Chron 2.0

If there is one consistent thing about the Chroniclenowadays, it's inconsistency. Editors there prefer the word "unpredictability." The paper still leads with some stories of enormous import to millions of Bay Area residents, from law to economics to the environment. And every once in a while the paper will wow the public with a big investigative project that took months to complete, illustrating the Chronicle's potential for greatness. "Perhaps," wrote Lori Robertson last fall in American Journalism Review, "Ôunevenness' is the true indicator of a paper trying to find its way, hang on to big ambitions, and do it all with fewer resources."

John Curley, the deputy managing editor in charge of assembling the front page, said that before the redesign, his job was to figure out the four or five most important things that happened the previous day, with one well-told "enterprise" story in the mix. Now, he said, that ratio has flipped.

"It's easy to see how the paper looks different," Curley said. "It's louder, the headlines are bigger, and it's more risk-taking. Two years ago [Bronstein] said, ÔLook, we cannot continue to do what we've been doing.'"

Bronstein said he wants more culture and feature stories. His colleagues say they understand that to mean they should now be shooting for more of a magazine feel than a standard daily newspaper. Ideally, that means both more entertaining and more sophisticated. There are more second-day analyses about the previous day's events, with words like "how" in the headline: "How Pelosi propelled Democrats to power."

Bronstein has hired editors who, he said, understood the "concept of culture." That means writing the "back story" about, for example, politicians' psychological motivations — why is Gavin Newsom talking about quitting politics? Is he jealous of the social lives of his friends in their 30s?

It also, in Bronstein's view, means wooing the area's top celebrities to write for the paper. He's convinced Sean Penn, Francis Ford Coppola, and Robin Williams to contribute. He's still working on others, such as Steve Jobs, Alice Waters, and George Lucas.

And the paper has launched a series of new sections that range from the thought-provoking such as Insight, an opinion section that most Sundays lives up to its name, to the materialistic, like this fall's newest, the glossy, bimonthly fashion supplement SFiS, dominated by luxury-goods advertisers such as Hermès and Louis Vuitton. The supplement, distributed in the paper only to the wealthiest ZIP codes, led with the headline "Winter wonders: Ski wear that wows." The insert, similar to one pioneered at the Houston Chronicle, called Gloss, made that Hearst-owned paper a lot of money.

While feature sections have fared particularly well, the paper as a whole has cut back. For instance, the Food section has expanded to 17 people from no more than 10 before the merger, and added a first-of-its-kind weekly Wine section. The department got so unwieldy that it had to move into its own building next door with a brand-new test kitchen, rooftop garden, and barbecue.

But Bronstein said none of these developments has distracted the Chronicle from its core purpose: "The role of the newspaper is very similar to what it's always been: to synthesize information, to provide context, to provide background, to look at things in depth," he said. "I think a newspaper exists to get involved in its community in one way or another. To help people maneuver their lives, navigate their lives every day. I think it has a definite watchdog role. I think there's a definite entertainment quality."

Bronstein stressed that editing a newspaper is "still more of an art than a science." Other editors there say they are searching for the right "alchemy." But they also expressed concern that adding in too much celebrity and entertainment might hold the paper back from being one of the best.

Bronstein once boasted in a radio interview that he wanted to slough off "the backwater of journalism reputation" that had adhered to his predecessors at the Chronicle, such as Scott Newhall, who tried so hard to make the paper fun that he once ran a front-page expose of bad coffee: "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill."

In an interview, Bronstein said he was tired of profile writers focusing on his personality, and suspected a hit piece from SF Weekly. Asked first about his political inclinations (he's registered as independent), and later about the paper's retreat from the suburbs (it wasn't a retreat, he said), he halted the conversation. Assured a fair hearing, he resumed enthusiastically when asked to discuss his own passion, investigative reporting, most prominently the investigation of performance-enhancing drugs used by professional athletes, a story that may send reporters Lance Williams and Mark Fainaru-Wada to prison for refusing to reveal an anonymous source. The Chronicle's biggest campaign of the year has earned praise from journalism organizations and won prizes for its reporters, despite questions about whether one big leak from grand jury testimony raises the story to the status of big-time investigation.

The steroid story has consumed endless hours of Bronstein's time as he works with Hearst's team of lawyers to defend his reporters.

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