Chron 2.0

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,, 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 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.

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.

"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.

In the Bay Area, the disintegration of the Knight Ridder newspaper company this year led to unprecedented consolidation of ownership in the hands of Dean Singleton, who controls more than two dozen Northern California newspapers, including the San Jose Mercury News, the Oakland Tribune, and the Contra Costa Times. Singleton is now in the process of laying off redundant workers, merging the content of the papers, and demanding pay cuts from the union.

In perhaps the most unsentimental move of all, earlier this month his Denver-based Media News Group announced that the Oakland Tribune would leave the landmark downtown Tribune Tower for the Airport Corporate Centre near the Oakland Coliseum.

How did this massive decline happen? Advertising revenue has been headed south for years, and every major newspaper in the country, except for New York's tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, have hemorrhaged circulation. Add in the vicissitudes of Wall Street speculators and professional consolidators such as Singleton, and you have a recipe for industry chaos.

The extraordinary thing about the Chronicle is that even though the paper is losing money, the belt-tightening seems less harsh there than at other papers. In negotiations with the union last year, Hearst said it was losing $62 million a year on the paper. That gave management the leverage to demand buyouts of 120 staffers, most of them from the newsroom. Editors of various departments disagree about which one suffered most from the cuts.

Last week, in an ongoing antitrust court case that accuses Hearst and MediaNews of conspiring to combine the business operations of nearly all Bay Area newspapers, Hearst lawyer Daniel Wall said the Internet and new media were bigger competitive threats than other newspapers. He said the Chronicle was still losing $1 million a week.

By last March, the Chronicle's weekday circulation had fallen 24 percent, to 398,000, from the same time in 2001. Sunday circulation had fallen 16 percent, to 452,000. Between March and September, weekday circulation again fell, by more than 5 percent, to 374,000, which national media reports indicated was among the biggest losses in the nation.

But, pointed out Chris Blaser, vice president of circulation, all other large Bay Area daily papers fell faster than the Chronicle. The Oakland Tribune's weekday circulation fell 21 percent just in the last year.

Chronicle Publisher Frank Vega said he would consider it a triumph if print circulation were to stay even through next fall. "I think I'd be foolish to tell you that there would be a surge in print customers, among people who haven't done it in years."

That's one reason the Chronicle is the first major metro daily to decide to get out of the printing business altogether. The paper owns three printing plants, none with presses younger than 40 years old. Within three years, the company plans to shutter them. Two weeks ago Hearst signed a 15-year contract worth more than $1 billion with Transcontinental Inc., which plans to build state-of-the-art presses in the Bay Area. The outsourced printing will allow better reproduction of news graphics and more full-color advertising.

It's all of a piece with Hearst's gambit to shift from publishing to information. If the paper bought its own new presses, it would have to run them for decades, and possibly during the day for other clients.

"We're not doing well financially, so we didn't want to invest a lot of capital," Vega said. "We're not in the commercial printing business, nor do I want to get into that business. I don't want to have to worry about that stuff."

Some awful nautical metaphors have been circling, like sharks, around newspapers for years now. In 1999, the weekly Philadelphia City Paper ran a cover story about the Philadelphia Inquirer titled "Sinking Ship," which laid out a case for how and why the paper was adrift under its captain, Editor Robert Rosenthal. At the time, the story pointed out, the Inquirer was losing circulation faster than any major paper in the country. What it neglected to say was that Philadelphia also happened to be losing population faster than most major cities.

Two years later, Rosenthal quit, citing irreconcilable differences with his bosses at Knight Ridder over staffing cuts. A year after that, Bronstein threw him a life preserver and hired him on as managing editor of the Chronicle.

Like the Inquirer, the Chronicle, which just before the merger had made a great push to expand suburban coverage and bulk up zoned local editions, now has to concentrate on being more of a regional paper. The elimination of the enormously expensive local zones in outlying counties compressed all that news into the Bay Area section.

Bronstein said that in retrospect the local news strategy was "wishful thinking."

Both men soon realized that the biggest and most cost-effective opportunity for growth was not suburbs, but cyberspace. Sure, Rosenthal said, news will always be in the paper. But the paper can't be just about news anymore because readers with computers now see it as stale by morning.

When Rosenthal, whom his colleagues call Rosey, arrived in San Francisco he gave an informal talk to a gathering of the Society of Professional Journalists in which he laid out his vision for the paper. The story, he said, was everything. He was the editor who shepherded "Blackhawk Down," the 1997 tale in the Inquirer about a dramatic botched rescue of Army rangers from Somalia that eventually became a book and a major motion picture. The point was that what he prized above all were well-told tales. Good writing.

Though Bronstein is opposed to the idea of foreign bureaus because he thinks they're not effective, the paper has sent several reporters overseas to do projects. Rosenthal in particular was pleased with the three-part "Diary of a Sex Slave," which ran last month. It was a classic Chronicle "campaign" that made waves. Writer Meredith May traveled to South Korea, Los Angeles, and the Mexican border with a photographer. She then recorded a Podcast with Gavin Newsom about what he'd like to see done about sex trafficking.

"We took a big chance on that," Rosenthal said. He was right. It immediately fueled controversy. The tale of a Korean woman's experiences being tricked into prostitution was labeled by a coalition of more than two dozen Asian-American organizations "misleading," "sexploitative," and "pornographic" in a Chronicle op-ed.

The paper's Web site recorded scores of comments. One thanked the writer for doing "such a fantastic job of enlightening the public to this pervasive and insidious crime." Another excoriated the paper for "the two-inch, above-the-fold headline that SCREAMED Ôsensationalism' and Ôappealing to prurient interests.'"

Insiders say Bronstein's news judgment is the more adventuresome; Rosenthal is seen as somewhat more of a button-down, proper East Coast journalist.

"Phil is a very nontraditional guy in terms of what he wants in the paper," said Curley, the front-page editor. "Rosey is much more traditional. There is a battle — I don't want to say they're at each other's throats — every day."

Rosenthal, though, said he was glad to have the freedom to experiment with the Chronicle in ways he wouldn't have dared in the more conservative Philadelphia. He has taken a shine to the Bay Area. In a half-hour interview he used the word "unique" eight times to describe the region's quirky culture.

Rosenthal also began to realize the power of SFGate, one of the earliest experiments in online news, founded in 1993. His reading habits have changed completely since he arrived at the Chronicle. He glances at the paper and then hops on the Gate for 15 minutes after breakfast. These days, he said, it would be "arrogant" to think the paper was the first place people were reading the news. He said the Chronicle is in an "absolutely transitional period between being a newspaper and multimedia company.

"I think the challenge for the whole industry, not just us, is to hold onto the content people, the newsrooms, so that they're not decimated while the business model changes," he said. "If next year it's 10 percent down [in readership] and 25 or 30 percent up on the Internet, and our readership is bigger than it was five years ago when you combine all the numbers, is that going to be bad? I don't know. It's very different."

But the newer business model is still unproven. Newspaper industry analyst John Morton said that while Internet advertising revenue is now 5 to 6 percent of a newspaper's income, and has been growing by 20 percent to 30 percent per year, it will be at least five to 10 years before it catches up with print revenue, which still pays for almost everything.

"There's no magic bullet that suddenly provides a business model for 425 journalists," said the Gate's editor, Vlae Kershner. "All we can do is try to increase the revenue and the audience for the Web site."

The good news for the Chronicle is that people are coming to the Web site. SFGate typically ranks fourth or fifth in the nation for a daily newspaper Web site. The site continues to make money, even though it is rare among newspapers to give away their archives for free online. The once dim but now growing prospect that the Internet will somehow be the newspaper's economic and journalistic salvation is a given at the Chronicle. Now, perhaps, a new nautical image is in order: The Web site is the ark that will preserve the paper's creative talents during the oncoming storm and flood. Since the business model of local news on the Web is untested, one's not quite sure whether the ark will be seaworthy in time.

"I think the flood is here," Rosenthal said.

The growth of viewers on SFGate has been encouraging. Kershner said some stories are now getting close to a million hits a day, usually when they are linked by Matt Drudge.

The site has 48 staffers, producing video on demand and a slew of Podcasts on everything from Filipino history to sports betting.

There are 23 blogs and counting. Some, like the Tech Blog and Mark Morford's snarky column, are now "back published" into the paper. Marcus Chan is the paper's first full-time multimedia editor, and is continually coaxing reporters to turn their stories into online presentations. One such Web feature was a Podcast interview with Barack Obama when he pulled into town in October.

The biggest change in routines, though, is the invention of the Continuous News Desk, run by Suzanne Herel. Breaking stories go directly to the Web within minutes, if possible. Reporters are being retrained to get 200 to 300 words up on the Gate as soon as they can, and revisit the story later for print.

In many ways, this development has returned the lifeblood to newspapering.

"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 (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 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."

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