertainment Tonight.) And if Hearst is serious about improving international coverage, that is Bronstein's passion. He cut his teeth as an overseas reporter in the South Pacific, and was a Pulitzer finalist for his coverage of the fall of the Marcos government in the Philippines.

If he is chosen, Bronstein's major initial task will be the joining of two distinct journalistic cultures, and figuring out what to do with the editors from the old Chronicle. It will not be an easy, or necessarily clean, undertaking.

Hearst has pledged to save the jobs of both papers' editorial staffers (about 380 at the Chronicle and just over 200 at the Examiner). Most of those positions -- reporters, copy editors, photographers, and clerks -- are under union contract until 2005. And with a combined staff of more than 500, the new Chronicle will be in line with industry standards of one editorial staff member per 1,000 subscribers. (Under that formula, the old Chronicle was actually understaffed, and the Examiner bloated.) But if there will be no immediate layoffs at these lower levels, that doesn't mean there will be no conflict. "There will be a million little dramas as far as who is going to run what," says Chronicle science writer Carl Hall, who also serves as the union representative for the paper's reporters.

For top editors and department heads, who are members of management, there is no union; it is doubtful that Hearst will keep a double layer of managers who almost certainly will have a difficult time getting along. Bronstein, it should be remembered, once issued a staff memo calling his paper "the Un-Chronicle."

"There's a good case to be made that Bronstein will be the editor," Cole says. "But the real question is what does he do about Sharon? And I don't mean his wife."

Cole means Sharon Rosenhause, the highly effective, but intensely dreaded, tough-as-nails No. 2 editor at the Examiner. She is Bronstein's bad cop. Her fear-inspiring reputation is well known, her skills rarely challenged.

There has been talk of perhaps the serious-minded Jerry Roberts working under Bronstein, running the day-to-day news operation, leaving Bronstein to the visionary work. But Rosenhause has already been doing that for Bronstein at the Examiner. And she's just as serious as Roberts -- albeit a different kind of serious.

"Sharon is tough, but she is good; you can't have a patsy running the paper," says Berkeley journalism dean Orville Schell, who considers Bronstein-Rosenhause his dream ticket to run the new Chronicle. "Sharon is very smart and effective, and Bronstein has a lot of foreign experience; together they could really create something."

Where does that leave Roberts and other top Chronicle editors? Schell is a realist: "A lot of guys will get shoved out of place." But Cole cautions that some Chronicle editors will have to survive, even if they are just given fancy titles with good pay and little to do.

"You can't have a massive assassination and put out a paper the next day, when half the editorial staff is pissed off because Bronstein fired everyone," Cole says.

As for recent defectors from the Examiner to the Chronicle, including political columnists Matier & Ross and Assistant Managing Editor Linda Strean, Cole says it would be prudent for Bronstein to temper grudges. Doing so may not be as easy as saying so. "People who defected to the Chronicle will be put through some hot grease," Cole says. "Linda Strean will have problems, but at least Matier & Ross can rely on their popularity with readers."

If Bronstein gets the top job, and Rosenhause remains his No. 2, they will, at least initially, direct a staff that is a mishmash of two cultures. There will also be two sets of columnists and beat reporters for each of the paper's sections. Ultimately, the question is whether the clash of Chronicle and Examiner cultures improves or scrambles the ultimate product. Cole hopes for positive synergy. "The Chronicle has gotten better, but it still has a long way to go," Cole says. "If the Examiner people can put fire into the Chronicle bellies, you might actually get one hell of a newspaper."

To get a good result from such a combination, Schell says, one clear leader needs to be in charge from the start; rule by committee would result in disastrous infighting. But, Schell says, it shouldn't be assumed the new top leader will be Bronstein. If Hearst really wants to shake things up and signal a devotion to changing the paper, it would not be surprising for the firm to bring in someone entirely new. Perhaps even a high-level editor from a major publication like the New York Times, who will never get the top job there, but could make a name for him- or herself shaping the Chronicle into a respected big-league paper.

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