A Chance for Respect?

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

"Hearst must anoint one visionary, experienced person to lead before they shuffle the deck together," Schell says. "A lot [of the current staff] won't survive the cut, so who they get [at the top] is crucial."

After the Chronicle sale was announced, some critics focused on a San Francisco boogeyman: out-of-town corporate control. It is true that what was once an independent, locally owned paper would now be owned by the New York-based Hearst Corp. But Berkeley's Cynthia Gorney finds the loss-of-local-control complaint amusing, considering who has owned the Chronicle.

"There has been a long, bizarre legacy of family ownership; a weird institution of crackpot Republicans who live in Burlingame," Gorney says. "People like to implicitly think that because the new owners are far away, this is a bad thing -- but for the Chronicle, that's not necessarily true."

Then again, Hearst has almost as long a history in San Francisco as the de Young family and much more interest and involvement with the media industry. During the 112-year life of the Examiner, the Hearst Corp. created a media empire that now includes 20 newspapers and 20 magazines, including Esquire and a piece of Tina Brown's Talk, plus 15 television stations and a share in a dozen cable networks from A&E to ESPN. Last year, Forbes ranked Hearst as the 60th-largest privately held corporation in the United States.

And recent Hearst history may better predict the Chronicle's probable future than harangues about the dangers of creeping corporatism.

The last time Hearst closed one of its own papers, bought the competition, and turned a city into a one-daily town was 1993. The city was San Antonio, Texas, where neither Hearst's Lightnor Rupert Murdoch's Express-News was a very good paper. The new, combined product is, by most estimations, a slight improvement over the ill-written, garishly designed, and crime-obsessed past, but no serious student of journalism would call today's San Antonio Express-Newsstellar. And Hearst critics use San Antonio, Texas' third-largest city, as a foreboding example of what's to come in San Francisco: a mediocre product in a monopoly market, published by a company only interested in its bottom line.

A similar case can be made in the nation's fourth-largest city, where Hearst bought the Houston Chronicle, then purchased its competition, the Houston Post, and closed it, making the Chronicle the single paper in town. "Hearst is obviously a very predatory company," says Fred Blevens, who worked for Hearst as an editor and reporter for 10 years in both San Antonio and Houston. "Hearst likes to be in monopolies, and has a real knack for working its way into monopoly markets. That in itself says something about Hearst's reliance on profit."

But Blevens, who was the Houston Chronicle's state editor, says Hearst does not eviscerate its papers in the search for profit. Before Hearst bought the Houston Chronicle, for instance, it was the largest-circulation paper in Texas, but had no state editor or reporters. Blevens was hired and given a staff of four to cover statewide stories; that staff was eventually increased to 14 reporters, housed in five new bureaus.

"While it varies by property, it is not the general philosophy of Hearst to rape its papers and damn the quality," Blevens says. "There is some reinvestment back into the product. From my experience, Hearst changed the parochial nature of the Houston Chronicle. I think there was a commitment to making things better, but I wouldn't say they were about to pour a bunch of money into the paper and not make a profit, just for the sake of journalistic quality. And no one would expect them to."

Ben Bagdikian, former Berkeley journalism dean and author of The Media Monopoly, doesn't hold any romantic notions that Hearst will make the San Francisco Chronicle a great paper of the Pacific Rim. "They can put out a big, fat paper like the Los Angeles Times, but I don't think they'll do it," Bagdikian says. "Hearst will want some of its money back that it paid for the Chronicle, and now they can make that money. I'm just anxious to see if they will put out a decent paper and not spoil the good the Chronicle has already done."

To justify his opinions, Bagdikian simply points to the company's track record: "Hearst papers elsewhere don't have good reputations. Why would they here?"

Blevens, who now is a journalism professor at Southwest Texas State University, has studied the Hearst Corp. extensively. And although he is less pessimistic than Bagdikian, and if he acknowledges that San Francisco might be handled differently because it is such a high-profile city, Blevens also notes that Hearst's history of acquisitions has not resulted in the birth of renowned papers. "Hearst has a tendency to take over and initially soar in a market, creating an improvement in quality, and then hitting a plateau. The Houston Chronicle is better, but I don't think it will get any better than it is now," Blevens says. "Hearst has trouble getting a paper into the next zone, taking it to the next level of quality; making the Houston Chronicle a Boston Globe. That final push takes such drastic measures and can be so painful that the added investment is just not worthwhile."

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