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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 4x4, Thieriot had been told the Peripheral Canal would drain his favorite duck-hunting marsh. Thus was born Dick Thieriot, the one-shot conservationist.