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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 caf 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."