The Joint Operating Agreement deprives the Chronicle of the resources it needs to produce a great newspaper; it also prevents the afternoon Examiner from connecting with the readers it needs to survive. Since the JOA makes it inevitable that only one will survive after 2005, why not fold them into one great San Francisco newspaper today?
All the elements were aligned for a chummy good time — a free lunch of fried chicken and cornbread, yes-host bar, Albert King cakewalking from the sound system and friendly autumn rays stroking Johnny Love's worn wood floor.
It was a press feed to limn the lineup at last September's San Francisco Blues Festival, and the air would have been sweet indeed but for the nasties flying between representatives of San Francisco's two daily newspapers.
In one corner, wearing a black leather jacket, French-commie round steel specs and a navy-blue beret: Michael Snyder, the Chronicle modern-rock critic. In the opposing corner, wearing a Wilshire Boulevard nightmare tie, essentially the same specs and a natty baggy suit: Paul Wilner, editor of the Examiner Sunday Magazine.
“Paul Wilner is so hip,” sneered Snyder, referring to some supposedly young-and-with-it articles that had lately appeared in the magazine. “The Examiner thinks the hippest women in San Francisco are Shann Nix and Julian Guthrie.”
“Fuck you,” Wilner explained, rising explosively from his watermelon slices. He reached across the table and flicked Snyder's beret off his head onto the floor. “This is hip? This beret? Poser! Who the fuck is the Chronicle to tell me about hip?”
As Snyder flinched in dazed wonder, Wilner chested toward him, knocking over a few of Johnny Love's spindly black chairs.
“Want to do something about it, Mr. Chronicle asshole? Want to do something about your fucking beret?”
Much as your average free luncher relishes a fight, the prospect of a Wilner/Snyder eight-eyes bout during the watermelon course was not appealing. Fortunately, Examiner movie critic Barbara Shulgasser separated the pair and soothed Wilner — “Paul, I think you're overreacting.”
Wilner shrugged his jacket back into place, rolled his neck a few times and stalked toward the door. Before plunging into the midday light, he turned toward Snyder.
“Asshole!” he yelled at the astonished boho. “Chronicle asshole!”
As the story spread through Examiner offices, the shy Wilner had to slow his usual crab-scuttle transits of the newsroom to accept colleagues' high-fives.
Wilner collected his coworkers' kudos that day not because fighting is the Examiner's official policy — though one might think it so from the leadership-by-example of the newspaper's two-fisted top editor. (See “Will and Phil” sidebar.)
Wilner had flipped Snyder's beret, and Snyder Wilner's ego, because the Chronicle and the Examiner — institutions most readers believe are owned by the same company — hate each other.
The Chronicle, circulation 550,000, hates the Examiner for taking half its money.
The Examiner, circulation 100,000, hates the Chronicle for taking nearly all its readers.
What is now a bitter rivalry sometimes bordering on fisticuffs will shortly be little more than a historical footnote. Soon or sooner, San Francisco is going to be a one-newspaper town, and the one newspaper is going to be called the Chronicle. What will be in it and who will staff it remain open questions.
The Joint Operating Agreement, the lawyers' Sloth Potion No. 9 that 30 years ago drugged San Francisco's once-exuberant newspaper world into groggy suspended animation, expires in 2005, the year before Herb Caen turns 90.
At that point a decade hence, when the JOA no longer requires the two papers to split their combined gross revenues 50-50, the muscular morning Chronicle will be free to step clear of the shriveled afternoon Examiner it has been propping up since the 1970s, and the Examiner will expire.
That's the longest prognosis for the 108-year-old Examiner: 10 years to live. The shortest prognosis is issued fresh daily as waves of dark portent and rumor sweep the Examiner's newsroom, especially after last Sunday's desperate announcement of a cut in the street price to 25 cents. As one veteran reporter said last week, “The chill hand of death is upon the place.”
Other than the private pain of lost livelihoods, the demise of the Examiner will not be a public tragedy. Although on many days the Examiner's staff — 210 newsroom workers versus the Chronicle's 340 — puts out the best newspaper in San Francisco, few see it. With a daily circulation that sometimes drops below 100,000 in a market of 2.3 million households and 4.9 million people, the Examiner is already little more than a rumor.
At most, the Examiner — good writing, great photos, feisty attitude and all — has a decade to live. Meanwhile, the strictures of the JOA make it impossible for either party to produce the great newspaper Northern California readers deserve.
The Examiner can't do it because the JOA shackles the Examiner to afternoon publication, the newspaper burial ground.
The Chronicle can't do it because the JOA diverts half its income to the Examiner.
It's an American axiom that competition is good, but San Francisco hasn't seen real newspaper competition since 1965. What goes on between the Examiner and the Chronicle isn't competition, it's sibling rivalry over the same dessert, with one of each sibling's hands tied behind his back. After all the rocking and reeling, combined circulation of the two newspapers hasn't changed significantly in 30 years.
If there were real daily newspaper competition in San Francisco as there is in, say, New York or Chicago, the two papers would constantly be at war with one another, gleefully pointing out each other's gaffes, pitting star columnists against each other, poking holes in one another's “exclusives,” deliberately drawing distinctions between themselves.
In a town with real newspaper competition, last Friday's Examiner would have derisively shredded last Thursday's Chronicle, which published a full-page house ad announcing “best of the Chronicle” awards the Chronicle bestowed on itself since it has won so few major awards from outside sources. [page]
Then the Chronicle would have shot back that yes, the Examiner may have won a 1994 California Newspaper Publishers Association award as best newspaper, but it won in the toy-size division for papers with boutique circulation while the Los Angeles Times won for best newspaper with real circulation.
The Examiner and the Chronicle are different to people who know and love them — the way siblings look different to their parents — but if there were real newspaper competition in San Francisco, the two dailies wouldn't resemble one another so much, right down to both using a near-identical Old English typeface on their nameplates. Readers in Manhattan, for example, can make a snap visual distinction between the New York Times and the Daily News.
The Examiner and the Chronicle can't really compete because, despite their staff's willingness to duke it out, the papers as corporate entities are business partners. Prior to the Examiner's price cut, if you were to stop reading one to read the other, you'd just be putting your 50 cents in the JOA's other pocket.
Only a sadist — no disrespect intended to the sadomasochistic community — wants the current spectacle to continue: two enfeebled newspapers, chained together at their skimpy wallet, slapping weakly at each other as they limp side by side into the dirty-fingered dusk of the 20th century.
On behalf of everyone who'd like to see their hometown newspaper be as great as Northern California itself, let me say it's time to put away useless emotions and outmoded axioms.
Let's not wait until 2005, fearing that San Francisco will eventually become a one-newspaper town. Let's embrace the possibility, smash the hobbling leg irons of the JOA and turn our faces from the dark setting of the old century to the bright dawn of the new. Right now.
A little-noted loose end dangling from the ragged sleeve of last November's strike settlement could make it easier for management, should it wish, to carve one supernewspaper from the carcasses of both.
Going into the strike, unions demanded that seniority lists at both papers be merged if one folded. This would have resulted in a supernewspaper staffed by senior geezers. (Nobody wants geezers: On February 7, Examiner management offered a retirement incentive of $25,000 above normal severance to employees with more than 25 years service who hang it up by March 7. One writer with more than 30 years in the company received a letter pegging his lump payment at $78,625, or less than 20 months' wages.)
Though the unions demanded merged seniority lists, the agreement that emerged at strike's end allows management to pick an all-star team irrespective of seniority while giving unwanted employees one-shot severance pay.
This nearly unmentioned negotiated management victory means that, in the long term, management won the strike.
And so, on another level, did Bay Area newspaper readers: The all-star settlement hastens the day when one great daily can emerge from the pulp of today's stumbling pair. (See the “All-Mandel” sidebar.)
This might be a good place for a statement of personal interest: I resigned from the Examiner last October after an 18-year skein, five as the television critic, 13 as a news columnist. I won the usual passel of awards and, according to the Examiner's market surveys, spent most of my career as the readers' favorite columnist.
I mention this to show that I am not a disgruntled, low-level employee whose criticisms management usually brushes off as sour grapes.
Not that my grapes aren't sour. They're vinegar. Though resigning as an Examiner columnist cost me a good salary, connection to bright readers and the sweet opportunity to write regularly about one of the most inspiring cities in the world — not to mention a fine dental plan — I finally quit because the JOA was driving me mad.
I wanted out of the distorted, artificial atmosphere created by the JOA's life-sucking “life support” system. The JOA has deprived the Examiner of the need to earn its own survival: No matter what the Examiner does editorially, good or bad, Chronicle dollars keep it afloat.
Like a nonprofit agency with a guaranteed income and no real-world yardstick to measure success, the Examiner has become less concerned with its original mission — the practice of popular journalism — than with internal court politics. Staffers soon learn that talent is not as important as bussing the correct posteriors, because the Examiner doesn't need anybody. No matter how good a writer, photographer or artist you are, the Examiner can still come in last without you.
By the same token, over the years I passed up the occasional chances I had to join the Chronicle because I was not convinced the institution is a positive force in Northern California.
I'm cleanly qualified to comment on both newspapers: All my bridges are burned.
The Chronicle is owned locally by the de Young-Thieriot family. The Examiner, the first paper in the empire created by William Randolph Hearst, is owned by the New York-based Hearst Corporation.
Under the Joint Operating Agreement that turns 30 this year, the papers split their combined income down the middle. The 550,000-circulation Chronicle and the 100,000-circulation Examiner make the same money.
This is the part the Chronicle hates.
Before the JOA began in 1965, both newspapers enjoyed daily circulations of about 300,000 and were published head to head in the morning. At the time, many successful metropolitan papers were published in the afternoon. Today, almost none are.
The upstart Chronicle had lagged behind Hearst's mighty Examiner for decades, but under Editor Scott Newhall the Chronicle rode a fast-rising crest of popularity fueled by fun, foamy, Frisco-flavored stories. Though today's cafŽ rats think San Francisco just recently discovered coffee-mania, one of Newhall's great successes at the '50s Chronicle was a civic campaign kicked off under the headline, “Great City Forced to Drink Swill.” [page]
Newhall's approach earned the Chronicle readers, but cost it respect. In the 1975 film All the President's Men, when a subordinate suggests a bizarre story to Washington Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee, played by Jason Robards, Bradlee waves it off — “Sell that one to the San Francisco Chronicle.”
The Examiner had its Hearstory, the Chronicle its newfound popularity. As the '60s got underway, the rivals were locked in an old-fashioned newspaper war. The combat was exciting, but good old American business competition, of the sort applauded by editorial writers when someone else does the competing, made both owners nervous: Someone could lose.
In 1965, wily business heads at the papers got around the loser problem by exploiting a business angle developed by two competing newspapers in Tucson: the Joint Operating Agreement. The Arizona newspapers combined their business operations — advertising, circulation, printing and distribution –and split their massed revenue. This move, of course, raised antitrust hackles and spawned bitter litigation that was ultimately rendered moot a few years later when Congress enshrined the JOA concept into the Newspaper Preservation Act.
It was, perhaps, just a coincidence that in “saving” both San Francisco papers the JOA also created an impregnable, no-sweat newspaper monopoly that kept both parties fat, and often lazy, for nearly three decades.
In a move comparable to sinking your entire life savings into Beta VCRs, the Examiner, pleased to be getting 50 percent of the Chronicle's perpetual take, moved to the afternoon. Afternoon papers were invented for factory workers who left the house too early to read a morning paper, were home by 3 and needed something to fill the time before dinner at 5:30. Today, most people start work at 9 and want a newspaper in the morning. Should there be a leisure gap in the afternoon: television.
The Examiner is one of the last metropolitan afternoon papers in the United States. (The Milwaukee Journal, another gasping afternoon dinosaur, gave up the ghost in mid-January.) If it weren't for the JOA, in fact, an afternoon paper couldn't exist in the Bay Area; in addition to altered readership patterns, the density of commuter traffic makes it almost impossible to deliver an afternoon daily. The primary reason advertisers agree to buy space in the Examiner is that it costs little more to advertise in both papers than in the Chronicle alone.
The Examiner has a reader base of older people who want something other than TV in the afternoon; workers in the entertainment and restaurant industries with afternoon slack time; lesbian and gay readers who feel more comfortable with the Examiner's longtime pro-gay rights editorial stance; fans of the paper's many colorful writers; and people who just can't stomach the Chronicle.
In addition, the newspaper is read by politicians, lawyers, developers, political consultants and community activists who need to know what's really going on in San Francisco and don't trust the Chronicle. This may account for the Examiner's relatively robust San Francisco circulation — 59,000 versus the Chronicle's 122,000.
Examiner writers take perverse, compensatory pride in their small but select audience of readers who matter. The motivating fable is that the Examiner is not a failing metropolitan daily but a controlled-circulation insiders' newsletter that often manages to filter its work into the mass media, meaning radio, television — and the Chronicle.
The paper has earned a loyal core readership, but due to the hamstringing effect of afternoon publication the Examiner's total Bay Area circulation sometimes falls embarrassingly below 100,000 on weekdays.
On Sundays, of course, sections edited by the Chronicle and the Examiner are combined and delivered to 708,682 subscribers.
The paper's minuscule non-Sunday shadow is a humiliation Examiner writers struggle to live with. If your work is printed on Sunday, according to San Francisco Newspaper Agency figures, 35 percent of Bay Area adults see it. Printed in a weekday Examiner, the same material is exposed to 3 percent of the audience.
When I was writing six Examiner columns a week, including Sundays, nearly everyone I met who commented on my work said something like, “I read your column every Sunday. What else do you do to make a living?”
The sad truth is that the Examiner is financed by JOA funny money earned by the Chronicle and, despite nearly two decades of fevered editorial thrashing to reverse the inexorable trend, often sees its circulation falling into the pitiful range of a zine.
Meanwhile, 1.3 million daily readers — the great demographic middle — join Chronicle editors in regarding the Chronicle as the Bay Area newspaper, even though the Examiner is in many ways more original, tougher and better written and hardly anybody sees it.
This is the part the Examiner hates.
A de Young-Thieriot family member recently described the current Chronicle/Examiner standoff to me as “watchful waiting on both sides while, because of the JOA, neither side has the income to put out a first-rate paper.”
Financial specifics for the San Francisco newspaper industry have always been hard to come by because the papers and the San Francisco Newspaper Agency, their jointly owned operations wing, keep the numbers secret.
Some insight is available, however, in a San Francisco Newspaper Agency internal “Weekly Flash Report.”
The report covers one week in October 1993, during the depths of California's recession. According to a source within the Agency, advertising revenues are now up, “much more in '94 and climbing higher in '95.”
The “Weekly Flash Report” illustrates exactly why the de Young-Thieriot family is miserable with its end of the Joint Operating Agreement.
During that first week of October 1993, the Agency — on behalf of the Chronicle and the Examiner — took in $5.1 million in advertising and $1.9 million in circulation: $7 million for the week. [page]
During the same period, the Agency incurred total expenses of $5.5 million.
The weekly net, $1.5 million, was divided equally between the two newspapers.
Because the regional economy has improved dramatically since October 1993 without production costs rising appreciably (except the recent run-up in newsprint), the agency source estimates current weekly nets at $2.25 million, or about $58.5 million annually each for the Examiner and the Chronicle.
From that must come salaries for each newspaper's editorial staff –340 people at the Chronicle, 210 at the Examiner. Estimates for the Examiner put its non-payroll editorial budget at about $8 million annually, the Chronicle's at about $12 million.
The simple arithmetic reveals that before depreciation, the Hearst Corp. collects about $20 million a year and the Chronicle Publishing Co. receives just $10 million. But out of these operating cash flows (revenues minus costs plus depreciation), each company must service its debt, pay taxes and make new capital equipment purchases.
Since both companies are privately held and no one involved with the Examiner, Chronicle or the San Francisco Newspaper Agency will reveal the precise figures, we're left to speculate on how much each company is making — or losing. The Examiner is said to be earning a few dollars, but Forbes magazine reported last April that the Chronicle “has barely been able to squeak a nickel” of profit from its revenues. This has not elicited smiles from the approximately 26 not-exactly-kissing cousins of the de Young-Thieriot family who own Chronicle Co. stock. Forbes also reported that the company put its cable TV systems up for sale last year to reduce the staggering debt of $400 million (against total revenues of $500 million) and create “liquidity” — cold cash in the parlance of civilians — for the shareholders.
The Hearst Corp. is reportedly happy with its net take, and why not? The Examiner generates just 15 percent of the business, but gets 50 percent of the income. The Chronicle, for exactly the same reasons, is unhappy.
Both newspapers would love to eliminate the other and find a way to make real profit from those revenues. Though the Chronicle has the beefy morning circulation and the more widely known nameplate, the Examiner has far deeper corporate pockets and, thanks to the exigencies of the JOA, less reason to sell out.
Knowing the de Young-Thieriot cousins who own the Chronicle are cash-hungry, the Hearst Corp. offered $800 million for Chronicle Publishing in 1993. After some debate, the offer was rejected, partly because the $800 million was deemed insufficient and partly because a few of the senior family members, putting principle above capital, aligned with septuagenarian Chronicle Publishing Board Chairman Nan McEvoy's remark that the Hearsts would own the Chronicle “over my dead body.”
A junior de Young-Thieriot cousin recently told me: “That may be what it takes.”
(Hearst's offer to buy the Chronicle did little to soothe Examiner employees' job worries: The last time the company bought a competing, larger, paper — the San Antonio Express — it fired its own staff at the San Antonio Light.)
During the strike that shut both papers for 12 days last November, Chronicle Publishing reportedly offered the Hearst Corp. a slice of Chronicle revenue to fold the Examiner. A similar offer by the morning Miami Herald, which promised to share profits with former JOA partner Miami News for the next 32 years, was sufficient to shut the afternoon News in 1988. It is not known whether the Chronicle offered the Hearst Corp. a limited or perpetual percentage of its revenues to close the Examiner; in any event, the offer was rejected.
There's no grand plan now unfolding in either camp to break the stalemate. Despite many analysts' assumptions, William Randolph Hearst III's January departure as editor and publisher of the Examiner is no automatic harbinger of the paper's demise. He was simply bored with his job.
Even so, spirits at the Examiner were not raised when Lee J. Guittar was named Hearst's replacement: Guittar has presided over the liquidation of three Hearst newspapers, earning the newsroom nickname “Hearst's Dr. Kevorkian.” Essentially a businessman, Guittar insists he's just a transitional leader, but his reassurances don't help Examiner workers get much sleep.
It's lonely being right early. My view that now is the best time to convert San Francisco to a one-newspaper town is shared by few dispensers of Conventional Wisdom.
“The existence of two newspapers in a town keeps everyone on their toes,” says Ben Bagdikian, former dean of UC Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. “With two newspapers, managers never delay stories, they keep on top of developments and they're more open — someone can always sell a good story across the street.”
Not surprisingly, Examiner Executive Editor Phil Bronstein concurs with Bagdikian: “A one-newspaper town would be horrible. Competition makes for better journalists, editors and photographers. There'd be a strong inclination to be complacent. Look how complacent the Chronicle is now and imagine if we weren't here to goad them.”
Replies Chronicle Executive Editor Matt Wilson: “'Goad' us? The Examiner doesn't goad us. The Chronicle stands alone. Certainly from the Examiner's point of view, we are the Great Satan used to motivate their staff. I'd use the Chronicle to motivate my staff if I worked at another local paper. But we don't look at the Examiner as our main competition.
“We're a regional paper competing with local papers that include the Hayward Daily Review, the [Livermore] Tri-Valley Herald and the Oakland Tribune in addition to the Examiner. As for the merits or demerits of a one-newspaper town, more newspapers in general are a good thing, because they provide more information. But I certainly don't buy into the complacency theory. There are a lot of streets for people to cross with their stories if we don't use them.”
Wilson's analysis notwithstanding, it was the Chronicle's complacency, perhaps induced by the lulling security of the JOA, that originally allowed competitors to ring San Francisco with the newspapers that now gnaw Wilson's flanks. Sensing weakness and inattention at the Chronicle, other companies successfully colonized the suburban frontiers of the Chronicle's natural territory. [page]
Lesher Newspapers' Contra Costa Times, Gannett's Oakland Tribune and the Alameda Newspaper Group's Hayward Daily Review and Tri-Valley Herald nibbled from the east; Gannett's Marin Independent-Journal and the New York Times Co.'s Santa Rosa Press Democrat from the north; and Knight-Ridder's San Jose Mercury-News from the south. The New York Times itself moved into the Bay Area, launching a successful West Coast edition predicated on the Chronicle's journalistic potholes.
Now that they are established, these competitors will provide the prod our one great San Francisco newspaper needs to stay alert, aggressive and responsive. Certainly more responsive than, say, the Oregonian of Portland, which has been known to sit on stories for several days because it has no regional rivals.
I asked Wilson if there was anything in the Examiner that he admired, or thought the Examiner did better than the Chronicle. He was silent for a long, pregnant moment.
“Nothing pops to mind,” he said. “If one did, we could always hire him or her away.”
In recent years the Chronicle has hired the Examiner “Insiders,” political columnists Phil Matier and Andy Ross, and sports columnist Joan Ryan for about the same money they were making at the Examiner. One reason writers switch papers for the same salary is the Chronicle's larger circulation. To reach as many people as the Chronicle reaches every day, Examiner writers have to get their work printed in the joint Sunday edition.
When they do, there's the forehead-slapping certainty that readers, who believe “Chronicle” is the generic Bay Area word for “newspaper,” will remember reading something good in the “Sunday Chronicle.” (More than half my mail was misaddressed to me at the Chronicle.) How many readers, for example, realize they saw Seth Rosenfeld's February 5 national scoop on the fire danger of Saab 9000 fuse boxes in the Examiner?
One of the few upsides to the Joint Operating Agreement over the first 28 years of its life was its success in maintaining, in the agreement's language, “two independent editorial voices” in San Francisco.
Like acrobats creating a sinuous helix in the sky, the Chronicle and the Examiner spent much of the last three decades twining their editorial viewpoints around one another. And for most of that time, the JOA and the Examiner it supported were needed to balance the reactionary stance of the Chronicle.
Now even that JOA-supporting rationale has collapsed because, finally, the Chronicle has come to. Under new Board Chairman Nan McEvoy and Editorial Page Editor Jerry Roberts, the Chronicle continues to surprise longtime readers by hewing to the humane left, where on most issues it finds the Examiner has already pitched a tent.
Both papers endorsed Frank Jordan for mayor in 1991, Pete Wilson for governor and Dianne Feinstein for senator in 1994, opposed state Prop. 187 and San Francisco measures M and N, which, respectively, would have made it a crime to sit on the sidewalk and would have diverted welfare recipients' stipends into a city-managed housing program.
The two papers even see eye to eye — nearly word to word, actually — on the British-Irish peace initiative for Northern Ireland, the Examiner hailing it as “a deal [to find] a peaceful settlement,” the Chronicle as “a blueprint to lessen the strife.”
While the Examiner has said it “generally supports” Jordan's anti-homeless Matrix program because “it sends a message that San Francisco will not tolerate even petty crime,” the Chronicle under Roberts' recent aegis has not yet taken a stand. Privately, however, Roberts says he's against Matrix.
Veteran readers probably had to rub their eyes and double-check which newspaper they were reading when they encountered these opening words in a February 18 Chronicle editorial:
“The laughingly misnamed National Security Revitalization Act passed by the House of Representatives represents the depth of Republican cynicism, isolationism and political irresponsibility.”
This rationalist, left-centrist convergence adds weight to the argument that San Francisco would be better off with one great newspaper rather than two gimpy ones. But until McEvoy and Roberts took control of the Chronicle's point of view, the paper seemed perpetually stuck fighting a Red Menace only it could see.
Under McEvoy's predecessor, Editor and Publisher Richard Tobin Thieriot, the Chronicle championed the hardly threatened forces of right-wing capital with a know-nothing passion that would have offended even Marie Antoinette:
Rent control in a city of renters? Go-slow development in a town rapidly being overrun by Manhattan-size high-rises? Of course not! Anyone equating human rights with property rights was, quite obviously, a communist.
Unlike Ms. Antoinette, Dick Thieriot saw no reason to allow them access to cake unless they owned the means of production.
Thieriot's policies were often born in the mirror. A very busy man representing the community of very busy men who read the Chronicle, he ordered his editors to print the first, vital paragraphs of each Chronicle news story in boldface type so he could tell, from the end of boldface, when it was okay to stop reading. (The practice ended with Thieriot's 1993 departure.)
Readers were shocked when, in the early '80s, the Chronicle momentarily departed from its worship of business interests to run a long, well-researched, pro-environment series attacking the proposed Peripheral Canal, which would have benefited both developers and corporate farms by carrying Northern California's Sacramento Delta water to the Central Valley and Southern California.
It seemed a full 180 from the usual, but Thieriot's friends understood: A duck hunter so dedicated that he mounted a silver mallard's head on the hood of his Jeep 4×4, Thieriot had been told the Peripheral Canal would drain his favorite duck-hunting marsh. Thus was born Dick Thieriot, the one-shot conservationist. [page]
In the news pages, there was a time not long ago when readers could count on the Chronicle for a clueless, white-shoe, yes-Mr. President, country-club perspective, and on the Examiner for the working man's crusty, irreverent, cynical, rough-hewn account. The Chronicle wanted to believe nearly everything institutions and corporate mouthpieces told it, the Examiner nearly nothing. These markedly different flavors instantly distinguished one paper from the other, and subtly justified the JOA's preservation of two newspaper voices.
It wasn't 3-D, Technicolor competition, exactly, but neither was it the massive news overlap we see today, in which both papers seem to be in a mad race to look, feel and read exactly like one another.
If any part of this news convergence can be applauded, it's the papers' simultaneous awakening to “diversity,” the realization that Northern California has become one of the most multi-everything regions in the United States while its two major newspapers remained stuck in a straight-white-male worldview.
But even here, on a new issue that each paper could use to underline its difference from the other, convergence is the rule. When the Examiner detailed farm-owners' mistreatment of undocumented Latino immigrants, the Chronicle reported restaurant owners' mistreatment of undocumented Chinese immigrants.
Henry Der, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, noted that the papers' JOA-halved resources “don't allow reporters to be assigned to community beats long enough to develop perspective and depth.” The hunkier editorial budget of one great San Francisco newspaper, Der agreed, would provide “a glimmer of hope that reporters would be allowed to stay on a beat, developing depth of knowledge.”
“The two papers are about the same when it comes to covering our community,” said Rev. Amos Brown, pastor of San Francisco's Third Baptist Church. “The media invariably distort [African American] history and image –the newspapers are part of the problem, not the solution — the people who should be sought out for opinion and commentary on [African American] issues are those who can raise up a crowd and have a following in the black community, but neither paper ever calls upon them.”
As one Chronicle editor told me, “We're hot on P.C. and PCs.” At both papers, editors' fixation on high-tech's Olympian locus, the Internet, borders on cargo-cult devotion. Having been stung when they dismissed television as a meaningless stunt, newspaper editors are now overreacting to the Internet, which has yet to come into useful focus for 95 percent of the public.
Not that the papers' breathless reportage makes anything clearer: It has leaped over the challenge of explaining the Internet to presenting columns by veteran World Wide Webbers whose comments are undecipherable to the average reader.
Both papers manufacture high-tech stories the way Hollywood used to produce Esther Williams movies: find any excuse to get Esther into the pool. On the Sunday before Valentine's Day, the Examiner ran a Business section feature on '90s office romances facilitated by computer network e-mail. On Valentine's Day itself, 48 hours later, the Chronicle ran a front-page story on professional couples who keep in touch via over-the-air e-mail.
In attempting to show their differences, neither paper was obliged to split hairs — ethernet romantic e-mail versus wireless romantic e-mail — when providence, and the New York Times, handed them the story about cybercriminal Kevin Mitnick.
Here, at last, was the perfect high-tech story that, for once, included familiar elements of old-fashioned newspaper genres: suspense, crime and police-procedural mystery. It was a chance for the Chronicle or the Examiner to leave its competition in the dust. Alas, both papers labored mightily, stole liberally from John Markoff's stay-ahead reporting in the Times and produced essentially the same story.
Which paper ran phone-in reader polls on whether you'd pay to watch replacement baseball players? Both.
Which paper, in the days before the Super Bowl, ran front-page photos of the 49ers' red-and-gold end zone at one end of Joe Robbie Stadium? Both.
Which paper splashed huge coverage all over the recent AIDS benefit gala in the Civic Center? Both.
Wait, you say. How can anyone be against AIDS fundraisers starring Van Cliburn, Carole Burnett and the newly blond Dianne Feinstein on train whistle? Of course both papers provided lap-dog coverage. Don't you see? That's exactly the problem: San Francisco has been living in the dull, gray JOA world so long that real newspaper competition would seem almost flatulent.
In a town with real newspaper competition, one of the papers would have gone beyond “look at all the pretty people” coverage to wonder, perhaps a bit rudely but differently, why AIDS is so often reduced to red-lapel ribbons and Dianne Feinstein tooting her horn.
San Francisco doesn't need two newspapers without the will, or resources, to compete in any meaningful way. That's why it's savory to imagine one great newspaper in San Francisco. It would enjoy all the income now split by the Examiner and the Chronicle and could spend twice as much money doing its job. Smells like caviar.
There are several scenarios that reduce San Francisco's newspaper roster to one. The Stephen King script is that the Hearst Corp. buys the Chronicle, and Examiner management, as currently constituted, moves over to run the city's surviving daily.
(Even if the Hearsts emerge as owners of San Francisco's sole newspaper, it will still be called the Chronicle because of its high name recognition in the market.)
Trust me: You wouldn't want the people who now run the Examiner providing San Francisco's only daily mirror. Because of the Examiner's JOA-induced nonprofit-agency atmosphere, the editors who have leached to the top are more adept at internal politics than leadership and innovation.
The other scenario, in which the Chronicle cherry-picks a few good people from the Examiner staff and folds them into a Greater Chronicle, is also alarming, as if your favorite gelato store eliminated its extensive menu in favor of a sign reading: “VANILLA ONLY FOREVER.” [page]
I don't want my news mediated by a bunch of smug, country-club Bing Crosbys. Chronicle managers are far too comfortable with CEOs, elected officials, chambers of commerce and other organs of the status quo.
I want garlic, rotgut red wine, sausage, sweat, snot, suspicion and anchovies falling out when I open my morning newspaper. Readers do not live by buttered white toast alone.
(Speaking of excellence in buttered white toast, here's something Chronicle Editor Bill German told me in explaining the paper's continued publication of the late Stanton Delaplane into, and beyond, the columnist's dotage: “People read the Chronicle while they're eating breakfast,” said German. “We're competing with the back of the cereal box. If Delaplane is even this much more interesting than the back of the cereal box, we're doing fine.”)
Now here's the good news: San Francisco already has a great newspaper, but it is neither the Chronicle nor the Examiner. The Joint Operating Agreement traps its lovely outline inside the ungainly bodies of both.
The DNA of this brilliant, evanescent journalistic sprite is drawn from both institutions, but can come alive at neither.
We, as readers, can wait another 10 years for the JOA to die from old age. We can watch as our two local newspapers struggle through a frustrating twilight decade in which, because of the JOA, the Examiner will never be big enough nor the Chronicle rich enough to explode into a new level of quality.
Or we can hope that serious, powerful people with their minds set on the common good will recognize the futility of publishing two weak, shadowy newspapers in America's most exciting city when one great newspaper is there right now, straining to break free.
The resulting publication, bristling with talent, money and the heel-kicking exuberance of newfound freedom, itching to take on the Los Angeles Times or even the New York Times if need be, may look like the All-Mandel Team, or it may look completely different. As a reader, I'm open to alternate versions of excellence, as long as there is excellence.
As an old Examiner guy, though, I'm demanding just one thing:
Somewhere deep in the soul of this one great San Francisco newspaper must burn the Examiner spirit that itches to say “Fuck you!” to a Chronicle poser in a beret.