A Chance for Respect?

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

HOLLYWOOD DIDN'T HAVE TO VEER MUCH from the truth to make a cinematic hit out of the Woodward and Bernstein book All the President's Men. The real-life version of the Watergate scandal, with its clandestine meetings, death threats, and mystery source (the still-unidentified "Deep Throat"), had plenty of intrigue. Even the added comic relief came easy.

Cut to Ben Bradlee, the storied editor of the Washington Post, equally gruff and urbane, played by silver-haired Jason Robards in an Oscar-winning performance. An irritating salesman of syndicated features is hunched over the editor's desk, and Bradlee wants to get rid of him because Woodward and Bernstein -- his soon-to-be Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters -- are on their way in to discuss more weighty matters.

"Ben, it's the hottest item," the pitchman says, worked up to a frenzy.

Anthony Pidgeon
Former Examiner Assistant Managing Editor David Cole.
Bobby Castro
Former Examiner Assistant Managing Editor David Cole.
Anthony Pidgeon
Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's graduate journalism school.
Orville Schell, dean of UC Berkeley's graduate journalism school.
Examiner Editor Phil Bronstein, with wife  Sharon Stone.
Examiner Editor Phil Bronstein, with wife Sharon Stone.
Carl Hall, Chronicle reporter and union rep.
Anthony Pidgeon
Carl Hall, Chronicle reporter and union rep.

"What is it?" Bradlee asks with an incredulous smirk.

"Yesterday's weather report for people who were drunk and slept all day ...."

"Jesus!" the editor bellows, laughing heartily as he shoos the salesman out of his office. "Send it out to the San Francisco Chronicle -- they need it."

They don't anymore.

The San Francisco Chronicle has been mocked for decades by journalists, especially top-tier reporters and editors on the East Coast, who say the paper didn't take the news (or itself, for that matter) seriously. Like the city it served, they say, the morning Chronicle was soft, a little eccentric, even lazy, more interested in exposing bad coffee than corrupt politicians. The paper's editors exercised news judgment that was less than reliable, opting to run wire copy on important stories Chronicle staffers could have reported, while filling the front page with silly, staff-written features. Until he died two years ago, celebrated columnist Herb Caen was generally considered to be carrying the Chronicle on his epigrammatic back.

Then there was the San Francisco Examiner, a smaller, but tougher and scrappier, afternoon paper that relished its role in covering "The City," which it always referred to in capital letters. The Examiner focused on the nuts and bolts of local news, and was genuinely interested in the dogged pursuit of a City Hall investigation. But no one -- or almost no one -- read the Examiner. In a region home to more than 6 million, not many over 100,000 people read it. The afternoon paper had been dying for a long time in America, having lost its relevance, and the Examiner was no exception to the rule.

Now, the Examiner'sowner, the Hearst Corp., has struck an agreement to purchase the still-successful Chronicle for a reported $660 million. To satisfy the U.S. Justice Department's antitrust division, Hearst put its Examiner up for sale. But given the unlikelihood anyone would buy a failing afternoon paper, Hearst hopes to essentially merge the Examiner with the nearly 500,000-circulation Chronicle, creating one giant morning daily.

The notion of a one-daily-newspaper town has some San Franciscans and left-leaning news outlets and politicos up in arms, bemoaning the loss of an editorial voice and crying, "Monopoly!" Even Mayor Willie Brown jumped into the anti-merger act, writing a letter to Attorney General Janet Reno that urged the Justice Department not to rush approval of the deal and to "explore every option to save our major newspapers ... [and] preserve the healthy competitive newspaper environment of our city."

Actually, though, the Chronicle and Examiner have been almost the same paper for nearly 35 years, running under a Joint Operating Agreement and sharing the same building, printing presses, advertising staff -- and profits or losses -- since 1965. The papers do have separate editorial staffs, but how much difference in editorial voice the general reader noticed is certainly open to question. Many readers thought of the two papers as one and the same, largely relying on outdated reputations to define them.

In reality, the Chronicle today is nowhere near as bad a paper as it was when Jason Robards suggested it might want to publish yesterday's weather reports. And the Examiner of late has certainly not lived up to its motto -- "Monarch of the Dailies" -- turning to an almost tabloidish front-page approach that uses screaming and often sensational headlines to boost the chance a passer-by might be compelled to buy a paper from a street corner news box in the middle of the day.

For a long time now, the journalism marketplace of San Francisco hasn't been a simple, two-way, Chronicle vs. Examiner competition. In modern times, the real business threat to the San Francisco JOA -- the real fight for ad revenue and readership -- has come from national newspaper chains such as Knight-Ridder, which has ringed San Francisco from Silicon Valley to the East Bay with newspapers that serve the highest-growth segments of the region. The news audience in the Bay Area has been increasingly gobbled up by Knight-Ridder's San Jose Mercury News and Contra Costa Times, along with other suburban papers, including the New York Times-owned Santa Rosa Press-Democrat and Gannett Co.'s Marin Independent Journal, not to mention a variety of neighborhood and regional weeklies. For the affluent, highly literate -- and coveted -- computer-money demographic that lives in and around "The City," home delivery of the New York Times is now available to anyone who wants a comprehensive national newspaper. And, of course, there's the World Wide Web, almost indigenous to this area, where anyone in Baghdad by the Bay can instantly read the latest exposé from Woodward himself at washingtonpost.com.

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.

"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.

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.

"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."

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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