By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
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In late November 2000, Phil Bronstein, the foreign correspondent who had risen to become editor of the scrappy San Francisco Examiner, was darting around town for interviews, giving a full-throated endorsement of the Hearst Corp.'s takeover of the much larger Chronicle. Many city residents expressed hope that the $660 million deal, in which the city's two dailies were set to merge, would finally deliver to San Francisco the high-quality newspaper it deserved.
For 35 years, the papers had been locked lamely in a joint operating agreement, sharing business operations on Fifth and Mission streets in buildings literally joined at the hip. Bronstein prophesized that the new Chronicle, benefiting from the combined staffs and liberated from the crippling quasi-competitive arrangement, was poised to become "world-class" and "a great newspaper."
Six years on, while the Chronicle has been stuffed with a cornucopia of weekly feature sections, few have dared argue that the paper has achieved journalistic parity with the nation's top newspapers. It has cut back on its ambitious suburban coverage strategy, shrunk its news hole, reduced its newsroom by scores of reporters and editors, and seen its circulation to borrow from a well-worn Chronicle headline term plunge.
"All of us are very eager to see San Francisco have a truly great paper," said Orville Schell, dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. "And we know that this is the worst of all possible times for any paper to really spread its wings because of economic realities. But even within that confinement, there is probably much that the Chronicle could do to win the hearts and minds of the people and distinguish itself as a truly innovative and interesting paper."
The paper's dire financial prospects certainly don't help fuel optimism. The Internet boom the very force that had momentarily overflowed the Chronicle's advertising coffers a few years ago and filled its editor's head with visions of a journalistic golden age now threatens to drown it.
Free news on the Web, including from the newspaper's own Web site, SFGate.com, has started eating into its newspaper subscriptions. The trend is only accelerating the newspaper's declining market share.
Recently, though, editors have begun to think that the Web could be a lifeboat for their creative talent until the seas calm. They are gambling that somehow they can morph the Chronicle from a publishing company into an information company. Yet while the popularity of their own Web sites is growing fast, it could be a decade or more before the sites pay the bills for quality journalism if they ever do.
So Bronstein, who at the turn of the millennium was arguably the most influential media figure in San Francisco, now has pretenders to that throne: Craig Newmark of Craigslist, Markos Moulitsas of the Daily Kos political blog, and the social networking geniuses at Web sites like Digg, Flickr, Upcoming, and Yelp, not to mention South Bay Web behemoths Google and Yahoo, or Dean Singleton and his suburban newspaper archipelago. At the old Examiner, Bronstein reveled in the role of underdog David to the Chronicle's Goliath. Now Bronstein controls the lumbering old-media giant, and a thousand Davids lie in wait with slingshots.
The soul-searching at the Chronicle caused by this competitive landscape has led to a journalistic transformation of the paper. It is no longer where editors think first to put breaking news that role is consigned to SFGate.com. But if computers, 24-hour cable TV channels, and Web-enabled phones render most news old by the time the paper is printed, who will need the Chronicle and its reporters? Bronstein is working on a new formula that could be copied by others seeking survival, and print journalism may have to take a back seat.
Early on, Bronstein gave his blessing to the Gate's adventures in Podcasting, video blogging, and citizen journalism. But he also set about refocusing the paper version of the Chronicle.
The front page has been in a process of redesign pretty much continuously since the merger with the Examiner. The most recent version came after a series of conversations in upper management about how to maximize the paper's distinctiveness. The editors reduced the number of front-page stories to make room for bigger graphics and bolder headlines that are occasionally printed in red and often in all capital letters more than an inch high. The layout makes each day's Page One look like it came from a different city, or a different decade. But it also sometimes has the effect of burying stories with large impact. The day that President Bush signed the law exempting the military from the need to grant habeas corpus protections to detainees, for instance, the Chronicle played it on Page 3.
The headlines' vocabulary, too, has shifted to the dramatic, now informing readers of "stunning" developments. One New York Times story that appeared in the Chronicle in March was rewritten to include the verb "shock" instead of "surprise."
In some important ways, the Chronicle's front page seems a replay of the tactics used by the old Examiner to move copies into people's hands on their evening commutes. In 1999, SF Weekly remarked upon the difference between the two dailies by pointing out a "screaming" Examiner headline, "Death plunge at thrill ride," and the Chronicle's more staid "Fall From Ride Kills Boy at Great America." In late October of this year, the Chronicle seemed to echo its dramatic Examiner roots: "Probe of death plunge rooftop rescue failed." An SFGate search of headlines from the Chronicleand the old Examiner going as far back as 1997 shows that the Examinerused the phrase "death plunge" in headlines five times before the merger, compared with once for the Chronicle. After the merger, the Chronicleused "death plunge" six times in headlines twice last month.