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"I see him several times a week, and he's involved in a way that some of the best editors I've ever met have been involved," Williams said.
But for Bronstein, big projects are not enough. To succeed, the Chronicle must also capture a sense of the Bay Area's uniqueness, attitude, and wit. In particular, he has been trying to re-bottle the elusive allure of Herb Caen, the legendary columnist. How did Caen create his tableaux of San Francisco figures such as Willie Brown and Wilkes Bashford, almost as a fiction writer would? "All these people, he made them larger than life," Bronstein said. "People read his column and they felt like, ÔI want to be a part of that. I am a part of that. At least I want to read about it. It's interesting.' So my interest has always been, how do you make the paper in the absence of Herb Caen, who's never going to come back how do you make the paper achieve that in a variety of ways in a variety of sections?"
He held up a panel of Don Asmussen's "Bad Reporter" comic strip, which routinely skewers the Chronicle's news judgment and occasionally parodies its editor. Bronstein said Asmussen does for the paper what Caen did for seven decades.
"I think this is as much a measure of quality as a front-page story from Iraq or Afghanistan, or an investigative piece from Mark and Lance," Bronstein said. "So the issue is really the definition of quality. I think we lose it completely if the definition is sort of this rigid, hide-bound, somewhat sanctimonious view that we have to be the New York Timesof the West."
Because the Chronicle buys ink by the barrel, and because in terms of daily newspapers there's really no other game in town (the twice-sold, independent free tabloid that ended up with the Examiner's name has not many more journalists than the Chronicle's food section), journalists in and around San Francisco were reluctant to go on the record with their true feelings about the Chronicle. Many have ongoing relationships with the paper, its editors, and its reporters, or hope to write, edit, or consult for it one day. Other journalists we talked with said they didn't want to be seen as kicking the paper when it was down.
However, the moment they were assured their names would not be used, several shared their views liberally. It speaks, as one put it, of the "deep yearning for people to have a good paper."
One former senior Chronicle news executive: "I find the Chronicleinsipid and boring. It's an embarrassment. When I was at the Chronicle, it was legendary for pushing people out of their comfort zones. Now, the Chroniclefront page doesn't have anything on it that's surprising, shocking, interesting. Everybody from the publisher to the reporters to the pressmen is running scared. When your brain is flooded with cortisol because you're in a fight-or-flight reaction, you can't think."
Another prominent Bay Area journalist: "I find it an irritatingly frustrating paper, in that it seems to lack the leadership to coalesce. There is some catalytic agent that's missing to galvanize it into something that's interesting, new, and make its employees feel dignified. That in an incredibly sophisticated and cosmopolitan city like San Francisco, both employees and readers find themselves in the position of apologizing for the paper, even to the point of not admitting they write for it, there's something wrong." About last Wednesday's pre-Thanksgiving front page, that journalist remarked: "Who the hell wants to have a front-page lead story about turkeys, for Chrissake? That's demeaning, embarrassing, and undermining to the people who put it out. I don't think they gain that many down-market subscribers by doing that. Why waste half a front page on that?"
Similar critical comments off the record came from three leading print journalists, a broadcast journalist, and a high-placed San Francisco political consultant.
Those who felt comfortable being identified sounded both sympathetic and obliquely critical.
"What I've noticed, and I've noticed it in all kinds of publications, is more shorter articles, fewer in-depth articles, and less coverage of City Hall," said Jim Chappell, president of the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association. "In order to be intelligent citizens, we need to know what's going on, we need to have fair, honest, and unbiased reporting, and that's happening less and less."
"I doubt anyone could pull off the Houdini trick that the Chronicle would have to pull off to push against the tide of history," said David Weir, a veteran San Francisco journalist who, along with Bronstein, serves on the board of the Center for Investigative Reporting. "Old people read newspapers, young people don't. That's the wrong demographic. The writing's on the newspaper walls."
Of course, most newspapers are in financial trouble these days. Earlier this month, Tribune Co., which publishes 16 papers, pushed out the publisher and the editor of the Los Angeles Times for refusing to further cut newsroom staff. The Washington Post announced a historic "reorganization" in which personnel would be redeployed, jobs would go unfilled, and stories would shrink.