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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."