A Ringmaster Retires  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   July/August 2002

A Ringmaster Retires   

Editor Emeritus William German ends a 62-year career at the San Francisco Chronicle.

By Kathryn S. Wenner
Kathryn S. Wenner, a former AJR associate editor, is a copy editor at the Washington Post.     


Sixty-two years after joining the San Francisco Chronicle as a copyboy, William German retires as editor emeritus from the paper he helped tranform from a scrappy, struggling also-ran into the region's largest. "The time had come," says German, 83. "It was more fun competing with the other guy and beating him than working for him."

In the 1950s and early '60s, under Executive Editor Scott Newhall, German implemented the often outrageous stunts and headlines the third-place Chronicle used to beat the No. 1 Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner (see "The Battle of the Bay," January/ February 1999). Three years ago, Hearst bought the Chronicle and disposed of the Examiner (see "Family Feud," November 1999).

Some of German and Newhall's tactics included "treasure hunts that had people by the thousands digging up dirt in response to clues...and the 'pants on naked animals' campaign," recalls Science Editor David Perlman, a classmate of German's at Columbia University who has been at the paper for more than 50 years. The most famous was German's 1963 headline: "A Great City's People Forced to Drink Swill," about lousy local coffee.

But German is also known for his ability to edit stories and put together a paper. "I think he's the finest shirtsleeve editor that I've ever seen in a newspaper," says Perlman, who remembers watching German redummy the front page from memory over the phone late at night. To strengthen the Chronicle's news report, German hired more than 80 overseas stringers.

"I think we set a pattern for readers feeling that foreign news was somehow local news because of the approach that the Chronicle took," says German, who became editor in 1993. He has held every editorial job at the Chronicle except full-time staff photographer. For the past two years, as editor emeritus, he has written a weekly column on the media.

And even though, as a former reporter, he has "never been altogether happy with the focus on running things and telling other people what to do and what's good or bad," he says, "I'm proud to have been part of that and a kind of ringmaster."

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