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"If you've been in the business 10 years, it's all strange and unusual," said Jim Brewer, the paper's political editor. "But if you've been in the business 30 years or longer, it's back to the way it was. You can't get information into the paper fast enough. There used to be extra editions with barkers on the street with the latest information. Now it's back, and it's back in spades. For guys like me, it's kind of exciting. It's a return to basic training."
Rosenthal, too, revels in the power of the Web. One recent weekend he was able to squeeze into the paper only a few photographs of a ski jump they'd set up at AT&T Park. But they uploaded a whole photo essay to SFGate and got 140,000 page views by the time office workers returned the next week and logged on from the office, pretending to do work.
"At some point this is all going to translate into revenue," Rosenthal said. "All these eyeballs coming to Web sites. It's unique content. That's not high-level journalism, but you can get cranked up and excited.
"Can it win a Pulitzer Prize? No. But it shows you there are still things we can do that are a lot of fun," he said.
In a way, the Web has made news judgment more of a science than an art. Kershner sends out regular reports to the Chronicle staff telling them which stories got the most page hits. Kershner himself, as a journalist, said he sometimes feels conflicted about the implications of those lists. Celebrities usually top the list of search terms, he wrote in an essay for GradeTheNews.org (a Web site I co-edit), followed by sex, local crime, weather, and pro sports. He jokes that the perfect headline for SFGate would be "Couple arrested for having sex in rain at 49ers game."
But the Chronicle is forging ahead. It recently started rehiring in the newsroom, and each of the new staffers was asked to explain how blogging, Podcasting, and video would be a part of his or her routine, said Narda Zacchino, the paper's deputy managing editor, who came from the Los Angeles Times in 2001.
"I think we think of ourselves not just as a newspaper anymore, but as a multimedia provider, not just in print but on the Web," Zacchino said. "I think that we've had a fairly seamless transition compared with a lot of other newspapers, and it has a lot to do with Phil's vision."
In retrospect, it was only natural that Bronstein would find himself at the top of the editorial hierarchy at the Chronicle at this difficult time. His is a forceful, tenacious personality that one wouldn't expect to wilt under pressure. Yet the more he gives interviews debunking the "myth" that he is a macho, celebrity, hard-ass editor, a cross between J. Jonah Jameson and Indiana Jones, the more the tabloids follow him around either to prove or disprove the thesis by debating his taste in cowboy boots, his Hollywood ex-wife, or his close encounters with flesh-eating reptiles.
He also entered the merger with the Chronicle from the right side of the equation: He had already worked for the Chronicle's new bosses. Bronstein was especially close with William Randolph Hearst III, one-time editor and publisher of the Examiner and a grandson of the company's founder. The San FranciscoÐbased venture capitalist, whose net worth Forbes estimates at $2.1 billion (making him richer than Ted Turner), is also on the board of the Hearst Corp. His cousin, George, is chairman of the board.
Hearst was an early proponent of an Internet strategy. When many newspapers were looking at starting dial-in bulletin boards, he'd already launched Examiner.com. Now he's investing on the cutting edge of technology. In conversations over the years, Hearst and Bronstein discussed how the future of journalism was online.
In 36 years, Bronstein has risen to the very pinnacle of the region's news hierarchy with a combination of talent, charm, pluck, and luck. The college dropout who drifted West with dreams of freelancing articles about toilets as the creative centers of homes now finds himself running the biggest newspaper in Northern California, one that is trying to show the way onto the Web for others to follow. He could also go down in history as the captain who sank the Chronicle ship.
New high-tech habits augur poorly for any newspaper. Several editors at the Chronicle lamented that their grown children never read the newspaper. Tom Leonard, the librarian of UC Berkeley and an accomplished journalism historian, sheepishly admitted that he couldn't reliably critique the Chronicle's redesigned front page because he now reads its content mostly on SFGate, where he can get it free.
The question now seems to be whether any strategy for getting people to pick up a daily newspaper, be it sober or outrageous, will work. Many reporters inside the Chronicle assume the newspaper industry is, in the long run, doomed.
"It's very scary for those of us who can't do anything else," said reporter Stacy Finz. "I just need it to sustain me for 20 more years."