A Chance for Respect?

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

The final push often requires sweeping changes, such as bringing in all-new top editorial management from the outside -- something Hearst is not known for doing. At the Houston Chronicle, despite needed fixes in reporting and coverage, many of the old paper's editors stayed in power.

"Not enough new blood was injected to take the paper to the next level," Blevens says. "And if Hearst follows its pattern, that's what will probably happen in San Francisco."

So if Hearst papers in Seattle, San Antonio, Houston, and Albany, N.Y., are less than journalistically inspiring, why would anyone think San Francisco might be different?

"I'm aware of the vicissitudes of the market, and if this were San Antonio, I'd say not much would happen," says UC Berkeley's Schell. "But San Francisco is not San Antonio. San Francisco is a very sophisticated, very globally oriented, highly educated commercial center. It depends on how grand and bold they want to be, but if Hearst wants their paper to make some waves and be something commendable, they have a great opportunity with the Chronicle."

John Morton, a leading newspaper business analyst based near Washington, D.C., generally agrees.

"Look at the New York Times, Washington Post, and Los Angeles Times -- all these papers have double-digit profit margins," Morton says. "A lousy paper in the long run won't be profitable. Generally, over the years, quality journalism equals good business and keeps the readers loyal."

What readers see -- or don't see -- in the new Chronicle during its first year or so of operation will say a lot about what kind of paper they can expect ultimately to get. Whether Bronstein or a prominent outsider is named editor, the question will not be whether the Chronicleis being run by a journalist talented enough to create a good paper; Bronstein is a Pulitzer finalist, and any outsider, one must presume, would be at least as well-credentialed.

The real question will be whether the new editor is given the freedom and resources needed to sculpt a distinguished newspaper.

How will readers know if the new paper is on the right track?

Union contracts will apparently force the new Chronicle editor to work with a staff composed mostly of ex-Chroniclereporters and columnists whom he did not hire, and who can be expected to resist change. Whether the new head editor is allowed to build a completely loyal team of mid- and low-level editors to direct those writers will, therefore, be key to whether his ideas can be translated successfully into ink on newsprint.

Readers can also get some indication whether the Chronicleis undergoing significant positive transformation just by watching bylines, particularly the high-profile ones. Without being offensive to any particular scribe, it is fair, for example, to say that the overall crop of Chronicle and Examiner columnists is less than distinguished. Since Herb Caen, there have been no breakouts to carry the torch. The new Chronicle could make an effort to find and cultivate its own nationally syndicated star, like the Chicago Tribune's late Mike Royko or the Boston Globe's Ellen Goodman. If after a year, however, the new Chronicle continues to include the likes of Ken Garcia, Scott Ostler, and Rob Morse on its news pages without weeding anyone out to make room for fresh, relevant voices, it will be a good guess that the hard decisions necessary to greatly improve the paper are not being made.

Watching the lesser bylines could also yield similar clues to the future. The Chronicle has two restaurant reviewers, and the Examiner one. Together, both papers have more than enough City Hall reporters. There is no need for three restaurant reviewers, or a platoon of municipal reporters. Are choices made, and the superfluous reviewers and reporters reassigned? Or does everyone keep doing what he has been doing?

And, of course, just watching the front page of the Chronicle will be telling. If giant headlines continue to announce tiny crimes and a silly feature is still prominently displayed almost every day, it could be argued that demographics and focus groups are driving the editorial process, and the merger of the two papers has resulted in something less than the sum of its parts.

But if the current Chronicle's lengthy issues packages and the Examiner's governmental corruption investigations seem to combine into a single, elegant form that appears on Page 1 with increasing regularity, and if important international reporting increasingly shows up on the front page under a Chronicle staff writer byline, and if it suddenly takes a second cup of coffee to make it through the morning paper, it could just mean that Hearst has entered a new historical era, that synergy has begun to happen at the corner of Fifth and Mission streets, and that the San Francisco Chronicle will never force a great city to drink swill again.

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